Blending fact and fiction: David Gibbins on wreck diving
November 4, 2014, Article by Tom in Books
David Gibbins, author of Pyramid and the Jack Howard series, reports on how his novels are shaped by real life research…
Novels are meant to be about fiction, not fact, right? That’s a question constantly in my mind as I draw inspiration from my real-life adventures as an explorer and archaeologist. It was there a few weeks ago when I was diving off the coast of south-west England, searching the sands for shipwrecks that might have been revealed in the huge winter storms earlier this year. Like most explorers I spend a lot of my off-time planning my next expedition, my next dive, imagining what I might find – you could call it daydreaming, except that it fills my sleep as well – and when the first smudge appeared ahead of me in the haze I wondered whether it was like a desert mirage, a trick of the mind after so long spent searching and finding nothing.
But then the smudge became reality and I was swimming over a shipwreck more than a century old, reaching down and touching sections of wooden planking that had been perfectly preserved beneath metres of sand. I rounded the stern and saw the ship’s huge propeller, an awesome sight in the gloom, standing proud of the seabed where it had been entombed for so long. My air was running low when I came across the copper box you can see me examining in the photograph here, trapped beneath other wreckage. As I stared at it I found my thoughts crossing the blurred boundary into fiction again, imagining that the box was golden, not copper, and wondering what my protagonist Jack Howard would do now, what clues he might find inside. When I’m underwater, hemmed in by low visibility and always striving to see what lies beyond, the world of the imagination is never far off, and I’m always close to being transported into the fictional world I inhabit as I write my novels.
That overlap with reality is also part of the present-day context of my novels, whether it be warlords using antiquities to ‘oil’ drugs and arms transactions, shady religious organisations suppressing discoveries that might undermine their power, Nazis concealing looted treasures, or those for whom any history outside their own agenda is anathema. That last scenario is played out in my new novel Pyramid, set during a fictional takeover in Egypt by extremists intent on eradicating all evidence of antiquity. To fuel my imagination I’ve looked no further than recent reality – the desecration of museums in Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, calls by extremists in Egypt to destroy the pyramids. As I put the finishing touches on my novel, news reports from Iraq and Syria gave a horrifying plausibility to the scenes I’d imagined following an extremist takeover, with the fate of archaeological treasures under such a regime scarcely imaginable.
My novels always involve a lot of research, and when I finish one I tend to think that I’ve written my last word on the subject. I felt this at the end of my fourth novel, The Tiger Warrior, set partly during a real-life jungle rebellion in southern India in 1879 in which an ancestor of mine fought. For years I’d been fascinated by the artefacts he brought back, and then I exhaustively researched the rebellion in the India Office Collections of the British Library, thinking there was nothing more I could get out of it. But I was wrong! This year I was contacted by the descendants of two other officers who had served in the campaign. That spurred me to do more research into the biographies of the other men involved, to tie up a few loose ends, and I made an astonishing discovery – one of them had ditched his military career to become, of all things, an undersea shipwreck explorer! He’d become obsessed with finding a lost bullion wreck, devising ever-more fabulous contraptions to excavate on the seabed, refusing to give up even after decades of search. He was just like a Victorian character I’d created in my novel Pyramid, diving for a fantastic treasure in the depths of the Nile. For me, fact and fiction are forever intertwined!
The two photos show David diving on the wreck he describes in this blog in September of this year.
To see a video by David of a dive on that wreck, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGRsrdnAg5Q