Terry Deary Order

Terry Deary

author of
Horrible Histories
and Tudor Terror

The Knight of Stars and Storms
(Orion Dolphin 4.50)
ISBN 1-85881-521-5

1 We'll begin by talking about your current historical fiction sequence, Tudor Terror. This is a period already well-researched for your Horrible Histories. What additional research did you need to undertake for the novels?

The little details of life at the time – I was forever asking my researcher things like, "How did they get ships out of harbour in the days before tug boats", "What would happen to a man caught stealing a horse?", "Would you call Henry VIII 'Your Grace', 'Your Majesty' or 'Your Highness.'?" And then an expert read the texts and argued with some of the facts after I'd researched them so carefully! In the end they're about as accurate as can be.

2 A closely timetabled publishing schedule was a key feature of the contract you signed for these books. How has this affected the writing process?

I had to produce six books, of fifty-thousand words each, in a year. (I also had to write six to eight books for other publishers the same year.) So I simply decided to write one Tudor Terror book each alternate month. I write five days a week so that was about twenty writing days – twenty chapters of 2,500 words. A chapter a day. Simple. Exhausting … but simple!

3 Has the sequence taken off in any directions you did not anticipate at the start, or has the fact that it is historically based meant that you've kept more closely to an original outline than would be normal with standard fiction?

I don't see the six Tudor terror books as a "sequence". They are one book in six parts. I saw the whole thing as a single unit. What did happen was the characters took on a life of their own – both the historical characters and the fictional Marsden family. I began to like many of them – even the harsh Sir James and the gruesome Grandmother – but not the monstrous Henry VIII. So they each have a chance to tell a story from their own point of view and (hopefully) the reader comes to understand their behaviour. That's what it's all about isn't it? Understanding other people through fiction then learning to understand your own behaviour? Especially your bad behaviour!

4 I know that you believe too many old books are reissued in an attempt to give them 'classic' status and that you resent the fact that they nudge out new authors and new titles. Most fiction, you have argued, is tied to the issues and concerns of its own period. Are you tempted to hope that this does not apply to historical fiction?

Yes! I couldn't have put it better. My books attempt look at 'timeless' issues – things that were important to Tudors and are still important to us now. But that's NOT to say I want MY books to become classics. If someone comes along next year (or in twenty years) and does the same thing BETTER then my books should be pulped and the new books take their place. Old trees rot and die to make way for healthy new growth. Old books should be allowed to die the same way. Burn the 'classics'! Shoot "Black Beauty", blow away "The Wind in the Willows" and run over "The Railway Children".

5 The promotion of the first two Tudor Terror titles was full-blooded. Clearly a good deal of money had been spent on publicity and cover-design. On one level this must have been very pleasing, but as an author still busy writing books in the sequence did it put you under any pressure?

No. Because the sixth book was finished before the first one appeared. That's one advantage of writing them so quickly! What WILL be difficult is to follow this series with another. What should I write about? Will it be as good? Do I still have something to say through the medium of historical fiction? Help! Answers on the back of a postcard please.

6 The Tudor Terrors I have read include both a realtime narrative involving the two main child characters, and a 'recollected' story told by one of the older characters. Is this narrative pattern adopted in all the books? Which of the narratives did you find easiest to write?

The fifth book is different because three characters are all in realtime and share the narrative. That was fun. No it was FUN! As for the others, the realtime was tricky to write because it always had to keep pace with the "remembered" story. The remembered story (being based on fact) was already "written" four hundred years ago. (Hey! You ask some hard questions. This is like being back at school. I hope you Internet readers appreciate what I'm going through here!)

7 Tudor Terrors are set in the north of England. You were born in Sunderland and live in County Durham. How important to you is living in a particular place?

The publishing industry is dominated by London and the south. It may surprise the editors but there IS life north of Milton Keynes. And there was a life here in Tudor times … it's just no one in their boring old history text books BOTHERS with it. I have lived in Wales and in the south of England so LIVING in the north isn't essential to my writing. But WRITING ABOUT the North matters to me. It's a dirty job but someone has to do it.

8 There seems to have been no let-up in your non-fiction output during the writing of Tudor Terrors. You must have a rigorous work-schedule. How do you organise your time?

I work from 8:30 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. and I do that from Sunday to Friday inclusive. Saturday is my one day off. I work 52 weeks a year with Christmas Day off. I last had a holiday 17 years ago. I only have to write 1000 words a day to complete a non-fiction book. Hell, I can write 1000 words an HOUR if I push myself and once wrote an 11,000 word book in a day! But that's not "rigorous". Teaching 30 kids in a school all day, digging coal in a sunless mine, serving burgers in a bar to ungrateful customers and demanding bosses – now THAT'S what I'd call "rigorous". I'm my own boss, doing something I enjoy. I've given up visits to schools and literature festivals so generally I have a settled and stress-free life. Of course I haven't got time to be ill.

9 When you first started writing the Horrible Histories, I seem to remember, you had a collaborator. How did you end up writing them on your own?

Talk to my solicitors about that one please!

10 The look and feel of a Horrible History title is very important (especially as there are now so many titles competing in this 'niche'); to what extent do you think Martin Brown's illustrations have contributed to the Horrible Histories' remarkable success?

Martin Brown is an equal partner in the creation of Horrible Histories. At first the series comprised horrible, but fairly "straight" facts. Any humour was in Martin's jokes. He is an Australian so he's born naturally subversive and anti-establishment – I've had to learn how to be bolshy. The books have developed and are now far more powerful commentary on human behaviour; other artists are able to imitate Martin's style and humour, but he CREATED it. He's my hero … even if he does gloat when his cricket team stuffs mine.

11 Martin Brown was at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, but you, as you were saying, have withdrawn a little from author appearances. Why is this?

I've done hundreds of sessions in schools and festivals in the past but recently have begun to wonder what is the point? (Even if I had the time to leave my desk, which I haven't) Certainly, when invited to schools, some teachers imagined that I could pass on writing skills to their pupils. Of course I can't. The REAL secret of successful writing is natural talent. You can either do it or you can't. Meeting a writer will have no effect – I never met a writer when I was young and yet here I am about to publish my hundredth book. And festivals are for young people who already enjoy reading. I think it is actually a MISTAKE to meet someone you admire – a "hero" if you like. Because a writer cannot live up to the image a reader has in his/her mind. All right, all right! Let's be blunt about it … THIS writer, Terry Deary, can't live up to what the readers expect. Even the nice ones say, "You're a lot older than I expected!" Huh! I can't help that! I'm younger than Roald Dahl … and I'm writing a lot better than him these days.

12 Coming back to those competitors... What do you feel about the huge number of try-to-be-like-Horrible-Histories titles that there are around?

Published by parasites and written by saddos. Come on, lads! There are a thousand new genres out there waiting to be invented. Why don't you go and create one of your own? You haven't the talent, is that it? I wouldn't mind if you did Horrible Histories BETTER – but you don't! They LOOK like Horrible Histories but the "author's voice" is still the same boring old school text book one. You know the thing … "Now children, I am an expert – I know these facts – so sit still and listen." Whereas Terry Deary says, "Look, kids, I am not an expert – but you'll never guess what I discovered about these people! Whaddya think of this ……?" My readers know the difference, don't you?

13 There wouldn't be these competitors if the Horrible Histories had not been so phenomenally successful. Being published by Scholastic obviously helps, given the large number of sales through their school book fairs. But what do you think is the principle reason for their popularity, and did you have any inkling that you were 'on to a winner' when the first title came out?

In the past non-fiction was written by 'experts'. Let me tell you something – an "expert" should not be allowed within a hundred miles of a children's book. In fact an expert should be put up against a wall and shot if s/he even thinks about writing a children's book. Terry Deary is a children's author. He has a track record of 30+ fiction books published before he turned to non-fiction. (Mind you, I think putting the success down to Scholastic's Book Club power is misleading. The published "Top Ten" charts in the media are based on bookshop sales only and I'm never out of those charts.) And did I EXPECT the success? No. Let's face it, non-fiction had never made an impact in the best-seller charts before. Ask me if I ENJOY the success … Yes.

14 The Horrible Histories have been particularly popular with boys. When people complain that boys are not reading, they normally mean they are not reading fiction? Do you have any thoughts on boys and reading?

Humans have lived successfully on Earth for a couple of million years before reading was invented. So let's get this in proportion. BOOKS don't matter – PEOPLE matter. If those boys are out there enjoying life, doing something useful and learning about other people, then I don't care if they never pick up a book. I'd be more worried about the girls (and boys) who spend an unhealthy amount of time reading about life than "living" it. But if those non-readers are out there vandalising my car or mugging my mum I'd rather see them reading a book! The greatest compliment I get is when a young person writes to me and says they don't like reading … but they read my books! Great! Books are a fine source of enjoyment and learning … but football is better.

15 You started work as an actor and drama teacher. How has this background contributed to your work as an author?

My life in drama and in writing can't be separated. As an actor I took the company plays and re-wrote/improved them. Then I began writing original plays for touring. Finally I turned my plays into novels for children. I still "see" chapters in my books as "scenes"; it is second-nature for me to move the plot along and show character by writing dialogue. I am so very lucky to have been an actor. Without it I'd never have become a writer. People look at Shakespeare and argue, "He couldn't have written those plays because he was a tradesman's son who went to Grammar school and never went to university." But I'm a tradesman's son who went to grammar school and never went to university. I know instinctively how Shakespeare did it. Anyone who follows in our footsteps – acting-writing for stage – has a greater chance of success. (No DO NOT twist that to say "Terry Deary compares himself with Shakespeare! We walked the same path – he walked further.)

16 What do you think of the proposal that children's literature should have its own laureate?

Hmmm! Very sceptical. I know they say it will make people take children's books more seriously, but I am not convinced. There are already some very pompous and pretentious people in the world of children's books. Quite honestly I'd rather see that hot air blown away. Let's take children's books LESS seriously. But especially let's take WRITERS less seriously. "Laureate" indeed. Hah! Let's never forget this truth: "Writers don't matter – READERS matter". The people who planned this laureate tosh should be made to write that out a thousand times. (And, when they offer me the job as Children's Laureate I will turn it down.)

Order 17 Your Scottish Horrible History drew forth some newsworthy protests from academics. In addition to fan letters from children, I am sure your postbag occasionally contains nitpicking from historians. Do you have any entertaining examples?

Those Scottish Academics were a joy! What a couple of fellers! (Named Doctor Finlay and Doctor Cameron believe it or not). They must be really busy boring the pants off students in their universities. Yet they take time out to call my humble little book "cheap, sensationalist rubbish". Wow! No one's ever said anything that nice about my books before. And here's the amazing thing … those two brilliant professors made their comments without even reading the book! I love them to bits. The book has gone straight to the No 1 spot in Scottish best sellers – that's ALL books, not just children's. How can I ever thank them? My publishers tend to shield delicate me from horrible historians who try to write nasty things to me. But I did hear of one guy who sent the Vile Victorians back to the publishers, outraged; his daughter had bought it for him as a Christmas present and he was disgusted. "It shows a terrible disrespect for our ancestors," he spluttered. Er … yes? So what? People like you have been lying to children and painting a rosy picture of the past ever since history was invented! Don't you think it's time to give the other side a chance? And here's your daughter's money back.

18 Given your background in the theatre and what you say about conceivin'chapters' in terms of 'scenes' from a play, are there any plans to dramatise the Tudor Terror stories?

At present my publishers and I are talking to about seven television companies who've expressed an interest in televising Tudor Terror. One or two are nervous about the expense of doing "costume drama" and think it may never be possible to fund a major children's historical series again – ever! But the most interesting enquiry comes from the head of an independent production company who performed with me in a theatre company 25 years ago! Small world, eh? I can't see Tudor Terror being adapted for stage the way I've just adapted Horrible Histories and am about to adapt Spark Files. And Spark Files are generating huge television interest even before they are published.

19 Do you have snacks while you work (green jelly babies?) or stick to a single lunch-break?

I've non-stop tea and biscuits I am ashamed to say. Since starting to write full time, four years ago, I've put on over 2 stones in weight. Thinking of changing my name to Terry Blobby.

20 When you were a child you helped out in the family butcher shop. A writer's life tends to exclude involvement of this kind. Or does it? How involved has your daughter been in the Terry Deary phenomenon?

This writer's life does exclude family involvement. My wife and daughter have learned not to interrupt me at my desk unless (a) the house is burning down or (b) Tony Blair has arrived to invite me to take over the governing of Britain. When I have to visit television studios and make recordings with pop or soap stars Sara is very keen to become involved and pose!