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Patrick Dillon Interview

Posted on 16 December 2010. © Copyright 2004-2018 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to Patrick Dillon, thriller writer turned children's writer

Tell us something about your background.

My first books were two thrillers back in the 90s called Truth and Lies. They were fun to do, but I wasnít really interested in keeping going with them Ė apart from anything else, I couldnít think of another name. After that I decided to give all my attention to writing history. My two passions were London and the early eighteenth century, and I found the perfect subject to combine them: the eighteenth century gin craze which most people know through William Hogarthís print Gin Lane. The gin craze was a truly extraordinary episode and has a brilliant cast of characters Ė itís rare to find a story from that time that combines high politicians with London low life. Best of all, no one else had written about it. The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva was my first serious book and got me hooked on writing about the past.

While researching it I became more and fascinated by what had triggered the turbulence of eighteenth century England. That took me to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and my next book, The Last Revolution. It was a much bigger canvas to paint on. As well as huge political events I wanted to capture social and economic shifts, the birth of science, and the first steps of stockmarkets, insurance and new economic ideas. Most important of all was the human drama behind the revolution. There was a brilliant moment during King Jamesís escape when he found himself in a pub with an ordinary fisherman. Heíd never met a fisherman before; the fisherman had never seen a King. That moment captures for me how extraordinary and radical 1688 was.

Meanwhile Iíd started a family and begun telling my children stories from history Ė stories like King James and Harry Moon the fisherman. That started me thinking about The Story of Britain. To begin with I told my children stories I made up. We go to France on holiday and can see an old castle from where we stay. I started telling stories about the castle. Then I began answering their questions Ė who besieged it? What was an English army doing in France? More history followed and I began to see how all the stories could link together into one big story.

Like most writers I began pretty much as soon as I could hold a pen. I wrote stories of all sorts, but always loved writing essays Ė Ďnon-fictioní, if you like Ė as much as stories. Writing history really followed on from that, just as writing for children followed naturally from storytelling.

Other work besides writing; eg. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works/worked for/against your own writing

Iím probably unusual for a writer in that I have another job which has nothing at all to do with words. Iím an architect, and have always combined writing with buildings. Recently I finished work on a new concert hall for the Aldeburgh Festival. Iím now working on the masterplan for the National Theatre. I love the fact that architecture and writing are completely different. Writing is independent; architecture is all about teamwork. When Iím writing Iím alone; as an architect Iím forever in meetings and with other people. Theyíre a great antidote to each other.

Who are your favourite writers and why?

Thatís hard because I read a lot of very different kinds of work. Among current and recent historians I admire Roy Porter for the energy and passion of his writing, N A M Rodger and Diarmaid MacCulloch for their skill in transmitting complex ideas to non-specialists, and Tom Holland for the way he opened a whole area of the past that youíd never have thought could never be made popular. I have a lingering admiration for Winston Churchillís History of the English-Speaking Peoples. It has its overblown moments, but the panache of the writing is irresistible, and his judgments are far more balanced and acute than many might expect.

I fell in love with writing, though, before I fell in love with history, and have been through more favourite writers than I can now remember. Dickens was the first, and is probably the most enduring. When I was writing The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva I spent two years reading only from the eighteenth century, and fell in love not only with Fielding, but with Smollett and Richardson, the former for his wit, the second for his forensic understanding of character. Perhaps more than either I admire Defoe. His writing is so full of energy, and versatile. You get the impression of somebody writing as fast as he can think.

How did you get your first agent/ commission?

Iím represented by Andrew Lownie, whom I first met when I was writing fiction. When I moved to history I was then lucky to discover that I was already signed to the best history agent in town. He found me great contracts for Madam Geneva and The Last Revolution. When I announced I wanted to write a history for children, he didnít bat an eyelid but went out and found a childrenís publisher, Walker Books.

Iíve also been lucky in my editors. I strongly believe that books are better for an editorís eye. By the time Iím finished, Iím longing for someone to bring fresh judgment to the text. For each of my books Iíve had brilliant editing, perhaps most of all for The Story of Britain. Childrenís books are all about getting details right. In writing for young children every word has to count, and that discipline and attention to detail runs though everything Walker Books does. The Story of Britain benefited from that, and I learned a huge amount from it.

What's the worst thing about writing?

Not knowing whether somethingís working or not.

And the best?

Knowing that it is

Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.

The first response for me, and the most valuable, comes from my wife, Nicola. She has to endure every draft of every book, and then endure my gloom when she tells me it isnít working. But her judgment has the biggest impact on where I take a book.

Unlike architects Ė indeed, unlike almost all other artists Ė most writers are self-taught. For me, that means that you can always go on learning and improving your technique. For The Last Revolution I asked two close friends to act as readers. Both write and theyíre both in the book world, one as bookseller and the other as editor, and their detailed editorial comments were a brilliant learning experience for me. They taught me to be far more aware of the craft of writing and to rely less on instinct.

With The Story of Britain I was lucky in having an editor who linked instinct, technique and enormous experience. We really developed the book together, through numerous drafts and long conversations, trying out alternative approaches and tearing them up if they didnít work. Thatís taught me not to be afraid to experiment. When you start writing you tend to think words are precious. The more experienced you get, the more confident you become that thereíll always be another way of approaching things.

As for real readers, their response is, of course, the one that matters. Putting a new book in front of readers is a terrifying moment, but when it works thereís nothing so rewarding. We launched The Story of Britain at the Bath Festival of Childrenís Literature. I was nervous because I havenít written for children before, and had certainly never done a platform performance for eight year-olds. Ten minutes in I realised they were loving it and thought, ĎOK, this has worked.í

Breakthrough moment?

The breakthrough in my own mind was when I was researching Madam Geneva, and realised Iíd found what I wanted to write about.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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