Published on 06/11/2014 by David Birkett
Novelists using historical settings often encounter conflicts between their artistic intentions and historical fact. What’s your view on how authentic the historical background must be, and is it more important for more recent settings?
This is a core question for me. In all my previous novels, I have sought out the gaps in history – the novel-shaped spaces – and I have always strived to get the facts and the feelings of the age just right. Nothing would upset me more than making a major historical mistake. With the 1914-18 war, I feel this still more acutely. I don't apply this to other writers but for me personally I would not want to write about trench warfare. It infested my childhood nightmares and has never left my imagination because my imagination is simply inadequate to the task. The men who were there, even the best of the writers, struggle to convey what it was like. The war poets got closest because of that golden parallel perspective of poetry. What can we hope to bring to this, people at a century's remove, people such as me who were never called up to fight and never faced that test?
So yes, for me, the historical background must be as authentic as I can make it. That is, I suppose, both easier for more recent settings because there is so much evidence but also more demanding for exactly the same reason.
How do you think your background in television reporting has influenced your fiction?
Once upon a time, I would have said that I tend to start every scene with a strong visual idea in my head of what it looked like but I suspect that is what many or most writers do, so perhaps I can't claim any particular television effect there. It is probably more a question of what it is about me that took me into both those fields of activity. I have always been very inquisitive and I have the mental equivalent of wide peripheral vision. I investigate my surroundings for the unusual and then tease away at it to make sense of it. This may be genetic. My father (a wartime fighter pilot himself) joined the peacetime police because as he once said, so many things seemed to happen around him that required calling a policeman that it seemed a whole lot simpler just to become one.
You’ve used the pseudonym ‘Will Davenport’ for a couple of books – could you explain the reasoning behind this?
Oh dear. Sometimes publishing is not entirely logical. I had an American publisher back then who made a curious and arbitrary decision that what I wrote should be identified as 'women's romance.' This startled me and my agent. It was rumoured that the publisher in question never read more than a paragraph of any book and I am still wondering which paragraph he read. He gave me a choice – either my next book should fit that description or I should change my name. It seemed a simple choice at the time. The book tour that followed showed just how complicated it really was, from realising that I had no idea how to do this signature at the first book signing to hotels refusing to let me into rooms booked for Will Davenport. Will took early retirement as soon as it was offered.
You’ve also co-written with not just one but two of your sons? What was that experience like?
It was very interesting indeed. I co-wrote The Plot Against Pepys with my oldest, Ben, for Faber. He has the detailed perfectionism of the proper historian and that taught me a great deal. The research discussions were animated and forensic. The writing and rewriting was intense. We developed a pungent shorthand form of communication which persuaded one listening friend that our entire relationship was in peril. We were utterly astonished to hear that, knowing it was not. I (slightly) co-wrote a play with my middle one, Harry – who has an innate understanding of theatre. Or rather, he took my scenes away to a quieter place and came back with something improved beyond recognition, tactfully avoiding explaining to me some basic errors. These included such gaffes as (in a five-handed play where each actor plays many roles) having two characters on the stage at the same time when they are played by the same actor. I have constant discussions with my youngest, Matilda, about the complex book project we may one day do together.
I am deeply aware that I have to do better at this. I am just overhauling my cobwebsite to clear the way for The Balloonist. As for Twitter, @jameslongbooks has a vast following of 17 at the moment but as I have hardly ever tweeted this is no surprise. This too is about to change.
You sometimes teach at the Arvon Foundation residential courses for writing – what would you recommend about these to aspiring authors?
I haven't taught an Arvon course for a while now but would hugely recommend them. This autumn saw the death of my very dear friend, Arvon founder, John Moat. John's approach to creative writing – before that term was turned into an industry – was subversive and democratic. He believed writing is a craft that you get better at by doing it. He thought would-be writers should find their own idiosyncratic voice – that there were a few rules about what you might be better off not doing but no rules about what you should do. I have seen Arvon courses change people's lives, from schoolchildren through to septuagenarians. I have always wondered what would have happened if James Joyce had been born in, say, 1960 and shown me a first draft of Ulysses on one of my courses. Would I have had the insight to avoid saying you can't possibly write like this. I hope so but I am not at all sure.
Can you recommend any authors who you think are less well-known than their talent deserves?
A parcel arrived earlier this year, a novel written by an author I didn't know, accompanied by a request for a jacket quote from a publisher I didn't know either. Normally I dread this but I opened it and couldn't stop reading. If you can cope with a disturbing tale unlike anything you have ever read before, try Robert Dinsdale's Gingerbread.
The other one, though you will need to show a little patience, is a forthcoming novel – the title is too provisional to mention yet – by the above-mentioned Ben Long. Yes, he's my son so a little bias creeps in here but he really does write exceptionally well and I am proud that in our co-writing battles between historian and novelist, something happened that, as a final riddle for the truly literate amongst you, can be compared to the transmutation of Flann O'Brien's bicycle seat.
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