Friday 9 November 2012

Exclusive Q&A with Paul Dowswell, Historical Fiction Writer

Paul Dowswell is a British writer of non-fiction and fiction, writing mainly for children and young adults. He has written over 60 books, mostly with history as the subject, but also about geography, natural history, and science.

What inspired you to write about the First World War rather than a contemporary conflict?

I think the First World War hangs over the 20th Century like a vast dark cloud. It gave us the awful flu epidemic that killed millions of people as soon as it was over, it spawned Hitler and the Second World War, and created the Bolshevik regime in Russia and the Cold War that blighted the second half of the 20th Century. Then there’s the whole century of wars and upheavals in Eastern Europe and the Middle East that followed the botched and short-sighted peace treaties that ended the war. But mostly, I’m fascinated by the awful gap between expectations and reality for those who volunteered.

Contemporary conflicts need a few years between them and writing about them, I think, to get some proper perspective on them.

Have you always had an interest in that era? What initially interested you about it?

The war is now nearly 100 years old, but it still seems very vivid to me. When I was a child, I had an great uncle who had fought at Gallipoli, and another relative who had been gassed at Passchendaele and who remained an invalid for the rest of his life. I also remember the ‘Maiden Aunts’ – old ladies who’s chances of marriage and motherhood had been destroyed by the great imbalance between the sexes at the end of the war. But what haunts me the most is the terrible disparity between the patriotism, the ‘doing our bit’, the enthusiastic crowds who rushed to join up, and the awful fate that awaited them in the mud and squalor of the trenches.

Which of the three main characters in “Eleven, Eleven” do you identify with most?

I tried to make them all real but I know the boys who signed up for the British ‘Pals’ brigades – they were just born a hundred years later. I based my character Will and his background on my brother Alan’s family, up in Lancaster. Not absolutely directly, but just as a starting point.

Were Axel, Will and Eddie inspired by anyone you know in real life or anyone from history?

They’re all composites. I do find it helpful to find a photograph of someone their age and nationality and then I take it from there, imagining what they’d be thinking and what would have happened to them. I’ve tried to give them all attitudes that were common at the time.

Of all the fiction you have written, which of your books is your personal favourite?

Each of my books takes me a year or so to write so I can’t have favourites. It’d be like choosing your favourite child! I can tell you which one has done me the most favours though: Auslander. That sold in 10 languages and has taken me to Germany, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, France and Australia. I love travelling and it’s tremendously exciting going on these adventures to promote a book, or research it.

Where is your favourite physical place that your writing has taken you - be it on a book tour, for research, etc?

Really difficult to say. I went to Australia to research my book ‘Prison Ship’ which was hugely exciting and memorable (especially when I got lost in the bush outside Sydney). I stood on the beach at Botany Bay, and if you squint a bit to blot out the Radio towers, you can imagine what it was like to be the first Europeans landing on this strange continent, a year’s sailing away from home.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Show not tell! I have it tattooed to my forehead (backwards of course, so it reads the right way in the mirror).

Do you have any projects in the pipeline, which you would like to tell us about?

I’ve always been fascinated by Russia, so I’d like to set my next book in the Soviet era. I’ve just come back from Moscow, where I was looked after by some very generous, lovely people. It’s an amazing place and I’d really like to go back.

Where can fans of you and your books find out more about you and your writing?

I have a website, and also make fairly regular contributions to blogs like these. If you’d like to see more it’s prob. best to google my name and they’ll come up by the score. I’m not on Facebook and the rest of it – maybe I ought to be, but I do as many school visits as I can. I love going to schools to talk about my books and do writing workshops. I feel very lucky to be a writer but it is a solitary life and school visits are always fun and a break from my desk.

Thanks Paul!

Interviewed by Katy Hawkins.


‘Eleven, Eleven’

By Paul Dowswell
Published by Bloomsbury, 11th October 2012
RRP £6.99 (paperback)
ISBN 9781408826232
Reviewed by Lynsey Evans

Axel is a 16-year-old boy and he’s just enlisted in the Imperial German Army, being posted to the front line at 2am on 11th November 1918.

Will is a British soldier, close to the British frontline on the 11th November 1918, in the platoon his brother commands as Sargeant. Will is only 16 and lied about his age to enlist.

Eddie is a first generation American immigrant, his family emigrated from Germany 40 years ago. He’s a fighter pilot, based at an American Airbase in Europe on the 11th November 1918.

Through spectacular, gripping storytelling we journey with these three young men through their harrowing ordeal, which starts on the day the First World War is declared over. Join them as they fight for their survival in the last few hours of the war, learn how the war ended for them …

This is a brilliant historical fiction novel, that I found breathtaking. Although fiction, the tale is based on a real event, a real war, where many thousands died and it educates in a compelling way.

Highly recommended for readers aged 11+

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