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My secret life: Alain de Botton

Writer & philosopher, 39

When I was a child I wanted to be ... an architect. I'm trying to get back to a spontaneity and sense of freedom that I was fully in control of at the age of five.

My greatest inspirations are ... Norman Mailer, Geoff Dyer and Roland Barthes. I'm interested in writing that takes in the great questions. I'm curious as to whether you can be profound in the course of reporting the incidents of everyday life.

The moment that changed me for ever ... At the age of 23 I realised I had to make a choice between writing the sort of things I wanted to write, and the sort of things that an academy would demand of me. I took the riskier road.

I drive ... a grey Mark IV four-door Golf.

If I could change one thing about myself ... I'd grow more hair and try to be less mortal.

My real-life villains ... Property developers who build ugly, thoughtless stuff.

At night I dream of ... failure. I dream of chapters I haven't written and things that I forgot to say in books I wrote three or seven years ago.

What I see when I look in the mirror is ... him again. I feel the pain of dragging around the same old person, always being forced to defend him, trying to like him and to make the best of him.

My style icons ... are the people from 'Monocle' magazine. They manage to be stylish while maintaining an almost Oscar Wildean campness in their approach.

The shop I can't walk past ... is a good juice bar ... and Waterstone's.

A book that changed me ... Roland Barthes' 'Camera Lucida'.

The last album I bought ... Natalie Merchant's 'Ophelia'. I am in love with Merchant's voice, and hence, her being.

The person who really makes me laugh is ... Arthur Schopenhauer. He's deeply pessimistic, and pessimism is funny. "A man should swallow a toad every morning if he is to be sure of not meeting with anything more disgusting in the day ahead," he once said.

It's not fashionable but I like ... cars, especially VWs. Barthes famously said that the Citroen DS (in his time, one of the best cars) represented the fruit of the collective intelligence of his age. The same could be said of the modern Golf.

My favourite item of clothing ... is a charcoal grey V-neck jumper. A few years ago, I started wearing this as a uniform of sorts. It has removed all my anxieties about clothing. I now know what I'll be wearing in both summer and winter.

My favourite work of art ... is Vermeer's 'The Little Street'. It conveys an atmosphere of calm and domesticity, brings one down to earth, and makes home seem like an arena where interesting things might happen.

You wouldn't know it but I'm good at ... interior design. I would love to design your house for you. At night, I sketch designs for King's Cross, new versions of the British Library, and new versions of my kitchen.

You may not know it but I'm no good at ... staying calm and wise. I wouldn't be so drawn to wisdom and calm in literature if I didn't find these qualities so fragile in myself.

All my money goes on ... books and family. Money for me is all about freedom and time, and being able to say "no" sometimes to deeply unpleasant things.

If I have time to myself ... I read magazines, or gaze out of the window and try to think. I rarely read books for pleasure. Reading is always work in one way or another.

My house ... is cosy but a little too full of children's toys.

My most valuable possession is ... a painting I own of a plane by the artist Michael Andrews.

My favourite building ... Herzog and de Meuron's Laban Dance centre in Deptford. It's irreverent, playful, elegant and serene.

Movie heaven ... would be a cycle of the French director Eric Rohmer's films.

The best invention ever ... Painkillers.

I wish I'd never worn ... so much green.

In 10 years' time, I hope to be ... still alive and hopeful.

My greatest regret ... Not training to be an architect.

My life in six words ... Fear, anxiety, longing, love, art, beauty.

A life in brief

Alain de Botton was born in Zurich in 1969. A writer and broadcaster on philosophical matters, his books have been bestsellers in 30 countries, and include How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Architecture of Happiness. He lives in London with his wife, Charlotte, and their two sons. His latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, is published by Hamish Hamilton