Peter Dickinson's latest novel is a four-part epic on the prehistoric theme of what it means to be human. Michael Thorn meets the author, who says he enjoys reading 'the right kind of trash'
Peter Dickinson told me he was off to Whittards to buy fruit infusion for breakfast, then back to his three whippets. Off he strode, as purposefully as I had seen him striding ahead of me two hours beforehand, a lean figure in a much-lived-in white shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a black canvas bag over his shoulder.
His Hampshire home teeming with electricians and family, we had decided to meet at the offices of Macmillan, the publisher of his new children's novel, The Kin. In hardback, it will appear as one handsomely designed volume (pound;14.99), but its four constituent stories will eventually be released as separate paperbacks.
An epic reconstruction of the dawn of humankind, The Kin has the same mix of adventure and moral dilemma as most of Dickinson's novels, but is aimed at a younger readership. The Weathermonger trilogy of the Seventies contained much to excite the imaginations of primary pupils. Since then Dickinson's work has been mainly for the "young adult" audience, a fact that has boosted his popularity in America rather more than it has here.
"You'll find if you ask a simple question, you'll get a complicated answer, and I tend to rattle on," he warns. His writing is of a similar character. His narratives rattle along at a healthy pace, gaining complexities along the way. Of the new novel he says: "I think the Americans wanted it younger still, but you ask me for a book and you get stuff about the beginnings of religion, what language is, what it means to be human, I can't help it."
While in New York three or four years ago, Dickinson's agent met an editor from Putnam who had read A Bone from a Dry Sea. She had the idea that it would be possible to write four shorter books on the prehistoric theme for younger children. "But I don't like commissions. Publishers have expectations of you. I like to produce a book, say this is what it is, do you want it? I don't mind suggestions, but they don't get what they suggested!" Then for the first time in Dickinson's life an adult book "went sour" on him. He ditched it and said he'd give the Putnam idea a go. "I did the first part as a potboiler, which I don't like doing but I got quite interested in it, and then the second one I got excited by. I think the Americans were expecting something teachers could use, whereas these turn out to be books about what it means to be human."
The Kin is set in Africa - an imaginative Africa. Dickinson was born in Rhodesia, the second of four brothers, but he left at an early age. "It matters to me that I was born there, though I haven't been back." His father died of an undiagnosed strangulated gut within four months of returning to England, and Dickinson was brought up "in a world in which we had to pinch pennies but were used to the world of affluence". He went to a boarding school (intriguingly remembered in his adult novel Hindsight) and then to Eton ("the bottom scholar in the worst year on record").
As a boy he used to sail boats in John Masefield's stream at Boars Hill, near Oxford, and remembers one of Masefield's novels, The Bird of Dawning. "A wonderful account of a tea-clipper on its way home from China. Terrific stuff. The final race up the Channel - terrific!" But his favourite childhood reading was Rudyard Kipling. "We had this immense shelf of little, red, leather-bound Kiplings, which I read through uncomprehendingly from beginning to end. I think he's had more influence on the actual way my prose fits together."
After Cambridge, Dickinson spent 17 years on the editorial staff at Punch, reviewing mainly detective fiction and writing occasional verse, but sometimes slipping in a round-up of children's books. In a 1953 issue he wrote that one of his own childhood favourites had been The Radium Seekers by Fenton Ash, published in 1905 by Putnam. "It was an early essay in science fiction, with a strict ration of one astonishing adventure to every chapter." How fascinating now to find him writing this four-part novel, commissioned by the same publisher, to a very similar formula. High excitement in every chapter. Everything from attacking lions to rampaging flood waters.
Dickinson once wrote an article in defence of reading rubbish. And he confesses that he has "never enjoyed mainstream fiction - one of the many failings of my character. I'm incapable of not over-reacting to it. I get too involved and miserable about what's happening to the characters. The right kind of trash is what I like to read."
This is extraordinary, considering his reputation as one of our more serious and thought-provoking children's novelists. Eva is a perfect example of the manner in which Dickinson the writer invites readers to become intensely involved in his characters' circumstances. Eva is a commentary on technology, on the boundaries between animal and human existence, and "a myth about growing away from your parents" (a theme which Dickinson himself was unaware of until it was pointed out to him by his own daughter, Philippa, who works for another children's publisher, Transworld).
He has written occasionally for younger children before. Most recently in Chuck and Danielle, based on one of his own three whippets. "She is going through a very bad patch of being unworthy to eat her crusts," he confides. That book took shape when a friend rang his wife from America and "I suddenly realised I had three-quarters of an hour to fill". His ideas come from a variety of sources. A programme on the BBC World Service led to AK, his novel about guerrilla warfare; Tulku, with its portrait of a domineering and sexually active Edwardian botanist, from a developing interest in gardening.
The Kin may be the rare result of a commission but it is, nevertheless, an expression of Dickinson's prevailing preoccupations. Its alternating chapters - a technique he uses often, notably in Shadow of a Hero, where they contain the legends (with scholarly footnotes) of the fictional Balkan state, Varina - are written as scripture, conveying the sense that, primitive as the main cast might be, they are still individuals with a feeling for the past.
For a long time after we meet, I remember Peter Dickinson's large hands, skin hardened from gardening and other work. "It still goes very much against the grain to have anyone to do repairs," he says, apropos the electricians. At one time he was writing "an adult book in the two winter terms and a children's book in the summer term", then doing DIY in the holidays. Now almost 71, he's pulled back from the manual stuff but is palpably still on peak form with the stuff of fiction.
'A Bone from a Dry Sea', 'Eva', 'Shadow of a Hero', 'AK' and 'Tulku' are published by Corgi. 'Chuck and Danielle' is published by Corgi Yearling. The 'Weathermonger' books are published by Heinemann