A conversation between Peter Dickinson and Sara Paretsky

When Gavin Grant asked if I would do a conversation with Peter Dickinson for The Poison Oracle, I jumped at the chance. Dickinson is one of the premier writers of the Twentieth Century. His language is meticulous, his narratives carefully thought out, his characters vivid and credible. I should have looked before I leapt: it’s one thing to be an admiring reader, another to conduct a conversation. Besides, the act or art of writing feels like a delicate watch, something like the handmade one with all the little moving parts that tennis great Rafael Nadal wore and lost. If you start tinkering with the mechanism, you destroy the watch.

Sara Paretsky: I first read The Poison Oracle when it was published in 1982. The novel is so rich with themes and nuances—language, clashes of cultures, how do we communicate across cultures? across species? What makes a moral person, what goads a person who thinks himself a coward to act?—that I’ve always put it on my own private best-ten list.

Peter Dickinson: That’s nice, but actually I don’t often think about that sort of thing when I’m writing. My focus is mainly on stuff like getting a character from one room into another. In a sense the plot—the story— is there to allow the big questions to happen up without actual ratiocination. Once there they have to be accommodated. Otherwise you start thinking of yourself as a Great Writer, which is death.

SP: The Poison Oracle is a book about many things, but language and communication lie at its heart. It feels ominously prescient, with a hyper-polyglot as the protagonist. Hyper-polyglots are hot now; books are being written about them, but you were ahead of the curve. Are you, in fact, a polyglot yourself?

peterPD: Far from it. I smatter French. I was intensively taught Greek and Latin for eleven years but never got so I could read Homer for pleasure. I seem to have a hang-up about this. Many of my books hinge on there being a language that some of the characters can speak and others not.

SP: But the language that the marsh people speak is so carefully thought out.

PD: That’s an illusion. Like most of the stuff in my books the language got built up as I went along. The only test is whether it is consistent with what’s already there, and, within limits, with reality itself. For instance the technical details in the “Note on Translation” at the start are, as far as I know, gibberish, but I was pleased to discover after I’d written the book that there are cultures that have no easy way to express cause and effect in their own language.

SP: And the footnote in the middle of the oracle ceremony?

PD: I’m not entirely happy about that. I had to re-read the book in order to talk to you about it and the footnote came as a bit of a shock. I’d forgotten it was there. I think I put it in because I wanted to give a bit more solidity to Morris’s nightmare predicament of having to argue for his life in a language in which rational argument is impossible. By hindsight, this is a key moment. Morris admires, respects, even loves, the language and he is forced to violate it. It is as important to provide specific detail of how he does this as it would be to describe the detail of a fistfight in a Mickey-Spillane-type novel. I’d tried doing this inside the narrative, so to speak, i.e. inside the nightmare, but I couldn’t make it work. I needed a more objective viewpoint. At the time I thought my apology for my lack of art was a joke, but I now think it may have been justified.

SP: Communicating with animals is also becoming a rich field for scholars, and for people like me who communicate intensely with our dogs.

PD: This is where the book began. I was listening to a radio talk about teaching chimps to use language. The earliest experiments were with hand signals— “deaf-and-dumb language”—and concentrated on vocabulary. But the programme I heard was mainly about a chimp called Sarah who was being taught to use coloured plastic counters of various shapes as words and other counters as grammar. Aha! I thought. There’s a book there. What if such a chimp were the only witness to a murder?
I started next week, without a lot of thought. Setting the book in a standard research institute would require too much research on my part and involve unwanted real-world complexities. Besides, working with chimps is expensive, so who was going to pay for it? What about an eccentric millionaire, an oil-rich sheikh, say, running his own tiny sultanate at the back of nowhere? So no regular no police-work. (I always have trouble with that sort of thing.) Like many of my books, The Poison Oracle is a version of the traditional country-house murder.

SP: A pretty sophisticated country house. I wouldn’t have made a parallel between that and the kingdom of Q’Kut.

PD: It’s an isolated community without much access to a larger world. And within it, or at least right next to it, is an even more isolated community, the world of the marsh people.

SP: I wasn’t sure they existed when I first read The Poison Oracle. And then, in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the New York Times wrote about Saddam Hussein’s draining of the marshes in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. These had been home to Marsh Arabs for at least a thousand years. Did you visit the marshes?

PD: I’m afraid not. I didn’t know much about Arabs, but I’d been reading Wilfred Thesiger’s book on the Marsh Arabs and been fascinated by the setting. Otherwise all of this landscape, the marshes and the desert, comes out of my imagination. I find if one thinks carefully enough about time and place and human behaviour, descriptions of place become authentic. You start with a premise of a world, in this case the marsh and desert side-by-side. The reader will accept that premise if everything that follows is emotionally authentic.
Anyway, I didn’t want my marsh people to be Arabs. There’d be too much to get wrong. I could announce the difference by giving them their own weird language, and having Morris understand it, which would lend credibility to his expertise in his field. (When a book’s going well, randomly chosen plot details begin to mesh like that.)

SP: Morris has a complex personality, but his inability to connect with people emotionally makes him a bold choice as a protagonist.

PD: I said just now I started without much thought. I can actually remember writing those first words “With as much passion as his tepid nature was ever likely to generate . . .” and wondering whether this was what I wanted, not an anti-hero, but a non-hero. I suppose I could argue now that I needed him because he lives largely in the mind, which is where language lives, but back then I don’t think I’d got that far. At the same time in that first scene I set about establishing the Sultan as both domineering and eccentric—he already had a zoo before Dinah came, names the chimps after Oxford dons, and so on—and Dinah as the focus of their interest.

SP: Morris often refers to himself as a coward, both morally and physically, but it is he who comes through in the crunch.

PD: Only when he is pushed into it. When the Sultan orders him to visit the downed plane on the tarmac, he goes most reluctantly. When ibn Zair manipulates the situation in the Council meeting so that Morris is forced to go into the marshes he’s scared enough to take Dinah with him for comfort.

SP: Still, once he’s there, fear doesn’t cloud his mind, or at least only at brief moments. When he sees the dead bodies at the entrance to the marshes, he realizes that they were lying in wait for him, and it starts him on the road to sorting out ibn Zair’s role in the Sultan’s death. He reminds me very much of Pibble, especially when Pibble is physically weak in One Foot in the Grave.

PD: Yes, I know. My original non-hero. That’s why I wondered whether to make Morris like that.

SP: On re-reading The Poison Oracle this time, what I found chilling was your prescience: ibn Zair is going to destroy the marshes with air strikes and napalm just as Saddam did a decade after you wrote the book.

PD: Put yourself In Saddam’s shoes—now, there’s a feat of the imagination!—or ibn Zair’s, what else could you do?

SP: One thing I’ve always admired about your writing is the way you write about women. You somehow get inside our skin, whether it’s the adolescent Princess Louise in King and Joker, dealing with murder and coming of age all at once, or the middle-aged Poppy in Play Dead. Anne in The Poison Oracle is yet another vivid and believable woman. She’s not a sympathetic figure in the same way Louise or Poppy are, but she’s someone the reader can understand. She uses her sexuality and her shape-shifting, but in a believable way, not the fantasy athletic sex machine that peoples too much of fiction.

PD: I did worry about her being a bit that way, but I started from one of my South African cousins who spent some months with us in England when we were young, and was pretty enough to get asked about a bit. We could always tell what sort of people she’d been visiting by the manner in which she spoke when she returned. It wasn’t just accent, it was her whole style of speech. (Not that she was inwardly malleable. Far from it.) And so I began imagining the way in which a person’s whole approach to the world would shift as she moved into different milieus, and who then finds when she runs into the marsh people that it doesn’t work with them.
As for writing about women, I just feel comfortable with them. If I’d ever been offered the traditional three magical wishes, one of them would have been to spend a month or two as a woman.

SP: The Marsh People’s culture is one that Morris first wants to preserve, and then comes to loathe. As we see it through his eyes, we readers also find it loathsome. This depiction goes completely at right angles to a modern sensibility of treating tribal cultures with an almost religious respect. Why did you to choose to take the opposite tack?

PD: For practical reasons, to start with. They’ve got to be dangerous to deal with. They’ve survived by killing intruders. And they’re surely riddled with disease as the marshes get more and more polluted. Like their language, they must be pretty well on the edge of extinction. The fact that Morris thinks their Testament of Na!ar is fit to stand beside The Iliad has no bearing on their being easy to get along with. (I’m glad I wasn’t born into Homer’s world.) I don’t actually remember, but I suspect that by the time I got to the marsh people, I was confident enough to choose to raise one of those major questions: a language it is almost impossible to understand spoken by a people it is almost impossible to like or admire—what makes it worth the effort to try and keep them going?
As I say, I don’t normally think much about this sort of thing when I’m writing. I made the marsh people the way they are almost instinctively, but realized pretty soon that it was going to matter. So to put it aside for the moment I broke off and wrote the final few pages so that I had something to work towards.

SP: You are an economical writer. We don’t get a detailed history of anyone, but we have a picture of Morris’s childhood from his brief mentions of his mother.

PD: You’re also told his given names. Wesley Naboth. What sort of parents call their child that? That should be enough for the reader to go on. She has an imagination too. Again I don’t actually remember, but I suspect that’s something I put in second time through. I came late to using a PC, so I used to type a complete draft, leafing back occasionally to scrawl memos to myself in the margin. When I got to the end I’d read what I done, scrawl a few more memos (e.g. “More about M” at this point), try and check on the possibility of any facts I’d invented, and write the whole thing again.

SP: This makes it sound as though it’s something anyone might do, but like a Tourbillon watch, if we took it apart, all we would have are the pieces, not the watch.

PD: It doesn’t feel like that to me. I think if you took it to pieces all you’d have left would be a pile of driftwood that I’d found, beachcombing along the shore of my imagination and put together, trying to build myself some sort of a dwelling that would keep the rain out.