I’ve known Paul Dowswell long enough to have forgotten exactly when we met. It was at an Edinburgh International Book Festival when I was chairing a panel session in which he was participating. I can’t even remember which of his books he was talking about. What I do remember is that I enjoyed the session enough that I went to hear his solo event later in the day. Over the years, we met in Edinburgh and I got to know him and his family a bit better. [After a bit of further discussion, we think we met in 2012 and that the event also featured the ever-charming and engaging Allan Burnett.]
Our friendship has undoubtedly been helped by the fact that I am genuinely enthusiastic about his books, as a reader as well as a critic. Paul says that the twentieth century is his favourite period of history and it’s mine too. He came to my attention as a writer of fiction with the publication of Ausländer but, in fact, I had long known his name.
Rewinding a bit, Paul graduated with a degree in history and dabbled in a few jobs before settling down as a picture researcher for Time Life in London, something he thoroughly enjoyed. As the months went on, he realised that he enjoyed writing up his research and was actually very good at that. For twenty years he kept a diary which he wrote for the sheer pleasure of writing. On reading it back, he realised that although it was excruciatingly embarrassing in parts, it was also very readable.
And so when Time Life closed its London office and Paul was looking around for new employment, his eye was caught by an advert from Usborne looking for an author/editor. Co-incidentally, the job was in Wolverhampton where Paul’s then girlfriend (and now wife) Jenny lived. For eight and half years he wrote about everything from genetic engineering to Neolithic cooking techniques. What Usborne wanted was not a subject specialist but someone with excellent communication skills. And Paul was certainly their man.
I worked as a school librarian early in my career and all of my libraries housed books by Paul in their non-fiction collections. In common with the rest of Usborne’s output, they were well-produced, clearly written and full of illustrations, making them accessible to many pupils. In hindsight, perhaps because of his later fiction, it’s the books on history that I remember most. And that’s where Paul’s heart lies. His great ambition is to write an illustrated history of the twentieth century, something I’d certainly buy.
Going freelance, Paul kept writing for Usborne and one of his books, about polar exploration, was short leeted for the Blue Peter Award and it was a conversation arising from that experience that led Paul into writing fiction. As he points out, it wasn’t such a great leap from the narrative non-fiction, including a number of Usborne True Stories, he was already writing. And given his background in history and love for it, it made sense for his fiction to be historical.
His initial foray into fiction was the Powder Monkey trilogy set against the backdrop of Nelson’s navy. Those books made up three quarters of a four-book deal with Bloomsbury and did well enough, but it was the final book of that initial contract that garnered critical and public acclaim.
Ausländer is the story of blond-haired blue-eyed Piotr. When the Nazi occupiers swoop down on a Warsaw orphanage, he is scooped up and dispatched to Berlin, there to be become Peter, adopted son of Professor and Frau Kaltenbach. Through his eyes we discover the Germany of 1943. And that was what struck me most forcibly about the novel: it explores a period of history well-known to young readers, from a very different perspective, that of the British reader’s enemy.
And Paul has continued to write historical fiction that has an immediacy that comes from a single viewpoint. And usually the view is the one less often chosen which I think is inspired. Paul’s own take on this is that, in the Darwinian world of writing, it is only common sense to stick with what you’re good at. For him, he says, that is historical fiction, something he believes he’s as good at as anyone else. He’s not convinced that the same would be true of other genres.
His next book, The Cabinet of Curiosities, stepped further back in time. But the court of Rudolf II in Prague, although hugely fascinating, did not appeal to younger readers as much as it did to Paul and so he returned to the future and settled down to write about the twentieth century, the period of history that he enjoys the most. So much happened in those hundred years that means they cast a long shadow, Paul believes. He thinks that knowing what happened then plays an important part in understanding the way the world is now.
He went back to Berlin for his next book, Sektion 20. But here it is the 1970s and the shadow of the Wall dominates life for the Ostermann family. The action – and the characters – move from one side to the other and it’s tricky to know where the most trouble lies. The book is set during my lifetime (just!) and it doesn’t really feel like history to me; it’s what I grew up seeing and experiencing at second hand. But, of course, if you’re twelve this might as well be set in the Dark Ages!
My own favourite period of history is the early twentieth century and I am specially drawn to novels set during the First World War so I was delighted by Paul’s two books set then. Eleven Eleven is set on the day the Armistice is signed and recounts eleven hours of it from the points of view of three servicemen: Axel Meyer from Germany, British soldier Will Franklin and German American airman Eddie Hertz. Events conspire to bring them together in the dying hours of the war all hoping against hope that they will survive. This is my favourite of Paul’s books not just for its setting but also for the characters of these three young men all of them conflicted by the turmoil they are thrown into.
Paul’s other First World War novel was commissioned by Barrington Stoke. This wonderful publishing house in Edinburgh produces books for young people who struggle with reading for reasons of inclination or difficulty. Only the best contemporary writers are asked to produce books for them and they are excellent. The action of Paul’s Wave mostly takes place at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, although some is set in the current day. Paul is enthusiastic about writing for Barrington Stoke, remembering them as being generous with their time and easy to work for. With a limited word count, Paul says that he had always to have his eventual readers in his mind. It was important to consider their general knowledge and linguistic understanding more than with some of his other books.
Paul’s research is very important to him. He says that he owes it to his readers to be true to history and write within the framework of actual events. And that he certainly does. He feels that he must, however, be careful not to over-research as that might threaten to overwhelm the story. I can see that is a possibility but I don’t think he’s in any danger of it. He seems to have perfect balance in that regard. Like Ausländer, Bomber is set in 1943. It features seventeen-year-old Harry Friedman, an American gunner stationed on an airbase in England. Inevitably a book that tells the story of raids over Germany will need technical details but the fact that I understand little of them (and care less, if the truth were to be told) makes no difference to my enjoyment of the book. I’ve been given enough information for the story to make sense but have not been bombarded with it.
It might come as a surprise that such a mild-mannered man as Paul is fascinated by the brutality of the USSR. Red Shadow is set in the Kremlin, where Stalin is all-powerful and intrigue rules. Teenage Misha is thrust into life there when his father is given a job in the inner circle. But no-one is safe and everyone is suspect. It’s a hard-hitting book and clearly one of Paul’s favourites. If he could write any book he chose, it would be a sequel to this one, he says. Sadly, he points out, he’s a professional, not a gentleman writer and Soviet history appears not to be flavour of the month.
The Nazis, on the other hand, seem to be an unending source of fascination with the reading public. But what happens when such a malevolent power is finally defeated? It’s that question that Paul addresses in Wolf Children. In the power void of ruined Berlin many are fighting for supremacy. Occupying forces battle with rival gangs and utter destitution and argue amongst themselves. It’s a moving read about a group of young people literally struggling for survival in a city ground to dust.
So there we are, surrounded by this great crowd of superb books – and then Paul takes a massive step backwards. Only in history, I should make clear. His most recent novel is The Great Revolt. My heart sank when I saw it. Mediaeval English history is not my idea of a good time. Anyone who knows me knows that in my view history should start around 1800 so the 1380s are not my comfort zone. But the truth is that Paul is a great storyteller regardless of when his story is set. Would I choose to read more books from that period of history? Well, no. If they were written by Paul? Probably yes. What he does so well is to create a setting for his characters in which they are firmly embedded. But then he deals with them as human beings. And, of course, people don’t really change that much even if their circumstances are vastly different.
I say that The Great Revolt is Paul’s most recent book but there was a postscript to our conversation. For all you Dutch speakers out there a new book awaits. From Paul’s Dutch publisher comes Tweestrijd, another story set in the Second World War and featuring the V-2 rocket. At the moment I’m having to take on trust that it’s another book I will love but, even as I type, a copy of the original English version is winging its way towards me. I’m confident enough of its brilliance to suggest that British publishers should stop messing around and start bidding for it.
[The photographs of the books are mine. All the others belong to Paul.]