Getting back to your novels, and thinking about your early work, where did the inspiration come from for books such as ‘Chimera’, ‘Oktober’, ‘Rain’ and ‘The Boat House’?
I can answer for definite with Chimera because that came from a passage in Vance Packard’s book The People Shapers, where he quoted a Rand Corporation study predicting the routine production of laboratory sub-humans by the year 2025. I didn’t take that as a solid prediction, but I did foresee a process by which it could come about. It doesn’t matter how responsible the scientific establishment is, there’s always someone with a dodgy degree out there, looking for a chance to make his name by pushing the envelope.
For the rest of them, I’ve no doubt that if you dig through the file boxes with all my original notes and papers, somewhere you’ll find a little scrap of notebook paper with an illegible scrawl from the moment where light first dawned. It is actually like that. You know you’ve got a goer when it’s like you can see the entire book folded up inside a seed. It’s only the start of a fairly enormous process, of course, but when it happens you can sit back happy, because you know you’re in the game and you’re going somewhere.
You famously wrote the screenplays for some of the classic Doctor Who episodes (under the pen-name: John Lydecker). How did this opportunity arise? Considering this and other screenplays you’ve written for television series, how do you go about writing stories involving established characters?
TV characters are designed to be written by many hands. They’re not like fully-formed characters, but more like stripped-down racing versions of the same. So once you’ve got your head around their regular function in the weekly structure, you’ve a good idea of where you can and can’t go with them.
You can’t change them or teach them too much, unless you’ve been given some significant change to work in as part of the production plan. When that happens, it becomes a narrative point that you can factor into your story in a way that you hope will make it stand out. In my two Doctor Whos I got to write out two assistants and one robot dog. Which was great, because in character terms it meant I’d been given something I could write towards.
I got the job because I was working on a science fiction radio play called An Alternative to Suicide, and my radio producer sent the script over to the Doctor Who office. I got a call to drop in for a chat, and everything grew from there.
To what extent do you feel that the real world should feature in your work? By this I mean politics, wars, developing technology and topical issues. What control do you have over these areas when work is commissioned for television or film?
I’m kind of ambivalent on this. I did talk before about the importance of location and sense of place, so that’s me speaking up for realistic texture. But when it comes to politics or technology you’re really talking about something that right now feels like the only reality there is, but which is going to change faster than you can nail it down. Blair’s Britain? That’s yesterday already.
So I think my attitude is to let the timeless stuff seep in, but steer away from the notion that your reason for being here is to tell it like it is. You can’t write just to explain background. If you want to make a political point that doesn’t date, put it in a solid story. Solid stories are imperishable. Why has some of Brecht’s stuff worn so well? Because his narratives are compelling regardless of whether you care about the politics. It’s because the stories work that he leaves you more politically aware than you were going in.
Technology’s tricky in a different way. Think about how the mobile phone affected plotting. I put some computer stuff in Oktober that dates it terribly now.
Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow