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Mark O’Connell’s prescription for writing

The Wellcome Book Prize shortlisted author of ‘To Be a Machine’ answers five questions on health, inspiration and storytelling.

Words by Jennifer Trent Staves

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Photograph of a a stack of 5 books lying horizontally on a shelf with another book standing  vertically in the foreground.
Wellcome Book Prize shortlist 2018, Benjamin Gilbert. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Where do you write most productively?

Unfortunately I seem to be one of those precious-flower writers who need certain kinds of favourable conditions to prevail before I can get any writing done. I need quiet and solitude, and not just the lack of distraction but also the absolute neutralisation of even the threat of distraction.

I’ve no idea why I’m like this, and it is no way to live. Given the presence of the above conditions, I can sometimes be moderately productive while working at my standing desk in the spare room in my house.

What research did you do for ‘To Be a Machine’?

I spent about a year and half travelling around and reporting for the book, mostly in America. I spent time with various transhumanists, and immersed myself in their ideas and social milieu.

I read a lot of books about the history of technology, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and so on, as well as quite a bit of science fiction, where many transhumanist ideas originate.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading ‘Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility’, by the Italian theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. It’s a bleak, fascinating and occasionally exhilarating assessment of our current political impasse, which attempts to imagine an escape from the stranglehold of capitalism.

I’m also reading ‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare, which is actually quite good.

What’s in your mental-health first-aid kit?

Turning off push notifications on my phone, that's been good. As has moderate amounts of yoga.

I’m also a big fan of strolling, which is really just a matter of approaching the act of walking with a certain combination of insouciance and purposiveness. If you’re already walking somewhere, you might as well go ahead and convert it into a stroll, is my attitude.

What does good health mean to you?

I have definitely learned to take sleeping more seriously over the last year or so. It took me a long time to really properly notice it, but if I get a good night’s sleep I’m just a better person, who has a better and more healthy experience of being alive.

My wife and I are about to have a baby, though, so that’s obviously going out the window for the next while.

The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize will be announced on 30 April 2018.

About the author

Jennifer Trent Staves

Jennifer is the Digital Content Manager for Wellcome Collection. She likes words, thinks you can do more with less and has an academic background in twentieth-century literature. You can call her Jen.