LONDON - Philip Hook, Senior Director in the Impressionist & Modern Art department in London, is a well-known and respected writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His most recent book is Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World. Philip met Richard Aronowitz, now Head of Restitution, Europe at Sotheby’s, when Richard worked as an expert in the Impressionist & Modern Art department from 1998 to 2003. Richard has published two novels and has recently completed a third, due out in 2015.
Sotheby’s Philip Hook and Richard Aronowitz sit down to discuss their writing.
Philip Hook: It’s interesting that we share the common thread of both having worked in the Impressionist & Modern Art department and both being fiction writers. Perhaps there’s something in the water…
Richard Aronowitz: Bruce Chatwin, who worked in the nascent Modern Pictures Department fifty years ago, later became a world-famous travel writer and novelist.
PH: Perhaps it has something to do with the visual stimulus of working so closely with art, and the close relationship that exists between the visual and the verbal?
RA: When I was in Imps, my main job was to write the texts for the Evening Sale catalogues. I really think that the discipline of writing in quite a condensed way about individual works of art had a crucial impact on my writing style.
PH: That discipline of couching a sales pitch in the language of art history? I’ve always been fascinated by that. It’s an art in itself. I imagine that the tricky task of writing about art under the guise of art history, but driven by a commercial imperative, helped to hone your writing and to sharpen your linguistic armoury?
RA: I’m sure that it did. More than that, though: working at Sotheby’s itself somehow changed my perception of what I wanted to do as a writer.
PH: You started out as a poet, didn’t you?
RA: Yes, until I was 31, right in the middle of my five years in Imps, I only wrote poetry and the occasional piece of art journalism. It was only while working in Imps that I suddenly decided that I wanted to write my first novel, which became Five Amber Beads.
Richard Aronowitz, Five Amber Beads was published in 2006.
PH: I remember you working on it back then. I’ve often found that the insight into human character that working at Sotheby’s gives us, and the sheer range of extraordinary characters that we meet, can seep into my writing. Have you also found that?
RA: Well, Five Amber Beads was about a provenance researcher – something that I do now, of course, as part of my job in Restitution – and It’s Just the Beating of my Heart was about a contemporary art dealer, so this milieu must have had at least a subliminal effect on my books. How did you take your first steps in novel writing, Philip?
PH: Unlike you, I wasn’t a poet. Most of my life I have kept a journal (a lot of it unreadably boring now). But there was a moment 25 years ago when I found myself writing in my diary not what had happened to me but what, if it had happened to me, would have made a better story. From there it was only a short step to writing fiction. And the art world is a fertile field for subject matter. Speaking of our day jobs at Sotheby’s, have you ever considered trying to make your writing a full-time career?
RA: I think that I would find writing full-time a very isolating experience. I need the stimulus of working with people, working in a team, and Sotheby’s very much gives me that. Also, I have really struggled to make any money from my writing, despite my books getting good reviews. Yours have been far more successful commercially, haven’t they?
PH: Though still not enough to justify not working full-time. Also, I, like you, would miss the art world too much. As we said earlier, the people we see and the pictures we get to look at are grist to our mills as writers. There’s also, at times, a strongly comic dimension in our dealings with people, isn’t there? That’s been feeding in very nicely to the new novel that I’m working.
Philip Hook, Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World was published in 2013.
RA: I haven’t attempted to write anything comedic or humorous yet. I’ve always thought that it was the most difficult area of fiction to pull off. But you’re right that some of the client situations we see at Sotheby’s can have their strongly comic moments.
PH: Talking of our work, didn’t you once tell me that you write on the train coming into the office?
RA: Yes, I commute into London each day from Cambridge. I have pretty much written all of my three novels only on my daily journey to and back from work each weekday, over the last twelve years.
PH: You manage to focus on your writing on a crowded commuter train?
RA: I get completely absorbed in it and it certainly makes the daily grind of the journey far more enjoyable.
PH: I have also always used my journey into work each day on the No. 14 bus as a time to think and write. How much do you get written on your train journey?
RA: I’m lucky if I get two good paragraphs done each day. That’s why writing a novel takes me three or four years.
PH: When’s your new novel, An American Decade, coming out?
RA: I’m hoping that it will appear during the second half of 2015. The manuscript’s all done now and I have a new agent in place: she’s looking for a publisher for the novel now. Watch this space…