Des Burkinshaw’s ‘Dead and Talking’ is introduced by Des by asking:
If a ghost appeared from nowhere and ordered you to start solving crimes, what would you do?
The ghostly demand opens up a tragic tale about a British Soldier who was Shot at Dawn in the First World War. The novel has history, the supernatural and crime investigation superbly woven together.
What prompted you to write Dead & Talking?
Thanks for inviting me. The inspiration came in two halves. I had the idea that I wanted to write a thriller with a supernatural element first of all. I came up with a few ideas, ironically, one long night outside a café in Hamburg. Shortly afterwards, I had to make a 30min documentary with Professor Santanu Das about the role of soldiers from the Empire in WW1 for the AHRC. My own bookshelves are full of histories about the two World Wars and so all three things fused together.
I knew quite a lot about the Pardon campaign already. Soldiers executed for desertion were pardoned in 2002, but the convictions of soldiers spying, murdering etc were not. So the question I asked myself is, what if one of those unpardoned soldiers was also innocent?
The novel covers a British Tommy being executed for espionage. Is this based on actual events or entirely fictional?
I read upwards of 20 books about WW1 in the year before I started plotting this novel. As a journalist I’ve always known the value of research. Give me two facts and I can give you a story. Give me a 1,000 and I can give you a world. During my research, I read several books dealing with the executions. Dead & Talking’s shot-at-dawn scenes were meticulously researched. The situation in 1914-18 was chaotic and practices varied, but everything I’ve described – the executions, the composition of firing squads, the court martials – happened at some point. What I can bring to the bare facts, I hope, is empathy for the poor young men who found themselves in that world. For example, one chilling fact really disturbed me. I read that occasionally the men shot at dawn had gas masks put on backwards instead of blindfolds. It made them look like monsters, flannel flapping in the wind. So I included that.
While the Tommy’s in the book are entirely out of my imagination,I hope a historian would recognise them anyway as being accurate descriptions.
How did you go about researching the First World War and the specific aspects of it that you include in Dead & Talking?
I was in Ypres. I went to a few locations similar to those in the book. I knew cemeteries would have to feature. I was shown a pile of war scrap, the “Iron Harvest,” still being dug up in Flanders today. I knew that would have to feature.
Back home I read a book about the Battle of Messines and came across an interesting story about the launch of that campaign. I did a bit of digging, collected a few more books, maps etc, and it all came together. I don’t want to say too much or risk spoiling the plot
Dead & Talking is an impressive debut novel. What plans do you have for future novels? Do you foresee them having any historical elements?
Thank you. I’m writing the follow up now – The Christmas Steps. This time the principal crime is something that happened in Soho, in London, in the Swinging Sixties but as I like dense, multi-generational plotting, also features events in Bristol during WW2 – which may or may not be connected;)
In your journalistic career you have interviewed some very famous figures. Which of them did you find the most interesting and why?
I’m the world’s biggest Beatles fan, so interviewing McCartney (and jamming with him) was one of the best experiences. He’s not like you see on TV actually. He’s very down to earth. I spent a whole day with him once. He made us tea and sandwiches. No other famous person ever did. He talks differently in person, his voice deeper and less forced. He’s a very intelligent man but he was asking my advice on some aspect of the music business at one point. If you’ve ever seen the Beatles Anthology series, there are scenes of Paul, Ringo and George sitting in a kitchen chatting away. That’s where Paul and I sat, playing ukuleles and drinking tea.
But otherwise, some of the interviews that have really stood out for me, range from the famous like Michael Caine, Brian Wilson, John Cleese, Mary Beard and Noam Chomsky, to ordinary people like the late Capt Norman Morgan, a Hackney veteran of DDay and advisor on Saving Private Ryan. Knowing some of those veterans, being invited out with them, was an incredible experience.
How did you get into writing?
I saw All The Presidents Men on BBC2 when I was 13. I already kept a diary (I still have them – beyond cringeworthy) and realised that I could become a journalist and get paid for it. So I did my degree, went to journalism college, joined a local paper, moved to the nationals (I was on The Times for three years) before quitting after 8 years to move into TV. I quickly became a senior producer at the BBC even though I was only 29. All through all this, I wrote short stories, mapped out novels etc, but a) didn’t have the time (TV in particular is awful – 18 hour days) b) didn’t come up with an idea that I really loved and c) strongly believed I shouldn’t write until I had something to say. One of my heroes, Raymond Chandler, was the same and started writing in his 50s, I think.
How do you go about planning your novels?
I’ve written newspaper articles, magazine features, I’ve produced Glastonbury for BBC3, I produced the BBC’s first ever live internet broadcast (NetAid in 2000) and set up my own production company. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was harder than plotting out Dead & Talking.
I started with a beginning, had an idea for the end and then had to draw all the straight (and some bendy) lines off the line marking those two points. In the midst of plotting, trying to remember how idea 1 would affect ideas 4-9, I would fall asleep after half an hour. I wrote a very long 10,000+ word chapter by chapter breakdown of the plot. It was the only way I could find to keep track. Yes I had cards on the wall, but it’s the interaction between the contents of the cards that is hard to remember.
How do you balance the fact and fiction when writing this type of novel?
The 10 sentence plot idea included some historical events. After that it was expanding and expanding the plot to that 10,000 word outline using my imagination while staying true to the history. I double-checked everything but I’m ok with slightly bending the truths – it’s a work of fiction after all. But much of the World War 1 stuff is historically accurate.
One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved?
I studied the poems of Wilfred Owen when I was 13 at my comprehensive in Luton, where I grew up. My great-grandfather died in WW1. I have his medals. My heart has always been with the men in the trenches – not just for what they went through during the fighting, but also for the treatment they got from both civic society in general and ordinary people, including families, in particular, once they came home damaged. This was a colossal tragedy. I’ve read many alternative histories of WW1 and there are some historians who argue that the Blackadder Goes Forth depiction is inaccurate: there was a great deal of support for the war for several years. I’ve built that sentiment into one of my main characters, who describes his decision to fight in his diaries. During their researches, my little ensemble of contemporary protagonists discover that the “Lions Led by Donkeys” slogan didn’t actually come about until the 20s. There are also historians who argue that far from being a disaster, lessons were learned very quickly, and it was only because of that the Germans eventually surrendered. I am a big fan of Germany and make no distinction between the suffering of the soldiers in either trench, though of course, my heart was more with the British.
I’ve tried to convey the differing views through the voices of the main characters – who are all on their own voyage of discovery. One of the characters in this book is a sort of cross between Mary Beard, Lucy Worsley and Tony Robinson, and presents a TV show, History/ThisStory.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
Such a long list. In the order in which I encountered them, but by no means their importance to me: PG Wodehouse, Graham Greene, Jane Austen, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Shakespeare, Sartre, Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams, Raymond Chandler, Umberto Eco, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Henning Mankell, Michael Connelly, Zadie Smith, James Ellroy, Carl Hiassen, Harlan Coban and, the author of my favourite series ever (Bryant & May), Christopher Fowler. More recently, Andrew Cartmel, Johan Johansson, Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell – so many others.
Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
All my planned books have historical settings but I am not a qualified historian. That said, many an American friend has regretted walking around London with me – I have a story for every corner. What I love doing is using fiction as a way of interpreting the past. The best comments I have received in reviews so far, are all about how moving the WW1 scenes are. I can’t ask for more than that.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Same advice I gave myself: wait till you have something to say, but practice anyway. I tried to calculate it once but gave up once I realised I must have written several million words professionally since I was 17 editing our school newspaper. Even as a TV producer, writing was my lifeblood. I’ve earned a really good living doing it. The only thing I hadn’t done was write the novel. Now I’ve done it, I can’t stop. It’s the right time for me. Zadie Smith had no need to wait as long as me and thank God she didn’t.
The other bit of advice I gave myself was, ok, if you think you’re ready, check that you actually are. I read about 15 books on writing by Stephen King, Sol Stein and many others. I did some of their exercises, I took their advice (lots of it) and I’m glad I did. I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was.
Even before the book came out, people asked my opinions on ideas all the time because I’ve been writing professionally for so long. I would read manuscripts and think, this person hasn’t prepared at all – they are literally writing extended school stories. “It was a dark and stormy night,” (and variations thereupon) is not a good opening line. Someone recently sent me a book where the first 8 lines described the varying ways in which it a) dark and stormy and b) nighttime. It was difficult to take it seriously. If the author had read any books on writing, they would have known to avoid that.
Des Burkinshaw, 51, married, with one daughter.
Des started out as a local reporter, moved to the nationals (Mirror, Times) before becoming a senior TV producer at ITV, Ch4 and then the BBC. He set up his own indie production company in 2002. He also founded the Young Directors Film School, now in its third year, teaching young people how to make movies. A series of how to make films for young people books are on their way.
He is also a musician and composer and is about to release an album of his own 60s/70s style TV/film themes as Romano Chorizo. His first two albums, released under the name of theghostorchestra, are still available on itunes, Amazon, Spotify etc.
He has interviewed/produce/directed several thousand musicians, artists, filmmakers, actors, politicians, historians and writers: Monty Python, McCartney, the Beach Boys, Jeff Lynne, Bacharach & David, Fleetwood Mac, Muse, David Bowie, McCartney, Paul Weller, Mary Beard, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Caine, Susannah York and many others.
His clients range from the BBC, Sky, Discovery, EMI, national and local government, charities, arts organisations.
Ros Rendle also writes fiction set in the First World War
Battles of the First World War – First Battle of the Marne – The Gallipoli Campaign – Battle of Verdun – Battle of Jutland – Brusilov Offensive – Battle of the Somme – Battle of Passchendaele – The Spring Offensive – Battle of Amiens – Victory on the Western Front?