Peter Ward interview (April 2009)
Peter Ward was born in 1958 and grew up in different places all over the Far East, England and Germany. Dragon Horse, an epic fantasy tale of Chinese dragons and myths, set along the Great Silk Road more than a thousand years ago is his debut novel. Peter kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in April 2009.
In which specific areas of the Far East did you grow up and what influence has this had upon you as a person and an author?
A: My father was in the military and was ‘posted’ to Malaya (as it then was) in 1958, the year I was born, at the time of the ‘communist insurgency’ crisis in the former colony. We spent three years there, and I’m convinced the sights, smells, heat etc all would have made a huge impression on the infant Peter Ward – I distinctly recall the climate shock on our return… I wasn’t used to wearing clothes of any kind, yet alone heavy woollens for the cold, damp British weather – and I remember finding them unbearably itchy! We also used to visit Singapore and Hong Kong regularly.
Your book features admirable attention to detail. Would you class yourself as a perfectionist?
A: Not particularly, but I badly wanted to create a real sense of place in my book, to bring alive the historical reality of the setting. I felt the only way to do this was to get the detail right, which I think I succeeded in doing.
Other than ancient China, is there another time and place in world history on which you would love to base a book?
A: Perhaps the ancient Celtic world, when a belief in magic and spirits was universal and taken for granted, just as much as Christianity was in the medieval world.
Rokshan and Stargazer communicated using colours as well as words. These were very powerful and vivid passages that stayed with me long after I had finished the book. Where did the idea for using colours come from?
A: The idea came from a negative! That is, I really did not want talking animals to be part of my fantasy story – much too cheesy – and I also didn’t want the communication process between human and animal to be in any way easy and straightforward; I wanted it to be seen as a hard-won privilege, which even when you had mastered it could still be fraught with mortal danger. The idea of using a ‘colour-alphabet of emotions’ flowed from that.
How much of Dragon Horse is based on historical fact and legend and how much is drawn from your own imagination?
A: Apart from the Chinese myth of the dragon horse, which the emperors believed would draw them up to heaven when they died, and the setting of the book in ninth century China (or more accurately, the western Asian end of the Silk Road), everything else is drawn from my own imagination. Some reviews maintain I’ve tried to stick too closely to the myths and legends at the expense of the story – not realising that all the myths and legends at the beginning of each section of the book (eight in all) are completely made up, expressly in order to support the story! What I did draw heavily on however is the religious diversity of the times – as I explained in the Historical Note to the book.
I felt, at times, that Dragon Horse balanced precariously on the invisible line that divides children’s and adult’s literature. How difficult is it to write a book that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike?
A: I set out to write a book that could be enjoyed by both children and adults. I tried to write it from the perspective of a 14yr old (ie. from the hero, Rokshan’s standpoint) but if I’m being honest, found this difficult to sustain 100% of the time. If I had the inclination to write it again, I’d be very tempted to make it ‘darker’ and therefore written from an adult perspective.
Is there a children’s fantasy book that you remember fondly from your childhood – one that was so good you couldn’t wait until your own children were old enough to read it?
A: Probably Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ stands out in this respect, I remember reading it when I was still pretty young, aged 10 or 11: all my children read it subsequently and loved it.
You dedicated Dragon Horse to your wife, Renata and children Julitta, Dominic and Sebastian – for always believing. Did they read your work and provided useful feedback?
A: My two sons did. My youngest son, especially, provided invaluable advice in respect of believable dialogue (Sebastian was aged 12-14 when I was writing Dragon Horse)… so much so I came to refer to him as my ‘dodgy dialogue consultant’!
What is the last book that you read and really enjoyed?
A: Marina Lewycka’s ‘Two Caravans’: very, very funny and sharply observed.
Is this the end of the Dragon Horse story or is there more to come?
A: I’m working on a sequel, set 200 years after the original story.
What does 2009 hold for Peter Ward?
A: I’m visiting Vietnam and Cambodia in April/May for some Far Eastern inspiration! ‘Dragon Horse’ was published in Germany in January, and I’m looking forward to its Spanish publication in June.