Throwback Interview: Mark Clapham (2002)
Years ago, I had a column I wrote on the defunct Who Central site, which covered the then-current Eighth Doctor series of Doctor Who novels, writing reviews, thoughts, and the occasional interview. For the purposes of archiving, I will be reprinting the author interviews I performed during this time period. This interview is from 2002.
Mark Clapham is the author and co-author of several novels, including Beige Planet Mars (with Lance Parkin) and Twilight of the Gods (with Jon de Burgh Miller) for the Virgin Bernice Summerfield New Adventures range, and The Taking of Planet 5 (with Simon Bucher-Jones) and Hope for the BBC Eighth Doctor range. Mark Clapham was kind enough to grant an interview for EDA Views.
Q: At what age did you realize that you wanted to become a writer?
A: I have absolutely no idea! It was so long ago that I just can’t remember. As soon as I could write, I did, and somewhere along the way I must have realised that you could actually get paid to do this. As far as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a writer.
Q: How did you get into Doctor Who?
A: I was seized at an early age, like most fans I think, indoctrinated when I was too young to resist. It was wonderful timing, because my first memory of really watching the series – apart from a vague recollection of being terrified by Scaroth – is of the Five Faces season. Which meant I had an immediate primer on Who lore from the beginning, then got to have a Doctor all of my own in the shape of Davison. So then I was hooked. I’ve drifted away from and then back towards the series since then, but ever since I started working on Doctor Who fiction it’s been a consistent part of my life. Or a consistent life-substitute, depending on your point of view.
Q: How did you break into writing? Did you start off writing fan fiction, or did you start off “professionally”?
A: I wanted to break into the New Adventures in the early nineties, but had enough humility to get some practice in before launching into a proposal. So I did some fanfic for Seventh Doctor fanzines – a couple of short stories for the fictionzine ‘Silver Carrier’, and a novella for a series called ‘Odyssey’ which they were putting out. (By the way, the Odyssey editor at the time was Lance Parkin, and one of the first things he told me when we first met was that he’d sent in this proposal for a historical New Adventure. Little did I know…) I think its important to write a lot before trying to go professional, and working in fan fiction, preferably with good editors rather than in some free-for-all web thing, is a good training ground. It forces you to work ideas through to their conclusion, and gives you a lot of practical writing experience. After your first 40,000 or so words, you might actually begin to get good. It’s a shame a lot of people skip that stage and devote their lives to writing book proposals.
Q: Describe your writing process. What do you usually start on first (characters, synopsis, outline)?
A: My head tends to be a complete mess of plot ideas, characters, set pieces, images and suchlike. Eventually some of those will begin to knit together, and I’ll have the vaguest of ideas for a book. This idea then needs to be worked up into a synopsis to be sent to the BBC. In the long, painful process of writing that breakdown, new characters will emerge, and the plot will develop as it’s challenged by attempts to apply sanity and logic to it. Somewhere along the way the original idea you started from will get cut out because it doesn’t fit anymore.
Q: You’ve co-written a couple of novels with other authors. How did the writing process differ as opposed to working on a solo project?
A: I was surprised when writing Hope how different it was, as I just thought it’d be twice the work and twice the pressure of a co-write. But it isn’t, the level of control over the story you have as a solo writer is amazing, the ability to fiddle with the structure, balance out references and resonance between different plot threads. With a co-write you’re working within a clearly defined and agreed space, with half the book under someone else’s control. Even after rewrites and whatnot a co-write can never be as line-by-line micromanaged as a solo effort.
Q: How was it working on the Benny New Adventures for Virgin? Was the experience of writing for that range different then the BBC range?
A: Virgin had the advantage of having full time professional editors working on the line. It made communication a lot easier, and they tended to be a lot slicker about keeping authors in the loop as to story developments and the like. At the BBC it’s a bit more impersonal, and you’re largely left to do your own thing – or out in the cold, depending on your viewpoint. It’s an unfortunate effect of not having a full-on, hands-on editor. There’s a limit to how much an outside consultant like Justin can do in terms of taking control of the whole process.
Q: How did you wind up writing Beige Planet Mars with Lance Parkin?
A: Lance asked me. He wanted to write for the Benny range, but didn’t want to write a whole one. I had this murder plot I wanted to do, and he wanted to write a book about Mars. Another book fell through, Lance pitched for it, and Virgin were keen. Lance and I sat down, knocked out a synopsis between us and pretty soon we were writing the book. It was a fairly fast turnaround. (That’s another difference between Virgin and the BBC, by the way – at Virgin you could, and in terms of none Who stuff still can, get a degree of momentum going in terms of having book ideas accepted quickly, building a relationship with the editors and then working on their other ranges or what have you. At the BBC the Who books are pretty locked off from everything else, there’s no use of the talent pool for other projects, and the Who books are commissioned and developed s-l-o-w-l-y, so there’s no real sense of momentum.)
Q: You co-wrote the last Virgin New Adventure, Twilight of the Gods. Was it a daunting task? How did it come about?
A: Yet again, there was a slot which was open, and I lunged for it like a madman. The chance to give Benny the ending I wanted to see was too good to miss, and there didn’t seem to be any alternative candidates to write the last book who would give the character any kind of interesting closure. I brought Miller on board because I was hellishly busy, writing TOP5 [The Taking of Planet 5] already while wrapping up by MA studies. With hindsight, the book is a horrendously rushed job, and a lot of the problems come from having too many cooks at the plotting stage – we had to reconcile all the Benny/Gods threads that needed wrapping up, satisfy Peter Darvill-Evans’ requirements for the last book, fit with a title which had already been established, and somehow do a couple of ideas of our own if we could fit them in. It’s not the book I would have ideally written, it’s not my kind of book and it shows in the campy and shallow way my bits are written. Peter left Virgin towards the end of the writing process, so while the book was copy-edited it didn’t really have a thorough editing process to sort out any major problems. It just sort of got spell checked, proofed and hit the shelves before we even knew it. The final result isn’t terribly good, and it’s the book of mine that my own mother doesn’t even pretend to like, but I’m very, very happy with the last chapter, which gives a hint at the sort of Benny books I would have liked to have seen. I’m very proud of having Benny grow up a bit towards the end, starting to have a life rather than just a series of drinking sessions, giving her a job and responsibilities and setting her up on an interesting, politically troubled planet. There’s a lot of inherent potential in that ending, I think, and it’s a bit of a shame it never got developed. But the whole Benny/NA thing is dead, ancient history now, so it’s not something I lose sleep over.
Q: How was the task of writing the EDA The Taking of Planet 5 broken up between you and Simon Bucher-Jones?
A: TOP5 was commissioned on the basis of a short plot outline rather than the detailed chapter breakdowns I usually work from, and there wasn’t much in the way of sub-plots, so Simon and I sort of had to micro-plot it as we went along, a few chapters at a time. Then, rather than alternate chapters (which is what I did with Twilight of the Gods and Beige Planet Mars) we alternated actual scenes and plot threads, which is a horrendously complicated way of working but which allowed us to both deal with the stuff we were particularly interested in. We then very heavily rewrote each other’s work, which I think leads to a nice blend of styles. Simon is very, very clever – perhaps too clever for mere humans to understand – and I’m quite straightforward in terms of writing, so the result is a happy medium I think.
Q: The Taking of Planet 5 was a well-received book during the “Compassion” arc, but some people say it’s too weighed down with continuity references. How do you respond to that criticism?
A: It’s fair comment. The original outline was very short, and needed expanding as we turned it into chapter breakdowns. So as we went along we inserted extra subplots, characters, kitchen sinks and so forth to fatten the book out. When you’re dealing with Time Lords and universe hopping Investigators and all these other big things there’s the opportunity to play around with some continuity. More than anything the book is a sort of sequel to Alien Bodies, and its impossible to work in Larryland without getting up to your neck in anal fanboy minutiae. It’s a peril of the job.
Q: The Taking of Planet 5 dealt with the (then) ongoing storyline of the future Time Lord war with the Enemy. How enthused were you about that storyline and being able to contribute to it?
A: I liked the War as a concept, but it just didn’t develop in any useful or coherent way. It really needed to be a coherent arc that ran through every third or fourth book for eighteen months, then ended with a sensible conclusion that wrapped everything up nicely. Instead you had Alien Bodies, a mad flurry of interest, silence for ages then a burst of Unnatural History, Interference and TOP5, all of which develop themes from Alien Bodies but none of which actually take the War story forward very much, or get us any closer to discovering who the Enemy are. By then we’re stuck in the whole Compassion arc sideshow, and by the time of The Ancestor Cell the only thing to do with the wretched mess is burn it all. Which is what they did, and the range is better for it. There’s an appeal to dabbling in big things like Time Lord wars and universe shattering battles and whatnot, but if it never goes anywhere then it just becomes alienating and stifling.
Q: What were your thoughts on Compassion as a companion? Was she difficult to write for?
A: I just hated her, I thought she was an ill conceived idea for a character. The only thing I knew about her was that she was a bit sarcastic, rather humourless and had ginger hair. So that’s what she’s like in my bits of TOP5. The whole Compassion-arc thing was hilariously unworkable, as Interference set up about a billion and one things people
might think constituted an arc, ‘that boring woman turning into a TARDIS’ not being one that sprung to mind, which just left the readers in complete confusion. My first draft stuff for TOP5 was quite amusingly unsubtle, with Compassion using time-powers all over the place, and I was told to tone it down, which just makes the twist of the
arc come even further out of left field! I think Paul Cornell did a wonderful, wonderful job of saving the whole mess in Shadows of Avalon, and its just a shame that so much of his work on the Compassion-TARDIS character isn’t carried through the following books. That idea – that Compassion becomes this likable human being just as she turns into
something post-human – is just gorgeous, and its a shame that all that falls by the wayside and she’s a bit of a bitch again right up until her departure. They also ditched all the bits with her communicating through signs in favour of some dull hologram thing, which just lost all the quirkiness that Paul injected into the concept.
Q: What’s it like to work with Justin Richards as editor?
A: Justin’s great, he’s interested in getting the best stories out of his writers. He’s very plot focused, he’ll knock plot outlines back and forth with writers for months before getting to a point where he’ll commission it. He just won’t let a book go ahead when there isn’t a decent synopsis to work from. It’s a good, disciplined approach. He’s also developed some great new talent – I really like City of the Dead and Casualties of War, for instance, and there are plenty of others. Justin creates a healthy atmosphere, and his ideas for the range are solid and healthy. He’s a very safe pair of hands.
Q: Hope was your first solo novel. Describe a little of it’s creative genesis (how you came up with the idea, was it different substantially from initial proposal to final form, etc.)
A: All the various bits have been around for ages. The main twist of the plot goes back to a proposal I was tapping away at in the mid-nineties, as do the characters of Powlin and Pazon, who were always these two different voices commenting on the action from the sidelines. The setting of Endpoint appeared in an elaborate ‘pre-title sequence’ at the start of a rejected proposal I sent in before I got involved in TOP5, and everyone said the pre-title bit was better than the main plot, so I developed that. The character of Silver is another long-term idea, a character that I came up with ages ago and then had to find a home for. My own crude sketch of Silver was pinned to the wall above my desk for absolutely years. I’ve now got the lovely illustration Allan Bednar did for the BBC Cult site, which is a much nicer interpretation! Anyway, I eventually merged all these ideas into a proposal, then sent it to Justin who liked a lot of it and didn’t like some other bits. So I could then throw away the bits he didn’t like and streamline what was left until he accepted the proposal. It was a long, long process, from those first ideas a million years back.
Q: The Eighth Doctor, as a character, has experienced major changes between your first and second novels for the range. How do you like the Eighth Doctor now as compared to before?
A: I was never madly keen on the earlier interpretations of the Eighth Doctor, which seemed to be either slavishly wedded to the TV Movie or drawn from the authors favourite Who era – he seems too much of a Tom clone in some early BBC Books. The amnesia has given the Doctor an edge he previously lacked, he’s a more dangerous character now, although still a hero, obviously. I’m very happy with the character at the moment.
Q: You did a great job with Anji in Hope, as I had mentioned in my review of that novel. Going into Hope, did you have a certain angle you wanted to take with the companions?
A: The Anji plot was actually a fairly tacked on element in Hope at the early stage, but it soon became obvious – to people who read the outline more than me, I have to admit – that it was an idea that needed greater development, which could sustain a large part of the book and would be wasted if pushed down too far. And I love Anji’s character, so that’s a natural development. When I heard what was happening to the Doctor at the end of Henrietta Street, I knew that was something which would be a big part of the book and inform how the Doctor acted, how he felt about things and responded to the situation he’s in. With Fitz, I wanted to give the feeling that he had naturally become more able in his time with the Doctor. He’s still pretending to be James Bond, but secretly thinks of himself as a fraud. When, of course, years of being chased by monsters and defeating their evil schemes have made Fitz far closer to being James Bond than to being a normal person. So, all three leads have plotlines which are very closely tied to how I viewed the characters. It’s important to me that story and character are closely linked, I like to think it makes for a more involving book.
Q: Judging from a chapter title in Hope, you’re a comic book fan. Do you think comic books are a legitimate literary medium?
A: The answer to that is ‘read From Hell‘, I think. There aren’t many truly great comic books which stand up as literature, but if ‘From Hell’ was prose rather than a comic it would have won every award in the world
and have sold six billion copies. Most comic books have less highbrow aims, but are slick, professional entertainment. It’s a very creative medium, and at the moment there’s more consistently good work being done than I’ve ever seen before.
Q: If you could author any one comic book series, which one would it be?
A: There are loads of comic book characters I’d love to work on, not just the big guys but minor characters like Dr Fate, Green Arrow, Blackhawk – obscure titles that a writer could really make their own. But if I had to pick one, I’d be really ambitious and say I’d like to write the Marvel title ‘Thunderbolts’, because it’s a fantastic idea for a comic
book that has always, always been total rubbish written by muppets. I genuinely think it could be a great read, and I’d like to have a crack at making it.
Q: Along the lines of the previous question, have you considered comic book writing?
A: I’d love to. It’s a tough field to break into, but I’d love to get in there. I’m willing to start at the lowest point, revamping C and D list characters (as you can probably tell from the previous answer!), and I’d just like any chance to work in the medium. I’m quite willing to grovel as well.
Q: What do you think of the current direction of the Eighth Doctor books?
A: I’ve only really read up to Trading Futures, and I liked that! Beyond that, I’ve no idea how things are going to pan out. It’d be nice to see an emphasis placed on stories that are rooted in the characters rather than just generic Who plots.
Q: Do you follow the Who fiction regularly?
A: When I can. I don’t read all the books, but I try and keep up. When I’m actually working on a book, I’ll read as many of the upcoming ones as I can – I read most of the EDAs before and immediately after Hope while writing the book. At the moment I’m just about to hit EDAs that I haven’t read already. It’ll be fun to pick one up cold and approach it as a reader rather than with my Hope-brain activated.
Q: Any thoughts on the recent BBC cutback?
A: I’m pretty neutral on it. If it means fewer but better books, great. It should ease the workload on the editorial team, which should help the quality, as will the longer deadlines writers should get. The Dalek books are a sensible, mass market move for the anniversary year, although I can’t see myself buying them. But then I don’t think I’m supposed to – I imagine the idea is that anyone who knows I’m a Who fan will buy them for me next Christmas, which seems to be the marketing strategy! Corner the granny market. From a purely selfish perspective the cut in the schedule means there’s no point in me even thinking about another Who book for a few months, which leaves me in the giddy position of being free from working on Who proposals for a while. It’ll be good to step off the merry-go-round and get my breath back.
Q: Is Doctor Who still viable as a TV show today?
A: In the hands of a producer with a vision beyond ‘bring back Doctor Who cos I really like it’, then yes. British television is in a shocking state at the moment, and desperately needs something like Who to give it
a creative shot in the arm. There’s also the fact that the TV series was always never *quite* good enough, not in terms of budget but in terms of the writing. They never quite exploited the programmes dramatic and character potential well enough, they just wrote knockabout adventures with cypher-thing characters getting blown up. I’d like to see a TV Who that is genuinely gripping. That’d be nice.
Q: Besides Who, is there any other novel or TV series that you’d love to write for?
A: The short answer is ‘yes, for anything that pays’. The slightly longer answer is that there are lots and lots of characters I’d love to write for. There are some obvious ones, Buffy and Angel and those kind of things, and then more obscure and personal ones. I’d love to write for Lara Croft, either scripting part of a game or writing a tie-in novel, I
just think she’s a great and interesting character. I’ve always thought Ghost Busters was a massively under-exploited franchise, so that’s another one on my list. On television, I’d just love the chance to write anything – apart from ‘Holby City’ of course, there are limits to how far I’m willing to debase myself. I would especially like to write for US TV, because they just seem to be more interested in doing good, interesting work over there. My admiration for the great
Writer-Producers in US TV is almost unending – Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, David E Kelley, I’m just endlessly impressed by how clever the stuff they put out is. In the UK the only series I’m seriously interested in is ‘Teachers’, which I think is just superb. So I’d love to write for that.
Q: What does the future hold for Mark Clapham? Any new writing projects, etc?
A: I’m currently writing Small Town, Strange World: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Smallville for Virgin Books, which will be out in January 2003. I’m having a lot of fun working on that – it’s a great show, and the background research involves reading about Superman, which is my kind of work! I do have ideas for what my next Who book might be, but that’s too far away to think of right now. I did a few comics reviews for Borderline, the online comics magazine (www.coolbeansworld.com) a while back, and I might do some more of those if I get the chance. And then there are all those mysterious in-the-pipeline projects which writers allude to in these interviews, the projects which you aren’t comfortable with talking about but which might be just around the corner. I have a few of those myself! As for the long term future, I’m hoping to get a good night’s sleep some time around 2010. The workload should have eased up enough by then.
Q: Any advice to up and coming writers?
A: Write, write and re-write. Read widely, and try and learn what the authors are doing and how. Get opinions from ruthless and critical people who’ll tell you if you’re rubbish, not just your mother and your mates. Then write some more. Writers need to have a passion and commitment to telling stories – it isn’t enough to have a vague desire to play around with your favourite old TV characters. The writing has to be an end in itself, not a way to jump on board a series you really like.
Thank you very much for your time.