In conversation with Loyd Grossman


Image description: a picture of Loyd Grossman smiling at the camera

Jessica Kaye spoke to Loyd Grossman about his new book, his career and his advice for current students.

I started by asking him about his new book and the inspiration behind it, in particular concerning the title: ‘An Elephant in Rome’. He emphasised the uniqueness of the statue and his insatiable curiosity to discover more about it.

Well, I think it’s just such an unusual thing. You know, it’s so weird that when you see it, you have to ask the question: why is there a statue of an elephant in this particular square in Rome? So really what attracted me was just the sort of weirdness. Which you know, I read history at university. And as you know, when you do history, you’re always thinking, you know, why, why is that? And I like research. So, once I asked myself why, and then had to find out, and that would be, you know, years and years and years later, this is the result.”

The book concerns itself with the reinvention of Rome in the 17th Century and specifically Alexander VII who Loyd is very keen to emphasise was a very interesting figure.

“The Rome that we’re familiar with today is essentially the Rome that was kind of created in the late 17th century as a great showplace for the papacy. Rome has always been kind of a tourist destination, because it was the, you know, it was the most important city in the world for a very long time. And, you know, then it went into a huge decline in the Middle Ages and no one was living there. It was really the Counter Reformation that kind of made the Rome that we know and love and admire, because the church has to do something to fight back against the rise of Protestantism. And it was Alexander VII, who is this very cool Pope, he decided that the most powerful thing the church could do would be to become a big sort of cultural superpower.”  

He is clearly very excited by the idea of this project and this is an attitude that he brings to his whole life. Having had an incredibly varied career I ask him what has guided him and what links it all together. He initially responds very simply just saying “I try to do things that I like.” He then expands on this philosophy and tells me about how it has motivated him through his work and life. 

“The only time I really ever asked my father for advice, you know, that usual thing and I said, Well, what shall I do? And he said, I will never forgive you if you do something you don’t love doing. For me at least it’s it’s very hard to drum up energy and enthusiasm about something that I don’t care about. You know, a lack of enthusiasm is a pretty terrible thing. You know, and it’s endemic. You know, you see it, you see it everywhere.” 

His laidback energy has me believing I could easily pursue anything I want to and so I ask him about his time as a journalist and what he enjoyed about it.

I mean, I loved being a journalist. One of the great things about journalism is that you can kind of find out anything you want to find out. And that’s really interesting. When I went to work for the Sunday Times, it was you know, it was also terrific because you can just, if you have a good idea, you can just pursue it. I remember saying to them I wanted to go to Memphis to meet ZZ Top. And they said, fine. I thought that’s quite a nice job. You know, it’s the great thing about journalism is that you can satisfy your curiosity.But do it now, take the high risk when you’re young enough so that it doesn’t matter.” 

His life experience so unique and interesting that I have to know where it started for him and I ask him about his time as an undergraduate at LSE and for one piece of advice that he would pass on to current students.

“When I was at the LSE I studied with a great economic historian who’s called Jack Fisher. And I remember sort of having lunch with Jack one day, in the days when you know, you’d have long lunches with your supervisor. I wasn’t really happy with where my studies were going. And he just said oh my dear boy don’t worry about it too much. You should try to enjoy it.”

It is clear that this has been a driving force of his life and that his desire to enjoy what he does has led him down a lot of very interesting paths. To be able to have so much passion for so many things is such a wonderful thing to absorb and Loyd’s genuine pleasure in his work is infectious.

‘An Elephant in Rome’ by Loyd Grossman (Pallas Athene)  is out now