Who Did Kill Kennedy?
David Bishop interviewed by Felicity Scoones
In an early issue of TSV, regular contributor David Bishop predicted that a New Zealander would one day write an 'official' Doctor Who story. April 1996 marks the fulfilment of that prophecy with the publication of Who Killed Kennedy, and appropriately enough it's written by David himself. Felicity talks to David about the creation of this unorthodox addition to the ever-growing range of Doctor Who novels and discovers the true identity of co-author James Stevens...
Felicity: How did you get the idea to write the book?
David: It was inspired by an American comic book series called Marvels in which the view point character was a photo journalist doing his job during the Superhero era of the sixties, and it showed what effect fantastic things, like aliens coming down and being about to destroy the Earth, would have on the everyday man, woman and child.
Who Killed Kennedy takes a similar approach; rather than trying to write a Doctor Who book which has got the Doctor and companions trying to solve a problem, stop a monster or a villain, this imagines what it would be like to be a normal person living in the world of Doctor Who in Britain in the late sixties, early seventies (which is where I've placed the UNIT years - most of the stories make sense if they are set around the time they were broadcast), when incredible events were going on, apparently on an everyday basis with hardly anybody noticing.
Felicity: How did you go about pitching it to Virgin?
David: Before Who Killed Kennedy, before I'd even thought of this idea of applying an outsider's viewpoint to Doctor Who continuity, I'd written three Judge Dredd novels for Virgin. After that I really wanted to write a Doctor Who novel, having been a fan for years, so I used my Judge Dredd novels to prove that I had some skills as a writer that I could at least be trusted to deliver a book on time and that would be readable. But try as I might I could not come up with an original idea to save my life. Mostly I could not get beyond the sheer weight of the history of the show, I would have an idea and then I would think 'I've just invented The Talons of Weng-Chiang.' My love of the show was so great I couldn't get the objectivity to come to it with something fresh. I didn't have anything to say.
Felicity: What do you mean by something to say?
David: A lot of authors are trying to make a point when they write a book. When they do have something to say they've got a passion about an idea, and they want to write about it and share it with other people. There's nothing worse than writing without passion because it very quickly becomes mechanical, it becomes a chore. My only passion was to get the commission to write a Doctor Who novel and see my name on the cover and I had half a dozen proposals turned down by Virgin. I wasn't saying anything that anyone else couldn't say.
Felicity: So what do you say in Who Killed Kennedy?
David: I was talking through ideas with Rebecca Levene, who edits the Doctor Who books, and I decided to have an investigative journalist rather than a photo journalist, I was a newspaper reporter in New Zealand for five years, so I have a background in reporting and could very quickly get into the character, it wouldn't require a lot of research, and I could bring a degree of personal experience to the story. The first part of the book has a lot of sequences which are set in a fictional newspaper called the Daily Chronicle in London and a lot of that is based on my experiences working in the New Zealand Herald in Auckland. There are certain characters in the book who are amalgams of people I knew at the Herald and it helped bring the situation alive for me when I was writing.
Felicity: What was different about pitching the idea for this book from your other Doctor Who proposals?
David: Instead of writing down a lengthy idea and submitting it, I talked it through with Rebecca first. It is a great advantage if you want to be a Doctor Who author to live in London, because the people at Virgin are reasonably approachable if they know you. I wasn't commissioned on the basis of the verbal pitch but I was able to talk through the story with Rebecca as it developed in my mind and she would give directions as to the sort of things she was looking for. This book is certainly the one where I've had the most editorial influence. It was very useful. You can't go wrong by listening to your editor, speaking as an editor myself, there's a certain double edged smugness to that.
If you're going to get commissioned to write a book then ultimately you have to satisfy the person who is going to buy the book off you. So at the end of the day if they want something, unless you can come up with a very good idea why not, either you put it in or else you take your idea elsewhere. Which doesn't mean that even if you do everything they say they're going to commission it. Rebecca is a very good editor, everything she says is constructive, and because she has the objectivity frequently she can come to it with fresh ideas and directions that you might not have been able to see for yourself.
In the case of Who Killed Kennedy it became obvious quite quickly that it wasn't going to be a New Adventure, being set in the UNIT era, but it didn't really square with the Missing Adventures either because it's not Doctor-centric. The Doctor is an overwhelming presence throughout the book but he only makes cameo appearances. There is actually a cameo appearance by another Doctor in the book, but I'll leave it to everybody who reads it to decide which Doctor it is. I know.
Virgin wanted to sell this book as part of a series so it was originally going to be a Missing Adventure set between The War Games and The Sea Devils. Generally Missing Adventures are set between stories that are next to each other but this spans three and a half seasons.
Initially the story I wanted to tell was about a journalist investigating the Doctor and UNIT and the book would end with him facing a dilemma which involved him coming to terms with what the Doctor and UNIT were really about as opposed to what he believed them to be, and whether he should aid the Doctor or get his story and achieve fame himself. So he has to make a decision. One of the reasons I got out of daily newspaper reporting was that we spent all our time just describing what people did instead of actually doing things ourselves. True crusading investigating journalists like John Pilger believe that journalists have opinions and that they should act on those opinions and fight injustice where they see it. So to a degree the character Stevens in the book is an analogue of some of the things I felt when I was a journalist myself and the conclusions I came to as a result of that.
The character goes through changes during the course of the book. It benefits from that in a way that normal Doctor-centric books do not do, because in essence the Doctor does not change from the start of the book to the finish. There is also a general rule that you're not meant to be privy to the Doctor's thoughts and it is hard to chart a character arc merely through someone's physical actions and what they say.
It is not simply a Doctor Who book with the Doctor taken out and replaced with a companion to run around and do stuff. It's an outside perspective on the world of Doctor Who as if Doctor Who was the real world. So Rebecca and I were talking about it and she was enthusing about how it could be published in the style of a conspiracy book, and this determined the way it was going to be written. The entire Kennedy strand came largely from a suggestion from Virgin. It gave the book a nice symmetry. The Kennedy bit starts and ends the book and though it runs through the book it's not a major part, although it is a major influencing factor in the life of James Stevens.
Felicity: A lot of Doctor Who fans feel a kind of ownership over the Kennedy assassination because of the date coinciding with the date that the series started. Did you consciously put stuff in for those kinds of readers?
David: Yes. The Kennedy strand sprang from the fact that Kennedy is assassinated and twenty four hours later Doctor Who starts. One era ends and another begins. The reason it's called Who Killed Kennedy was because when Virgin were publishing books on the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination and the thirtieth anniversary of Doctor Who, it became a sort of running gag that they should just tie the two events together and publish a book called Doctor Who Killed Kennedy. So when we were discussing how my book should end they said wouldn't is be nice if we could tie in Kennedy died and the Doctor Who television adventures begin there. It's sort of full circle.
Virgin had a long, long argument about what the cover should look like. Should it even have the Doctor Who logo on it? Now the reality of book publishing is that in order to sell it effectively into bookshops it has to have a Doctor Who logo on the cover. So they were going to put it on as a very small, tasteful logo, about the size it appears on the spine. So they did a mock up of the cover and I'm told they were told by their American agent that they couldn't print this book with this cover because people would think it was a factual book rather than fiction. If they printed a book called Who Killed Kennedy with just a picture of Kennedy and Jon Pertwee on the cover, people would in fact assume that Jon Pertwee had killed Kennedy. So how could you best represent the content of the book, the Doctor Who aspects and the Kennedy aspects, because the book breaks into two interwoven sections, and the suggestions were a painting of the TARDIS on the grassy knoll, or Dalek plungers coming out to shoot Kennedy. It was all starting to get a bit extreme, considering that the TARDIS never lands on the grassy knoll and there are no Daleks in the book, except for one quick sequence. So they did agonise long and hard about how to present the cover effectively. I'm quite happy about the cover. I think it looks good. There's a line on the cover The Shocking Secret Linking a Time Lord and a President, which they had to put on to make people realise this was fiction. The whole book is a gentle spoof of non-fiction conspiracy books. I did sell it in from the start as this co-authored mock conspiracy book. It's a bit of a strange egg. It's not New Adventures and it's not Missing Adventures, it's a sort of Beyond Adventures.
Felicity: Was it your idea to put both names on the cover?
David: I think it was, I think the proposal said 'by David Bishop and James Stevens,' the book is credited to James Stevens and David Bishop, on the cover and inside. James Stephen is actually my middle names. A lot of conspiracy books are written in the first person and are actually about the narrator's own journey as well as the subject matter itself. So even at the proposal stages Who Killed Kennedy was going to be written in the first person by this particular investigative journalist called James Stevens.
Felicity: Why did you put James Stevens first?
David: I didn't. That was down to Virgin because he's the central character. I don't mind. This book is not going to be listed under Bishop in any library you go to. So when I go to the British Library when I'm an old man trying to get my books out from the reading room, I'll have to ask for James Stevens, the collected works.
Felicity: So this obviously did cross your mind.
David: Well it only really applies to the cover, but it's a weird thing with the book. Because it's written in the first person, as far as the internal logic of the book is concerned, I am merely the ghost writer for James Stevens. It is all written in the first person by him and he mentions me a couple of times.
I knew how I wanted the book to end and what the central dilemma would be, but I hadn't determined the mechanics for bringing that about. It was through talking it over with Rebecca at Virgin and working backwards from that suggestion that the plot came about.
Felicity: Does that mean that when you structure a book you plot it backwards?
David: No, well, maybe yes. In almost all of my books I knew how I wanted it to end, and everything in the book leads to the ending or else it has no place in the book. I have to get my characters to this final jeopardy/choice/dilemma and then things are resolved. The two central things to getting this book commissioned were the fresh approach of the outsider's viewpoint and the other was getting the structure of the book right. I went on a story structure course, focussing on the three act structure and this confirmed a lot of the ideas I had been stumbling towards as a writer.
One of the classical ideas is that you should never take the resolution of the story out of the hands of the protagonist. For example in a Doctor Who story the Doctor should be the catalyst for the crisis at the end of the story to be ended. In Battlefield he gives the CND speech to persuade Morgaine not to blow up southern England. So even though he didn't physically prevent this it was because of his words that this ending is reached. If someone other than the main character takes responsibility it leads to a very unsatisfying ending. This final head-to-head confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist is what is known as the obligatory scene.
Who Killed Kennedy is written as a three-act structure. At the end of the first part the character faces a crisis and it is downbeat, but he chooses to go on. At the end of the second part, which is also very downbeat, he faces another crisis which leads directly into the third part and everything from there links into the climax, his confrontation with the villain and where he faces his dilemma. Because the books starts with Spearhead from Space and ends with the aftermath of Day of the Daleks I had to go through every Doctor Who story and think when and where does this take place and what effect does this have on the everyday man and woman in the street. For example in Terror of the Autons the actual effect on people living in London is minimal; there's a whole bunch of plastic daffodils recalled and that's about it. In reality the world is invaded by the Nestene but this has no real impact on the population in general. Whereas if you compare that with Spearhead from Space, you have what is nearly a coup d'etat in Britain. Radios are knocked out, electricity is cut, army barracks are attacked, shop dummies come to life and go round killing people and the effects are massive. So events like that helped to determine the structure of the book. Then I had to decide how long the book was going to run for. I wanted to do twenty-five years' worth and I eventually ended up barely covering two years of 'real time,' largely because once you get past the UNIT years very little happens which has any effect on Earth.
One of the first things that start the book is that a Welsh character in Spearhead from Space who is a hospital porter, phones up a newspaper and says 'Is that the Daily Chronicle? I hear you pay for stories.' And that's what starts the James Stevens character investigating UNIT. Events in stories just played into my hands. In Doctor Who and the Silurians the telephone rings, and the Brigadier's down in the caves and he says 'Yes, yes... the Daily what? How did you get this number?' And he slams the phone down and you never hear anything about it again.
I had to watch an awful lot of stories which never made it into the book at all, and I watched certain stories like Spearhead from Space about five times. Bits of Day of the Daleks I never want to see again. Some of the stories are pretty God-awful and do not stand up to any scrutiny or analysis at all. I am lucky, I didn't have to watch The Time Monster, which I'm told is truly awful, but I managed to stop the book before I got to The Time Monster.
Felicity: Did you enjoy writing it?
David: I did. It was a bit like going down memory lane in parts. The book is set principally between 1969 and 1971 - except for the 1963 Kennedy aspect - so I did a lot of research into current events of the time, by looking at Pathe news tapes, to try to give a flavour of the time to the book. Because although I was alive at the time I was aged between three and five and living in New Zealand, and so wasn't really up with current events in London!
Felicity: How helpful was the fact that you're living in London yourself?
David: It was quite helpful, I could just drop in little references to things I knew. I didn't feel that comfortable writing the Dallas sequence, we do actually witness the assassination of Kennedy in the book; that will come as no surprise to anybody since it's on the cover. I couldn't go to Dallas, much as I wanted to, so I researched it with videos and photographic books, just to make the setting seem as real as possible. It was fact-checked for Doctor Who continuity by a super fan.
Felicity: Do you have any sex scenes in the book?
David: There are two parts relating to sex and when I came to write them I suddenly discovered I was immensely shy. I was tempted to sit down and write a ten page sex scene, but in reality it wasn't part of the book and due to the nature of the book being a first person narrative about his crusade and suddenly having him writing about sex just didn't work. I started writing the first one and after three paragraphs I thought this is rubbish and stopped and just wrote one sentence instead.
Felicity: When Kate Orman wrote an article about writing Hummingbird she said that for the six months she was writing it she was living and breathing the book. Was it like that for you?
David: Yes, even when you're not consciously thinking about the book it's in your subconscious. The difficulty for me is that as an editor a lot of my creative energy gets drained out of me at work, so because of the concentration required the next sequence would just be at the back of my mind. I had to write this book in sequence because it is very linear, just being one character's story.
Most authors take about six months to write a book. I wrote about a hundred pages and gave it to Virgin as a sort of progress report and they came back with some very helpful suggestions. Then I finished the book and they wanted a few tweaks. Then there was a crisis about the number of revolvers in the book. Where had the second revolver come from? So I had to read through the entire book to find out where the second revolver had come from. So got to page 237 of the book and thought 'Ah ha, I'll write an explanatory paragraph about the bloody revolver in here,' wrote it and turned two pages and discovered I had already written the explanatory paragraph about the bloody revolver two pages after I wrote it the second time.
When I'm writing I don't read anything else, especially Doctor Who books, because I want my subconscious to be entirely devoted to my characters, so I'm years behind on the New and Missing Adventures. But I get endless phone calls from Rebecca at Virgin suggesting parallels I should write in to tie this book in with other Doctor Who books. Gary Russell's got a book coming up which features two characters which appear peripherally in Who Killed Kennedy and Kate Orman has a book coming up with elements which relate back to Who Killed Kennedy. So despite the fact that Who Killed Kennedy is neither a New nor a Missing Adventure it is already having an influence on these series.
Felicity: Do you want to write another Doctor Who book?
David: Oh yes. I've got a proposal in at the moment which is a reincarnation book to do with terraforming, super-evolved killer sharks and the Amish. It's the Fourth Doctor and Leela because no Missing Adventure featuring Leela has yet been commissioned, and I've always liked her as a character because she has a bit of spunk.
Felicity: Are Virgin doing more novels along the lines of Who Killed Kennedy?
David: They're going to see how this one does. They've set relatively low sales targets for the book because it is not part of a series with guaranteed sales and they can't depend on the collectors' market picking this one up, just like the Decalog books don't, I imagine, sell as many as the New or Missing Adventures. It will depend on the success or failure of the book. If it's a screaming success they will be gagging to do more, and it bombs through the floor they won't touch it again with a twenty-foot barge pole.
The only feedback I'm going to get on the book is reviews, and I'm not really looking forward to being reviewed. My job is critiquing things and dishing it out and I'm not looking forward to being on the receiving end of that. It's the most autographical thing I've written to date and I just hope that people who are into Doctor Who can get beyond continuity references and just enjoy the story and enjoy seeing events they know all too well from a different perspective. If they can do that then they will enjoy the book. I hope I get to do another one. It would be nice to do one that isn't continuity-based and to get back to creativity. And I just hope I never have to watch some of those Pertwee stories again.
This item appeared in TSV 47 (April 1996).