Monday, 29 October 2018

We Need To Stretch Our Imaginations: An Interview With Peter Dickinson


Peter Dickinson (1927-2015) was a giant of children's literature, once described by Philip Pullman as "the greatest of us all". He won the Carnegie Medal twice and wrote more than 50 books in all, including The Changes trilogy, Blue Hawk, Tulku, City of Gold, Eva, AK, and The Kin – a series of four books about early humans, set in Africa 200,000 years ago.  The Kin is one of my favourite books of all time, a hugely ambitious attempt to make modern myth from evolutionary science, and I was lucky enough to interview Dickinson not long after its publication.


SFS: I think The Kin is a profound exploration of what it means to be human. How did the idea for it come about?

PD: I wrote a book about a very early hominid, called A Bone From A Dry Sea. An American publisher asked if I would write four shorter books for younger children on that theme. My brief was short sentences and an adventure in every chapter. I started on it as a pot-boiler but it got hot, and really took hold of me. Ideas can't help creeping in!

The first book is setting the thing up, and the second book and third book are meeting other peoples, and bringing out the question of what it is to be human. I wrote the last book in six weeks. It all came together.  It was all there, ready, waiting to be unpacked. I hadn't planned it that way, but it's got architecture and everything, it's extraordinary – it's not my doing! I feel as if it wasn't. It ends on the line: "It was people stuff." I thought of that line two pages before I got there. I said to myself, "God, that's where it's been going all this time!"

Some books are given and some are earned. My visual metaphor for this is that some books come freshly out of the mountain, all you've got to do is collect the water; other books you have to dig a well for. The Kin came out of the mountain.



   
SFS: The fact that the characters always speak in the present tense has interesting implications for human perceptions of time and memory, imagination and so on.

PD: Well, this is what I mean by ideas. They asked for prehistoric books. I realised that these people had to speak, therefore they had to be in the early stages of language.  So I thought, "This is interesting – I wonder what the early stages of language are like?"

I was working to a brief in that I was trying to simplify my sentence structure. I started writing very simple sentences. Then, after writing the first section, I thought to myself, "I'm not quite sure what the grammar of this is – what they can and can't do – so I'd better have some rules! So no inflections of verb to make time..." My publishers and I had to go back through the first volume, spotting the bits which were not in Kin-Speak.

Then, just to get the plot moving, I made one of the children a shaman, and found that I was dealing with the early stages of religion as well. I didn’t say to myself when I started, "OK, we’re going to have the early stages of religion and language!" But you cannot keep the ideas out.


SFS: Tell me about the myths that come between the main story.

PD: They were enormous fun! They were lovely to write. I particularly like the last story. It seemed to me to be a way of explaining what they believed. You get a feeling of depth; although this is early mankind, you get the feeling this has been going on for some time.

SFS: What kind of research did you do?

PD: I’d researched quite a lot on the early stages of language, and I knew about the research into mitochondrial DNA, which demonstrates statistically the point at which the first humans like us came into existence, and what a remarkably short time ago it was. I'd read a lot and talked to a lot of people about early hominids. But I tend to write a draft and then say, "What do I need to know?" and do the research at that stage. Because you can waste an awful lot of time doing research which turns out to be no use, and you can also misdirect the book by finding out something fascinating and thinking, "I must get that in!"


   
SFS: I often notice environmental and ecological elements in your books.

PD: Yes. My very first books, The Changes, they're ecological. I didn't write them to be ecological; I wrote them because I had a nightmare, which is the first chapter of The Weathermonger, and I told myself a story. And then you say to yourself, "If machines are wicked, what is the moral basis behind all this?" And it all just comes out. In the science fiction I used to read when I was a teenager, nearly always, the hero was the person who got the machines going and restored the march of progress. I think I'm instinctively much more ambivalent. The last line of The Weathermonger is: "The English air would soon be reeking of petrol."


SFS: How about AK – how did that book begin?

PD: It started with a programme on the World Service about child guerrillas, which included to my ear a hair-raising sentence: "Even a hardened government soldier will hesitate that crucial half second before gunning down a child." And I thought, "What can this be like?" I think it's probably my best book – though I always have to explain to children that there's no such thing as a best book. But I think it goes somewhere; does something.  It's alive and moving.

I'm told there were two judges who wanted it to win the overall Whitbread [now Costa Book Of The Year] in its year, and it was said that if ever a children's book was going to win it, that would. Immediately after that, they decided not to have children's books on the list. I think that was partly because the authorities were outraged at the possibility that a children's book might win. I happened to talk to one of the judges, a great grand-dame of letters, and it became clear to me that she had no intention of reading it. She misunderstood what the book was about, thought it was in praise of guns, and I could see from her face that she didn't intend to read it.


SFS: AK has a double ending; an open ending, really.

PD: Right. My original notion was that the boy would go and dig up his AK and smuggle it into the palace and he and his pals would create a diversion while Michael, his patron, shot his way out. And the more I got into it, the more I realised – not for aesthetic reasons but moral reasons – that I couldn't write yet another book in which physical force is undone by physical force. That is the obvious solution, and I had to find another solution. The solution I found involves a lot of wishful thinking – the OAU being in the capital at exactly the right moment – but on the other hand, it came together extremely well.

SFS: That kind of politics is unusual in children's books.

PD: I wanted to try and get readers to feel what it is like to be in that situation – not what should be done about it, but how people can behave like this. What are the passions and motives. This is what fiction is for. It is not to tell you what ought to be done or to preach messages, but it is about understanding, and this includes the understanding of how people can be so beastly to each other.

   
SFS: You've written across many genres in the course of your career.

PD: One of the beauties of writing for children is that you can try anything. There are quite a number of people working in children's books now who would have been writing adult stories a generation ago. I also write adult novels, and if I had to give a kind up, I would give up the adult books. There's more freedom in children's books. They're not easier to write, but from a writer's point of view, it's a lovely field to work in. I've written 50 books since 1968. Several of my books began as stories I started to tell my children in the car, to stop them fighting. Blue Hawk and Tulku were like that.


SFS: There's often a difference between what children like to read and what adults think they should read.

PD: You aren't allowed to bore children. You've got to keep the story cracking along, and you mustn't preach to them either. But children's books are enormously mediated by people for whom they're not primarily intended – librarians, teachers and so on. I myself have benefited very much from this; I've won the Carnegie Medal twice [for City of Gold and Tulku].  But I think there is a danger of Carnegie Medals being given to books which are good for you. I've won prizes which the kids would not have given me, because I write the sort of books which adults think children ought to read. This is certainly true with City of Gold and Tulku. With The Kin, for the first time in my life, I wrote the sort of book which children wanted to read.


SFS: What do you think of CS Lewis's Narnia books?

PD: I think there's an awful lot wrong with them, but they have great imaginative power. His capacity for finding strong visual symbols for particular states of moral dilemma is... I would say that the Narnia books and Pilgrim's Progress are the only things in our language of that kind. The Narnia books are a failed but very, very interesting attempt. Failed for a whole number of reasons, not merely the unpleasantness of his outlook on certain things, but also the uncertainty. I believe in his heart he was not a joyful Christian. His baddies are so much better than his goodies. There are some appalling lapses in tone, especially when Aslan comes onto the scene.

Peter Dickinson 1927-2015
   
SFS: Why do you think human beings have this endless need for stories?

PD: What distinguishes the giraffe as a creature is its long neck, which has evolved to make it a giraffe. What distinguishes us is our imagination. We need it for two purposes. You have this population of modified apes from a very warm country, spreading across the world, moving into new habitats, and they've got to learn to exploit those habitats. They can't afford to do it by trial and error; they've got to imagine what would happen in such and such circumstances, imagine futures and so on. Also, because they're a pack animal and they're adapting very fast, they cannot rely on pack instinct to keep the pack together.  They've got to imagine what other members of the pack are feeling, they've got to make allowances for each other, and so on.

You need to practice this. Fiction is practice. That's the reason why, when you put down a good book, you breathe a sigh of satisfaction. It's the same kind of satisfaction you feel after you've come in from a healthy walk, except it's an intellectual satisfaction rather than a physical satisfaction. The organism, the body, the mind needs this to stay healthy, and so nature gives you this reward of feeling, "Ah, that was good!" I seriously believe this is what we do – we give people exercise in something that is good for them, that stretches their evolutionary nature. In the same way that fox cubs playing outside their den are learning the skills they need in order to survive, we need to stretch our imaginations.

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If you're interested in reading The Kin, there will be a group reading on Twitter starting on Friday 2 November 2018, with one book a week being read through the month. Follow the hashtag #PeterDickinson to join in!

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