Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Paul Dowswell

DowswellPaul Dowswell specialises in historical fiction and information books for 10+ to teenage and adult readers and has written over 60 books for UK publishers. His book Auslander was shortlisted for 20 book awards. Cabinet of Curiosities, set in Renaissance Prague, features 'large doses of alchemy, skulduggery and the Inquisition'.

What attracted you to historical fiction?
Whether it’s the Ancient Egyptians and their fabulous decor, the Roman's unnerving blend of civilisation and barbarity, the great inquiring minds of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, the Nazi cranks and playground bullies who almost conquered the world, I love history and I'm always able to find inspiration from it. Historical fiction is a great way into real history - making it accessible and bringing it to life.

What comes first – the fiction side of the book or the historical period?
It’s always the history. With my Powder Monkey books, I came across Denis Dighton's 1824 painting 'The Fall of Nelson' and was astonished to see a young lad in among the carnage on the weather deck of HMS Victory and thought I ought to write about someone at the bottom of the ship's hierarchy, rather than the usual stories about the captain. (Alas, several other writers had exactly the same idea at the same time. Along with my book, the autumn of 2005 saw three or four other Nelson's Navy books appear with ship's boys as their heroes.)

My book Auslander came out of my fascination with the pseudo-science behind the Nazis repugnant racist ideology. Cabinet of Curiosities, set in late Renaissance Prague, was inspired by Arcimboldo's magnificent painting of Emperor Rudolph II - Vertumnus - the one of the man's face made out of fruit and vegetables. I thought any culture that came up with something as bizarre as that was worth further investigation. I loved the way Rudolph made Prague an oasis of free thinking when much of the rest of Europe was terrorised by the Inquisition.

My most recent book, Sektion 20, came out of a trip researching Cabinet of Curiosities in Prague. I met a group of 50-something Czech blokes at a gig in a back street bar. They told me, via a friend who had settled there, how much rock music meant to them back in the early 70s, and how it was a symbol of the freedom denied to them by their communist regime. So I decided to write a book based in an Iron Curtain regime. I knew Berlin a bit from Auslander, so it made sense to base the story there. Also, I knew East Germany was one of the most heavily monitored societies in history, with one in six of the population being Stasi informers, so that made it even more of a lure for the location.

My latest book - Eleven/Eleven due in October 2012 - is about the final day of the First World War. I still get upset about it. One of my favourite books is Paul Fussell's The Great War in Modern Memory. I can't get over the huge gulf between the idealism and expectations and the hideous fate that awaited the front line soldiers.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?
I always have ideas for stories I’d like to write, maybe around half of them get taken up by my editor, so I've usually got something on the go, where I have a pretty clear idea where it's going. Between fiction books I still do information books with my pals at Usborne, where I used to work on staff. Some days, when I'm writing a novel, I'll write 3,000 words, some days I'll barely squeeze out 500, but I think it's important to keep going. I do a lot of school visits too, so when I am at home with a book to write, the pressure is on to CRACK ON WITH IT! and writer’s block is not an option.

How much research do you have to do? Do you research before you write or as the book is taking shape?
I think it’s very important to keep your Historical Fiction story within reasonable bounds of accuracy so I do a lot of research before I write a book, and I'm constantly checking and delving when my plot takes different twists and turns. I want people who were there (for my Sektion 20 book for example, set 40 years ago) to think, yes, he's just about got that right. I also feel I owe it to my reader to give them a proper depiction of real events or circumstances.

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?
Where do I begin... The wonderful Dr Seuss when I was 5, Stig of the Dump when I was 7, Geoffrey Willans' Molesworth books when I was 11 (and still favourites today), George Orwell's 1984 when I was 15...

How much does your editor change what you write? What relationship do you have with your editor?

My editor is my front line defence on readability. She'll say 'this bit's boring', 'we need to cut to the chase quicker', 'this bit is really exciting/significant but it comes and goes in a paragraph, you ought to make more of it,' and, very importantly, 'I haven't a clue what's going on in this bit.' I know some writers hate being edited but I love having someone I trust go through what I've done and tell me how to make it more readable. I'm lucky as I've had the same editor for all my novels, and the same desk editor for most of them. They're both very good at what they do. I know some writers have a different editor for every book. I'd hate that.

Do you feel a tension between writing what you know will sell and writing what you would like to write?

I write what I think will be interesting. I follow my heart in my story, but I know I have to produce something that my reader will enjoy as well. That's fine. My job is about communicating and if I'm not doing that because I'm writing about something that’s too esoteric, then I've failed.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?
I make copious notes in tiny handwriting for research, but all my writing is done on screen. Any writer revises and polishes their text all the time, and that's what makes word processors/computers so useful. I like the spelling/thesaurus things as well, although the Word thesaurus is really crap compared to good old Roget.

What control do you have over your book cover (and your illustrations)?
I make a song and dance if its historically inaccurate, but really, the designers/editors/marketing people know what they're doing and I mostly leave them to it. When I do my illustrated books for Usborne, I often suggest pictures, and discuss which ones to use with their picture researcher and designers. They're great fun to work with and go out of their way to get difficult-to-find and unusual images. This helps to make a book look fresh, even if it’s a very familiar topic.

Do you write with a particular age group in mind? How does the target age group affect your writing?
My Powder Monkey books were aimed at 9-12. Auslander and Sektion 20 are 13+ through to adult. Cabinet of Curiosities was maybe 12+. It’s the nature of the book market that you have to have a particular age group in mind. I do like to think grown-ups will enjoy my stories too...

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?
I've always loved playing music, but that's a very precarious way to make a living. (Some musicians end up as Jimmy Page, some earn their crust playing on a cross-channel ferry in February.) I was a researcher and an editor in museums and publishing before I became a full time writer, so I'd probably be doing that.

At what stage did you know you wanted to become an author?
I know this sounds really stupid but I was working as a researcher for Time-Life and the editors there really liked the way I presented my research. They said I ought to be writing too. They started me off. Although I loved writing (I'd always kept a diary, just for the fun of writing) it had never occurred to me to be 'a writer'. I thought that was something that clever people did.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Read heaps and heaps and heaps. You will learn your writing skills by osmosis. Write with friends, never in a vacuum. Feedback is vital. Read aloud what you have written - it’s much more effective than just reading in your head. If you think, blimey this is boring, then imagine what your reader will think. Alternatively, you might be thinking, wow this is exciting. That's a good sign.


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