Author Interview: Mike Dash (Part 1)

One of the great gifts of being the youngest of three boys is a total lack of shame. It was beaten out of me years ago. This allows me to do things without having that little voice in my head that says, “are you out of your mind?”

What does this have to do with a history blog? Well, one day after launching the blog, I decided to email published authors and see if I could interview them. Yes, the man with a one-day old blog decided to just email people who usually have 3-5 jobs and have much better things to do than spend their time answering inane questions.

I emailed 5. I got 3 responses. Amazingly, 2 of those responses were acceptances! (The third was a very nice rejection by the author’s publicist. She’s writing a new book and even if that’s a lie, the publicist was super nice about it.) Anyway, two interviews are already done! And the first one is Mike Dash!

Who is Mike Dash? This guy: You know when you have your own Wikipedia page, then you are officially legit. Not only is Mike a published author, blogger, and all around super smart PhD, Mike is also the first author to respond to me!

Mike actually got back to me the next day after I sent emails asking for interviews. For someone who didn’t even think he’d get one response, this was a huge surprise which also made me nervous as all hell. Apparently, my shame is not completely gone yet.

The most important things to know about Mike? It’s not that he wrote one of my favorite books of all time (and another book I had no idea I could possibly like). I reviewed them last week. Besides being an incredible author, it’s that he is a super nice guy, quite hilarious, and probably the easiest interview in the world. Before we even started recording, I asked him to forgive me if I sucked at interviewing. He said the only thing I needed to worry about was not letting him talk to much. He could not have been more wrong. He just let loose and gave amazing insight into being an author, how the process has changed, and how he loves blogging these days.

I think you’ll enjoy the hell out of it! And I can’t thank Mike enough for all he’s done for a complete stranger with a blog. Let’s get to it!

Brendan:             All right Mike, there’s a question that I have wanted to ask you specifically since I first put down Batavia’s Graveyard, which is how is this not a Hollywood movie yet?

Mike:                    Because it has a lot of Dutch people with unpronounceable names in it. I think if it had been an American ship it would’ve been filmed at least five times by now. I’ve often said that actually. It’s a shame because the story’s a very human one, it’s not particularly one of any particular nationality, and I think it indeed does deserve to be filmed. And the reality is that since the book was published in 2002 I sold the film rights at least five times. So it’s not like people haven’t tried to do it. Paul Verhoeven, the guy who filmed Total Recall for example, he was Dutch, had for several years and made the attempt to film it through channel four in the UK. So I think there’s that, it’s the fact that the names and the people are alien to the majority of the film going audience. But also, films that are made on water are just really expensive things to make and that’s also a disincentive. The other thing that’s part of this thing, I taught the screenwriter that Paul Verhoeven brought in, he was struggling because he didn’t think there were enough heroes.

Mike:                     Fundamentally most of the people in the book are villains. There is an obvious hero, Wiebbe Hayes, he’s the guy who escapes to a little island in the Archipelago after the Batavia’s been wrecked. And the screenwriter’s perspective on this was that he’s not heroic enough. In a Hollywood movie he would go and rescue the women and children on the mutiny’s island at risk of his own life, and that would be a great action sequence as well. The fact that they just sit on their own island and let the mutinies come to them and defeat them when they do is not really a Hollywood style of dealing with the fact that you’ve got 20 women who are being raped on a daily basis by a bunch of vicious mutineers. So there’s that as well I think.

Brendan:              And we all know Hollywood, they would just change the history so maybe we actually dodged a bullet that the story can just be the history that you gave us as opposed to what Hollywood does with various historical things and just changes it into something that is not even anywhere close to what the actual history was.

Mike:                     I struggle with all the historical films as a historian for that reason. I do understand similarly as someone who writes stories of sorts the necessity of making the story a good one, but the reality is the reason I chose to write the book about the Batavia is that it is by a very long way the greatest story I’ve ever read. Historically it’s really unusual to find a story that works as well as this in the sense that when you’re a writer of historical nonfiction you come up against publishers who essentially are pushing you to make your book as much like a novel as possible. And that includes having a beginning, and a middle, and an end, a good bit of pacing, and heroes and villains. And the Batavia story does in fact have all those things in more or less the likes of the proportions for an ordinary novel.

Mike:                     You can compare that to the book I wrote about the foundation of the American math here, for example, which is similarly thrilling in many ways, but the main villain gets captured by the Secret Service and locked up in prison for 10 years during which there’s a giant hole in the story. And from a purely pacing point of view, that book never worked nearly as well as Batavia’s Graveyard did for that reason and so I think of all the stories I’ve ever investigated and told, the Batavia story is the one that is least in need of Hollywood intervention.

Brendan:              I absolutely agree. And then you have something like Batavia that’s just perfectly encapsulates the story, but then you also write a book about tulips, which is just … I finished it this week, I read Tulipomania this week, and it’s almost you’re reading it and it’s very interesting, and it’s moving along, and then sometimes you snap back and you realize I’m reading an entire book about tulips and being interested in it. How did this happen? And my biggest question here is how do you even get to the point where you say, “Yeah, I can write about tulips. That can be a book.”?

Mike:                     Good question. The tulip book was by far the hardest to write in terms of the structure of it because I started off hoping I would find one or two people who had been involved in the story from the time that it started after the 1580s, and the tulip mania proper doesn’t really happen until the 1630s, and in fact there’s no such thing. There’s no one who can take the story through all those periods and so I ended effectively saying I’m just going to have to make the flower the hero in a narrative sense. I don’t know how well that worked. It was a slightly different form of book. When I wrote that book, which was in the 1990s, there was a big vogue small books on one small subject, micro history you might call it. Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Dava Sobel’s Longitude are good examples of books in that area.

Mike:                     And so, in fact, in that particular case, that particular story came to me in the sense that my literary agent was looking for a historian capable of doing a book about the tulips and I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a go.” I slightly regretted it after. The reality was at that time I wasn’t a full-time writer, my profession was a magazine publisher, I ran a division of a medium size magazine publishing company in Britain, and one of the titles that I had in my portfolio was a magazine called Gardens Illustrated. And the main consultants, so this is a fantastic upmarket gardening magazine, we always used to joke it was written for the sort of woman who gets their butler to renew their subscription. And the consultant we had was a woman called Anna Pavord who was quite a well-known gardening writer in the UK. And so having landed the contract and signed it I immediately rushed off to the editor to find out who I could talk to about tulips, and she was aghast because she then told me that Anna has spent her entire life writing a book about the tulip, it was her life’s work, and she’s going to be very upset about this. And in fact she was because she tried to get me sacked. She was very annoyed.

Mike:                     So I posted back saying I shouldn’t be working on this because I couldn’t do this sort of thing to her and she was dying from cancer. Which in fact she hasn’t done, she’s still alive now, but so it was all a bit unpleasant and I ended up having to sign an agreement with my British publisher that I wouldn’t publish the book until after her book had come out in order to quiet things down, which meant it wasn’t very successful in the UK. It came out first in the US and it did very well there so I guess it wasn’t the fault of the book. So it was a really weird situation. I guess I wish I had a better story for you which shades me in a better light as a historian than just I was asked to do it and managed to find my way through attempts not to let me do it. But after that I became a bit more professional. That’s the long and the short of it, I did start writing books full time from the Batavia for a bit.

Brendan:              That’s actually a great story to this whole thing. I was very much afraid that the answer was going to be, “Well I got drunk one night and kept going on Wikipedia, and I just followed the path until I came to tulips, and I said hey, why not.”

Mike:                     Yeah interesting question. The point I think was that it turned out, it was lucky in a horrible sense, that the book actually was written at a time when there was quite a boom in the economy, and by the time I finished it and it was published there was a fairly major financial crash that happened almost immediately afterwards, and suddenly … And this has happened multiple times actually to me since then. 2008 obviously, in the sense that this becomes topical every time there’s a financial bubble happens and people start wanting to know about Tulipomania at that point. So it became more topical in a sense than it was. At the time I think it was just literally somebody casting around for another small book on a very odd subject having heard somewhere about the Tulipomania. The frustrating thing about it, to be honest with you, is I did do quite a large amount of research because it really wasn’t a very well told story at the time I was writing it in 1997. Virtually the only subject that had been published in English had been a tiny book that came out in 1950.

Mike:                     And most of the materials were in Dutch, which I don’t read or talk comfortably, had to get a Dutch research assistant to help me with some translations in fact. And of course what happens after the book comes out, and Anna Pavord’s book come out, is that people started writing reviews saying, “Oh this old story again. Haven’t we already heard it?” Because suddenly Anna’s book had made it fairly fashionable. And this book was about the tulip generally, but the most interesting thing about it the tulip is that tulip mania, so that everybody had reviewed her book ended up writing about her Tulip mania chapter although it’s only one chapter in a much longer book. So yeah, I had these responses saying, “What an old story.” Which is extremely frustrating. There are only so many good stories in fact out there, and in fact I think the Batavia is an example of the only book I’ve ever written where I didn’t discover half way through somebody else was working on the same idea. That seems to happen an awful lot when you’re writing history and there’s only so many interesting historical stories you can tell.

Brendan:              And that was actually a great spot for my next question. Which I’ve seen some interviews that you had done and one of the things you talk about is that you really don’t want to write a story that’s been told over, and over, and over again. So obviously then you’re going to look for the bit more obscure things. For every great idea that you get and you dig into, do you just have a ton of false starts? Like, “I think this story’s here.” And then you find out there’s not enough for it. “I can’t turn it into a book.” Or do you find that you have a pretty good sixth sense about something that has enough for you to write a book out?

Mike:                     Well there’re several things to say. The reason I’m no longer a full time author of books is that I have sacrificed my career effectively on that particular bridge that you described. Me fighting a battle in the sense that if I really wanted to be a professional author that badly I would be writing about Churchill, Napoleon, and Hitler like everybody else. I just literally couldn’t do it. One of the things you mentioned when we started talking was the question of how long it takes to do one of these things. In my case the answer is usually about two years, sometimes as many as three or four years. I just could not imagine wasting that much of my life on something that is essentially a rehash of somebody else’s work. So that’s why. And my natural psychological tendency has always, ever since I was first interested in history when I was in school, has always been to go for the most obscure least known bits.

Mike:                    So I have a massive pile of stories I find completely fascinating and a couple of them I usually end up writing them up for my blog or for the Smithsonian magazine I contribute to. Whereas you say, you realize that there’s just not enough in the story to make a whole book out of it. That’s true 95% of all the stories I’m interested, and there’s only a relatively small number which can be made into good stories. So the answer to your question I guess is that these things don’t go to waste because I do research them, I do write them up, and they’re just in a shorter form. They’re essays rather than whole books. And that has advantages in the sense that you can get in and out a bit more quickly and interest yourself in something massively for a few months rather than having to drag through it for several years.

Mike:                     And it’s an interesting problem I think a lot of authors struggle with, that having committed so much time to something and time distorting the way in which you first approached it, people who spend five or 10 years on the biography of somebody either end up loving their subject or loathing them. But as long as you’re very much neutral ground in between, and the same thing does tend to happen with histories. I think that ultimately in the case of the sorts of books that I have done the most thing I’ve struggled with most has not been the history or the research, but to do with satisfying publishers with regard to stories. And my impression is that has got a lot worse since I started doing it. Batavia’s Graveyard, which has been easily my most successful book in terms of critical response in terms of sales, would never be published today. It’s no question about that. You could not persuade a publisher today to publish a book about a bunch of Dutch people that no one’s ever heard of which is 1/3 footnotes.

Mike:                     I had the luxury of no one expecting to do very well at a time when publishing was still doing quite well. Now publishing isn’t doing as well and there’s a lot more pressure on authors to come up with the goods and definitely to the number of non-mainstream books that have been promoted heavily has fallen dramatically. So I think that publishing is not in such a receptive state for the things I do as it was when I was doing them 15 or 20 years ago either, sadly.

Brendan:              That’s really interesting. And it’s also very interesting hearing how long it takes even to do a blog post, which yours are, especially anybody reading this will think, “Oh, a blog post.” The ones that I’m throwing out there are 500-600 words. But yours are in depth. I really enjoyed the show Vikings and I saw that you did an article on the blood eagle and whether or not it’s historically accurate and things like that. And it’s very funny just watching, for the lack of a better term, trashy TV, and then seeing the history next to it and saying, “Dear God, that must have taken a really long time just to research all of that just to be able to write a blog post for it.”

Mike:                     Yeah. It varies. I went through a period where I was writing for the sake of the Smithsonian essentially, and the stuff on my blog for that period was restricted. They wouldn’t take anything from me that was more than 4000 words, and they were fairly reluctant to take 4000 words. And I had to do one in a fortnight so in fact I was researching really quickly. One of the great advantages of studying history at university in the way I did is it does teach you to get to grips with a subject really quickly. So, I guess I can do that. But my natural tendency is to write long, and I do often wonder if I’m just writing for myself in fact because when I’m not publishing in the Smithsonian. I’m writing blog posts that can be anything up to 15 thousand words long. And I kindly appreciate that probably not many people are getting through 15 thousand words on that obscure topic that they’re not sure they’re very interested in.

Mike:                     But I do think, my basic position on this is maybe because I am such an obsessive for really unusual stories ultimately nobody else is going to come along and write about this stuff so I better do a pretty good job of it. And I also like diving into things that have never been properly researched and actually coming to grips with a subject and trying to make sense of it. And in fact, now that my daughter’s finally graduated the university literally a couple of weeks ago after a two year hiatus I’m getting back to writing. And I have a pile of literally somewhere between 35 and 40 blog posts I have fully researched and haven’t got around to writing yet. So there will be a flood of material appearing all of which will be at least as obscure as anything you’ve read from me before, and probably twice as long.

Brendan:              Fantastic. I’m looking forward to it. And that’s interesting too, one of the things is I’ve been just getting ready for this interview and some others that I’m lining up, is when I see the process that authors are writing about it seems like you absolutely have to be in love with researching topics. What’s the proportion to the research time versus the actual writing time? It almost sounds like the writing is the easy part, it’s the getting all of your thoughts together first and having all of that historical back bone, so to speak, is the really hard part. And then all you have to do is just put it on the page.

Mike:                     Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. The answer is in the case of most of my books it’s been pretty much a 50/50 split. If i spend two years writing a book I would spend a year researching it and a year writing it. That’s a slightly misleading answer though. I’m sorry if I sound arrogant on this one. I’m a really good researcher, I’m a better researcher than most historians, and I’m a better researcher than I am a writer in my opinion. So although I say I can do the research in a year, that because I’m good at research. Most people would take longer than that. And some people would probably be able to write books more quickly than I do as well. I just enjoy the research a lot more than I enjoy the writing side. So it has been a largely 50/50 split. But it slightly depends. Some of the books I did, the tulip book is a good example, that ultimately is not a huge amount of prime research material available even if you wanted to use it.

Mike:                     Whereas with others the worst example is the book I wrote on the thugs, the strangling gangs of India, where I discovered there was something like 60 thousand pages, 60 thousand manuscript pages, in the Oriental archives office in the British library and that took me much longer than I had hoped to get through. The result was I nearly ended up having the book canceled because it ran so far past the actual dead line that had been assigned to it in my contract. So research can take over your life if you let it. And I often do that. Actually the worst case is a book I’m hoping to finish next year, which I started work on in 1983 and I’ve been researching ever since. And that will in fact be my life’s work and it has been something I wanted to research properly therefore. But even I wonder sometimes why I bother because I know that nobody else in fact cares that much about the massive work of it, actually done work.

Brendan:              I’ll read it Mike; I promise.

Mike:                     Okay. I’m not sure about that. We’ll see.

(Part II on Thursday)

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Author Interview: Mike Dash (Part 1)
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