Noah Charney is an amazing American art historian, novelist, and is the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, who lives in Slovenia.
We recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with one of our own authors that is Noah Charney.
What inspired you to start writing?
I always enjoyed writing, as a student, but I got the idea to focus my career on it when I was interested in writing plays in college. I actually got a playwrighting agent in London before anything else, but she said “Look, if you want a career as a writer, your best bet is to write a novel. Have you got one?” “No,” I replied, “but I’ll go and write one.” I wound up writing The Art Thief, my first book and only published novel (I’ve published more than a dozen books, but all the others are non-fiction). I was very lucky and it became an international best-seller, translated into fourteen languages and a best-seller in five countries. It took me awhile to get good at non-fiction and articles, but I long ago passed the 10,000 hour mark that has been postulated as the amount of practice that leads to mastery. Now I can “hammer it out” as they say and my writing, especially of non-fiction and articles, feels automatic and at a sufficiently high level.
Have you always dreamed of becoming a writer or a published author?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to “be.” I thought of being a playwright, or an art history professor. Being a professor is a good gig but there’s a lot of admin and I was never interested in academic writing. I get most excited about big ideas and sharing them with the broadest possible audience. So when I got to be something of a public figure (in a modest and non-celebrity way, but having a regular public platform to get ideas out, in books and TV and articles) it seemed like a good thing to do for work. Writing is fun and satisfying, both the process and the end result. So it was a good option for someone like me who wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do for work, but who wished to avoid working for someone in the traditional sense.
At what age did you start writing?
I was writing even as a kid. I wrote a children’s adventure fantasy story called “Zen-la” when I was around ten (with illustrations!) I’d written 11 plays or so before I finished college, and had even won a national playwrighting award (New Horizons South Young Playwrights Award). I wrote The Art Thief in 2002-2004, that period, when I was a postgraduate student in England. The novel came out in 2007, but I only started to feel like a “writer” around 2010, when I published a trade non-fiction book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece and began writing regularly for magazines.
Who is your biggest inspiration or what authors, writers have you looked up to?
There were two inspirations for The Art Thief. One was The Da Vinci Code, which was great fun and sold crazily well, but which was also annoying for scholars like me. It is brimming with mistakes and historical inaccuracies that misled its millions of readers. But I analyzed it carefully and I still use it to teach formatting books. So I wanted to write something that had similar appeal and drive to read it, a real page-turner, but which had proper scholarship and was informative. Around the same time, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair came out, coinciding with my scholarly interest in art crime. So I got the idea to make a novel that would go behind-the-scenes of the art world, in which I had experience, and follow the path of a pair of stolen paintings. Prior to that I’d been focused on plays, and I had a sort of mentor in the award-winning playwright, Arthur Kopit, whose son was a friend of mine. He got me into The Dramatist’s Guild of America when I was still a teenager and was very encouraging.
What is your favorite book?
I’m supposed to say Ulysses, right? I’m not sure I have a favorite, but I have an answer. There are two books that I assign when I teach writing, two books that, from an author’s perspective, are “perfect” in their pace, writing, everything. One is The Russia House by John Le Carre. It’s a spy novel and it is so perfectly written that there’s not a comma out of place. The other is trade non-fiction, a true story called The Tiger by John Vaillant. Both are the Platonic ideal of their genres and are good teaching tools, and I’ve read them both more than once, which is a big compliment for a book.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I have limited tolerance for writing that tries too hard to be artsy, floral, literary. I find it pretentious. I don’t want to have to work to figure out what is happening or what the author is trying to say. The ideas can be complex, but their presentation should not. I’m not sure there’s any author I grew into, though the question is a very good one. I feel like life is short and there are a heck of a lot of books out there that I won’t have time to read. I started some Dostoevsky and just couldn’t get into it, for instance. But I feel like I should, and I’m not sure if that’s intellectual peer pressure or what.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I think there’s a prejudice towards “important” books but any book can be important, and we don’t need portentous writing or subject matter to make it so. I think my friend Miha Mazzini’s The Cartier Project is amazing and powerful and should get more attention. Here’s a weird answer—during Corona Time I’ve gotten into reading cookbooks. I sometimes actually cook from them, too, but I like text-heavy cookbooks. And my favorite cookbook of the moment, which I actually reread because it quite literally makes me laugh out loud, is Lucky Peach’s 101 Easy Asian Recipes, with text by Peter Meehan. Now we often say something we read makes us laugh out loud, but does it really? Maybe it produces a smile or a smirk, and that’s pretty good for a text. This cookbook actually made me laugh out loud many times, and I was barely able to read passages to my wife because I kept cracking up.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I think Plan B was always to be a traditional art history professor, probably in the US, where they have ridiculous vacations (around four months a year) and often make six-figure salaries. Not bad. I also was in a punk band in college and so I’d be a rock star as Plan C…
How many hours a day do you write?
This is a great series of questions, and they remind me of an interview series I did in The Daily Beast for many years, called “How I Write.” Each week I interviewed a different author, many super famous (like Maya Angelou). The vast majority say that their goal is to write 1000 words a day. For me, I do work around 6 hours a day, now that I have young children. I put in many more hours before that, but I’m more productive in less time now than I was then.
What is your writing process like? Do you need a lot of coffee, prefer to write during the night or …?
As a parent, the luxury of weird processes disappears. When I interviewed best-selling crime novelist Michael Connelly, he said he has a man cave with blackout curtains and a restaurant-sized, industrial ice tea machine. He has no clocks, no outside light, no sense of time, and a steady drip of sweet iced tea. Sounds cool, but I can’t do that. In “normal time” my daughters are at kindergarten and school from 8-330, and so that’s my work time, and I try not to work after that (though sometimes I have to). I do a lot of editing and ghostwriting, and that comes with deadlines, so occasionally I’ll need to work in the evening. During Corona time, I’ve been waking at 730 and working until around 5 pm—more than normal, as it seems like everyone wants to get their writing done during the quarantine.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
This depends on the type of book or article. Sometimes I already know what I want to say, and that makes it quick and easy. The books of mine that tell a lot of shorter stories within an overarching concept are easiest. The Art of Forgery tells the history of forgery through sixty case studies. Each one is told in around 1500 words, so I didn’t need to go into absolute depth for anyone of them, for example. The hardest to research are like my Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art which is the complete, in-depth story of a man (Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance artist who established art history and the parameters of how we think of art today) and his legacy. That requires my becoming a world expert in a super-specific thing, and that takes time. But that’s my book that was a Pulitzer finalist in biography in 2017, so that type of book tends to get more lauds.
Have you ever gotten writer’s block? What helps you get out of it?
Never. I don’t think it really exists. You can have trouble figuring out where you want to go with a novel, but I mostly write non-fiction. The stories already happened, I just have to present them and interpret them and pull out ideas and lessons from them. I also write by first doing a complete, thorough outline, even when writing fiction or scripts (I wrote some scripts for HBO with Branko Djuric), so I always know what needs to happen next. If you get stuck you just stop and do something else—take a walk, go on a run. Running especially helps. Make sure you go without music, no listening to podcasts or anything, and on your own. Jasmina Praprotnik, the Slovenian running guru, taught me that. It’s good for you to get a bit bored as we do when running without entertainment. Then your mind gets to work to make you less bored and you come up with ingenious new ideas.
How long did it take you to write the book?
I am extremely fast. I hear this all the time from colleagues, collaborators, editors, etc. I’ve gotten so I can write a good article of around 1200 words in about two hours. Then I stop, do something else, and do an edit for another hour. Then I’m often done. So a book is around 80,000 words, so we might be talking about 80 days or so, if I don’t have too much research to do (which you can’t rush—I’m talking about the actual writing once you know what you’re going to say). That’s if I were doing one project at a time, but I always have many bouncing around at once, with various deadlines.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Oh man, it’s a great feeling. I remember I was teaching in Florence when I got the first box of The Art Thief and I instructed my wife to pour out the box of books in a pile upon me. I also had one of those rare almost overnight 15 minutes of fame situations. First there was the publicity for the book, and then, unrelated and at almost the same time, a New York Times Magazine article came out (December 2007) about my academic work, essentially saying that I had founded the study of art crime at age 27. It’s hard to explain how such media coverage shifts your life’s gears. I was suddenly able to write future books without an elaborate approval process, and I was getting all sorts of offers. It meant a sort of freedom, but it also meant that I was a “writer.” That freed me also be write full-time.
How does it feel once your book gets published? Is there a huge level of excitement to see the book come alive?
Yes, it is hugely exciting, and even my twelfth was right up there in excitement. It feels tangible (having an eBook come out only wouldn’t be the same thing). It feels like a legacy (each book is in the Library of Congress forever, even if it does not have an indefinite print run).
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I do some ghostwriting, which is similar. In ghostwriting I help an author write the book, or sometimes write every word of it, and I am not credited, nor am I allowed to say which books I’ve ghostwritten. I get a flat fee and the author gets 100% credit, with the world thinking they wrote the book. This is quite common, particularly when an non-writer (like a celebrity, an actor, an athlete) publishes a book. The reason to write under a pseudonym is if you want to branch out. I have an established reputation as a best-selling author of non-fiction books related to art and culture. That’s cool, but I’m no longer considered a novelist (eleven non-fiction books and one novel). I’d like to start writing for children, now that I have my own, and that is already considered a stretch by my agent, who thinks it’s wisest to keep in the successful track and not veer off of it.
This is one of the reasons why I’m about to launch a homemade, limited-edition Kickstarter book project. Now that I’m a father I want to write a book on parenting, but it would take some convincing to get big publishers, who want my art books, to take on a parenting book. It would also take too long—not only is the publishing industry on hold at the moment, but they plan books 1-2 years in advance, so it would be at least a year before my parenting book would come out with a publishing house. So I’ll be publishing it myself exclusively for Kickstarter backers. The book will be called Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Kids Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day. It will also have a companion smartphone app through which you can keep track of what you do and learn with your kids. If folks are interested, they can see a preview of the campaign here (the link will transform into the actual campaign page when it’s on). I’ve also just started Instagram and Facebook pages for this parenting avenue of mine.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
It’s a fair question for people unfamiliar with the publishing industry. Unpublished or unfinished non-fiction books basically do not exist for established writers. Non-fiction books are never written on spec, ahead of time. You could write a whole book but no editor or agent will read it. They want only book proposals which describe the book you will write if they offer you a publishing contract. Book proposals are 5-40 pages long and there’s a real art to writing them. I teach how to do so in my writing workshops (in Slovenia and in London, as part of the Guardian Masterclasses). You can listen to a free audio version (half in Slovenian, half in English) here at my podcast, in which I explain the basics of how to get published.
So established writers never write non-fiction before they have a contract already signed. We prepare book proposals and our agents send them to publishing houses and they determine whether they want us to write the book based on the proposal alone. They pay an advance, money that we use to take time off to actually write the book. Only in the case of fiction do you have to write the whole book first. So I have several unpublished novels, including one that takes place entirely in Slovenia and in which Plecnik is a character. And I’ve got loads of book proposals for books as yet unwritten. But no unpublished or half-written non-fiction books…unless you count those I’m in the process of writing. I’m nearly done with one of two I’m contracted to publish with Rowman & Littlefield. One is called The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock and Rivalry Made Art Great. The second I’m co-writing with my friend, the prominent Slovenian artist, JASA. It’s called Making It: The Rising Artist’s Handbook, and it’s like Kitchen Confidential for artists. Behind the scenes in what it’s like to be an artist and how to become successful while avoiding the inevitable traps along the way.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
What a great question! I do actually, though they’re not in all of them. I try to use this beautiful phrase, “snowbound windowpane,” in each one, but it hasn’t always fit. It’s like a treasure hunt for readers!
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
This is very specific to my own career, but I got mixed messages early on from a past agent. She said, “Whatever you do for your second book, don’t do a sequel to The Art Thief.” She was worried it would trap me in a single set of characters. Turns out publishers wanted a sequel to The Art Thief but by the time I got around to starting one, it was so many years and books after the original that the momentum had left. So I would have gone ahead and quickly written a sequel, while also branching out into non-fiction. Ah well.
What advice do you have for young aspiring writers?
Don’t be precious about your writing. Write as much as possible. Practice writing book proposals if you want to do non-fiction. Books can be works of art, but they probably shouldn’t be, and contemporary books really aren’t. If you want to write a literary artwork that’s great, but only a few hundred people will read it. Books are a business and you need to understand that in order to be successful and have the freedom to write what you want.