Author Interview  
More Information
Author, Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore

About Helen Dunmore

An Interview with Helen Dunmore

More About Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire in 1952. She has published eight novels with Penguin, including: Zennor in Darkness, which won the McKitterick Prize; A Spell of Winter, which won the Orange Prize; The Siege, which was shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002; Mourning Ruby, House of Orphans and Counting the Stars. She is also a poet, children's novelist and short-story writer. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and current Chair of the Society of Authors. She lives in Bristol.

You can visit Helen's website at

An interview with Helen Dumore on House of Orphans. This is an edited extract of an interview with Helen Dunmore published in the March/April 2007 issue of newbooks magazine.

House of Orphans is Helen Dunmore's ninth novel in a career notable for its prodigious output. Threaded through her work is a fascination with history and how it forms us. House of Orphans moves further back in time than previous works, digging deeper into the history of the Russian empire, explored from the Soviet aspect magnificently in her 2001 novel The Siege, about the siege of Stalingrad. Though focused on Finland, House of Orphans shows how the Romanovs contributed to their own downfall.

"The Czar didn't realise how close to the edge he was in terms of history," Dunmore explains. "How the Romanovs were about to fall over the cliff's edge." Czar Nicholas II failed to realise that his role as "father of the people" was not only anachronistic, but hated. Though in his eyes a Finnish petition demanding autonomy was a minor issue, it contributed to his downfall, reflecting Dunmore's conviction that the events that shape our destiny are usually those of which we are unaware.

"You are almost buried in your own history," she says. "It is precisely the things that we don't notice and completely take for granted that people will look back on and be amazed by." In The Siege, the action of which centres on a starving Russian family, there is the same sense being buried by events. Though the family despairs that the Nazi blockade will end, we readers know that the Germans face defeat.

It is a perspective that fascinates Dunmore. "I am not writing about history from the mountains of knowledge, from which you can survey the plains of ignorance, because that is a very annoying way of writing," she says. Her use of metaphor is typical: she has the poet's craving to paint word pictures.

As with The Siege and her debut novel Zennor in Darkness, which focuses on a young girl's relationship with the writer D. H. Lawrence and his German wife during the First World War, House of Orphans deals with subversion and the reaction of state and society to those it regards as threats to the status quo.

In House of Orphans the young revolutionaries and the reaction to them has clear parallels with our own so-called War on Terror. Dunmore agrees. "All the debates we have about terrorism and what is and what is not justifiable, were debates we had over 100 years ago," she points out. Russia's struggle to hold onto its empire, involving questions of how to define "Russsianness", be it nationality, language, geography, ethnicity or culture, are questions taxing the leaders of the US empire now.

"Russian history is a constant story of expansion and contraction, of it trying to hold onto all the parts that keep flying away. Does it hold onto that with a relaxed grip or does it tighten it really hard?" Dunmore asks almost to herself. The more repressive the grip, the more the revolutionaries react, she adds. "That was true then, and that is true now."

This is an edited extract from an article by Danuta Kean ( published in newbooks magazine.

Courtesy of the Poetry Society:

The Malarkey

Why did you tell them to be quiet
and sit up straight until you came back?
The malarkey would have led you to them.
You go from one parked car to another
and peer through the misted windows
before checking the registration.
Your pocket bulges. You’ve bought them sweets
but the mist is on the inside of the windows.
How many children are breathing?
The malarkey’s over in the back of the car.
The day is over outside the windows.
No street light has come on.
You fed them cockles soused in vinegar,
you took them on the machines.
You looked away just once.
You looked away just once
as you leaned on the chip-shop counter,
and forty years were gone.
You have been telling them for ever
Stop that malarkey in the back there!
Now they have gone and done it.
Is that mist, or water with breath in it?

Helen Dunmore first made her name as a poet. In recent years she has received international acclaim as a novelist with eleven works of fiction to her name. ‘The Malarkey’ is a haunting poem about loss, the cause of which is left open to the reader’s imagination. Judges Daljit Nagra, Ruth Padel and Neil Rollinson were captivated, as Padel explains:

“This poem sprang out at me at once, on first read-through, from ten and a half thousand poems, because of the surprising focus it gave, linguistically, imaginatively and emotionally, on something that was not there. It was not showy. I found it completely arresting in its quietness; in the hidden strength of what it was saying so unobtrusively.”

To find out more about the National Poetry Competition visit

Sign Up
  • Penguin Newsletter

Sign up for the Penguin newsletter here»

Email Alerts

To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication

Please alert me via email when:

The author releases another book  


Send this page to a friend