Saturday, 5 August 2017

Diana talks to Derek Birks

Hi Derek, thank you for joining me. I am sure that you are tired of being asked the usual questions that would-be interviewers ask authors, so hopefully this interview is an interview with a difference and I have come up with some unusual questions!
First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!
Well, I’d like someone to ask me what sort of historical fiction I set out to write because I did have some specific ideas in mind.
The answer would be that I wanted to write: ‘historical fiction, Jim, but not as we know it.’[Star Trek reference]
It had to have loads of non-stop action, several young main protagonists - both male and female. It would aim to keep the reader guessing what would happen next and almost no character would be safe from oblivion.
If your latest book, Scars From the Past, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
I was asked this question once about my first book, Feud, and I still think that a young Sean Bean would have been an excellent Ned Elder. For Scars, I think his son, John Elder, who is a more brooding individual, might be played by a younger Tom Hardy. And his rather woman-friendly cousin, Will, by Santiago Cabrera, who played Aramis in the Musketeers.
What made you choose this genre?
I chose historical fiction for 2 reasons:
Firstly, I’ve always enjoyed reading it, so it’s very familiar to me. More importantly, my background is in history – some would say I’m still living in the past…
My degree was in history and I taught the subject for 35 years. So, in terms of writing what you know, it was a no-brainer.
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
Ideas for plots? God knows! People often ask but it’s not easy to explain. Ideas just sort of creep into my head – usually when I’m not trying to think of plot ideas!
Characters are, I think, rather more deliberately conceived at the start. But even then, some characters just appear, fully fledged at a random point in the writing process. I quite like that.
If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
I’ve considered writing fantasy before or perhaps a thriller. It would be quite liberating to write either, because historical fiction does have quite strict parameters. The research might be a little less complicated too.
Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
When I was about 17 or 18, I started writing. I always had creative ideas for stories, but I was also into writing music too. Let’s face it when you’re 18 you don’t know what you’re going to do next, do you?
Anyway, I wrote about 100 pages – longhand, no computers back then! I suppose it was a sort of dystopian thriller - though not very thrilling… Let’s be honest, it was rubbish and I thought: I just don’t know enough about people to write a good story.
So I went to university and then I developed a theatrical bent - which can be painful, you know! ((Giggle.)) Once I started teaching, I didn’t have much time to write. Much, much later on, I felt the need to discover whether I really could write. So I took early retirement and gave it a try.
Marmite? Love it or hate it?
Marmite? Absolutely loathe the stuff! It should definitely be listed as a dangerous substance.
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
Well, I do tend to follow a routine. I write in the mornings mostly, with frequent injections of coffee – I mean, not literally injections… I generally drink my coffee from my Most Brilliant Dad in the World mug… jury’s still out on that one…
I often write to a soundtrack of music and frequently add new tracks to the list, so there’s well over a hundred now.
I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
No question, when I’m writing, I’m not really bothered about much else. Unless it’s an emergency, my family know not to disturb me –though, of course, my wife and daughter haven’t really bought into that convention…
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
I think international playboy sounds good, or beach bum – or film director – but being a writer is pretty great!
Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Coffee – I don’t drink tea at all.
And red, always. White wine makes me sneeze…
Red wine is a genuine enhancement to life.
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I plan a framework for the story at the start, but much of what I write is quite spontaneous. I also make big changes as I go along, especially in terms of how characters develop. This helps to impart a certain unpredictability to the story.
If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
Fonts? They’re a bit of a mystery to me – I mean serifs, what are they for anyway? I think my books are printed in Garamond, unless that’s an island in the Pacific…
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
Virtually anything in the fifteenth century! It’s almost as if they all got together and said: right, what will folk want to know in the future? OK. Let’s destroy all the records about those things – that’ll fool the buggers!
Seriously though, I want Richard of Gloucester’s ‘to-do list’ in 1483. ((Yes!!))
Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
It might be easier to say when my characters don’t shock me! They’re always going ‘off piste’. I’ve tried a few coping strategies, but by far the best one is to kill them off! ((Brutal!))
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
I do an enormous amount of research: with documents, secondary sources and online, but also with site visits. I’ve dragged my longsuffering wife around many, many historical sites. Mostly, there’s something of interest there but on one occasion we visited a hill outside Tewkesbury where there was nothing at all. I stood surveying the bare landscape and said: do you think I should put the castle over here or over there?
But site visits are essential for me.
Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
Real characters? No I don’t want to kill any of them off. I think the challenge is to weave your story around them. To do that, I feel I need to understand them as much as any historian does.
Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
I never stray from the known facts because the accuracy of the history is so important to me.
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
Yes, the lines can get blurred because, inevitably, I am making things up. Edward IV never interacted with any of my fictional characters, so when, in my books, he does meet Ned Elder, I’m writing fiction. However much I use my knowledge of Edward IV, the motives and attitudes I attribute to him must also be fictional. So yes, it can get very blurred.
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
Hated, no, but I have been in love with one of my characters from the start. Readers will not be surprised to discover that it’s Eleanor Elder. She just rocks – and continues to rock! I don’t think I’m alone in this either…
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I generally read historical fiction and thrillers with the odd crime or fantasy.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
I would always recommend red wine for any occasion, but there might be a few times when a stiff whisky, or gin and tonic, would be helpful…
Last but not least... favourite author?
Living, would be Bernard Cornwell.
Dead, would be Alexandre Dumas.
These two between them have inspired me a lot.

The handsome and charming Derek Birks.

An unwelcome legacy. An impossible love. A relentless enemy.

By 1481, England has been free from civil war for ten years.
The Elder family have found a fragile peace after their part in the bloody struggle for the throne, yet the scars remain with them all. And close to home, in Ludlow, trouble is stirring once more.

Born out of the carnage of the Wars of the Roses, young John Elder is now the heir to his father’s legacy, but he finds it a poisonous one. After a brutal fight with an outlaw, John abandons his home and inheritance to become a mercenary in Flanders. But, in his absence, the Elder family must face his ruthless outlaw enemy alone.

When the young Edward, Prince of Wales, is caught up in their bitter struggle, the life of the heir to the throne hangs in the balance. To save the prince, all other lives must be put at risk, but will John Elder return in time to help?

Only if the Elders can leave the scars of the past behind them, is there any hope of survival.
Sharon's review of this brilliant book can be found here. Please note that the competition is now closed.

© Diana Milne January 2017 © Derek Birks 2017

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