Matt Dickinson on why he prefers writing books to filming BBC documentaries and dodging avalanches
Matt Dickinson has lived a life of adventure as a BBC cameraman and documentary maker. Now he has also turned to writing, and his first book for young adult readers, Mortal Chaos, takes its inspiration from the Chaos Theory. It begins with the flap of a butterfly’s wing that sets off a chain of causal events that ripple around the globe—from a horse race in England to a village in Malawi.
The time frame—a single day—and the adrenaline-filled plotline make the story a cross between television series 24 and an Andy McNab adventure—an ideal read for teenage boys. It is the first in a series of three standalone titles, all of which will begin with the flap of a butterfly’s wing.
Dickinson says his thirst for adventure began at his father’s knee, hearing stories of his travels in Antarctica. “I decided to become a cameraman as it would allow me to live this kind of life too,” he says. “I wouldn’t swap what I have done for anything, mainly because of the people. I have worked with, the top adventurers of their generation; climbers, desert and polar explorers.”
Now he has fallen in love with storytelling itself, after writing a book based on his near-disastrous experiences filming for a documentary on Everest. “Being a cameraman is a precarious career, because at times you become a participant in the story you are filming. I’m not necessarily a great climber or fantastic scuba diver, but as a film maker you can find yourself pushed into a survival situation where you are really stretched because the conditions are so hostile.
“I remember being caught in a huge storm on the north face of Everest when I seriously feared for my life, and there was a situation in Antarctica where we were very nearly caught in an avalanche. We happened to be in an ice gully when the avalanche struck and it passed over us, but if we had stopped for a break five or 10 minutes before, we would all have been killed.
“I have always written scripts for my documentaries, but after I finished the documentary about Everest there seemed to be so much more to tell, so I began to write The Death Zone, an adult book. As soon as I started writing it I realised that this was what I wanted to do. Making a film can be a very satisfying experience, but a book is a much more personal thing and can be more challenging—you can explore more themes and issues in a richer way. I loved it from the start.
“I wanted to explore the butterfly effect because the Chaos Theory has always intrigued me, and key events in my life have been shaped by very small events like that. I find it fascinating. I came up with the idea of trying to -create a drama that spans out of that one tiny event.
Creating the plot, though, was a nightmare. I had 300 post-it notes being shunted around my office wall for years before I got everything linked, but I also like that intricacy. It took me five years to finish the novel.
“I wanted to give it a global scope because it felt right for the scale of the story, but also to reflect the interconnectedness of people, events and the natural world. It also meant that I could draw on my own experiences, and I hope that some of my stories will shine a bit of light on children in difficult environments and encourage people to think about those situations. One of the plot lines is about a boy called Bakili in Malawi. When I made a film about the environmental problems of Lake Malawi, I came across a drought-stricken area and young children, barely of school age, who had to guard their family’s fields of maize from marauding baboons.
“I am now working on the next two Mortal Chaos books which, like the first, will be driven by movement. Everything that happens in Mortal Chaos is movement from start to finish, and that is what draws people to follow the journey. I write a lot of film scripts and I think fiction—and especially young adult fiction—is becoming more filmic. I wanted Mortal Chaos to be a journey that felt visual. I have been able to take whatever visual skills I have as a director and try to translate that into words.
“I am also thinking about how readers approach books, and how that is likely to change. If you watch a 16-year-old on a computer, they are clicking onto something new every 15 to 20 seconds. As a writer, to engage with this age group, you have to think in that way.”
Mortal Chaos is out now, published by OUP.