Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A rib-tickling Q & A with Phillip Ardagh, author of "The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge" (Nosy Crow)

Phillip Ardagh, author of awesome "The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge" available now from Nosy Crow / National Trust
We're making room on the blog today for one mighty beard, and one mighty author. Phillip Ardagh, genius behind the new "Secret Diary" series has unleashed "The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge" on the world with a hysterical historical take on Medieval life. You can find out what we thought of it in our chapter book roundup a wee while ago here - but in the meantime here's Phillip with a Q & A session to talk about his new book series.

Did you visit any particular National Trust properties as research for The Secret Diaries series?

The honest answer is “yes and no”, which may not be very helpful but is the truth. I’ve been a member of the National Trust for donkey’s years – not to be confused with donkey’s EARS – and have been visiting National Trust since -- *lowers voice* -- the 1960s. So I have, in effect – and in a car AND on foot – been researching these Secret Diaries for forty or so years before I even knew I was going to write them. I’m also very fortunate that my favourite castle in Britain is less than an hour from my house by catapult. (Admittedly, it has to be a very large catapult and fired by an expert.) It’s Bodiam Castle on the Kent/East Sussex border. It even has an amazing moat, full of ENORMOUS koi carp which nibble the ducks’ feet whenever anyone throws bird food into the water. Although Bodiam is very much a ruin on the inside, it looks very much intact from the outside – except for the missing barbican (the gatehouse on its own tiny ‘island’) – and I certainly visited it more than once whilst writing John Drawbridge, and snooped around all sorts of other National Trust castles. We even launched John Drawbridge at Wray Castle in the Lake District (even though that’s not a medieval one)!

You say you’ve been visiting National Trust properties since childhood. Did they inspire your interest in history?

Yes. Absolutely. National Trust houses and castles and land certainly helped bring history to life for me. To be in a room with low doorways and wooden beams and dark wooden furniture, looking at the tools people used, the embroidery they made, the documents they wrote, the gardens they designed and tended… it gave me a real sense of people in the past having been living, breathing people in some ways so similar to me and yet so different. It really fired my imagination both for a love of history but also of writing fiction too; imagining all the excitement and skulduggery that must have gone on in these places. The good times, bad times and funny, happy and sad moments. I feel a song coming on…

What makes the Secret Diaries series different?

Well, for a start, I have to mention the design and Jamie Littler’s illustrations. I think he was signed up for the series even before I was. He has the unenviable task of:

1. working with me. (I can be a stickler for detail AND get my beard hairs everywhere.)

2. having to draw funny, exciting pictures whilst:

3. having to be historically accurate, not just ‘no potatoes in the medieval kitchens’ or ‘no forks at the medieval table’ but also just the right kind of uniform a particular maid might wear or the shape of a window in the background. This is the National Trust we’re talking about! We need to get things spot on.

The other BIG difference with the Secret Diaries series is just how funny they are – I hope! *Tumbleweed rolls past* *No one even cracks a smile* -- yet how fact-packed and hopefully exciting they are too. That’s why I came up with the patch on the front of each book which reads: ONLY THE FACTS ARE TRUE! (which is, in itself, a very silly thing to say). Each diary is written in a voice a touch/a tad/a tiny bit how the character might have spoken in those days, but with a comic twist. I had enormous fun writing them, combining two of my greatest loves: comedy and humour (but not my third love: cake).

Could you give us your Top Five Favourite Medieval Facts you either used in the Secret Diary of John Drawbridge, or discovered when researching the book.

1. It was good manners to burp and throw bones on the floor during a banquet. (I bet the dogs were pleased about that.)

2. Willy-bum-poo style swearing and humour was perfectly acceptable in polite society – in a way it wouldn’t be today. *Shocked silence!* -- but blasphemy – “Oh God!” and the like -- was taken MUCH more seriously.

3. Ammunition for trebuchet – giant catapults – included everything from rocks and animal poo to dead horses. Anything to upset the enemy!

4. Even children drank beer. It was weaker than the usual stuff and called ‘small beer’ but it was still beer… and much less horrible than water.

5. Castle moats were usually full of – er – stuff which fell from the garderobes (the castle toilets). Yerch. Might I suggest no swimming?

So, er, on that note we’ll leave you with the most excellent news that The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge, Medieval Knight in Training is out now, and The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian House Maid and Accidental Detective, will be published on 7th September. Exciting stuff!

Illustrations © Jamie Littler 2017

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