A Conversation With Noah Charney

Noah is an American living in Slovenia, and one of the rare interviewees I’ve actually met – a scholar, an art historian with a Phd, and a crime art expert. And above all he’s a passionate writer, author of The Art Thief, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, and Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World, among others. He also does author interviews at The Daily Beast. His place on the web is caled NoahCharney.com and make sure to check his blog and his talk about Art Crime at TEDxCelje.

Noah Charney

Noah Charney

Hi, Noah – what would Noah Charney tell our readers about Noah Charney?

Well, I give a lot of interviews, and they all usually ask the same five questions, so I’d want to volunteer some information that rarely gets conveyed, and is perhaps more fun and surprising than the normal sort of questions. For instance, few realize that I’m really quite good at squash. I played tournaments when I was in high school and was the sixtieth-ranked player under 19 years old in the US at one point. I was recruited to play on the squash team at university and was pretty hardcore. I’ve also never lost my wallet or had it stolen, thanks to my only permanent fashion accessory—a wallet chain. I got a ball-bearing wallet from my father when I was fifteen, and all my wallets since then have been attached to it. I’m also a rabid Red Sox fan, and David Ortiz is my favorite player. Not sure how much that means to European readers, but I watch as many Sox games as I can, despite the fact that they are on live at 7pm US time, which is 2am here, and they last three or four hours.

Art crime seems an interesting subject, not just to write fiction about it, but also to research and lecture about it seems like a dream career. How did you discover it was a field you would like to explore and put your passion and energy into?
I discovered it while researching The Art Thief. I’d been an art historian but enjoyed art heist movies, like The Thomas Crown Affair, so I wanted to do some proper research into the field. I quickly realized that there was very little written on the subject, especially not from a scholarly perspective. I wound up deciding between continuing my post-graduate studies in traditional art history or in this new field of art crime, which combines art history, archaeology, museum studies, policing, security studies, art law, and criminology, to name a few—it is truly interdisciplinary. It is also very cool, and everyone, from plumbers to professors, finds it intriguing. So I shifted to study art crime academically thanks to researching it for a novel.

Can you tell as more about ARCA?
ARCA is a research group I founded in 2006 to act as a bridge between the relatively few people worldwide who study art crime. It began with a conference in Cambridge, UK which was the first to bring police and academics together, and it essentially founded the field of the study of art crime—or so said a New York Times Magazine article that came out about it, and which really launched my career. ARCA is based in Italy, and we do all sorts of things in the field: we run the first (and only) academic program that allows students and adults to study art crime, in the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. We publish the first peer-reviewed academic journal in the field, The Journal of Art Crime. We run an annual conference in Italy and others elsewhere, like one at the V&A Museum in London recently. And we publish academic books, like one that I’m editing that will come out in the winter, published by Palgrave.

You do so many things – what is your typical work day like?
The best way to explain it is through this article I wrote for AirBeletrina, “The Two-Hour Workday.” These days my life is quite different, since I have a two-year-old and a three-month-old daughter. I have to sneak work in when I can, and I’m only every guaranteed about two hours a day. So I slice up my work into bite-sized pieces that I can do in a stolen half hour here and there. I can’t write fiction that way, so it’s been a long time since I wrote a novel. But I can write non-fiction or magazine articles in short spurts. I write a lot of magazine articles, though I’ve never thought of myself as a journalist. One year I published sixty-two articles plus fifty-two interviews! While writing books and teaching. I also have trouble writing well when I’m in administrative mode, so I try to do emails only twice a week (Tuesday and Friday), and get all my administrative work done in concentrated days so I don’t even think about it the rest of the week. I’m very efficient writing non-fiction—I can write a decent 1500 word article in about 90 minutes for the first draft and another 30 minutes for an edit. But since having kids, my days are frantically trying to get as much work done as possible before my older daughter comes home from kindergarten, and this means that I really don’t have leisure time, and I focus on speed and efficiency, when it would be nice to take my time and polish to a fine sheen. But it works, so that’s the important thing.

Do you have any routines or rituals to help you get your creative juices flowing?
I wish I could afford to have a magic hat and listen only to Mozart. I’ve never actually had an office of my own, always working on the couch at home or at a café. I think my ideal work day in recent years would be to park at Kavarna Veronika, drinks lots of coffee, and then take a break to walk my Peruvian Hairless, Hubert van Eyck, when I need to clear my head. When my kids are eighteen and leave the house, then I’ll design a fantasy study and buy myself a magic hat.Until then…

What are you working on at the moment (if it’s not a secret)?
So many things at once! In May my next book comes out (The Art of Forgery, Phaidon). I’m putting the finishing touches on an essay collection I’m editing (Art Crime: Terrorists, Tomb Raiders, Forgers and Thieves, Palgrave). My co-author is finishing up another big non-fiction book that will come out next year (The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art). I’ve got my first two big features to write for The Washington Post, in addition to several articles a month for other magazines. I’ve just prepared next year’s workshops that I’ll teach at Filofaks in Ljubljana. In addition to the three I’ve taught in the past (Writing for Publication, Writing for Anglophone Readers, and Public Speaking), I’m adding three more that should be interesting. A Masterclass in Writing Books, for those who’ve taken my other writing workshops and want to develop and begin to write a book with my coaching. I’m co-teaching a workshop with Branko Djuric-Djuro called Writing and Directing for Stage and Screen, which will be a hoot—we’re writing partners, buddies and laugh a lot, and we’ll teach in a combination of English, Slovene and Bosnian. And maybe most interesting for me, I’ll be coordinating a special course called Writing as a Profession in Slovenia, which will feature four famous Slovene writers as guest teachers: Miha Kovac, Vesna Milek, Miha Mazzini and Goran Vojnovic. My workshops are open to anyone and you can sign up through Filofaks—all are welcome!

A printed book or an eBook – which do you prefer?
Printed books are nicest, but eBooks are far more convenient and probably more practical in the long run. We will always have printed books, but they may become a special collector’s item of sorts, with eBooks as the standard. Lying in bed at night to read while your wife tries to sleep next to you makes a strong case for eBooks.

Is social media important to you as a means for promotion of your work and to network with like-minded people?
Not really, but publicists always tell me that I need to use it. I’ve never had Twitter, for instance. I have around 1000 Facebook “friends” (most of whom I’ve never met), which sounds like a lot, and many of them are influential, famous writers. But 1000 is simply not enough to make a difference in selling books—I have colleagues with tens of thousands, some with hundreds, and that’s more like it. The number of followers you get organically makes little impact—it’s only really a factor if you reach five digits (10,000+). I’m sure it’s different in Slovenia, but I’m talking about US or world markets. I use Facebook but exclusively for professional things (no personal stuff goes up there), and I like it as a sort of catch-all for my articles and projects.

What do you think about Slovenian literature and our reading culture?
I really enjoy the fiction of Miha Mazzini and Goran Vojnovic, and I loved Alamut. I like the poetry and essays of Ales Steger. I’m fortunate that I do a lot of editing and consulting to Slovene authors here. I’ve worked with Miha, Goran, Ales, Luka Novak, Vlado Kreslin, Joze Pirjevec, Gabriela Babnik, Bozidar Novak… I edit translations into English, to get them ready for publication (because even good translations often feel like they were translated, so it’s always good to have a writer and native speaker to give them a final polish), and I also help authors find good publishers abroad, and sometimes agents, too. Getting a good literary agent is the single hardest thing for an author to do. I recently got agents for Ales Steger and Joze Pirjevec, and I’m really pleased to place them in good hands for their writing careers abroad.The reading culture in Slovenia is passionate but tiny, and many more people prefer to take books out of the library here than in other countries, making it very hard to earn a living as a writer here. One of my Filofaks courses, Writing for Publication, teaches Slovenes how they can earn money and even make their living writing in English, while living here, for foreign magazines and publishers. Many would like to but don’t know how to go about doing it, and I’m happy to show anyone how. Slovenian essays and academic writing is a different story…for my thoughts on that, I’d direct you to another essay I wrote for AirBeletrina, called “Are Europeans Essays Bad?”

Who are your literary heroes?
When I was younger I had a more pretentious answer to this question. I would’ve said Joyce and Shakespeare and Kundera. These days I’m much more interested in instant gratification, but still with some weight to it. I think Stephen King is as good a writer as any, ever, regardless of genre. Tom Stoppard, for plays. John Stubbs, a fellow ex-pat living in Slovenia, is as good a writer of history and biography as there is. I listen to a lot of audiobooks these days, and really enjoyed Dickens. I appreciate being made to laugh, because that is so rare and valuable—anything Gary Shteyngart writes I will read with glee. And Benjamin Percy writes the hell out of everything he touches, from book reviews to novels.

When you meet a young writer who’s just starting out, what advice do you give him?
Take my workshops…I teach everything you need to know, and that no one wants to teach you.

Thank you, Noah!

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