Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Horrible historians and writing the books - Terry Deary interview

I also did a lengthy Terry Deary interview - which you can read here or below....

Of horrid historians and terrible teachers

Terry Deary wishes he wasn't best known for writing the Horrible Histories series Sarah Ebner

Terry Deary hates publishing and historians — an interesting combination given that he owes his fame and fortune to both. But Deary, a self-described anarchist, is a rather unusual man.

He is best known as the author of the Horrible Histories series of books, which are much loved by children around the world. Yet the 64-year-old says that he wants to turn his back on writing for children, is hugely critical of publishing (calling it “the seediest profession I’ve worked in”) and reserves his bile for historians, whom he calls “seedy and devious”.

“They pick on a particular angle and they select their facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves,” he says angrily. “They don’t write straight history. They don’t write objective history. Obnoxious people such as Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing. They use history to make a political point.”

Deary’s grey hair and soft Sunderland accent give the impression that he’s mild-mannered. It’s deceptive. In reality, although he’s friendly and open, he has a huge number of bugbears, including politicians and fellow children’s authors.

But chief among these are historians. Deary says that they’re what stop him loving history and denies, indignantly, that his books are history books at all.“I write about people,” he says firmly. “And that’s the most fascinating subject in the world.”

However, Deary’s success is partly due to the historians he despises. The Horrible Histories, after all, retell historical facts collated from other books, rather than original sources. Deary doesn’t actually do any of the research himself — something I found a little disappointing. Instead, a team of researchers find the quirky facts, all those ancient swear words and toilet practices among them.

“My skill is retelling,” explains Deary, unapologetically. “I’m a writer, not a historian. My job is to re-present what the researchers find and make that information accessible to young readers.”

The books are incredibly popular, appealing to boys and girls, the holy grail of children’s publishing. They have been turned into stage plays, museum exhibitions (one of these, Terrible Trenches, is currently showing at the Imperial War Museum) and a very successful television series, which starts again today.

They are known for history with all the horrible bits left in — the gruesome and disgusting, including snot, bile and blood, wrapped up with cartoon-like illustrations and accurate historical information. Deary writes an introduction to each book, explaining that it will be “full of the sort of facts that teachers never bother to tell you”.

The books are not always objective — which is the exact criticism levelled by Deary against historians. The one on the British Empire, for example, is extremely biased against imperialism. But Deary says that this is deliberate. “I’m putting the weight on the other side of the balance, to counteract the lies teachers tell you when you’re at school,” he says gleefully. “Yes, I do write polemics. I write antiestablishment rants. I make no claim at all to be writing objective history. Why I object to history books for adults is that they do claim to be objective.

“Horrible Histories are, from start to finish, a rant against the privileged,” he continues, warming to his theme. “All the posh people, the lords and the nobles, and their lackies, the police, the army and the teachers who purvey what the lords want — they are the enemy. And what makes me especially angry, because I’m not a historian, is when I start to study history and I find out the way in which common people have been manipulated, beaten, bullied and abused down the ages. Someone needs to stand up for them.”

Despite the platform that Horrible Histories has given him, Deary is more than a little grumpy about his strong association with the books. Why? Because the books are more famous than he is. “Horrible Histories is of very little interest to me because I don’t own the brand,” he says, adding that while people have heard of the books, they often haven’t heard of him. “The brand is stronger than me.”

The series began back in the early 1990s when Deary, an actor who had moved into writing children’s books, was commissioned to write a Father Christmas joke book. It sold well, so the publisher (Scholastic) asked him to write a history joke book.

Scholastic then asked Deary to add some interesting facts to the jokes. “When I started to look at the facts, I realised that they were more interesting than the jokes. So instead of a joke book with facts, you had a fact book with jokes. Horrible Histories was born.”

The first two books, Terrible Tudors and Awesome Egyptians, were written to tie in with the National Curriculum (ironic, as Deary hates conventional education). They were moderately successful and more books were commissioned. But it wasn’t until 1995 that they really took off, with Blitzed Brits promoted to tie in with the anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

More than 20 million copies of the books have now been sold worldwide, and children (including my own) can’t get enough of them. Deary has become one of the most popular living authors in the UK and Scholastic is even planning a Horrible Histories virtual online world for next year.

But Deary seems quite under-whelmed by his achievements. “Children’s authors are held in such low esteem, it drags me down,” he says. “You meet strangers and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ You say ‘I’m a writer’ and they reply, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. Then you tell them you’re a children’s writer — that’s way down the list. And you say ‘my best-known books are non-fiction’. Then you’re somewhere off the bottom of the scale!”

There’s more to Deary than Horrible Histories — which helps to explain the apparent chip on his shoulder. He clearly loved his acting career and has written more than 150 other books — their relatively low profile is an obvious irritation.

He’s also still angry about his education (he says that he hated school and “school hated me”) and resents that his talent as a writer wasn’t nurtured or encouraged. He didn’t go to university (one of the first things he says to me is that he doesn’t have a degree), instead spending a year working for the Electricity Board and then attending drama college. He still loves acting, but admits with a sigh: “I’m not as good an actor as I am a writer.”

Deary’s wife used to be a teacher, and before his writing career took off, he taught drama and English. So it may come as a surprise to find just how much he fumes at the thought that his books might now be recommended by educators. “If my books appear in schools, I get tainted,” he says passionately. “I don’t want to be tarred by schools. I want to be outside the system. I went to school. I was beaten, bullied and abused, by the teachers, not the pupils. I learnt nothing worth learning.”

He thinks that education should change radically, and schools should be closed down. “You give me the £50 billion that we put into the so-called education system and I will come up with an alternative.”

Deary now has a new agent and is keen to turn his back on Horrible Histories and other children’s books. He has already written a few more Horrible Histories (which are yet to be published), but has no plans for any more. His aim is to “diversify” and write adult fiction instead.

“I’m 64 years old. I don’t want to be 74 and still churning out the same thing. It’s time for a new career direction,” he says. “I never wanted to write any in the first place.”

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