20 QUESTIONS... HALLIE RUBENHOLD

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


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

I’d rather put a question to the planet: Can you please do something to make those who don’t believe in climate change swiftly alter their position?

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

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

3. What are you most proud of?

Winning the Baillie Gifford prize last week!

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

Isn’t history and everything that happened in the past irrelevant? My answer was rather longer than this space permits but I certainly made a case for history living alongside us, not only in the buildings and environment in which we inhabit, but in our perceptions of the world and in our personal values. History is part of us, it’s in our DNA. What could be more relevant than that?

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

Enjoy your body and your physical self – don't be ashamed of it and don’t be ashamed of being a woman.

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

War and Peace.

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

In Darkest England and The Way Out by William Booth (1890). Unless you are a Victorian historian, it will be unlikely you’ve ever heard of this book. Booth founded the Salvation Army and this is one man’s study of poverty and homelessness in London. The book is absolutely fascinating and the prose is astoundingly, heart-breakingly beautiful. The Labour Party, which was then only just forming, used Booth’s work to help them develop their social policies.

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

It’s just impossible to say. Often it’s the most popular books from an era that end up forgotten. For instance, no one reads the novels of Mrs Radcliff which were best sellers c. 1800, but they do read Jane Austen, who wasn’t nearly as well-known or widely consumed.

9. Favourite word?

Crepuscular.

10. Least favourite word?

Snuck. No one ever snuck, they sneaked.

11. What is the first thing you wrote?

Before I could even write I was dictating stories to my parents and ordering them to write them down. When I was 6, I was inspired by the travelling exhibition of artefacts from King Tutankhamun’s tomb to write a play about ‘the boy pharaoh’ which my entire class then performed for their parents and the school. It was a pretty good start for a historian.

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

There is no correct way to write a book. Write it as the story unfolds itself to you. Each book will tell you how it needs to be written, in which order you should write the chapters, how you should begin, etc. Listen to your instinct.

13. Where's your favourite place to write?

The London Library, in the Art section overlooking the White Cube Gallery in Mason’s yard.

14. Pen and paper, or laptop?

Laptop.

15. Favourite book of 2019?

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.

16. Favourite book to read at Christmas?

For me, Christmas is not a time for reading, but a time for going to the cinema and watching as many of the best films of the year as I can. It’s the season when everyone is jostling for an Academy Award nomination and so there’s usually a magnificent selection of visual stories available for consumption. It’s the best way to pass the darkest days of the year when the weather is dreadful and you don’t want to sit at home.

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

My grandmother’s high school year book from 1923, given to me by my mother. It’s filled with photos of her and her friends dressed in the most wonderful flapper clothes. On each page there are inscriptions and cuttings from the newspapers announcing formal dances and events. She also managed to save a paper announcing the armistice in 1918. It’s just magical.

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

I’m going to be very predictable and say Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light.

19. Best Hay Festival memory?

The very first time I came as a speaker to Hay, I sat next to the legendary super agent, Ed Victor at lunch and asked him who he was and if he wrote books.

20. What are you working on right now?

I’m still out and about beating the drum for The Five, but I’ve just agreed to write a new book (non fiction) about the 1910 murder of Belle Elmore, by her husband Dr Crippen. There are so many layers to this story. I’ll be examining the crime from the perspectives of Crippen’s mistress, Ethel Le Neve, as well as from Belle Elmore and examining what happened to Crippen’s first wife, Charlotte Bell in Salt Lake City. The story involves a cast of more than 25 women whose role in stopping the murderer hasn’t properly been examined or credited. It will look at issues of violence against women and femicide, and what the past can tell us about the present. This is going to be panoramic in scope! 


Hallie Rubenhold is the author of Hay Festival Book of the Year 2019 The Five. She talks about the book at Hay Festival Winter Weekend on Saturday 30 November 2019 - buy tickets here