20 QUESTIONS... MIKE PITTS

To mark 20 years of Hay Festival Winter Weekend, we are asking speakers and performers to answer 20 questions. Here's how archaeologist Mike Pitts responded...


1. If you could put one question to anyone on the planet, who would you choose and what would it be?

My builder: where are you?

2. What was the last book you read and loved?

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, beautiful, chilling and quite real.

3. What are you most proud of?

My daughter.

4. What was the best question you were ever asked in an event and how did you answer it?

I wouldn’t judge questions that way, as often the oddest has a really good one concealed within it, but at an event last night I was asked one of the hardest: How do I become an archaeologist? Key part of my answer: keep trying.

5. What one piece of advice do you wish you could give your 16-year-old self?

I was chosen to take part in an experimental training course at a private TV studio in London. After I was back at school, the headmaster called me to his study to read out a letter, which said they thought I should pursue a career in television. You might as well have told me I could become an Amazonian dolphin. I’d tell myself that it was perfectly possible for me to work in TV, and I should get back to them and ask what to do.

6. What's the most famous book you've never read?

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

7. What author or book do you think is most underrated? And why?

I discovered Neil Gunn when I was a student, and remain surprised that he’s not more widely read. Apparently when asked why The Green Isle of the Great Deep was not better known, Gunn himself said, “I don't know, it was my best book”.

8. Which writers today will still be read 100 years from now?

I like to think people will still be reading Shakespeare.

9. Favourite word?

Disingenuous.

10. Least favourite word?

Fake.

11. What is the first thing you wrote?

When I was 12 I wrote a story about school kids that elaborated, just a little bit, on things that I and a group of friends were doing at that school that we should not have been doing. My English teacher, David Wilde, read it out to his other classes. I don’t know if he realised what I was doing, but it encouraged me to believe in my writing.

12. What one thing should each writer know before they begin?

You will get better.

13. Where's your favourite place to write?

Anywhere and everywhere. I like busy places (cafes, waiting rooms, trains and so on) but most of my writing now is done in my lone study.

14. Pen and paper, or laptop?

Both. Ideas usually start on paper, I’ll do the main writing at a keyboard, and I always print out and edit with a pen.

15. Favourite book of 2019?

I’ve just got a pre-publication copy of the catalogue for the British Museum’s winter blockbuster, Troy: Myth and Reality. It’s lovely, and the stories are extraordinary.

16. Favourite book to read at Christmas?

I like to dip into Katherine Routledge’s The Mystery of Easter Island: The Story of an Expedition (1919), to remind myself of a favourite place and to help maintain the hope that one day I will go there again.

17. What is the best book you've ever been gifted, and who gave it to you?

A book of photos of Henry Moore sculptures and drawings published in 1944, and edited by Herbert Read. From my wife, who knows me well.

18. What books are you most excited about reading in 2020?

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light.

19. Best Hay Festival memory?

Ask me on December 2!

20. What are you working on right now?

The next edition of British Archaeology magazine, which I edit. It often gets tense close to press day, and this edition is no exception, with a complex and controversial feature I’m still grappling with.


Mike Pitts presents his new book - Digging Up Britain: Ten discoveries, a million years of history - at Hay Festival Winter Weekend on Sunday 1 December. Book tickets here