Throwback Interview: Mags L. Halliday (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.
Mags L. Halliday is the author of History 101, the EDA that came it in the summer of 2002. Ms. Halliday was a first-time novelist for the range, and seeing how we love talking to them, we approached her for an interview. And she kindly accepted.
Prior to your novel History 101, what writing experience did you have? What magazines or books have you been published in?
Sticking to the Doctor Who stuff, I started off writing articles for SKARO (a zine of the late 80s/early 90s), a drabble in DRABBLE WHO, had two NA submissions rejected, an MA one turn impressively sour on me and quit Doctor Who writing forever. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to ever make it as a fiction writer. Then Helen Fayle was asking for submissions for PERFECT TIMING and I dusted off an idea I’d had and turned it into a short. After that I tarted myself out to any fanthology that would have me (PT2, WALKING IN ETERNITY, MISSING PIECES) and began work on HISTORY 101.
When did you start writing the proposal for History 101, and how much research went into the novel?
My first notebook entry for H101 was in September 1999. The rest of that year was spent discovering what I could about the Spanish Civil War as my knowledge when I started amounted to a) Guernica was painted in response to it b) Franco won and c) Ken Loach made Land and Freedom about it. A friend mentioned Orwell, which sent me into reading as many biographies of him as I could find, as well as his writings on both fascism in general and his experiences in Spain in particular.
I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I think it’s safe to say that it was a film which changed my life and, obviously, as a fan of that I’d read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Rereading it, with Homage to Catalonia fresh in my mind, caused me to make a lot of connections. I also read stuff about how the brain perceives and retains events, how the analogue telephone works, etc. The hardest stuff to track down was the fascist version of the events but I was able to draw on memories from people who had grown up in Spain under Franco.
I’m a bit of a research nut, really. A history nerd. I love digging in and peeling back the layers of story involved.
From submission to acceptance, how long did it take for History 101 to be commissioned?
Just over a year. The first submission went to the BBC in March 2000 and the contract was signed in May 2001. There were, technically, 3 rewrites of the synopsis in that time including the now very lost ‘version 2’. Luckily, a friend got to me before that version could get sent in.
Were there any significant changes between the original submission and the final product?
The biggest was the total restructure in between version 1 and version 3. To start with, Part 1 opened with Fitz on the rooftop, dreaming of real fags and it wasn’t until Part 2 that we saw all the stuff set in Paris. Both those scenes were in my “sample prose” and survived surprisingly intact. OTOH, the ‘joke’ about Sasha vanished with the new structure (the idea had been that the rooftop Fitz would be worrying about Sasha and the reader would assume a woman, only for it to be revealed to be a Russian bloke).
The subplot originally involved Anji – who was at one point called A.N.Other as I’d yet to see the character outline – and Eric Blair going into a bubble of reality in which they found themselves in 1984. The real 1984 as opposed to the Orwellian one. Aside from being the standard way to rid yourself of an unknown new companion (“and Benny is possessed!”), it did bear some similarities to Fitz’s subplot in Parallel 59 so swapping it for Fitz’s gonzoed trip through a war zone was a good move.
How long did it take for you to write History 101? Were there any points where you found it difficult or slow going?
Roughly six months. Unfortunately, I’m a deadline junkie so getting myself in the work mode in the first two months or so was difficult. Self-imposed deadlines never give the same buzz.
The hardest bit was definitely writing the variant versions of Guernica. With the death of Durutti there’s no real consensus on what happened so each version was equally plausible in my mind. With Guernica though, there is a very strong agreement on what actually occurred and the historian in me objected very strongly to misrepresenting that. I was also writing those scenes just as the bombing campaign in Afghanistan started and I had one or two heated debates with people who argued that the fascist version of Guernica should never be given any kind of time whatsoever, even in fictional form.
What’s it like working with Justin Richards?
Absolutely fine! He guided me through the stuff I had no real clue about, such as plotting, and then left me to write my prose.
What is the biggest thing that you’ve learned from writing History 101?
Never go up against a Barcelonan when death is on the line!
Always have a well-stocked fridge and a set work routine? Actually, the most useful thing I’ve learnt is that I can do what I set out to do, rather than drop out at the last moment. I now know I can work at this scale, after years suspecting that I wouldn’t be able to. That means I’m approaching my new work with a better sense of structure and pacing. Before, I knew how long a novel was, in the abstract sense, now I understand how big a novel is.
Some have made the comment that the concept of perception and how it can alter history is stretched a bit thin in History 101, or that the novel is a bit slow in the middle. How do you respond to that?
I think I could have played with the concept a little more – used it to greater effect. I wish I’d got across more about how the brain processes input into a causal ‘history’ i.e. into memories and how those memories are stored/retrieved.
I was looking through the novel (whilst answering these questions, obviously, I don’t sit about reading my own work of an evening) and was surprised at how much earlier in the novel the endgame starts. I suspect the problem is not that the middle drags but that the Doctor and Anji are disempowered and the tone of the prose doesn’t adequately get over their sense of frustration and helplessness. In retrospect, I could have sent one of them to Madrid to inject a different mood into that section.
Why did you chose the time period that History 101 is set in?
I’ve often argued that there are huge swathes of Earth history which have never been touched by Doctor Who, cultures on our own planet which have never been explored. One of the reasons for the Spanish Civil War was because there had been yet another story set in WW2. Why? We don’t need any more WW2 stories, especially when there are so many other events yet to have been mentioned, let alone explored, in European history alone. The Spanish Civil War is seen, in some ways, as the precursor to WW2 so it appealed to me just for that reason. When I started to research it, I realised it was also an intensely political war, and a war of perception, both of which pushed buttons for me.
What was your biggest challenge writing History 101?
Getting over two personal blocks: I dislike misrepresenting history and I had no clue how to write on the necessary scale for a novel. The former caused moments such as nearly wussing out of using Eric Blair – Orwell was such a fanatic about truth, lies and propaganda that making him out to be a repressed fascist with racist tendencies went against my Guardian-reading instincts.
The latter caused moments of complete conviction that I could never do it and why on earth had I thought that I could?
On the plus side, I’d been a vocal critic of the novels in the past on Jade Pagoda so I also found the whole “walk a mile in my shoes” element useful. No matter how bad I think a novel may be, I’ll never say it could have been tossed off in an afternoon again.
Were you a little nervous about having Sabbath in your novel, fearing perhaps that a lot of the attention would focus immediately on what he may have to do with the novel, as opposed to the other 99% of things going?
I was mostly nervous of how Lawrence Miles would react, given his public comments on the use/misuse of his concepts in the past. Hence the insertion of Sabbath as a bookend: he triggers the events but leaves the execution of them to his agent. I also liked the idea of putting him in the opening paragraph: having Sabbath revealed as the “surprise twist” runs the immediate risk of not surprising anyone. ‘Gosh, who could the big man with a name that is a pun on Sabbath be?’
I’m frequently surprised by what has been picked up and discussed. I knew the eye would be but I had no idea people would create the whole “Sabbath is the reincarnation of the seventh Doctor” theory just because the guy is wearing a linen suit and a hat.
At the end of History 101, we are given the image of a large eye staring down onto the ruins of the System. Is this eye the same one from Adventuress of Henrietta Street, and was this an addition made by you or requested by Justin Richards?
The white eye staring down is the eye/lamp which is the focus point of the Guernica painting. This is one moment where I think my execution of an idea failed, partially as it relies on the reader remembering the mentions of the cold white eye from the descriptions of the painting in Chapter 1. It was also an inversion of the Adventuress eye and an overall nod to the idea of the “all-seeing eye” (or the Big Brother) that the Absolute had embodied at the start of the novel. By the end of it, the Absolute is just another thing being observed.
While obviously not giving anything away, how far ahead do you as an EDA author get to know about the range, in terms of the current storyline?
I’m now in the blissful position of not knowing the EDA’s future. I like reading the novels and I did find myself not reading them when I knew too much. I haven’t seen a copy of the masterplan since before the schedule was cut so what I know of future EDAs is now back to the usual backroom gossip.
You have been very involved with items relating to the Faction Paradox line created by Lawrence Miles. Do you know Lawrence Miles, and how did you become involved with the Faction line?
Yeah, I first met Lawrence via a mutual friend and then it turned out another mutual friend has the www.factionparadox.co.uk domain. With the Book of the War, Lawrence asked me to write something, and would I recommend any upcoming authors?
Since then, I rather foolishly offered to create and run the faction paradox forum (http://pub8.ezboard.com/bfactionparadox) as a way of centralising all the diverse branches of the Faction Paradox tree.
You contributed to the Book of the War. What parts did you contribute?
Ah, you know we’ve all taken a vow of “collective responsibility” on that! We’ve had tattoos done, like the Fellowship only of screaming bat skulls*.
Of course, get any of us drunk and ask and we’ll tell. I’m particularly fond of tequila sunrises.
*this may be a lie.
Do you think that WHO is viable in its current state for the foreseeable future, or do you think that spin-offs (such as the Faction Paradox and Miranda) are doing more (and better) with the concept?
The body of WHO has been fractured so much over the last few years that I don’t think there’s a central spine to it anymore. It is possible to meet fans who only follow one or another range, or the TV-only diehards. Without cohesion, I’m not sure WHO can survive as it is. It’s such a large body of work that most people tend to favour just one limb of it and it’s now very hard to step back and see the entirety. In comparison, the new ranges are small and focussed. Both FP and Miranda are creating entire universes, but compacted into 6 issues of a comic, or as stand-alone novels.
I don’t think either are merely playing with the concept of DW – the idea of time-travelling voodoo anarchists or teenage empresses of the universe aren’t quintessentially part of DW. They are ideas which have been first played with in DW, but they can – and hopefully – will find an audience outside the ghetto of DW fandom.
What’s next for Mags L. Halliday? What future writing projects do you have coming up?
I’m in the depths of the submission process at the moment, with a synopsis for a non-DW novel. I’m actually about to leave on a writing break so that I can get it into shape. I’ve got short stories in progress for both Mythmakers and Geoff Wessel’s ATYPICAL HISTORY, plus about two unfinished non-DW short stories, a rewrite of another and a comic strip which I’ve been promising THE GIRLY COMIC for at least a year now.
Thank you very much for your time.