Ruth Sophia Padel was born in London and earned her doctorate in Greek at Oxford and then taught there from 1974 to 1984. Birkbeck College and Princeton were additional academic stations of the descendant of the naturalist Charles Darwin. In 1984, she gave up academic tenure to write full time. Among the many awards received for her work are the Research Prize of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (2003) and First Prize in the UK National Poetry Competition. She is the only person to be a Fellow of both The Royal Society of Literature and of the Zoological Society of London. She lives in London, where she teaches poetry at King’s College.
How many ideas for potential works do you have in your head?
I work in several genres and at the moment am working on a non-fiction nature project, which I have to deliver to my editor in January 2023. But I have two other immediate projects in my head: for a novel and a collection of poems.
When working on a new project, how do you sift through competing ideas in order to move forward?
That’s a question that made me think! Sometimes commissions force my hand. Otherwise it is a question of instinct, which one do I feel the pull of most strongly.
What writing habit do you have that is impossible to shift? (That could be a particular snack, writing hours, location, caffeine consumption etc.)
Getting to work immediately after waking up! A cup of tea, then a cup of black coffee on opening the laptop.
The international literature festival berlin (ilb) has become an essential part of Berlin’s literary calendar. What do you connect with the city?
I first came to Berlin in 1970 to the Freie Universität, studying postgraduate Klassische Philologie.
I lived close to Pariser Strasse, in the flat of a woman whose family had lived in East Germany, but as a teenager at the end of the war, she offered Russian guards bolts of cloth to let her through the barrier into West Berlin – where she realised her dream of running a bookshop. She had close connections to my tutors who were classical scholars at Oxford. I lived in the divided city, winter and summer, and felt very strongly how my Berlin friends were unable to visit East Berlin, as I did, to see the Museums. Then I didn’t return until 2015, my first visit to the international literatur festival. It was a very emotional moment for me to see the Zoo Station now, where before I had seen armed guards. The whole city made me feel so strongly that healing is possible, even in our darkened world. Particularly when I read an editorial in Le Monde, on a table in the sunlit yard, which said Germany was leading the world in humanity by opening its borders to Syrian refugees. I was also very struck by the green man with a pipe on traffic lights in the East, Ampelmännchen, who seemed to me a memorial to how communities can survive division.
I was writing a piece about Käthe Kollwitz for BBC radio and my festival ‘angel,’ a very interesting artist and writer herself, took me to see the Neue Wache Mother with her Dead Son memorial for victims of war and dictatorship. Devastating. So bare and simple. Particularly since I was also working on my novel Daughters of the Labyrinth, which I finally finished in lockdown in 2020, about the Jews in wartime Crete. So, healing after trauma was very much on my mind. That’s the thing Berlin means to me above all.
What impact did the past 12 months have on your writing and ways of working? (Answers could range from challenges of home schooling to enjoying some quiet time or a writing routine turned upside down)
I am very lucky, I didn’t have problems like home schooling or restless children. Our first lockdown, I was with my daughter and son in law: we were all writing books, so it was rather like one of those writing retreats in which you come down to eat and share thoughts at the end of a writing day. I got a lot done – in fact, I finished the novel I had been writing for ten years. The second lockdown, I was on my own. It was like a different sort of writing retreat, not so sociable, but since we were all used by now to Zoom, I did a lot of workshops online, and was beginning my nature book, on elephants, so it was very concentrating. It’s been my experience that writers, at least those who did not have small children, got off very lightly – especially if they had a garden or lived in a country place. It simply intensified how they work anyway.