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Paul Cornell Interview

By Paul Scoones

Paul Cornell is the most prolific of Virgin Publishing's current stable of Doctor Who authors. He has no less than six novels to his name as well as collaborating with two other authors on the acclaimed The Discontinuity Guide. As the author of the 50th New Adventure, he is an appropriate interview subject to mark the fifth anniversary of Virgin's popular original Doctor Who fiction series. This interview was conducted via email in July 1996.

Paul Scoones: Timewyrm: Revelation was based on Total Eclipse, a story written for the fanzine Queen Bat. In what ways does Revelation differ?

Paul Cornell: For a start, the Doctor was Peter Davison then, and at the end of the story, he regenerated into Richard Briers. The angst was Tegan angst, not Ace angst. The villain was a sort of demon from the Doctor's subconscious instead of the Timewyrm (I think I invented the Valeyard!) And two scientists from the future, who had been in a previous story of mine, were there instead of Hemmings. Oh yes, and Revelation was much better.

PS: Were you aware in making Revelation such an innovative and ground-breaking novel that its style would be radically different form its three predecessors?

PC: Well, that was my version of mainstream fan fiction! The fan fiction of the time was very radical indeed, and, in context with that, Revelation would seem relatively tame. I wasn't sure what the three guys before me were doing, but no, I didn't expect anything cutting edge from John Peel.

PS: Your second novel, Love and War, was an important milestone for the series in that it featured the departure of one companion and the arrival of another. Although Ace returned a few books later, if the decision had been yours, would she have left permanently in your book?

PC: Yes.

PS: Was Ace always going to return, or was Love and War at one time intended as her final departure?

PC: No, she was always going to return. PDE [Peter Darvill-Evans] only ever had it in mind to change her.

PS: Bernice was one of several characters 'auditioning; for the part of the new companion'. At what point in the writing of Love and War did you know that she had been selected, and did this development have much of an effect on the novel?

PC: After the plot had been submitted, before I started writing. I was so full of confidence then that I never really doubted that she'd be taken on. But I'm sure that I could have written a scene where she stayed behind quite easily.

PS: Which other 'auditioning companions' were you aware of?

PC: Kadiatu and William Blake.

PS: How well do you feel other writers have portrayed Bernice?

PC: Very well, actually. I was expecting the worst, but she seems to have caught on, and got a life of her own, which feels rather odd, sometimes. Gareth [Roberts], Kate [Orman] and Ben [Aaronovitch] use her particularly well.

PS: Why is that odd?

PC: Because she's part of me, a voice that I use very often, and that people are starting to spot in everything I write. I didn't expect her to get a mind of her own.

PS: Your third novel, No Future, concluded the five-book 'Alternative Universe cycle', What involvement did you have in devising this series?

PC: I plotted it out as a format document, then sat down with Jim [Mortimore] and Steve [Lyons] in the Virgin basement to add details. Jim put in the change of the Doctor's TARDIS, because he'd basically already finished Blood Heat.

PS: What was the reason behind changing the TARDIS?

PC: You'd better ask him that. Something vainglorious I expect.

PS: Your books have generally been met with very positive reactions from reviewers however No Future received a somewhat mixed reaction. With the benefit of hindsight, what is your opinion of this novel?

PC: It's a load of bollocks, aptly enough. About six novels' worth of ideas, shoved up against each other to the point where they groan under the pressure. My From Dusk Till Dawn. I thought it was going to be the all-devouring novel, and instead it devoured me, reflecting the shit I was going through at the time. From then on, I decided that vast season-ending epics were a bad idea, and turned away from the dark path. The prose is awful, too. Some bits I still love, and I know other people see it in different ways, but altogether... there should have been another way.

PS: Which bits do you still love?

PC: The plot twist about the knife. The Brigadier. The Doctor giving the kiss of life to the dying man. And the Mediasphere.

PS: Given the task of writing the first Missing Adventures novel, you chose to set your Fifth Doctor book, Goth Opera, between Snakedance and Mawdryn Undead. Why this particular placing?

PC: I have totally forgotten, but that wasn't one of my better decisions, was it? I must have hoped to get more out of Tegan's post-Mara angst, but it would have been much easier to just set it before Snakedance, eh? I always say there's a missing Mara story between that and Mawdryn.

PS: Revelation and Goth Opera were both linked to books by Terrance Dicks (Timewyrm: Exodus and Blood Harvest respectively). How much consultation did you have with Dicks in each instance?

PC: I enjoy consultation with Dicks. And I like talking to Terrance. In the case of Revelation we just had a couple of phone calls, and I chucked him some notes about Hemmings. For Goth Opera, I read his book as I was writing mine, so we spliced them really well. Being able to go out and get drunk with him is one of the great joys of my life as a writer. It's nice to know your heroes.

PS: What is it about Terrance Dicks that makes him one of your heroes?

PC: When I was ill, my Dad used to read me Terrance Dicks books. His economy and his ability to find the most obvious line through complicated exposition are admirable. He keeps working. And he's a good person.

PS: Who created Hemmings - you or Terrance?

PC: Me. Although there would, presumably, have been an equivalent character in Terrance's book anyway.

PS: Having written for both series, what do you feel are the fundamental differences in writing a Missing Adventure?

PC: Until recently, you had to abandon any thoughts of originality. There aren't many other Doctors I could write for apart from Davison and McCoy, because they're the ones I love. I tried all sorts of different format things, to distract myself, and, I know, I should have bitten the towel and written for the fanboys, but I didn't because I was angry about the myth of satanic abuse. I still think the New Adventures are where the action is. Sorry, was.

PS: In addition to writing fiction, you have also collaborated on a Doctor Who reference book with two other authors, Keith Topping and Martin Day. How did you coordinate the writing of The Discontinuity Guide as a group effort?

PC: Lots of yelling. Keithy did a list of all the stories, giving us each every third one, then we traded to take on ones we wanted to talk about. As TSV readers have seen from Keith's seminal piece on the bits taken out, the three of us working together is never easy. We fight like dogs in a bucket. There are still things taken out [see article in TSV 47] that were taken out simply because they were untrue, but try telling that to a muscly Geordie with a knuckle-duster. We tried not to edit each other's reviews, but we did. We sat down together and watched Trial, and were surprised to really enjoy it. And then we split up, as we have twice since. But they keep offering us new books.

PS: Your next New Adventure took a long time to get right, and you credit fellow novelist Kate Orman with plotting assistance. Why was Human Nature such a difficult novel to plot out?

PC: Why is a mouse when it spins? The thing is, I had the basic line of what happens to the Doctor (although I added some stuff, both concise and perplexing, in the writing), but had no idea of who the villains were, or what the location was. They were, at various stages, the Hoothi, terrorists with Krynoid pods, the Timewyrm, and a group of all thirteen incarnations of one particular bad time lord. The Aubertides were invented so we could get the best of both worlds on that last one. The location was Cheldon Bonniface, then a village in World War Two before we got to 1914. Kate's wonderfully concise plotting brain helped me sort it all out.

PS: Were you concerned that having the Doctor fall in love in Human Nature might have been too radical for many readers to accept?

PC: No! We all know what an open-minded, freethinking group of radical liberals Doctor Who fans are! They'll accept anything that's fresh and new! Oh, all right then: yes.

PS: At one time you said that Human Nature was going to be your last Doctor Who novel. What changed your mind?

PC: Money. Oh, and the sheer fun of being allowed to do a romantic comedy. I submitted the idea for Happy Endings to Rebecca [Levene, Virgin's Doctor Who editor] as a joke, because we both like those issues of comics where the heroes get married.

PS: So having submitted the idea as a joke, how did you feel when it was accepted?

PC: Initially, a little nonplussed, because I wasn't sure if I could do it. Then I got into it and started to think of all the cool things I could do.

PS: All but one of the New Adventures authors each wrote a short segment for Happy Endings. How did you go about the seemingly daunting task of coordinating so many writers to collaborate on one chapter?

PC: It happened very quickly, really. Rebecca gave me a list of phone numbers for the ones I don't see down the Tavern [the Fitzroy Tavern, a regular meeting place in London for Doctor Who fans], and called a couple of real recluses herself. The hardest one to find was Andrew Hunt, who'd gone off to be a vet on a moor somewhere because of a bad review in TV Zone. I asked Jim [Mortimore] to contribute, but he didn't have time to, being much too big-time for us now.

PS: The chapter reads remarkably smoothly, all things considered. How specific was your brief to each author?

PC: I mentioned a buffet, a dress and a church hall. And I did a lot of little edits.

PS: It has been said that you set yourself the task of 'solving' all of the New Adventures' continuity problems and tying up the loose ends in Happy Endings. How well do you think you achieved this?

PC: I think I actually found there weren't that many problems. And I solved the ones that annoyed me, such as the eight twelves, the old TARDIS, Hemmings' name, etc. I do a lot of really tiny things too, like explain William Blake's odd religious beliefs in The Pit.

PS: What degree of collaboration did you have with Dave Stone in creating the character of Jason Kane, Bernice's husband?

PC: Dave and I swung about the corner of a bar at the Tavern, and we had a few phone conversations. I wanted Jason to be more like Kenneth Branagh, but he's wholly Dave's character as he stands.

PS: Two of your novels feature the old Ace and two feature the new version. Which do you prefer writing for and why?

PC: Well, there is the Old, the New, and the Newest, and, of those, I prefer the Newest, because she's finally grown up, and got through that weird kiddie phase of thinking that guns and bombs are cool. Good to have followed her all that way.

PS: At which point did you decide to adopt the 'English Seasons' motif for your New Adventures?

PC: At the end of Love and War, because I just realised that it was going to fit. There are quite a few things that unite the four books, like the snowflakes and the owls. I really like series that have only obscure links.

PS: How much involvement do you have in determining the cover paintings of your books?

PC: Revelation: they asked what scene I wanted on it. Love and War: I sketched the cover on a napkin and asked for Lee Sullivan. No Future: I compromised on what was going on (I wanted Stonehenge), and they gave me the choice of Pete Wallbank or another artist. And, Pete being a mate... he has since said that he's sorry, but I don't quite believe him yet. Goth Opera: Quick discussion about the castle and Nyssa, Alister [Pearson] was everybody's choice and was kind enough to send me a print. Human Nature: selected the scene, and heard lots of raves about the artist. I quite like it. Happy Endings: I really wanted a group photo, and went to the extent of actually plotting out who should be standing where. The artist did a fabulous job in those horrible circumstances.

PS: Many of your characters appear to be named after people you know. To what extent do these characters generally reflect their real-life namesakes?

PC: Some do, some don't. Usually, I only name a character after somebody I know when a reader who didn't know anything about fandom would just wander straight past it and not notice. Major characters aren't usually named after real people. Maire and Roisa in Love and War were characterised after two mates of mine, but not under their real names. Matthew in Goth Opera was going to be called Steve, until Rebecca pointed out that I'd given him Steve Lyons' house!

PS: The archaeologist Paul Magrs in Love and War is for me a particularly memorable character. Is he named after, or perhaps even based on, the author of the novels Marked for Life and Does it Show, whom, like yourself, was educated at Lancaster University?

PC: Absolutely! We were in the same class doing the Writing MA at Lancaster. He's a very good writer who had an NA turned down as I was writing Love and War, but stuck it out and eventually got accepted as a very literary author. He was writing Does it Show at Lancaster.

PS: How easy is it for you, an established Doctor Who author, to get a New or Missing Adventure proposal commissioned? Have you had many proposals rejected?

PC: I've had one actual rejection. My second submission, Souleye, an Autons vs. UNIT story, was turned down, and bits appeared in No Future. But I'm fortunate in that I can get a potential rejection over in a couple of minutes, because I know Rebecca quite well, so if I outline a silly idea, she can just stop it there and then. Indeed, Rebecca rejects me all the time. I still have to try very hard. We all do.

PS: As a former fan fiction writer yourself, what are your feelings on the growing trend of fan fiction based on the New Adventures?

PC: It's wonderful to set up a paradigm and see other people play with it. There was some cool NA fiction in TSV recently, and some more in Skaro. I'm starting to see it all over the place. Hopefully, the forthcoming Benny books will provide a voice for this sort of stuff after the license goes.

PS: As the creator of Bernice Summerfield, how much input are you having in the setting up of this new series from Virgin?

PC: There's a conference being held this Thursday [11 July 1996] between the authors Virgin want for the first six books: me, Gareth, Matt Jones, Lance Parkin, Andy Lane and Justin Richards. I'm going to have to fight my way through to a democratic agreement, and we're already at odds, so it's the usual clash between Apollo and Dionysius that powers the Virgin engine. If I owned Bernice, of course, things might be different.

PS: The personifications of Death and Time feature in almost all of your books. Did you envisage these characters as Eternals from the outset, or is this a later development?

PC: It was me quickly thinking of something concrete to stop them getting too Gaiman. No five year master plan here, tosh!

PS: You have previously cited Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic book series as an influence on your writing. To what extent are Death and Time inspired by Sandman?

PC: Not at all. Completely. Not at all. Completely! Erm, I'd like to think it was the former, but it's really the latter. Although mine is a different Death.

PS: Given the opportunity, how would you feel about writing a novel using Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor?

PC: I've rather got the chance now, and I'm not sure I'd want to do it exactly like the movie, as a challenge, but that would be making it deliberately confusing and silly, so I don't know. I probably never will.

PS: Do yon envisage the eighth Doctor as continuing in the role of Time's Champion?

PC: No, because Marc Platt is going to resolve all that in Lungbarrow.

PS: Which of your six novels do you personally consider to be your favourite?

PC: Human Nature. It's incredibly personal, and I'll always be proud of it. But I'm rather fond of Happy Endings as well, because I think it's my best plot and structure.

PS: Will Happy Endings be the last or are there yet more Paul Cornell Doctor Who books lurking in the wings...?

PC: One Missing Adventure for BBC Books, if they commission it. The first Benny book for Virgin, if I win that battle on Thursday. And maybe some short stories. Or maybe not.

[Goth Opera Original Cover] [Happy Endings Original Cover]

Original cover proofs for Goth Opera and Happy Endings

This item appeared in TSV 48 (August 1996).

Index nodes: Timewyrm: Revelation, Love and War, No Future, Goth Opera, Human Nature, Happy Endings