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Simon Singh, particle physicist turned author

Particle physicist turned broadcaster and author Simon Singh has a very focussed and organised approach to writing."I am only really efficient when I am working at home at my desk with my books, notes and files all around me," he said. "If I need a break, then I tend to switch on the TV. I am quite a connoisseur of junk television."The author of numerous books on science and mathematics, like The Code Book, Big Bang, and Fermat’s Last Theorem, told me about his writing techniques.

READERSVOICE.COM: Do you have ideas for books for a long time before writing them, even years, or do you get inspired by topical interests?

SIMON SINGH: I have no idea where my ideas come from. They tend to be quite spontaneous.

For example, the idea for Big Bang emerged on a flight across the Atlantic and by the time I landed I had a complete framework.

One week later my publishers had accepted the idea and I was working on it full time.

RV: How do you plan your schedule for writing a book; what sort of milestones do you set for yourself, over what timeframe?

SS: I am very business-like in my writing process.

If I have two years to write 120,000 words, then I have to write a first draft in a year which means 10,000 words a month, which means 300 words a day.

If I take a day off, then the next day I have to write 600 words.

RV: What research was involved in writing The Code Book?

SS: The first half the book was the history of codes before the Information Age, so I merely had to pore through all the material that had been previously written.

But the second half of the book focussed on the sort of codes we use today, so I spent a lot time racing around the world talking to the pioneers of modern cryptography.

Perhaps that is the greatest joy of my job – I get to meet and interview some fascinating people.

RV: What techniques do you use to create a suspenseful plot, drama, and pacing in your scientific books?

SS: The narrative of science is naturally embedded with suspense, rivalry, heroes and villains, so I merely have to make sure that I maintain these fascinating details alongside explaining the scientific ideas.

I try to spend as much time writing about the scientists as I do about the science itself.

RV: How did you start working for the BBC?

SS: I was lucky. I got a six month traineeship largely based on my physics PhD.

I think they were curious to find out what would happen if you asked a particle physicist to make films.

RV: Is it difficult managing the creation of a documentary, with all the other people and logistics involved? Is writing books easier, or more fun?

SS: I think film-making is the greater challenge.

The TV audience is more demanding and the time constraint forces the film-maker to be incredibly inventive.

In contrast, I think readers have more patience, so I know that I can spend several pages explaining a complex idea. Writers have the luxury of being able to explain at length, but we must be careful not to be too self-indulgent.

RV: Where have your promotional visits taken you to in recent years, with things like Writers’ Festivals?

SS: I have been lucky enough to give lectures in dozens of countries all around the world.

I tend to visit India and Australia at least every other year, as the audiences are always knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

RV: Can you recommend any books you’ve come across since your list of favorite books in Big Bang?

SS: I have just finished One in Three by Adam Wishart, an extraordinary story of the author’s father and his battle with cancer.

RV: What sort of magazines, journals, or newspapers do you like to read?

SS: My only certainty is the New Scientist magazine.

I feel that if I have read New Scientist then I have not missed a major news story in science.

I read various newspapers, but when I am travelling I check the BBC news website on a daily basis.

RV: Can you give a few words on a few of your favorite books of all time, why you liked them?

SS: I am still very fond of James Gleick’s Chaos.

It was one of the first science books I had encountered that was utterly captivating.

The ideas were crystal clear and fascinating, and the writing style was fluent and absorbing.

RV: What books have you got coming out, or are you working on?

SS: I am not working on a book at the moment.

I like to take a break in between books and at the moment I am not even sure I will write another book.

-Check out www.simonsingh.com.
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