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A Curious Calling: Damian Dibben

Xanthi Barker sits down with the children’s author who may just be in the midst of creating the next Harry Potter

Written by . Published on January 9th 2012.


A Curious Calling: Damian Dibben

THE future rises up in front of us, a huge sea of possibility, churning with hope and anxiety. The past is solid as a rock, fixed in place so that we can only understand, never change it. Or perhaps not. What if the past too is a merging, melding ocean, threatening to overflow and drown the present any moment? What if a bunch of crooks and maniacs are darting back through time, trying their hardest to enable such catastrophes? This is the premise behind Damian Dibben’s new children’s series, The History Keepers. In an office nestled above a busy Soho street, I met Damian and his dog, Dudley, to talk about writing the book.

A few people pointed out that it might be too screenplay-like but I thought I could use that to my advantage.

Reading The History Keepers, it seems like you had a lot of fun writing it.
The dialogue and humour is definitely the most fun. The hardest stuff is the action sequences. It gets more and more manic. In the second book, they go to Ancient Rome and there’s a huge sequence at the end in Circus Maximus. There’s chariot racing, everyone is fighting everyone else. It’s an epic action sequence. The idea is that it will be exciting and quick to read but to write it is laborious and hard. A lot of literary types are quite snobby about action but they have no idea how hard it is to write.

It also reads very cinematically. Did you see it like that as you were writing it?
I worked as a screenwriter for ten years and I’ve probably steeped myself in films more than books, so perhaps I see in that language. A few people pointed out that it might be too screenplay-like but I thought I could use that to my advantage. There’s no point in pretending to be something else. To me it’s more a question of seeing the thing in my head precisely and then finding the words and the phrasing to best describe it. And I presume that’s what all writers do.

Why did you move on to writing books instead of screenplays?
Ninety-five percent of scripts that are bought don’t get made. A script of mine, called Seventh Heaven, was bought by Miramax after this bidding war. It’s been in pre-production about three times. It’s had every director you’ve ever heard of. The first one, John Madden, assembled an incredible cast with Jake Gyllenhaal and Judy Dench. It was about to start filming and it collapsed. Over eight years this happened about five times. You end up working uncredited as a ghostwriter. You get paid but you don’t get credit.

Where did you get the idea for The History Keepers from?
I love adventure stories. James Bond and Indiana Jones were always my favourite. I always thought I’d love to do a series of adventure stories. I was reading this book about the whole history of the world – a children’s book. It connects everything together. You see how one civilisation led to another. I thought it would be great if you had all these points in history where things could’ve gone off in another direction. What if you had a secret service keeping history as it is, while these dark forces are trying to tear it apart?

Who are the dark forces?
Like in James Bond there’s no one particular villain. Each book has a different one, all coming from slightly different places. As the books progress they join forces. Some are purely anarchists who want destruction. Others are just interested in harnessing humans for their own ends.

How do you fit so many books and plots in your head?
I was told the second book would be much easier but it’s been just as hard. There’s much less time. To do one a year I find very difficult. There are so many details. Getting the story right is a huge job in itself that can take six months. I’ll probably have to think after the third one but I have this whole super-story in my head.

There are quite a few love-interest sub-plots...
That’s going to be a continually oscillating element. Everyone’s in families so there’s a lot of issues there to resolve. The dark forces’ ultimate mega-plan will gradually surface. The story has potential to be as big as a story can be. There’s a universal nature to it. A lot of kids books are much more specific. I think if you’re going to do something you might as well go for the scale as much as possible.

Have you been to all the places where the story is set?
The next book is set in Rome, where I went for a month to work. It was amazing because I’d done so much research. In the very centre there is the old roman forum and bits of buildings, or the whole building still standing in some cases. The senate house is still there with its roof on, as it was. You can go inside. When you’ve read all about it and you know which street lead where and what was going on here, it’s just extraordinary. I felt like I’d gone back in time suddenly.

That’s my favourite bit – when they arrive in Venice to all the old vendors, clothing and streets. You really see it.
That’s the idea. Everyone would like to go to some period in the past and see what it’s like. To do that you need to recreate those places. That’s what takes all the time.

Where in history would you like to go?
As I’m doing Rome now I would be absolutely fascinated to go back there. I would want to make sure I would be safe, I’d have to be a citizen at the least, someone high up enough to get around without any trouble. I’d be intrigued to go to pre-revolutionary France. You had these rulers who controlled so much wealth but who were only there through birth, to a large degree. The building and construction that was going on, the formulation of new ideas, the forging of the raw materials of a civilisation – to see that in action would be amazing.

 

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