Saturday, 15 August 2009

Lance Parkin Q & A Part Two

Did you have a Doctor in mind when writing The Infinity Doctors? Every time I read it I see McGann but I wonder if that is because he was the current Doctor at the time. It does seem to fit almost perfectly in the slot after The Gallifrey Chronicles and before Rose, with the Doctor having rebuilt Gallifrey and comfortably settled there. Was this book supposed to celebrate the Doctor, the concept of him? You covered a lot of ground in this novel, Time Lord politics, the Sontaran and Rutan conflict, the Doctor’s romance, Omega’s return…can you tell us something about how this book evolved and what your aims were.
Obviously there was no plan in 1998 to set up some way of reconciling two destructions of Gallifrey that hadn’t happened yet! It does fit in that slot very nicely, though.

The Infinity Doctors is a book about canon and continuity, to a large extent. So the setting is part of that. It’s never good to sit and forensically explain a joke, but the central joke of The Infinity Doctors is that by including every single nugget of detail we knew then about Gallifrey (including, to paraphrase Ned Flanders, all the stuff that contradicted itself), by taking that ultra-inclusive line, it become utterly impossible to place the book in canon.

Originally the book started out as a very straightforwardish Tom and Romana novel – the synopsis for that appears in Time Unincorporated. Then it became the anniversary novel and I decided to go out and out and try to recreate Doctor Who from scratch, sort of. To reimagine a lot of it. I wanted it to be this big space opera thing – there was a big resurgence of that around at the time in ‘mainstream’ SF. And Gallifrey was the obvious way to do that. I wanted to do this big, operatic thing with the Doctor’s girlfriend in a floaty nightie and the Doctor stabbing her and all sorts of things like that. I was always a little worried that I’d stretch things too far, so at heart it was quite a traditional

You didn’t start writing for the eighth until after the dramatic reset which saw Gallifrey destroyed and the Doctor’s memory lost. Did you enjoy writing for the post-amnesiac eighth Doctor? Did you feel it was a second chance to try a new direction with the character?
Ha … well, there are two answers to that. In 2000, yes, all of those things. It was a great back to basics approach. The Doctor had been marginalised in the EDAs, become the victim of circumstance, and that’s the exact opposite of what he’s there for.

Ten years on, the new series did almost the same thing, but so much more elegantly, really managed to wring a lot more drama and emotion from it.

You managed to squeeze the eighties beautifully into Father Time. What events were you keen to highlight? Were you thrilled with the reception of this novel, especially Miranda, who many wanted to see return?
Father Time is my autobiography, give or take. It’s my take on the eighties, anyway. One of the things I was keen to point out was that for those of us growing up then, Blackadder was our Beatles. We didn’t really do music, we did comedy. The thing that strikes me is how much the Internet and the end of the Cold War changed the world. You look at perhaps The Most Eighties Thing Ever, which is The Dark Knight Returns and it’s set in the future, probably around the space year 2009, and it’s a future with the Soviet Union but no internet or mobile phones. It’s absolutely nothing like now. So a lot of Father Time is stuff about that sort of different eighties mentality.

I think it’s my most popular novel. It’s certainly one I really like, it’s got that big bold central idea that They’d Never Do On Telly (this was, of course, a while ago). The ending … yes, not quite as strong. That last third of the book is the weakest, but there’s still some great stuff in there. Allan Bednar, the artist of the comic and so Miranda’s co-creator, came up with a much better ending about six months after it came out – Miranda goes through to the future early on, the Doctor only gets to see her in hologram form from then on.

Miranda was hugely popular, and I did the comic, which ground to a halt for money reasons – it was the first product of a new company and sold shedloads, but every single thing that was done was a learning curve and I think it cost more to print an issue than it was being sold for, at which point selling shedloads is a problem, not a good thing. I was at the Bristol Comic Convention plugging it and a well known figure in the British comic industry said ‘we need to get more people to see this, how many first issues did you sell?’ and we told him and he said ‘but … that’s what 2000AD sells’.

I’ve always wanted to finish the story off, and I’ve been looking for a way to do it. I think there may be some news on that soon, we’ll see.

Trading Futures saw you take a departure from the epic; emotion fuelled dramas of the past and take a stab at something more fun and relaxed. Was this a deliberate attempt to try something new? What did you think of the companions at the time, Fitz and Anji? Were contractually obliged to slot in Sabbath or did you suggest this?
I saw the books that were coming out before mine, and they were all these huge, dark, involved books. Which are brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but I thought readers would be grateful for something a lot faster and more colourful.

I don’t think I was ‘obliged’ to include Sabbath, but I know how the readership works: there are always ‘do I need to read X to understand the ongoing story?’ threads running and I wasn’t keen on hearing a chorus of ‘no, you don’t have to read Trading Futures’. As I say, one of the things I’ve always tried to do with my books is think about the books around mine, fit them into the ongoing story. Readers read them like that anyway, and it rarely needs more than a few lines to fit things together.

Fitz and Anji … it’s fairly well known that I love Anji and hate Fitz, which is pretty much the diametric opposite of what most of the readers – and indeed authors – thought. I wrote for Fitz twice, and quite enjoyed doing so, but I don’t really identify with him.

Anji, on the other hand, I thought had so much dramatic potential … although people tended to latch onto the two least interesting things about her: The Dead Boyfriend and her ethnicity. The race stuff … there’s probably all sorts of mileage in that, but Doctor Who resists those sorts of stories – it’s hard to construct Anji as some sort of ‘other’ or ‘outsider’ like you’re meant to do in Postcolonial Fiction when she’s meeting three headed giant blue space clams. Lawrence had a book set at exactly the right point in history to explore a lot of things about Anji’s identity, but he had got it into his head that anyone like her who works in an office must be a Nazi, so missed that particular boat. I think there were ways of ‘exploring’ Anji’s ethnicity … at the same time, I don’t think ‘being of Indian origin’ is exactly weird in modern Britain. I joked at the time that she’d probably face more prejudice and teasing from her London colleagues for originally coming from Leeds than because her grandparents came from India.

The thing I found interesting was that she was a success and had a life, and travelling with the Doctor was disrupting that. Most companions tend to be orphans or slackers, or at the very least people who are stuck. But people like Anji – young, educated, driven, goal-focussed, analytical – are exactly the people who can adapt and find opportunities in a crisis.

I really like Trading Futures. I’m not blind to its flaws, but all the polls and reviews and stuff have it way down compared with my other books. I was experimenting with a few things there – there are no continuity references to speak of, for example. I was deliberately hacking the story around so that it moved really quickly (I love the TV show Alias, which started just after I finished writing the book and is very similar). As I say, I’d got a bit bored with the dark aesthetic and so I wanted to invert that. You read Henrietta Street, it’s actually a really conventional story with all sorts of baroque stuff bolted on to distract from that. Trading Futures is candy coated, with all sorts of nasty stuff just under the surface. It’s a lot like the new series, I think, in places. It was the one time I found myself really out of step with my readership, though.

There were so many kisses to the past, so many great explanations in The Gallifrey Chronicles; it was wonderful closure to the eighth Doctor novels. Was their checklist of things to be rounded up and explained? Some of the events, the seventh Doctor protecting the rose garden, the scratching on the wall in the TARDIS seemed to be set up already. Was this a collaboration with Justin Richards the editor or were you left to deal with all the explanations yourself? One huge criticism pointed at the range was that the Doctor, hiding from the past, was something of a coward. This was brilliantly addressed in the book, both why he couldn’t delve any deeper into the past and what he was protecting; his sacrifice to save the memories of the Time Lords made him the ultimate hero. Was this the intention, to address this issue and subvert it? Do you have any favourite moments in the novel?
The checklist sort of wrote itself. It was a hundred books, or whatever, and this was the last one. I had licence to do what the BBC Books had always been reluctant to do, which was to link it all up and play with all sorts of things from previous books. Sort of a Jasper Fforde novel which only used other EDAs. It’s a book with a theme, and that’s ‘story’, it’s about the sort of narratives we have about ourselves, how fiction impacts on real life, that kind of thing. Plus it was a huge celebration. It looks undisciplined, but … no. It’s the exact opposite. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff happening, but it’s all there, precisely placed, for a reason.

I set up the scratching on the wall in Trading Futures, and I think it was only referred to once more after that. The other things were a question of going back over the cool things that had happened in the EDAs – and books generally – and paying some of them off. A lot of authors say that when they write, they get into it and then suddenly all sorts of things just come along that are relevant: news stories, a new book, some piece of history, something a friend says or that you overhear, a documentary. I don’t think that’s magic or cosmic ordering or whatever – I think it’s just that you tune into your book and see the world through it. But I went back over the EDAs and there were tons of things I realised I could pick up on. I wanted the seventh Doctor to meet the eighth in a dream sequence … it turned out that Lloyd Rose had set that up for me, which was nice of her. There were all sorts of things like that, and I am quite proud that I was able to tie it all back to a typo in the very first New Adventure.

The memory thing was an idea I’d had a while back – there’s a reference to it in Father Time, in the mind probe sequence. I like making things fit, I like seeing five contradictory statements and working out how they might not be contradictory. Yes, the Doctor seemed to give up on Gallifrey too easily, yes he seemed to be pathologically avoiding addressing his amnesia, yes there seemed to be weird contradictions about whether he could fly the TARDIS or not and exactly what he knew, yes Compassion abandoning him on Earth was odd. So … how does all that fit together?

It’s very difficult to surprise people in an age when movie twists are spoilered online before the script’s even finished. The speculation about the Who books was always feverish, and I’m very proud that after thousands of people posting dozens of theories, not one person even came a little bit close to guessing, even though all the clues are there, it’s all laid out for you over plenty of books.

Is it right that this is your highest selling novel or has this now been superseded by The Eyeless?
They measure sales differently now, and the NSAs apparently sell much more steadily over time – the EDAs sold most of their copies in the first month. At the moment, though, The Gallifrey Chronicles is still my bestselling Who book.

How did you approach writing The Eyeless? There has been so much argument on various forums about the dumbing down of the range; do you have strong feelings about this? Was David Tennant’s Doctor easy to write for? Tell us something about the weapon in the novel; it was an ingeniously horrible device. The book has been very well received; do you think we might see another from you soon?
Strong feelings about the range? I don’t think there’s anything, at all, about the new format that limits them. Well, one thing: Phil Purser-Hallard has said that the length does prevent a huge, sprawling epic book, and that’s right. Although they could – and should, I think – release a batch of three books that’s actually one big epic book. And if you don’t like Russell T Davies or David Tennant or the new series then you’re in trouble … but frankly, you’d be so far into the wrong that I’m not sure there’s much that could help you. The tenth Doctor books are always going to be, to a large extent, ‘like’ the new TV series. But apart from that, the books are limited only by the ambition and ability of the people writing them.

David Tennant … it’s such a strong template to work from. It’s funny – I’ve just listened to the audiobook of The Eyeless, and I’ve got a few of the others, and you have all these other actors doing these spot on versions. Russell Tovey reads mine, and when he reads the Doctor’s lines, there’s this loving, really accurate version of Tennant’s mannerisms. The other side of that is that you get a little more leeway as a writer – you can write some dodgy dialogue and the reader can go ‘yes, I can imagine David Tennant would get that line to work’.

The weapon was one of those things that I really worked out while I was in the thick of writing the book. The synopsis said something like ‘the ultimate weapon’ and left it vague. Then it was just a big gun, then a universe-destroying bomb and I wasn’t happy. It’s … actually, I need to be careful with this … one reading of the book is that it’s a weapon from the Time War, but it’s left open whether it’s the Time War from the EDAs or the new TV series. So I needed an ultimate weapon that could take down the Enemy or the Daleks, and I got really bogged down in technobabble. Justin asked me early on how the weapon worked and I said pretty much what the Doctor says in the book, ‘er … quantum physics and vunktotechnology’ and it became obvious that this wasn’t a good answer, so I came up with a better one: ‘it kills your enemy and anyone who’s ever heard of them’ and in just about every circumstance but one, that would mean that firing it would destroy you.

I would love to write another new series book. I’d write them all, if they let me.

A History (of the Universe) has become a bible for me, very useful when writing reviews and essays. Can I ask…where on Earth did you begin with writing this book? Can you enlighten us as to how such a mammoth project came to be?
When I was a kid, like I suspect a lot of young fans, I had a little notebook for Doctor Who Facts and this gradually became more and more elaborate. Once I got an electric typewriter with a memory it was possible to put all that in some sort of order and keep it updated. That turned into forty pages of notes. I ended up writing it up for Seventh Door fanzines as The Doctor Who Chronology. Virgin saw that, liked the idea, didn’t like the book. So we redid it as A History of the Universe. Ten years later, I revamped it for Mad Norwegian. That revamp took a while. It’s too big a thing for one person, now, so the new stuff is co-written by me and my if-you-mumble namesake Lars Pearson.

Was it appealing to write for the Time Hunter and Faction Paradox series, to not be shackled with the character of the Doctor?
Oh, the Doctor’s a great character. If it ever feels like he’s an encumbrance, you’re doing something wrong … the original synopsis for Warlords is in Time Unincorporated, and you can see that it wasn’t right for the range because the Doctor’s a marginal figure in it.

Doing the first regular Time Hunter was interesting – it’s a pretty short novella, it wasn’t a great chunk of my life to write it, and they also wanted a really straightforward introduction to the format for the running series. The original book by Daniel O’Mahony, Cabinet of Light, is brilliant.

Looking back over your prolific Doctor Who career, do you have a personal favourite of the books you have written? Is there any book you would like to have a stab at again in hindsight?
It’s pretty well known I don’t like Cold Fusion. I started out writing a high concept book about the civil war in Yugoslavia, and ended up with Terry and June fighting Adam and the Ants. Lots of crazy ideas and some quite good jokes, very little in the way of story and emotional connection.

I work very hard on the books, I want to be proud of them. There’s always something that could be done to improve them, but there’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I love Trading Futures, but it could probably have done to have me another pass over it to tune it up a bit. Just War’s a pretty good debut, but nearly fifteen years on I can see ways of making it better. I wish that Father Time ended as strongly as it starts. I’m very, very proud of The Eyeless, but I learned a lot while I was writing it, and were I to do another, I think I could make the overarching story more convoluted. The Infinity Doctors has sort of the opposite problem, with the same result – the complications end up disguising quite a simple story. The Gallifrey Chronicles and The Dying Days are sort of the same book, really. That’s deliberate, like Star Wars and Return of the Jedi are the same story. I’m very happy with The Gallifrey Chronicles, I think that’s the one that takes what the books were and runs with it. The Dying Days is probably the one I’d just hand to someone, though. That’s the closest I could get to Doctor Who that balances that archetypal ‘traditional’ stuff with a more up to date sensibility.

You have been involved with lots of editors over the course of your career, Peter Darvill-Evans, Rebbecca Levene, Stephen Cole, Justin Richards. They must have very different ways of bringing the best out of their authors. How would you sum up your experiences with them?

Oh god, this is an absolute poisonous question. There is no way, at all, that I can win if I answer that. Even if I only say that for my money out of everyone on that list Rebecca Levene had the nicest smile and the dirtiest laugh, I’d probably offend one or more of the others. Or Bex.

OK … here goes. I had very little day-to-day contact with Peter Darvill-Evans, but he took me out for lunch a couple of times and he was good company. He’s one of the people who laid the foundations for modern Doctor Who, and I think that contribution is often overlooked. Rebecca Levene commissioned my first novel, and I’ve since learned that all the guidance that she gave me wasn’t just what every editor did, it was well above the call of duty. She’s brilliant, and thinking about how brilliant reminds me that I’ve not been in touch with her for years, and I should drop her an email. She got the best work out of the best Doctor Who authors, and that’s not a coincidence. I only worked with Stephen Cole on The Infinity Doctors. The range was still finding its feet, the BBC as a whole had just had ten million people watching the McGann movie and knew there was this huge interest in Doctor Who, but not really why or from who. Justin’s in a weird role – Stephen was the Who Tsar, Justin’s a freelance consultant. So it’s great responsibility without great power. The books have always been vulnerable to someone else at the BBC’s idea of a brand strategy. He’s a long term, absolutely hardcore Doctor Who fan. One who is now a successful children’s author in his own right. He loves the books, he’s got the right instincts and he’s the right man for the job.

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