In high school I was a caddy on a very upscale golf course and learned to loathe golfers. The ones who were there as part of the occasional office party, sponsored by their boss, were kind and humane (and big tippers). The regular members were a hideous bunch.
Your earliest memory?
I was an infant, not yet able to walk, lying on my parents’ bed, and my mother was changing my diaper. My father was shaving in the nearby bathroom and they were talking to each other, even though they couldn’t see each other. I realized that these sounds that came out of their mouths were their messages to each other. I had discovered language.
Best advice ever received?
My mother often quoted a saying of her own mother, an immigrant from Williamstown, Co. Galway: “When I had cash to treat the gang, this hand was never slow.” It was actually a quotation from a late nineteenth-century American barroom ballad, but my mother and her mother intended it as encouragement to be generous whenever one could. In recent years I noticed that an elderly neighbor, Shelly Wortzman, never passed a beggar without giving him a good-sized handout. So from my grandmother, whom I never met, the poetic advice of generosity to friends; from Shelly the silent example of generosity to strangers.
Where do you go to think?
Inside myself, which requires only silence, which is increasingly hard to find in our world.
What is your hidden talent?
I play the piano.
Your favorite quality in friends?
Loyalty, followed by intelligence – but the intelligence is useless without the loyalty.
Favorite country you have visited?
Italy. I love Ireland, where I’ve lived in the past and where all four of my grandparents came from (Galway, Kerry, and Laois). I often visit Paris, the most beautiful city in the world, where a part of my beloved family live. But Italy is for me the capital of pleasure – in art, architecture, music, food, and friendship.
Best opening line in a book or piece of music?
The “Kyrie” of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
Movie you will watch again and again?
"The Apu Trilogy" by Satyajit Ray. Also "Ashes and Diamonds" by Andrzej Wajda.
What drives you?
My wife Susan, our children Kristin and Joseph, and our grandchildren – Devlin, Lucia, Nina, and Conor, to whom my new book is dedicated.
What trait do you most deplore in others?
What is your motto?
Age quod agis. Do what you’re doing.
If you weren’t a writer what would you do?
I would love to have been an operatic tenor.
What have you been working on recently?
My new book, "Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World." It is the sixth volume in the "Hinges of History" series and it is the most difficult book I’ve ever written. No one tries to combine the Renaissance and the Reformation in one volume because they go off in such different directions, even though they emerge from the same sources and occur in the same period.
What’s next for you?
The seventh and last volume in the "Hinges" series, which will take us from the Enlightenment to the present.