The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Gary Blackwood

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Gary Blackwood


Summary: Bookbag devoured Gary Blackwood's Mysterious Messages - A History of Codes and Ciphers and couldn't resist the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
Date: 1 December 2009
Interviewer: Keith Dudhnath
Reviewed by Keith Dudhnath

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Bookbag devoured Gary Blackwood's Mysterious Messages - A History of Codes and Ciphers and couldn't resist the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Gary Blackwood: I think I've always tried mainly to write the sort of books I would want to read, so I guess when I picture my typical reader, I see myself as a ten-year-old (which I still am in many respects!)

  • BB: What first sparked your interest in codes and ciphers?

GB: I've been something of a puzzle fancier for as long as I can remember. It's gotten worse in the past several years; I begin most days with a Sunday New York Times crossword in front of me. And since, as noted above, I write the sorts of things I like to read, this fascination has worked its way into many of my novels, in the form of codes or ciphers - or, in the case of the Shakespeare Stealer series, a secret system of "swift writing." When I saw how many readers shared my enthusiasm for these things, I figured they would appreciate a book that was nothing but codes and ciphers from beginning to end.

  • BB: We love crosswords too! Who from the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis you admire most, and why?

GB: When I did the research for The Year of the Hangman, I came to admire Benjamin Franklin a lot, so I was glad he put in an appearance, though a brief one, in Mysterious Messages as well. Codes and ciphers have been used so often as a tool for waging war, but Franklin was more interested in promoting peace.

  • BB: Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction, and why?

GB: There's a great appeal in creating your own fictional world, peopled with characters you've invented, but it's devilishly hard to do it well, and it seems to get harder with each novel, partly because I demand more of myself each time. I think my favourite part of the writing process is doing research; it's like digging for treasure. When you're researching a novel, it can be a bit frustrating, because you dig up all this fascinating stuff, and then you can include only a fraction of it. With non-fiction, you get to make use of a much larger percentage.

  • BB: Is it hard for children's writers to get the same recognition as writers for adults?

GB: I think there was a time when children's writers were looked upon as second-class citizens, and I still do get the occasional comment along the lines of When are you going to write a real novel? But I also regularly encounter people who have read one of my books and express surprise at how much they enjoyed it. I'm surprised that they're surprised. I figure a good book is a good book, for whatever age. It seems to me that most people who know books recognize the fact that some of the best literature being written these days is for preteens and teens - which is as it should be. Our kids deserve good books to read. Otherwise, how can we expect them to appreciate and to demand good books as adults? In any case, we children's writers do get recognition from the source that really matters - the kids themselves.

  • BB: Jnf guvf gbb rnfl gb penpx?

GB: Well, I'm no William Friedman (the man who helped crack the Japanese Purple Code during WWII) but I deciphered the above without too much effort. I assumed it was a monoalphabetic cipher. Those can be hard to break if the cryptogram is short, as this one is, so I tried to guess what method was used to encipher the message. The obvious suspect was the Caesar cipher; once I ruled that out, I consulted the Vignere tableau. Since the two bs in the third word were most likely really os, I went to the line of the tableau in which a plaintext o is enciphered as a b, and it was pretty much of a cinch from there. (If none of the preceding makes any sense to you, you really need to read Mysterious Messages).

  • BB: Which three books should every child read?

GB: Well, I highly recommend Mysterious Messages. But really, reading is so much a matter of taste, I hesitate to prescribe specific books. I do think that it's pretty much essential, at some point, to develop at least a nodding acquaintance with world mythology and religion and history, since so many novels assume a basic knowledge of those things.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

GB: I'm finding it difficult to relate to most modern fiction, so I tend to rely on non-fiction and on classic novels. At the moment, I'm reading my first Anthony Trollope, The Vicar of Bullhampton, and enjoying it immensely. Those Victorians did know how to tell a story.

  • BB: Which book has most influenced you, and do you still have a copy?

GB: We didn't have a lot of books available when I was a kid - our town had no library - but somehow my parents ended up with a copy of Ernest Thompon Seton's Two Little Savages, which enraptured me. That copy got lost somewhere along the way, but after I started a family of my own, I unearthed its identical twin in a used bookstore and read it to all three of my kids. Unlike most books that I recalled from my childhood, that one was just as good as I remembered it. Its influence can be seen in my first novel, Wild Timothy.

  • BB: What's next for Gary Blackwood?

GB: I have a new adventure novel, Around the World in 100 Days, coming out next year - set, not surprisingly, in the Victorian era. What is surprising is that there are no codes or ciphers involved.

  • BB: Thanks Gary. Good luck with Mysterious Messages and the new book!

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