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An hour-long interview with Helen Dale, youngest-ever winner of Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award and author of the two-part alternate-history novel Kingdom of the Wicked, shortlisted for the Prometheus Award.
Helen Dale is a Queenslander by birth and a Londoner by choice. She read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose) and has previously worked as a lawyer, political staffer, and advertising copywriter (among other things).
She became the youngest winner of Australia’s Miles Franklin Award with her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, leaving the country shortly after it caused a storm of controversy. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, is published in two volumes by Ligature; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction novels, given annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Helen, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Hello, Edward, how are you?
I’m fine, and so glad to have you on. I’ve followed you on Twitter for a while now, and then when I saw that you were shortlisted for the Prometheus Award, I realized that you were in my ballpark when it came to my interviews, and I thought you would be somebody interesting to talk to. So I’m very glad to have you on, even if we are speaking to each other from across an ocean and a large chunk of Canada.
Well, yes, it’s quarter past 4:00 in the afternoon here.
And just after 9:00 here, and I’m still drinking coffee. So if you hear weird noises, that’s what that is.
Worshipping at the shrine at the Great God Cafe.
So we’ll launch into it. And I always start, as I say, with taking my guests back into the mists of time, which, you know, is further back for some of us than others, to talk about how you got where you grew up, how you started writing, your background that led you to writing, and all that sort of thing. And, of course, you’re kind of new to the science fiction and fantasy genre, alternate history, with your latest one. But that’s not how you started, is it?
No. And I’m a slightly peculiar creature in terms of writing in that I didn’t intend to be a writer. That was kind of a mistake. By training, I’m a lawyer, and certainly, in the UK, I’m best known for writing fairly technical, detailed analysis of the legal issues arising out of Brexit. Australia is a bit different. I am best known in Australia as a novelist, but that is purely because my first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, won the Australian equivalent of the Booker Prize, or for you Canadians, the Governor General’s Award or for Americans, the Pulitzer. It’s called the Miles Franklin Award, and it’s Australia’s sort of oldest and most prestigious literary award. And my first novel won that. And that’s a literary prize. To give you an idea of how literary it is, Book One and Book Two of Kingdom of the Wicked are actually not eligible for it, no matter how good they are. I couldn’t win if I tried, basically. So, I have shifted so dramatically in terms of genre that it’s just…I actually had, I’ve had a couple of reviews in, it’s only the Australian press, the British press have been fine, but I have had one review in a major publication which shall remain nameless that basically smacked me for going down-market. You know, you shouldn’t have a Miles Franklin winner, you know, going and writing science fiction, that’s sort of not acceptable.
Oh, dear, horrors. Yes.
Well, did you start off with an interest in writing, or how did that come about for you?
Um, no, no, except in the sense that I obviously have to write things for school and university, that kind of thing. No intention to be a writer. Became a writer completely by accident. There are four of us in my family, and we were all quite sort of scholarly at school. And we didn’t have a horrible time, fortunately, because we were also quite good at sport. And in Australia, you really don’t want to be very clever and uncoordinated, you know, the kind of kid who couldn’t catch a cold, because you will not have a very good time. But fortunately, that didn’t happen to the four of us because we were all quite sporty as well. And my family had produced–I’m the youngest–had produced successively a doctor, a mechanical engineer, an accountant, tax accountant, and then me. And we were all sort of–my family’s relatively traditional, so we went to study what our parents told us to study, basically, based on what we were good at at school. It was like, I had friends of mine, this was just when large numbers of Chinese immigrants were coming to Australia, and I would get the inevitable comment would be, “Ah, your family is very Chinese,” because this is what Chinese families are like: the children, the parents work out what they’re good at and go, “Right, you’re going off to study whatever.”
So no, it was not a plan at all. But what was happening, what would happen is…this is when I was in high school and then when I was at university as well…I would inevitably get comments written on my papers that I handed in, and even examinations, because examinations are done blind, so the markers don’t know who has written the paper. And one of my tutors at Oxford actually said, “This is a completely pointless exercise in your case, Helen, because everybody knows when they get one of your papers because you’re the only person who puts jokes in an examination paper while they’ve been sitting in schools writing it for three hours.”
I’m sure that was a huge relief.
It was just sort of, “Oh, thanks. Right. OK, so I can’t hide. There’s no way for me to hide. They know who I am.”
Were you, because you ended up writing, were you at least like reading fiction during these years when you were growing up?
Oh gosh, I read enormously and widely, and my parents would have been deeply disappointed if I had not.
It would be very odd if you hadn’t read and then became a writer.
No, no. I mean, I was sort of stereotypical of a sort of certain social-class British person. I mean, I’m a dual national of Australia and the UK, but both my parents were British, and my father came from that sort of minor aristocracy, that kind of background where the expectation is that people are literate and well-read and well-formed, have well-formed characters. And so, I read enormously and very widely when I was at school. I read everything that was put in front of me and formed views on it. You know, like, “I don’t think this book is particularly good” or “I do think this book is particularly good.” At one point, I had read every single book in the school library, and this meant that I was, like, sitting and reading the maths ones and the chemistry ones and things like that because I was just running out of things to read.
So yes, I was widely read, but it was very much…I read the newspaper, I did the cryptic crossword, you know, I’d sit in the library and do the crossword and have those sorts of interests, sort of literary things, but it was not in the sense of becoming a novelist, it was in the sense of being a lawyer who could talk about something other than law with the clients, if that makes sense? Yes.
So then, how did that first novel come about?
Well, I mean, I just continually got papers back from academic staff saying…and this is going to sound like I’m skiting, I’m sorry, but it’s nonetheless true…inevitably, I’d get the top mark, but I’d also get, “Oh, this is beautifully written. It’s a pleasure to read,” and so on and so forth. And so, I had a flair for putting words together, that became reasonably clear. And anyway, I got a good idea for a book, and that book became The Hand that Signed the Paper, which is my first novel.
What was it about? What was your good idea?
Basically, what was happening at the time in Australia–this is going back quite a long time ago now, but at the time in Australia, there were a number of war crimes trials, and the people who were being charged were never German. They were always from one of the minority nationalities who, for whatever reason, had allied themselves with the Nazis during the Second World War. So they were Ukrainians and Belarusians and Latvians and Lithuanians and so on. And Australia is a very multi-ethnic, multicultural country, so there were large numbers of them, of people from these ethnic groups.
Big Ukrainian population here in Saskatchewan.
Yes, yours is huge. I mean, I know it’s like an entire cultural phenomenon in Canada. Australia probably took more Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, so we had more the Balkans than Ukraine. But we still have a decent number of Ukrainians, and certainly, the high-profile case, the Polyukhovich case, went all the way to the high court, because there was a serious argument as to the constitutionality of the trial, because of the presumption against retroactive laws.
I’m not going to go into any more detail about it, otherwise, I’ll bore you all rigid, but it was the kind of thing that was interesting to lawyers, and it became very controversial, and it became even more controversial when the jury in the criminal trial–because there were two trials going on, there was the constitutional, whether it could even be heard, and then there was the criminal trial of Ivan Polyukhovich, and the jury took forty-five minutes to acquit, which is as short as it can possibly be, basically. Generally, when you hear that a jury has acquitted someone in forty-five minutes, it literally means they’ve gone into the retiring room, where the jurors retire to consider their verdict, for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and the only reason they’re not making the decision in ten minutes is because they want the cup of tea and the biscuit at the state’s expense. I mean, long experience of jury trials, I assure you this is how the system works.
And so, that caused a big stink as well, because there was this perception that the Crown had a very strong case against Polyukhovich because they had military records and so on and so forth, and it looked like for a long time, and there’s still all sorts of speculation about this, it looked for a long time that the jury had engaged in a form of jury nullification, which exists in Australia as well, which is where we don’t care if you’ve got X bang to rights, we think that this is a dog of a law, so, therefore, we’re not going to convict. And so, I took that basic outline and turned it into a novel, and it…I sent it when it was mostly finished; I think maybe I had a couple of chapters left…
And you’re still in university at the time?
Oh, gosh, yes. Yes, I was about twenty. And I sent it to…I did my first degree, my classics degree, at the University of Queensland, which is in the news at the moment for not-good reasons, basically being far too matey with the People’s Republic of China.
There’s a lot of that going around.
Yes, there’s a lot of that going around. But none of this was an issue in the early 1990s when I was a student there, it was just a perfectly normal…a bit like Toronto, I suppose, sort of university, that style of reasonably good quality, but without being Oxford or Harvard or that kind of place.
Where my daughter is a student right now. University of Toronto.
Yes, Toronto, yes. So, that sort of thing. A decent Commonwealth University without being Oxford or Harvard. And so, there was none of this issue there, and I sent it to…they had a press, the University of Queensland Press, which does have to this day a very good reputation for nurturing Australian literature. And probably their most famous product from UQP is Peter Carey, who’s won the Booker Prize twice and also won the Miles Franklin Award twice. So, he is sort of a big deal in Australian letters, and he started at UQP. And anyway, I sent it to them, it wasn’t quite finished, but it was clearly read and read relatively quickly, which surprised me. And I got a letter back from one of the senior editors at UQP saying you should enter this for the Australian Vogel Literary Award.
Now, that is an award for a first novel, the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. And it’s for an unpublished novel, first novel. So I sent it in to this competition, which is sponsored by the Vogel company, does bread, good bread, has a great reputation, and The Australian is a newspaper. It’s the country’s main national daily, and I still write for it to this day–that created a relationship with that newspaper that is nearly thirty years old now, and it’s…the book is published by an Australian publishing company called Allen & Unwin, but they also exist in Britain. And so, I won that prize, and that was a good prize, it was worth having, it was guaranteed publication, it was this big check from the company and free publicity from the newspaper. And I thought, “Oh, well, this is quite good. I sort of wasn’t expecting that.”
And then it proceeded to start winning a lot of other prizes as well, one of which was the Miles Franklin, which is the top award in Australia. And as a result of that, it became an enormous bestseller. And I certainly became very controversial because of all the war-crimes trials issues that I was talking about earlier and the jury acquitting so quickly and so on and so forth. So, I sort of fictionalized that story. And, anyway, I didn’t have another good idea for a book. I mean, it is very nice to get a bestseller from your first book.
In your early twenties, yeah, that’s not bad.
Yeah, I mean, not a bestseller in the J.K. Rowling sense, but a solid bestseller and plus literary awards as well, which have significant sums of money attached to them. You know, you can do this, you walk into the estate agent and say, “I want that one,” and they see your age, of course, you know, “How are you going to pay for it?” And I go, “By check!”, this kind of thing. So, it was quite a shock.
But I didn’t have an idea for another book. And I tried to start writing one just because there was this expectation, because I’d written this bestseller, that I could produce another one. And I started to write other things, and I was just awful. I’m one of these people, I can’t force myself to write fiction, I have to have a good idea. And so, I eventually just let it drop and went back to doing what my family wanted me to do, which was to become a lawyer, and I didn’t really think about writing anymore for quite a long time. I was just a lawyer.
And changed countries in there, too.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I’m as much British as Australian. I’m as much Australian as I am British. This is the thing. I’m a true dual national. I’ve been educated partly in one country and partly in the other.
That’s me, too. I’m Canadian-American. I was born in the States, moved up here, went back to school for university in the States, came back to Canada.
Yes. So, yes, I didn’t think about doing anything more with writing for quite a long time. I did do quite a lot of journalism, though. So…
You’d been writing, just not fiction.
Yes. Just not fiction yet, I was sort of being funneled…not very deliberately, once again, it wasn’t really planned…I was kind of slowly pushed towards writing and then nonfiction. And so, I was writing political commentary and features in the newspaper and that kind of thing. But they were, none of them were fiction, no short stories or anything.
So that brings us up to Kingdom of the Wicked, when apparently you did have another good idea.
Yes, I did have a good idea.
So, this is where you can read the blurb on the back of the book, and…
Right, yes. I’m going to read this out because my editor is much better at these than me. This is on the back of, the blurb for Book One of The Kingdom of the Wicked. There are two books. Book One is Rules, and Book Two is Order. And they both quite fat books.
I’m looking at them in ebooks, so they look quite skinny to me.
“784 ab urbe condita–31 AD. Jerusalem sits uneasily in a Roman Empire that has seen an industrial revolution and now has cable news and flying machines—and rites and morals that are strange and repellent to the native people of Judaea. A charismatic young leader is arrested after a riot in the Temple. He seems to be a man of peace, but among his followers are Zealots and dagger-men sworn to drive the Romans from the Holy Land. As the city spirals into violence, the stage is set for a legal case that will shape the future—-the trial of Yeshua Ben Yusuf. Intricately imagined and ferociously executed, Kingdom of the Wicked is a stunning alternative history and a story for our time.” And I realize I’ve just read an encomium from a critic on the back as well, which I probably shouldn’t have done, but anyway, there we are.
Well, so that’s…it’s a very interesting premise. And of course, alternate history has a long history as being considered a branch of science fiction. I guess that comes from the multi-worlds hypothesis, I guess.
So, how did this come about? Where did the idea come from? I mean, I know…well, I’ll let you tell it. Because we talked a little bit beforehand, but now it’s your turn.
Yes, well, it’s once again, it just struck me as a good idea. It was a good concept. I’d read quite a lot of–I mean, because I’m one of these people who just reads a lot–I read quite a lot of people like Philip K. Dick and S.M. Stirling…
Who’s been on the program.
Oh, you’ve had S.M. Stirling on the program?
Yes, the Draka books. And I also liked Len Deighton’s SSGB, which is what would have happened if Operation Sea Lion, which was the Nazi plan to invade the United Kingdom, following in the steps of William the Conqueror, had been successful.
So, I read quite a few books of that type in amongst all my other reading, and every single time I read a good one–and for mine, the one that most struck me is an extraordinary work of fiction that was so persuasive was Len Deighton’s SSGB–I sat there and thought, “It would be very cool to come up with an idea that I could execute as well as he has in that book. And the thing is because, even though it was twenty years earlier, because of The Hand that Signed the Paper, I knew I could write, I know I can put a sentence together. And because of my journalism, and the feedback that I got from working as a journalist and also little things like, you have pleadings, which is part of the role of a lawyer, drafting pleadings, drafting advice, that kind of thing, inevitably, I would be the one who sort of would be patted on the head by the judge along the lines of, “What a beautifully drafted set of pleadings,” so I knew that I could still, I had “it,” this thing. Once you’ve written a book, written a couple of books, you sort of know what’s what. And so I thought, “This would be a really good idea, if I could come up with one that is as good as Len Deighton’s.” And so then I did come up with one that was as good as Len Deighton’s. And I was able to use the fact that I can read Latin…
I did it at school and then at university as well. And then also, I was a lawyer and had done a lot of practitioner work and seen a lot of trials, a lot of court work. So, I know the cut and thrust of a criminal trial. And I’m also…relatively unusually, I’ve got experience and training in Scots law. And Scotland is a mixed system, so it has a lot of Roman law in a way that the system in England or Australia does not. So, I was aware of this other great legal tradition that’s not…that is less familiar to a lot of people in the Anglosphere, with the exception of Scottish people, who are familiar with Roman law because of their legal system. And so, I was able to bring that knowledge to bear. And I just kept…I thought, “Well, what would happen if you got someone who turned up who was like this Jesus figure now?” And I’d watched or read all the various interpretations. There are lots of them out there, like Jesus of Montreal and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, even the humorous ones, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and so on and so forth, because one of the Pythons was a classicist, which is why all the Latin jokes in that work. The gags work because the people writing them really know their stuff. And so, I did all of this kind of reading, and I just thought I would use the point-of-departure principle that speculative fiction writers do, but I would also do a retelling of the story. So, I would keep the story and change the context of it, which is not quite the same as what Len Deighton did in SSGB, which is where he’s got a point of departure and history actually changes. I haven’t got history actually changing in the context of the Gospels. What I’ve done is I’ve imagined a modernized Roman Empire, but with something roughly akin to our science and technology, but with their moral values and their beliefs.
And your point of departure goes to Archimedes, right? And he survives and develops calculus.
Yes. Well, basically, my point of departure is the siege of Syracuse, where the Roman general at the time desperately wanted Archimedes left…
Archimedes. I said Archimedes.
It probably is Archimedes…Archimedes, it would be Greek. But Marcellus, the Roman general, wanted him captured because the Romans wanted to do, you know, they wanted him to be their DARPA guy, basically, you know, that kind of thing. And he was finished up being killed, and the evidence we have is that basically, it was a mistake. And Marcellus, the Roman general, was absolutely furious and completely losing his whatnot as a result of this. But, I just changed that. Archimedes doesn’t die, and so he does finish up the Roman DARPA guy, and you then…and then there are other sorts of things going on in the period of the late republic, which various economic historians and political historians have written about over here–to of them, Stephen Davies, who’s at the University of Manchester, and another chap called Douglas Carswell, who who was actually a politician for many years, he was an MP–and you get very productive…there’s a period of Roman history for a couple of hundred years of very productive innovation, which we now know, based on sort of economic history, is the precursor that you need for a society to industrialize. And so, I basically inject a living Archimedes into this ferment that is meant to…that resembles, in many respects, England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th century, or the Dutch Republic, where you’ve got this sustained innovation and economic development, which is what tips societies over the line into industrialization. And so, I did a lot of research reading…
That was my next question is, what was the preparation for writing like for this? What kind of outlining and research did you have to do to pull this off?
I did a lot of reading in economic history. And there are various scholars who, and I mentioned two of them, Stephen Davies and Douglas Carswell, there’s also Mark Koyama, Koyama and Johnson, who wrote a book called Persecution and Toleration, but they’ve done a lot of academic papers, and theirs is economic history and a history of innovation, basically. Stephen Davies has done a lot of work in this area, and there’s also a scholar called Peter Temin, whose retired now, but he used to be at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he wrote a book called The Roman Market Economy, which basically blew up what we thought the Roman economic system was like. There’d been this sort of history, and it’s kind of unfortunate, where a scholar called Moses Finley, who was a Marxist, allowed his political views to color his scholarship, and…
That never happens.
And so had put..well, yeah, well, it does happen, that’s the problem. And had basically tried to argue for the existence of a great civilization that didn’t have a capitalist economy. And…it’s not very good. And Peter Temin…and the thing is, generations of classicists were taught Moses Finlay’s take on the Roman economy. And the thing is, if you were studying Roman law at the same time, you knew it had to be false because all of the stuff you’re learning in the legal system is all about contract, commercial loans, you know, what constitutes delivery? What’s the difference between a contract of hire and a contract of sale? How do you draft all this up? You know, how do you work out interest rates and repayments? And all of the things…what sort of corporate structure should you have if you wish to go into business? These are not the considerations of a non-capitalist society. This is an intensely market-oriented society.
And so, in a way, Peter Timen–and he goes into this in The Roman Market Economy—it’s a more complicated picture. Having the Romans as capitalists is great, it explains how they nearly, nearly had an industrial revolution and only just missed. And Douglas Carswell goes into some of the reasons for that. But what it does do is that…the rather Pollyannaish view of capitalism is that if you have economic liberty, then a society will develop political or civil liberty. Turns out not to be true. So whilst the Romans were nothing like what Moses Finley said they were, they were capitalist, they were capitalists, they were innovative, you started to get sustained levels of prosperity, intensive growth, which is where the outputs exceed the inputs, which is quite hard to do in economic terms, although we do it routinely now, but they also had slavery.
So, you’re forced to confront the reality that a society can have a lot of things going for it, and be really, really impressive at a lot of things, but be absolutely morally repugnant in other respects. And the modern country that is really showing this up in spades, and a few people have written to me after reading Kingdom of the Wicked and said, “Gee, you predicted China well, didn’t you?” Because this is the thing: capitalism has made China rich. There’s no getting away from that. It’s the second-largest economy in the world, it will overtake the United States fairly soon, but it has not made it democratic or liberal. If anything, the intensive growth and sustained innovation that capitalism has produced in China has actually made it easier for the government to spy on the population, made it easier for the government to control them. And when something does go wrong, like with coronavirus, yes, the state has the power to just lock people up in their homes and wall them in.
And we saw that happen.
And one of the things that struck me reading the book, I hadn’t made the China connection, but that makes perfect sense, but it’s like the there’s a…what’s the word…a graininess to the society. It feels real in a way that sometimes reimagined words don’t. There’s…L.E. Modesitt, Jr., is somebody I’ve had on the program, and he has economics training and he makes a point in his books that, you know, people have to have real jobs and they have to do real things no matter what else is going on. There’s a real economic thing that has to be happening there, too. And I really felt that in your book, a sort of solid grounding that you’re talking about with all the research. But once you did all that research, how did you plot out the book? What did that look like for you? Did you do a detailed outline, or did you just start writing?
No, no, I did a fairly detailed outline because I had to work out how all the events were going to sequence. And that’s quite tricky to do. So, I did a detailed outline, and I also prepared a character matrix. I was one of these people who played Dungeons and Dragons at school…
Oo, me, too.
…which is really going to date me now. And I used the character matrix that you use for Dungeons and Dragons, so, I mean…and it will be of no surprise to you at all that Saleh is chaotic neutral. So, my policy is to develop characters and to slot them into the matrix.
Well, you had some characters decided for you because you’re retelling the…
Well, that’s right. So, that’s…although what I would try to do is, where people are ambiguous or not clear what sort of personality they actually have, I tried to be a bit more creative, but some are already known, yes. And I have…although I have made him a corporate lawyer and quite capable in certain areas, you will have read enough of the book now to know that Pilate can be quite indecisive. You know, he can struggle to make up his mind. He’s got the lawyer’s tendency of seeing both sides and then not being able to come down and take a side. And that causes him problems.
That’s certainly true to the original story, so…
Yes. Hence the whole handwashing and that kind of thing, and not wanting to be saddled with someone else’s moral failures and issues. And so, some of them were decided for me, but then I just started doing…once I’ve fleshed out my characters, I then put them in different situations and see how they react. And I just gradually built the stories up over time doing that. I’m quite a traditional writer in that my chart that I had on the wall with all the timelines was all done by hand, and my…and then the great bulk of the writing was handwritten as well. But by this stage…I mean, with my first novel, it was a manual typewriter, whereas by this stage, I’d have it handwritten, and then I was able to type it into my word-processing software and then fiddle with it once I typed it up, basically. But, yes.
So, was your…you mentioned writing longhand, is your writing process…were you writing, like scenes, and then piecing them together, or did you write start to finish, or how did that work for you? It sounds like maybe you do sort of the piecemeal approach.
Yes, it’s much more piecemeal and working out, then bolting it all together in such a way that the plotting works because it’s very tightly plotted. And that was really quite tricky because if there’s going to be something that I stuffed up in a book, it will be to do with dates and calendars. And I had to be so careful to make sure I had the right thing happening over here at the same time as this was happening over here. Otherwise, I’d just lose control of my narrative, and I didn’t want that to happen, obviously, because there are people out there who notice.
Oh, there are, yes.
You’ve got someone in the same place twice, you know, this guy. How is this?
Yeah, it’s interesting because sometimes…I don’t know if you’ve encountered this, but when I’m doing my books, you will have…something is happening, and you have to have a certain amount of time for it to happen, but your other character’s over here are doing something else, and you don’t really have anything for them to do during the time that you need for this other thing to happen. So you have to find something for them to do just to make the timelines work.
Yes. Yeah. And you don’t want to…you don’t want the waking up in the shower, oh it was all a dream, kind of thing because nobody believes that anymore and I don’t think anybody believed it then.
Oh, that does is because that’s, of course, a Dallas joke, so that…
A Dallas joke, yes. You just know the people are going to see straight through you if you do that.
I have YA book, and when I’d originally written it, I wrote some character, saying that she looked like she had come out of…wore kind of 80s clothes…had come out of a Dallas-themed costume party. And my editor, who was, like, half my age, or less, said, “What’s Dallas besides a city in Texas?” And I knew that I was getting old.
Yes, I am officially old.
So, how long did this process take you, writing the first draft and getting it typed in and all that sort of thing?
Well, I think…I mean, bearing in mind you’ve got two 450-page-plus novels here, I think, all up, they probably took me probably about ten years to get them written. But you’ve got to remember, of course, I mean, but that’s, you know…
You were doing other things.
I was doing other things. I was not a full-time writer. So, yes, it’s a thousand…call it just…900 pages worth of of of fiction. But I was working full time while I was doing this, so it would only ever be something I could do first thing in the morning. I would sometimes get up in the morning and write for an hour, and maybe an hour before I went to bed, and I just knew that it was going to take me…I accepted that it was going to take me quite a while to get them finished because I was not a full-time writer. The irony is, of course, that Book One came out in 2017, and Book Two came out in 2018, because they were finished and publisher, Bloomsbury over here and Ligature in Australia, just split them into two, and that worked quite well. Otherwise, it was just going to be this tome, War and Peace, and I said, “No, no, science fiction is often in sequence, and so you’ve got two of them, although I have now, of course, occasionally had people ask, “Are you going to do a third one?” and I’m sort of going, “With what?”
It sounds like you…because of the way you work, where you write longhand, and then you type it in…undoubtedly you do a considerable amount of line-to-line revision as you’re doing the typing-in process.? I mean, when I used to work that way–and when I was in high school, that’s how I worked, because computers, nobody had them–and I wrote longhand, and then I typed it into my manual typewriter, but I never typed on the typewriter what I had written longhand, I was revising as I went.
Yeah, of course. That’s exactly how it works. I mean, sometimes pieces are carried across entire, but sometimes they’re not. You know, it just depends. But yes, I’ve never really got into the habit, and I’ve got lots scribbled on pieces of paper all through the house here and a spiral notebook that’s full of scribbles, and I even do this…maybe not with the same degree of intensity, but I still do this to a very large degree, even with journalism. I’m writing a thousand-word column for The Spectator or something, and I take notes first before I turn it into typed stuff.
Once you have a complete typed or word-processed manuscript, is there another level of revision? Do you go through it again?
Yes, yes, I print them out and go through them again and constantly tinker and fiddle and move stuff around and try to improve the… the thing that I particularly aim for is to have unobtrusive and very naturalistic dialogue. You might have noticed that already, that people sound like normal people. I dislike badly written dialogue. And I don’t have a background in theatre or script editing or anything like that, but I have…a friend of mine, Gareth Roberts, has written a lot over, hee’s a friend of mine over here, ee’s written a lot for Doctor Who over the years…
Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that.
Yeah. And he actually wrote, co-wrote with Russell T. Davies, six episodes. And he then did the spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. And he and I were discussing, we’ve discussed this a lot, and he said, “You’ve got the same thing as a script editor or a scriptwriter. You absolutely are obsessive about making people sound like normal people and not weird,” because a lot of novelists, they can do good description and good characterization, but then they don’t get the dialogue right, and it sounds like everybody’s giving speeches. But, yes, I’ve never done script work, but it was interesting just that…he read them, bought them at Waterstones and read them, and then we subsequently caught up, and he just said, you’ve got the scriptwriter thing.
Well, I do theatre, I’m a stage actor I’ve done, mostly just for fun, but I do some professional work, too, and the people I’ve talked to who do have any sort of theatrical background, they do find that it helps in that regard, in their fiction, because so much in theatre or in scripts is told through the dialogue, it has to work in a way that perhaps novelists don’t necessarily make it work sometimes.
Sometimes. I mean, and some are very bad. I know in the canon of science fiction, there are some fabulously good writers who just can’t write dialogue for toffee. And it’s just…
We all have our weaknesses and strengths.
Yes, yes. So that’s the thing.
Do you have…once you have the complete manuscript, do you have beta readers or first readers, people who look at it and give you feedback at that point before it goes to an editor?
Not…I didn’t do that with The Hand that Signed the Paper, I just sent it off to UQP and got the advice to enter that competition, which I did. And then, of course, as soon as I won that competition, I was contracted to a publishing company and went through the normal editorial process that you do with a publishing company. And so, I hadn’t had this concept of people, of road-testing my work on anybody else.
I did, however, because it was such a change of genre to go to science fiction, even though I was fairly widely read, I was very eclectically read because I was not obsessed with any particular novelist or genre of writing. I just picked up books of science fiction that I thought might be interesting because I read the blurb on the back, I’d read that, and I just read it. But I knew it was outside of my tradition as such because the books that I read a lot of in high school are just, I basically read a lot of pretty much everything by Russians. And so, I went through a phase of just Russians, I was just reading Russians all the time, all very bleak, very good, but very depressing. And so, I knew that I didn’t have the same grounding that I did in high literature, highbrow literature, basically, so I did get friends to, once the manuscript was largely written, to have a read of it and go, “Does this make sense? Does this work?” And I also, what I tended to do, rather than get novelists, other novelists, to look at it, is I got an economic historian to read it because I was using so much economic history. I am. I’ve got a list of them here in the back…sorry, it’s a while since…
Yeah, I was looking at the acknowledgments at the back of the book.
Yes, so, I got a religious specialist who knew a bit about religion. I got another classicist. I got a straight economist, as well as an economic historian, a specialist in Roman law, a retired Air Force pilot, a doctor, you know, that kind of thing, to read it and go…I’ve portrayed people in these professions, in this society, in this way. “Is this how it works?” basically, because one of the things that I have learned in my life is I hate watching police procedurals and I hate watching courtroom dramas and law shows and so on and so forth, unless they’re very, very good, like Rumpole of the Bailey, which only makes the tiniest concession to nonlawyers. I mean, there have been times where I have thrown shoes at police procedurals.
That could get expensive if you hit your TV.
Yes. Along the lines of “Inadmissible!” “Fraud!” “Can’t put that in front of the jury.” You know, I don’t just sit there and say things like that but…
I think that’s common with anything you know a lot about. When you see how it’s portrayed in the media, you’ll go, “No…”
And so, I didn’t want to do that in my novels about professions other than mine. I mean, I could obviously get the lawyers right because I know how legal systems work, and I know how Roman law works and so on and so forth. But I wanted to get all the other jobs that people do, like you were talking about earlier, real jobs in the real economy. I wanted them to ring true, at least, to people who were reading them. So my beta readers, this concept is so foreign to me…
I don’t use them myself.
…were people who were sort of not so much other novelists, but people who are technically proficient in certain fields.
And what kind of feedback could you get back?
Well, I mean, this is the advantage. It’s sort of like, the medical doctor was going, “No, no, you don’t do this when you do triage, you do that.” And technical advice along the lines of, “No, this is what actually happens here. This is, you know, when you’re learning to fly an aircraft, this is the kind of stuff you do,” that kind of advice. You know, so basically, I didn’t make schoolgirl howlers all the way through the book.
Just getting technical details straightened out.
Yes, a lot of it was technical stuff, and sort of the shape of values that people have…like, the chap who did medicine, he, like me…he might be a doctor now, but he, like me, had done classics at school. And he said, “You have to deal with the fact that if you give a society like that advanced biochemistry and genetics and modern medicine, they’re not going to have the same values that we do.” And even modern medicine doctors will fight over, you know, when is a life worth saving and those kinds of things.
So, he was the one that sort of got across to me, things like–that I knew about, like, I mean, the Romans actually didn’t have any compunction about putting down the ugly ones like unwanted kittens and this kind of thing. You have to deal with the fact that you’re dealing with a society that’s probably going to have eugenics, but it’s not going to do it in the incompetent way that the Americans did where the state is running it all, it’s going to be left in…the decisions are going to be made internally in the household, but there’s going to be overarching sets of values that will drive that. So you’ve got, on one level, you’ve got this grave and quite striking appreciation for beauty, which is very Roman, and it’s why their artwork and their sculpture has got this lovely, eye-pleasing rhythmical quality to it, that even the great art of the Renaissance can’t capture, because they’re trying to go back into the past and recreate this other society, forgetting that that art that the Greeks and the Romans produced were organic expressions of the way they viewed the world. And it’s very, very hard to go back and retrieve that mindset because you have to, like, basically get everybody’s brain and think like them.
That’s kind of what you’re trying to do in the whole book.
Yes, yes. So, I’m acutely aware of how difficult this is to achieve. So, you’ve got this sort of society that’s got a resonant respect for beauty and is never going to inflict Brutalist architecture on anyone, but by the same token, “Well, of course, you don’t want any more Down’s Syndrome babies to be born. Why would you want to keep them?”, that attitude as well, which is deeply Roman.
Once the book was off to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback did you get? Any major changes at that point? Or was it pretty set?
No, it was probably pretty set. I mean, I always accept editorial suggestions in terms of improving the smoothness of the style.
You must have dealt with a lot of editors being a journalist and writing for magazines.
Yes. And so I tend to, nine times out of ten, I just accept whatever an editor suggests because they’ve seen something that I haven’t. And only very occasionally will I say “No, no, no, I actually want to keep that. I’m doing that deliberately.” But most of the time, any changes that my editors did…I had two for Kingdom of the Wicked, and I had two, I think, for The Hand that Signed the Paper, different people doing different things, technical editing, copy editing, stylistic, structural editing. I remember there was at some point with one of the Kingdom of the Wicked books I’d stuffed up a timeline, what we were talking about earlier, and my editor picked it up, and I had to shift a piece of furniture, otherwise, I had the whole someone trying to be in two places at once, basically. “Do you have a time turner, like out of Harry Potter?” “No, I don’t. Whoops, I think I need to fix this.”
Yeah, it’s great when they get stuff like that. I had one that caught a big mistake in geography I had made where I had people sailing off the West Coast into the Pacific Ocean, and he pointed out gently, or she, that where I had them leaving the coast, they were actually in Puget Sound and they would run into land in pretty short order again.
So I had to move them south on the coast.
So this is kind of thing, it’s just, if I’m going to make a mistake as a writer, it is always, always, I get my dates and times wrong and I have a character…finishing up needing to clone a character, basically.
Well, we’re getting close to the end here. So I want to move over to my big philosophical question, which is, “Why? Why do you write? Why do you write anything, but why this? And why do you think any of us write? And specifically, why do people want to write these kinds of alternate worlds, do you think?
I think I can answer the last question better than the others because it’s a conversation I’ve had with economic historians, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but there was probably about 40 to 50 years ago, spilling over until as recently as maybe 20 years ago, there was a huge fight in the historical profession over the salience of using alternative history. And basically, there was this, for a long time. the Marxists, who are dead against it, won this argument and would say, no, history is material reality, the basis of Marxism is material reality and materialism, so, therefore, you shouldn’t be going on speculating about stuff that actually didn’t happen.
Other historians, coming out of different intellectual traditions, and particularly the economists, once you could start to get good data sets from countries, which you have at various periods, particularly from Japan, the Dutch Golden Age, and English and Scottish parish records are really quite striking, so you can get an enormous amount of information, rich societies kept very good records, so it was the economic historians who started to push back against this and go, “There are actually major questions that we cannot answer and have no hope of answering unless we allow are allowed to engage in alternative history.” And people like Stephen Davies and Peter Temin and Niall Ferguson and Antonia Fraser were at the vanguard of that movement amongst historians. So, that points that historians made has passed over to, I think, novelists in that it can be very fruitful, intellectually fruitful, to do alternative history. You can also tell a story…
Yeah, I was going to say, it can also be a lot of fun.
It can be a lot of fun. You’ve got the classic British expression, “a ripping yarn,’ you know, and get people right in. So that’s, I think, what’s going on there.
But why you?
But why me? Well, I just need a good idea. And that’s why I’ve only written three novels. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of journalism all over the world and outlets all over the place, and it looks like I’m very productive as a novelist, but that’s only because two of the novels are very fat. But I have to have a good idea to write a novel. And the speculative fiction idea just seemed to be such a good idea that I would pursue it. And I got two novels out of it, and people seem to like them, and they sell quite well. I mean, I’ve got the classic thing that I think they’re better than my first novel, but the first novel was the enormous bestseller. But I mean, I did an interview with a musician over here, his name is Zuby, and he’s had a top 20 single.
I follow him on Twitter, too.
Yeah, and he just said that “Perseverance,” the song was a big hit for him and sort of made his name, he said, “It’s not my best song. I’ve done way better.” But the thing is if he doesn’t do it as the encore at every single gig, I mean, people get, like, he will get filthy, rotten, nasty emails sent to him. So, what your readers like, or what your listeners like is just, different from, you know, it’s not, they’re not necessarily going to agree with you about the quality of your work.
Are you working on any more fiction at the moment?
Yes, I am. I’m working on another novel now. Once again, speculative fiction. At the moment I’m still at the reading and researching stage for it because I build the world first and work…and then I work out the characters, and then the plot comes last up. But it’s what happened, the point of departure here is, a lot of people outside the UK aren’t aware of this. The UK actually held two referendums on membership of the European Union. You’ve heard about, everyone’s heard about the 2016 one where they voted to leave, but there was actually another referendum in 1975 where they had been, the UK had been in the EU for a couple of years, but it was causing enormous electoral difficulty, in this period, for the Labour Party, not the Conservatives, the Conservatives were very pro, as it was then, the European Economic Community. And so, a referendum was held in 1975. The question was framed differently, but basically the same thing: Leave or Remain. And in 1975, Remain won. And my speculative fiction is, “What if Leave won in 1975?” So, a more recent historical…
So, I’m doing a Brexit book, basically. I wrote about, I’ve written about 100,000 words on Brexit, I might as well put them to some use.
Any timeline on that?
Not really. No. I mean, I just know it will be written because the idea hasn’t gone away. I mean, to the greatest extent possible, I try to ignore ideas for novels because I’m a full-time journalist/writer now. I haven’t practiced as a lawyer since mid-2016. And the thing is, novels take a long time to work through the system and to make money for you, whereas I can write a piece of journalism for The Spectator or the Telegraph or whoever, and I get my three hundred quid for it, and I get it in a couple of days. There’s a bit of difference.
Yes, certainly. I mean, I write nonfiction, too, and usually, I get that money way faster than anything that ever comes back from any fiction I write.
From any fiction. Yes. So yes, I will do it. I’m not quite sure when. And also, coronavirus has completely thrown everything up the spout because my Australian publisher, in line with a British publisher, called Biteback, which does political writing, because I’ve done a lot of politics coverage, wanted to do, they wanted to do a collection of my commentary, political commentary. And that was supposed to come out this year, but, of course, everything’s been delayed because of coronavirus. So that book’s just been put on the backburner until I can even visit Australia. I can’t even go back and visit at the moment because of all the closed borders.
I guess the other question is, before we finish off, I wanted to ask…because this program is called The Worldshapers, I often ask authors…you know, there’s very little fiction that has really changed the world. Maybe Dickens had some effect at one point and, you know, of course, Shakespeare, I suppose. But do you hope that your fiction in some ways shapes the real world or at least readers within the world, is there a polemical side to it at all? Or is it just because the idea won’t go away and you have to put it down?
No, no. I want to my…this is the old slogan of the Lord Reith model of public broadcasting, to educate, to inform, and to entertain. And if I do one of those well, let alone three, then I’ll be very happy. I don’t…I’m under no illusions about people becoming better or worse or anything else as a result of reading novels.
I have had occasionally a piece of journalism really take off, and a lot of people read it, and that has had an impact. And in one instance, I also had a piece of legislative drafting, parliamentary…I can draft legislation that is then enacted into law, I’ve got the drafting skill that…it’s part of being able to draft contracts and commercial leases and that kind of thing. I can draft legislation, and it’s a particular school, you’re known as Office of Parliamentary Counsel or Parliamentary Draughtsman. And I have drafted two bits of legislation, one in Scotland and one in Australia, that have probably had more influence on people’s lives than anything I’ll ever write in a novel.
That’s probably true. Yeah. Well, that kind of brings us to the end. I guess the other thing is, where can people find you online?
Well, I’m…I have a reasonably decent Twitter presence, I’m @_HelenDale, there is an underscore first because my name is common and someone else got it before me basically. So @_HelenDale, all one word. And I’m on Facebook, but I tend to just use it for pictures of my cats. And likewise, Instagram is just pictures of cats.
My cat pictures get way more interest than anything I post about me. My cat is much more popular than I am.
So I’m on Twitter with the @_HelenDale. I’m on Parler, the new one, a French company, and I’m @HelenDale without the underscore there. So…I’ve got…I’m one of the blue tick people on Twitter that…I got that. I think…because you just wake up one morning and it’s there. And I think it’s because I put in my profile that I was a Miles Franklin Award winner and a major national literary award, that’s the kind of thing that Twitter gives you for blue tick for. So, yes, you can…and my pinned tweet has got as many links to unpaid world journalism that I’ve done at various outlets that I could fit into one tweet, basically. I didn’t put links to anything that I’ve written for, like, The Spectator or the Australian or Wall Street Journal or anything like that, because they’re paywalled and people can’t get in and then get cross with you. So, the first one is just all the un-paywalled stuff that people want to read some of my journalism. It’s a British and, to a lesser extent Australian focus, given who I write for and what I write about.
All right. Well, there will be links to this on this page once this goes live. So I guess that brings us to the end. So, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.
Yes. Thank you very much..
Bye for now.
Catch you later. Bye.