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start off as one thing in my brain and then grow over the next week until it is almost totally formed. While this is happening I usually can’t sleep. For research, I often go to kids’ books first to get the facts right before going on to more detailed work, often involving quite a lot of travel.’

For Nightship to China Damian followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo to Hong Kong, proceeded to the Canton province and the Guilin mountain range before finishing up in Beijing. For his previous novel, Circus Maximus, he lived for a while in an apartment in Rome overlooking the Trevi fountain. Does he really need so much research for stories that are primarily fantasies?

‘The main thing for me is to make sure that readers can feel what it may actually have been like to arrive in sixteenth century Venice or whatever else I am describing. What people would be eating or wearing, in particular. This side of writing comes easily to me as I have always loved food myself and remain very intrigued by clothes, given that I was once a scenic and costume designer in the film world. But I also like getting across what the climate would be like, in fact the whole feel of a place in the past. It’s not to do with wanting all the facts to be right, though I think that’s quite a nice bi-product, but more that if you want to provide escapism, which is after all what my stories are about, you have to make everything properly convincing first.’

In fact, Damian is being a bit hard on himself here. His novels so far have also delved into genuine historical issues including the birth of world trade, relations between East and West, wealth and multi-culturalism in Shakespeare’s London and the inventiveness of China with regards to money, printing and navigation. This reflects the way he has always been fascinated by history, or as he says himself, ‘by its epic sweep, by its colour and darkness, by its incredible characters, its many heroes and villains.’ As a child brought up in London he visited museums every weekend, fascinated by stories of what people have achieved in the past. He is now a patron of the charity Kids in Museums. But despite all this learning, has he ever been tempted to let his time travelling characters fail in their attempt to keep history as it always was, so allowing one of those what-if situations to arise in his fiction?

‘My original idea was that the Seekers would ultimately fail in their mission and that history would therefore be changed. But in the end I thought I would avoid going down that particular road, which has already been taken numbers of other writers. I still think about doing this sometimes, but more perhaps as a conclusion to the series rather than something that happens in the middle.’

Meanwhile, is your fourteen-year old hero Jake Djones ever going to get older and want perhaps a bit more from some of the girls he meets on his time travels?

Books for Keeps No.206 May 2014 17

‘He does get older, fifteen by the third book, and yes, the adult side of things is increasingly in the air for him. But it hasn’t really led to anything definite happening yet.’

What about the movie right to your books now purchased by the company Working Title? Any progress there?

‘There have been two draughts for a screenplay now, and progress is being maintained, though I know from having worked on the inside how long this process can take.’

It’s now time leave to leave Damian to get on with his writing – in a good week he reckons to produce at least 6000 words. His prose style is more traditional than experimental, describing characters’ thought, feelings and what they can see with the help of numerous adjectives and adverbs. Coming from writing screenplays with their emphasis on immediate understanding, or as he puts it ‘show not tell’, he has always believed in packing in as much information for the reader as possible. ‘Because I see everything so incredibly clearly in my own mind’s eye, I just want everyone else to be able to experience what I am experiencing.’

Many other good writers of historical fiction for children exist these days. But Damian has the gift of instant popularity while never writing down to his audience when it comes to describing historical periods and events. Another book is on the horizon, this time going in a quite different direction. Still only in early middle-age, there is clearly much more to come from this author who never gives less than his best. n

The Books

The History Keepers: Nightship to China, Damien Dibben, Corgi Children’s Books, 432pp, 978-0552564304, £7.99 The History Keepers: The Storm Begins, 496pp, 978-0552564137, £6.99 The History Keepers: Circus Maximus, 480pp, 978-0552564298, £6.99

Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.

Photograph © Rufo Guerrero

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