Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Interview with Michael Dobbs

Hot on the trail of the US election, House of Cards is to become a major new American series, to be shown next year on Netflix. 

I was incredibly excited and privileged to interview House of Cards author (Lord) Michael Dobbs a few weeks ago. I asked him about writing, politics in fiction, and what he is working on next. He was, as I expected, insightful, witty and informative. An edited version of the interview is below.


You have written such a wide range of books, from your original House of Cards series and your Churchill books through to the Harry Jones series and other Parliamentary novels such as First Lady. Now, of course, you have your very successful play, The Turning Point, as well as the House of Cards remake in the US.  How do you get inspiration for such a variety, and do you write more than one novel at the same time?

MD: I never write more than one book at a time, simply because for me writing books is one of the most intensive of any of the writing I do.  I find that I can write a play and leave it then come back a month later and pick it up again, but I can’t do that with a novel, I really have to go at it constantly from beginning to end, otherwise if I stop I lose the flavour of the whole thing, and the fine threads, because it is far more complex, usually. So I can work on more than one project at the same time, but I could never work on one more book at the same time.

Inspiration – inspiration is all around, you only have to open the morning newspapers, switch on the radio, and the characters you have, the situations you have – I mean, if I wrote something in a book about a Chief Whip on his bike at the gates of Number 10, nobody would have accepted it.  I keep saying this, and it is absolutely true, that you have to take reality and then water it down in order to make it credible in a novel, because you expect people to act reasonably rationally, but time and time again in politics, they don’t.

Politics is such a rich backdrop, it is a fantastic stage on which to set a drama, but like all backdrops, you have to know what the circumstances are.  A lot of people think they know about politics, but as soon as you mention politics people think, ‘oh, it’s about party policy’, when of course it’s nothing to do with what we write – we write about people, and the huge stress, under great pressure, subjected to enormous temptation, and they’re probably fairly flawed anyway to be in politics, which is why I think some people get political drama absolutely right, while others don’t and it becomes infected with politics or prejudice, and that’s not what people want to read about.

Do you have a firm plan in mind when you start a book, or do you allow for a little spontaneous creativity as you go along? 

MD: I used to have a very firm outline, I might write a 10,000 word outline, partly because I always needed to know where the plot is going, because if you’re writing a thriller, you’ve got to have a really good ending, and the thing I hate most of all is reading a thriller where, about 15 pages from the end, I can’t quite see where this is going and wonder whether the author knows where it’s going, by five pages from the end it’s obvious the author doesn’t know where it’s going and all of a sudden, in desperation, somebody has a completely unexpected heart attack.  I hate that, so I always know where I’ve got to get to, and I always have the finale in mind, but nowadays I give myself much more leeway and I often start writing – I know where I’m going to get to, but I’m not quite sure route I’m going to take.  I am finding that pretty reassuring, and I’m finding my writing is improving as a result rather than just being too structured.  But that’s my opinion, other people might think that it’s not getting any better and it’s probably getting too self-indulgent.  But as you will find, hopefully your writing always adapts, modifies, and you learn something with every book, and you get better.

You say you want writing to be an adventure – what do you mean by that?

MD: I generally write thrillers – I’m not trying to win Booker prizes, I’m trying to entertain people, and I’m trying to lead them into a world that they’re probably not entirely familiar with. I mean, books are wonderful, they do open doors into entirely different worlds, which is what’s so magical about them, and that’s always my ambition – to entertain, with an adventure, because I always find, whatever it is I do, it is an adventure for me too, and I want to transmit them to the readers. I’m not trying to write great works of literature, although I hope my books are well crafted, and I work very hard on making sure they are increasingly well crafted.  I don’t always get it right, sometimes you fall flat on your face with an occasional book, but by and large and think my writing has improved.

What are you working on, or thinking of working on, next?

MD: I am writing another Harry Jones right now, how long I will keep writing Harry Jones I’m not sure, as there are so many other books I want to write.  Whether I put him to one side for a bit, or decide after six books that’s enough, I just don’t know.  It’s an interesting question I will have to think about.  I don’t have to make that decision just yet, I’ve just got to get on and finish my current book.

Are your Harry Jones books going to be made into films?

MD: Yes…but you can never rely on Hollywood to come through with all their promises, and if they don’t, I’m pretty confident someone else will, because I think he’s [Harry Jones] a character of the moment, of the age – I think it’s about time we had flawed politicians who we could enjoy and look up to.  It is wonderful when somebody comes up and says ‘we want to make this into a huge blockbuster’. 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t happen, but when you get the one occasion when it does happen – like now with House of Cards and Kevin Spacey – it blows you away, it changes your life.  It can be one of the most exciting moments of your life.

Tell me about House of Cards in America.  It must be a very exciting project. Was House of Cards a smooth translation into US politics? 

MD: I think Kevin Spacey said that the original was all about a screwed up politician who had manipulated and murdered his way to the top in the UK, and their version is all about screwed up politician who had manipulated and murdered his way to the top in the US.  It’s West Wing for werewolves.  It is bloody and edgy.

It will be on Netflicks – the idea is that the whole television market is changing, people will increasingly demand their programmes to be streamed to them on demand rather than having to wait for Tuesday evening at 9 o’clock or whatever.  That’s what’s going on in the States, that’s what they’re predicting will happen here. It’s early days, but channels like CBS and ABC are rather being left in the backwater, because everyone’s going for the streaming in the States and watching it on the internet.  House of Cards is being released in February, and all 13 episodes are being released at once. It’s a beautiful piece of broadcasting…and a bold and exciting adventure in the transition of broadcasting from one era to what they believe will be the next.

I was over in the US two weeks ago…it is going to be a stunningly successful series, the quality of it is amazing.

Politicians in fiction

One of the writers of Thick of It said last week that life imitates art more than he intended. Have you found this to be the case in your own writing, and if so, do you think this is a good or bad thing? 

MD: There was one correspondent I had for many years who wrote to me on the basis that House of Cards was a deliberate attempt to undermine the Conservative Government, of which I was a fairly prominent supporter.  I never really thought of it that way.  Good drama, good fiction, can illustrate lots of themes, and therefore it can get people thinking about things they wouldn’t if they were restricted to press releases.  Drama can illustrate, illuminate, excite people about areas which are important but which otherwise they wouldn’t be getting into.  I think the only people I’ve actually upset in politics are those who rushed up to me and said ‘Francis Urquart, you really did base him on me, didn’t you?’ and I have to say actually ‘no, I didn’t’ and they go away usually crestfallen.

Me: In my own book I try to get across that politicians are essentially ordinary people existing in an extraordinary place, and power can do things to people, change them.

MD: People assume that politicians are a different breed, but they’re not, they’re just in a different place, subjected to different pressures and huge temptations.

Do you think that, if House of Cards was to be made again in the UK today, it would have as much impact as it did 20 year ago, or have often controversial political thrillers such as Spooks and Homeland made people even more cynical in their political outlook and what politicians themselves could be capable of?

MD: I don’t know, but it requires a background of cynicism to get the most out of it. The Brown era would have been a good background to set novels against, but it wasn’t there long enough.  Now we have a coalition period which we know is going to be there for some time, and people are pretty cynical about politics and politicians, partly as a result of the coalition…and this is a fairly new era in politics, people aren’t quite sure what the rules are, so yes I think there is scope for some very powerful, entertaining and incisive novels, dramas, TV shows etc.

Do you think that House of Cards set a precedent all those years ago for political dramas today, both here and abroad, now we have dramas such as West Wing?

MD: West Wing was particularly American, in the sense that it was nice about politicians…in this country we take a rather more robust view about politics.  You look at some of the earlier political dramas, such as a Very British Coup, like Edge of Darkness, House of Cards, they all had their sharpened edge to them and I think that’s how we look at politics and what we want from our drama.  If we wrote dramas that were all about what a wonderful bunch of guys these are at Westminster, it would be a hard sell.  So Harry Jones, my latest character - I hope people will enjoy him and look up to him.  He’s not perfect, far from it, he does some pretty awful things, and it’s going to get worse, I can tell you that!

Political fiction as a writing genre 

Many of the books topping the bestseller lists today include the genres of fantasy, erotic fiction, chick lit and espionage-type thrillers, but political fiction as a genre – or, at least, novels focussing on the politicians themselves – seems to me to be limited, and difficult to convince agents.  Unless you’re writing in popular genres, it’s difficult to get a look-in.  Do you think some of these genres have an unfair advantage in the mass market?

MD: It is a problem – it’s easier to see in the world of television.  The BBC has had some huge hits in political drama…Yes, Minister, even The Thick of It, although I think The Thick of It doesn’t fit quite so neatly, it’s such a parody.  But you’re right, people think political drama is about politics, and they miss the essential point…and also, to be an effective political drama it does have to have an edge and in all honesty I think there are far too many commissioning executives, particularly in the BBC, have a strong left-wing bias.  I’m not saying that the whole of the BBC is run by a bunch of Marxists, but I think instincts tend to be on that part of the spectrum, and the BBC has even admitted it.  During the Blair years they wanted to love him and all he was about…and I don’t think that helped. 

But now we are in a new era, and I think that House of Cards, when that comes out in February, people are going to say ‘oh yes, we want more, more, more’ and these things go in cycles, television goes in cycles. Hollywood will one day get back into westerns…all you have at the moment is Transformers and people get sick with that and move on to the next thing. So a lot of it is timing, and timing is down usually to luck. I was hugely lucky with House of Cards, and I am being hugely lucky again 25 years on with the new House of Cards.  I don’t put that down to my brilliance, I put that down to huge luck and that the BBC simply didn’t understand what they were doing with it 25 years ago [laughs].  But again there is this strange word ‘politics’ and it does encourage people to instinctively take positions and to put the shutters on and to look at things through their own prejudices.  I talk about turning the written word into an adventure…and I am hoping people will look at Harry Jones not as a politician, although he has a political background, but as an adventurer.  But it is a bit of challenge.

If you set out to write a best seller, I don’t know anyone who has managed to do it. You can’t say ‘I know the market’, the market is always moving, there are no rules to it,  so it is incredibly difficult to pre-judge and you know that the best writing comes out of an inner commitment.  And if you can set forth that inner commitment very well people are going to read it no matter what it’s about, they love that sense of power that that inner commitment brings.

E-books and future of publishing  

There has been much debate about the role of e-books, and whether e-books and electronic self-publishing through providers such as Amazon and Smashwords are damaging to the publishing industry and to booksellers, although figures show that traditional books are still a healthy proportion of books purchased on Amazon overall.  Do you agree with some traditionally published authors that e-publishing is damaging the industry?

MD: It is certainly changing the market, but there’s nothing you can do about, because at the end of the day consumers will decide what they want and in what format they want it.  E-books are changing the market dramatically, a lot of publishers are very confused about it as to where it’s going to go, and it does raise fascinating questions about the relationship between the author, the readership and what role the publisher continues to play in that process. I am concerned that it might squeeze out that crucial part of the market which is all about taking good writers and giving them the time to get better and become great writers. Sometimes if you look through the careers of really good writers at the heart of the British creativity, it takes time to develop.  Nobody is a great author overnight because they’ve decided to write a book overnight.  I wonder whether publishers will have the time, the resources and the patience to bring on those really good writers – that does worry me. I’m afraid that, in 20 years time, we might look around and say ‘my goodness me, where did those wonderful writers go?’  There’s a danger that it is going over to those who can market themselves and we will all be reading Katie Price’s biography mark seven.  You go into Waterstones before Christmas, when 40 per cent of all books get sold throughout the year, and you will find that the top 40 are almost entirely filled with celebrity and TV-related books, not your fine works of literature or great fiction. 

But, at the end of the day, we can’t stop people buying e-books, and what we have to do is adapt ourselves so that we know what is available and to encourage them to try them.  There are lots of ways – marketing, making things price sensitive, and I think what it will do is it will enable people to buy more books.  But what it will also do is continue the huge haemorrhaging of bookshops. I think something like a third of all bookshops have closed in the last five years.  It is a huge number, the industry really is in crisis, and if that carries on for the next five years…few of us will be able to go into a bookshop and browse, which is what encourages us to open up our minds.  You go onto the internet, press a button and that’s done, so you don’t browse.  We will have to find ways of getting over that.  That is why people are desperately concerned, and they are right…it is an era of huge change.

If people carry on buying more books that’s brilliant, and authors get a better percentage than they do out of e-books, so let see how it works.

What advice would you give to a budding author to make them stand out from the rest?

MD: I get dozens of people every year asking me to find them an agent.  You have to be clear about what it is your offering, you have to be realistic…if you can’t sum it up on one sheet of paper, then you haven’t done your job properly.  You must be clear about what genre you’re writing in, and a lot of people say ‘I kind of want to write this, I kind of want to write that’, and I say make up your mind…my advice is get down and do it…you might love the process or hate it.  I started writing not because I expected to get published, but because I sat down beside a swimming pool on holiday and I started scribbling out and idea and I began to love the whole process, and I loved it so much that it dragged me away from everything else I was interested in. It was madness, it’s had its ups and downs, it’s extraordinarily hard work.  People think, oh you’ve written a book, it’s dead easy, you must be a multi-millionaire.  Of course, we all are, aren’t we [laughs].  They have no idea how extremely hard work it all is…but if you’re committed to what you’re writing, it comes from within and you enjoy the process, to a certain extent if the whole book falls flat on its face, you’ve got something. I wrote my first book on the basis that it wasn’t going to get published, but if I finished it, it would sit on the shelf and the grandchildren, or great grandchildren would discover it, blow the dust of and say ‘oh, that’s what the old bugger was about’, but it didn’t stop there, thank goodness, I was very fortunate.  But anybody nowadays who says ‘I am going to become a full-time writer’. Never give up the day job until it happens, and if it does happen, it’s been a wonderful learning process for them.  But if you really believe in what you’ve written, never say never. If you can’t get anywhere with one agent, go for another.  How many times was Harry Potter turned down? It gives me faith that we’ve all got a Harry Potter stashed away somewhere!

You’ve turned your book into an e-book, you’re a good marketer and that also helps hugely nowadays.  Many authors who simply say that’s it, I’ve written it, the end.  And of course that is only the start of the process. You can actually publish without an agent, and once you’ve got a track record, I suspect you’ll find it easier to get an agent interested.  Again, everyone thinks it’s so easy…and have no idea whatsoever.  The reason I’ve written so many books is that I haven’t got millions!  If had millions, never had to work again, would I?..I hope I would, because I love it.

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