Monday, March 05, 2007

John Dandola Chats About The Vikings, Scaramouche, and Beautiful, Beautiful Lindisfarne

Hi, John. Thanks for chatting with me.

Thanks to my perusal of your website, I know that you are a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the author of six mystery novels. [You have] also written a biography, four children's histories, three non-fiction books, various magazine articles, and [are] a recipient of several writing awards. [You are] the editor of an additional four titles and the ghost-writer of seven more, and your photographs and illustrations have been published both here and abroad. You are also a member of the Writers Guild of America as a screenwriter. Wow! Do you have free time?
What’s free time? Actually, in the ten years that I’ve been married, my wife has forced me to have free time–which is a very good thing. I used to work pretty much non-stop and my writing hours were usually through the night which I found to be the most quiet. I’m the oldest of five children and for solitude and concentration I struck on those hours very early on. Since I’m married, those work hours have now changed. I work days like a real human being. Nowadays, my office is not in the house but in a separate building on my property so my wife can pretty much stand in front of the door and say, “No, you are not going back to work. RELAX!” She’s very sensible. But there are always legal pads around to jot down ideas or dialogue or entire scenes no matter what the time. Did I mention that my wife is also very tolerant?

You are a historian as well as a mystery writer, and you are an expert in the Medieval world, especially the Vikings. So let me get this straight: they were known as the Normans, the Norsemen AND the Vikings?
Vikings were known by a variety of names: Norsemen, Northmen, Danes which were given to them by the monks and scribes who wrote of their ravages on European settlements. The names did not differentiate which of the present-day Scandinavian countries was the home of any particular raiding party. At the time, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland shared a common culture, religion, and language (present-day Icelandic is very, very close to the way the Vikings spoke).The origin of the word “viking” is unclear. “Vik” in the Old Norse language means bay, harbor, or inlet. The leap has been made that since that is where ships where sheltered that “to go viking” or “to go a-viking” conveys some sort of idiom suggesting “to go raiding.” Because not all Scandinavians were raiders–they were farmers and traders, the most popular theory is that raiding came about because of over-population and a shortage of land to support it–the word Norse stipulates all Scandinavians at the time. Vikings were merely the raiding faction. Normans, on the other hand, were the descendants of Vikings who raided then settled in what is now called the French region of Normandy.

You’ve lived in many locations, but you’ve noted that the most memorable was Lindisfarne. Where is this? Why is it such a memorable place? Is it related to the Vikings?

Lindisfarne is a small island off the coast of Northumberland just opposite Berwick-Upon-Tweed, the last village in England. Lindisfarne is one of the Farne islands. Lindisfarne is considered the cradle of Christianity in Britain. A monastery was founded there in the mid-seventh century by St. Aidan. It rose to prominence under St. Cuthbert during the late-seventh century. Circa 700 A.D., the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels were penned there. Because of the monastery, the island was referred to as The Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Now it is simply called Holy Island. It is a tidal island and it can be reached by car or bus at low tide. With the incoming tide, the road and mud flats flood over. This usually happens so quickly that many a vehicle has been stranded and hence several refuge shelters were built on stilts along the road so marooned motorists could wait out the hours until the tide recedes. The island itself supports a village of a few hundred fishermen, pretty stone cottages, two old hotels, a few pubs (of course), and the Lindisfarne Mead Factory (a.k.a. St. Aidan’s Winery). Some of the old fishing sheds have been converted into vacation homes. It has its own small fortress, sixteenth-century Lindisfarne Castle, which rises above the entire island like something out of a fairy tale. It was built as a harbor defense during the Scottish border raids. The centerpiece of the village is the eerie sandstone ruin of a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery. The first monastery was sacked and burned by the Vikings in their first recorded raid in 793 A.D. You can just feel the history which hangs over the place. The surrounding Farne islands are stipulated as bird sanctuaries and birds chirp everywhere. The North Sea glistens all around met by white beaches and emerald green pastures. It’s it’s own little world and it’s heaven. It was also the setting for my first sold screenplay even though the movie never got made.

That’s the damnable thing about writing for movies. You do the job and get paid but so very few screenplays ever get produced due to a million unpredictable, unforeseeable, uncontrollable reasons, that your work never gets seen. What I got out of it was the gift of spending time on Lindisfarne.

You have undertaken an adaptation of Scaramouche for Wolf Productions in Copenhagen. A few questions: How did you get involved with Wolf Productions? Who was Scaramouche? Why did Queen sing that line “Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango?”
I met Annette Wolf when we were both living in Los Angeles. She was directing plays and we both managed to be used and abused by the same egotistical actor-turned-producer. Annette’s daughter is a well-known Hollywood publicist. In due time, both Annette and I left L.A. She returned to her native Denmark and continued her theatrical career; I came back to the east coast and continued my writing career. The Scaramouche connection goes as follows (the small details are to the best of my recollection): When Annette was a young girl, her uncle was some sort of Danish diplomat stationed in England. The 1952 M.G.M. screen version starring Stewart Granger had recently premiered and during a reception, she actually met the actor. He was everything a young girl would have expected of a swashbuckler–all charm and polish and kindness and good looks.

Needless to say, the occasion was memorable for her. When Annette and I met, the movie came up in conversation and we both agreed it was among each of our favorites in that genre. She asked what I thought about doing a remake. I’m always hesitant about remakes especially when the original was such a hit but I did know from having read the novel (by Rafael Sabatini who also wrote Captain Blood) that a great deal of censorship had to be applied in the previous two screen adaptations (one had been an M.G.M. silent film). I set out to craft a more complex, less censored screenplay but I also appreciated and respected the work of the 1952 screenwriters so I stipulated that their work was to be taken into account and fully credited. All a moot point since it’s another project which has yet to be produced.

Scaramouche is the name of a character in Commedia dell’arte which was a popular form of theatre for the European masses during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries in which specific characters wore specific masks and costumes as a form of shorthand so that audiences automatically knew what their roles represented. Theatre Majors study about it in college but the best feeling and rendition of how it was played can be seen in the 1952 M.G.M. film in which a swordsman masquerades as the Scaramouche character to elude the French authorities.

Somehow, Queen was struck by the character and added him to the lyric in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Who knows? Maybe Freddie Mercury was taken by the character’s costume–white leotards with thick black wavy stripes.

You spent the summer of 2003 “adapting the English mystery novel, A Wisp of Smoke, which is intended as the pilot for a British television series based on the Arnold Landon Mysteries by Roy Lewis. The nineteen (and counting) novels feature an amateur historian in present-day Northumberland.” What drew you to this project? Why do you love Northumberland?
A screenwriter friend sent me one of Roy Lewis’ books because it involved a Viking element and Roy’s style of writing is similar to my own. I liked what I read and tracked down his other books–all of which have medieval overtones and frequent archaeological digs. I saw some of myself in the Landon character and I thought I could bring out something special in the novels if I was the one to adapt them. They had, at that point, been optioned who knows how many times and the options were all allowed to lapse without anyone ever having attempted writing a script. That’s the amazing thing about the modern movie-making mentality, a producer shells out a sizeable amount of money to option a novel or series of novels but doesn’t hire someone who specializes in adaptations to take a look at the book. They just pass the novel around and if it isn’t apparent exactly how to make heads or tails of the way to proceed, they let the options lapse. Roy and I communicated for the better part of a year and then I took on the project. It’s still making the rounds but I will continue to adapt as many of the novels as possible so that they’re ready to go. I’m at work on another two as we speak.

Why do I love Northumberland? Because it’s all wrapped up in the history that I love, set against a landscape that I love, with the style of architecture that I love. It’s home to Bamburgh Castle, the Roman Wall, Holy Island. It reeks of the Dark Ages. It has wide sweeping terrain checkered with a green and yellow patchwork of farmland (the yellow is a crop called “rape” which is raised for feed and the color is positively luminescent in the sunlight). Even in summer, there’s always that bit of nip in the air which exhilarates me. It’s like an extension of Ireland. I’m half Irish–-my wife corrects that I’m all Irish, since my Irish grandmother had a hand in my upbringing (the Italian half is from Northern Italy, which doesn’t seem to count for much here in America).

I need to live in places where I can identify with the local heritage. I’m not big on our Civil War, so our South holds no interest for me. Cowboys and the Old West can only preoccupy me for so long. Our northeast has colonial roots which appeals to me but except for small pockets most of that has been built over and lost. In Britain, you can still see how things might have been and feel how things might have been. That’s why Northumberland.

You just debuted a stage adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown Mysteries. Are you a fan of Chesterton’s mysteries?
I’m a fan of one of my former college theatre professors, who asked me to do the adaptation. He likes my mystery novels and thought that my doing the adaptation would be a good marriage of adaptor to material. He was correct. I hadn’t ever read any of the Father Brown short stories, but what was supposed to happen in a good adaptation happened: I immediately got a visual sense of the material and I was in tune with Chesterton’s writing style. Even though these stories were written in the 1910's when authors tended to be verbose, the edits to dialogue and dramaturgy were so second nature that it was a breeze to complete. We did it as a radio play live on stage, sound effects and all. There are plans to record it and there’s talk from the G. K. Chesterton Institute (who co-sponsored this production) of doing several more. If I was born forty years earlier, I could have made a name for myself writing radio drama and loved every minute of it.

Despite all of your lovely British connections, you live in West Orange, New Jersey. Is there also an interesting history of West Orange?
I live in a house built for my family in 1923 by the grandfather of a high school classmate. I’ve stayed in town because of some family obligations. My Dead mystery novels use 1940's West Orange as a backdrop and a springboard.

West Orange has a very interesting history with seventeenth-century roots even though it wasn’t christened “West Orange” until the 1860's. During the last seventy-five years, I’m the only one who has written any accurate, in-depth, down-to-the-present histories of the town. No one else seems to know how to research or write anything historical without fabricating and exaggerating things for political gain.

My family has lived here for more that two-hundred-and-fifty years. My wife’s family arrived here from Ireland about one-hundred-and-twenty years ago. West Orange used to be a town like that; people stayed, families stayed. Now it’s over-built and over-taxed. People and families are no longer staying. We’ve got a mayor who double-dips as a state legislator. First, he raises municipal taxes through the roof, then he co-sponsors a state bill for tax relief. That’s the God’s honest truth. I write fiction and I couldn’t ask my readers to believe that if I made it up.

The town’s biggest claim to fame is that Thomas Alva Edison lived and worked here for the last fifty years of his life. My grandfather worked as one of Edison’s personal messenger boys running from his laboratory to the different buildings of his factory. West Orange is the unlikely home of the world’s first motion picture studio and it’s where M.G.M. held the World Premiere of Edison, the Man starring Spencer Tracy in 1940.

None of your mysteries is set in the present. How do you research your books?

Actually, my series of Wind novels are set in present-day New England with flashbacks to the past. For the Wind series, I develop an historical fiction premise and intertwine it with present-day happenings. Because the premise is historical fiction, I have enough latitude in making the pieces fit together. When it comes to research, I am dogged. I just seem to have that extra bone in my head which makes me question everything I should be questioning and making sure I find real and true historical facts to back up my premise. My Dead series is much more difficult to research and those novels take much longer to write because I establish a timeline in the telling and I go out of my way to make sure what was happening on that day both locally and globally. Mystery Scene Magazine recently said when it comes to such elements, my approach “melds them seamlessly.” I take great pride in having accomplished that.

Tell us about Dead at the Box Office and Dead in Their Sights. Were these your first two mysteries? What was appealing about the 1940's as a setting?

My first mystery novel was Dead at the Box Office. My second was Wind of Time.

I wrote Dead at the Box Office at the urging of the late Orson Welles, who found my family connection to Edison fascinating. A murder mystery was set against the World Premiere of Edison, the Man in West Orange, the novel debuted in time for the fiftieth anniversary of that event. I had considered it a one-shot deal but the novel went through several printings, had its movie rights optioned several times (I wrote the script), and amazingly got enough fan mail to make me consider writing a sequel. Dead in Their Sights deals with potential World War II sabotage of the Edison factory which was a very real concern at the time. Sights fared just as well as Box Office and a series was born. Dead by All Appearances will be the third novel.

As for why I find the 1940's appealing, as I said previously, I was born at the wrong time. Having said that, I must give the following explanation: as an historian, I know full-well that considering life in another time, people more often than not tend to forget about daily mundane factors such as lack of hygiene, lack of medical and dental treatments, harshness of living conditions, etc. I do not. But the 1930's and 1940's offer such things close to our own standards even though current medical breakthroughs make it seem as though those decades are removed from ours by light years. Another stipulation I must make is that styles in music, fashion, cars, and architecture are not really determined by precise decades. They usually follow from halfway point to halfway point (1935-1945, 1945-1955, 1955-1965, etc.) Recently, we’ve lost sight of that and we attribute styles and mindsets to decades which often provides glaring errors in soundtracks and designs for period movies (i.e. the hippie movement didn’t take up until the late 1960's, the first half of that decade was just a run-on of the 1950's).

As for 1935-1950 or so, I just like the styles of pretty much everything. In architecture, the old still survived along side the new. Women’s clothes were gorgeous and flattering; I need to like the way women look in their attire when I write about them. Since my Dead mysteries employ a movie-hook, the Studio System of the time was a factory environment which made clear-cut sense. You knew who was in charge of what, unlike the movie business today. It was a period just on the edge of becoming modern and high tech yet there were societal amenities and niceties. People actually spoke to one another; read books; went to movies in real theatres with big screens; socialized in a much less hectic way. Things were just fast enough but not too fast. People took the time to do things because they had no other choice and they learned to enjoy or at least to tolerate the process. As far as the dramaturgy of a mystery novel is concerned, it gives an author much more leeway. Having a character find a telephone booth and work at getting the correct change to place a phone call is much more tense and dramatic and obstacle-driven than just having a character snap open a cell phone. Having characters talk and conjecture and trick and spy is much more interesting and ingenious than having them jump onto the internet. It’s a time period in which I can employ the intricacies of puzzle-solving with limited technology yet still be in the twentieth century so that the reader can identify with what is being talked about but, at the same time, it doesn’t just hand the solutions to the reader.

This is a little off-topic but it also is tied in. The oddest question I am repeatedly asked (and it’s always asked by women readers) goes along these lines: Why did I chose to have women as half of my mystery-solving teams and, being a man, what do I have to do to prepare myself to write for woman characters? This is a question which would never have been asked years ago. It is a part of the modern mindset in which women are perceived by both sexes as oddly different. I don’t and won’t ever get into any of that discussion. I will say that I have always been surrounded by strong, independent, intelligent women who also happened to be damn good mothers and grandmothers and aunts. I like women. I find them extraordinarily interesting. In many ways, I think they often make better choices in situations than men. Creating a pairing to solve mysteries gives an author two sides of a coin. One partner tempers the other. It doesn’t matter if the pairing is comprised of the same sex or if it is comprised of opposite sexes. What matters is that the pairing has to work within the parameters of the author’s intentions. As a writer, I write about people and personalities (of both genders) whom I know and understand. If that resonates with readers, it’s because I’ve created well-rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses and foibles that are clearly understood. It has nothing to do with mind-reading or role-playing or the current political-correctness on my part.

Your Wind novels sound fascinating. How did you come up with the plot for Wind of Time?

Wind of Time came about because of a screenplay I had written based on someone else’s novel. The novel didn’t lend itself well to a direct adaptation and I had to disassemble and reassemble the chapters and elements to make it work for the screen. In doing so, I had to invent a great many of my own original scenes and elements to make it blend. I write in a similar fashion as movies are shot and edited; which is to say that, once I set my premise, I often write scenes completely out-of-sequence and then fit them together later. By the time I had finished the screenplay in question, I had entire files of original scenes and elements left over. They were what I considered good and very original scenes and elements and they were entirely of my own creation. I set them aside.

A few years later, I visited a quirky historic site on my way to vacation on a small island off the coast of New England. I like small islands (personally, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Block Island are too large to give me that insulated feeling I need on an island). I think well in the isolation of a small island–especially on the beach lulled by the surf–and pieces for a story started to come together in my head. Historic facts and mysteries and speculations entered the mix along with those good and very original scenes and elements I had written a few years before. I topped it all off by using the small island as a setting with the characters making jaunts back and forth to the mainland. I know it sounds odd but that’s how Wind of Time evolved. It even got optioned for a motion picture and, once again, I wrote the script.

Do you spend most of your time writing or researching, or do you spend some time on promotion?
I’m always writing something; often several things simultaneously. Research is done as needed. I love to do it, so I have to guard myself that I’m not getting so hooked I might be going off on too many tangents and not focusing on the work at hand. A necessary evil of a writing career is, of course, promotion. I know how to go about it and I do it quite willingly, but it’s a double-edged sword, since I’m never sure I like being that much the center of attention. Writing is something one does alone and behind closed doors; sometimes it’s difficult getting past that...

What are you writing now?
I’m trying desperately to finish the third Dead mystery so I can get to work on the fourth Wind mystery (preliminary scenes for which are already written). The third Wind manuscript has been turned in to my publisher. To clear my head, I always start tinkering with another Arnold Landon script or an occasional stage play.

Aside from historical texts, what do you like to read?
I find that the worst part about being a novelist is that I don’t read as much fiction as I once did because I’m afraid of being too influenced. That said, I always eagerly await the next Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker and the next Arnold Landon mystery by Roy Lewis. I make time to read those.

How can readers and history lovers find out more about you and your work?
Thankfully, my name pops up all over the internet but the most direct route is to go to my web site ( which is always kept updated. I also can be contacted through the e-mail link on my site and I love hearing from readers.

Thanks for chatting with me, John, and for sharing these beautiful photographs!


Sandra Ruttan said...

Love those photos... I think the travel bug just came out of hibernation.

Julia Buckley said...

Oh, I know--and I always tend to get that feeling in spring, anyway!

Anonymous said...

Great interview with John Dandola. I am a fan of his,and have read all his novels and the Hammond bio, and have visited Hammond Castle. Looking forward to his next novel.

Bambi said...

Keep up the good work.