New Interview on ReadingZone.com
5 June 2013
ReadingZone.com is dedicated to helping young people, parents & adults and teachers to find out about children’s books. Damian answered some of their questions this week, in the run up to the UK publication of 'Circus Maximus' in paperback.
Below is an extract, but read more at:
Q: When did you decide to write a series based on time travel?
A: I love classic adventure stories like Robert Louis Stevenson as well
as more contemporary movies like James Bond and Indiana Jones. I love
the diabolical villains, the secret maps and treasure and gadgets, and
how the heroes get to disappear off to somewhere exciting.
I also love history and how the course of history can be changed in a
day with a battle or a discovery, so I wondered if I could combine these
with a great adventure story that also described events from the past?
I started putting the ideas together about six years ago and the moment I
had the actual idea for The History Keepers was when I was reading an
old school book about about Ancient Rome and Egypt that showed how their
histories tied together. That's when I had the idea of a secret service
of time keepers.
Even if people think that they don't like history, I don't believe they
do really because everyone would go back to the past if they could, so I
am playing on that fantasy that everyone has.
Q: How do you decide which part of history your characters will visit?
A: I choose periods to focus on where there were great changes
happening, like the Renaissance period for the first book or the
Augustus period in Rome for this book, although if you were living there
at the time you probably wouldn't realise how much was changing, like
the Renaissance period or the Augustus period in Rome, so a civilisation
at its peak.
I don't want these books to be 'history books', the adventure always
comes first, but I would like to engage readers with what it may have
been like to live then, to feel the weather and the smells and to know
what people were eating. I also focus on key things that people are
interested in, so in Rome that's the Roman Baths, chariot races and the
In the third book, I focus on how interconnected the world becomes
during the early seventeenth century in China. There are key moments
that lead you from one great arena to another and those are the periods I
Q: Why do you like to include so many details of the periods you describe?
A: Well, I originally trained as a designer for films and television, so
I was designing and building sets as well as costumes, and it's still
important for me to set the scene. One of my characters, Nathan, is
obsessed with clothes so he can be very funny.
Q: Do you visit all the places you write about?
A: The first place I go to do my research is children's books. Sometimes
adult books about history can be a bit dry but when history is written
for young people, they make the story exciting and accessible. Then I go
online or to the British Library to read more.
Circus Maximus is set in Ancient Rome so I went to Rome and lived there
for a few weeks to do some research. There is so much in Rome that still
exists, like the Forum, the Pantheon and the Colosseum.
The next book is set in China and I travelled there last year to
research the Ming Dynasty. I went to all the key places like the
Forbidden City and the museums.
I knew next to nothing about Chinese civilisations but they introduced
printing, paper, the compass, navigation and gunpowder, and I just
wanted to understand how that civilisation had both lasted and prospered
through this time.
Q: Can you tell us more about Circus Maximus?
A: The Circus Maximus itself isn't there any more but you can see where
it was and how massive it was. I was fascinated about it, it was such an
important stadium and was famous throughout the Roman Empire.
The site has existed since about 400AD. It grew in importance and from
the first century AD you could fit about 160,000 people into the stadium
- that's double the number you'd get in the Olympic stadium! I wondered
how it must have felt to have been there during one of those huge
sporting events. Everyone went along and it was free.
On one level Rome was such a civilised place but it was also such a
bloodthirsty time and people liked to go and watch other people being
killed in various ways.
Q: Is there a period you'd like to find yourself in?
A: I'd be intrigued by London and Europe in the late seventeenth century
because it was a time when Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren were
working and there were so many breakthroughs in science, maths and the
I'd like to cross over and visit the French Court as well because it was
so absurdly over the top and lavish and I'd like to experience that
kind of opulence.
But I'd also be fascinated by the Industrial Revolution and Ancient
Egypt. The Egyptians are the forerunners of so much we take for granted
today, the same for Ancient Greece, and can you imagine joining the army
of Alexander the Great? I'd love to go anywhere in history, really.
Q: Do you have a favourite History Keeper?
A: I like them all although I have a soft spot for Nathan because he
makes me laugh but I guess Jake is very much how I felt when I was 14.
We had a lot of family problems and I was always trying to do the right
thing and make things better so I have strong protective feelings
Q: What about a favourite villain?
A: I love creating and writing villains. I relished Agata Zeldt in this
book, she repulsed me in every way, but the villains in book three make
the Zeldts seem positively gentle....
Q: Can you tell us a little about the next book?
A: The main thrust of book three is the search for Philip, Jake's
brother. They thought Philip was dead but then Jake realises that he may
still be alive and living in the past. Jake is given a lead of where
his brother might be and that's what takes them to Jacobean London and
then to China.
It turns out that the villain here, Xi Xaing, who used to be a History
Keeper, is spectacularly evil and is trying to bring about a World War.
I'm slightly in shock about it, mainly because he's a joker and he
laughs as he kills. He also has three eyes....
Q: How does your writing day go?
A: I usually start quite late, about 11.30, after I've done my administration and taken the dog out for a long walk.
I live on the South Bank and walk the dog through Green Park to my
office in Soho, the loft space in an old building, and I start writing
at 12pm and work through lunch and I stop at 6-7pm at night. I wish I
could be one of those people who start at 6am but I just can't....
Q: You have been a successful screen writer so have you written a film script for The History Keepers?
A: When I first had the idea, I thought The History Keepers would be a film but then I started writing it as a book.
I have now written two drafts of History Keepers as a film and Working
Title, which has the film rights, is talking to directors. Working Title
has had a good year with their film Les Miserables and they have wanted
a kids series for a long time and they love the idea of these books, so
Q: What are your top writing tips for budding writers?
A: The first would be to be strict with yourself, so decide you will
either write for an hour a day or for however many words it might be,
1000 or 1,500, and then just stick to it, however painful it might seem
to get to the end of it. And the writing process can be quite painful!
My second tip, although it probably should be the first, is to write
about something you feel passionate about; follow your heart.