An interview with Andrew Drummond

Andrew Drummond is the author of two novels, An Abridged History (2004) and A Hand-book of Volapük (2006). His website is at I interviewed him by email in August-October 2006.

Who were your favorite authors as a child? Who are your favorite authors now? Which authors do you think have most influenced you as a writer?

As a child, it was the staples of a British child's reading in the 1950/60s — Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, C.S. Lewis, the odd dip into the recognised "Classics", Hergé's Tintin, later — and inevitably — Tolkien. Nowadays, it's more likely to be Dickens, Jose Saramago, James Hogg, Laurence Sterne, Mervyn Peake, Michael Innes, Marquez, W.G. Sebald, Le Carre, R.L. Stevenson, Zola, Dumas, Thomas Mann. As a writer, I'd have to say the first four of these have had most influence on me — but I've read quite widely over the years, and I can see that various medieval/post-medieval French and German authors have also influenced both my subject-matter and my style.

Do you mean the first four of the list of your current favorites, or the first four in the list as a whole?

Yes — when I say the "first four", I mean Dickens—Sterne.

You studied Modern Languages at the university, and you've published several translations from German. What other natural languages besides German have you studied? Do you consider yourself fluent in any others? Do you consider yourself fluent in any other constructed languages besides Volapük?

I studied both French and German at university, and can hold reasonable conversations in, and read easily, both of these. My parents were both linguists — my father in particular had a great enthusiasm for languages: in his time, he studied German, French, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek, Hungarian, Turkish — even sitting a basic exam in Rumanian, self-taught, at the age of 67! But I don't consider myself fluent in Volapük at all — that would imply a reasonable level of practice: I struggle with it — it's a language that requires considerable thought. From what little I know of it, Esperanto seems a far more fluid language (but that's not an endorsement!!)

Do you use the word "linguist" in the older sense of "polyglot" or the newer sense of "philologist" or "language scientist"?

"Linguist" simply as "a student of language", certainly in the older sense. I love to find the hidden commonality of vocabulary of languages of the same family. But I am far from being a scientist of language — just a gourmet.

How did you first get interested in the international language movement and Volapük, Esperanto and Solresol in particular?

To be honest, I can't hit on a defining moment. I came across Volapük when researching into something else related to my first novel, An Abridged History; and tucked the reference away for future consideration. The more I found out about its early history, the more fascinated I became with this rather obscure alley-way of linguistics. From Volapük, there was an obvious trajectory into looking at all the other "Universal Languages" which proliferated in the 19th century: some were manifestly bizarre, some were wonderfully naïve — I collect "oddities".

I have to confess to being a bit astounded by the interest which my "Handbook" has stirred up in the few weeks since publication — my first inkling of it was when I saw Rick Harrison's splendid review on Amazon. And then, last week when I was doing a reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I was quite un-nerved to be approached by a member of the audience and spoken to in Volapük.

I have to say that the interest in my book has not just been from linguists of various shades, but equally from the general reading public.

Anyway, it will not have escaped your notice, I suspect, that my take on International Languages is slightly divergent from that of the I.L. movement itself.

How did you do your research on the early history of Volapük and Esperanto? What books besides Charles Sprague's Hand-book of Volapük did you find most useful? Did you make contact with current Volapük or Esperanto speakers?

Some will no doubt criticise me for it, but my lingustic research more or less stopped with a down-loaded copy of Sprague's Hand-book (thanks to I think, when you're creating fiction, there is a point at which fact must be left behind and imagination must take over. So, although my intention was to create a language manual with a difference, it was also to write an entertaining story: sometimes too much fact just gets in the way. Interestingly, the publication of the book has brought a number of UK-based Volapük-ists to my attention, as well as those in the USA.

Are you familiar with Schleyer's 1895 article "Ueber die Pfuscher-Sprache des Pseudo-Esperanto"? Did it influence your presentation of the conflict between Mr. Justice & Dr. Bosman?

Not at all, I fear (but if you have a copy, I'd be interested to see it — its very title sounds like fun!). The antagonism between Justice and Bosman is simply a reflection of my own experience in similar "agitating" groups as a student, when factional intrigue became far more important — and possibly far more fascinating — than the stated objectives of the groups.

The main characters in your book speak about a "universal language"; nowadays proponents of Esperanto, Interlingua and so forth use the term "international language", and the transition seems to have happened not long after the period when A Hand-book of Volapük is set. To what extent do you think this change in terminology reflects a real change in philosophy or goals?

I fear I cannot give any sensible response to that. My suspicion is that the term "universal" was indeed replaced somewhere close to the First World War, by the peace-movements which arose beside or from the social-democracy movements of the time — "international-ism" became a more widely-recognised concept. But I may be quite wrong on that.

In a couple of places I noticed Mr. Justice making prophecies about the future of Volapük which arguably turned out to be true, except that they were true about Esperanto. To what extent was this deliberate?

It was deliberate to the extent that the early Volapük-ists doubtless considered their language to be the language of the future -- only for them to see the advantage slip away from them towards Esperanto. I enjoy seeing history from the "wrong end" — my first novel, An Abridged History, has as one of its themes the imagined technical wonders of the 20th century, as envisaged by the late Victorians.

Did Volapük deserve its fate? Would the world be a better place if Schleyer and the Academy had resolved their quarrel, or do you reckon would the movement have fallen apart sooner or later for other reasons?

My view is that Volapük, though cunning in its architecture, was simply far too complex for its own good. Even if the various factions had not fallen out, I doubt it could have held back Esperanto. However, I think there are also broader issues here: two of the questions I raise in my book — and I do not claim to know the answer to either — are these: firstly, the "universal languages" are in themselves very Euro-centric — that is, their vocabulary and grammar is based almost exclusively around the Romance or Germanic language-groups — what should Africans, Asians, Chinese people make of them? Secondly, can a "universal language" ever be anything more than a common means for facilitating communication between different nations — that is, could and should it ever aspire to be the only language which all people use all the time? Volapük, for example, tried to cover every possible nuance of grammar, but fell down badly on the vocabulary; in trying to be all things to all men, it rapidly became nothing to anybody. My own personal belief — anathema perhaps to international languages — is that variety in all things can only be healthy.

How did you decide to write about the census? Had you, for instance, picked the period when the story would take place and looked for major events of that period that could be tied in, or were you already interested in the census procedures and so forth beforehand?

The Census was just another interest arising from previous work. Clearly, when you're writing about the late Victorian period, and want some solid, real background, the Population Census is an unbeatable source; it then occurred to me that a great starting-place for a novel would be all the stories which could be revealed to the Census Officer as he collected the data. When I then got down to writing the Volapük novel, the Census story was a very convenient mechanism for moving along some of the plot. It's also interesting that the Census forms in those days did ask whether English or Gaelic was a person's "native" tongue — something that indicates the state of language in Scotland at that time.

How did you first get interested in Sir Thomas Urquhart? — through the Scottish history or literature connection, or the constructed language connection, or in some other way?

Urquhart came at me from three directions really: firstly, a mention in a novel by Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels, where a rather unpleasant character descended from Sir Thomas is central; then, when researching further into the history of Universal Languages — he's a hard man to miss; and finally, I chanced upon his absolutely wonderful translations of Rabelais' Gargantua/Pantagruel works, where his use of the English language — and more! — is quite superb.

How much of Sir Thomas's work have you read? How much of it would you recommend? Are there some of his works now out of print that deserve rediscovery?

I've read The Jewel several times over, but would be hard pushed to recommend it to others, except as a reference to his use of language: it's fascinating, but decidely an acquired taste. Obviously, his translations of Rabelais are highly readable. I've also had a look at some of his early Epigrams, which are entertainingly rude.

I can see where most of the aspects of Sir Thomas's character and the things he does and says are well supported by his surviving works. I'm curious about the helmet, cloak and scimitar, however — is it something from Sir Thomas's life or works, or from another historical source, or something you made up?

I'm not entirely sure myself where these items came from! Not from Sir Thomas' works, certainly. If the equipment is symbolic of anything (and I'm not sure it is) then it would be of the potentially, and usually ephemeral, dictatorial power of the teacher over the pupils.

Several aspects of your story — the treatment of the dirigible, the mechanical translating engine, and so forth — seem reminiscent of the California Steampunk authors — James Blaylock, Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter. Are you familiar with their work?

Short answer: no, none of them are authors I've heard of. One of the many wonderful things about the Victorians was their ability to dream up fascinating devices. For part of the research into my novel, I did also look into the works relating to Lunatic Asylums and in several of these I found case-studies of men who had "invented" all manner of wonderful "engines" — some of these just seemed too good to ignore!

What are your writing habits like? Do you have a set time of day for writing, a daily word count goal? Are you generally revising one piece while writing another, or do you keep those phases separate?

Since I have a full-time job, Monday to Friday, I tend to limit myself to writing 8 or so hours at weekends, and maybe four hours during the week. If things are going well, I can take a couple of days off work and storm at it! I generally try to write a 'chapter' in two or three consecutive sittings, with a goal of x-thousand words per chapter — 2500 words per day is my best rate. And I can usually only manage to work on one piece at a time.

What tools do you use for writing? Do you write first drafts directly on a word processor or text editor, for instance, or draft with pen or pencil and rewrite on the word processor?

I do almost everything on computer these days, apart from maybe a few brief notes to myself on scraps of paper. It is so much easier to juggle ideas that way.

Do you outline a novel before starting to write it? If so, in how much detail? How much did your first couple of novels deviate from their outlines in the course of writing?

I usually have a master-plan, but frequently find myself deviating from it, especially when the plot, of itself, begins to grow arms and legs. The first draft of my first novel, An Abridged History, was about twice the length of the final version, and there was considerable re-working of the plot; the Volapük novel was far easier to write and keep to the plan.

How long had you been writing fiction before you sold An Abridged History?

I've been writing fiction — mostly short-stories — since I was a student, back in the 1970s. But most of it was just for my own enjoyment. Various attempts to get published simply failed, until an extract from An Abridged History won a short-story prize in 2002, and things then — eventually — took off.

On your website you describe your current novel in progress as "A novel set in 1740, which deals with the Scottish noblewoman, Lady Grange, who was kidnapped in 1732 by associates of her husband, and kept prisoner on a succession of lonely and remote Scottish islands — including St Kilda — until her death in 1745." Can you say anything more about it at this point?

Not much more to say at the moment — the novel is finished, as far as I'm concerned, and my publisher is currently considering it. However, there are ceratin features of the novel which my publisher may find hard to swallow — most notably the language and the spelling — so I await his response with some trepidation. However, I am formulating ideas for the next novel...

This interview first appeared in Esperanto USA, 2006/5-6.

The novel Drummond had just finished and submitted when this interview was conducted is Elephantina, Polygon 2008. I plan to read it eventually, and will review it when I do.

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Last update August 2009