Dominic Selwood is an author, historian, barrister, and journalist. He writes about all periods of history for the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. His specialist research was in the medieval Knights Templar, at Oxford University and the Sorbonne in Paris. He has worked in the Middle East, and now lives in London, writing fiction and non-fiction. @dominicselwood | http://www.dominicselwood.com/
Your new book. Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: The History You Weren’t Taught at School is a popular history book. Your last book, The Sword of Moses, was a best-selling spy thriller. Why have you now decided to write a history book?
After studying history for years, I’m obsessed with the weirder side of the past, and it’s at the heart of almost everything I write.
In The Sword of Moses, I wanted to explore certain popular historical mysteries—the Ark of the Covenant, the Templars, freemasons, Nazis, the occult—and weave them into an adventure/espionage story around a strong heroine. Of course, that’s not a new idea, and owes a lot to Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. But I wanted to go further, by using genuine, reliable—but often unbelievable—history as a backdrop to the chase. For example, the Templars were real, and deeply intriguing. So why spend time making up stories about Templars and nuclear power or aliens, when the truth is right there, and far more mysterious and outlandish? Inevitably, I had to invent some things in the book, but a lot of the fun is knowing where history stops and fiction starts. Many readers have told me they went through the book with Wikipedia open beside them because they just didn’t believe me!
Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers is similar, because it also questions a lot of history we think we know. However, it’s straight history, so can tackle the subjects more directly in a collection of 37 mini-histories. For example, Columbus did not land in North America; in fact, he died totally unaware it even existed. Another example is the Magna Carta, which we often think of as the single most important documents from the medieval world. In reality, it was abandoned by the barons and King John after only nine weeks, and viewed as a hopeless failure by all sides.
I’ve also written a couple of short ‘antiquarian’ ghost stories: The Voivod and Suffer the Children. They’re set in Victorian times, and also feature historical themes, like the Children’s Crusade, and a character similar to Countess Bathory, the late medieval Hungarian mass murderer.
So for me, fiction and non-fiction are both ways to explore the wilder and more bizarre side of all the wonderful history out there.
Between fiction and non-fiction, which genre do you feel is more difficult to write, and why?
I think all writing is fiction, really, if you look to the root of the word, as it means to shape, fashion, or knead. You do that with any piece of writing, whether it’s an e-mail to a friend or an immense epic novel. The building blocks are always the same: words, sentences, paragraphs, rhythms, ideas, themes, conclusions. I don’t find one harder than the other to write: I can be equally happy or unhappy with a sentence in fiction or non-fiction!
There are big differences between the two, though, and I go about writing them differently. I want popular history to be light, engaging, and relevant, while never losing sight of the underlying facts. I want it to feel fun, yet reliable. Fiction is an entirely different animal, taking the reader into an imaginary world of characters, settings, drama, and plot. For me, fiction takes longer to get straight in my head, as there are more plates to keep spinning in the air. That said, I love them both, as reader and writer!
You’ve lived and worked in so many fascinating places; which place would you say has most inspired your writing?
London is amazing—so rich in ideas: full of the past, present, and future. The Middle East is mesmerizing, with an incredible intensity. The Mediterranean is timeless and exuberant. Western Europe is (mainly) beautiful, and oozes complex culture. But the answer for me is the west of England, and specifically Salisbury in Wiltshire.
I grew up there, and have been deeply influenced by the place and people. It’s a medieval city, built on a traditional grid, like New York. That means it has lots of corners for traditional old pubs, although I still can’t quite believe that the Gibbs Mew brewery has closed down! I used to see its decorated carts pulled by magnificent shire horses delivering the beer every day. I digress. Salisbury also has one of the world’s most famous gothic cathedrals. I don’t know how anyone can live there and not be intrigued by the middle ages. It’s also at the heart of Salisbury Plain, with Stonehenge and all the other enigmatic wood and stone circles: there’s a deep beguiling beauty to the area. Then there’s the strong historic military presence in that part of Wiltshire—army and air force—whose traditions have always fascinated me. Finally, Thomas Hardy set most of his novels in the west of England. His characters are strangely a part of the ravishing—yet often harsh—countryside, and his books have filled the area for me with all these heroic and tragic figures. So, without question, Salisbury is where I discovered many of the themes that continue to fascinate and inspire me.
A lot of your research took place in libraries, which library do you recommend as an absolute must-see?
Only one? You’re really tough! I’ve been so lucky in getting to research in some of the world’s most amazing libraries. But if you told me to close my eyes and then wake up in my favourite library, I’d be in “Duke Humfrey”: the oldest part of the Bodleian in Oxford. It’s everything a library should be: dark, medieval, romantic, mysterious, full of secrets. They didn’t choose it for the restricted section of Hogwarts Library in Harry Potter for nothing!
You’re working on a sequel to The Sword of Moses, do you think that will be the last installment or will there be more to the story beyond the sequel?
There’s more! I loved writing The Sword of Moses. Blending adventure with historical mysteries was a very satisfying thrill. And, of course, there are many more out there! Ava Curzon’s current adventures will be a trilogy, so there is definitely more to come.
What’s your favorite line either from one of your books or any book of your choosing?
I like the line (a little expanded and polished from the original Greek) in Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” It underpins a lot of the history I love, which debunks ideas we all thought were true. And it justifies all kinds of sleight of hand and illusions in fiction, which keeps stories fun and surprising to read and to write.
What’s on your nightstand now?
It’s rarely just the one book!
I’ve got the film script of The Devils (1971), Ken Russell’s truly weird take on the bizarre story of how, in 1634, a French priest was burned at the stake for causing the demonic possession of an entire community of nuns. The episode has always fascinated me: it’s sinister, but so is a lot of history.
I’ve also got Paul Brickhill’s Reach for the Sky (1954), which is the fast-paced story of the World War II fighter ace Sir Douglas Bader, who lost both legs in an accident, but continued flying with prosthetic limbs, ending up in the infamous German prisoner-of-war camp at Colditz. I was dazzled by the book aged about ten, and I’m really enjoying having found it again.
I’ve also got Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions (1999), which is perhaps the one book I’d save if I had to give all the others away. He’s a genius. He doesn’t write history or thrillers. But, to me, ever since I was a teenager, he has been the most exciting writer I have ever read.