Robert R. Reilly has written about a wide range of topics, including classical music, the history of Islamic thought, the rise and acceptance of the modern homosexual movement, current events in the Middle East, foreign policy, and much more. In his 25 years in government, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the White House under President Ronald Reagan, and the U. S. Information Agency. He was also the director of Voice of America. He is now the director of the Westminster Institute.
Reilly recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the art (and struggle) of writing, researching, influences, and lessons learned as an author.
CWR: You have written so much and so broadly; what is your favorite writing form?
Robert R. Reilly: Many years ago I was having lunch with Fr. Joseph Fessio, the head of Ignatius Press, and he said, “Reilly, why don’t you write a book?” I responded, “Because I only think in chapter length.” As it turns out, I subsequently wrote three books for Ignatius Press. But I have contributed chapters to a dozen other books.
Most of my work has been in essay form, so I suppose I would have to say it is my favorite.
CWR: How long does each project take from conception through to completion? Does this differ depending on what the subject matter is?
Reilly: That is a difficult question to answer precisely because it does depend on the subject matter and how much work I have previously done on it.
The book that it took me the least amount of time to write – one year – was Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything. I had already written a number of essays on the general topic and had done a good deal of thinking about it over a long period of time.
On the other hand, my book on Islam – The Closing of the Muslim Mind – took 10 years of study preparatory to writing it. It involved a great deal of theological detective work. I was determined to find the answer as to why Islamic civilization went wrong. I finally found it in the sometimes abstruse Sunni theological texts written in the 9th to 11th centuries.
CWR: Do you find it easy to write?
Reilly: Writing is hell. I think it is the hardest work one can do. I will do almost anything to avoid it. I put almost as much effort into procrastination as I do into the actual writing.
In college I had a professor who was a novelist. He said people like not so much to write as to have written. This has a lot of truth in it.
Of course, there are enormous benefits. If you can write lucidly about a subject, it means you have really comprehended it. It turns the lights on in a way no such other work does.
Finally, I write because I have to. I am driven to do it.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent on research compared to actual writing?
Reilly: Well, I think I’ve already answered this question in part. I don’t think there’s any formula. For instance, I’m now completing a book on the genealogy of the ideas behind the American Founding. Sometimes I find I will read three books simply to write a single page. When the topic is so rich, one can really research it to death – meaning that there’s no end to the research you can do. At a certain point you have to simply stop and start writing.
CWR: When and where do you write? Is there a set routine?
Reilly: I write late at night in my study. By metabolism I’m a creature of the night, but the night also offers the longest periods of uninterrupted time, which are absolutely necessary for writing.
CWR: Where and when do ideas come to you?
Reilly: There’s no geography to ideas. They can come anywhere at any time. Unfortunately, they often arrive when I’m trying to get to sleep. So, I keep a pad and pen by my bedside. I scribble in the dark so as not to disturb my wife. Then comes the problem the next morning of deciphering what I have written.
When trying to think something through, I often find it helpful to have conversations with friends. That sometimes produces breakthrough moments.
Also, anger is a great inspiration. I dedicated Making Gay Okay to Fr. James Schall. When I read over the final proofs, I told him that I realized it was an angry book. He responded by saying, “there’s a great deal to be angry about.”
When I become upset by the perversity in our culture, ideas often come to me as to why I am upset and what needs to be said about the perversity to expose it as such.
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Reilly: Oh yes! I was tasked with contributing a chapter to a book on Afghanistan. The more deeply I got into the research, the more deeply depressed I became by the profundity of the problems. I was really paralyzed. Since I had to meet a deadline, I had to force my way through.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media — music, film, art — feed your creative process?
Reilly: Well, I have worked in the arts for many years – first vocationally as an actor; then as an avocation as a music critic. I love paintings, sculpture, ballet, architecture and novels, but I have had to focus on classical music almost exclusively because to do it well requires tremendous concentration and a great deal of time. The result of this has been my longest book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. The book was inspired by the beauty I encountered in a great deal of 20th century and contemporary classical music that is generally unknown. I felt I needed to tell others about it. [Editor’s note: See CWR’s August 2016 interview with Reilly about Surprised by Beauty.]
CWR: Who are your favorite authors?
Reilly: P. G. Woodhouse and Fr. James Schall. Both have written prolifically, so there is little danger that I will run out of things to read by them.
Though I was an English major in college, I spent most of my time reading Russian novels and my love of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy endures.
In the area of philosophy, I am also a huge fan of Etienne Gilson and Josef Pieper. Their lucidity makes them a joy to read.
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Reilly: Only read the best books; then you will have a standard by which to judge how bad your own are.
CWR: What do you understand by the writer’s vocation?
Reilly: To shed light, which light is always only a reflection of its source in the true Light.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything, what is it?
Reilly: It is taught me that I suffer from the effects of original sin.