Which books are beside your bed?
Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which lives up to its hype, truly provides a new take on familiar quandaries and fairly skips along. In Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader, Ann Fadiman reminds us of the essence of a good essayist, being funny and poignant and wearing her learning with great lightness of touch. I always have near the bed a volume of the recently published Dictionary of Irish Biography, edited by friends whose dedication I have marvelled at for years: the 9000 entries include the mad, the bad, the dangerous and the amusing along with the predictable worthies, and it is a marvellous random read. There is always a Wodehouse (Mulliner stories this time) and then there's my e-reader, a present that accompanies me everywhere.
Which writer lived the life you most admire?
I love Samuel Johnson, a genius who endured many tragedies and vexations while managing always to behave like a thoroughly decent human being and show astounding kindness to those at the bottom of the heap.
With which literary character did you first identify?
For his ingenuity, courage and iconoclasm, Richmal Crompton's William Brown was my hero. I was always on his side against the establishment and Violet Elizabeth Bott, though I used to worry a lot about what would happen to him when he grew up. I didn't see how even such a magnificent boy could succeed if he couldn't write a sentence. Then I grew up, learned about uneducated but successful entrepreneurs, and gave up fretting about William's career.
What book do you first remember being read to you as a child?
My mother taught me to read by the time I was three, so mostly I did my own reading. However, when I was sick she cheered me up with a series of books about an insufferable little evangelical Christian from the Deep South called Elsie Dinismore. My mother gave me my taste for black comedy: our favourite scenes were Elsie's conversion of her widowed father whose wickedness had led him to order her to play the piano on Sunday and her nurse's distress at the news that slaves were being liberated because it might mean Mammy would have to leave Miss Elsie.
What is the most overrated book you have ever read?
Despite three attempts I never got further than page 30 of Midnight's Children, and I could bring myself only to dip into the turgid Satanic Verses. So my inclination is to diss Rushdie's entire oeuvre as overrated, with an honourable mention for Harold Pinter.
Do you believe civil action against terrorist groups could be similarly effective in the future?
Yes, if the bereaved and injured are sufficiently idealistic and ingenious, and governments and the law give more support to victims than to terrorists.
In your opinion, do we deal with tragedy well as a society?
As a society we can't even handle death, let alone tragedy. After our initial expressions of sympathy, we want the bereaved to shut up, move on and stop embarrassing us. It all becomes worse when politicians are involved: what was hardest to bear for the Omagh families was being told over and over again that they should give up on their desire to win justice for their loved ones lest they hinder the peace process. To the astonishment of many, Peter Mandelson was one of the very few politicians who empathised with their grief and actively helped their campaign. I speculate that someone who is gay and half-Jewish has advantages when it comes to understanding suffering.