Saturday, 22 April 2017

Manchester Rally for Chechnya

We've just been at the rally in the Gay Village for the Chechnya concentration camps. Jeremy gave an amazing impromptu speech!

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Sequels Within

Last week all my reading was about the wonderful world of tie-ins and side-steps. Both books grew out of a movie and a TV show, but they did so in an unusual way. Neither were novelizations or comic strip adaptations, and neither were simple, ‘original’ continuations of those stories. They were new tales that grew out of the source material… stories nestled within the original story, expanding and accreting new layers of detail and meaning.

I don’t even know what to call them? Interpolated tales? Further stories-within-stories? Arabesques?

I read ‘Doctor Who – Supremacy of the Cybermen’ by George Mann and Cavan Scott – a graphic novel collected up in one handsome, colourful volume by Titan. And I also read ‘Beauty and the Beast – Lost in a Book’ by Jennifer Donnelly. Both books are absolutely set within the canonical continuity of both franchises, but both are about what we might call The Sequels Within. They are stories that happen within a tiny glitch of a moment within the original story – and, rather wittily and paradoxically – the story secreted inside the original is made to seem epic and colossal. It’s like Athena sprouting fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. Or Pandora’s Box opening. It’s the reassuringly infinite nature of story-telling – reminding us that even something as nailed-down as a multi-million pound franchise can have hidden layers.

Jennifer Donnelly’s novel takes place within the fairy tale / the cartoon / the live action movie / the novelisation of such. It hinges upon Belle’s exploring the Beast’s library and finding a certain book, ‘Nevermore’, which has been placed there by Death in order to lure her away from her destiny. A whole sub-plot and secondary fantasy world is beautifully evoked – with duplicitous gentlewomen, clockwork people and talking insects. Belle is drawn into a trap, but she keeps on interacting with the major plot beats of the film she was originally starring in, while being literally dragged into a different book. It’s all written very lusciously and sparklingly. While it’s a pleasure to venture back into the Beast’s castle and spend more time with his familiar staff, there’s a definite thrill to the slightly macabre shadow-story that Donnelly presents.

Doctor Who is always about time travel and other dimensions and so hidden stories and missing tales have always been part of its fabric. Going back to 1973, when Doctor Two gets plucked from 1967 to co-star in a new adventure in the present day, the show has always reveled in mucking about in these side-steps and arabesques. This latest saga from Titan really goes for it on that score – with an anchor narrative continuing the confusing on-screen climax of season nine to do with Gallifrey (Rassillon survives and starts fraternizing with Cybermen) but also drawing in previous Doctors  in a bewildering and generous array of sub-plots.

All of them are grounded and real and ‘happening’ in their own private time streams: and it’s lovely to have a tale of Nine and Jackie Tyler zooming about in an alternate London (another one!) circa 2005, battling Cybermen. Even though, if we stop to think about it, the actual crystallizing of this storyline into ‘fact’ within the fiction would destabilize other parts of the bigger story (playing havoc with various bits of continuity.) However, of course, it’s in the nature of comic strips to be, well… comic strippy. We are allowed to ditch the continuity qualms in favour of the zippy and outrageous fun of it all – Captain Jack and Rose getting converted and explosions going off and everything seeming so desperate. And, elsewhere in the galaxy, the Tenth Doctor finds himself appointed king of the Sontarans, and the Eleventh tangles (that very comic strippy word!) with Cyber-converted Silurians. It’s reckless, breathless and highly-organised fun.

And, of course, by the ending of it all, the toys are put back into their boxes and the timelines are shoogled back into place quite neatly, due to some apocalyptic and cosmic shenanigans courtesy of the current day Doctor. It’s fitting that all the Gallifrey and Rassillon stuff at the climax feels so much like Bronze Age Marvel Comics – those eternity-shattering adventures in the Forbidden Zone with Galactus and the Silver Surfer. A very Jack Kirby and Stan Lee sort of galaxy. What a great place for Dr Who to be having adventures in. On TV when they conjured cosmic beings we tended to get an old character actor sipping a cocktail at a wickerwork table, and we had to take it on trust that he was the Guardian of Light in Time. In comics we can get the whole cosmic hullaballoo, with spinning vortices and lightning bolts and multi-coloured knobs on. And, of course, it was Marvel Comics and DC comics that taught me, back when I was a kid, that franchises could be rewritten and rebooted in a flash. Remember The Secret Wars, back in the early 80s? When Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were dragged off for just a flicker of an instant in the plodding chonology of Earth? But in their own subjective superhero time they were kidnapped for months – for a whole fabulous mini-series of pulse-pounding new adventures in space…

That’s what the Sequels Within should always feel like. You thought the story was over and you find that – not only does it continue… there are still stories to be unpacked from within the heart of the original. And I love it when the new stories become extravagant and grand, as do both these books I read last week.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Back from my First US Dr Who Con - Regen Who 3

(Photo by Mark Iman Photography)

I’m back home now from a weekend in the US, at the Baltimore-based Dr Who convention, Regen Who. What a delightfully well-organised show it was! I had a fabulous time… beginning with our journey out there, through a myriad of chatty panels and readings and talks… and hilarious conversations in the bar and over dinner and in conference rooms… to the very highpoint of the con for me – which has to be my panel with Katy Manning, in which we talked about Iris Wildthyme and she performed a small, new scene which I had written especially for that day. What a thrill to hear it brought to life on stage beside me, in front of all those lovely fans!

There were many brilliant moments in this Con – orchestrated so well by Oni Hartstein, James Harknell and Craig W. Matthews and their army of helpers – including my chair and the Mistress of Chat, Kara Dennison. I spent much of my time with my mate George Mann, and we had a great many laughs – and some brilliant book-shopping, too – in the gigantic Barnes and Noble on the bay, and in a perfect used-book store we discovered called Book Escape… where Kara and George scored about a dozen 1990s New Adventures novels. (How serendipitous is that..?!)

It was my first US Dr Who Con. I’ve done one or two UK ones in the past, and it’s so nice to be invited and to realise that people really want to hear about the things you’ve done and written. Not just Dr Who, either – people want to know about ‘Baker’s End’ and all the other things I’ve worked on. The big surprise for me of the weekend was just how many people came up and said how much they loved books I wrote almost twenty years ago – ‘The Scarlet Empress’ and ‘The Blue Angel’ – books that were actually pretty difficult to get hold of in America.

The weekend was filled with happy new encounters and reunions and also, meeting with people I already knew very well from social media. Friends like Bret and Syd, who I’ve known for so long via Facebook and a number of collaborative projects – but who I’ve never actually been in the same room as. How magical to sit drinking beer in a bar in Baltimore as if we’ve always been friends. There were also marvelous times and conversations with people I’ve always thought I might enjoy meeting.

Anyway – happy times and places! And some very happy memories. It was the kind of weekend that, though tiring, sends you back to your normal, rather quiet working days in your study, with renewed vigour and glee.

Thanks, all involved. I had a blast!

Monday, 13 March 2017

How are the Writing Resolutions holding up..?

Someone writing a piece for a magazine has asked me about my resolutions for writing for 2017, and whether I'd kept them ... here they are -

Morning pages first every day. Three pages written first thing, about *anything*.

Don’t waste time comparing own career with anyone else's: writing isn't a competitive sport.

Four work sessions every day. On at least two ongoing projects.

TV is kind of rubbish compared with books, so watch less. Read in the evening after dinner.

Journal. Everything goes back to your journals. Look after them. Also, draw - to give you a break from 

And I've stuck to them all so far!

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Returning to Charles De Lint's Books

I’ve been a fan of Charles de Lint since the early Nineties and, as I check back through my reading diary, I find I’ve read more of him than I even knew. Did I read these books in the right order? Is there even a right order to be found? Sitting down this week and reading his mammoth collection of interconnected tales, ‘Dreams Underfoot’ I realise that the correct order is elusive… because Charles de Lint doesn’t write books so much as he writes pomegranates.

‘Dreams Underfoot’ consists of stories to do with characters, places and legends of the fictional city of Newford. The characters are musicians, artists, street kids and writers… people find love, only to have their beloved snatched away by ghosts or mermaids or imps: by the eruption of magic into their everyday lives. It’s a place where people talk about ‘consensual reality’ and the idea that things are so only because more than one or two of us agree that they are so. It’s a place where the fae and the fantastical exist alongside the tragic and gritty.

Nowadays we have a catch-all term for the genre – urban fantasy – and there are dozens of series of novels set in contemporary towns and cities, featuring casts of vampires, shape-shifters, werewolves and warlocks. They’re almost commonplace now…! But back when I was first reading Charles de Lint his work stood out as very unusual, and almost unique.

It still stands out because of the quality of his writing, and the fact that his stories aren’t just about cosmic clashes between good and evil… The genre-blending is never clunky. These are proper tales. They are elegant little poems sprouting up in the urban decay. The characters always come first, and we feel like we are visiting the most important moments in their lives. We look forward to them strolling into further stories, cropping up as co-stars or cameos in the background. There’s a sense of the fantasy city as a living fabric – which is much more believable, to me, than the endless parade of obvious sequels that the genre has slipped into.

There are so many wonderful stories here and, having emerged from the tangled forest of the book by the end, it’s hard to pick out particular ones as favourites. Back to my image of the novel as a pomegranate: the individual cells are tight-packed together beneath the rind – each of them bursting with juice and a precious seed. Doesn’t it feel much more like real life, to learn of a cast of characters’ backstories and destinies, all out of order, all at different stages, as you bump into them? I loved Quentin’s time travel tale of his lost love Sam, split over two stories at opposite ends of the book, as well as the story of the illustrator Jilly Coppercorn, one of the stars of the Newford stories, whose tale of survival we only gradually learn as it gets filtrated through the tales of many others. She’s central to the work, though – she’s the one whose faith never wavers in the fantastical beings who share Newford with the more prosaic folk.

I must have mentioned before, the wonderful remainder bookshop I used to visit in Darlington, opposite the indoor marketplace? Where they used to sell imported American paperbacks for 70p each? This was in the late Eighties, early Nineties – fantasy, science-fiction and horror published by Del Rey, Ace and Berkley. Many of those books – with their luridly-painted covers – were quite unlike anything that you’d find in the ordinary shops. It honestly felt like they had dropped through from another dimension. Charles de Lint’s books were among those I was picking up there – alongside Jonathan Carroll’s, Ursula Le Guin’s and various others. They all had stories in the vast annual compendium, ‘The Best Fantasy and Horror’ edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, which I also bought from that same, tiny shop with its single long table of shiny covers and dusty bare floor.

All that fantasy fiction struck very deep chords with me, I realise now – those early forays into what people would now call Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance. I’m very glad of them – and I’m delighted to return to Newford, and to Charles De Lint’s world of artistic slackers and dreamers; his Rackham-faced goblins, Pre-Raphaelite hippy girls and taciturn musical men. I’m really glad to find I’ve only read about six of the many, many books he’s published. I’m happy to vanish into the rest.