The Gathering Approaches
We’re now getting pretty close to the Edinburgh Gathering so I’ve made some updates to the Dunnett Places to Visit page with some additional photographs of Linlithgow, Blackness, and Haddington and descriptions of some extra places which appear in Gemini.
We’ll be stocking quite a number of books out at Heriot Watt that are relevant to Dunnett history and geography as well as some other authors’ fiction that we hope you may like, and wherever possible these will be at a discount to attendees. The basic list of Dunnett related titles is the same as the one in the Dunnett Background Reading page but there will be some further additions to that anyway. Anyone who’s coming and would like a particular book to be stocked or who would like to suggest something that might be of interest to the others please contact me with your suggestions.
A Word About Edinburgh Weather
For those of you coming to Edinburgh a quick word about temperature and conditions in the area. We have a maritime climate with two very different seas on either side of the country, so unpredictable and fast changing weather is the norm. It has been a pretty poor summer so far and currently it’s rather cooler than would be expected for this time of year. Wednesday was positively cold (when we had to stand outside for an hour because of an electrical fire in the hairdressers shop next door) – mainly because of the chill and damp East wind off the North Sea which is often a feature of Spring, and quite a few fleece jackets suddenly made a reappearance. July is usually quite hot (in the 70s and 80s) but can also be wet. For this reason a small umbrella or a light wind and waterproof jacket is a good idea, while for those of you more accustomed to hot climates a spare pullover or similar may not go amiss. Of course we Scots will all be in shorts and tee-shirts complaining about the heat!!
Publishing News Article
When Gemini came out the UK trade magazine Publishing News asked me to write an article on Dorothy for them and I thought you might like to see it. I was a bit worried, as what they published was essentially a first draft (which I’d sent them to ask if that was the sort of thing they wanted) with four additional items added in and the whole thing rejigged to accommodate them in about 15 minutes flat when they were late getting back to me – but although it maybe isn’t as polished as I would have liked it came out looking not too bad. As published it took up about three quarters of the roughly A3 format and with a colour picture of the Gemini cover along with a b&w photo of Dorothy it makes a nice spread. Oh, and I didn’t choose the title for the piece!
This week saw the publication of the concluding volume in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series of historical novels. Bill Marshall of James Thin reflects on her remarkable life and work.
Forty years ago a book was published that changed the expectations of historical fiction readers forever and set a new standard for any writer venturing into this field. That book was Game of Kings and over the following years it became the six-volume Lymond Chronicles, introducing the world to Francis Crawford of Lymond, possibly the finest and most complex hero ever conceived in print and a character who has inspired a great many lookalikes. The author’s trademark was that his story was somehow seemlessly inserted into the landscape of 16th century Scottish and European history. Later, that series was followed by another, the House of Niccolo, set 100 years earlier and concerned with the rise of a humble dyeyard apprentice in Bruges, but gradually showing subtle connections to the first series. On the first of June this year, Gemini, the 8th and final volume of the House of Niccolo, completed the saga and brought us back to a point where we could follow the clues forward to the story that had been introduced back in 1961. “Prequels” have become popular in recent years following their use in TV and film but here was an entire series of them written years after the original – a fact made all the more remarkable when you consider that in between was five years of detailed and original research into Macbeth which produced the novel King Hereafter and a theory that is still being debated by historians today.
Amongst her legion of readers the creator of Lymond has become as legendary as her first hero; for the richness and wit of her writing, the astonishing depth and precision of her research, and not least for her readiness to respond to their many letters with charm and interest.
At 76, Dorothy Dunnett shows a vitality and brightness of eye that would be the envy of most people half her age and which provides a glimpse of the sharp erudite mind within, yet she manages to effortlessly put all-comers immediately at ease, whether speaking to 1800 Australians, as she did recently at the Adelaide Book Festival, American high-school students, or the highest people in the land. Tam Dalyell MP is a fan and friend as is the Duke of Buccleuch. Not that she always tells them what they want to know – her ability to provide interesting answers to questions on the labyrinthine plots of her stories while still managing to avoid giving away crucial aspects with as deft a touch as Lymond might employ deflecting a sword thrust, is a source of delight as well as frustration for anyone who has tried to predict the future course of the tale.
Surprisingly we might have been deprived of these classic books by the reticence of the early 1960s British publishing industry, as her first manuscript was repeatedly rejected as being too complex, and it was her late husband Alastair, then editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who saved the day by writing to Lois Cole, the American editor who had discovered Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Cole recognised Game of Kings as work of great importance straight away, and Dorothy was launched on her writing career. Curiously there are still far more US enthusiasts for her work than British.
Writing is only one of Dorothy’s careers; she was for a time a professional portrait painter and sculptress, and has been on the board of Scottish Television and the Scottish National Library amongst numerous business and public duties. In partnership with Alastair she has been a prime mover in many of the most important developments in Scottish culture and the Arts.
I first came across Dorothy’s writing in 1994 when I was setting up the first email account for James Thin, the 152 year old Edinburgh booksellers for whom I am now webmaster. Thins had been long involved in sending out the latest Dunnett volumes to a mailing list of mainly overseas readers who couldn’t wait for the later US publication dates and were happy to be able to order signed copies from her local bookshop. One customer included an email address on her letter and I answered it to speed up an urgent reply. Suddenly I found I was in touch with a network of internet connected fans who were delighted to find a new source of information. Soon I was spending lots of time answering questions about the books so when setting up our first web pages a few months later I naturally thought of including a page devoted to Dorothy and was bowled over by the response. That page grew into the largest and most popular section of our site and led me to meet Dorothy herself, and I was quickly persuaded that despite being a resolute non-fiction reader I must delve into her books myself and find out what the fuss was about – a decision I have never regretted
My Dunnett email newsletters which grew out of the web pages now reach around 800 people directly and many more indirectly, and that was echoed by the number of advance orders we had for the final book. The orders for Unicorn Hunt, the last one before my internet involvement, had been about 120, the next one (To Lie with Lions) rose to just over 200 while Caprice and Rondo was just over 400. May this year found Dorothy and I surrounded by 1000 copies of Gemini, which is over a ton of books (it’s a big book), checking, sorting and signing for three days prior to the big release. However any time spent in her company is never dull and we chatted about many aspects of her books as we worked, while she carefully made sure not to reveal any of the twists in Gemini lest she spoil it for me.
June 13th will see a reception and dinner in Edinburgh laid on by publisher Michael Joseph to celebrate the completion of what is in reality a 14 volume series, while July will see the Edinburgh Gathering taking place at Heriot Watt University. This is the latest in a series of conventions which have taken place over the years and will be attended by about 300 readers who will discuss a wide variety of topics relating to the books as well as hearing talks from Dorothy herself and from guest speakers. One of the highlights will be a grand dinner in the recently restored Great Hall of Stirling Castle, which is sure to provide an atmospheric background. One thing we can be sure of is that it will be a delightful evening with scintillating conversation, and that this remarkable woman will still be in fine form long after the rest of us have run out of energy.
What the future holds for her remains to be seen, but she intends to complete a series of mystery thrillers which she wrote some years ago as light relief from the historical novels, while it is also possible that she will return to the detailed research that makes the latter so convincing and this time give us as factual history of the periods in which she is so expert.
Dorothy’s Talk at the Shop
On Monday 12th June Dorothy gave a talk at our South Bridge shop in the same Events Room that we had filled with Gemini two weeks before. Despite making it an all ticket affair we still had about 20 extra people hoping to get in who mostly ended up peering round the door of the packed room.
I started things off with an entirely superfluous introduction which was broadly similar to my opening sentences of the Publishing News article. Dorothy recoiled in mock horror at the idea of it having been 40 years and I was able to hand over to her for the rest of the evening.
She started by paying tribute to everyone who had helped her over the years and kindly thanked the company for all their efforts in selling the books and corresponding with overseas customers – “without which the success of the books might not have happened”. She also described the three days that she and I spent with the “ton of Gemini” (a phrase that is now becoming legendary as it gets repeated by astonished Michael Joseph staff!) and the “danger” to the floor of the room that they were now seated in. She also made reference to the packet of “jube-jubes” which I’d purchased from a charity display in the staffroom, which was all we had to sustain us in our work! 😉
She then asked how many in the audience had read Gemini – there were very few, so she was very guarded about the contents to avoid spoiling their enjoyment.
There was a brief resume of basic plot ideas and there was the suggestion of Scottish Plan being real but against only the St Pols.
She mentioned that the sites of many of the Edinburgh scenes are still in existence and this was one of the great delights in the research and writing. The Floory Land is still there at Jeffrey St. and records still exist of the trades of the people living there. Leith property records still exist too.
Of the major historic events, Fotheringay records still exist but Lauder is more confused. She came to realise during her research that the people who recorded events in those times placed no importance on facts but wrote for the present and the effects that they might have. This makes the job of historians much more difficult that it might seem.
Her reading list was up to 739 books for House of Niccolo before she stopped counting. Primary sources were essential – Exchequer Records, Parliamentary Records, Great Seal of Scotland, etc.
She then gave a reading – the Kathi spying scene. The section beginning and ending with:
“Settling into her life as a spy…..
……. like a warmly comatose bear with a cub.”
And including that lovely piece of wry humour about the pigeons that were fed but also cooked.
We then moved onto a Questions & Answer session
The first one concerned the relationship between Nicholas and Umar – just a deep friendship.
What advice did she have to aspiring writers of historical fiction? – Read a lot of it but ignore styles. It’s not easy to find your own voice.
What will you write in the future? – “Depends when I go gaga”. She would like to do some pure history following up on her past researches. She also responded positively to the requests for a final JJ, which of course she has already said that she would like to do to finish off the series. (The final results of that depend on the publisher of course).
Why the time period of Niccolo? – because it was still in the Renaissance, and there were the fascinating aspects of numeracy, banking, double book-keeping, and people coming up from trading classes.
Where did you do the research for Timbuktu? – It was too dangerous to go there as everyone was being warned off. Ironically, after finishing SoG she met someone who’d just been there on package holiday! Fortunately there was a lot to be read on it.
What about the Companion? – there will be an announcement quite soon. Negotiations and arrangements are still under way and it’s not clear yet exactly what will happen.
When writing Lymond had she any ideas of Niccolo? – No, the idea only came up after writing KH.
There was some discussion of various internet related stuff such as the numbers of people and messages, and the Gathering, and she mentioned having to write different speeches for each appearance now because often the details of each one has appeared on the net by the time she gets to the next one.
Films? – Once there was a proposal for a 13 episode TV version of GK, but it fell through.
Were you sad to say goodbye to Nick? – Yes, she wrote the last words of Gemini on Guy Fawkes night. Richenda was bereft at finishing it.
What suggested James IIIs medical background? – Related to “the madness of King George III”. It has been traced back to Mary Queen of Scots, so it was quite possible that it went back further in the Stewarts. James II was “James of the fiery face”, and there is a portrait of him which shows this – most unusual for the time. This was held by historians to be a birthmark but Dorothy suspected that it might be porphyria as it would explain his often erratic behaviour. It’s possible that even Robert the Bruce’s “leprosy” may be down to that, as leprosy was a name attached to a great many skin complaints.
She mentioned that the period of James III was also the time of Blind Harry, which was a useful aspect. The poem worked very much like an early version of Braveheart in stoking up passions.
One member of the audience had visited Murano, and came across Eleanor of the Tyrol’s coat of arms. Dorothy mentioned that Eleanor had sent James a translation of a book. She went to visit the Earl of Crawford on a social engagement and there in his library was the book by Eleanor! Not only that but over each of the doorways there was a Delarobbia painting.
That being the end of the questions I finished by asking the last one – whether Richenda had guessed the ending. We resolved to ask her the following night.
After thanking Dorothy and wishing everyone the best of enjoyment in reading Gemini, I closed that section of the evening with a round of applause for her and we moved to the signing and chat which kept us going until 9.00pm.
(We took a couple of photographs during the evening which I’ll have on the website shortly)
Michael Joseph’s Champagne Reception
The following evening Michael Joseph held a champagne reception for Dorothy at the prestigious New Club in Princes Street, which has superb views over to the Castle. The Managing Director of Michael Joseph was there along with a number of their staff and editor Richenda Todd and agent Vivian Schuster. There was a good representation of the Edinburgh literary scene, including Magnus Linklater, who followed Alastair as Scotsman editor, and Jenny Brown who was the first administrator of the Book Festival, as well as lots of old friends and collaborators and a rare appearance by Mungo and Ninian. Amongst a number of interesting conversations I had was one with Dorothy’s next door neighbour who is a retired Professor of Mediaeval French who had supplied some invaluable material on Nicholas’ Play in particular. At the end of a couple of hours there was a presentation to Dorothy of a framed original picture of the Gemini cover and an affectionate tribute to which she replied in her inimitable style – finishing by suggesting that there might still be a few more book launches to come!
After that a small band of us made the short trip up to Castlehill for an excellent dinner at the atmospheric Witchery restaurant. With more wine and champagne things get a bit hazy at this point(!!) but our combined experience of many different facets of Dorothy’s work made sure that conversation never lapsed even when we temporarily ran out of other things to talk about. It was particularly nice to get a chance to speak to Richenda for a longer period and I’m sure that she has many more fascinating insights on the production of Niccolo.
One fellow diner who came over to see us from the other side of the restaurant turned out to be an old friend of Dorothy’s – Michael Shea, who was for many years the Queen’s Press Secretary. Even those of us who know that she seems to know everyone felt our jaws dropping a little at this point! The friend with whom he was eating turned out to have also met her many years ago and he reminded her that he had been an expert in the dyeing industry and that she had asked him back then – what would an old dyeyard be like…… and what would it be like if one went on fire? !!!!!
The following morning would see Dorothy off doing a whistlestop signing round of nine Scottish bookshops and at the end of that week she would be off round the rest of the UK for two weeks – finishing the book is just the beginning for a popular author, the hard work comes afterwards! However despite that it was still after midnight before we started to head for home.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago an article appeared in The Scotsman that had immediate resonance for a Lymond fan. One of their former columnists, Peter Clarke, has been restoring Kirkhope Tower, which he bought from the Duke of Buccleuch seven years ago. Kirkhope was the fortified home of Wat Scott, and Clarke has come across a cache of 16 silver and gold coins which were apparently hidden by him in the 16th century during a siege. The coins apparently amount to about a years wages for a tradesman of the time and include one minted in Brandenburg in Germany in 1560, which was probably traded at Berwick.
Look forward to seeing some of you at the Edinburgh Gathering.