Recently Stone Soup blogger and book reviewer Madeline Sornson had the opportunity to read The History Keepers by Damian Dibben, and ask the author some questions about the book, research, and his writing process. Read their conversation below.
DD: Growing up, I loved two things. Firstly, history, with its epic sweep, colour and darkness, and its incredible characters. And I loved adventure stories, classic books like the Narnia series and films such as Indiana Jones and James Bond - with their similar casts of heroes and villains, exotic locations, mysteries and romance. I knew one day I wanted one day to write my own series. I was reading a picture book with my nephew about the history of all civilizations and how they linked together, from Ancient Egypt and China; from Roman to the Renaissance. I thought that history itself, would be the most amazing place in which to set my series. Everyone likes imagining escaping to the past. Once the story had begun to set in my head, it was a question of researching the periods so that I could really bring them to life and make the reader feel they are really there.
MS: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? If not, what did you want to do when you grew up as a child?
DD: I never thought I'd become a writer. Although I loved stories, more than anything, I was only moderately good at English at school. I was much better with anything that was visual, in particular art, design, film and theatre. I used to put on plays and make short films. I then trained in scenic design, became an actor for a while and, through a series of chances, started writing screenplays for movies. I realised I'd been writing all along, since I was young in fact. I don't see it as a 'literary' pursuit, just the means by which you do absolute justice to an image, scene or character that's in your head.
With all this said, if I hadn't have become a novelist, I would have loved, for obvious reasons, to have been an archaeologist or an explorer.
MS: How do you feel when you finally finish a book?
DD: Excited and very content, as if I've just polished off a delicious ten course meal. I'm usually in the mood to throw a party.
MS: What do you think is the hardest thing about writing?
DD: I talk about the easiest parts first. For me, these are at the beginning and the end of working on a book. The beginning is all about research and forming ideas and I find this thrilling, how the story grows organically in my mind, from tiny seeds until it has almost fully taken shape and the arc of each character has fallen into place. The end is satisfying too, tidying up, and signing off on artwork. Luxury jobs! So the hardest part is the long stretch in the middle, particularly the first draft. I liken the process to carving a sculpture out of marble or wood. Exciting to have the concept and do the first sketches, exciting to almost finish - and in the middle a very large amount of difficult, sometimes grinding work.
MS: How did you develop the series? (did you plan it all out or piece it together as you went?)
DD: I had an idea of how the larger, emotional story was going to play out over the series, particularly with regards to Jake's family. (The first book starts with his mother and father being lost in history). I knew also that I would be travelling to ancient Rome in the second book, after Renaissance Europe in the first. Some of the other elements, and indeed characters, fell into place as I was writing. I carried on plotting throughout. There is supposed to be a fourth book, probably set in Ancient Egypt, but I am waiting for the go-ahead from the publishers, whilst I finish off two new books not connected with The History Keepers.
MS: Do you have a favorite character in the History Keepers series? If you do, why is he/she your favorite? If you do not, why is that?
DD: It's incredibly hard to pick as I developed a bond with all the characters over the years, even some of the nasty ones. In a way, Jake is the closest one to myself (I felt very like him when I was fourteen!) so I'll chose one of his friends. Nathan always makes me laugh and he's only vain on the surface. Underneath, even in the first book but increasingly throughout, he has many noble qualities. Like all the History Keepers, he's incredibly brave, faithful and dependable – and when a situation requires him to be serious, there is no one more decisive. Perhaps more than any though, I love Charlie, his dry wit, can-do attitude, love of food and kaleidoscopic mind.
MS: Did you enjoy your research for these books? Was it difficult?
DD: I love research and of course it's a vital part of writing books like the History Keepers. I like to know the facts, what a place would sound like, feel like, smell like; what it would be like to arrive on a ship, on a dark night, into Venice during the Renaissance or come into Circus Maximus on a sweltering day in ancient Rome and witness a hundred and fifty thousand people (double the size of Wembley Stadium) cheering on the charioteers. I start off by reading kids encyclopedias (they often paint more enticing and vivid picture) then I go into more depth, often at the British Library. I like to travel to the country too. I went to Rome for a month to research Circus Maximus and could have walked around the Forum blind I'd done so much research beforehand! The third book, Night Ship To China is set during the Ming Dynasty and last year I travelled around China, visiting ancient sites and some extraordinary landscapes.
It's worth saying I was lucky enough also to grow up in South Kensington, a short distance from all the museums and galleries there. It was endlessly walking around them as a boy that sparked my interest in everything from Ancient Egypt to quantum mechanics.
MS: Do you have any tips for how to feel motivated to write when you are having trouble coming up with ideas?
DD: It happens to everyone! Even when you have a great passion for the subject matter. I would say the most important thing is to set yourself an amount of time - or words - each day and stick to them, however painful or hopeless it might sometimes seem. Gradually you train your mind to open up and eventually things starts to flow again. I honestly believe that everyone has the ability to start and finish a book, as there is so much content in the back of all of our minds, in our subconscious. And with that also in mind, sometimes, you just have to take the afternoon off and let your mind carry on while you do something else.
MS: How often do you write?
DD: I try to keep as normal a working week as possible and work every Monday to Friday from about 10.30 in the morning (usually after two breakfasts, a long think and a decent dog walk) until about 6 pm in the afternoon, and sometimes on Saturdays too if I have got behind.
Bonus question from Damian himself:
Do you have any favorite historical time periods? And are there any historical events you would change?
DD: Yes I am fascinated by certain time periods – actually by nearly all of them. I am drawn to ancient Greece, for its wealth of ideas; to Rome, for its epic ambition; to the golden age of Tang dynasty China. I love the Minoans, the Aztecs, the ancient Egyptians, Elizabeth I of Britain, the thinkers and doers of the Renaissance; and I have a soft spot for the sheer majesty of Baroque France! As far as changing things in History – who wouldn’t want to eradicate hardship and war? But interestingly, as the History Keepers point out, if you tamper with the past, there is always a chance more hardship and fiercer wars may result. Ultimately I am an optimist and I hope, despite many horrific steps back, humanity is gradually moving forward.
Thank you to Damian for agreeing to be interviewed, and to Madeline for thinking of such excellent questions! You can read Madeline's review of the series here.