20 QUESTIONS... TOM HOLLAND

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


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

I would ask any palaeontologist going to look for dinosaurs in the Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert if I could come along.

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

Dan Jackson’s The Northumbrians.

3. What are you most proud of?

My daughters and bowling Test cricketer Andy Caddick middle stump.

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

Who would have won in a battle between a Spartan and a tyrannosaur? I went with the tyrannosaur.

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

Don’t worry, you WILL get to see Rome.

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

I’ve never managed to finish a novel by Henry James.

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

It may seem odd to nominate The Lord Of The Rings, the best-selling novel of the 20th century, and one regularly voted top of readers’ choices, but there remains a widespread critical disdain for it which ignores the fact that it is, in my opinion, the prose equivalent of The Waste Land: a shoring of fragments against ruin.

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

The whims of literary fashion are too fickle for me to hazard a guess.

9. Favourite word?

Voluptuary.

10. Least favourite word?

Leash.

11. What is the first thing you wrote?

The first thing I wrote that was staged or published was a play about Oscar Wilde, seen through the prism of The Importance Of Being Earnest. The first thing ever I wrote? No idea. Probably something about dinosaurs.

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

That s/he will want to read the book they are about to start when it’s finished.

13. Where's your favourite place to write?

My study.

14. Pen and paper, or laptop?

Laptop.

15. Favourite book of 2019?

Marcus Berkmann’s Cricketing Miscellany.

16. Favourite book to read at Christmas?

The New Testament.

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

Proust – given me my beloved and much lamented uncle (he died last year).

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

I don’t know what’s coming, I’m ashamed to say.

19. Best Hay Festival memory?

The feeling of relief that washed over me after finishing my Christopher Hitchens memorial talk on Muhammad.

20. What are you working on right now?

A translation of Suetonius for Penguin Classics. Augustus has just died.


Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster. He talks about his latest book, Dominion, at Hay Festival Winter Weekend on Saturday 30 November 2019 - buy tickets here