Who Killed Kennedy: Introduction
Why turn Who Killed Kennedy into an eBook? Well, it has been out of print for at least five or six years. The book was originally published by Virgin as an off-shoot from its regular lines of New Adventures and Missing Adventures novels. Who Killed Kennedy was to be a side-step, a fresh perspective on familiar events. But not long after it hit the shelves, Virgin lost its licence from the BBC to published new Doctor Who novels. Who Killed Kennedy had been selling well enough for me to get a royalty cheque but was now doomed to disappear with the rest of the Virgin line.
Happily, the BBC's online Doctor Who site has begun reprinting some of those out-of-print tomes as eBook, with notes and commentary from the authors. During exchanges of emails with NZDWFC supremo Paul Scoones I mentioned rescuing my original text files for Who Killed Kennedy while recovering data from my old Apple Performa. Wouldn't it be nice to give Who Killed Kennedy the eBook treatment? Quick as a flash Paul offered to reprint my first Doctor Who novel on the NZDWFC website. Even better, he was willing to go along with my idea of offering two versions - the original text from my old computer, and an alternate version. When to do it? Well, 22 November 2003 would be the 40th anniversary of JFK's assassination. Link it to that and the eBook could also be a 40th birthday present for Doctor Who fans in New Zealand (and other countries, the web knowing few boundaries).
The Genesis of Who Killed Kennedy
In 1993 Virgin Publishing was looking to expand its fiction output, which at that time consisted of Doctor Who and erotica (books to be read one-handed, as the writer's guide described them). It was announced that the British comics character Judge Dredd was being made into a film for release in 1995, so Virgin acquired the rights to publish original Dredd novels. I was editor of the Judge Dredd Megazine at the time and put myself forward as a potential author. To cut a long story short, I wrote three Dredd novels during 1993 and 1994.
But what I really wanted to do was write a Doctor Who novel. I had penned The Pirate Planet novelisation for TSV Books before emigrating to Britain and wanted to write an officially licensed Doctor Who tome. Alas, my inspiration did not match my enthusiasm and Virgin's Doctor Who editor Rebecca (Bex) Levene kept rejecting my proposals. The usual sort of thing - Amish settlers on distant planet battle super-evolved sharks, peace conferences between Earth and Draconia set on a zeppelin above a dying planet. Crap, in other words.
Around this time Virgin was looking to acquire the licence to publish novels based on Marvel Comics characters like Spiderman and the X-Men. As a result, Bex and the others were reading a lot of Marvel comics. Probably one of the best titles from that time was Marvels, a four-issue fully-painted mini-series by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. This followed the evolution of the Marvel superhero universe, but as seen by a photo-journalist. Marvels was a revelation, because it showed the ordinary outsider's perspective on extraordinary events. What if the same approach could be applied to Doctor Who?
Bex and I spent a lot of time talking about this idea, how to make it work. Conspiracy theories and The X-Files were in vogue at the time, adding another element to the mix. If an outsider looked at the events of stories from the UNIT era, what would they see? A massive cover-up to conceal what was really happening. Suddenly the Doctor ceases to be the hero and becomes a shadowy, mysterious figure with many different faces.
Another inspiration was non-fiction books like Carlos: Hunt for the Jackal by David Yallop, best known in NZ for writing Beyond Reasonable Doubt which helped get Arthur Allan Thomas's murder conviction overturned. Yallop's works were often presented in a breathless first person narrative, where the author's quest becomes the story.
The other crucial ingredient in the development of Who Killed Kennedy came when I attended a three-day course in story structure run by a screenwriting guru called Robert McKee. He lectures on a set of guidelines to help scribes create well structured stories. His students have included Quentin Tarantino, John Cleese and New Zealand's own Peter Jackson. The course opened my eyes and gave me tools with which to begin construct my own stories, and Who Killed Kennedy was the first of my novels to benefit from this. Anyway, in October 1994 I wrote the first proposal for what became Who Killed Kennedy...
This put in place many of the book's key features, but the structure and scope remained nebulous. Having been a journalist for The Daily News in Taranaki and then at the New Zealand Herald, I made the lead character a newspaper reporter, something about which I could write with some authority. I spent many hours watching endless old Doctor Who stories on video as research to build up a thorough knowledge of Doctor Who lore. I also thoroughly researched real world events, to try and create a context into which stories like Spearhead from Space or Day of the Daleks could be placed. By January 1995 I sent Virgin a much revised and enhanced proposal. Here is the beginning of that pitch...
By now Bex was becoming very enthusiastic about the proposal but felt it still needed work. For instance, the book didn't have an ending - it began with Spearhead from Space and continued through the first two Pertwee season but ground to a halt circa Day of the Daleks. Also, it was obvious the book was not part of the New Adventures but the scope of the period covered meant it did not fit snugly into the Missing Adventures format. Bex and I both wanted the novel to be published in the same style as the conspiracy tomes it was parodying, with big type on the cover and with a selection of blurry black and white photos in the centre pages. Ideally it would not even have the Doctor Who logo on the cover.
A new idea was suggested by Virgin. In 1993 there had been a rash of books to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the assassination of US President John F Kennedy on 22 November, and then with the 30th anniversary of the first Doctor Who episode being broadcast on 23 November. Apparently it was running joke in Virgin that a book which hit both markets should be a bestseller. Why not use the JFK conspiracy to provide a hook on which to hang my Doctor Who proposal?
To be honest, I didn't have an ending. It was fast becoming obvious the finale of the book would have to be a confrontation between the reporter, the Third Doctor and the Master, as this trio were the heart of the proposed novel. I recall talking with Bex about basing the ending around events that would culminate in the regeneration of the Delgado Master. But instead the JFK idea took hold and I agreed to incorporate into my proposal. By now I had been working on the pitch for six months and was desperate to get it commissioned.
In February 1995 I wrote the 7,000 word proposal that finally earned me a contract for my first professional Doctor Who novel. Here's the opening page, a mock-up of what the back cover copy could look like...
At last I hit pay-dirt and in May 1995 signed a contract to write Who Killed Kennedy. The book was to be between 75,000 and 95,000 words, to be delivered by the end of September that year and I would be paid two thousand pounds as an advance against potential future royalties. Best of all, I would have an official Doctor Who novel published with my name on the cover!
Having added JFK to the mix, I now had to research him and his assassination along with all the other Doctor Who and real world elements. There was the problem of UNIT dating to resolve and dozens of other elements to determine. All my previous novels had been written in ten weeks while I held down a fulltime job as a comics editor. For reasons surpassing understanding I waited until I only had ten weeks left to deadline before starting Who Killed Kennedy. Writers, they're a superstitious lot. I did have one valid excuse - the summer of 1995 was madness at my job with the launch of the Judge Dredd film starring Sylvester Stallone and all the attendant craziness. I was editing and designing three titles simultaneously without an assistant.
Where I found the time to write Who Killed Kennedy, I'll never know, but somehow I managed it. Mostly I wrote on days off or when my wife was out of the flat - I've never been able to write fiction while there's somebody else in the house. For every book I write, I find a single CD to act as my background noise. Usually it's a film soundtrack, such as Michael Nyman's music for The Piano. Having found the perfect music to accompany the book, I put the CD on continuous play and it just goes round and round and round. For Who Killed Kennedy, the soundtrack was Sneakers by James Horner. I must have listened to it 200 times while writing that book.
Judging by the dates on my computer files, the manuscript was delivered to Virgin at the end of October 1995, with publication scheduled for April 1996. Alas, the concept of having eight pages of blurry black and white photos in the middle of the book was dropped for reasons of expense. Virgin's sales team decided the Doctor Who logo had to appear on the book, otherwise nobody might buy it. Choosing what was to go on the cover provoking many hours of debate, with suggestions of having the TARDIS sat on the infamous grassy knoll in Dallas (a nice idea but not a scene that was in the book).
Who Killed Kennedy was published in 1996 just as Virgin lost its Doctor Who licence. The book was well received, getting decent reviews in SFX magazine and from Doctor Who Magazine. I got a few nice comments at the monthly gathering of Doctor Who fans at the Fitzroy Tavern in London, but that was the end of the book for me. I wasn't online at the time so had no idea of general fan reaction to Who Killed Kennedy. According to my royalty statements, Virgin sold just over 13,000 copies of the book. After clearing my advance, the company paid me just under a thousand pounds in royalties. In December 1995 I had been made editor of weekly science fiction comic 2000 AD and just didn't have the creative energy to be writing novels in my spare time. It seemed Who Killed Kennedy would remain my first and last official effort.
One day I bumped into Paul Cornell in the basement of London's Forbidden Planet and he told me Who Killed Kennedy was king of the miscellaneous books. I just looked at him blankly. Eventually he succeeded in explaining to me about the online rankings of Doctor Who novels. Who Killed Kennedy did not fit the usual categories, so it had been lumped into the 'Miscellaneous' section with anthology titles like Decalog. Happily, there seemed to be a lot of people who remembered Who Killed Kennedy fondly and the book was the highest ranked in its section.
Only one thing has ever bugged about the book. The JFK elements always felt like an odd fit, even when I was writing the novel. Sure, they got the book published, but I always wished I'd had the chance to create a more appropriate ending. Perhaps this eBook format will give me that chance...