An Interview with Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, former editor of The London Times, and author of the brilliant new book,  Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, agreed to be interviewed by email.

His elegant memoir of his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra is part biography/history, part personal memoir, part travel, part examination of images of Cleopatra, and part reflections on the Eve of the Arab Spring in Alexandria.  He refers to it as a diary book.

MIRABILE DICTU:  As editor of the TLS and former editor of the Times, you are accustomed to keeping track of the threads of many stories, and in your book you weave elaborate threads of past and present as you write about Cleopatra.  What inspired you to leave the limits of journalism to write a diary book?

PETER STOTHARD:  Newspaper editors divide the world into stories, past and present, new and old. For a diarist all parts can fall together, ancient Rome and Alexandria, England in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt on the eve of the short Arab Spring. That falling together was what happened to me in Italy in 2008 while on the Spartacus Road and on the Nile in 2011 while writing The Last Nights of Cleopatra.

MIRABILE DICTU:   Did any writers influence you in writing Alexandria?  And who are your favorite writers?

PETER STOTHARD: The classicist Mary Beard is big influence on how I see the ancient and modern now. Epicurus inspires me from long ago. I try not be influenced in how I write myself.

MIRABILE DICTU:   When and why did you begin writing?

PETER STOTHARD:  I began writing in my current preferred form after being told that I was about to die of cancer and fortunately escaping that fate. It took five years for the lesson to sink in but since then I have come to see storytelling in a totally different way. Before 2002, for twenty five years, I wrote news stories and rhetoric.

MIRABILE DICTU: The TLS reviews many books on classics.  Is this a longstanding tradition, or are you the advocate of classics?

PETER STOTHARD:  Mary Beard and I both ensure that the classics are fully covered at the TLS. There are some extraordinary minds on the subject today. We want to note, advance and celebrate them.

MIRABILE DICTU:   What are you reading now?

PETER STOTHARD:  Seneca’s De Beneficiis  and Sex on Show, Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome by our TLS contributor Caroline Vout.

Alexandria peter stothardThank you for the interview, Peter!

I wrote about Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra,  my favorite book of the year,  here and here.

Stothard is also the author of Spartacus Road, a diary book that is part history of the escaped slave Spartacus, part memoir/travel, and part translations of Roman poetry and literature perstaining to Spartacus. (I wrote about it here.)  He also wrote the book, Thirty Days: An Inside Account of Tony Blair at War.

13 thoughts on “An Interview with Peter Stothard

  1. Interesting, I’ve always thought Alexandria being on the Mediterranean would be more cosmopolitan than Cairo, and I wondered if perhaps it has opened up more to the rest of the world with the Arab spring. Reading ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell one gets the sense that Alexandria was very cosmopolitan in the early twentieth century.


  2. Tony, he does mention Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which I love, though I must confess I reread two of the books this summer and never posted about them. The city he sees is not much like Durrell’s.

    I’ve never been to Egypt: maybe we could organize a blogger trip, ha ha!


  3. Kat, Thanks so much for posting this interview. What a coup! Per your recommendation “Alexandria” is on my TBR list. (I so wish I had won your giveaway copy!)

    I have not read “The Alexandria Quartet” but I did read Durrell’s “Bitter Lemons” about his time in Cyprus. And his brother Gerald’s “My Family and Other Animals” is a hoot! Such creative siblings.


  4. Belle, you’ll love Stothard’s Alexandria! He has a unique lyrical voice, and though it is also a scholarly book, it is very entertaining and accessible. It really is a brilliant book.

    Would you believe I gave my copy of Bitter Lemons away without reading it? Now of course I want it back. I do have something by Gerald Durrell somewhere: I saw a Masterpiece Theater thing about one of his books and once I realized he was Laurence’s brother…

    I hope you can find a copy of Alexandria.


  5. I find it significant that he turned from editing and non-fiction essays to fiction after he escaped what he thought was a death sentence. You might think editing TLS, once a premier paper influential over the whole of the European literary republic (well beyond English) would hold him. But I do note that recently TLS has taken a turn for the worse as it now really has mostly very conservative articles and some skew the evidence, misrepresent books too. As a fiction writer, he’s free of the Murdochs

    Then within fiction he thought diary-writing (the subjective journal) gave the writer the most freedom to rove the ages (past, present, probably too dreams of the future). And choose travel writing where one breaks conventions of character, tight plot. He wanted to express himself.


  6. Ellen, his book is what I call “literary nonfiction,” a mix of memoir, biography, diary, etc. But it’s so far above anything else being written by classicists these days (pardon me, even Mary Beard!) that it does read like literature: scholarly, but not that scholarly tone, never talks down, lyrical style, personal and impersonal… I have never had so much trouble writing about a book.

    Yes, it is astonishing that he is drawn to this kind of writing after editing the big paper and while still editing the TLS, but it is more lasting. The power of covering national and international politics, etc., is VERY real, but here he gets to use his literary voice. And honestly I just can’t think of newspaper editors in conjunction with a book like this. Classics matter so much to me, and to find this kind of book by a classicist… The editor of these powerful publications exists on a whole other plane that is not quite real to me. Yet I, too, read Horace, Virgil, etc.

    I think the TLS is very good, but you have to subscribe to find all the fascinating articles about books on classics, German literature in German (I’m not joking!), novels, poetry, politics… It is by far the best review publication I’ve ever read.


  7. Hi Kathy, this response caught my attention, “I began writing in my current preferred form after being told that I was about to die of cancer and fortunately escaping that fate. It took five years for the lesson to sink in but since then I have come to see storytelling in a totally different way. Before 2002, for twenty five years, I wrote news stories and rhetoric.”

    Can you give me an example of the form and content of one of Peter’s diary entries???

    Thank you!



  8. Kevin, get ready for some quotes!
    The book opens with Stothard in Alexandria, in a hotel, with his seven drafts of beginnings of a biography of Cleopatra on the bed.

    “This bed is becoming crowded. The papers do not form easy categories or files. Each lies flat and alone. The earliest words are from fifty years ago, the first efforts of an Essex schoolboy; the latest from the 1980s from a clasicist finding some sort of success as a journalist. Between tehse beginnings and ends, which show uneven patterns of progress, there are pages written in Oxford between 1969 and 1971 and at an oil company desk in London in 1976 and in the Calthorpe Arms, a crepuscular pub beside what once were the offices of The Times.”

    He explains that most of his words are lost. “But that hardly matters. At this New Year in Alexandria, there will be new owrds each day as though in a diary, the only reliable way I know I can write. This book is not going to be a reconstruction. It is a new start and this time there will be an end.”

    And then he tells us the only surviving autograph of Cleopatra is a bureaucratic order fourn fairly recently with the word gienstho, which means let it be done, do as I command, make it happen.

    And the book sort of happens form there, going back and forth in time… lots of history, lots of autobiography.

    A great book, Kevin! The greatest of the year, as far as I’m concerned.


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