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A Conversation with Paul Cornell

By David Bishop

What follows is a conversation with Paul Cornell, held over several pints of Guinness in a pub in Fulham Broadway, London, on 8 February 1992 and transcribed a week later when I'd sobered up.

When I talked to Paul his first novel Timewyrm: Revelation had been on sale for a couple of months and he was close to completing his second book, Love and War, for the Doctor Who New Adventures series published by Virgin Books and edited by Peter Darvill-Evans. This second book bids farewell (at least temporarily) to Ace and introduces a new companion for the Seventh Doctor. Darvill-Evans says he specifically chose Paul to write this milestone in Who fiction because of his abilities as a writer, his understanding of Doctor Who - and his ability to meet a deadline! The new companion will also appear in a six-part strip Paul is writing for Doctor Who Magazine, which will also see the return of Absalom Daak.

Paul is a well-known figure in British Who fandom, in his mid-twenties, and available for weddings, christenings or supermarket openings.

David: Why the constant references to roses in your book, Paul?

Paul: I bought a copy of Brewer's Phrase & Fable and it's full of legendary associations. My book is inspired by Joseph Campbell, a guy who took all of the world's myths, folk tales, fairy tales and legends and distilled them to try and find a central tale. That was the tale I was trying to tell: the story of a guy going into a dark pit, confronting himself and climbing back out again. I wanted to fill it with all sorts of stuff that had multi-faceted legendary connotations. And roses just had so many things I could do with them, so many puns and little asides. There's a lot of references to an ancient society who were into roses, there's Blake's 'Oh rose, thou art sick', and there's an awful lot of Blakeian innocence and experience imagery through the whole book. I wanted to make reference to The Time Monster and all that stuff about the daisy, but daisies don't have much mystical power really, so I made it into something like a rose.

It's getting pretentious already, isn't it? I'm only on the first pint of Guinness!

David: I re-read the book (Revelation) this morning and I found it much easier to read standing up, for some obscure reason.

Paul: I'm amazed at your dedication!

David: If Timewyrm: Revelation had a soundtrack album, what would be on it?

Paul: I wrote it listening to an awful lot of music and an awful lot of musical references find their way in there... One of the very few editorial interferences with the book was that Virgin asked me to take out the more up-to-date musical references because they would age very quickly and indeed they have. So for my second book Ace will be listening to Teenage Fan Club, Nirvana and all that.

But let me see, the soundtrack album... um, something very rich and Prince-y, purple-ish stuff. Something with a bit of nous and thought behind it. Certainly nothing orchestral. While writing the book I was listening to a lot of hip-hop and I think that sort of punchiness and political anger comes through. Perhaps Public Enemy. If Public Enemy could be persuaded to write a song about mystical roses! Public Enemy featuring Donovan.

David: What's the first Doctor Who story you remember seeing as a child, if not since then.

Paul: Actually, no, this is very accurate. Because I was scared stiff of Doctor Who for years, people would threaten me by being Daleks in the playground and I'd run a mile. Kids would come round my house and say 'let's watch Doctor Who' - and I'd prevent them! I didn't just hide behind the sofa, I watched another channel! I remember a couple of times I got the courage to turn the channel over and one time it was Linx removing his helmet (in The Time Warrior), so I quickly turned back.

Finally, I thought, I'm getting too old for this, I'd better be brave. And I needed that terror to erase the terrors inside me; I think kids need terrifying things to do good things to their intellect and psyche. So I sat down and watched The Brain of Morbius from beginning to end, week by week, and my parents were very worried about this, they could see this was a tense time for me. I tell you, the feeling of release at the end, when the Doctor actually won, it was actually so surprising the first time round. The good guys actually won! We'd been through some horrifying and terrifying events in this four-part story and at the end of it, everything was resolved, happiness prevailed and there was a little joke at the end. Just the sense of relief for a little kid - it was great! That's why the show should be around now, it should be horrifying. Kids need to be terrified, they need to see the good guy win. So it was The Brain of Morbius.

David: That need to be terrified is probably why people responded so well - those that saw it - to Season 26.

Paul: Absolutely.

David: On the back of the New Adventures novels, the copy talks about stories 'too broad and too deep for the small screen', whereas many of the stories have been just like watching the TV show. Your story seems the least TV-like of the books so far.

Paul: I think so. John Peel's would be very expensive to film, simply because of the vast distances covered and the sheer amount of naked flesh involved! I set out to write something pretty much unfilmable.

David: The only hope would be to get Dennis Potter to direct it.

Paul: The original story, the original version of Revelation was Total Eclipse, which appeared over six issues in a fanzine. The original ending of that had the Doctor and Tegan doing a song and dance number to 'Spread a Little Happiness' (a song used in Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle). I wanted to do it so much in Revelation but I just didn't think I could get away with it. Plus I would have had to have bought the rights to 'Spread a Little Happiness'. Bloody Kate Bush wanted £100 to use a line from one of her songs in the book. So one of the quotations at the beginning of one of the chapters is an approximation of a line from 'Running Up That Hill'.

David: Yes, I spotted one quote attributed to Paul Travers, pen-name for a well-known Doctor Who person (Doctor Who Magazine editor John Freeman).

Paul: It's a very blatant secret identity, especially when he interviews himself!

David: Do you think that somebody who picked up Revelation without having ever seen Doctor Who - and they do exist - let alone read any of the other Timewyrm books, could read the book in isolation?

Paul: I don't know. I think they could read it in isolation from Timewyrm but I think they would need some Doctor Who. Not only because a lot of the impact comes from bits I've sampled from previous stories, because Who is about sampling bits from previous Who stories, I think they'd certainly be puzzled if they'd never encountered Who. But then I don't know. A mate called Glen who isn't a fan of Doctor Who read it twice and was really impressed by it, so what do I know? I think they'd need to know some Who.

David: It would certainly help. The first time I read it, I got the vast majority of the Who references but there were a lot of other references which I still don't get; things that are hidden away. It may be that the person who reads it in isolation to Who might pick up those other references better.

Paul: That's probably the major problem with the book, the way I've slapped on reference after reference after reference. A lot of the time it's just showing off, it's a bit naff sometimes.

David: Then again, it is a first novel.

Paul: Oh, absolutely. It was like clearing all the shit out of the closet.

David: The new one is straight and direct?

Paul: Actually no, it's my 'difficult second LP' novel.

David: I always thought it was the 'difficult third LP'?

Paul: Oh no, I've got a great idea for the third book.

David: The book's (Revelation) a bit of a double-cheat; none of it is written from the Doctor's point of view but it's set mostly inside his mind anyway.

Paul: Actually that was one of the rules we had: we're not allowed to hear the Doctor's thoughts, which was a little limiting sometimes, and Terrance (Dicks) broke the rule.

David: When I wrote a fan novelisation of The Pirate Planet, I deliberately chose not to write anything from the Doctor's point of view, because it forces you into writing motivations and personalities for the other characters, some of whom were severely lacking them in the original TV story.

Paul: The difficulty with that is it makes the Doctor into more and more of a symbol. He's already down to being a quick sketch, an outline, an icon. We're going to have to have a regeneration before you get the Doctor as a character again.

David: As if he's slowly erased...

Paul: His sentences are getting shorter and shorter: 'Yes. Perhaps. Of course.' Soon the ultimate Doctor Who story will be him arriving, getting out of the TARDIS and saying: 'No.'

David: Next book, the Doctor says a single letter: 'A...', then picture books, to simply show his expressions!

Paul: In the new book, after two thirds of it he's got nothing left to do so I thought, okay, flaunt the imperfection; he sits down and plays chess for the rest of the book. He's got it all set up and then it's over.

David: He just lets everybody else get on with their lines, like the good old days when Doctors went on holiday for a week by being knocked unconscious.

Paul: Something I'm dying to do is include a footnote: 'See Doctor Who and the Silurians'... I also want a cover with a big 'KKLACK!' or a big sound effect on it.

David: Perhaps a giant robotic foot kicking a jeep?

Right, want another drink?

Paul: Pint of Guinness, please... Go on, ask me another question.

David: What's the first thing you had published professionally?

Paul: A piece about Rocky Horror in Starburst, a very long time ago. The only piece I've had in Starburst, actually. I've tried to get in again but they wouldn't let me. Just recently I was going to write in and review my own book - it's been done before by some Who people. The cool thing at the moment is for fanzine editors to send in reviews of their own fanzine to CT (newsletter of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society). One recently even sent in a negative review of his own zine!

David: What non-Who material have you had published or broadcast?

Paul: A TV play in the Debut on Two series on BBC2, called Kingdom Come, which was horrible.

David: What, your writing was horrible, or the whole thing?

Paul: No, my writing. The show was pronounced a success, but I don't know why they bought it. Looking back on it, it was incredibly embarrassing.

I was one of three script writers for a Radio 4 comedy series. Unfortunately, the producer went through all our scripts and took all the jokes out.

Err, a comic strip for Judge Dredd: The Megazine (of which David is the editor). Whatever happened to that, David?

David: We lost it. No, honestly, it was painted, lettered, and then it disappeared off the face of the Earth. I think it's still somewhere in the 2000 AD office; probably turn up as a Future Shock one day.

Paul: Well, at least I got paid.

David: When you're about to get the Nobel Prize for Literature, we'll probably find it and publish it, humiliating you in the literary community.

Paul: Yes, I can see it now: 'Iris Murdoch writes Judge Dredd'... Er, and a few pieces in Doctor Who Magazine. It's rather a small and paltry career, when I think about it!

But I've got a couple of non-Who novels I'm trying to get published and I've been commissioned with two other writers (Martin Day and Keith Topping) to write The Guinness Book of British Television, so things are looking up.

I was talking to Ian Briggs recently, and asked him what Ace's second name is because it's revealed in my new book, and he said it's what ever Dorothy's second name is in The Wizard of Oz. So I looked it up and it's Kettle, Dorothy Kettle. No, definitely not, I think. In the new one (Love and War), we go back and meet Ace's mum and dad and find out what the problem was, hear her second name, root it all out.

David: There's a reference to that in Revelation, setting yourself up to do the job.

Paul: It wasn't planned that way, but that's how it's turned out. Actually someone's probably already done it in one of the three books in between and I'm just not aware of it yet.

David: Count yourself lucky; I almost ended up as Peter Darvill-Evans' assistant. I could have been subbing your books.

Paul: You might have kept Hemmings' name the same in both books. He's Anthony in Exodus and Rupert in Revelation! You might have caught my attributing a Shakespearean quote to the wrong play.

David: The bit about 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on'.

Paul: That's actually from The Tempest, and I attributed it to A Midsummer Night's Dream. As one fanboy said to me after the book came out, "'To be or not to be', as Romeo said to Juliet!" It's made my life hell! Actually, in the new book there's a reference to it, where it's proved not to be a mistake but part of continuity! In the strange dimension where Who is set, that is actually a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

David: Tell me about the new book.

Paul: Ace turns into a huge... no, actually, I've been telling everybody that she dies, but when Darvill-Evans puts out a press release saying 'Don't worry, she's back in three books' time', what can you do? Like he told Starlog that Revelation was set inside the Doctor's brain.

David: Somewhat killing the element of surprise you try to build through the whole book.

Paul: So Ace is not dying, she's just gone and she'll be back in three books' time. The big row that's been threatening through all her time with the Doctor finally happens because she falls in real love this time.

David: Not just in love with whoever is going to betray her this time?

Paul: No, this time round it's a huge romance, a big love story. The Doctor messes around with that for his own ends, as usual. They have a huge fight and then that's it. Except the Doctor's probably using that for an even longer term plot.

David: Before the idea of original fiction books was ever likely, I always thought Ace was a tragic character and she had to die.

Paul: Exactly! I wanted to kill her in an incredibly messy way, going out fighting. But that doesn't happen.

Bernice Summerfield, the Doctor's new companion, is someone he can feel comfortable with because she's not part of his plans, she's a sort of healing thing for him because they can just be friends. He doesn't have to include her in any grand schemes.

David: She doesn't wander along saying, 'What's happening now, Doctor?'

Paul: Very much no. She's thirty, she's a scientist, she's grown up, she's very much his equal.

David: Not a case of 'Liz Shaw syndrome'?

Paul: No, because she's funny, she cracks jokes and she doesn't wear mini-skirts. She's somewhat based on Emma Thompson (wife of 'Sir' Kenneth Branagh).

Any more meaningful questions? I'd hate to waste these good pints of Guinness...

David: All right. So, Paul, when's the show coming back?

Paul: Actually, Virgin are hoping it doesn't; it would make writing the books a lot easier. We're hearing the first hints now that if the show doesn't come back, the Doctor will regenerate.

David: What, Virgin will be given authority to regenerate the Doctor?

Paul: Yes, and I want that book.

David: Virgin are talking now of six to eight books after the three-book Cat's Cradle series, which follows Timewyrm, before we reach the thirtieth anniversary. Yours is the first after Cat's Cradle?

Paul: No, the second, after Mark Gatiss (his book is called Nightshade). They're now commissioning the eighth book. But there's some good stuff in the pile. It seems every fanboy in the country has a manuscript in the pile. There's some very good stories coming up. Plus the best of the fan writers are getting their chance, and what distinguishes us from the programme is we've got a bit of daring. During the Saward era the show would get to the brink of doing something interesting and then step back. We're not afraid of making some big steps, and getting rid of Ace was the first major one. When she comes back she'll be a lot older, and quite a different character.

David: Out of necessity, I suppose. If the show ever does come back with Ace, I don't imagine Sophie Aldred will want to play a seventeen-year-old when she's thirty.

Paul: If the show was gone forever, we could do all sorts of things. Blow up Gallifrey, change the format...

David: The Doctor gets his end away...

Paul: I was thinking of doing that in the next book, actually ( laughs). I've got this idea for my last Who book, the third one. It's all about Anarchy in the UK. The Queen gets her head blown off, the Brigadier has his nervous breakdown and Malcolm McLaren saves us all from a bunch of revolutionary aliens.

David: Was Death real or just a manifestation in Revelation?

Paul: It was a manifestation in Revelation, but it's real in the next one.

David: You've been reading Sandman (a comic strip series by Neil Gaiman) again.

Paul: Actually, at a particularly uneventful signing in Lancaster where seven fanboys turned up in ten hours, I read the whole of the Dream Country sequence in Sandman, especially the wonderful Shakespeare episode, and wrote a whole chapter in a very short time, for the new book. In it, in one of Ace's dreams, the Doctor meets Death and offers his next regeneration for Ace's life but Death says no, you've made this bargain before. Which I think is absolutely true; I think the Seventh Doctor travelled back in time and assassinated the Sixth Doctor, forcing the TARDIS into the Rani's beam, because he was fed up with himself.

David: I thought ratings killed the Sixth Doctor.

Paul: I've decided the Doctor should be Time's Champion, something that goes way, way beyond the Cartmel stuff. Because what Cartmel did really appealed to me. I've been given a précis of the whole Cartmellian thing by Darvill-Evans; the birth twice bit, the wise child on Gallifrey bit, the whole relationship with Susan bit.

David: I always expected (Ian) Briggs to write his third and final Who story for Season 27 as the final chapter in the Ace trilogy, with Ace dying.

Paul: Yes, but why has he saddled us with this stupid Dangerous Liaisons Paris in the 18th Century bit in The Curse of Fenric - which I've totally dispensed with. Not that Darvill-Evans has taken any bloody notice of that; he now insists we've got to get her back to France.

David: So, back to the new companion. Why does she bother joining up with the Doctor if she's such a complete person?

Paul: She's looking for her dad. Her mother was reduced to ashes in front of her face in a Dalek attack (the book is set after the Dalek wars). Her dad was an admiral in one of the Earth fleets. He went out to fight the Daleks. They said he ran away, they said he was a coward, and he's out there, somewhere lost and Bernice goes to the frontier and beyond - and the Doctor is a chance to go beyond that, beyond the edge of human space where she is now. She calls herself a professor but she isn't, she's faked her degree, and I think she's a really grand character. Obviously she's going to be maltreated horribly in the books that follow but I'm going to sit back and ignore that. What we're going to do is have the Doctor swap companions a lot, meet up with old ones, use different companions at different times.

David: Like the use of Sarah Jane Smith in the Train-Flight strip in DWM.

Paul: I think the Seventh Doctor and Sarah would go well together. I'd like to use her in the Anarchy in the UK book.

David: So three books would be your limit?

Paul: Yes, but I maintain that there's nothing useless, or silly, or sad about being a Who author. I mean writing Doctor Who is writing mainstream legend, it's writing modern myths. It's open-ended, you can use mythical elements, you have a guaranteed audience, you can piss off the fanboy audience which I'm always in favour of doing. You're allowed to do so much.

Every time I've talked to Darvill-Evans I've expected him to say 'Cut the lesbianism, cut the violence, cut the politics, cut the sex', but all he's ever complained about is continuity. So you've got huge freedom to do what you like as long as you stay within continuity.

Footnote by Paul Cornell (September 2004):

When Paul Scoones showed me this ancient, drunken interview I was shocked by the tone of voice of Young Me. I sound like such an adolescent: patronising and arrogant. Some of that must come with the territory of first time author let loose in their favourite playground, but did I have to be that horrible? I hope that as I've got older doubt has made me a lot milder, and a much better writer. I declare as certainties things which, years later, I thought I'd always decided were going to be grey areas. I'm disrespectful to a boss I now think was one of the best I had, thus breaking one of the rules I like to see other young writers follow! Well, that's the lesson you learn as you approach forty: the things you hate most in other people are the things you did yourself when you were young! I should thank Paul for letting me see myself from so long ago. But ouch!

This item appeared in TSV 28 (April 1992).

Index nodes: Timewyrm: Revelation, Love and War