What’s your earliest memory?
Straight lines going up to the sky. I must have been in a pram in Manhattan. My mother was probably on her way to buy the latest Boney M record.
Who is your hero?
It is no longer that possible to have heroes. But before this tragic affliction took hold, and in chronological order, there were my paternal grandfather, Hamed Matar, who fought in the Libyan resistance under Omar al-Mukhtar and bravely took part in several battles against the Italian invaders; the mysterious Native American we called el-Hindi, who used to dive from great heights into the sea near our house in Tripoli; the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy; Malcolm X; the Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter; and Greta Garbo.
What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
Great writing fills me with hopeful enthusiasm and never envy. The last book to do this was The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta.
What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
I have admired many. Dag Hammarskjöld, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Merkel and the various men and women currently leading the peace process in Colombia are some.
What would be your Mastermind special subject?
I’d be rubbish. But perhaps Sviatoslav Richter . . . He’s a great artist from whom I’ve learned a great deal about writing.
Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
Always tomorrow and the days after, but also Siena just before the Renaissance, Berlin between the wars, Federico Fellini’s Rome and Tripoli before 1 September 1969.
What TV show could you not live without?
I can live without them all.
Who would paint your portrait?
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, if I can convince him, Diego Velázquez, if he is nice. And I’d be very curious what Claire Kerr would make of me. I find her work intriguing.
What’s your theme tune?
Today it’s Richter playing Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 2 in D Minor, Op 14. But I am also hooked on Piccola Orchestra Avion Travel’s “Dormi e sogna”.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?
Be true. I’m still working on it.
What’s currently bugging you?
Not writing as well as I did last week.
What single thing would make your life better?
Everyone I love to be in the same town.
When were you happiest?
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A sculptor, a baker, or someone who makes things better for others.
Are we all doomed?
The answer must surely be: perhaps. But the one that comes to me more readily and with great passion is: absolutely not.
“The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between”, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Biography, is out in paperback from Penguin
This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution