Paul Wreyford on When Henry VIII Came to Dinner

Peter Tonkin

Peter Tonkin had a number questions for his fellow author.
Home » Author interviews » Paul Wreyford on When Henry VIII Came to Dinner

Paul Wreyford, many congratulations on the book. Why did you choose these particular figures – Henry VIII, Napoleon, Shakespeare and Cleopatra to name but a few?

I just went for some of the most famous people in history and from a wide range of eras. Everyone will have at least heard of them all and will probably know something about all of them. My target readership is teenagers (and adults) who are not necessarily even interested in history, or think that they are not. So it was important that I went for characters they were at least familiar with. However, even if the reader knows a lot about some of them, I guarantee that they will still learn something new. As well as teaching them things they probably should know about these people, they’ll also probably discover things that they don’t necessarily need to know. For example, I myself didn’t know (before my research) that Henry VIII was supposedly the first person to own a pair of boots made for specifically playing football, or that Winston Churchill was an expert bricklayer! I wanted to use familiar figures in history, but reveal things people probably didn’t know about them. I do love a bit of ‘useless’ trivia. I have to be honest; there are a lot of things that you don’t really need to know in the book, but I think a lot of teens enjoy amazing their friends with strange and quirky facts. I know that I did when I was that age – and I suppose I must still do!

Why did you use this particular format and technique – it reminded me a little of Horrible Histories?

Yes, I reckon Horrible Histories must have been an inspiration. I read the books and watched the TV series with my own children when they were younger (they are teenagers now). I just think that history should be fun and accessible. Most history books are written for people that already have a passion for history. I think my book, and Horrible Histories, attempt to engage those that don’t necessarily like or dislike history. Horrible Histories was aimed at younger children. My book is for older children and even adults. It is different to Horrible Histories in that I use fiction and fantasy to get across all the facts. I just place the historical character in a contemporary situation; imagine how it might have happened if that person was living today and not when they did. For example, instead of arriving at the house in a rolled-up carpet, Cleopatra pops out of a cardboard box delivered by Amazon couriers. I also have footnotes to explain or elaborate on the truth. Shakespeare refuses a glass of water in the book, believing they are trying to poison him. A footnote will explain that nobody in Elizabethan London would have consumed water, as the only source of water would have been the Thames, which would have contained all the unwanted waste. 

Were the narrator (a teenage boy) and his father always going to be as you present them or did their characters and relationship evolve?

I think a bit of both. I’m sure they evolved naturally, as all good characters in a book should do. However, I always had in my mind what their relationship should be like. I reckon my own son has got to the age when he thinks his dad is a bit of a fool sometimes and certainly a bit of an embarrassment! I always intended for the father to be the more comical of the two – the one most likely to put his foot in it, which he frequently does in the book, such as being too gushing in his praise of Shakespeare or trying to impress Columbus with his America memorabilia.

Did you have any particular location in mind for their house – clearly not Wales?

No, it wasn’t Wales – and definitely not Bulgaria! Seriously, it could be anywhere in England really. I just chose a typical suburban location. It’s just an average father and son living in an average semi-detached house. I suppose the aim is for the average teen reader to relate to the son, and the average adult reader to relate to the father. The reader might actually notice that the father and son are never named in the book. The son narrates the story and he just calls his father, Dad.

Why did you choose a ‘Young Adult’ audience?

I just find it such a shame that most people stop reading books when they get to their teens. My children are the same. They were avid readers when they were younger, but less so as teenagers. I would say that my book is very different to most books out there for young adults. And I wanted it to be. Not all teens want to read the same thing. We all have different tastes and so do teenagers. I just wanted to write a book that attempted to make teens fall in love with reading again. Even though it’s a novel, you can actually read it as nine short stories. I think many teens struggle to concentrate for long periods. A typical novel can be daunting. With my book, you can just read one story at a time and in any order. A lot of teens give up on novels because when they go back to their book after a long period, they’ve forgotten what has happened and even who the characters are. You don’t have that problem with my book, so it’s a good book for those that don’t necessarily read a lot. It’s the same with adults. And I actually strongly believe that my book is suitable for both teens and adults – basically for anyone over the age of 12. It’s just a light-hearted, fun read. Why can’t a particular book be for both children and adults? We have those animated family films that appeal to a wide age range. In fact, in my book, there are references and jokes that only the adults will get and vice-versa. So, yes, it is aimed at young adults, but also at adults young at heart. It’s just for anyone who likes their books and history to be on the light side.

Do you have a particular favourite amongst the guests? If so, which and why?

I think the Winston Churchill story is my favourite. That was certainly the most easiest and fun to write. As soon as I had the idea that Churchill would arrive at the house believing the war still to be on, the possibilities were endless. Some amazing things happened during the war and it was easy to transfer those things to a contemporary situation. For example, Churchill is convinced the vicar living opposite is in fact a German spy, simply because most spies dressed as vicars or nuns – well, according to Dad’s Army and all those other comedy war films! Then there were sticky bombs that looked just like sticky toffee apples; exploding chocolate and pigeons that were shot down because they carried messages. As you can imagine, that gave me a lot of ammunition (please excuse the pun) for my story. I also enjoyed writing the Oliver Cromwell story. I loved the fact that the Puritans ‘banned’ Christmas. So I just set my story during the festive period and focused on the father and son trying not to reveal the fact they are celebrating Christmas, even though all the decorations are up and the smell of mince pies is wafting through the air. Of course, Cromwell was a hypocrite and actually enjoyed all the pleasures the Puritans were so against. So, in my story, he is fully aware that they are celebrating Christmas, but doesn’t reveal that fact, in order to gain all their Christmas treats for himself.      

Other than Henry’s anonymous servants, you introduce several named minor characters (Charmion, Iras, Thompson, Leif Ericson, Mary Seacole) What do you find about them particularly interesting?

Yes, I think it’s important to have some minor characters in the book. I didn’t want it to be just about the guest sitting at a dinner table eating and talking with the father and son. The dinner parties in the book are not like that. Things happen and many of the things that happen also involve these minor characters, who, in fact, all played major roles in the lives of the guests. For example, Charmion and Iras were Cleopatra’s maids and it is said they also committed suicide when Cleopatra took her life. Thompson was Churchill’s bodyguard and actually saved Churchill’s life on numerous occasions – not from the Germans, but because Churchill was accident prone and intent on taking unnecessary risks. Thompson often prevented Churchill from serious injury and himself became a major celebrity in his own right – everyone knew Churchill’s bodyguard. Leif Ericson was, of course, the first person to really discover America. I therefore couldn’t ignore him when writing about Columbus. So I get Ericson to arrive at the house before Columbus, mirroring what happened in America. Of course, Columbus died never knowing he discovered America. Mary Seacole, another nurse, has always lived in the shadow of the more famous Florence Nightingale. It is said that Florence refused Mary’s offer of help because Mary was of Caribbean descent. When the father cuts his little finger and is being nursed ‘back to health’ by Florence, Mary just wants to help, but her offer is refused, as was the case in real life. Mary deserves to be in the book, because she actually did just as much as Florence Nightingale in helping soldiers during the Crimean War.

Will our young narrator and his dad entertain more guests in the future?

I suppose that depends on whether the book is a success or not. It certainly has the potential for a sequel. I can already think of another batch of historical figures that would make great dinner guests. I actually think it would make a great TV series, for teens and adults. I can see it being a mixture of Horrible Histories and Ghosts, in a half-hour slot. They could just feature a different historical guest each week. The stories in my book could be described as farces, so they might even adapt well to the stage. For example, the Napoleon story is all about the father and son trying to hide their pet cat from the fiery Napoleon (he was supposedly scared of cats). It’s quite a physical story, with Dad chasing after the cat before Napoleon has a chance to draw his sword, etc. So, if there are any TV or theatre producers reading this…  

What is your next project?

I have no idea, to be quite honest. I just write books that I want to write; books that I think people would enjoy. I don’t force myself to write novels. If an idea comes and I think it will work, then I’ll go for it. I’m still waiting for the next idea to pop into my head. The idea for When Henry VIII Came to Dinner happened in an instant. Someone just asked me the question, who would I invite to dinner if I could invite anyone who has ever lived? I just thought that very question would make a great book. It just came to me in an instant. Hopefully, something similar will happen next time. Of course, if it doesn’t…I’ve always got that sequel to work on!

Paul Wreyford is the author of When Henry VIII Came to Dinner, published by Chiselbury. Peter Tonkin is the author of the Queen’s Intelligencer series.