Mina Varsani spoke to Simon in March 2003 to find out more about how he writes.
How did you get interested in writing?
I started writing through TV. When you are making TV programmes you start by writing an outline of the film you are going to make, you write the script and the narration. So I began to learn about structure, balance and the plot. Later when I thought about writing a book, all the things I learnt in TV were transferred into writing books.
Have you always been interested in communicating science?
Yes. When I finished my PhD I moved into communicating science. And whether it’s TV, radio, lecturing, writing books or articles, the principles are the same. You have to understand the subject, be passionate about it and know how to tell the story.
You’re writing your third book at the moment. Where do you get your ideas from?
I’ve never been in the position of having to sit down and think about what to write about. I knew about Fermat’s Last Theorem as I’d done a programme about it, so I was already familiar with the idea.
Then one day, I suddenly realised that code breaking was an important subject, one that was both historical and topical. And nobody had written about it since the arrival of the Information Age. The idea just hit me.
The same happened with the current book on cosmology. I hadn’t written a book in 3 years, and I hadn’t been
looking to write a book. Then a year ago it suddenly struck me that although there have been many books on cosmology, they haven’t looked at it from the angle I wanted to look at it from. Don’t ask me what the angle is – that’s a secret.
So I don’t look for ideas, they just seem to materialise out of the ether.
What happens after you’ve had the idea?
The first thing is to find a structure – does it have beginning, a middle, a twist and an end? What are the chapter breakdowns? At the same time, I am starting to read around the subject. And then I have to define a schedule.
Do you find it easy to stick to a schedule?
Writing a book seems a huge task, it takes a year or two, and it’s tens of thousands of words. But if you break it down, then it is less intimidating. If you say to yourself ‘I want to write the first section of the first chapter, and I want to write it in two weeks’, that then seems like a reasonable amount of work to do. That is then beginning to seem like a little essay, that’s not too frightening.
And in order to stick to the schedule, it is important not to get blocked. I can’t afford to spend a couple of months trying to understand or explain a particular idea. If I can’t solve a problem, then I just move on and come back to it when the first draft is finished.
What is the most satisfying aspect of book writing for you?
The most satisfying aspect of writing is learning new things. I didn’t know about code breaking before writing “The Code Book”, and now I know lots of fascinating stuff and understand some amazing concepts. And while writing “Fermat’s Last Theorem” I explored a whole new mathematical world that I had somehow missed during my education. And right now I am learning about cosmology. It’s great fun.