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Peter Dickinson
e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (October, 2007)

Angel IsleA Bone from a Dry SeaWaterThe KinThe Tears of the Salamander


In his website biography (which is a must read of its kind) Peter Dickinson tells us that 'he looks and sounds a bit like Gandalf's crazy twin, but he's only rather absent-minded, probably because he's thinking about something else. Day-dreaming, mostly.' He has 'written over fifty books - for children, teens and adults - most of them on a little old portable typewriter' (I'm not sure which impresses me more - writing them, or doing it on a typewriter!) He's married to another of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley - in fact they co-authored Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits.

What's always amazed me about Peter Dickinson's work is his versatility. He's a master of his craft whether writing high fantasy, speculative fiction, a contemporary story, or an account of prehistoric peoples. But then he emphasizes to us that he didn't become a writer, just is one 'the way a goldfish is a goldfish and can't be anything else.' He also tells us 'there's only three or four books left for him' - whatever they will be (and I hope there will be many) fans know they will be surprising, entertaining and always thought-provoking.

In his response to the interview, Peter Dickinson stated 'I'm afraid my answers will be pretty brief. I'm almost 80, so I haven't much time to spare from writing books. At the same time, maddeningly, my typing has got painfully slow and inaccurate.' I am especially grateful to him for taking the time to share these comments with us ...

Q: You have written such a variety of stories over the years. Do you set out to do something different or do ideas just pop up and send you in new directions? For example, when I read A Bone from a Dry Sea, I wondered if the story had been triggered by some new discovery in paleontology.

A: I like to do different things, but it depends on what ideas come. I read a newspaper article, and my neck prickles, and I think "There might be a book there." Usually I just start on page one and see what happens. I'd been interested in the sea ape theory since it was first proposed somewhere in the '60s. I'd finished AK, which is a realistic novel about civil war in Africa, and before that there was Eva, which is about a girl who has to live in the body of a chimp, and I suppose the two things came together. I wrote the first chapter and realised the book wasn't going to have any conversations in it if it all happened before language was invented. Having a modern girl join an archaeological dig was an obvious solution. And then I realised that the two stories would resonate with each other and it worked out very well.

Q: I find your writing very empathetic - from sharing with readers what it was like to be human before language acquisition in The Kin to getting across how magic feels in your recent Angel Isle. Do you enjoy exploring these things from the inside out?

A: This is what fiction is about, imagining things in such way way that the reader doesn't just read about them, but recreates in herself the process of imagining them. This is a basic human need.

Q: Though my father was an avid fan of yours all his life, I haven't yet managed to read as many of your books as I'd like. But I have the impression that you were before your time in the number of young women protagonists in your stories. Am I correct, and if so what made you so enlightened?

A: It didn't feel like being "enlightened". My first book had a boy as its central character, so I made the next one a girl. I felt comfortable with her, and did it again. I suppose I felt women are better observers. A lot of my adult books have a woman as their central characters. These sort of choices aren't really rational.

Q: I enjoyed The Tears of the Salamander very much, especially Alfredo's choice to turn away from power and to put people first. Power corrupts also seems to be a theme to the widespread use of magic in Angel Isle, in which powerful young Benayu longs for the simple life of a shepherd. How much does this reflect your own values?

A: The love of power is a very strong drive, almost as powerful as sex or hunger. It's also necessary that any structured society must have leaders, and therefore must have citizens who want to be leaders. But, as the man said, power tends to corrupt. This turns out to be what Angel Isle is about. I didn't set out to do anything except write a story, but the theme came up and I had to deal with it. There isn't going to be a sequel (another 500 pages at my age!), but if there were it would be about how Benayu deals with the problem.

Q: Many of your stories - such as Emma Tupper's Diary - take on issues to do with man's impact on the world he lives in. You must have seen big changes in this in your lifetime. Is there anything that encourages you?

A: Only the fact that we seem to be waking up to it. Too late, of course.

Q: How much of yourself is in the character of the Ropemaker?

A: Only a bit of a very idealised self, if anything.

Q: You wrote Tales of Elemental Spirits with your wife, Robin McKinley (who also treats magic with great empathy). Do you plan any further collaboration(s)?

A: There are the other three elements still to come. The trouble is Robin's stories keep turning into full length novels. Same happened to me with The Tears of the Salamander.

Q: You obviously had fun developing a coherent science/mathematics of magic as an infrastructure to Angel Isle. You have my vote for the Nobel prize for a fantasy novel that you mention in your Introductory note is there anyone else you'd shortlist for it?

A: I'm afraid I don't read nearly enough these days to say. Incidentally the latest edition of The New Scientist has a lead article about a new theory that there may be two dimensions of time. That's in Angel Isle somewhere . (p. 158)
Find out more about Peter Dickinson, his awards, biography, and bibliography, and read his essays as well as excerpts from his books at PeterDickinson.com.
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