INTERVIEW//Greg Jenner

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Photo: James Gifford-Mead

Greg Jenner is known as the ‘public historian’: his work includes Horrible Histories and Inside Versailles, as well as A Million Years in a Day, his book exploring the history of everyday life through the ages. You can see my review here.

1) What drew you to the idea of becoming a ‘public historian’?
I’ve loved history since my teens, and wanted to be a university academic, but I couldn’t afford the PhD. Instead I decided that the best way to enthuse people about my favourite subject was via television, the medium with the biggest audience share. Working behind the scenes, I made documentaries, historical dramas and Horrible Histories, and then I realised I wanted to write books too. I’m writing another one now, but I’ve also recently blundered my way into appearing on the radio and TV. So I kind of get everywhere – Public Historian is the best description for that, but it’s an American term so people don’t know what it means sometimes.
2) I’ve noticed that historical books (fiction and non-fiction) tend to be published in trends- although the Tudors seem determined to hang around for a while. What do you think is the next big historical trend in books- and why?
Some subjects will always sell well – the Tudors, Romans, Victorians, WW2, Egyptians: these staples of the market are mega popular in books and TV, and probably always will be. By contrast, trends happen usually because an unexpected smash hit arrives out of the blue – a new way of doing something (The Time Traveller’s Guide To An Era, for example) – and then other publishers are quick to mimic the idea. It takes a couple of years to write and publish a book, so there is a slight lag in the trends, meaning books will continue to come out a little while after a trend has already lost momentum and become boring. That must be tough for the authors who’ve done all that hard work, only to see readers shrug and say “heard it already…” You’ll see it in Hollywood too. It’s strange how two films about the same subject can emerge in the same summer, for example the Truman Capote and Alexander the Great biopics.
I’m not sure what is the new big trend in non-fiction, although recently we have seen some really impressive grand-sweep histories by brilliant historians like Yuval Noah Harari and Peter Frankopan that have sold in huge numbers, but which are chunky tomes than cover thousands of years of human history. So, maybe we will soon see lots of big, intellectual books about wider humanity? Funnily enough, my own book is also in that category, being a global history of daily life since the Stone Age, but it is more cheerful and cheeky in tone. It has poo jokes and bad puns about Lady Gaga.
3) What’s your favourite period in history to read/write about? Do you read historical fiction, or is that a bit like a bus man’s holiday?!
I simply don’t have time for any fiction, I read about 200 books per year but they are all non-fiction history. Mostly, at the moment, I’m reading books, journal articles and PhD theses in preparation for writing my own history of celebrity. But if I get time off from that I’ll pick up any new history book, usually by someone I know on Twitter or whose work I respect greatly. Any period of history works for me – that’s the fun part about being a generalist.  Right now I’m reading Adam Rutherford’s brilliant science book ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ – it’s about the history of genetics, but also about the genetics of history. It’s fascinating for history fans as well as science boffins, particularly if you’re interested in doing your family tree. Also, Adam is funny. Not just funny for a scientist, but actually funny.
4) Can you describe your research and writing process?
On A Million Years In A Day, I researched and wrote each chapter as I went along, about 5 weeks’ work per chapter. On this new book about celebrity I’m doing something different. I’m pretty much just doing 18 months of reading, and then I’ll write the whole thing in one big crazy marathon over a few months at the end of 2017. Hopefully that won’t backfire horribly.
Writing is a weird process. I’m a workaholic, so I’ll often sit with the laptop on my legs, mangled biscuit crumbs crushed into my t-shirt, and will write for anywhere up to 16 hours in a day. My wife usually has to drag me out of my office, and it’s quite easy to go a bit mad. But that’s why I love Twitter, it’s a really important part of keeping me sane and allowing me to experience human interaction. Also, it’s fantastic for testing ideas, jokes, or sharing thoughts about something that you’re working on. It probably takes up more of my time if I wasn’t on there, but it’s undoubtedly made me a better writer. Twitter forces you to be concise. That’s vital for a natural waffler like me.
 
5) Your new book is going to be about the history of celebrity- can you tell me more about it, and where you got the idea from?
The idea came from my research over the past few years into a Black slave who became a famous boxer in Regency Era London. His name was Bill Richmond and historians didn’t know much about his personal life, so I spent a few years finding out new details. Along the way I realised he was probably the first Black celebrity in British history, and then I started wonder what the definition was for a ‘celebrity’, and if the idea goes back further than that period.
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Bill Richmond
Then, everyday on Twitter, I’d seen constant discussion of celebrity gossip as if it were important news – KimYe versus Taylor Swift, Brangelina’s breakup, Justin Bieber’s penis – and it dawned on me that celebrity culture is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive force in modern society. So, it really affects our lives. Now I had a proper reason to go and find out how it came to be so dominant. Thankfully my publishers agreed that this was a good idea.
6) What’s your favourite fact in ‘A Million Years in a Day’?
There are loads of amazing facts that totally astonished me when I first read them, particularly the fact that dental surgery, including fillings, was practised in the Stone Age. But the fact everyone seems to love is that King Tutankamun was buried with 145 spare pairs of underpants! It’s rather charming.
 
7) Of all the sketches/songs you’ve written for HH, which is your favourite?
I’ve written about 20 in total, not many in the grand scheme of the series, but they were so exciting to see on TV! A few of the Stupid Deaths sketches are mine, and I co-wrote the Admiral Nelson football song, as I’m a huge footie fan, and also Death’s Favourite Things song in the Halloween Special. But the song I’m proudest of was on series 6: I wrote an Elvis parody about Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (it’s titled A Little More Reformation, A Little Less Monastery) and I had no idea who was going to sing it until a week before filming. My producer phoned me up late at night, when I was in a busy restaurant, to tell me that Rowan Atkinson was going to be performing the song which I had written while taking a shower. That was pretty exciting! I couldn’t tell anyone at the table, as his casting in the show was a huge secret, so I just sat there grinning like an idiot.
 
8) What advice would you give to someone interested in writing about history?
It’s a difficult balance. You have to write with energy and flair. Try to avoid cliche, but you also have to make the unfamiliar accessible and intelligible, so analogies can be helpful. I think it helps to imagine the reader is in the room with you, and you’re talking over a couple of drinks. That’s not to say you need to be conversational in style, although that is my own personal brand of authorship, but I think it helps to imagine their face as you type out your paragraph: are they bored at this bit? Do they look confused? Do they need more background context? Do they trust that you are telling the story in the most interesting way?
Writing for other people is hard because other people are not like us, and you are writing for hundreds, or even thousands, of strangers with different life experiences, interests and levels of knowledge. Surprise them. Move them. Set the scene with vivid language, so they can imagine they are there amidst the tumult. Don’t patronise them by assuming they are not as smart as you, but don’t leave them behind with jargon and assumptions of prior knowledge. Writing is hard work. I rewrite constantly. I’m still learning loads about the craft, but the best way to learn is to read other people’s writing.
 
9) If you could invite six people from history for a dinner party, who would you invite (and why?)

 

Assuming my robot butler can translate all the various languages, I’d invite:
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Dinner party guests: Da Vinci/Bentham/Gwynn
1) Leonardo Da Vinci – a genius in so many fields and my favourite person from history
2) The eccentric-but brilliant- philosopher Jeremy Bentham (he had a pet teapot called Dickey!)
3) Nell Gwynn – 17th century actress, and mistress to Charles II – for her famous saucy wit
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Roosevelt/Su Song/Bell

4) Eleanor Roosevelt, because she sounds fascinating

5) Su Song, genius medieval Chinese scientist. I’d love to see him debate with Da Vinci about the nature of the universe.
6) Gertrude Bell, 20th century explorer, for the extraordinary anecdotes of her travels through the Middle East.
You can buy A Million Years in a Day here. Greg’s website is here.
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