Craft & Culture Interviews

I followed my nose,’ – Historian Dan Jones on writing, Game of Thrones and preserving friendships

NITRB Editor Ellen Lavelle caught up with historian Dan Jones in the following discursive interview

It’s day fifty-three of Dan Jones’ book tour and he’s in The White Hart Hotel in Lincoln, eating haddock goujons. I’m opposite him, recording everything he says. He’s already offered me a goujon, as many olives as I’d like. The White Hart Hotel is a pretty fancy place for Lincoln; earlier, while I waited for Jones, the bartender intentionally set fire to someone’s cocktail, extinguished it with a flourish. Now, in the hour before he talks to a crowded auditorium about his new book, Crusaders, I ask Jones about his career, his writing, the reason he’s here.

‘I followed my nose,’ he says. ‘Going back to 2002, when I graduated with a history degree, I knew I’d enjoyed studying and I fancied doing a bit more but I couldn’t get funding to do a PhD. By the end of the degree, I specialised in medieval legal history and most of the people who studied that became lawyers. I went to fill out the forms for law school and I was like, ‘Urgh there’s too many forms!’ Instantly, that’s a sign you shouldn’t be a lawyer. That’s probably why there’s so many forms.’

Crusaders, Dan Jones’s new book – available online

Instead of law, Jones opted for journalism school. His policy of saying ‘yes’ to everything led him to strange and interesting places. In 2003, the invitation of a housemate working at The Guardian’s online sports desk led to an opportunity for Jones to cover the Rugby World Cup. He wrote for broadsheets and magazines, about anything they asked him to.

‘I did a newspaper column for ten years for The Standard and loads of magazine journalism,’ he says. ‘Even with the history out of it, that’s about a couple of million published words at least. Part of the business of being a writer is just writing a lot. If someone says they want to be a concert pianist, I’d say, ‘how much piano do you play?’

Eventually, he met someone with an agent and, at their invitation, pitched the agent his PhD project.

‘I never structured anything,’ he says. ‘As time went on, I realised I didn’t want and was probably constitutionally incapable of having a ‘proper’ job. Working with other people in a mature way is beyond my capacity. If you ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer.’

Structured or not, so far, it’s worked out pretty well for Jones. He’s only thirty-eight, but he’s already written eight books, some of which have been adapted into TV series. His media work is extensive, ranging from writing and presenting programmes about Tudor monarchs to consulting on fictional films based on the lives of Crusader Knights. It seems an exciting life and Jones looks more like a rock musician than a typical academic. However, it was the power of scholars that first attracted him to history when, on a school trip, he encountered David Starkey for the first time.

‘There was a whole bunch of Tudor historians,’ Jones tells me. ‘Diarmaid McCullogh I think was there and possibly Stephen Alford and I might be making this up and misremembering but I imagine John Guy was there too. And then Starkey came on. He was like the headline act – he was just mesmerising. This is, like, 1997 or 1998 – twenty years ago. He spoke ex tempore for an hour. There was some sort of weird charisma; someone speaking about events from hundreds of years ago can completely possess. It feels like a triangulation of two things that shouldn’t go together. It was that sense that you can be sort of…’ Jones thinks for a minute. ‘It’s not cool,’ he goes on. ‘Starkey has never in his entire life been cool; he’s kind of anti-cool. There’s something very powerful about being able to command the attention and interest of a whole crowd of people, when you’re talking about something arcane.’

Starkey was there in the beginning and he’s still in Jones’ life now. Later, as a Cambridge undergraduate, Jones approached Starkey after a lecture and asked if he would supervise him for a project.

‘My director of studies did not want me to do it,’ Jones says. ‘It wasn’t part of his [Starkey’s] deal with Cambridge, but he said yes – he came up to Cambridge once a week specifically to supervise me. Incredibly generous with his time, incredibly thoughtful with his teaching. He taught me how to write, or got me thinking about how to write, rather than just how to regurgitate ideas in little blocks which is the lifeblood of the Cambridge Tripos.’

Though he’s quick to say he does not agree with 80% of what Starkey says, particularly if it’s not about history, Jones considers him a good friend and a mentor, describes studying under him as ‘a privilege and a pleasure’. And whatever Starkey taught him about writing, he taught him well. Crusaders is a long book, coming in at just under six-hundred pages, but it’s immersive and fast-paced, doesn’t feel like work to read.

‘I like writing,’ Jones says. ‘I used to like having written and felt a great sense of relief when I finished. Now, though, I like the craft. I only got to that stage after I found my feet and my voice. You start to find the sentence structure easy and then the paragraph construction easy and then the chapter construction easy and then the book construction easy. Easy is maybe the wrong word – perhaps ‘not terrifying’.’

Jones’ first book, Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, came out ten years ago, in 2009. Since then, Jones cites two major events as having a profound impact on the appetite for medieval history.

‘The first is Game of Thrones, which came out in 2011,’ he says. ‘The second is the discovery of Richard III’s bones, which happened in 2013. It’s unreal the effect these events had; both global phenomenon and great for business. Every year, a new series of Game of Thrones would come out and some bright spark at one of the broadsheets would ring up and say they wanted me to write an essay about how Game of Thrones waslike real medieval history. The Richard III thing rolled on for two or three years as well. These were front-page weekend supplements. It lifted the popularity of the period. People were going ‘maybe medieval history isn’t that inaccessible, weird and dull – maybe I should read a book about it…’’

And the book passed to them by a bookseller would probably be one by Dan Jones. It’s the guiding principle of his writing, he says, to write history books that read as easily as fiction. It’s clear, just from a short time with Jones, that he knows his business and his readers inside out. He would: he’s met a lot of them, on tours like this one. As with every brush with the general public, it seems as though some of these interactions have been interesting.

‘Someone who’s coming tonight is bringing a portrait of me,’ he says. ‘I’m prepped because they told me on Instagram.’

Perhaps because he doesn’t wear the uniform of a typical academic, boffin-type historian, he gets a low-level of sexual propositioning on social media, usually, he says, from men.

‘My female colleagues just say, ‘Yeah, welcome to being a woman: routine sexual harassment from men all the time!’ Jones laughs. ‘I get it, I do. People build very strange fantasies about people on the television or people in some way in the public eye and project onto that person things that are sometimes really weird. It’s not traumatic, it’s usually just funny. I can’t imagine what it’s like to actually be famous. It must do strange things to your head.’

We have to leave then, so that Jones isn’t late to his own event. On the route down from The White Hart to the venue, he asks me about my own writing, says I should read some James Ellroy. I say I will. I drop Jones off with the Lindum Books staff and find a seat in the auditorium.

‘We can’t leave any spare seats,’ says the gentleman next to me. ‘Apparently it’s sold out, so we all need to shuffle up.’

I shuffle and wait.

Dan Jones appears ten minutes later and, for the next hour, pulls a right David Starkey, talking about events from hundreds of years ago, mesmerising a whole room of people. He tells the story of individual crusaders, real people from Yorkshire, Sicily, the Middle East. People that walked and talked, travelled and wrote it all down. Like Game of Thrones, the book is told through viewpoint chapters, gives you time to settle with a character, understand them, feel it all from their point of view. The story is told by men and women, Christians and Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Egyptians, Berbers, Mongols and Vikings. It’s about the people sailing across the ocean and the people they’re sailing towards. People that are right, people that are wrong, people that are both. People like us, sitting shuffled together, in this auditorium, listening to Dan Jones.

I end up buying the book – of course I do – and I’m one of the last in the signing queue. As I reach the table, Jones smiles.

‘Hey,’ he says. ‘Do you want to see the portrait?’

Behind the table, propped up against the legs, is a black and white depiction of Jones’ face.

‘You know, it’s not bad,’ I say.

‘Yeah it’s pretty good.’

Though the job sometimes leads to odd places, at the core of Jones’ ethos is something very serious; it is only through re-examining events, through the careful analysis of supposed ‘truths’ that we get to hear the whole story. The real history is in the gaps, he says, the parts left out by primary sources. To truly understand a situation, sometimes we have to work hard. In this uncertain time, when polarising points of view can split people, friends and families apart, sometimes we need to turn the page, read a chapter from another point of view. In this uncertain time – at any time – a friend we don’t agree with is as valuable as one we do.

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