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Piers Paul Read, FRSL (born 7 March 1941) is an award-winning English novelist, historian and biographer.
He was first noted in 1974 for a book of reportage Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, later adapted as a feature-film and a documentary. This was followed by some well-acclaimed novels that criticised English middle-class ethics from the less-usual viewpoint of a right-wing practising Catholic, with sin and redemption as recurring themes.
Among his most popular works are The Professor's Daughter, A Married Man, and A Season in the West. Read is also a dramatist and TV scriptwriter.
Piers Paul Read was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. He is the third son of Sir Herbert Read, a poet, art critic and theorist of anarchism, and Margaret (née Ludwig) Read, a professional musician. His mother was a convert to Roman Catholicism and he was raised in that religion.
When Read was eight, his family moved to North Yorkshire. He was educated by Benedictine monks at Gilling Castle and Ampleforth College. His years at Ampleforth would later provide much of the material for the first part of his third novel Monk Dawson (1969) and rural Ryedale was the setting of his fifth novel, The Upstart (1973). In 1959 he went to St John's College, Cambridge, where he read history. He received his B.A. in 1961 and M.A. in 1962. In 1963–64, he spent a year in West Berlin on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. There he came into contact with German writers in the Gruppe 47, the French nouveau romancier Michel Butor, and the Polish novelist, diarist and playwright, Witold Gombrowicz.; and worked on his first novel Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx (1966). He later enrolled in an academy for writers funded by the Ford Foundation, the Literarisches Colloquium, where he made friends with fellow members Tom Stoppard and Derek Marlowe
His stay in Berlin inspired his second novel The Junkers (1968, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize) and confirmed the general sympathy towards the Germans that he felt on account of his mother's part-German ancestry. On returning to England, he took a job as sub-editor on The Times Literary Supplement and shared a flat in Pimlico with Stoppard and Marlowe. In 1967–68, he spent a year in New York – an experience he used in his fourth novel The Professor's Daughter (1971).
Read is a practising Catholic and has served on the board of Catholic charities such as Aid to the Church in Need (UK) and the National Catholic Library. He was Master and remains Vice-President of the Catholic Writers' Guild of England and Wales. He has served on the governing bodies of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1971-1975), the Society of Authors (1973-1976) and the Royal Society of Literature (2001-2007). He is married to Emily Boothby (of the Boothby baronets). They have two sons and two daughters. Read lives in London. In 2005, he correctly predicted the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope.
Early in his career, Read wrote a number of scripts for film and television – Verbrechen mit Vorbedacht (1967) for the German director Peter Lilienthal whom he met in Berlin; Coincidence (1970), The House on Highbury Hill (1971) and The Childhood Friend (1974) /as Wednesday Plays for BBC television – the latter starring Anthony Hopkins who would also play the title role in the television adaptation of Read’s A Married Man (1984). A short play The Class War was staged by the Questors Theatre Company in 1964, and his Margaret Clitherow was broadcast by Granada Television in 1977.
The greater part of Read’s work has been in prose form. After his plotless first novel, Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx (1967), Read’s fiction adopted a more traditional narrative structure with both contemporary and historical settings. Three of his historical novels – The Junkers (1968), Polonaise (1976), The Free Frenchman (1986), are set in Continental Europe around World War II; and Alice in Exile (2001) in Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution . Read’s contemporaneous novels – A Married Man (1979), A Season in the West (1988), and The Misogynist (2010) - are ironic critiques of the manners and morals of the English upper-middle classes. There are elements of the thriller in The Villa Golitsyn (1981), On the Third Day (1990), A Patriot in Berlin (1995), Knights of the Cross (1997) and The Death of a Pope (2009), though these too show Read’s historical, political and religious concerns. With Alive. The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974), The Train Robbers (1978), and Ablaze. The Story of Chernobyl (1993) Read extended his range to reportage; to history with The Templars (1999) and The Dreyfus Affair (2012); and to biography with Alec Guinness. The Authorised Biography (2003). He has also contributed to moral and religious controversies with a pamphlet Quo Vadis. The Subversion of the Catholic Church (1991), and essays and articles collected in Hell and Other Destinations (2006).
Read was awarded the Sir Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for The Junkers; the Hawthornden Prize and Somerset Maugham Award for Monk Dawson; the Thomas More Medal for Alive; the Enid McLeod Award for The Free Frenchman; and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Season in the West. Read’s novels A Married Man (1984) and The Free Frenchman (1988) were adapted for television; Alive was made into a feature film by the director Frank Marshal in 1993; and Monk Dawson by Tom Waller in 1998.
Read is best known for his non-fiction book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors which documented the story of the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes mountains. Alive won the Thomas More Medal for the most distinguished contribution to Catholic literature in 1974 and has sold more than five million copies worldwide. The book was adapted into the 1993 film Alive: The Miracle of the Andes.
In 1978 he wrote the book The Train Robbers about the Great Train Robbery (1963) in England in 1963.
In 1988 he was awarded a James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his book, A Season in the West.
In 2003 his authorised biography of the actor Alec Guinness was published.
Read's archive of literary papers and correspondence is held by Special Collections in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. The collection consists of 139 boxes and contains manuscripts and typescripts of his novels and plays. It also contains articles and short stories; extensive correspondence, interview tapes and research notes; press-cuttings and other papers.
Read's novels are strongly influenced by his Catholic faith. His stories focus on the religious themes of sin and redemption. Read writes in a fairly traditional, linear style and he often uses plot elements from popular fiction, especially the thriller, like espionage, murder and conspiracy theories. Most of his main characters are fairly unsympathetic and some of them commit horrific deeds before they finally convert to God.
Almost all of Read's novels are set in Europe. Many of his books show a great interest and sympathy especially for Germany – quite unusual in British literature – and for Eastern European countries like Russia and Poland. In The Knights of the Cross, he explicitly satirises the expectations and prejudices of the British readership towards the Germans.