InterviewMemoirNon-fictionRichard FidlerThe Garret At HomeWriter

At home with Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler, host of ABC's Conversations, discusses his love of history and what drives him to write about it, the role of literature in this most tumultuous of years and what we can learn from the history that has gone before.

Richard is a writer of historical travel non-fiction and his works include The Golden Maze, Saga Land and Ghost Empire.

Richard and Astrid have previously spoken about historical fiction, and you can listen to their discussion recorded at the Ubud Writers and Readers festival in 2019 here.

At home with Richard Fidler

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: Richard Fidler, host of ABC's Conversations, is also a writer of historical travel nonfiction. In this interview, Richard discusses his love of history and what drives him to write about it, the role of literature in this most tumultuous of years and what we can learn from the history that has gone before.

Welcome to The Garret at Home, Richard.

RICHARD: I am so delighted to be here, Astrid. Thank you for having me.

ASTRID: Now we have spoken before at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. We spoke about Ghost Empire, your exploration of Constantinople, and Saga Land, your reflections on mythology and the stories of Iceland. I am so very excited to be talking to you via Zoom about your new book, The Golden Maze. Congratulations.

RICHARD: Thank you very much. I'm delighted to finally get it out. It's taken me more than three years and a delay of thirty years to actually write it. I've been meaning to write it for about thirty years, and I've finally done it. It took much longer than I thought it was going to take. It was a real pleasure to write, and so I'm just glad it's going to be out on the shelves now.

ASTRID: So my first question, why Prague?

RICHARD: I went to Prague for the first time during The Velvet Revolution, in the immediate aftermath of The Velvet Revolution of 1989 and 1990, when Prague, the capital of what was Czechoslovakia, had been the capital of a police state that had been in place for 40 odd years. A particularly cruel and mendacious police state, and it had been witness to so much awful sadness and tragedy in the 20th century.

At the time The Velvet Revolution was happening, although this was part of that wave of revolutions in 1989, when one by one the Eastern Bloc communist states fell over, I was in London doing a theatre season in London with my comedy group, and I was watching the Berlin wall fall on the BBC and just jumping out of my skin going, ‘History is just there, just over the Channel, and I'm here, on stage with two other unpleasant smelling human beings’ – and I was definitely unpleasant as well, so I don't want to exclude myself from that group – ‘performing in London’. So as soon as I could, as soon as our theatre season in London ended, I got on a plane with my partner at the time and we flew to first Berlin and then to Prague.

I quickly found myself among what I'm pretty sure were the happiest people in the world at that point in time. There was this incredibly festive atmosphere in the street. The work of The Velvet Revolution had been accomplished – the communist leadership had been thrown out and replaced by a gorgeous man, a true Bohemian, a man named Václav Havel, who was an internationally renowned playwright, had become a dissident in the 1970s, had spent many years in prison, which had pretty much ruined his health. Nonetheless, he was a man of kind of unimpeachable moral integrity and a democrat.

He sort of led the revolution, he didn't start it, but he led it, he harnessed its energies, and he'd just been made the President of this new country. This is an unthinkable thing to have such a gorgeous man, a playwright, a literary man... If you like, I know that people hate this term, but he truly... he and Marcus Aurelius deserve the term Philosopher King. So, there was this great festive atmosphere in the street. My girlfriend and I arrived in town. We had no Czech at all, patchy, tourist German. I had a recommendation to stay in a hotel called the Grand Hotel Europa on Wenceslas Square, which I knew nothing of. And when we arrived there, we were delighted to find weed we'd booked ourselves into this art nouveau palace, which is all run down and the carpets were all threadbare and the wallpaper was peeling, but it was majestic. It was the most beautiful hotel and the whole hotel was jumping.

The next couple of weeks we were walking the streets going around, seeing extraordinary things, participating in rallies against the secret police, which was still operating even though there wasn't a police state involved. The city, as it appeared to me then, was not just the happiest city that I'd ever been to, but the most beautiful as well. And enigmatic, and beautiful in quite a particular way.

When I was writing about Constantinople, I was writing about a city that was built to be a mirror of heaven. Prague also has that liminal quality to it, and it certainly did during this revolution, but it's not heaven on the other side of whatever that boundary is. You don't feel like you're touching the stars or touching something heavenly. It's not hell either. I don't know what it is, but it's a very odd place. While I was there, I felt this powerful sense of déjà vu. I know that's one of those narcissistic things where you go, ‘Oh, I was meant to come here’ and what have you, but of course it's nothing like that. It took me a long while to locate where that thought came from, this feeling of returning somewhere. Of course, Prague is the landscape we get in all the mediaeval fairy tales and folktales we're given as children, and that's what I was feeling. It was a return to this childish landscape.

Amidst all this, Prague is a city of signs and symbols. So to walk even along Nerudova Street up to Prague Castle, over every lintel there's a little symbol, there's like a swan or a lobster or something else, and it signifies something, probably normally about the livelihood of the person who was once operating a shop there in the 18th century or thereabouts. But most of it seemed opaque. I had no Czech to speak of, and there were all these statues for clearly important people that I knew nothing of. So, having come out of that experience, that powerful, powerful, romantic experience, I've always wanted to know more about the city, much more about the city and find out its secrets. So that's why I went ahead and did this. Like I say, I've been waiting thirty years to write this book, Astrid.

ASTRID: That is a powerful driver. Now, 1989, it's about thirty years ago. We were all much younger then. That was such an important year for the world, for our history, for Prague, for democracy, I guess, if you want to look at it that way. Now we find ourselves in 2020, and you have written about one of the world's great cities based on this personal experience that you have taken with you for thirty years. I almost feel like… As I read your work, Richard, I almost feel like you've invented this kind of new sub-genre of historical non-fiction. This is very much a researched history of Prague, kind of curated by you based on your interests, but it is also... you are in there in a way that the traditional non-fiction book is not there. Who were your influences? How did you come up with this style that I find so very impressive?

RICHARD: I read a lot of history in my... I think we talked about this when we were in Ubud, but I read a lot of history when I was in my 20s and I always did enjoy... my gateway drug to history were hugely entertaining historians like Barbara Tuchman, William Manchester, and others who write in a really vivid narrative driven style. I don't know, I think I stumbled on this approach. In both books that I've written and the third one that I've co-written, it's just suited me to arrive at the style of a large historical narrative, which is very much the larger body of the book mixed with  me sort of creeping up on it, if you like, in the background and a bit of personal biography as it pertains to the subject matter. Finally, a lot of mythology as well. I seem to enjoy writing about those things.

When I wrote Ghost Empire, I really had to be encouraged to put more of myself in there by my friend Kari Gislason, who I wrote Saga Land with. He said, ‘Oh, I want to see more of you writing about yourself and your son there’. And I went, ‘Oh really? Really?’ And he went, ‘Yeah, more, more, more. Put more in’. Because in radio we're encouraged not to make ourselves the subject. So, I think when I put that first book out, it was like, ‘Oh, I hope people don't mind this stuff I've written about myself and my son’. I don't think I'm as present in this third book as much as I have been in the other two, and I'm fine with that.

ASTRID: I actually had a question about that for you, Richard. You as the individual that you are aren't in this third book as much as the previous two. I thought about that quite a while, because it felt like a different approach you were taking. I have a theory, so shoot me down if I'm wrong, Richard. But I felt like you are an artist, you are a creative, you are a performer, and Prague is a city of ideas and thinkers and creatives and stories, and it always has been. And I felt that although there was less of you the person, there was more of you the creative, you the mind, you the performer in here with your choice of history and how you chose to interpret it and the great writers and artists and thinkers who you weave into the story who are part of the fabric and history of Prague. So, I thought it was more, I don't know, almost an intellectual exploration of you as opposed to a personal one. Is that weird?

RICHARD: No, it's not. I'm actually very grateful for that observation. That's exactly right. I think instead of me writing about, ‘I did this, this and this in Prague’, although I've got the first major chapter about my experience in Prague in 1990, most of the time where I do arrive, it's with my own personal obsessions with all sorts of things over the years. Like, I've long been fascinated with alchemy, hermetic philosophy. Alchemy is the most beautiful pseudoscience that's been devised in the world. You wouldn't attribute it to any one person. I've also been long fascinated with communism and utopian thought. I had to keep telling myself... I could write about communism forever, it's so interesting. And you have to stop writing about communism because there's a whole other... that's only 40 years of Czech history, of Prague's history. There's lots of other stuff going on outside of communism. So, it allowed me to pursue those personal obsessions, particularly with things like alchemy, I love this idea, which isn't quite right, but we don't know it's quite right, I suppose, that there's a secret web of correspondences linking all things. That was a very powerful Neoplatonic idea that existed in the Renaissance and was pursued by all people. They thought that they were living in a puzzle made by God and God had, in turn, delightfully given them reason, which would allow them to decode the puzzle. It's like that old computer game Mist. You arrive in this strange world-

ASTRID: I played that.

RICHARD: I did too! And it's full of all these clues and if you can find out, then you'll see what the master plan is. Now, of course we know that's not true, but nonetheless, that sense of joyful discovery is really attractive to me. I really like it. I think it speaks to, as alchemy did, deeper spiritual truths as well. The true purpose of alchemy was not really to turn base matter into gold, that was a bit of a dead end. Of course, it can't be done and there's no Philosopher's Stone, but there was a higher spiritual purpose to alchemy, which was the refinement of the soul through the union of opposite ideas and opposite archetypes, which I think is very worthwhile pursuing. I like that very much, and creativity comes from the tension between those two elements of oneself.

So yes, I think you've hit the nail on the head actually, Astrid. I remember you doing this to me in bloody Ubud as well. You actually do divine all the other purposes that I have in the book. Yes, I'm hoping to, I suppose, put myself a little bit on the line about revealing my secret little obsessions that I've had over the years.

ASTRID: Well, I think that that is an amazing thing to do. I think you've done it very well and I also think it should be celebrated. Forgive me for what is going to be a bit of an airy question, because I couldn't find the right words to put it in. But I was reflecting, your book made me reflect, thinking back to 1989 and how the world changed... Here you are, thirty years approximately later, our world is obviously changing around us and you are telling us of a time when a playwright could become the leader and help a country, when intellect mattered and leadership mattered and the arts were celebrated and history could end but be better afterwards. I found it very hopeful to be reminded that something so terrible could happen in history and something so good could come for a while afterwards. And Prague is a city of thinkers, bohemian artists. What do you think, Richard, is the role of the writer, the historian, the thinker in 2020, the year you are publishing a book?

RICHARD: Wow. That's a very, very big question. I'm not sure I entirely know how to answer that. I'm never terribly inclined to put some moral obligation on writers, but I do think... but having said that, that's what gave Václav Havel and a lot of those writers their power at the time. I'm not sure if I know how to answer that question, Astrid, what the role is in 2020. I suppose I wanted to hold up a not so distant mirror so to speak, of what is really in historical terms the recent past, and show how you can have this kind of almighty shift in perception on where we're going. I wrote in the book that throughout my late teens and early 20s, I was convinced I wouldn't reach the age of 30 because the world situation was so dire. The Association of Atomic Scientists put the Doomsday Clock at one minute to midnight. It was that close, and nuclear war was extraordinarily close, came extraordinarily close in the very early 1980s, and we knew it at the time. There was this feeling of doom and there was no way out of this awful death contraption that we built for the planet. But then The Velvet Revolution happened along with all those other revolutions of 1989 and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, deserves a fair bit of credit for that, and weirdly enough so does – I can't believe I'm saying this – so does Ronald Reagan. So suddenly, part of the joy I was feeling in 1989 and 1990 was a feeling of my outlook turning from fundamentally pessimistic to optimistic. And I felt like my future was returning to me. And as I was writing all that, I was thinking of this present moment and looking at my own kids and seeing how they're trying to put their own pessimism at bay, where there are so many bad vectors all going in bad places at the moment. Man, it feels like the early 1980s again, doesn't it? In a lot of ways, this moment is a really dark one. I hope... well, of course I hope, that maybe if you can show the things over the longer term, sometimes things do get better and sometimes they don't. I suppose that's the truth of it.

The role of the writer, it's hard to really say, Astrid. I don't really know what that answer is except to show people new things, show them from different angles, reveal the truth as you can best perceive it, I suppose. Be as honest as you can. Being as honest as you can is so critical in this moment. The thing about Václav Havel slogan was living in truth. Truth is a big word in a place like Prague. They take their cue from the great Czech Protestant martyr, a man named Jan Hus, whose great slogan was ‘truth prevails’, ‘Pravda vítězí’. That's been modified over the years by other great Czech leaders. Eventually truth prevails, that's the slogan. So Václav Havel extended that phrase to his own slogan, which was a bit cheesy for him, but nonetheless he thought it was important to say something uplifting at the time, which was truth and love will defeat hatred and lies.

I wish I could feel this kind of burning optimism that I had in 1990, but I suppose I feel somewhat stabilised by knowing that things can radically turn better after a dark time. I hope that answered your question, Astrid.

ASTRID: I asked you an almost impossible question and you rose to the challenge, Richard. I'm going to give you an easier one now. You've done the thinking and you know the city and what it means to you and what it means to the history of the world, both mediaeval and current. So, tell me about your research process for the book.

RICHARD: Well, first of all, I wrote the first chapter first, the first chapter about me being in Prague, because that's memoir and I just wrote down things as I best remembered them. But for the rest of it, I just read enormously, burrowed right into the hidden corners of the Internet. Fortunately, I was given a writers' residency in Prague for two months at the beginning of 2019, which is why I disappeared from the airwaves for those two months. I wasn't banging on about it on my radio show. It's like, ‘Hi everyone. I'm off for two months to write a book in Prague’. That would make me sound like the biggest wanker in the world, but I was pretty excited about it, I must say. So, I spent those two months there and I made contact with some really wonderful people who have been enormously helpful to me.

I became good friends with a writer called Marek Toman, who's a wonderful fiction author who lives in Prague, he is really prolific. He's just one of those guys and we really hit it off, Marek and I. We became very good friends. He was the one that gave me a tour of the Czernin Palace. The Czernin Palace is where the Czech Foreign Ministry is, and it's known as the Black Palace, and it was built by a disgruntled aristocrat and just made just slightly higher than Prague Castle so he could look down on the emperor. That was the idea. It's this Baroque monstrosity in Prague, and I got this tour of it. And he took me into the room where Jan Masaryk, the last democratic foreign minister before the communist takeover, where his residence was and where he ‘fell to his death’, in inverted commas, after he was pushed out a window. So, I actually went into that room and saw all that. I walked all over the city, and that's a big part of it. Just walking and walking and walking.

But then just doing enormous amounts of reading and being guided by Marek and by another friend I made over there, a writer and broadcaster called David Vaughan, who's British and has been living in Prague for 25 years, I think, who knows the city and knows the city's history really well. A lot of conversations there, and just burrowing into, like I say, the darkest corners of the Internet, reading some outstanding books, and then also just sort of sitting still sometimes. I think this is a big part of writing for me. Sometimes you have to sort of sit still and close your eyes and listen for what's creeping towards you. What do you care about? What's interesting? I find all the time characters, real life people and stories just walk up to you like shy, stray animals if you keep still enough and you announce your availability to them, they'll come right up to you. It's an odd thing. It's a very odd thing. So, all those different things, Astrid. Pursuing my own curiosity, sitting still, letting stories come to me, doing a lot of reading and a lot of research.

I really overwrote this book. Oh man, oh man. I wrote 170,000 words, which is just far too big. So, I had to then distil it and bring it right down. It wasn't an easy book to write. It was the hardest book to write easily out of all the books I've written. So yeah, I use a lot of library services, using the Internet in a way where you just put the right search terms in. You just follow your nose a little bit and just let your curiosity lead you.

Astrid: So, a lot of writers and readers listen to this podcast, Richard, but I'm interested in... this is your third book and you just said that you overwrote it, but what have you learned? What makes you better now? You've mastered this skill or on your way to mastering this skill. What do you do better now on this third work of historical non-fiction than you did to start with? And, I don't know, what do you still have to learn?

RICHARD: I don't know. I thought I was doing worse. I looked back at how... writing the first book was so comparatively easy. Perhaps I felt that all just sort of poured out of me really, and I followed the research on that as well. But this seemed a lot harder and I was wondering what I was doing wrong most of the time. So, I suppose maybe I'll spend more time on research before I start writing, but I don't know if I've got the self-discipline to do that, Astrid. I tend to write as I research and go and revise and change as I go back. I had to make some huge revisions!

I got one story, a Velvet Revolution story, which has so many stories within itself, completely wrong. Can I explain this story? Because it's just a wacky story, this one.

The event that starts the Velvet Revolution is a student protest on 17 November 1989. A group of students were there to commemorate the murder of a student under the Nazis 50 years earlier, and they decided, they were all head up. The Berlin Wall had fallen, something had to be done and so they went on a march. They went down from Vyšehrad Cemetery, along the embankment of the river, down into Národní Street, this big, beautiful boulevard in Prague. And they were met halfway along the street by a row of riot police that came jogging out and formed a cordon with plexiglass shields, batons, helmets. And behind them were a row of Red Berets, who were these anti-riot paramilitaries, who were really nasty sons of bitches. As the demonstration pushed up against the wall, this plexiglass wall, more and more students kept filing in from behind, and then another plexiglass police wall came in behind them and blocked off the side streets. So, they were boxed in by police. There was a standoff for an hour as the students sat on the asphalt, and then the police just stepped in and started wailing into them with batons, cracking heads, spilling blood everywhere, wild panic, mayhem in the streets. I've got a friend who was there when she was a German student at the time, absolute mayhem and terrible violence. A Chicago Tribune reporter had her head cracked open, a TV camera woman was thrown through a window, they were really lashing into it and with real viciousness and hatred, like, ‘Crack the motherfuckers' heads open’. That's the kind of things they were saying as they were doing it.

Now, eventually they were allowed to disperse from the square, badly beaten, and there were rumours. Someone had seen a student being pulled off the street, inert. Some students at one of the dormitories heard from a woman there called Drahomira Draska, who said, ‘My boyfriend, Martin Schmidt, he's been killed. He was murdered by the riot police’. This was sent to someone from Charter 77, the dissident organisation. He checked it out. It seemed to check out. It was reported on the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, all of that. And suddenly there was this martyr, Martin Schmidt, the student who was beaten to death by the secret police. The regime denied it, they denied they'd killed anyone. They found two Martin Schmidts that they put in front of the camera and said, ‘Oh, we're perfectly alive. No, no. No one's dead here’.

But for once the regime was telling the truth. There was no Martin Schmidt. No one was killed in that riot. The inert person on the ground was a young secret police officer by the name of Ludvík Zifcak his name was, and he appeared afterwards, after The Velvet Revolution, and said, ‘It was all a conspiracy, I was ordered in by the secret police to direct the student demonstration towards Národní Street, towards the police, and then I was told to lay down and play dead in order to discredit the regime’. So then it's like, why would the secret police do that for the regime? Well, the secret police wanted to replace the hardliners with moderate communists and hang on to power, the party would hang on to power that way. Afterwards, everyone scratched their heads and went, Holy shit, The Velvet Revolution was what? Orchestrated by the secret police? And this has been reported by really important reporters like John Simpson at the BBC, it's been in several histories. This story has been printed. It's total bullshit. It's total bullshit. That's not what happened.

Zifcak was a bullshitter aggrandizing himself, and Prague people know this, but the rest of the world, the English speaking Czech watchers didn't catch up with the inquiry into it. It was all overblown. Drahomira Draska was just trying to get back at the regime, so it wasn't a conspiracy. It was a stuff up, as so often is the case.

But nonetheless, it is one of those great supreme ironies that the regime was overthrown by the death of a fictional character. This is one of these great weird, strange things that Prague does again and again, where fiction and truth just blend into one another and it's hard to know what's real here. So I'd written one version, then I'd written a second version of that incident, and then finally I had to go back and get someone to read in Czech the parliamentary inquiry into all of this so I could actually find the truth of it, until I eventually arrived at what most people are pretty sure is the truth of that incident, but no one will ever entirely know.

ASTRID: See, that story, Richard, is just one of the fascinating parts of history. I mean, just because one person writes it doesn't make it true. The idea that The Velvet Revolution could be kicked off by a lie or then be reported to be, so it's just such a ... History. It's why we should all read non-fiction, Richard.

RICHARD: Yeah.

ASTRID: I would note that you dedicate your book to the students of 1989.

RICHARD: I do. I love them. I love those guys. I absolutely love them. I met them while I was there at the time. There was this one night when Josephine, my girlfriend at the time, and I were walking through the old town square in Prague. It was past midnight or thereabouts while Prague is still in this kind of post-revolutionary euphoric haze. It was so cold, it was so cold that night. It wasn't snowing, but it was so cold. Like I said, we'd been out drinking beer and having a marvellous time and there was no one at all in the old town square past midnight, except in a corner near Karlova Street, a group of students. And they looked like they were wearing every item of clothing they owned and they were standing around a brazier making mulled wine. And they gave a cup to me and a cup to Josephine and one of them quoted Václav Havel. I'm trying to remember the... ‘Truth and love will defeat hatred and lies’. Oh, I can't remember. My Czech's just not that good enough, I'm afraid. But I recognised the phrase, and then the other students said, ‘Truth and love will defeat hatred and lies’. So, we went, ‘Truth and love’, to each other and drank this spiced hot wine, just beaming at each other. Man, that was great. That was so nice. Those students, God bless them.

They grew up in a morally contaminated environment. They saw their parents tell lies all the time because they had to. The thing about living in a totalitarian regime, it makes liars and hypocrites out of everyone. A lot of people who complain about the regime would then declare loyalty to the party because if you didn't, your kid would lose a chance at tertiary education or even higher education. So as one writer said ‘we did it for the children’, the old awful Czech curse in order to appease the regime. My friend Marek Toman, he only was able to study philosophy at Charles University, even though his mother and he hated the regime, h hated the regime, but his mother, because his father had taken off and escaped to West Germany, there was a black mark against the family name. So Marek's mother said, ‘Oh no, we're loyal. We believe in the party. We support the party and its objectives’. So these students grew up watching their parents perform these acts, perform these terrible lies and tell them all the time, ‘You can say one thing at home, but don't say it out in public’. Can you imagine what it's like to live like that? You don't say this stuff out loud? Yet, somehow, I suppose that shows most people do have a kind of an inner moral compass and they find it anyway, as these students did.

ASTRID: I cannot imagine living like that. But listening to you speak, Richard, reminds me again of not only the importance of history, but how we all need to act to defend what we have and, all things considered, Australia is a pretty wonderful place to read and write and think even in a year like 2020. I have a question for you, Richard. You are a master storyteller. You are in the media.

RICHARD: Oh, thank you.

ASTRID: You tell stories and you are a performer. You've released many books before. This is the first time you are releasing a book literally in the middle of a global catastrophe with one of Australia's largest cities in lockdown and not able to go to book launches. I want to know how you are approaching that because you are a storyteller, and you do know how to connect with audiences. And then I guess my secondary question on behalf of the writers who are listening to you now, Richard, how can someone tell their story and launch their book in 2020?

RICHARD: I can't prove it, but I strongly suspect people who read are getting through this crisis better than people that don't. I think books will keep you happier and saner in a way that Netflix can't at the moment in particular. I don't know about you, Astrid, but I'm using this time to read. I'm still working, but I'm reading a whole lot of classics at the moment. I'm reading The Master and Margarita and Middlemarch by George Eliot. Who knew Middlemarch... Well, everyone knew Middlemarch was completely brilliant, but I didn't until now. I've asked my wife to read these books as well, so we can talk about them.

ASTRID: I love that.

RICHARD: Yeah. Yeah. I'm really using this time to try and fill in little, gigantic gaping holes in my literary knowledge. So, I think at the moment, since we can't travel, we have to travel with our mind. Writing about Prague I'm just hoping is going to be a way for people to let their minds travel a million miles away. I mean, this is what books do, don't they? They relieve us from the burden of living in the world, don't they? I mean, that's what they do. You step outside yourself, you live in this other world for a little while, you then can come back into your own world feeling a little refreshed and able to get a bit of perspective on it. I don't know if happier is the word, but happiness is a bit of a spurious concept, anyway. I think you just come back with perhaps some sense of peace with it. I don't know. You can re-enter the world with a modicum of greater serenity or understanding or patience, perhaps.

So in this moment, I think books become completely essential. I suppose we get to find out really how essential writers' festivals are though, don't we, Astrid? I suppose we get to really find out if books... I mean, I know some books are ... I understand. I've got a friend who runs a bookshop and he tells me that he's doing better business now than he ever has, but I'm know that's not true for everyone. But nonetheless, people seem to be reaching for books. No one can get a piano at the moment. I've just discovered that recently. People can't get pianos. People are having trouble getting hold of gardening implements. I mean, what does that tell you? People are using this strange hiatus, this weird moment to develop large parts of their lives that have gone fallow, laid fallow in this round the clock, come on, make it happen, now, now, now, deliver on it just on time, keep the economy going, come on, now, now, now.

But of course, having said that, a lot of people don't have that luxury. They are unemployed and terrified and probably can't read because they're so stressed out. So, I suppose, let books offer what solace they may. Let books offer what wisdom they may in this weird crisis that we're living through right now.

One of the things you do find out when you write about history, you're inevitably writing about plagues, Astrid. So, societies tend to... when they go through a plague, they become uprooted and where they land afterwards is not the same place. Of course, there's been all this death and horror, but a lot of longstanding problems can get solved because there's a whole... previous clapped out ideologies are proven to be total failures, often in a crisis like this. So, it tends to accelerate history quite a bit. It also tends to open doors for younger people as well, and I really hope that happens. I really hope that happens.

ASTRID: I do too. That's a fascinating phrase that you just said, Richard, accelerate history. That would be nice to think that we can move through the problems that feel like they're so entrenched and to get to something that comes afterwards.

RICHARD: I just hope we can embrace each other as we do it. That's the thing, because that's this... I'm fascinated by the perverse incentives that COVID is putting in place. It has to lead us towards something or other. I don't know. Some good ideas and maybe some bad ones as well.

ASTRID: My vote is for the good ones. Richard, I have so enjoyed speaking to you again. I do hope to interview you a third time sometime in person in the future, and congratulations on The Golden Maze.

RICHARD: Thank you so much, Astrid. It's been a pleasure as always with you. You are such a wonderful interviewer. Thank you.