Dorothy Dunnett

General Topics

Art Training

Q. Id be interested to know if Dorothy attended art college and if so which one, or if she was self-taught in painting.

"Art was one of my Higher Leaving Certificate passes at school (Higher English, Latin, French, Maths, Art and - Lower History). Enrolled, with portfolio, at evening and book illustration classes at Edinburgh College of Art; transferred on marriage to Glasgow School of Art (wonderful Rennie Mackintosh building) for same evening subjects; signed on for new portrait-painting class which hit the button, and after one term's tuition, had my portrait of my Father-in-law accepted for the annual exhibition of the MacLellan Galleries, where it was noticed and reported on in newspaper review by Dr Honeyman, the Director of Glasgow's museums and galleries. Portrait painting career began at that point. Later, back in Edinburgh, I took some refresher day life classes after the birth of my family - and that's it."


Any chance of another series?

Q. After you finish the Niccolo series, do you have plans to write another series?

"A series would, I think, be expecting too much of the geriatric-care industry. Another Dolly book maybe."


Films?

Q. Have you ever been approached to make movie(s) from your books? Would you consider a movie or two?

"Yes, with no results so far. And yes, no problem over films or TV. But one of my husband's books on the sea may come first. "


Musical Preferences?

Q. Music features heavily in parts of both series - what are your favourite pieces and particularly do you have any favourite vocal pieces?

"Haven't yet allowed myself the luxury of classifying the period music. I need something knock on the head emotional as a writing accompaniment. Wagner, often."


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Favourite authors?

Q. Who is your favorite author?

"Different authors for different moods. I'm always adding new ones. When I'm working myself, none at all. "


How much is preplanned?

Q. When Dorothy began each of the two series, how much of the plot was preplanned? There is so much foreshadowing that it seems a lot of planning was required, but in writing a series over the course of 12 - 16 years, it seems like it would be difficult to maintain the original focus. I have heard authors say that characters take on a life of their own as books develop. Does Dorothy feel that this occurs and if so, how does she balance this against the original plan?

"Each series was planned in detail from the beginning. Within a day-to-day historical framework like this, there is no leeway for major characters to make unplanned changes of direction, or you couldn't be true to the history. It still leaves scope for them to display their given (and changing) characteristics in unexpected ways in the course of a scene."


A Comparison of Lymond and Nicholas

One of the main topics of interest in many discussions is the contrast between these two central characters. I was about to say "of the two series" but Dorothy has let it be known that she considers it one series of 14 books. Here is her perspective on the two male leads.

"With Lymond, I wanted to show a very solitary man facing up to what was happening to him, and dealing with it, and changing under its impact. From the beginning, he appears as a courtier, a scholar, a wilful and charismatic leader of mercenaries, with formidable enemies. He is also vulnerable because of something to do with his past and his parentage, which we can only guess at, for he himself doesn't know the truth, and doesn't want to. As his power and influence increase, these secrets are explored one by one, until he has to confront them in the end. And as this happens, we begin to understand what moulded the dazzling character whom we met at the beginning."

"Nicholas had to be different. In the 15th century, you could climb out of your class if you were good at banking and merchandising and accountancy, and Nicholas as a young man does this. We met Lymond fully-fledged; we see Nicholas as young and (comparatively) inexperienced, but advancing with every adventure. There are mysteries too in his life, and enemies, but the real mystery is his nature. He is both hilariously outgoing, and obsessively private. We see him acting heroically; we see him deceiving his friends. We see him risking his life for someone else, but also initiating some crazy chain of events that will as surely bring about wanton ruin or death. The character of Nicholas is what this series is all about, rather than the unfolding of secrets. The central mystery was the key to Lymond's whole life, but this is not true of Nicholas."


What order should I read the books in?

"The double series will form a single entity of 14 books. Order of reading: I'd say LC first, then (in chronological order) HN followed straight through by a re-reading of LC to pick up all the hidden links."


What were your early readings and did they inspire you?

Q. Did she read Quentin Durward (Scott) and The White Company (Arthur Conan Doyle) when she was young? Did they in any way inspire, influence, or direct her imagination?

"Can't remember reading The White Company, but my school went in for Walter Scott in a really big way. I once amused Sir Walter's charming g-g-many g's-granddaughter by remarking brashly that the books were all right so long as you skipped the first forty pages. They weren't in the forefront of my memory when I started to write, but everything one has read forms source material, I'm quite sure. I didn't even realise until recently what a magnificent researcher he was."


Quotations and their exploration

Q. How do you approach your quotations? I would be very interested in exploring DD's choice of quotations. Did she go looking for quotations to fit the bill, or use quotations from works she was already familiar with because they seemed to fit, or a bit of both? Were they a product of the store of information she already had, which presented themselves in the heat of creation, or part of her preparatory reading, or later inserts in a framework already written ? I'm imagining the scene written with 'blank for quote' and suitable quote later inserted. If the first, she really has a fabulous store of information in the memory cells.

This question (from Diana Crane) came out of a discussion about following up quotations to see if they illuminated the story they were included in, and in particular in the story of Sir Gowther. The following extract from one of the messages gives the background for those who aren't familiar with the story.

I forget now who first pointed out the interest in reading on in poems and sources quoted by DD, which I consider one of the most exciting and fruitful insights I've received in five or so years of Dunnett sharing. Heike has been showing us how interesting it can be for KH. To recap the story briefly, Gowther's mother is barren and about to be put aside by her husband when she meets a fiend in the orchard in the shape of her husband and lies with him. At the end he resumes fiendly shape and tells her she will conceive, so she hastens to make love to her husband the same night. The fiendish offspring is born and shows his qualities immediately, killing numbers of wetnurses and tearing his mother's nipple, having been born with teeth. He grows fast and wreaks all sorts of mayhem, fighting and killing. His worst crime is to burn a convent of nuns, having first raped them (the rape is omitted in one version). Eventually an elderly count remonstrates with him and suggests he is the child of a fiend. Gowther goes to his mother to demand the truth of her: at first she says he is the child of his putative father, then tells him the truth. Gowther is devastated, goes to seek pardon of the Pope, performs a severe penance and is forgiven eventually, meets his truelove, marries and inherits his father-in-law's dukedom. Afterwards he lives a blameless and happy life and puts up a new convent on the site of the one he burned.
There is a footnote on the 'Devil's contract' theme in folklore. 'The child is subject to diabolic influence from whose dominion it is freed by its own ingenuity or the intervention of Providence. Stith Thompson remarks . . . Gowther . . . was not to blame for his demonic association, since the fault lay entirely with his mother.' I thought there were quite a few things of interest, which at the very least could explain why that particular quote came to Lymond's mind. For example, the birth secret, the child demanding the truth about his birth from his mother, the responsibility of the mother's sin for the disorder of the child, the child's responsibility or possible responsibility for the death by burning of a convent of nuns, with a suspicion of sexual misconduct with one of them thrown in. In the printed version of Gowther the motive for setting the convent to the torch seems to be at least partly to hide the evidence of the sexual misconduct and I think there are insinuations in GoK (which of course I don't believe ;-) ) that Lymond might have wanted to silence Eloise because of possible incest between them. All in all, fascinating stuff.

"For the Lymond series, I began reading in the late 1950's every poem or song I could find of the 16th century or earlier. Some of it I didn't note down, but (fortunately, forty years later) I did make a note of striking passages that were relevant to the story I knew I was going to tell. I repeated the process before and during the Niccolo series.

Before I write a chapter, I scan and memorise all the material I am going to use - place, people, clothes, climate, plot requirements, language and quotes. Then I put all my notes aside, let it simmer, and sit down and write the complete chapter straight through, inventing on the basis of what I've assimilated. Sometimes I'll kick myself because I've forgotten a brilliant quotation, but it never looks right when it's stuck in afterwards.

Stemming from this: sometimes a whole poem/song is significant, like the ones Lymond chose for his Hotel d'Hercules banquet, and I'm so pleased that someone has thought of hunting out the full references. At other times, the quotation enters the character's mind because of a single appropriate word or phrase, and the subsequent verses have no special significance. I don't know how to help you distinguish one type from the other, except by saying that references to whole poems generally occur at moments of high emotion - mill, what hast thou ground - or those instances where Lymond cannot bear to listen.

I'm mortified that I can't remember where I quoted Gowther, and you've probably been cleverer than I have in noticing the parallels. Writing the book, I wasn't particularly concerned to make much of Eloise, and I'm not sure that I'd intentionally add to the poignancy by attaching a meaningful poem. But again, I may just have forgotten. The opportunist accusations about Eloise were meant to obscure and delay the correct reading of Lymond's character, but to be wholly discounted later on. Even Lymond's unwitting responsibility for his sister's death was of less importance to the chronicle, or even to him, than other things that were to happen to people he loved as an adult."


 

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