Thursday, 24 September 2009

Jonathan Morris Q & A

Jonathan Morris burst onto the Doctor Who scene with his popular and wildly unpredictable novel Festival of Death. I say wildly unpredictable, that was the smartness of it…as he began that book at the end of the plot and worked his way backwards…so that his conclusion was the beginning of the story! Confused? You won’t be if you read the book, as it not only played with clever narrative tricks but also stuffed in some marvellous characters, a laugh per minute and a charming take on the season seventeen crew. Festival of Death was indicative of the joys that were to come. His follow up novel, Anachrophobia, jettisoned frivolity and went for the jugular with a gripping, claustrophobic slice of Who that combined Troughton base under siege with Sapphire and Steel to compelling effect. Constantly looking at new ways to tell a story his third crack at the whip was the poll topping The Tomorrow Windows, a huge breath of fresh air for the 8th Doctor range. Injected with more imagination, jokes and fantastic one liners than many series of books, this tale of selfish memes and Brian Blessed wannabes was a loving tribute to the work of Douglas Adams. He has also contributed a handful of short stories to various Big Finish anthologies, The Traitors, The Spartacus Syndrome, The Thief of Sherwood to name a few.

Along with the anthologies Jonathan has also written a number of Big Finish audio plays, once again stretching narrative bounds. Flip Flop, a 7th Doctor and Mel story, is a marvellous piece of writing told on two CDs but joyously can be enjoyed with either disc played first with both version of the story revealing different facets. Bloodtide saw the memorable return of the Silurians in an intelligent and atmospheric tale for the unfairly maligned sixth Doctor. Recently his Haunting of Thomas Brewster has impressed critics, giving the fifth Doctor a companion that he deserves as he dips into the childhood of Thomas Brewster. Hothouse sees the popular team of Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith take on the deadly Krynoids…

Hi Jonathan, you are clearly a very busy man. Thank you for taking part!

What are you working on at the moment? Can you tell us a little about it…
At the moment, as I type, I’ve just finished one Big Finish script and I’m waiting for the go-ahead to begin work on another. They keep me busy, bless them – you will hear no complaints about that from me. I can only try to do the best I can in return. I can’t go into details but I think, gradually, I’m improving, and the best is definitely yet to come.

Other projects I have on the go; I had a film script in development for a couple of years, but the credit crunch meant it got put on hold. My other thing is trying to get a sitcom off the ground. A few years ago I had a show piloted, which was commissioned for a series by ITV and then uncommissioned due to a change in executives. Since then, I’ve had a dozen or so scripts commissioned or optioned, getting as far as the ‘read through’ stage; it’s a slow process, but my plan is to stick at it until something gets through. I’d say that, although I put a lot of care and effort into making sure my Doctor Who things are as good as possible, my film and my sitcom scripts are, by a vast margin, the best things I have written.

How did you come to be involved with writing for Doctor Who? You entered the range as the editorship was passing hands didn’t you?
I’d fallen back into being a Doctor Who fan in the late nineties, through reading Gareth Roberts novels and – I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before – Seeing I by Jon Blum and Kate Orman. I’d sort-of started a submission way back in the early nineties but had lost enthusiasm for the books and had no confidence in my own writing. I thought I was terrible. With Festival Of Death, I was lucky to get lots of encouragement from other fans on an internet group called Who_Ink. It was my first submission, I think, and it got commissioned. = Beginner’s luck!

Although the editorship was changing, Justin had already taken over the ‘PDAs’ by that point so it didn’t affect me.
Your evocation of the season seventeen team in Festival of Death was spot on and your respect for Douglas Adams has been spoken of before. What is it about the much maligned season seventeen that attracts you? Could you tell us something about how you began plotting such an intricate narrative?
Much maligned? Much maligned? That was the season that made me a Doctor Who fan! It’s the season by which I judge all other Doctor Who seasons. What attracts me about it? The humour, the imagination, the unpredictability, the charisma of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. But mainly, I think, the imagination.

It’s about ten years or so since I wrote the book, so I can’t remember a great deal about writing it. My main memory is of walking home, puzzling out problems in the plot logic. I’d say, though, that intricate narratives are not that difficult, so long as you have a big, simple idea at the centre of a story, and I was lucky that with Festival Of Death I had a big, simple idea that hadn’t been done before.

My other memory is of how difficult it was writing; it was my first book, so I was learning how write a book as I went along. And I was terrified, paranoid, that it would be received as the worst book ever, or it would be rejected and never be published. So I worked harder on that book than on almost anything else since (except my film and sitcom scripts). I had to. It was my one big chance.

Anachrophobia juggled up some traditional elements whilst telling the very up to date eighth Doctor adventures. Was it a conscious decision to remove the humour for this work and scare the readership to death? Time travel was something of a theme at the time; did you enjoy playing about with the concept? How did you find the regulars, in particular the amnesiac eighth Doctor? Was this always going to dovetail into the developing Sabbath arc or was it developed as the story took shape?
The conscious decision, as I recall, was to do something different from Festival Of Death. Something more straightforward. To get out of my comfort zone. And, pretentiously, to write a book which was a harder-hitting, not so eager-to-please. And as far as I’m concerned there are only three types of Doctor Who story; those that are funny, those that are scary, and those that are funny and scary.

The other thought was that Festival Of Death had been recreating Doctor Who as it was in 1979; Anachrophobia was an attempt to do Doctor Who as it might be done on television in 2002. How it would be done if I was King of Doctor Who.

Time travel was certainly a ‘theme’, though the idea was to do it in a different way; rather than having people travel physically from one time to another, to have them travelling back through their own life, their own internal time.

How did I find the regulars? I read all the books leading up to Anachrophobia and tried to keep them going, to retain the characterisations that other authors had created. The amnesiac eighth Doctor? I don’t think the amnesia was really a big issue in my story; I was just trying to write the same guy as in The Burning.

The Sabbath arc? Anachrophobia – or maybe the book that I pitched before it, I can’t remember – was originally pitched as the second-to-last in the original arc. The story would’ve finished with a scene with the Daleks going, ‘We are now the masters of time!’ which would’ve led into whatever the final book would’ve been about.

With regard to the Sabbath character, I remember taking great pains to read the character’s outline – which I recall was more of an essay on Why The Doctor Is Wrong – and searched through the Henrietta Street novel looking for character description or dialogue (because of the way that book was written, there wasn’t actually very much of either). I’d certainly argue that Sabbath’s devious plan in Anachrophobia follows on from the character outline and portrayal in Henrietta Street; he’s manipulating the Doctor by using his skewed morality against him.

You squeezed so much into The Tomorrow Windows it has led to some detractors commenting that it was undisciplined; would you agree with that assessment? Were you deliberately writing against the practices of the time, given the book is sprinkled with continuity, fun poking at alternative universes and a generally gleeful Doctor? Do you have some favourite moments from this story?
Who are these detractors? Give me their names! No, I suppose they have a point, though I don’t think undisciplined is quite the word. After all the complexity and obsessing-over-dramatic-structure of my first two books, I wanted to something more spontaneous, where I would be able to let my imagination run free.
Of course, that was a rod for my own back because it meant that about half-way through writing the novel – at the point where the aliens have gathered for the auction – I got totally stuck. I only managed to get un-stuck by doing all the silly ‘Vorshagg’s Story’ digressions. And by that point the book was so late I had no choice but to get on with it, which is the best cure for writer’s block there is.

The continuity thing was, yes, because I’d got wound up by the whole argument about how continuity references were a Bad Thing and would alienate readers or whatever. Because although I would happily concede those people had a point, I think you can take things too far, and so long as the original stuff outweighs the back-reference stuff I say go for it. You want to end up with a bigger and more interesting fictional universe at the end of the story, not a smaller, insular one.

Favourite moments is an odd one, because I haven’t read the book since I wrote it – I haven’t read any of them – so what I remember tends to be the scenes as I imagined when I wrote them rather than the words which ended up on paper. I did love the Ken Livingstone scene, and the planet of the cars, and when they’re flying over the city in a zeppelin or something and see the giant statues of Brian Blessed. Oh, and the guys dancing in the desert oasis. As I’m writing this, it’s slowly coming back to me – I remember a silly ‘2001’-style thing where a guy is urinating, and then we cut back to return to his life story forty-odd years later, and he’s still urinating.

Do you have a favourite novel you wrote for BBC Books? Which of the three would you have another go at in hindsight?
Anachrophobia, because it turned out the closest to what I intended when I first came up with the story, and because it took me out of my comfort zone. I’m very proud of all three, though, and I’m sure that even if I was given the chance to re-write any of them, they wouldn’t turn out any better.

Moving on to Big Finish was it a conscious decision to push the boundaries of the audio format with Flip Flop? How did you find the finished result?
I came up with Flip-Flop around 2001, I think; Big Finish had started out doing quite traditional stories, like Bloodtide, but after stories like The Holy Terror it was obvious there was the potential to be a bit more ambitious, which is why you got stuff like the musical episode, Creatures Of Beauty, Scherzo and so on.

I’m not keen on Flip-Flop, mainly because it reminds me of an unhappy time in my life. The ‘damned-if-you, damned-if-you-don’t’ thing was very much part of my mindset back then; if you’re spending a lot of time wishing you could go back in time and do things differently, it’s almost a comfort to think that even if you did, things would turn out equally badly. That’s not my mindset now, so I find it a bit pessimistic. But mostly it has nothing to do with the play itself, or the actors or the production, but with all the stuff that was going on in my life at the time.

Evelyn, Mel, Nyssa, Lucie…who has been your favourite companion to bring to life and why? Can you tell us something about the conception of Thomas Brewster? Was he always going to have such a short run of stories?
I suppose my favourite would be Thomas Brewster, just because he was my own creation, the one closest to my heart. All the companions are fun to write; I think Lucie works particularly well, because you can give her jokes without it seeming out of character.

With Thomas Brewster, if I remember correctly, it was always up in the air whether he might be just for a few stories or stick around for a bit longer. But after I’d written that first story it was decided he’d only be in three stories – which was nothing to do with the character as written or as acted – and I was very kindly invited to come back to do the episode where he was written out, Perfect World, one of my favourite, and most personal, Doctor Who things.

Is it more exciting writing for the current eighth Doctor range than the ‘past Doctor’ ranges? Which Doctor do you think translates best onto audio?
I suppose the main difference is that with the eighth Doctor stuff it’s more ‘now’ – doing 45-minute stories like the TV series – whereas the old stuff is more about trying to put a contemporary spin on characters from the past. That said, there’s not really much difference, is there? With, say, a Peter Davison story, it’s almost as though you’re writing as though he was playing the part now, because he’s too good an actor to ask just to do an impersonation of his 30-year-old self.

I’d say the 45-minute stories for Paul McGann work really well, they’re good to write in terms of discipline and economic, pacy storytelling, as a listener, I really enjoyed the approach they took on the Big Finish site where you’d download one episode a week, so you’d have to wait seven days after each episode cliff-hanger.

I haven’t done any Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy stories for a long time, but as a listener, I think with both of them we now have the situation where they’ve got this great run of stories on audio which almost overshadows what they were given to do on TV. Given the choice, I’d have Colin’s audio adventures over his television ones!

Which is harder to writer, the short stories or full length novels? Obviously time is a factor with the novels but is it difficult to make and impact with restricted page space?
Novels. I have a vague, not-properly-thought-through theory that you only have as many words in your head as you put in there through reading other books; so the more you write, the more you have to read to fill up. They’re a right old slog, but on the other hand, the end result is entirely your own creation, which means you can get it just right. But all that internal-monologue stuff does my head in.

When are you going to write us a New Series Adventure? Do you have a favourite short story that you have written?
I’m going to write a New Series Adventure when they ask me and I have the time to do one! I would be delighted and would do my damndest to make sure that my book was the best one ever. Let’s hope those words don’t come back to haunt me.

My favourite short story is a thing which has recently been re-published in The Best Of Short Trips called The Thief Of Sherwood, which is an historical about the first Doctor meeting Robin Hood, but told through Doctor Who Magazine articles, fanzine reviews and interviews. It was originally intended to be a whole novel – which might have been a bit too much – but it was a little labour of love, about growing up being a Doctor Who fan.

That said, if I can include other stories I’ve written which were short but which weren’t prose, I’d have to mention the comic strips ‘Death To The Doctor!’ and ‘Time Of My Life’, both of which I’m immensely proud, and a recent audio one-parter about Mary Shelley as part of ‘The Company Of Friends’ which turned out really well.

Coming out later this month there's the CD of a Paul McGann story I wrote, The Cannibalists, which was pretty off-the-wall, seeing how grisly and violent you can get away with if it's presented as a comedy. Then there's The Glorious Revolution, which is more-or-less a 'pure historical', with the second Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie, with Frazer Hines returning as Jamie whilst also giving his excellent recreation of Patrick Troughton's Doctor. I've got a feeling that, for that reason alone, the end product will be a little special, and the story is one of my stronger efforts. And after that, there's a four-part story set in Stockbridge with the Doctor, Nyssa and Maxwell Edison from the comic strips, as played by Mark Williams from the Fast Show and the Harry Potter films. I was at the recording for that one and, again, I think there's some brilliant performances in there which really lifted the script; it's quite a strange, nostalgic, emotional story, maybe not the sort of thing that people would normally expect me to write.

Jonathan, thank you so much for your time.

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