What I've learned: Michael Dobbs
After a UK political career in both the Thatcher and Major governments, Michael Dobbs turned to writing novels “to see if I could do it”. With the enormous success of his political drama House of Cards, the answer to that question has been a resounding “yes”. Ahead of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature the Politician-turned-author speaks about his craft:
I started writing House Of Cards by accident and had no intension of becoming a writer. I was bored on holiday, so I sat down and challenged myself to write a book. It was just something to fill a gap. It was only then that I found the mental and emotional process of the whole thing to be rather fun. I had no intension of finishing it, let alone getting it published.
Writing a book is like climbing a mountain. Thousands of people may have done it before you but that doesn’t matter. When you get to the top it’s a special moment for you to savour.
I attribute House Of Cards to being a bit like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a story about a powerful man, and how he is hacked to death in the capital by his own best friends. I thought to myself, ‘What a brilliant story!’
It’s the dark side of characters that really grabs people’s attention. That’s what Shakespeare did with Macbeth and Hamlet; he explored the dark inner secrets of the characters and brought them to the fore.
The path from politician to author is a well-worn one, but with a lot of boulders on the way. Lots of people have tried, but few have actually made a success of it in the long term. I think people underestimate just how difficult the career of a writer is.
People are intrigued by drama and politics because in any area of power, you have people of ambition; people who are in a hurry; and people who are under great pressure. You see a whole spectrum of human emotion and vulnerability.
Politics brings you into contact with people, problems and crises. It’s an incredibly colourful backdrop because it stretches from the centre of power to the most rural of places. You come into contact with a wider array of people than most jobs.
Some say that being an author is a lonely job. I don’t find it lonely because I am with the characters in the book. If you love them and believe in them, then they become real to you. The process of writing can be very isolating, very intense and very draining. It takes up a huge amount of time. But when you are in the company of other authors, and people who love reading books, it reminds you that it is worthwhile.
As an author you are interested in other people and other experiences in a professional sense. Since I became an author, there hasn’t been a single moment where I’ve been bored. Even sitting in a bus stop, there is something going on that you can find enriching and interesting. Some authors like people, others are more interested in what is going on around them. I prefer to spend a lot of time listening to others talk. Attending literature festivals is great, because it allows you to learn from such a diverse pool of writers.
My writing process is much freer today. Occasionally I will hear a line, or half a phrase and scribble it down on a sheet of paper and put it in my pocket. At the end of the day I empty my pockets and see what I’ve got in there — I literally end up with lots of tiny pieces of paper with illegible words written on them.
E-books were expected to wipe out the book trade, and while they have made a huge impact, the number of sales seem to have plateaued. It seems that there is still a large number of people who want to curl up in a corner and read an actual physical book.
For years I’ve woken up thinking: “Oh my God, what do I do now? How do I express my creativity today and earn a living out of it?” It can be a frightening process, but you need that sense of terror to get the best out of yourself creatively.
TV drama is bigger than ever. But that doesn’t mean that traditional storytelling is being eroded. It still requires creativity and people who are able to write. Far from feeling oppressed by this new technology, actually it’s opening up all sorts of new avenues for me.
In life you should take advantage of the things that are given to you. I am intensely grateful for the luck I’ve had with House of Cards, but I think it’s a bit like the story of ‘a golfer’. He knows that he’s a lucky golfer, but the harder he practices, the luckier he becomes. I have worked very hard for my success, but I never once underestimated the good fortune that I’ve had along the way.
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Emirates Lit Fest, March 1 to 12, InterContinental Dubai Festival City, with additional locations at Dubai International Writers’ Centre, Al Shindagha Historical Neighbourhood, Al Mamzar Theatre and Novo Cinemas, DFC. See emirateslitfest.com for details