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Interview with Peter Dickinson

10 MAY 1989

   I stayed with Peter Dickinson in his large old country house in Hampshire. The garden was beginning to look rather dry, a source of some anxiety to him as he was leaving the following day for Italy. More importantly, he had recently lost his wife. He was, nevertheless, a kindly host, providing me with a bed for the night and preparing a tasty meal. Afterwards, we settled down over coffee for a comfortable chat about his books.
   The Weathermonger (London: Gollancz, 1968), it emerged, was his first book and he talked about the way in which the experience of writing it differed from writing those that followed. Merlin was, he admits, little more than a convenient literary device that he was not fully satisfied with; he drops out of sight completely in later books in what developed into a series called The Changes. Nor does he appear in the television adaptation of the series. Dickinson did return to Merlin twenty years later, however, to provide the structural link between the stories in Merlin Dreams. How this book evolved from the original concept offers a fascinating glimpse into the process of writing, as well as the influences that continue to shape Arthurian legend.

RT: Why did you decide to use the figure of Merlin in The Weathermonger?

PD: What happened, briefly, was that I was stuck in the middle of my first adult book. Then I had a nightmare. I have proper adventure-type nightmares, with real dangers in them, and the way to cope with one of those when you wake up is to retell the story to yourself, putting yourself in charge of it. This I did, and my nightmare was, in effect, the first chapter of The Weathermonger. I was in an England where machines are considered wicked, where people could have adventures, and where something must be causing this. I simply settled on poor old Merlin as a suitable answer to this problem of what could be causing it. I chose him as the source of power.
   It had to be either magical power or scientific power, although most science fiction uses science as magic in any case. There is a lot of crossover between fantasy and science fiction. I had read a lot of science fiction when I was young, and I still enjoy reading science fiction. No doubt this is why I dreamed a dream in which machines are wicked--because it's a science fiction dream. At any rate, Merlin seemed to be the answer, though I don't think I selected him that first night.
   I then decided that I had the setting for the kind of children's book I would enjoy writing, and that this process might unlock my adult book. Thus I wrote it, quite deliberately with that purpose, and it did unlock my adult book, which turned out perfectly satisfactory in the end.
   Having decided to put Merlin into the story--which was the first book I had ever completed a draft of, because I hadn't at that time completed my adult book--I felt compelled to make him as real as possible, to turn him into a credible source of power. I know that as a reader I would have been dissatisfied with a wishy-washy kind of Merlin. I wanted a Merlin who felt powerful when you met him. I was aware of earlier Merlins--no Merlin is ever going to be the same again after T. H. White's Sword in the Stone, which transformed him--but I wanted to do something different with Merlin.
   I didn't do any research at all. I relied vaguely on my memory of Arthurian stories, even though they have not bulked enormously in my reading. As a child, I went through a period when I liked certain elements of the stories about knights in shining armor, but Malory and the other retellings are unsatisfactory when read on that basis.
   I wanted Merlin rather vague, but marked by symbols of power. When I did the first draft, I actually created a gothic fantasy castle in the middle of a forest, but it didn't seem to me to be credible in terms of the book. I wanted the feeling of going back beyond Malory to a source of power which was really there, not to hocus-pocus magic with wands or anything like that. Beyond my fairly cynical decision to use this myth in the first place, I wasn't consciously feeding on Arthurian legend in any way at all, and if I had known any other power figure, I might have used it.

RT: So basically Merlin was a convenient power figure?

PD: It's a piece of mechanism, yes.

RT: Having chosen Merlin, did you find yourself tied down in your writing? Did you feel that you had freedom to use him as you wished, or did you feel that, because Merlin has certain associations, you were committed to present him in a certain way?
PD: I did not wish to be tied down by any other associations. In a sense I was saying that Merlin was real, but everybody else has got him wrong. Yet I wasn't thinking in those terms at all. I was simply trying to make Merlin convincing. I invented a totally unreal, nonexistent keep, since it seemed to me that this was what was needed. I didn't want a Roman fort, or a gothic castle. It's more like a Gaelic broch, but much vaster and in totally the wrong place. That didn't matter to me one bit. Remember that this was my very first book, and I was not very aware. I'm a very instinctive writer in any case, but I wasn't aware of any difficulties; I wasn't aware of what people would think. I think my only constraint was whether people would be able to believe that this might have been Merlin.
   Some things one is not entitled to use merely as one likes, for example, the figure of Christ, or the Holocaust, or things of that kind. One is not entitled to use these to get oneself out of a plot mess, but I think a figure like Merlin, one is. Obviously, you do run the risk of contradicting enough readers' concept of what Merlin should have been like for them to say, oh, no. But I wouldn't have thought I did that in this case; I would have thought that most people would say, well this is an interesting version of Merlin.

RT: Were you aware of just how many different versions of Merlin there were?

PD: No. Having tampered further with the figure of Merlin in Merlin Dreams, I now have a better idea of all the different ways which one could deal with him. When I wrote The Weathermonger, however, I was aware of Malory's Merlin, Tennyson's Merlin, and the Merlin of the kind of retelling one was given for Christmas when I was a child, with all the Rackham illustrations, and so on. I don't think that I had, at that stage, read Meriol Trevor's Merlin's Ring, which has always struck me as being a very interesting book. In any case my only reaction to any of these Merlins would have been to do something different, as I say.

RT: Besides Trevor and White, did you read any other modern versions of the Merlin story?

PD: I don't honestly think so. I'm in no sense a Merlin or Arthurian nut. As I've grown older I've become interested in the origins and the development of myth, but when I wrote The Weathermonger I wrote like a child. This is my first book, and it's got all sorts of things wrong with it. I had to revise it slightly for American publication, but there are all sorts of things in it that I wouldn't dream of doing now. At the same time, however, I know perfectly well that I could never recover that freshness. It's got a sense of release to it. I was forty when I wrote it.

RT: The Weathermonger turned out to be the first book in a series called The Changes, but Merlin effectively drops out of sight in the later books?

PD: He drops out, and so does the weathermaking and most of the magic, because I didn't want them. There were two reasons. One is simply that, when I wrote The Weathermonger, I had no conception that I was going to wrote any more in this series. People liked The Weathermonger, however, and I enjoyed writing it. Because machines are wicked, it is a wonderful world for children to have adventures in. It's not just that guns are out. Since society has fragmented, there is space for freedom of action that is not there in the modern world. You run away from home, and there aren't any police to come looking for you. Danger is somehow nearer. In my books, despite the fantasy element, I like the danger to be as real as I can make it. When people get hurt, they get hurt.
   In the later books, Heartsease and The Devil's Children, I didn't want to explain what brought about this situation. Most readers simply say, okay, this is how things are, and there is an explanation somewhere. Later, I wrote a few passages to link Merlin with the later books, but if you read The Changes through, as a series, Merlin, although an adequate solution to the problem that I'd set myself in The Weathermonger, is a disappointment. The reason is that Heartsease and, to a lesser extent, The Devil's Children, simply have more weight, more creative energy. They are in a different league. Thus the Merlin solution, although it is quite an exciting bit of writing I think, still seems a let-down. You get a slight sense of, is that all, after all this fuss? It's a satisfactory climax of The Weathermonger; it's not a satisfactory climax to the series.

RT: Do you think part of that is because the first book is a fantasy, while the others are more science fiction?

PD: Well, partly, but the later books have more in them. They are made of a different metal, and they are solider, particularly Heartsease, which is fueled, I think, by my extreme love for the particular culture in which I spent part of my adolescence. Also, I was by then very much more aware of what I was doing. The Weathermonger is written with great go, but Heartsease is written with energy, which is something slightly different. It's got a bigger engine.

RT: Most authors write an Arthurian book, which commits them to a particular approach to the legend. You, however, start with Merlin at the beginning, then move on to other subjects, then return for another shot at him after you've gained much more experience in writing. That is particularly interesting to me. Before leaving the first novel, however, I want to ask a couple of further questions. One concerns the audience at which it was aimed. When you were writing it, did you have in mind that this was particularly a book for younger readers?

PD: Yes, it was a book for younger readers. I have an audience of one, who is the hypothetical me at the age of twelve or thirteen. This is the kind of book I would have enjoyed reading at that age, I think, whereas I know I wouldn't have enjoyed reading some of my adult books. For that matter, even as an adult I wouldn't now enjoy reading my adult books if they had been written by somebody else. I won't go into the reasons why I write them as they are, but they are, perhaps, in places not the kind of book I, personally, would choose to read,
   I think very few good writers even think about the audience, however. All satisfactory books have a voice, and what you do when you start a book is find its voice and speak in that voice. The voice includes the presumed age of its readers.
   I am at the moment, for instance, writing a book concerned with children who get picked up by revolutionary groups in third world countries and trained as soldiers. They carry a rifle by the time they're twelve. In some of these groups, the children no doubt get very roughly treated and used as sex objects. You have to face this and refer to it, even if you're writing for children. You are allowed, however, to let your own hero off some of the harsher experiences which, in an adult novel, you might very well decide to put him through. No doubt some children's writers would not let their hero off so lightly, but I'm not that kind of writer.
   I like to write a story, not to get at my readers. I like to deal with any subject which comes up as honestly as it can be dealt with, whatever it is. If you're telling a story, you may raise questions about sin, betrayal, incest, whatever it might be, and if they come up, you have somehow or other got to cope with them; you can't just pretend they don't exist. I think that's what I was saying about Merlin. Merlin came up, and I then dealt with him as honestly as I could.

RT: Having selected Merlin as the explanation for the transformation that has taken place in the world that you envisage in the first book of The Changes, how serious were the problems that this created for you when you continued the series?

PD: I didn't refer to Merlin in the later books, because of course nobody knows about him there, but while I was writing, without paying much attention to it, I didn't do anything which wouldn't conceivably be governed by this explanation of the situation that existed. I didn't suddenly cause the changes to have been made by creatures from outer space, or something like that. They were all still susceptible, I thought, to the Merlin solution. I was more conscious of this problem when I was writing The Devil's Children. There I had to deliberately invent much more than I did for Heartsease, which was more of a given book and wrote itself in the way that books mysteriously do. I wrote The Devil's Children simply because I wanted a third book in the series, and there wasn't a book there asking to be written. Heartsease had actually knocked on my door, and I'd let it in.

RT: If you had the chance to change the initial choice of Merlin as the cause of the changes, would you take it?

PD: I've thought of this, but I haven't been able to think of a better solution to explain why everybody should suddenly have this madness against machines thrust upon them. In the British edition, Mr. Furbelow makes Merlin a morphine addict and binds him in that way. My American editor thought that this was somehow clumsy, and I was a bit despondent about it. Then I had the idea that Mr. Furbelow might have attempted to bring Merlin out of his apparent coma by using some kind of drug which is used for bringing people round from certain operations. Sometimes these drugs lower your temperature drastically, and so Merlin, in the story, is very cold to the touch. In the American edition Mr. Furbelow uses a synthetic drug, putting an unnatural substance into Merlin, who is represented, particularly in the American version--I rewrote the last sixty or so pages--as a creature whose power comes from being in total harmony with nature. The synthetic substance causes the disturbances, which is much more intellectually satisfying to me than the morphine solution.

RT: I see. So in a sense, you have had a chance to rewrite Merlin's role in The Weathermonger?

PD: Yes.

RT: You mentioned that this was your first book. Were you planning to become an author at this stage?

PD: Well, yes and no. I didn't know how many books I was going to write. I was getting on for forty, and I had this idea for a detective story. I had always been a writer in my own mind since I was five. This is what I was. I could never imagine being anything else. I did at one time think I might become an academic but, having no talent whatever for research, this was a disaster.    My writing process has barely changed since I started. I have always started on page one, even writing a detective story. I start without knowing who is going to kill whom or why, usually. I sometimes actually have considerable difficulty working a murder in. I explore the world I've got. I started The Weathermonger on page one, but in that case I had much more of a plot than I normally have, because I had already tried to make sense of the nightmare that started it all. Thus I knew from the beginning, because of an element in the dream, that this Rolls-Royce was going to come into it. I had quite a strong conception of where the story was going, though a lot of the details, some quite major, I then had to think up. It is a slightly picaresque novel, and so you need adventures along the way, like the alternative weathermonger, and so on. Those I invented as I went through, just to spin it out a bit.

RT: How many drafts did you go through?

PD: After I'd written the first draft of The Weathermonger, I thought I'd finished it. I sent it off to a lady called Julia McRae, who is an absolutely superb editor, then went back and rewrote my adult novel which I'd got about two-thirds of the way through. I started at the beginning again, because I thought that I'd gone wrong somewhere, and I simply took a fresh go at it. Although I changed very little the second time, this got me through my block and I finished that book. Then Julie McRae sent me back a marvellous letter, which I've still got, about what was wrong with the first draft. In responding to her criticisms, I realized I had to rewrite the whole thing again. I've done this ever since: I write a book, see what I've got, do any necessary research at that stage, and then rewrite from beginning to end. Now I always do that.

RT: Do you postpone research until after you have completed the first draft then?

PD: Until I have written a draft, I don't know what I want to know, though this varies. Obviously there are certain kinds of research which you need to do in advance, but I do as little as possible beforehand. If your imagination is really on song, you feed into it four or five elements which are connected with the real world, and they form fixed triangulation points. Anything that you invent has to fit into that landscape somehow or other. Because these elements exist both in your imaginary landscape and in the real world, your imaginary landscape will, to a great extent, map the real world if your imagination is on song. Your imagination is there to build coherent worlds.
   I make things up and then see if I've got them right, rather than worry about what kind of clothes the Chinese gentleman wears in such and such a period, or things of that kind. If I come to a big element of the plot, and the story cannot proceed unless I know that this was so, or could be so--if it were a matter of, say, how a steamship works or something like that--then of course I go and do the research one way or another. While I was writing Heartsease, I was fortunate enough to know somebody who could take me out on a tug on the Thames, and talk to me about old- fashioned tugs. For the most part, however, I delay any serious research until I've done the first draft. If my imagination is on song, I shall get it pretty well right. If it's not, then I shall have to work very hard to put it right.
   In fact, my first draft is like another writer's notes for a plot, in which he writes down not only what he thinks is going to happen, but also what he's got to find out. I write the first draft as well as I possibly can, however. You mustn't think that you can hook things up later on. You can't. You can tear things down; but you can't hook things up.
   I think that it's better to work that way round. Otherwise if you discover some fascinating fact, you may feel you've got to get it in. This particularly affects the writers of detective stories who go to an exotic location to set their story. They have to get in all the exotica of this location, which rather gets in the way of the story, and I think that it inhibits the imagination.

RT: When you come to revise the first draft do you sometimes find it difficult to make changes because you've already given shape to the story?

PD: Yes. It's difficult to believe that you've got to do it. I knew that the ending of my last adult book was totally unsatisfactory. I'd had an extremely difficult personal year, and I'd been writing this book through it. Because I was sick of it, I just shoddied it together and sent it off to my publishers. I couldn't think of anything else to do with it. My British publisher, rather to my surprise, said she thought it would do. She wasn't bothered by the ending. As I mentioned, however, my American publisher didn't like the ending at all. I was actually responding to her, saying why I couldn't change it, when I thought of a way of doing so. I realized that this would be an enormous improvement, and I rewrote it with great pleasure. You just need the time to come to terms with the fact that you are going to have to do this extra work you don't feel like doing.

RT: Now, I want to turn then to Merlin Dreams. It's not really a novel, is it? What genre is it written in?

PD: I don't think in those terms. Let me tell you how it came into existence. Some years ago I was asked to retell the Old Testament stories as part of a series. I told my editor, no, I'm not going to do it; nobody can do it. It's rather like Noddy in the Holy Land; Big Ears meets Moses is what I thought. It's a rotten idea. I had returned to the book I was supposed to be writing, when I suddenly had an idea. I rang her up and said, have you asked anybody else to do this? She said, no, I was afraid to. So I said, I'll do it for you.
   What I did was retell the stories by going back to the supposed oral tradition. Most of the stories in the Old Testament are in the Bible because they were collected into it, and they had an existence of their own beforehand. I told these stories in different voices, up and down Biblical history, and it worked extremely well. I was very pleased with it, and it won the Carnegie medal under the title City of Gold.
   Some years after this I said to Chris Kloet, the new children's editor at Collins, look, I need the stimulus of being asked to do something. She said, would I retell the Arthur stories? I thought about this, and I got quite excited about the possibilities. What I wanted to do was something analagous to what I'd done in City of Gold. I thought of these stories as being rather like a tree: you have these hidden Celtic roots; and then you have this extraordinary romantic flowering in the Middle Ages, culminating in Malory, although there are many French stories which he left out. I wanted to tell these stories at different stages of the tree, so that you got bits of root as well as the flower. The story would be retold at a very much less tranformed stage than you find in the final flowering.

RT: You were going to retell the same story at different stages of its development?

PD: Not the same story, but different bits of it. I found, however, that I was quite unable to do what I had planned. There seemed to be only the roots and the flowers. The stories in their intermediate stages didn't seem to have an existence. I came to the conclusion, eventually, that the final transformation was very, very rapid. They existed in a fairly crude form as folk tales about semi-forgotten Celtic heroes who were part deities. Finally they were transformed and written down, over a period of less than a couple of centuries. The early stage is much like The Gododdin, but you can't do anything with that, as far as I can see.
   And yet I had become involved in the research, reading about the Celtic origins, and this really fascinated me. I wanted to do something with the material, but I couldn't see how. Then I conceived the notion of telling a number of hifalutin romance stories, though I didn't immediately hit on the idea of having them on different themes, which are then related back to supposed Celtic origins through the device of having Merlin remember the Celtic, or supposed Celtic, event. He then translates this event into a story by means of a personal dream. Thus he is awakened; he remembers the killer priest at the well; then his dream transmutes that event into a story of a mailed knight guarding the well on the path through the forest.
   This seems to me to be a totally satisfactory device and it was mostly an enjoyable book to write. Not all the stories are of equal merit, but I like the Merlin part very much. I enjoyed writing these Merlin sections and, because they had to be short, they could become a sort of prose poem. You're justified in writing intensely in passages like that.
   The story called "Sciopod" is there really because there are sciopods in the original version of The Sword in the Stone. White cut that part out for a much worse chapter when he rewrote it for The Once and Future King. I had a bit of difficulty fitting that story into my book, but that apart I think I did pretty well what I wanted, and it was a great pleasure to write.

RT: Yes, you hit upon an excellent device.

PD: Yes, it's a device, just as Merlin in The Weathermonger was a device. It's a central device, however, whereas Merlin was not a central device in the other book.

RT: What you do is create a frame narrative within which you can tell stories, do you not?

PD: Yes, and if you read those linking passages in the right order, though not the order they follow in the book, you are given a biography of Merlin.

RT: As I recall, the illustrations of the Merlin sections are in black and white, whereas those for the stories are in color, are they not?

PD: Yes, although not uniformly. All the Merlin ones are black and white, but there are some black and white illustrations of the stories for printing reasons. Alan Lee drew them in a slightly different, lighter fashion, however.

RT: Was that your idea, or his?

PD: My idea. I made another suggestion which I don't think he actually followed, although he was quite excited about it at the time. In certain kinds of surrealism, by Salvador Dali, for instance, you see a girl dancing in the foreground whose shape is echoed by a bell in a tower, or something like that. And I was thinking that he might be able to put something into his black and white drawing for the Celtic part, which is echoed in the story after it has passed through a dream transmutation. I don't think he actually did it, but I do think that he read the book with immense intelligence. It is a marvellously illustrated book, not merely because the illustrations are very pretty to look at, but because they relate meaningfully to the text. For instance, in "Damsel" the hero suddenly finds himself seeing through the eyes of a dog. Alan actually tried to draw, and has, I think, successfully drawn, what this might be like. Also, at a quite different level, you will find that some of the stories are more heavily illustrated than others. The stories which have a very strong narrative line he illustrated less, and he has, as it were, helped the slighter stories with more pictures.

RT: Did you collaborate on such decisions?

PD: Well, not to a great extent. When someone suggested Alan Lee as the illustrator for the book, I knew he was exactly whom I wanted, having seen what he did. He became very excited about the project, but we had to wait quite a long time before he could begin on it, because of his other commitments. When he did start, I remember that at one point he asked me what I meant by something, and I did adapt the text in a couple of places to what he'd drawn, which I'd said from the first I was totally prepared to do. If he wanted to draw something in a particular way, I was willing to make some adjustment to the text. In fact, in the original text of the story "Unicorn" the huntsman mentioned that the baby unicorn had a lump on its forehead as big as a fist. Since Alan hadn't drawn it that size, I changed the huntsman's description to a lump as big as his bent thumb, which is actually much more vivid. I was very pleased with that change.
   I think Alan Lee's only mistake comes in "Damsel." He's incapable of drawing a rather plain, robust woman, which is what the heroine is described as. Instead he drew this rather beautiful pale thing.

RT: The relationship between the writer and the illustrator can vary so much, can't it?

PD: Yes. In my experience, however, it is really a question of the illustrator responding to the writer, who doesn't have much more to give at that stage. I would very much like, sometime, to actually work with an illustrator and do some of the responding myself to what he or she has painted or drawn, or wants to paint or draw.

RT: Do you mean that you would provide the story in response to a series of illustrations?

PD: Well, not completely. Suppose one were to invent a fantasy land, and started to write about it. The illustrator might then draw some kind of creature which had taken his or her fancy. Then I think it would be quite interesting to work this into the plot, making it not merely decorative, but crucial to the outcome.

RT: That could prove challenging.

PD: No, it would be fun. It's rather like what I was saying about fixed points. You need fixed points, and to be given them in that way would be just another form of arbitrary choice of fixed points that are essential in any story.

RT: Whose idea was it to use color for some of the illustrations?

PD: I wanted it to be a very beautiful book that would look like a present, and that meant it had to be a co-production with the Americans, so that there would be a big enough print run. It all worked out extremely well because it's the right book for lavish treatment. It's been nominated, I think, for both the Carnegie and the Greenaway awards. Both are awarded by the British Library Association to books for younger readers: the Carnegie is for the text of a book in the given year; and the Greenaway is for illustrations. Since I have won the Carnegie twice before, I think there's going to be considerable resistance to awarding it to me a third time.

RT: A number of books on Arthurian subjects have won medals and prizes.

PD: Oh, it's a very useful field in which to work, because your readers can be assumed to be sufficiently aware of it to know what you're on about.

RT: Yes, and indeed in an age when it's sometimes difficult to assume any kind of knowledge on the part of your reader, writing an Arthurian book does give you a measure of freedom. When you wrote Merlin Dreams, were you able to assume that some of the readers at least would know what you were talking about?

PD: Yes. There's a good example, I think, in the introduction to the story called "King." Merlin remembers the acceptance by the tribes of a boy-king after a period of warfare in which there has been no king. This takes place on a man-built hill which is, in my mind, Silbury, near the White Horse at Uffington. Well, I wouldn't expect people to know that. On the other hand, one of the signs that the boy is the true king is that he holds in his hand the axe Iscal, which was thought to have been lost in a swamp. I would expect a percentage of younger readers readers to recognize that this is Excalibur coming up out of the lake, then going back into the lake. It has been transmuted into an axe, which makes more sense in my supposed Celtic world. This is clearly not a war axe, however. It's an obsidian axe, a ritual axe with an ivory tusk handle. It is a fairly unique object. I would expect some readers to recognize this event as the one which eventually got transmuted into the well-known account of sword in the stone. They will discover echoes and realize that the boy is Arthur. Then they will think of Excalibur and perhaps even a version of the story in which Merlin plays a role. I think that level of awareness can still be found, certainly in some English children.

RT: Yes. I think you're right. These associations add resonance to the book.

PD: Oh, certainly. You're doing this the whole time, whatever you're writing, putting in things that many people are never going to pick up. If they have a resonance for you, they will then actually have that resonance somehow in the book, even though people don't know quite what they're resonating to.

RT: Did you make use of Fraser's The Golden Bough as a source for your picture of Merlin?

PD: I had read it before, and it did influence the concept of the well priest. What I did, however, was make Merlin into a shaman. The Celts had shamans, and if there was a Merlin figure, and if he was Celtic, this is the most logical thing for him to have been. The shamanic experience is pretty well universal across the world and is remarkably similar in many of its manifestations. I knew something about shamanism, and I just put in what suited me, whether it was historical or not. Malory mentions that Merlin built what must have been Stonehenge, and so although Stonehenge far predates the Celts I've got him building Stonehenge in my book. It just suited me. I make absolutely no pretense about this. It's rather like what I was saying about Merlin in The Weathermonger. I wanted a Merlin who, on his own terms, was a convincing creature, but I recognized that these were strictly fictional terms.

RT: Did you do any additional research on shamanism for the book?
PD: No. For example, I describe how Merlin went home and told his mother of his decision to become a shaman. His uncles prepared the great feast, and he went through a ritual burial. I made this up entirely. I should think it probably does happen, but I don't know whether it does or not. I simply made it up.

RT: Might it have originated in something you had read in the past?

PD: No. I'm perfectly happy to make things up. I love inventing tribes, and their cultures. Since magical practices are largely the creation of the human imagination, you have really only got to imagine a plausible magical practice and it will probably be true. If you are going to be a shaman, you're putting off your old life and taking on a totally new life. You are, therefore, effectively dying. I'm sure that after the decision to become a shaman, you go through a death ritual. It may be that the Christian notion of death and resurrection has actually fed on this myth. It feels right, you see.
   If there was a historical Merlin figure among the Celts who contributed to these legends, he would have been a shaman, and he would have attracted other stories about magical powers that were originally attached to other figures. He's the only potent male magician in Arthurian legend, although many women have magical powers. The latter can be traced back to the triple goddess of death, whom I discovered during my original research for the Arthur stories. At the same time I learned about head-hunting among the Celts, and about details like their practice of smearing their hair with white clay. I didn't, however, do further research after I decided finally how to approach the material. I did make use of some of the information I had researched earlier, but other details I made up. With luck, you can't tell which is which. I am, by instinct, an inventor. My ideal is inventing things and finding that they're true. That's what makes me feel that the machinery is working.

RT: What versions of the Arthurian legend did you read for this book?

PD: I read Malory and The Mabinogion and some translations from the French when I was invited initially to retell the Arthurian stories, but I didn't read further once I had decided upon my approach.

RT: In fact you make very little use of the traditional Arthurian stories in Merlin Dreams.

PD: No, that is true. I do make use of the invisible knight in "Knight Errant," and "Damsel" begins with the king's custom of refusing to eat until he had seen some marvel. In that story the hero refuses a Maloryesque adventure by not staying to finish his fight with the black knight. Right at the end he realizes that he can't even tell his story to the court when he returns, because they wouldn't understand. This court is demoralized already, filled with bickering and intrigue, much as it becomes at the end of Malory. Of course the further he travels from the court, the more unMalorylike become the hero's activities.

RT: Is this progression deliberate?

PD: Not in that sense, no. It just felt right. The hero goes to Scotland, and the story is really about the difference between the Scots and the English. The Scottish notions of chivalry and their behavior are totally foreign to him. He is in a totally different world where there is more brutality and less pretense about it.
   Another place where I use Arthurian tradition is in the story "Sword," which picks up on the notion of the potent sword. This goes back to the ritual weapon which wounded the Fisher King. That's a dragon story, however, and there aren't any satisfactory dragons in Malory, curiously enough. Actually Malory was not particularly suitable as a source, because I wanted to tell fantasy stories that would fit into this setting. "Sword," for example, is based on a story I used to tell my boys in the car to keep them from fighting in the back, though it has been greatly changed.

RT: Did you consider the lack of magic in Malory an obstacle?

PD: No, I don't think that was it. When I retold the Bible stories it was in a very earthy fashion without much magic in them. No, the problem was simply that I couldn't find the right voice for telling the Arthurian stories. When you're going to retell a story, you've got to retell it for your own time. That really means finding a voice which is the right voice for the stories and doesn't betray them. But it must also be one which hasn't been used before. There seemed to be only the old-fashioned high style or a gritty, modern low style, neither of which really interested me very much.
   I did actually think about trying a gritty, modern low style. I read part of an account of a man who lived in the south of France, and it is mainly about problems with the well, extreme discomforts of living in a little castle and going on these horrible foraying expeditions, and how your armor was always pinching. I could have done something like that I think, but it might have become a bit monotonous. Besides, T. H. White did it all so superbly that it would be hard to improve upon his story.
   I gave the subject a lot of thought and wrote a certain amount, but I found that I was bored with it. And if I'd been bored with it, the reader would have been bored with it. It's crucial to be excited about what you're doing. The legends are, in a way, a trap. Milton was absolutely right to reject them and write Paradise Lost instead. He couldn't have done anything of that calibre with them.

RT: Apart from Malory, The Mabinogion, and some French romances, had you read any other Arthurian authors, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example?

PD: No, nothing like that. As a child, I would have found them very unsatisfactory because they are so bad at telling stories. Malory is very unusual, I think, compared to other Arthurian writers, because he really recognizes a good story when he's got one, and keeps it cracking on. There are bits where he messes around, but a lot of the time he really keeps his story going and understands its dynamics.

RT: Did you know about the wild man in the woods tradition, which is linked with Merlin in earliest accounts?

PD: Yes, I did. I went to look at the Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters when I was in New York, and there was a parallel exhibition of medieval and post-medieval wild man engravings. In fact I used the figure in a symbolic way, in a novel called The Last House Party. I'm not sure if I knew that Merlin was tied in with that tradition, however.

RT: What part of the legend did you feel was most important for you to include in your story?

PD: The important thing is Merlin as a source of immense power. In Merlin Dreams it was also important for me to include the legend of his lying under the rock. I actually like the way I've dealt with the Nimue problem, turning her into his accomplice who helps him find rest, an action that people later misunderstood. This seems to me to be a much more plausible interpretation than that she tricked him.
   There's not nearly enough about Merlin in Malory. I think Malory actually found he couldn't cope with Merlin, probably. When you've got a powerful magician, you are in exactly the same position as people writing a Superman comic. If your hero has vast powers, why doesn't he use them? What are the limits to his powers? Malory, with his realistic need to tell a story, actually cannot accommodate a figure like that, and so he writes him out at a comparatively early stage. The great weakness of American superheroes like Superman is that other superfigures have to be invented to oppose them, and they all have superpowers. It's exactly like nuclear deterrence: a total standoff. Then you have to give that hero an Achilles heel of some kind. The British are much more realistic. Our equivalent of Superman is Billy Bunter, with his prodigious appetite.

RT: So, the part of the legend that you felt you need to preserve was Merlin as a source of power and his descent under the rock?

PD: Yes, that's crucial to the structure of Merlin Dreams. Another feature that was important was Merlin's reintroduction of Arthur to the country. When one thinks of Merlin, this is the role that springs to mind: succoring this child, giving him to Sir Ector to look after, and then producing him at the right moment. This is his function in the plot, isn't it? And so without realizing at the time that this was crucial to the Merlin story, I put it into the introductory section to the story "King," because I was subconsciously aware that this was important to me. But I was thinking much more of what I could do with a Celtic shaman than of the Merlin myth.

RT: Merlin has got to do something meaningful, otherwise what's all his power for?

PD: Exactly. Also, you've got to remember that I wrote the stories first, so that I then had to make connections. For instance, to introduce "Unicorn" I had to find something to do with horses, and therefore I had Merlin helping to create a white horse. Since creating a white horse poses difficult technical problems, such as getting the perspective right across such a distance, I used him for that. As I recall, I wrote "Unicorn" first and then "Sciopod." About then, I think, I had this idea of putting this framework round them. Then I started to look deliberately for themes.

RT: Did you have to rewrite the earlier stories after you had decided upon your frame?

PD: No, I didn't. Since they were dreams, you could do what you like with them. Even "Sciopod," which doesn't belong, really, in this collection and was a strain to fit in. The framework to that story does refer to the Arthurian legend tangentially two or three times. It tells you what Merlin had thought or had foreseen, including Tristram and the final battle at Camlann. But I didn't say, oh, I must work this stuff in. It just felt appropriate.
   I simply used Merlin rather than explored him, but having decided to use him, a degree of exploration, particularly in the second book, was essential. I explored, however, a direction away from the Arthur stories rather than into them. Having decided I couldn't do what I had originally set out to do, I discarded as much of that material as I could.

RT: Might you write a sequel to Merlin's Dream?

PD: No, I don't think so; I'm not a sequel writer on the whole. While it is true that my first three books were sequels, or prequels, to be exact, I believe that you can get tied down by them.

RT: You said this book was originally designed as a retelling for younger readers. Do you still consider it to be for younger readers?

PD: I would have read it when I was ten, even if there are bits in it which are pretty gruesome, and it's been reviewed in England as a book for young readers.

RT: When you were writing Merlin Dreams, were you thinking of appealing to yourself at a particular age?

PD: Well, not at one particular age. In fact the ages move around in the book. "Unicorn" is for much younger children than "Sciopod," which is really quite a tough story, for comparatively older children. On the other hand, there are enough reading children around to supply a readership for this book: the kind of kids who will go up to a bedroom, stuff their fingers in their ears, lie on their face, and read a book right through--all day long. They love to read, and certain things give them a kick. People worry too much that certain books may not be accessible. I've written books of which my editor said, it's lovely, but who's going to read it? Those books are still in print. Not every child likes to read like that, but those who do like to be supplied, and it's lovely to be able to supply them. I don't get much response from children, but every now and then I will be at a school where a child will come up with a book to sign. I can see it's been read thirty times. That's lovely; that's what I really like.

RT: Both of the books in which Merlin appears are fantasies, basically, or at least the Arthurian element is fantasy. Does that say something about your attitude towards the Arthurian legend?

PD: Yes, it does. I think that if there is anything historical in the material it is wholly different from what it has become, and is in any case irrecoverable. There's nothing you can get hold of in Gododdin. I'm not saying that historical events didn't happen, but they are not useful. As far as I'm concerned, there is not enough known, not enough even guessable, for me to write a historical novel. In Merlin's Ring Meriol Trevor makes the story as historical as it is possible to make it, but it's all guesses, it's all fantasy, just realist fantasy.

RT: Thank you.