Daniel, at Sea, the debut novel from London author Philip Dundas, is the story of retired professor Daniel Sale who, at the age of 77, looks back on his past and discovers that life can start again when you least expect it. Beautifully illustrated by Robert Littleford and described by Simon Callow as “a novel in the great tradition”, it is the perfect addition to any gay Lockdown Christmas stocking!
We caught up with Philip in North London where he lives with his husband and dog.
Daniel at Sea is your first novel. Can you tell us how the story came about?
It’s hard to say when the first idea for this book came to me; it’s more like an accumulation of thoughts and ideas gathered over the years, collecting in my mind, and sometimes getting mixed up with other stories. The characters came from my imagination, although my shrink would definitely argue that these are idealised forms from my subconscious.
Daniel is in his 70’s. There aren’t many gay characters of that age in literature. How did that come about?
Gay culture tends to celebrate youth and beauty and it is true there aren’t many great older gay male characters in fiction. I didn’t particularly want to write about an old man but I wanted to say that life is not linear, that experiences are cyclical and we come round to the same things very often. In terms of this story I needed the love to have been buried for so long that it would almost seem impossible for it to be reborn. I wanted to imagine the life of an older man crippled by his previous experience, apparently doomed by lost loves and hopes. And I wanted to show that it was possible for that change, and for him to emerge into new life even at the ripe age of 77!
It is set between Barcelona and the East Coast of America. What are your connections with those places?
I have loved Barcelona since I first went there 30 odd years ago. Like all interesting places it is full of contradictions. The people are not exactly easy to get to know but once you do, they will be your friends forever. So the city became the obvious setting for Daniel’s youthful love. I wanted the present story to be set somewhere far enough from Barcelona, so that it was easier for Daniel to turn his back on his past. But it also had to be by the sea, so the nearest place that came to me was New England.
Tell us about Robert Littleford’s illustrations. He seems to have captured the story and characters perfectly.
I’ve known Robert for almost 10 years, he illustrated my first book – a food memoir called Cooking Without Recipes. He has a unique talent and is somehow able to magically translate an idea from words into images. I knew that he would identify the right motifs and scenes that would benefit from illustrating. I gave him no brief and the illustrations in the book are exactly those which he had drawn from his imagination, but extraordinarily, his portrait of Xavi looks like a former Catalan boyfriend of mine! I think having some illustrations in the novel really brings the story to life and has also turned the book into a beautiful and collectible object. I really wanted it to be something you would want to own.
How important was gay literature to you growing up? Are there any novels that have made a strong impression on you?
When I moved to London I spent a lot of time at Gay’s the Word where I would buy everything published by GMP (Gay Men’s Press). I still have – and cherish – many of these books to this day, like The Carnivorous Lamb by Agustín Gómez-Arcos (set, like Daniel, at Sea, in Franco’s Spain), Teardrops on my Drum by Jack Robinson and The Estuary by David Rees. And of course there were those gay classics like A Room in Chelsea Square, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library which had a huge impact on my life. I hope Daniel, at Sea can have the same impact on a new generation of readers.