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The Care and Feeding of the Hummingbird

By Kate Orman

Hello again. This article assumes you've read The Left-Handed Hummingbird - if you haven't, some of the details coming up may spoil the plot for you.

This article should really have been written in time for TSV 38. I actually got half a draft written, but then a crisis intervened: Set Piece, the New Adventure I'm currently working on, has turned out to be a much tougher job than Hummer was.

I was getting further and further behind both in the research and the actual writing, so I decided to go on a sort of 'retreat' for a few weeks. This basically consisted of not going out of an evening, but staying home and doing nothing but banging away at the novel - occasionally pausing to answer a letter or do a spot of housework or watch The X-Files, to which I am becoming rapidly addicted - what do you think Mulder and Macbeth might have made of each other?

As I write this, I still have another week of the retreat to go, but the novel's in much better shape - and if I look at chapter two again today. I'll scream. (Later - Set Piece's publication has just been pushed back to February 1995 which gives me a little extra time to write it. Hooray!)

Paul's asked me to tell you a little about how Hummer was actually written. Back in TSV 35 I talked about the book's long history, its beginning as a fanzine story and eventual acceptance by Virgin. I mentioned the details of the physical process of getting the words on paper. Of course, no two writers work the same way, so if you don't find it necessary to have incense and music just ignore me! Hummer was written to the tune of the John Farnham Jesus Christ Superstar (fabulous typing music) and Nirvana's Nevermind, and of course draws on the Beatles especially Revolver and the White Album.

I had hoped to quote Yes' Parallels:

It's the beginning of a new love inside
Could be an ever-opening flower

While working on Set Piece I'm listening to Butterfly Wings by Machines of Loving Grace as well as Pet Shop Boys' Discography (I took time out of the retreat to watch the Mardi Gras parade - I swear Go West was playing on every second float!).

While writing Hummer, I discovered what a research junkie I am. In fact one of the useful criticisms I've received of the book has been that there were too many details! If I had my time over I'd probably cut some of Benny's reading at the museum, for a start.

The Aztecs were easy to research - as I'm finding out, easier to research than Nineteenth-Century France. It helped, of course, that my boss is not only an Aztec buff (and a Kush buff, and a Vikings buff), but he's also a research librarian. He turns up on page 35 as Fitzgerald's research assistant - my way of saying thank you for pointing out so much useful material to me!

My sources varied from a superbly illustrated children's book to the thirteen-volume Codex Florentino, a translation of a massive document written by the Spanish priests who made an effort to preserve the culture the conquistadors were destroying. One of the most extraordinary documents I read was a scientific article called The Non-Economic Nature of Eating People!

The Aztecs continue to intrigue me, Unlike the Ancient Egyptians, who seem to be quite likeable, ordinary people, I feel I'll never fully grasp the Aztec mind-set. There's always a gap when you try to understand another culture, of course, but the Aztecs simply seem insane to us - we can't imagine slaughtering twenty thousand people just to feed some gruesome demon.

But then I remember ten times as many people died for oil and money in the Gulf. The truth is, the Aztecs did what they did for the good old reasons of greed and economics. War and sacrifice, especially on such a spectacular scale, maintains the respect of your allies and your enemies alike - as well as filling your coffers. In this respect, the ancient Mexicans are not much different from us. Huitzilin, living like a parasite on killing, found as much to eat in the Twentieth Century as the Fifteenth. When I read about the Hebron Massacre, or the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, I am still reminded of him. And of course there are the wreaths and flowers outside the Strathfield Plaza, every year...

(Later - just found a big pile of left-over photocopies from the Aztec research. What a jumble - a perpetual Aztec calendar, an article from Scientific American, chapters from Duran's first-hand account, the section on Aztec metaphors from the Florentino, and an intriguing piece on Aztec patriarchy from the Journal of Women in Culture and Society... where am I going to file all this stuff?)

When I was ten or eleven, I was given a biography of the Beatles called Shout: the Beatles in their generation. I'd grown up with their music - I still remember the astonishment with which I first listened to I am the Walrus at the age of ten! As we drove across the US on a three-week holiday, I read one chapter of Shout every day, intrigued to learn the details behind the songs.

I was especially fascinated by the Beatles' use of LSD. I was at the age where warnings about drugs start to be pounded into your head, without much real information to go with it - at least, that was certainly my experience. I knew that you shouldn't take marijuana. I just didn't know what marijuana was. I imagined some sort of dangerous white powder.

Shout gave considerable detail about the Beatles' early experiences with acid, and its effects on their music. Memories of the Sixties are shallow: a recent 'hippie' party I went to consisted largely of standing around wearing headbands and saying 'peace'. But of course the hippies were just one expression of a tremendous cultural upheaval, fuelled by an influx of new ideas from the East. Meditation and yoga were one way to expand the mind; psychedelic drugs were seen as another. The term 'hippie' literally means a drug user - someone who has a sore on their hip from lying on their side smoking opium.

Of course, westerners have the unfortunate habit of overdoing things. The Indians smoked a pipe of tobacco a week, and chewed cocoa leaves at special ceremonies and when they were on long journeys. It took the Anglos to invent chain-smoking and crack. Native Americans must fall around laughing when they're told they can't hold their alcohol.

The link between hippies and Aztecs, then, was their common use of mind-altering substances to produce religious experiences. At an early stage of plotting, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was going to make an appearance. His poem Kubla Khan was inspired partly by Purchas' Pilgrimages and partly by a large dose of opium - and Purchas described the Aztecs in some detail. But the link was too tenuous, and anyway, Douglas Adams has already done Coleridge.

The other main omission from the book was Charles Manson. Manson, whose followers committed a number of brutal murders, thought he was picking up messages from the Beatles' music, messages telling him that he should precipitate the end of the world. He's also the archetypal evil drug-crazed hippie figure. I had some insane idea about the Doctor popping over to California to save poor Sharon Tate, but happily my good taste circuit kicked in...

Well, you've probably been wondering what drugs I've taken myself, and the answer is I had a Panadol about an hour ago because my back is hurting. I've never used any recreational drugs stronger than coffee. I don't even smoke or drink. In fact, my very first submission to Virgin was rejected partly because it was too obviously anti-drug! So much for the traditional advice of writing about what you know.

I had to use books - most notably Richard Woodley's superb, grim Dealer: portrait of a cocaine merchant. I also drew a little on my own experience of Zen meditation, which can have profound effects on one's state of consciousness.

I wanted to write the drug sequences from the point of view of the user, to give the reader some idea of what a psychedelic experience might actually be like. I've been very pleased to be told by people who have dropped acid that the 'trips' in Hummer were convincing. Cris' jaunt up Baker Street (light in his head and dead on his feet) is my favourite.

There are fictional sources too.

Vibes (a fun film with Jeff Goldblum, Cyndi Lauper and Julian Sands) provided a haunting image of a person 'possessed' by a mystical object. I drew on The Awakening and Ghostbusters for ideas on how psychic energy might work. UNIT appeared fairly late in the day, to provide a rationale for Macbeth's activities - and unintentionally became a staple of the Alternative Universe Cycle, appearing in four of the five books! Paul Cornell was able to read a copy of Hummer while writing No Future, and tied together the UNIT references in both books.

There's more research, much more than it would be worth going into detail about. Walter Lord's Titanic classics, National Geographic articles on hummingbirds and modern Mexico, Let me take you down (a conspiracy theory about Lennon's murder), The Times on microfilm... Set Piece is going the same way. There are books on Akhenaten in my socks drawer, for goodness' sake. 1 must set my next New Adventure on some alien planet where no one will notice if I get the details wrong!

I carry a notebook around with me, jotting down ideas as they arise, and bits of research. For me this is indispensable, because I forget everything! I tend to write first drafts very quickly and then go back and add more detail, drawing on my notebook. Interlude 2 consists largely of the material that wouldn't fit in anywhere else...

If you've ever wondered why manuscripts have to be submitted typed, one-sided, double-spaced, with certain conventions - particular styles of punctuation, such as the single quotes used in the New Adventures - it's because the completed manuscript is 'marked up' and sent straight to the typesetters. A manuscript with too many spelling or punctuation errors can get you rejected, simply because of the great cost of having it corrected and re-typed.

The next stage is the proof - the pages of the book printed onto sheets of paper so that they can be proofread (now you know what it means!). The proof is checked by the editor, by the author, and by a professional proofreader. Alas, since the manuscript is re-typed as it's typeset, additional errors can creep in and when you've already read the book a dozen times, they're surprisingly difficult to spot. The now legendary 'visitor's ass' on page 107 is a good example (an even better error than the Doctor being referred to as 'the smell man' in Warhead) and I've spotted an assortment of other typos.

Adam McGechan kindly (sound of authorial teeth grinding) pointed out some of the mistakes in Hummer in TSV 37. For instance, the back cover gives the wrong date. That's not all - Cristián's name is miss-spelt, and Mexico is Central America, not South America. I was hoping to keep the Titanic a secret as well as to correct these errors, but alas, the cost of resetting the cover proof is prohibitive.

Then there's the bizarre misspelling of Crook Marsham - I must have been thinking of Sherlock Holmes' pipe, a Meerschaum. But, alas, Adam has misunderstood the meaning of 'heavy metal' on page 38 - I was thinking of weaponry, not music.

Finally, how can the 1980 version of Cristián remember something which happened in 1993? Because the Blue is time-permeable, just as it says on page 163. That's how Benny can share Ace's Aztec dream on page 88. Cristián, being sensitive to the Blue, can recall its future as well as its past.

The proof of Hummer was ready for checking about the same time I was due for a holiday in the UK. Rather than mail me the proof and risk it missing me, Virgin hung on to it. Once I'd recovered from the Tavern and Panopticon (I went to the loo with Sophie Aldred! - but that's another story), I spent two and a half days checking the proofs at a spare desk.

Peter Darvill-Evans warned me that he had added some extra material to help the novel tie in to the other Alternative Universe books. As it turned out, his editing had been very gentle - but I still rewrote the addition, since Peter's and my prose styles are strikingly different. I did leave one PDE sentence completely intact (it's on page 23) to see if anyone would notice...

By this stage, the Beeb had put its censorial foot down: no more f-words in the New Adventures. Curiously, they had not laid down any guidelines about sex or violence - just language. Sometimes I think we have our priorities a little skew: it's okay for children to read about Benny smashing someone's head in with a frying-pan, but not to read the phrase 'What the fuck have you been doing to him?'

Actually, that sentence had been accidentally left unchanged in the proof ('I say, Rebecca, there's a fuck on page 183!'). Ace's florid exclamation on page 238 had been changed to 'Damn, damn, damn!' which just didn't seem to have the right impact.

Swear words are like any other tool of the writer: they have to be used appropriately, with precision - not only to shock the reader at the right moment but also to lend realism to characters we know would swear (such as the toughened soldiers and prostitutes in Transit). The BBC ban takes one colour away from the New Adventure writers' palette, making awkward euphemisms like frag and cruk necessary. I'm not sure that the trade-off between some reader's sensibilities and honest writing is a fair one.

Fandom, as well as being a swinging, hip place, can also display astonishing conservatism - the controversy over Transit is a good example. Everyone has their own mental definition of what is or isn't Doctor Who. Mine's pretty broad: I haven't read an New Adventure yet that I consider to be 'not Doctor Who', even though I haven't liked all of the books. (I babble on in this vein in TSV 33).

Hummer contains no sex (I dropped early plans for Cristián to fall in unrequited love with Bernice, thank goodness), a great deal of violence, some low-key swearing, and more drug trips than the entirety of televised Who. I was desperately hoping that there'd be a controversy at least about the latter, but in fact most fans don't seem to have been bothered by the inclusion of drugs. They are, after all, just another plot device.

It took the scum British press to drum up any shock or horror over Hummer's slightly unorthodox subject material. Dr Who trips through time ...on LSD! blurted the Sunday Mirror (12 December 1993). The item included comments from a group called Family and Youth Concern on the Doctor's drug use - 'There is a very real danger that teenagers might want to emulate him.' Yeah, if they don't mind blood coming out of their ears.

The article also said that 'A source at the BBC warned that they might reconsider the licensing arrangements which allowed the New Adventures to be written.' I was worried by this until I called Virgin and discovered that the Beeb hadn't contacted them about the book or the Sunday Mirror's article.

Funny story here. The article quoted an old press release of PDE's responding to complaints about the sex in Genesys: 'We will not be publishing Confessions of a Dalek or Sexy Secrets of The Cybermen'. One fanzine in Australia took this the wrong way: 'The controversial story... is creating some problems with the publishers who refuse to run her follow-up stories 'Confessions Of A Dalek' and 'Sexy Secrets Of The Cybermen'. Shame shame shame.' (Fantasia, 2/94).

Ironically, the article included a picture of the Fifth Doctor ('Peter Davison was a real clean-cut Doctor. He'd shudder to learn of his junkie alter ego'). The Doctor smoked in An Unearthly Child, and has been seen drinking from time to time - Day of the Daleks, The Stones of Blood, etc. But his one and only psychedelic drug trip was in Snakedance!

I've been an exceptionally lucky young writer. Many novelists struggle for ten or even twenty years before having anything published; I've not only seen print on the third attempt, but the response to Hummer has been an author's dream. What criticism I have received has been of the constructive kind. That's one of the best things about fandom - you get feedback. Even if fandom can be prudish about the New Adventures, at least they care.

As you probably know, I'm writing Ace out in Set Piece, which is a tremendously daunting task - her story dates right back to Dragonfire and weaves through all the New Adventures, even the handful in which she does not appear. There's also the anxiety that people will compare Set Piece to Hummer. Will it be as favourably received? I suppose I'll find out in 1995!

Let me leave you with my two favourite reactions to Hummer so far, both from friends of mine. Marco read the end of chapter four, ran downstairs, screamed, and ran back upstairs to keep reading.

Peter threw up.

I tell you, it's an author's dream.

This item appeared in TSV 39 (May 1994).

Index nodes: The Left-Handed Hummingbird