Today I am honoured to have Dan Jones on the blog for an interview. Dan Jones is a well-known and highly respected historian who has written books on the Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses and the Magna Carta. He has also presented television documentaries on British Castles, the Wars of the Roses and the Great Fire of London.
Sam Morris: Firstly, thank you very much for agreeing to this little interview. I know my readers will be really excited to see you on the blog! First question then – Growing up, what was it that initially sparked your interest in history?
Dan Jones: I started vibing history in school, relatively late, I guess. You may think I was inspecting battlements as a six-year old or being chaperoned around monuments before I could talk, but put that thought out of your mind. I was about the age of 15 when I ran into a teacher at school who made history burst into life. His name was Robin Green and he taught Tudor history like a demon dog, got me hooked on it and helped push me towards studying it at Cambridge.
SM: You’ve written a range of books with topics from the Tudors through to the Templars – which era of history is your particular favourite and why?
DJ: Well, evidently I have something of a yen for the European middle ages, and particularly for the history of England between about 1150 and 1500. But I couldn’t say for certain that I have a clear favourite. I tend to pick subjects I either know or imagine I will enjoy spending three years wrestling into submission, and I work to a plan. So the Templars was a subject that had some very flimsy overlap in terms of subject matter with my earlier books on Plantagenet England – but it was also a way of easing myself into the history of the crusades, which is an area I intend to stick with for the next few years.
SM: Regarding your upcoming book on the Templars, I myself have visited Templar castles over in Portugal – the Convento de Cristo in Tomar is a personal favourite. Is there a particular place associated with the Templars that made you think “hang on a minute, I’d love to write about these guys?”
DJ: Not really – I just had this instinctive sense that the Templars was a subject that would draw in regular people who don’t read a lot of history, get them intrigued and have them clamouring for more of the same. As regards Templars locations, I have spent a lot of time in the Temple Church in London, which is a true gem on the outskirts of the City, now surrounded by barristers’ chambers, so a hub in the middle of lawyer-town. William Marshal’s tomb is there.
SM: You are regarded as a young and ‘hip’ historian – what advice would you give someone wanting to break into the field of history? (This is something I could have done with before writing my first book!)
DJ: Work hard, read a lot, write a lot, and know exactly what you want to write about. I have had such a weird career that I don’t think I can offer it up as a model pathway – but I don’t think the basics are hard. Graft. Meet people. Specialise. Enjoy.
SM: You studied at university under the eminent David Starkey. What was it like to be taught by someone so respected in the field?
DJ: Well, it’s a long time ago now, but I remember turning up to David’s lectures in my first year at Cambridge, despite not having signed up for a Tudor history paper. I just knew that I wanted to be around someone so manifestly brilliant and (at that time) impossibly famous. I buttonholed David after a lecture one day and demanded that he supervise me (i.e. that he spend one academic term teaching me one-to-one for a single hour, once a week – this is the structural basis for all undergraduate history teaching at Cambridge, or was when I was up at least). He said yes, and then duly came up from London once a week to do the job – a task for which I now realise he was not paid or thanked or rewarded in any meaningful way, and which I basically took for granted at the time. He was a superb teacher, who besides sharing his knowledge of sixteenth century England also took it upon himself to teach me how to write decent prose. I owe him a huge, huge debt of gratitude.
SM: What are your interests outside of history?
DJ: Sport: I write a sports column for the London Evening Standard. Also, I was for a while in my twenties one half of a fairly dreadful DJ combo. Our biggest gig was Ministry of Sound… on an under-sixteens night. We had the knack of emptying any dance floor within three songs.
SM: Following on from your book on the Templars, have you got any other projects in the pipeline?
DJ: I’m working on a lot of TV stuff, as usual. But my next book will be a collaboration with the brilliant digital recolourist Marina Amaral (marinamaral.com), who colours in old black and white photos – to astonishing effect. We are doing a book called The Colours of Time – a new history of the world from 1850 to 1950 and I am loving every second of it.
SM: For a little bit of fun – who should win the Iron Throne?
DJ: Oh, give it to someone who doesn’t want it. Pod, maybe. Or Grey Worm. I am finding the endgame of Thrones rather less enjoyable than the first six seasons.
SM: Whilst writing my books, I found it incredibly easy to get distracted and also found myself hating my subject quite a lot. When you’re writing, do you find yourself getting put off and how do you go about getting your head back in the game?
DJ: Put your cell phone in another room. Turn wi-fi off on your computer. Stop reading this interview and do some goddamn work. Discipline… there are no tricks except for controlling your own environment and practicing self-denial with focus and intent.
Dan’s new book, “The Templars” is out on 7th September and available on Amazon.