Undreamed Shores by Mark Patton

I’m delighted to welcome Mark Patton as my guest to discuss his book “Undreamed Shores”.

I loved the book, how did you come up with the idea for it?

I have a degree and PhD in archaeology, and have spent most of my professional life as an academic, studying the prehistoric societies on which the book is based. I have published several non-fiction books on the subject, which are listed on my website (www.mark-patton.co.uk). Archaeology, however, can only take you so far, and every time I visited a settlement site or a tomb, or held a stone axe or arrowhead in my hand, I wanted to know more about the people who had built and made them. I wanted to imagine them in fully human terms: as people with passions, beliefs, hopes and fears; as individuals with names, values and relationships. Ultimately, I found, it was only through fiction that I could do that. That gave me the first layer of the book.

There are other layers, superimposed on this, that come more from my personal experience. I wanted to say something about the coming of age; about the interaction of profoundly different cultures; about the place of the individual caught up in the sweep of history.  And, of course, in this book (perhaps more so than in any book that I will write in the future) I am writing about places, in some cases even about objects, of which I have an intimate knowledge.

As an ex-language teacher I was intrigued by the way that you portrayed the different languages. Were they “real” or did you make them up?

We simply don’t know what languages were spoken in Europe in 2400 BC, and we probably never will, so the languages cannot be “real.” There has, however, been plenty of scholarly speculation on the subject, and I have drawn on this.

There are essentially three languages in the book.

The reader hears very little of the language of Amzai’s homeland, because it is the language in which he thinks, and I therefore have to use English as a substitute for it. The personal and place-names, however, are based on Basque (Basque being one of the few European languages that is not part of the Indo-European groups, and which some linguists believe to be very ancient).

Semona,” the first language Amzai hears when he is washed up on the shores of an unknown land, is loosely based on “proto-Celtic;” and “Kritenya,” the language spoken by most people in this land, is loosely based on “proto-Indo-European.” Nobody alive has ever heard either of these languages spoken, or read any texts written in them, so they are basically imagined languages. 

The point, however, in the book, is not to provide an accurate reconstruction of dead languages, but rather to convey the sense of what it might have been like to be alive in a time and place in which, for the first time, people from very different linguistic and cultural backgrounds were coming together.

This period is very hard to know for sure – how much research did you have to do?

There are many things we simply can’t know for sure, and those things I have made up. It is fiction, after all! I have tried, however, to make up only those things that are literally unknowable (at least, for the moment, since new discoveries are being made all the time). I was also very conscious of drawing on more than thirty years of research that I had already done for my non-fiction work. In one sense this made things easier, but in another sense it made them harder: I had to make conscious decisions as to what I was going to leave out. My first draft was much too long, and included far more technical detail than most readers would want (there may be some readers who do want it, and they will find it in my non-fiction).

Do you really think that people in those times were the same as us, felt the same, thought the same way?

These people were biologically the same as us, so, in terms of “nature,” they would feel the same and think as we do. Hunger, for example, would have felt the same, as would sexual desire, fear and physical pain. Culturally, however, they were utterly different from us, so, in terms of “nurture,” they would see things very differently. This tension was one of the things that excited me, as was the paradox of depicting a wholly unfamiliar culture in the context of what, for many readers, will be a very familiar geographical setting.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for me personally was to get inside the minds of people who lived in a non-literate society. Some people think we are what we eat. As a writer, I naturally want to believe that we are what we read, but my characters have never read anything – they lived more than 2000 years before the written word was introduced to this part of the world. They do, however, have a rich oral tradition and imagining this was, for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the book.

How long did it take you to write this, including research?

There are two possible answers. I could say six years, since I decided to write the book (and sat down and wrote the first words, most of which never found their way into the final text) in the first week of January, 2006. On the other hand, I could say thirty-seven years, since, for the whole of this time, I have been preoccupied with the questions that lie at the heart of the book. It all goes back to a Saturday when I was ten years old, growing up in Jersey, and I went on an all-day tour, organised by the local museum, of the island’s prehistoric sites. On that day I visited many of the sites that feature in the book. In the years that followed, I visited thousands more sites, and hundreds of museums, all over Europe; studied archaeology at Cambridge and UCL; wrote my PhD; and published my non-fiction works. At the same time, I was experiencing life in all its richness; falling in and out of love several times; visiting new places and learning new languages; gaining an acquaintance with the natural world through walking, sailing and open-water swimming; all of this fed into the research (in the broadest sense) for the book. Of course, for most of this time, I had no idea that I was writing a novel, but I suspect that lack of knowledge actually enriched the research.

I’d love to think there was a sequel – when can we expect it?

It depends what you mean by a “sequel.” Undreamed Shores is my first novel. I have almost finished my second novel, An Accidental King, and have started work on my third, which is provisionally titled Omphalos. An Accidental King is set more than two thousand years after Undreamed Shores, but some of the earlier characters live on as distant, mythologised memories, much as we talk about King Arthur, or about Achilles or Moses. This thread of continuity between the present and the distant past is one of the broader themes that interest me. Omphalos is a more complex novel, with five distinct stories set in different historical periods, one of which is a prequel to Undreamed Shores, in that it picks up on one of the mythologised stories that form part of the characters’ world view, exploring it in real time. I have a general idea for my fourth novel, which is totally different (but still historical), and after that I don’t know. I may well return to some of the more specific themes of Undreamed Shores.

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