One Minute With: Barry Unsworth, novelist

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The Independent Culture

Where are you now and what can you see?

I'm in my study [in Umbria, Italy], looking out of the French windows at the top of a fig tree – they're getting ripe now. I can see across a broad valley, with the mountains of the Apennines rising beyond it.

What are you currently reading?

'Hitler's Pope' by John Cornwell, about Pius XII, who signed the Concordat with Hitler that allowed the rise of Nazism. I have a new novel set in Rome in mind.

Choose a favourite author and say why you admire him/her

Joseph Conrad, because of his wonderful capacity for visual effects. To make the reader see was his declared aim... I admire that a lot, and try to do it myself.

Describe the room where you usually write

This study: no one else uses it, so I can leave my desk in the same mess – which looks like a vision of order to me! There are books in piles and what I call my meditation couch – something of a euphemism as I sleep on it much more than I meditate.

What distracts you from writing?

I've always suffered from lapses of confidence about what I'm doing, and they result in a lack of energy. I let time do the work – there's a resurgence of energy and belief.

Which fictional character most resembles you?

Pierre in [Tolstoy's] 'War and Peace'. I recognise that quality of well-intentioned clumsiness and ineptness – endearing in his case.

What are your readers like when you meet them?

Sometimes readers want to talk about the books they have written – which can be tricky. But I'm always touched by someone who has read my work and taken an interest.

Who is your hero/ heroine from outside literature?

The two Sicilian investigative magistrates, [Giovanni] Falcone and [Paolo] Borsellino, who were murdered by the Mafia in 1992. They showed extraordinary courage in pursuing their anti-Mafia investigations under constant threat of death.

Barry Unsworth's new novel is 'The Quality of Mercy' (Hutchinson)