Author Interview: Mike Dash (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 here.)

Brendan:              This is an interesting question for you, especially talking about your process and everything, and doing this for so many years, and your life’s work. As you talked about, you’ve done a lot of things, blog posts, journalism, being an author. How do you balance those things? Are you the type of person where it’s I’m writing a book now the blog posts go away? Or do you use blog posts as a break from writing a book?

Mike:                     Interesting. I’m not a typical author and I’m aware of that. I meet a lot of people who want to talk to me about being a writer who essentially they believe that they live to write, they couldn’t be the person they want to be if they’re not writing, I guess I’m not saying they’re not telling me the truth, I’m just not like that. I started off as a journalist, I take ultimately a journalist perspective on this in the sense that I think I ought to get paid for what I’m doing pretty well, if I’m doing it pretty well. And one of the reasons I’ve stopped publishing books is that I was essentially faced with a choice. The time of the last financial crisis all those advances went to the floor throughout the world, and literally to the point where you would probably be earning somewhere between 5% and 10% of what you were earning before. So I was faced with a choice of either churning stuff out incredibly quickly and sloppily to try and maintain my income, or stop writing books, and I chose to stop writing books because I didn’t want to write terrible books.

Mike:                     But I also didn’t want to spend two years of my life writing something that I would have to self-publish or get a … I could probably find some tiny publishing house and put it out and it would go down a large well with a small pop at the end and a few hundred people would read it. But ultimately I just perhaps in a sense I’ve been almost spoiled by my experiences in journalism because when you’re writing for a magazine, or more recently for the Smithsonian, which is putting the blogs I write up on its website, you get really quick and substantial response. You put something out, within a couple of weeks or a few months you’ve got people writing about it, sending you comments on it. In the case of the … I wrote this thing for the Smithsonian about a family of Siberian hermits who escaped into the Tiger before World War II, and were found in 1978 not knowing that World War II had happened, and that went viral, and over 20 million people read it.

Mike:                     And it was a really rewarding experience. People were commenting on this saying, “This has changed my life the spirituality of these people’s experience.” And stuff. And when you’ve had that it’s hard to go back to writing a book in two years and putting it out there at a time where now there are very few outlets that would even review it. And you know you’re going to get a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand sales unless you’re very lucky. And the reality is, especially when you’re me and you’re writing stuff about things that don’t catch people’s attention because they’re about really obscure topics, you need to have a bit of really good luck to be successful. It’s not a function of if you write a really good book it will be successful. I put a lot of effort, for example, into my Mafia and it, for whatever reason, I don’t know, it wasn’t commercially successful. So I just felt a bit like I wasted quite a large amount of time relative to what I could’ve got at spending those same two years writing a bunch of blog posts with the Smithsonian, for example.

Mike:                     I was lucky with the Batavia because at that time the biggest newspaper in the UK, it was a Sunday paper called the Sunday Times, which had a big book review section every week and for reasons that … It was nothing to do with me, they assigned this book to somebody who was very enthusiastic about it and wrote a two page review. So suddenly it was a big hit in the UK, which then encouraged my American publisher to put a lot more weight behind it. And that was just happenstance. If the Sunday Times had not published that one review then the Batavia, the book would’ve come out, but it would’ve been a much smaller book than it turned out to be and I’d probably be feeling even more jaundice about writing books. So I’m a bit … I don’t know how people are going to respond to me saying this. It makes me sound like a total mercenary I suppose, in a sense, but I honestly don’t really any longer see the point of spending a large portion of what’s left of my life writing for a few hundred people.

Mike:                     Maybe that makes me a bad author, but that’s the way I am. And I think it was journalism that did it.

Brendan:              I don’t think so at all. I think it, not to get too heavy or anything, but it highlights a lot of the way that more people read nowadays is that I started a blog about history books mainly because I knew it’s very niche society where you talk about stuff from history and most people just totally glaze over. And for me, my site is … I’ll probably never make money off of it because there will probably never be enough people on it for that, but my thought was if I find 10-15 like-minded people who start sharing, “I love this book. I didn’t love this book. I want to discuss this with somebody who actually cares.” I think what you’re talking about is just highlighting that you want to get the information out there and it’s hard to have a book right now. If you go on Amazon, you look under history, there is the 10 biographies of Churchill, and Napoleon, and things like that, but finding these little obscure things like Batavia’s Graveyard, which I only found because I was looking for shipwreck books, I love shipwrecks, saw this, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, definitely.”

Brendan:              But no one’s ever heard of it that I have talked with. You have to have that connection that’s society that says, “Here’s where we are, here’s what we like to talk about.” And that can sometimes be a pretty small group of people.

Mike:                     And I’m curious on this. Were you at all put off by the idea of the fact that it’s a Dutch shipwreck at that not particularly sexy time period, 1629. Did you hesitate at all before you decided to buy it?

Brendan:              Not at all just because I do love reaching back historically. I think the fact that you’re learning so much more the further back you go just about how things have changed and how things are still the same. And yet you can get strange crazy people into situations and they become mass murderers. It happens. And for me, I looked at it and it was … I don’t care what nationality, I like it a little bit the older the better in my perspective. For me it was there was just and amazing story here. Just actually crashing the ship, planning to crash a ship on the Western Coast of Australia, just how did anyone under ordinary circumstances think that was going to work out very well. And then just the short blurb on it says, “This is an amazing story.” And it definitely turned out to be. And especially the way you set it up where you really get a flavor for the culture that they came from before they hit the rock.

Brendan:              So it felt almost like two books to me, but first is that set up to understand the psychology of these people, and then when all of these crazy things start happening after the wreck you say, “Well, Mike explained to me where they’re coming from so now all of this absolute insanity makes sense and I believe it.”

Mike:                     Okay. You have responded to that book as I hoped readers would and I’m delighted to hear you say that. One of the things I think you very quickly realize whenever you publish a book is that you absolutely can’t satisfy everybody, and for every person who’s responded to any of my books the way you just have there’s another one who goes online and posts a review saying, “Why is the first off so boring? It’s full of …” It’s not full of bloodshed and murder, but it sets up. How could anybody want to read 150 pages about Dutch ship building or whatever. So there are a lot of people out there who just want something that I don’t particularly want to give them in terms of the writing and there are people who do appreciate it. And the way I look at it, as I said, one of the things that I do know is that if I don’t do a good job on this chances are that nobody’s going to do a good job on it because not many other people know the story or care enough to spend time writing about it.

Mike:                     And in the case of the Batavia in particular where 125 people were murdered one by one by a gang of cutthroat mutineers, most of them we don’t even know the names of. I actually thought it was very important to give these people back some of their human dignity by telling their story properly, by humanizing them. There are far too many books, and I don’t really enjoy for this reason actually reading most true crime books, although some of the stuff I’ve done could be labeled I guess true crime. In a sense it’s a true story about a crime, but a lot of books in that field I find are too much obsessed with the murderer and tend to glamorize that person as a result, and the murder victims are there as means to an end, means to make this murderer more interesting, more horrible, more glamorous sometimes. And they get very short shift in far too many books in my opinion.

Mike:                     There was a book actually that came out literally a month or two ago in the UK written by, very tellingly, by a female author about the victims of Jack the Ripper, making more of exactly this point. Of course, I can’t remember the name unfortunately.          

Mike: She starts the        book by saying essentially, “I want to write a book about who these women were because I’m not interested in Jack the Ripper.” Apart from being a deeply unpleasant person he’s probably not nearly as interesting as all these books assume he is. And when you read the corpus of literature on someone like Jack the Ripper one of the things you notice apart from the fact that every author seems to think that it’s their job to come up with a new suspect, which gets very boring after a while, the suspect themselves has to be usually somebody who is in themselves interesting. The most obvious case being fingering the eldest son of the future Edward the seventh. So remember the royal family was Jack the Ripper. That stuff happens all the time and have no idea that Jack the Ripper was probably a deeply uninteresting, boring, inadequate, absolutely almost certainly inadequate person runs very contrary to the whole tenet of this massive publishing industry that has erupted around this one rather unpleasant, seedy, and as I say, probably inadequate and rather boring in person murderer. And I find that pretty distressing actually as a human being.

Brendan:              And the book is actually called The Five. I just handed it to my mother last week and said this is just a complete 180 of what you’re saying most true crime books are. It’s going through and looking in all these women’s lives, which you wouldn’t think in just a very poor time in England that there would even be that much history to write down, and then the way she just completely cuts the narrative as soon as Jack the Ripper enters it. It would probably drive a lot of people nuts if they don’t read what the book’s about, but my mother and I, she’s a huge history reader too, she was a history teacher, she also thought just how fantastic it was because it was the focus on the women who were murdered, but also to put them in context of their time without, for lack of a better term, trying to make it sound too much like Oliver Twist and just keeping to the history and making sure you get that across.

Mike:                     Yeah. And I implore them, I implore anybody who puts that sort of effort into it because I know how hard it is. But ultimately as a historian I’m firmly in the camp for people who believe in writing what’s called history from below, in other words the social history that 95% of the people who very rarely get written about by historians who are obsessed by great men, and it usually is men as well, isn’t it? And the whole crux of the way in which history was researched and written up until the 1950s at least, was almost entirely that sort of history, and thank God I’m young enough to come along at a time when other sorts of history writing was possible because ultimately history is supposed to be the story of us and we’re not mostly Kings, and Generals, and Prime Ministers, and Presidents are we? So it should be about other things than that I think.

Brendan:              And you’ve given me a master class of just looking at being an author from a lot of different perspectives. And one of the questions I have, and it’s cliché and cheesy, but for a young Mike Dash, everything that you’ve learned, what would be that one lesson that you’d go back and tell him? Would it be the, “You’re not going to be able to make everyone happy with what you do.” Or is there other lessons that you wish you could’ve told yourself from day one?

Mike:                     Well I suppose there’s a philosophical take on that and there’s a practical take on that. The philosophical take on that would be to say, “You’re probably going to be happier writing more shorter stories because you will reach more people and ultimately you can do more history.” And I just love history. It’s pretty much all I read and it’s all I write about. And I guess one of the things I’ve learned is I would rather write 20 pieces at a shorter depth. As you very kindly pointed out my idea normally is not the same as writing 600 words because I’ve read one source on it, it does involve a fair bit of work. I personally find that more satisfying because the more history I do the wider I want to do it. And since I stopped publishing books I’ve discovered times and places in history that have completely compelled me.

Mike:                     Right now, my main obsessions are with the Swahili Coast, little merchant city states, although the East Coast of Africa that used to trade up and down the Indian Ocean before the Portuguese got there, and the Maritime Trade with Tang China in the ninth century. So things like that I’d never even really knew existed I’ve become completely obsessed with. And I enjoy finding a new obsession and throwing myself into it. And if I can only do that once every two years then I as a historian am being impoverished in my view. So that’s the philosophical take. And the more practical take, I guess is to say that, “I discovered it was worth waiting for technology to catch up.” I mentioned earlier, this project I’ve been working on for years and years. So this is a story about a … Let’s not … It’s a research project on that. A Victorian urban legend Spring Heeled Jack, he’s a demonic leaping boogey man figure who terrorized early Victorian London.

Mike:                     And it’s very hard to research, and I spent literally six to eight months of my life sitting reading old Victorian newspapers on micro film, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because in that period newspapers didn’t have headlines, they didn’t have illustrations. Micro film’s a terrible way to read in this stuff. And it’s all in six-point print and there no way to do keyword searching it so you’re reading micro film after micro film hoping to find words, scanning pages, hoping to find words. And I spent, as I said, six to eight months reading that stuff and I ended up with 45 thousand words of transcribed original source material when I first published a paper on this back in 1996, and now with digital newspapers and the digitalization programs that are going on, I’ve got well over 350 thousand words in a very much less painful way of extracting information as well. So, in a sense I wasted my time back in 1996, a large amount of my time, when I could’ve done it really easily if I had waited 10 years. But I wasn’t to know that.

Mike:                     That’s what I would tell myself if I could go back, I would save myself that pain.

Brendan: It is      very interesting thing that I saw on your personal website, that you have about 3000 books in your place. Now I only have 600, but big question from me is how much of that is … Do you have a bunch of different genres? Because even though I’m not a snob in any sort of way, mine are only history books. I tell my wife, “Keep the fiction somewhere else.” Everything’s history where I am. Do you have different genres or is it all history?

Mike:                     We are exactly the same. I freely admit that probably my biggest weakness as a human being is I don’t really read literature. And I’m sure that impoverishes me all sorts of ways, I’m scarcely aware of, and almost everybody I know who reads seriously reads a bit more literature than anything else, but essentially there is so much history that I want to learn that I don’t have time for it. So all of my books are history books. My wife is keen on literature and we have a separate set exactly as you’re describing of books on poetry, the works of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, people like that, which don’t mix. And I had a conversation actually once about this with a friend of mine about what happens when you marry somebody? Do you combine your libraries or do you keep them the same, and most people I’ve met actually don’t like combining their libraries no matter how much they love their wife or husband, or partner of any sort, because libraries are so deeply personal. And I’m not saying whether it works, may I keep mine absolutely separate. And I need to extend my house actually, it’s more than 3000 now.

Mike:                     But I haven’t got room to display that many so actually the whole thing is double stacked. I’ve got shelves of books with other shelves of books arranged in front of them until I can build another story on my house.

Brendan:              Well this is very good because now when my wife rolls her eyes at me about how finicky I am about the books I can say there is a very good published author who said that I’m supposed to be this way. So that’s good.

Mike:                     Call me. I’ll drop her a line if you need me to.

Brendan:              I would appreciate it. So what I’d like to do, I’d like to ask one more question. It’s a bit more hard hitting than the other ones. Now when you’re not reading, and researching, and writing, do you watch trashy TV like the rest of us, and if so will you admit to what show’s your favorite?

Mike:                     Yeah. I suppose I should say there is another element to history I spend more time doing than watching trashy TV and that’s I teach history as well now. And I spend a lot more hours of the week day in that than I do … I normally watch maybe one hour of television a day on average. I’m not that surprising. I use it actually as a way of making up to my wife the fact that I spend far too much time sitting alone in a room reading or writing. So we share things. We just finished Stranger Things 3. Before that we just finished Killing Eve 2. So it’s mainstreamy and slightly shocky entertainment actually. What I remember when I first got cable TV I was very excited by the idea that I was going to get access to the History Channel because I might watch some history programs on it, and boy was that disappointing.

Mike:                     So the reality is that the stuff I do is fundamentally absolutely doesn’t make good television so I guess that’s where I part ways with history when it comes to television I just watch the same stuff as everybody else. And being a Brit I’ve actually just enjoyed watching the Cricket World Cup Final, which is one of the most amazing games there’s ever been. Ended in a tie, which is pretty rare in Cricket. And so that was my most recent TV session. But realistically I don’t watch a lot of television. Maybe as I said, five or six hours a week or something like that. Not a huge amount. And I’m glad because frankly I get a lot more out of reading original stuff than I do after watching the same television as everyone else. I’m sure that makes me a snob, it probably does.

Brendan:              No, not at all. It’s actually funny, especially Stranger Things is more paranormal. I want to prepare people in case they read this and they’re like, “Oh I got to look at Mike Dash’s books.” Are you also the Mike Dash who is apparently a paranormal investigator?

Mike:                     I am. Yeah. That sounds weird maybe at first glance, but it isn’t really because two things. Firstly, the stuff that interests me in both these fields is the really obscure oddities of human behavior. I’ve always thought as a historian that it’s the extreme stories that tell us most about what it is to be human, and fundamentally the stuff I do in what’s called the fortune area, which you call strange phenomena, is similar. The one thing I would stress to people out there is that although when I was maybe 10 or 11 I took a lot of this stuff a bit more seriously, now I’m fairly … Because I research this stuff and because I understand as a historian maybe a bit about humans as well, I’m interested in it more from the socio cultural point of view. In other words, why are people interested in, and tell, and claim these amazing things rather than literally believing stuff. And one of the curious things about this actually, and it’s something you can try on people, is that more than even most history this subject comes laden with a gigantic vast quantity of presumption.

Mike:                     So, someone will say to you, “Do you believe in UFO’S?” What they mean by that question is, “Do you believe we are being visited by aliens?” They say, “Do you believe in ghosts?” Well what they mean by that, “Do you believe that the spirit of the dead can survive death, and remain on the Earth, and be seen by us?” People report this stuff. They do see it. They do interact with it. That doesn’t have to mean that there are spirits of the dead or alien spacecrafts out there. Most of this stuff is coming from inside their own heads, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to me.

Brendan:              And I think it’s probably easier when you’re in London, we’re Americans, we think that the entire island is just ghosts and graves because it sounds like every time you guys tear up a street or something you find out that there’s a King underneath it or something.

Mike:                     Pretty much, yes.

Brendan:              So, it’s very interesting to see how that would be. And then you also were just talking about Cricket. It’s very funny, I was thinking about my first fear for actually this interview was looking up and seeing you’re from Wales, is I met a few people from Wales and sometimes I can’t understand a word that they say.

Mike:                     My parents moved away from Wales before I was born so I have the very unthick Welsh accent that you can hear. I have a Southern English accent in fact, so probably more intelligible. I’m glad to see that point of view.

Brendan:              Yes, I definitely got a good 90% of the words you’ve said this entire time so I think we’re on solid ground here.

Mike:                     Excellent.

Brendan:              But it was very funny you saying the whole Cricket ending in a tie and I just, with my American brain, it just immediately broke it, I’m like, “Ties shouldn’t happen.” We don’t believe in ties over here.

Mike:                     Exactly. That’s one of the things about our two cultures. I guess you’re right. Yes.

Thanks so much to Mike for his time. Hope you enjoyed this, nerds!

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Author Interview: Mike Dash (Part 2)
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