Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Daniel Snowman about his life and career, his creative process, and what motivated him to write his memoir, Just Passing Through.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am a social and cultural historian. Born in London in November 1938 I was educated at Cambridge and Cornell universities, became a Lecturer at Sussex and went on to work for some 30 years at BBC Radio where I produced talks, documentaries and feature projects on a wide range of cultural, intellectual and historical topics. Since 2004 a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research (U of London), my recent books include a study of the cultural impact of the ‘Hitler Emigrés’ and The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera. My Memoir, Just Passing Through: Interactions with the World 1938-2021, was published in September.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
In 1963 I became a junior Lecturer (in ‘Politics and American Studies’) at the new University of Sussex. A couple of years later, my senior colleague Professor Marcus Cunliffe popped in to my office one day to say he had been invited to write a book – one in a series about the great powers in the 20th century – about the USA from the First World War to the present. Marcus was immersed in other projects and wondered whether I might like him to propose me instead as the possible author.
At first I was awestruck at the idea. I had by then written plenty of articles, academic and other – but never, yet, a book! But I had recently returned from a wonderful time as a postgraduate student in Kennedy’s America and, with Marcus’s kind encouragement, I said Yes!
When did you take a step to start writing?
I loved reading and writing as a youngster and, reassured by teachers who assured me I could turn out a perfectly respectable essay when required, I began contributing the occasional article as a teenager to school magazines.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
My first book, America Since 1920, was published (in both Britain and the USA) in September 1968, three years after it was commissioned, shortly before my 30th birthday.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
My most recent book, a Memoir entitled Just Passing Through: Interactions with the World 1938-2021, was published in September 2021. I first started drafting the text in the late 1970s, encouraged to do so by my then agent and principal publisher, but the idea was soon dropped as more immediate concerns took over. By chance, I came across the existing text when moving home during the mid-2010s and periodically added to it, more or less as a hobby, over the years that followed. Then, with the onset of Covid-19 in spring 2020, with everything and everywhere ‘locked down’ indefinitely, I found myself returning to the text, editing and updating it and beginning to think seriously about the possibility of publishing it. You could say that this book took me nearly 50 years to complete. Or, more realistically, about 18 months. Take your pick!
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Just Passing Through?
First, it helped pass the time during a period when so many other things in life were locked down.
Always good at observing myself as if from the viewpoint of an ‘outsider’, I was also very conscious that, in writing this book, an ageing octogenarian was busily ‘book-ending’ his life while it was still possible for him to do so!
What were your biggest challenges with writing Just Passing Through?
I didn’t want to write just another traditional autobiography, merely recounting one personal experience after another. Rather, I envisaged the book as an attempt to say something about the wider world in which I had lived, ‘from the War to the Virus’ as it were, through a series of more or less linked personal vignettes: what the world looked like, and how and why it had changed, while I was ‘just passing through’.
What was your research process for Just Passing Through?
Everything in the book was based on personal memory: mainly my own, but occasionally where indicated on that of others who were directly involved. I also worked my way through a large amount of documentation, starting with the impeccably detailed ‘Record Book’ my mother kept of my childhood and upbringing. This, alongside a large body of photographs, various surviving objects and countless memos, letters and (later on) emails, to and from countless friends and colleagues, all helped evoke memories and authenticate facts and dates, as did my searches through newspapers of the time.
From around my mid-20s I began publishing articles and reviews while also preparing material for public lectures and broadcasts etc, and much of this material, too, survived. Without it I would never have been able to write this Memoir. As for the many illustrations used in the book, almost all are from my own collections except where another source is acknowledged (or the source is unknown, unobtainable or, to my knowledge, copyright free).
How did you plan the structure of Just Passing Through?
The new Memoir is basically chronological. The core structure consists of 12 ‘Books’, each of which contains around half-a-dozen or more short ‘Chapters’. The overall length is c. 120,000 words.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Just Passing Through need?
I took the text to The Self-Publishing Partnership (publishing imprint: ‘Brown Dog Books’). They proved enormously helpful, encouraging and highly professional: everything, from detailed editing to cover design and advice about potential marketing etc, proved outstanding. Every decision was ultimately mine; but without their continuing help and advice, the book would have been far less successful.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Make sure you have given serious thought about not only what you wish to write about (and the length, structure, design etc of the eventual book) – but also the potential readership at whom you are aiming.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Various ideas which I am not yet in a position to mention publicly!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
The book has been, and continues to be, widely promoted and marketed – not so much as the Memoir of a little-known writer and broadcaster but, above all, as a highly appealing portrait of the past, present and possible future of the world in which we have all been living. For this reason if for nothing else it was certainly worth undertaking!
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
I am author (or editor) of nearly 20 books. Many of them investigate aspects of culture and the arts, placed within their wider historical context: social, economic, political et al. For details of my bibliography, see my Website:
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