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Between the Lines: Charlie Kerrigan

Between the Lines asks researchers about the process of writing a book. Dr Charlie Kerrigan reflects on the process behind writing his book Virgil’s Map.

Book cover for Virgil's map with a picture of a blue, cloudy sky and mountain rangeWhen did you first come up with the idea for the book?
The idea that what I was working on could be a book took hold during the writing of my PhD, I suppose as a kind of light at the end of the tunnel! As a PhD is often a difficult and solitary experience. I had no idea whether it would be a book or not at that point, but I felt that what I was doing could be relevant and useful to people beyond me and my supervisors.

Did you start out with the intention of writing a book about a particular topic, or did a book begin to make sense as you were researching?
I started my work with a completely blank canvas – I knew only that I wanted to work on Virgil and some part of his influence in later times – and the idea took shape gradually. The PhD was a broad historical survey, so when it came to making the book I tried to be as ruthless as possible in editing, cutting lots of material which I felt wasn’t strong enough or relevant enough in order to make the argument as punchy as I could.

What are the book's main ideas?
In the book I tried to write a post-colonial history of Virgil’s Georgics, examining themes of geography and empire in the poem itself and then exploring how it inspired writers, journalists, and travellers in the British empire, who had read Virgil in school and who quoted him in their writings. Classical academic scholarship can sometimes be a conservative place, and I wanted to weigh in, however imperfectly, with a politicizing take. Virgil was a north Italian poet writing in Latin in the 30s and 20s BCE, and the Georgics is his middle poem, a kind of agricultural guide-to-the-world.

What did writing a book allow you to do that wouldn’t have been possible in another medium e.g. journal article?
The book format gave me the time and space to make a bigger, more personal, argument than would have been suited to a journal or been accepted for publication in article form.

How did you decide which publisher to place the book with?
I had known of Bloomsbury’s Studies in Classical Reception series and its reputation for publishing work that was in some way new and/or at a tangent to more traditional work. The initial recommendation came from my external examiner. I was delighted to have an opportunity to make a book at all, but equally so that I could do it with Bloomsbury.

How long did it take to write?
I was a PhD student between September 2014 and September 2017, with the final version of the thesis written in the last twelve months of that time. I revised it for publication between February and September 2019, and it was published in autumn 2020.

Did you ever experience any moments of writer’s block? What did you do to overcome this?
Writing a book, but especially writing an academic book, means that you’re in your own head a lot. I didn’t have writer’s block, but it certainly took time for the ideas to develop, and then to sort them out once I knew what I wanted to say. The best thing was time – forgetting about it completely for a couple of weeks, sometimes even a couple of days. You go back to it then with fresh eyes and you can more easily see what works, what doesn’t, where to go, etc.

What advice would you give someone thinking about writing a book?
If you have the opportunity and you feel like you have something to say, then have confidence in your work and try to write clearly and without too much jargon. As I’ve mentioned above, two things I find useful are leaving time to go away and come back, and then editing well to make the argument as coherent as possible.

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before you started writing, what would that be?
In the first months of my PhD a friend quoted me a line from (I think, but probably misremember) the Bhagavad Gita, which I remember as: ‘the work is not important’. I took this to mean, not that the work isn’t valuable, but that it’s important to keep it in perspective, to keep the work/life balance ticking over. This can be especially difficult amidst the concerns and challenges that come with an early academic career, but it’s important. The line became a mantra, and I still think of it every so often.

Charlie Kerrigan

Charlie Kerrigan is a Research Fellow in the Department of Classics at Trinity College Dublin. He teaches Latin language and literature, and writes the blog Confabulations. Virgil’s Map is his first book.