Diana Preston is an Oxford-trained historian and the author of A First Rate Tragedy, The Boxer Rebellion, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, which won the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology. With her husband, Michael, she has coauthored A Pirate of Exquisite Mind and Taj Mahal. She lives in London, England.
What inspired you to start writing?
As a child I was a late reader but once I started to be able to do it I really enjoyed reading and very early on wanted to become a storyteller myself. That’s why I always look for historical subjects with a human story at their heart though I also think it’s important to place them in their wider context and to understand their significance.
What did you liked to read when you were a child?
Any fairy tales I could find but nothing matched ‘The Lord of the Rings’ which I first read when I was about eleven.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
For me the greatest challenge is finding a subject where there is something fresh and new to say and that really interests me. Once that has happened and I start work, it achieves a momentum that carries me along. However, getting the first paragraph right is always one of the greater challenges.
How much research do you do before writing the book?
It all depends on the subject and how easy it is to find the material. Research for my books has taken me from the United States and northern Europe all the way to Iran, India, Uzbekistan, China, Japan, Australia and the Antarctic’s Ross Sea. Before I start writing I’ve usually done the bulk of the research but it doesn’t actually stop until the books goes into production.
What motivated you to write the book “A Higher Form of Killing”?
Several years ago I wrote a book about the torpedoing and sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania by a German submarine in May 1915 during the First World War. It was a huge tragedy – as many people died as on the Titanic’ – but in my research I also began to realise that the attack was not an isolated act but part of a series of events that though they occurred a century ago have great relevance to our lives today. It was an important story that I felt should be told.
Can you tell us more about your latest book “A Higher Form of Killing”?
‘A Higher Form of Killing’ centres on three events that occurred within six weeks of one another during the first year of the First World War: the first use of poison gas as a weapon, the sinking of the Cunard liner by a German submarine and the first ‘blitz’ on London when German Zeppelins bombed the city. The book tells the story – wherever possible through the words of eye-witnesses – of these three pivotal actions, all then illegal under international law. It shows how the German government led by Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to use new technology (poisoned gas, the submarine-borne torpedo and bombing from the air) to break the stalemate in World War One and, though failing in this objective, changed the way in which war was waged forever. Part of the attraction of these new weapons was their potential to cause mass panic among both troops and civilians. They did indeed have an immense psychological effect disproportionate to the casualties incurred. Henceforth no one – whether a member of the armed forces or a civilian or even a neutral – would be safe from attack however far they were from the battlefield. No technology would be considered too indiscriminate to deploy – the age of weapons of mass destruction had dawned.
How did you came up with the idea of writing fiction/non-fiction genre book?
I write non-fiction and fiction. That’s what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember and I enjoy both genres, though of course they have very different challenges. Non-fiction has to be about sifting and analysing the evidence scrupulously. Historical fiction offers slightly more latitude but has its own disciplines – characters’ actions and emotions must be credible.
Who are your favourite authors?
I have masses of favourite authors – Jane Austen, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollop, George Elliott from the past and modern writers like Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy and Donna Tartt to name just a few …
How much time do you dedicate for writing on a daily basis?
Once I’m in the writing phase, I like to devote most of the day to it, starting early. It helps my concentration and flow to work concentratedly. Unless I’m really up against a deadline I try to leave weekends and evenings free to see friends and go out.
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
My advice to aspiring writers? Firstly hang on in there and don’t let others discourage you if this is what you really, really want to do – remember how many rejections J. K. Rowling had in the early days for her Harry Potter books. Secondly make yourself keep on writing, even if it’s only 500 words a day.
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