AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Damian Dibben

    Damian Dibben

    THE HISTORY KEEPERS: CIRCUS MAXIMUS

    PUBLISHED BY DOUBLEDAY CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    JUNE 2013


    In Circus Maximus, the new book by Damian Dibben, the History Keepers are on a mission to save Ancient Rome and modern civilisation from total destruction by one of their most dangerous foes, the Zeldts.

    This time Jake and his team must travel back to Ancient Rome in AD27 where they will face flesh-eating vultures, fight like gladiators, and take part in their most dangerous race ever as charioteers in the Circus Maximus!

    Author Damian Dibben tells us more about The History Keepers' latest brilliant adventure!


    Q: When did you decide to write a series based on time travel?

    A: I love classic adventure stories like Robert Louis Stevenson as well as more contemporary movies like James Bond and Indiana Jones. I love the diabolical villains, the secret maps and treasure and gadgets, and how the heroes get to disappear off to somewhere exciting.

    I also love history and how the course of history can be changed in a day with a battle or a discovery, so I wondered if I could combine these with a great adventure story that also described events from the past?

    I started putting the ideas together about six years ago and the moment I had the actual idea for The History Keepers was when I was reading an old school book about about Ancient Rome and Egypt that showed how their histories tied together. That's when I had the idea of a secret service of time keepers.

    Even if people think that they don't like history, I don't believe they do really because everyone would go back to the past if they could, so I am playing on that fantasy that everyone has.


    Q: How do you decide which part of history your characters will visit?

    A: I choose periods to focus on where there were great changes happening, like the Renaissance period for the first book or the Augustus period in Rome for this book, although if you were living there at the time you probably wouldn't realise how much was changing, like the Renaissance period or the Augustus period in Rome, so a civilisation at its peak.

    I don't want these books to be 'history books', the adventure always comes first, but I would like to engage readers with what it may have been like to live then, to feel the weather and the smells and to know what people were eating. I also focus on key things that people are interested in, so in Rome that's the Roman Baths, chariot races and the gladiators.

    In the third book, I focus on how interconnected the world becomes during the early seventeenth century in China. There are key moments that lead you from one great arena to another and those are the periods I focus on.


    Q: Why do you like to include so many details of the periods you describe?

    A: Well, I originally trained as a designer for films and television, so I was designing and building sets as well as costumes, and it's still important for me to set the scene. One of my characters, Nathan, is obsessed with clothes so he can be very funny.


    Q: Do you visit all the places you write about?

    A: The first place I go to do my research is children's books. Sometimes adult books about history can be a bit dry but when history is written for young people, they make the story exciting and accessible. Then I go online or to the British Library to read more.

    Circus Maximus is set in Ancient Rome so I went to Rome and lived there for a few weeks to do some research. There is so much in Rome that still exists, like the Forum, the Pantheon and the Colosseum.

    The next book is set in China and I travelled there last year to research the Ming Dynasty. I went to all the key places like the Forbidden City and the museums.

    I knew next to nothing about Chinese civilisations but they introduced printing, paper, the compass, navigation and gunpowder, and I just wanted to understand how that civilisation had both lasted and prospered through this time.


    Q: Can you tell us more about Circus Maximus?

    A: The Circus Maximus itself isn't there any more but you can see where it was and how massive it was. I was fascinated about it, it was such an important stadium and was famous throughout the Roman Empire.

    The site has existed since about 400AD. It grew in importance and from the first century AD you could fit about 160,000 people into the stadium - that's double the number you'd get in the Olympic stadium! I wondered how it must have felt to have been there during one of those huge sporting events. Everyone went along and it was free.

    On one level Rome was such a civilised place but it was also such a bloodthirsty time and people liked to go and watch other people being killed in various ways.


    Q: Is there a period you'd like to find yourself in?

    A: I'd be intrigued by London and Europe in the late seventeenth century because it was a time when Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren were working and there were so many breakthroughs in science, maths and the arts.

    I'd like to cross over and visit the French Court as well because it was so absurdly over the top and lavish and I'd like to experience that kind of opulence.

    But I'd also be fascinated by the Industrial Revolution and Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians are the forerunners of so much we take for granted today, the same for Ancient Greece, and can you imagine joining the army of Alexander the Great? I'd love to go anywhere in history, really.


    Q: Do you have a favourite History Keeper?

    A: I like them all although I have a soft spot for Nathan because he makes me laugh but I guess Jake is very much how I felt when I was 14. We had a lot of family problems and I was always trying to do the right thing and make things better so I have strong protective feelings towards him.


    Q: What about a favourite villain?

    A: I love creating and writing villains. I relished Agata Zeldt in this book, she repulsed me in every way, but the villains in book three make the Zeldts seem positively gentle....


    Q: Can you tell us a little about the next book?

    A: The main thrust of book three is the search for Philip, Jake's brother. They thought Philip was dead but then Jake realises that he may still be alive and living in the past. Jake is given a lead of where his brother might be and that's what takes them to Jacobean London and then to China.

    It turns out that the villain here, Xi Xaing, who used to be a History Keeper, is spectacularly evil and is trying to bring about a World War. I'm slightly in shock about it, mainly because he's a joker and he laughs as he kills. He also has three eyes....


    Q: How does your writing day go?

    A: I usually start quite late, about 11.30, after I've done my administration and taken the dog out for a long walk.

    I live on the South Bank and walk the dog through Green Park to my office in Soho, the loft space in an old building, and I start writing at 12pm and work through lunch and I stop at 6-7pm at night. I wish I could be one of those people who start at 6am but I just can't....


    Q: You have been a successful screen writer so have you written a film script for The History Keepers?

    A: When I first had the idea, I thought The History Keepers would be a film but then I started writing it as a book.

    I have now written two drafts of History Keepers as a film and Working Title, which has the film rights, is talking to directors. Working Title has had a good year with their film Les Miserables and they have wanted a kids series for a long time and they love the idea of these books, so it's exciting.


    Q: What are your top writing tips for budding writers?

    A: The first would be to be strict with yourself, so decide you will either write for an hour a day or for however many words it might be, 1000 or 1,500, and then just stick to it, however painful it might seem to get to the end of it. And the writing process can be quite painful!

    My second tip, although it probably should be the first, is to write about something you feel passionate about; follow your heart.




    THE HISTORY KEEPERS: THE STORM BEGINS

    September 2011

    Published by Doubleday Children's

    Jake Djones' family are History Keepers and their role is to stop evil enemies from changing history. When Jake's parents disappear, he has to find them - but where do you begin to look for people who can travel through time?

    Here, author Damien Dibben talks about The History Keepers.


    Q: So, you like history then?

    A: I think people like history much more than they realise. If you like films like Gladiator of Pirates of the Caribbean, then you like history. It just depends on the package.

    As I have got older I have liked learning about things more and more, and obviously there were so many people in history who have done so many amazing things and I think it's wonderful to revisit what has been achieved and created.

    I have a positive view of the world, we are heading in the right direction generally and I'm bowled over by inventors and artists and scientists who have pushed things forward and left such brilliant and beautiful things and so impressed by that that I want to share it.

    I live on the South Bank and so am writing next to places like The Globe and near St Pauls, sometimes I feel I can touch the history around me, when I'm going past the house where Christopher Wren lived when he built St Pauls and where Shakespeare must have wandered past. It feels like you can close your eyes and 'be' in that history.


    Q: You normally write screen plays, so what inspired you to write a book?

    A: The direct inspiration for writing this came from a book called The History of the World, which is a classic book and has exciting pictures of battles and emperors. I wondered if there was a way to tell that history wrapped up as a story.

    I was also inspired by the adventures and stories I've been seeing all my life in books and films like Indiana Jones which touched on historical things but were packaged in exciting way.


    Q: Do we need to know about history?

    A: If you think how many brilliant people there are living in the world and how much can learn from them, that's incredible, but think of that multiplied by those many thousands of years of humanity, it would be such a shame to lose that.

    If you think about Science, what was developed in the past is so inherent in anything that is developed now. If it wasn't for Newton would there have been an Einstein? And artistically, you have buildings and art and literature that would never be repeated in their brilliance.

    If an alien civilization were here, we would want to show them the great buildings we now have and what a terribly dull world it would be without that. We will never get the opportunity to build on that scale again, it could only happen when the wealth was owned by a tiny minority of people.


    Q: You choose 1506 as an important date in time in the story, why?

    A: I wanted a date that was soon after Columbus' journeys and at the beginning of the era of discovery. There was also a total eclipse around that time, which I use in the plot in the story.

    I have tried to keep the historical data as real as I can. There is a part in the story where Jake climbs into the unfinished cathedral in Cologne, and that is true. Cologne Cathedral remained unfinished for about 300 years so there would have been scaffolding in the roof for Jake to climb on.


    Q: If you were stranded in the past, what period would you want it to be?

    A: I'd probably choose the eighteenth century or Roman times. I would have a problem with the huge difference in wealth and with the amount of bloodshed in the Roman times but it was an amazing period.

    The mid eighteenth century was also a fascinating and elegant time. That period when science really starting to progress and you have a lot of social reform happening, the foundation of the modern world being laid.


    Q: Who is your favourite character in The History Keepers?

    A: Jake has the most to lose and the greatest reason to be frightened but ultimately he is shown to be the bravest of the young History Keepers. He's lagging behind the others in terms of experience but he has more heart and instinct to do the right thing.

    But all the characters are incredibly brave and I liked them all. I liked Nathan for the humour, he makes me laugh, and I like Charlie for his quirkiness, but I also liked writing about the nastier characters, Ocean was very enjoyable and the villains are fun.

    In the second book, I write about the sister of the main villain and you can't believe how scary she is, she's diabolical and so enjoyable to write.


    Q: Do you love to travel, like your characters?

    A: I travel quite a lot and I love being in different places and learning about places. I'm quite phobic about flying though, but I try not to let it stop me going places.

    Boats are particularly romantic. I was on a ferry somewhere and realised I couldn't see any land from the boat; unlike anywhere else in the world, the sea looks exactly the same as it would have looked 200 years ago. I thought it would be a good place to put the 'horizon point' from my story, which links different times.


    Q: Did you always want to be a writer?

    A: I have had quite a varied training, originally I trained at art school as a designer for film sets and costume.

    I also trained as an actor and all of those things have informed what I have done here. I've also done some stand-up comedy, I think humour is the most important thing of all.


    Q: What are the best and worst jobs you have ever done?

    A: The worst was definitely working as a restaurant washer upper and kitchens 'dog's body'. Best job is this, writing books, I would want to make this my main career. I'm also writing a screen play of the book, so I hope it will be made into a film.


    Q: What happens in the next book?

    A: We go back a long way in time to the villain's family roots in Roman times. I'm afraid that Jake ends up messing things up badly in the next mission and could find himself reassigned back to his ordinary life in London...


    Q: How does your writing day go?

    A: I don't start that early, I have an office in Soho in London which I can walk to. I take my dog and walk around the park, do some admin and start to write at 11.30am and worth through lunch to 5.30pm and then I call it a day.

    I like eating quite a lot and should be really fat as I have a bit of a sweet tooth, especially for chocolate...