Throwback Interview: Paul Cornell (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.
Q: First, let’s start with some of the basics. How did you get into writing? Was it a passion since childhood?
A: Yes, I remember the actual occasion. I got angry with an essay assigned to me by my English teacher when I was about ten, and instead of completing the essay as per instructions, as I had always done, I wrote pages and pages of stuff, going off in all directions. I assumed she was going to be furious, but it turned out that, oddly, was what the purpose of essays had been all along.
My school essays turned into a series of interconnected secret agent stories then, characters from which showed up in my first Doctor Who fan fiction stories, which were published in the fanzine Cygnus Alpha. Again, these formed a series, and one such story, ‘Total Eclipse’, serialized in Queen Bat, became the basis for my first Who novel. So there’s a direct connection between that moment of breakthrough and getting published.
Q: What was your first break in the “field”? Did you start off in the realm of fan fiction?
A: I wrote stories for all kinds of Who fanzines, of which, in those days, there were a large number. Fanzine letters pages acted as a very slow sort of Internet, where one would get feedback on one’s work. Editors like Jackie Marshall and Paul West were great influences on my work in that they edited and shaped my stories to make them at the very least grammatical. From fanzine work I started to get an idea of what it was like to write with a specific audience in mind.
Q: If you started off in fan fiction, what was your first professionally published story or work?
A: My first professional piece was a review of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Starburst magazine, during the early days of the Visual Imagination takeover. That was a year or so before I got into the last eight of a BBC scriptwriting competition and got my play on BBC2, and at almost the same time got to write Radio 4 scripts for the comedian Arnold Brown. It all happened at once, really. Which was a good thing, since I’d just given up on my dream of becoming an astrophysicist, and dropped out of UCL.
Q: Were you a Doctor Who fan growing up?
A: At first, I was afraid to watch Doctor Who, because of everything that was said in the playground about how terrifying it was. So I carefully watched BBC2 instead. But one holiday a friend of mine lent me Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters. I still remember the sense of sudden consciousness expansion when I realized that in the Prologue the author wasn’t talking about human beings! From then on, I was interested, and made myself watch the start of ‘The Brain of Morbius’. That was a very scary four weeks, but at the end of it, I was amazed that the Doctor won, and made everything all right again! And in doing so, he kind of made everything all right for me too, subjected me to my first ‘safe scare’ experience, let me exorcise all sorts of personal fears and worries. Or rather Terrance did!
So from then on I gobbled up everything to do with Who, which in those days was mainly the books, and joined the DWAS as soon as I could get hold of the address. They didn’t reply until Season 19.
Q: How did you get involved in writing for the Virgin Doctor Who New Adventures?
A: I saw Peter Darvill-Evans’ announcement in the fan press, and thought that this sounded like something for which my experience was suited. So I reworked a middle bit of ‘Total Eclipse’ to include the Seventh Doctor and Ace (the bit in the memory garden), summarized the plot, rejigged to include the Timewyrm, and sent it off. When I got a letter back from Peter saying ‘if you’re not careful you’ll be writing the fourth New Adventure’ I literally jumped up and down in the hall of my Manchester flat. Then I got worried, wondering how ‘careful’ I had to be? I think my submission succeeded because I was a bit mad and personal with where I took the Timewyrm herself. I made use of the character, instead of assuming that someone else was going to, and telling my story by carefully stepping round her.
Q: What was your inspiration for Timewyrm: Revelation?
A: In its original form as ‘Total Eclipse’, it was the last of a trilogy concerning Saul the sentient church, and two time travelers from a dictatorial future who’d come back to ‘fix’ the past, with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa getting in the way. (They were the TARDIS crew I wrote mostly for.) The time travelers were amalgamated into the character of Hemmings for the book. I wanted to write, and still want to write, about the English countryside, and big moments of transcendence, and big reversals of expectation. And as a young astronomer I was in love with the moon and owls and bats and all the things one gets into when one stays out in the garden too long at night.
I didn’t have any agenda for the novel itself. It was just how I’d always written Doctor Who. I don’t think that, back then, I could have written it in any other way.
Q: Your novel, Love and War, introduced Bernice Summerfield. Did you ever imagine that the character would grow into what she has become today, with several audios and a range of books of her own?
A: Well, erm, no. I was just really pleased that she’d won the ‘audition’ for new companions that also produced Kadiatu and William Blake. We all thought she’d just stay on for a while and then be replaced by someone else.
Q: Who or what was your inspiration for Benny?
A: Everyone’s heard by now that it’s Kate Lemon, the character Emma Thompson plays in the movie The Tall Guy. And there’s a lot of Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, who also is said to wake up laughing. But I’ve recently, through Friends Reunited, got back in touch with the original Bernice, who I was at school with. She was a shorthaired girl of wonderful mood swings, whose sudden throwing around of chairs on one occasion, was what, in our school, was supposed to be the origin of the expression ‘doing a Benny’. That expression was currency elsewhere, though, and probably has its origin in Benzedrine. But our Benny was famously passionate and concerned and happy and cared for people, all at the same time. I loved her from afar. She recently told me that she’d thrown the chairs around because some boys were being nasty about me, which I’d never known before, and which moved me hugely. She’s rather bemused, needless to say, by the ‘Benny industry’ that’s evolved since we knew each other.
Q: Going back to the Seventh Doctor, how did you feel about his character as it developed throughout the NA range? In your opinion, was the darker, manipulative Doctor the right direction to go?
A: It’s still the most interesting Doctor that’s out there. He’s only darker in the sense that he’s facing up to his responsibilities, actually being a ‘good guy’ on the level at which he’s actually capable of playing and being aware, and not just a child who wanders in, saves the day, and then is gone before the next invasion fleet comes along and wrecks everything he just saved. The Cartmel/NA writers introduced the idea of a Doctor who’s actually responsible for his actions, who’s an adult, and people still hate us for it. But the character was so played out before that new idea came along that it was becoming hard for him to breathe or walk naturalistically. It couldn’t last forever, but the fact that everyone’s had such trouble going back to the ‘old style Doctor’ indicates that the central problem the Seventh Doctor was created to address hasn’t gone away. And indeed, the books have had to find a new coping strategy.
Q: You wrote No Future, the conclusion of the Alternate Universe cycle. Was it always intended to have the Monk (from “The Time Meddler”) be the antagonist in the preceding books, or was that your idea? How was this story arc developed?
A: That was my idea, set up via a story conference between all the authors involved. The others could drop whatever hints they wanted, and I’d reveal everything in the last book. Steve Lyons volunteered a greater degree of cooperation, so there are more links between my book and his, and I was privileged to read The Left-Handed Hummingbird in manuscript.
Q: Whenever novels are mentioned as “One of the best of the Virgin New Adventures”, your novel Human Nature comes up. What inspired you for that novel, how did you pitch it, and how was pitch originally received?
A: I’m about to go into all this at length for the BBCi online version, but briefly… I had realized that I’d over-reached myself with No Future, writing something which was designed to be the hugest, grandest, most universe-conquering book in the history of everything, which of course turned out to be able to fly like a rotting pancake, and just went splat onto the ground, weighed down by its own ambition. So I wanted to write something small and personal instead. And I was reading a lot of Joseph Campbell, the folklorist, and realized that nobody had done ‘the hero’s journey’ properly for the Doctor at that point. Nobody had done the Superman 2 scenario where we learn who the character is by taking away his powers, associations, literary clothes, etc., to see what the essentials are. I’d just read one of Peter David’s Star Trek novels (one of only two I’ve read), called Imzadi, which took a similar burrowing-into stance with its characters. And all that meant I knew what I was after. But how to do it was really complicated, with all sorts of scenarios being thought-up and discarded by myself and my co-plotter, Kate Orman, including the idea of the villains being terrorists with Krynoid pods, or a group of all the incarnations of the same Time Lord that hung around together as a big gang! Rebecca was pretty scathing about the logistics of that one.
Q: Rumor has it that there was a time when Virgin proposed regenerating the Seventh Doctor, and that David Troughton was going to be used as the model for the new Eighth Doctor. Could you give us any insight into this? What was the Doctor going to be like, what was the proposed exit of the Seventh Doctor supposed to be, etc.?
A: Peter decided that it would be a good idea to freshen up the range by regenerating the Doctor. (This was some months before the McGann movie got going.) His idea was to bring in David Troughton as a cover model, let the authors meet him, study him playing other roles, etc., and thus have a focus for their characterization of the new Doctor. I was talking with Peter about writing the book where the regeneration took place, about halfway through, so it could be an adventure that the Doctor finished despite regenerating halfway! I wanted to have him blown up, I remember, and scattered all over a field, and have him either grow back out of the land or just walk out of the Tardis and surprise everyone. Peter wanted to bring back Turlough as a companion for the new Doctor, because he’d been underused on TV, and everyone knew how to write for him, and thus they’d again have a focus for the character. The new Doctor was going to be a Captain Oates figure, square-jawed and strong, but with an awkwardness about him, like he was un-used to being muscular, and was worried about being a bull in a china shop. We kept hearing him use the word ‘fragile’, and that was going to be his attitude to time and space, that he was going to keep carefully stepping in and catching the plates as they fell. I think it would have been a great deal of fun to see how that would have worked, but the TV Movie put a stop to it.
Q: In-between writing novels for the NA range, were you writing outside of the realm of Who?
A: Lots. I did a run on Children’s Ward for CITV, had two seasons of my own kid’s show, Wavelength, on the same channel, and co-wrote the TV episode guides with Topping and Day, inventing the format that so many such guides these days have!
Q: OK, let’s go back- it’s 1996 and the Doctor Who movie, starring Paul McGann, is shown on TV. What did you think of the movie and of Paul McGann’s Doctor?
A: Gareth Roberts and I had seen it a few days beforehand, and so went up to his room in a sulk and watched ‘The Power of Kroll’ instead. I think the movie script has real plotting problems, the nature of which would be too dull to go over again, but were, I think, due to a lack of time. Too much design work, not enough attention paid to script. I think McGann is okay, but it’s a really one-note character and performance. Wonder, excitement, passion, righteous anger, and… What does he do when he’s quiet? Why doesn’t he display any humour? But since the script didn’t let him even solve the plot, I think seeing more to him might have been a bit much to ask.
Q: What was your reaction when you learned that the BBC would be taking the license back from Virgin?
A: I was appalled and amazed. Peter and Rebecca had done such good jobs that they were going to lose them. We all realized that roughly the same group of writers would have employment there if they wanted it, and that it was the editors who were really going to suffer. Peter’s initial actions, taking the logo off the NAs as soon as possible, giving a proper run up to Bernice’s own line and the TV Movie, were just the best possible decisions at the time.
Q: What was your involvement with the Benny New Adventures range?
A: The initial four authors: me; Matt Jones; Justin Richards and Dave Stone, got together in the basement office of Virgin with Peter to work out how to set up the initial run. Peter had two things predetermined: that we had to split up Benny and Jason, to give the line the possibility of some drama between them, and that Bernice had to be based on one particular planet, which he named Dellah, and I was sent off to elaborate upon. None of us thought the line was going to last more than those four books. There was certainly no master plan beyond that.
Q: Were you upset when Virgin canceled the range?
A: Not really, because it had potentially happened so many times, and we were all thinking that was it on every occasion before Peter coaxed a few more books out of the company.
Q: You returned to writing Who novels with The Shadows of Avalon. How was the experience different writing for the BBC range as opposed to the Virgin range?
A: Almost exactly the same. Not the gang atmosphere of the Virgin days, because the BBC never thought it was a good idea to hold big parties for all of their authors, and because the whole author community had been fictionalized since then. But the demands and needs were basically the same.
Q: In The Shadows of Avalon, you had the tasks of blowing up the original TARDIS, turning Compassion into a TARDIS, introducing us to Romana III, having a guest spot by the Brigadier, amongst other things. Did you find this lessened the joy of writing the novel or was the impact minimal?
A: It’s always good to have stuff given to you that you have to do, because it gives you something to work with. I also had a completely unresolved love affair for Fitz to deal with in the first chapter. Steve Cole had left him still together with the happy love of his life at the end of the previous book! Way to pass the ball, Steve. I didn’t want to break them up in a gap between books, so I had him leave wanting to go back one day. I also had to work in all the references to previous books in the run.
I think I made a big mistake in making the ‘destruction’ of the TARDIS a side issue, but it would be hard to write a story where that was the central matter, only for it to end with that matter unresolved. And that issue turned out to be all the readers cared about. After a period of hating it, I’ve started to think of it as one of my best books, because I sort of think it comes together from disparate places and starts playing some nice together themes. The start is hard, but when you see the threads come together… yeah, I like it. If only I could feel that way about No Future.
Q: You also made references to Benny and the People, both from the Virgin range. Had the policy BBC had against “promoting” a rival line of books been relaxed?
A: Nobody said a thing to me about this sort of stuff. (Was the ‘rival line’ still going at this point?)
Q: Why have a regenerated Romana in The Shadows of Avalon, and whose idea was this?
A: Mine. We needed a representative of Gallifrey, and she was still in the position of President, so it was either have her deposed by someone more ruthless, or make her more ruthless. To do that, it was most fun, and most credible given the nature of the Romana we knew, and fitted in with what we know about all previous Presidents going loopy, to have it be a regenerated her. I know some readers think we shouldn’t make changes like that, but to them I say buy a screensaver. In that medium, it’s good for characters to stay exactly the same.
Q: Who was your visual inspiration for Romana III’s look?
A: It’s the kind of thing Jac Rayner would wear if only the world were different.
Q: How was it working with (then Editor) Stephen Cole?
A: He was basically gone by then. It was me and Jac during the actual editing process, though he commissioned the book and briefed me on the current situation in the books. Justin hadn’t arrived yet.
Q: What was your involvement with newer Bernice Summerfield series published through Big Finish?
A: Big Finish asked me if, since I’d made sure the rights to Bernice had reverted to me, they could set up such a series, and I was overjoyed at the idea. At the time, I thought it was weird that they’d set up a whole company just to do Bernice audios. But then the thought started to cross many of our heads that they were experimenting with everything they’d need for… and then they went and did it. They do tend to use Bernice as a test bed (I can hear what she’d say about that) when they want to try anything new.
I’m in a consultative position. I get to look over plots when I’m of a mind to, and to work with Gary on the direction the whole series is taking, and I’ve been pleased to indulge my editorial needs with the two anthologies, but generally speaking I know that Gary likes to run his own ship, and I don’t try and wrest the big wheel thing that turns ships from his hands. I’m just pleased that the line’s still going and we’ve got a couple of genuine classics under our belt. I think they’ve done very well for her. And the news about the coming series of audios is exciting too. Gary keeps going the extra mile for Bernice, like including her in the Excelis audios, and I’m really grateful for that.
Q: You’ve written a couple of audio adventures for Big Finish. How did you find the experience of writing for audios differ then writing a novel or for TV?
A: It’s a whole different form, and it takes a long time to adjust. For instance, on TV it’s good to have short, snappy scenes that do the minimum and then cut. On audio, that would feel horribly confusing for the listener, who needs a few phrases of dialogue to realize where they are and keep up. The old problem of ‘put down that gun you’re holding in your right hand’ isn’t so bad if you don’t think too much about it, because a lot of dialogue conveys enough visual information anyway.
Q: What was your first non-Who novel, and could you tell us about it?
A: It was called Something More, and it’s out in what they call a mass-market paperback now, from Gollancz. (I love being on the Gollancz line, it’s so classic SF!) It’s about a priest, an immortal and his biographer in the ruins of British society, at a time in the future where we’ve long cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and become completely absorbed in the glories of the past. It’s about how terrible it would be to live in a state without law, and again about transcendence and guilt and forgiveness, and I think ‘whodunnit’ is quite a surprise!
Q: What, if any, other novels have you done?
A: My second one, British Summertime, is out now in hardback and trade paperback. I’m really proud of it: I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s about a young woman who lives in contemporary Bath who can read anything: body language, where a chipshop is in a strange city, the odds on a team winning, and her relationship with a Pilot From The Future who crash-lands nearby. They discover that getting him back to the future is more complicated that it should be, and the villains are angels. I kind of feel like if I don’t write anything else, I’ve proved myself now because I’ve done that.
Q: What writing have you done for television?
A: I’ve just completed a run of four Casualty episodes, including what Sky would call the ‘season finale’, and hugely enjoyed that, another big gang of writers and producers that I made a lot of friends amongst, and I’m really pleased with the results. I’ve got a co-credit on an episode of Born and Bred later this year, which actually means that I just contributed, in the end, a few scenes involving a magical ceremony, and the rest of the episode is by series creator Chris Chibnall. And I’m hopefully doing at least one episode of a CBBC series which at the moment is called Jason IV. Apart from that I’ve just been given two lots of development money to go off and put together some ideas for my own series, so I’m concentrating on that right now.
Q: You’re currently freelancing, correct?
A: Have been for seven years now. Every now and then it strikes me that I’d like to join an independent production company, or go on staff at the BBC, if they’d have me, but that would mean it’d be harder for me to watch the cricket.
Q: Do you feel as though you want to distance yourself from your Who past, and continue writing more “serious” works? Or do you still enjoy being around the scene?
A: I wouldn’t feel comfortable distancing myself from the Who stuff. It’s all still on my CV. It’s not mentioned on the flaps of my SF novels because publishers don’t tend to mention work you did for other book companies. And I still follow the scene intently. I love the society of fans, and, horrible as it is to watch, I’m enthralled by the politics of fandom. I’ve just read both Camera Obscura and The Crooked World, and think they’re wonderful, two of the best Who books ever written.
Q: Looking back at Who novels that you’ve done, which one is your favorite?
A: It would have to be Human Nature, but I also really like Happy Endings, which I thought worked very well on its own terms.
Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for up and coming writers?
A: The Editor is always right. If you’ve been lucky enough to receive a rejection that gives reasons for that rejection, pay attention to them and change your work. A non-writer in that situation will argue. It’s important to always keep in mind that you’re just starting out and have much to learn, even if you’re Arthur Miller. Get an ego about your own work and it’s all over.
Q: What does the future hold for Paul Cornell? Any writing projects you’d like to share with us?
A: Well, I hope these things I have in development come together, but this being TV, they won’t. But I’m definitely doing a new comic strip for the 2000AD Magazine called XTNCT, which should start appearing next year, and I’m very excited about getting my comic writing career going again.
Q: Have we really seen the last of Paul Cornell in terms of Doctor Who novels?
Paul Cornell, thank you very much for your time.