On Writing Novels

I have always taken writing for children and writing for adults equally seriously, but my relationship with the adult novels is different, more willed, less “given”. There are of course repetitive themes. My children say that my definitive novel will be about a chimpanzee trying to support a great country house by writing best-sellers.

I was brought up as one of the impoverished gentry, but despite a patrician accent and manner have never felt confident that I belonged in my supposed class; and I spent formative parts of my adolescence in a big Georgian house where my two old cousins were struggling on inadequate funds to keep things going in order to be able to hand it on to the heir to whom it was entailed.

Even as a post-graduate, working abortively for a Ph.D., I soon realised that I have no talent for research. In my first two books, despite their winning prizes, the police work is complete nonsense. You’d never get away with it now. After that I started to set my stories in contexts where police-work doesn’t operate. I used to say that I write the book first and do the research afterwards, when I know what I want to know. I prefer to imagine a place rather than visit it, notebook in hand. I had never been to Greece when I wrote The Lizard in the Cup, but a travel supplement suggested it for background reading. (Admittedly my sister-in-law, who lived partly on Skiathos, read it in manuscript for me.) When this works it works fine. The imaginative process transfers itself to the reader. When it doesn’t, it’s a disaster, even in minor details. (As when an actor shuts a door too hard, the flats quiver, and the solid walls dissolve into paint and canvas.)

The pattern of most of the later books, with past events being re-interpreted one way or another from the present, has been more or less forced on me. Both from circumstances and from temperament I have tended to live less and less in the world around me. I am nearly eighty. For me, the young are another country, the past somehow less so, even when I step outside my natural milieu. In order to write about these books I’ve had to re-read them. I can’t have looked at A Summer in the Twenties almost since it was published. It is set even longer ago, the year before I was born, but the scenes among the strikers in Hull strike me as tolerably convincing. Perhaps this is merely that distance blurs the tell-tale details, but certainly I wouldn’t dare set such a scene in the present.

The later books also moved nearer to the mainstream novel, though not often reviewed as such. The walls of literary ghettos are remarkably impermeable. But when The Last House-Party was specially well reviewed in the US a journalist called me from New York to ask me what I was going to do now people were taking me seriously as a writer. I couldn’t think of an answer. Almost all my books have the solution of a murder puzzle as a resolving element in the plot, but in the earlier ones the rest of the book is only the context that allows the puzzle to be set and resolved, whereas in the later ones the puzzle is a mechanism that allows the book as a whole to come into existence.

Of course I’ve used bits and bobs of my own experience here and there, though I’ve seldom based my characters on people I’ve known. Hindsight and Perfect Gallows are more autobiographical. My prep school was evacuated to a house very much like that in the book, and its staff were as described (I regret this. Though they must have all been dead, people who remembered them minded, I’m told.) Paul Rogers is based on myself, both as a child and adult. The events and characters involved in the whodunit element of the story are of course inventions. I thought of book at the time as an amusing box of tricks, but re-reading I was surprised to find an unpleasant gynaecophobic streak in it. Surprised because on the whole I think I’ve got a good record here, in both genres, to the extent that a well-regarded novelist, reviewing The Lively Deadon the radio, said she assumed that Peter Dickinson was a pseudonym for a woman.

Though the house in Perfect Gallows was designed by Lutyens, it and its setting, including the dovecote, are otherwise very like the Georgian house where I spent some of my adolescence. In appearance too, but not in character, its inhabitants, apart from the black butler, are modelled on those I knew. My cousin Lucy believed that she might have had a career in the London theatre, and I took part in several of the performances she staged. There was an American camp in the park, preparing for D-day, with officers billeted in the house. Andrew/Adrian, I hasten to say, is nothing like me. I’ve never believed that any artist, however great, is entitled to sacrifice other people to his art, even when they themselves think the sacrifice worth while.

From the very first I have written my books, in both genres, starting on page one with no more than an idea – an interesting milieu or set-up, a feeling that “there’s a book there.” The Glass-sided Ants’-nest began with a waking vision of an elderly man, dressed in pyjamas and with tribal scars on his cheeks, lying on bare boards in what I knew to be a London house, with an oil lamp burning at his feet and his tribe, in European clothes, kneeling around him.

My last-but-one started when I was in Maine, helping my fiancée pack up her house so that she could come and live with me in England. There came a morning when there was nothing much for me to do except wait around to let someone into the house, so I fed a sheet of paper into a borrowed typewriter and started. Shortly before I’d left England Id been working in a sunlit flower-border, listening a a “humorous quiz about the Profumo scandal, and wondering how it must feel to any still-living participants to hear their old shames and agonies so pawed over so I began there. When Robin returned from whatever she’d been doing I showed her the resulting chapter, ending as described above. “Wow!” she said, or words to that effect. “What’s going to happen?” I told her I had no idea.

I call Some Deaths before Dying my last adult novel advisedly. It was published without trouble in America, well reviewed, and sold enough to keep everyone happy. In the UK it was rejected by all the mainstream publishers, usually with comments to the effect that it was beautifully written but too old-fashioned. A small edition was eventually published by a library supplier, and barely reviewed at all. I doubt I’ve enough time left to me to spend any of it trying again.

Copyright © Peter Dickinson 2012