Andrew Adam on the inspiration behind his new book
Andrew Adam, author of Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne, chats with us about his inspiration for writing his new book, which publishes 15 November.
Tell us about your favourite books when you were little.
I started choosing my own reading in 1945 at the age of six. Post-war Britain was thoroughly sick of war but like many small boys I was incurably militaristic. My favourite books and comics were rich in battles, conquests and derring-do. The bookshops had nothing for children about Hitler’s war so I turned to the literature of chivalry, empire and adventure. My favourite authors were Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and T.H. White. My favourite books were Treasure Island and The Sword in the Stone.
What inspired you to write Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne?
As a youngster I was intrigued by my step-grandfather Thomas Cochrane and longed to know his story better; he died when I was fourteen. My mother wrote a biography which helped, but it was devotional rather than historical and short on facts. As a doctor I was fascinated by the medical challenges that medical missionaries faced and in particular how Cochrane succeeded in establishing a scientific institution in a hostile environment like Imperial Peking. After inheriting his papers, the urge to delve into them became irresistible. The other great attraction of Cochrane’s life is that it shows the triumph of dedication and perseverance over fearful odds. Or, if you like, of love over hatred and of truth over falsehood. They are the essence of drama.
What did you learn through writing the book?
This was my first biography and the early drafts showed it. They contained too much of me! My friend Ali Hull taught me how to use primary sources properly, to quote directly wherever possible and to lower my author’s voice to a whisper. In a word, to let the sources speak for themselves. I also learned to be cross-check my facts from as many compass points as possible. This is particularly important when you are writing about a subject beset by controversy and prejudice.
What advice would you give anyone who would like to be an author?
Every writer tells you to develop and sharpen your writing skills by reading as much as you can. I would add that it is particularly helpful to read a mixture of current and classical authors and a broad mixture of genres: historical, romantic, travelogue, drama, poetry, technical - even advertising copy. If more scientists read Dickens the scientific journals would contain less execrable English and if more Christians read good secular literature their message might be clearer (and shorter).
Which book have you been recommending to everyone recently?
Three books in fact, and not to everyone! I recently discovered the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, a beautifully-written saga set in British India and Imperial China in the 1830s. The books are colourfully titled Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire. They were of especial interest to me because the story centres on the opium trade. Ghosh’s writing is masterly, being vivid and exceptionally well researched. One caution: he makes wide use of different dialects and contemporary slang. This adds to the authenticity but it slows the pace. You need to have time in hand!