Thursday, 28 March 2013

Women Writing Doctor Who

The novelist Stella Duffy and TV writer Helen Raynor are completely right when they point out how few Doctor Who stories have been written by women. It's ludicrous and pitiful, really. Raynor's own episodes are a distinguished exception to the norm, and were produced under the reign of Russell T Davies a number of years ago. The current crop of episodes in the 50th anniversary season seem, from a perusal of this week's Radio Times, uniformly Boys' Clubbish in terms of both writing and direction.

I'll not talk here about women writers in TV, or women writers in genre generally, or even women in science fiction and fantasy. There are brilliant women in all those fields, having their work produced and published.

But Doctor Who is a funny one, isn't it? For a show that seems so progressive in all sorts of ways...  it can be a bit behindhand at times.

There's no excuse for this, though. They need to sort it out. And it isn't good enough to suggest that Doctor Who is 'traditionally' the preserve of uptight, white, middle class male writers, and that it's everso tricky to change that - even in 2013.

Come on - not so long ago EVERYTHING was the preserve of uptight, white, middle class males...

And - while we're on - can i just say I thought the presentation of Amy Pond in Doctor Who was a bit sexist as well?

Old style Doctor Who had a few, rare, wonderful examples of Doctor Who written by women. Barbara Clegg wrote 'Enlightenment' for 1984's season - a rollicking metaphysical space opera featuring sailing ships racing through the solar system. The original show's run came to a close in 1989 with Rona Munro's 'Survival' - which, with its blend of suburbia and alien exotica, now seems very much ahead of its time.

Doctor Who appears in other formats than TV, of course - and some its greatest, most imaginative stories appear not on BBC 1 but in audio form or as novels. Two of the great stars of the literary Doctor Who universe are two i'd like to nominate for TV writing duties. Both Kate Orman and Jacqueline Rayner were writing original Who fiction and scripts back in the Nineties and continue to do so to this day. They've produced wonderful stories. 

I'd like to point up, in particular, Rayner's audio epic from Big finish productions, 'Doctor Who and the Pirates', in which Colin Baker gets to shine as he never did on TV. A whole episode is played out in Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche. It's a stunning piece of work. The same author's theme-park-gone-crazy novel, 'Earthworld' has just been republished in paperback - part of a range that took Eighth Doctor Paul McGann into future, phantasmagorical worlds.

Kate Orman's first Who novel came out twenty years ago (!), when Virgin books were first publishing original stories. Lots of those Virgin alumni became writers for the TV show - Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffatt, Russell T Davies himself. Funny how the few to make the transition to the world of TV tended to be male. 

Orman was / is - in my opinion - one of the most sophisticated and inventive of the lot. If you can get hold of it, check out her 'Year of Intelligent Tigers' - another entry in the Eighth Doctor series, and a wonderful, magical, surreal tale it is.

So... I just thought, with all this debate going on I wanted to nominate two of my favourite Who writers for TV work. They just happen to be women as well. The show is crying out for them.

Friday, 22 March 2013

no such thing as a free festival...

 i've said it before and i'll say it again. if you're organising a lit festival and you want professional authors to come and give talks, then you have to pay them like a professional. Unless it's an agreed thing for a charity. You don't suggest it would be good for me to do it for free in order to 'improve my profile' and you don't suggest handing round a hat for people to put money in, or even suggest that i take the money from the door. We agree a price beforehand and i come and do the gig. And if it's close by i don't even need travel and accommodation costs (though otherwise i do!) If all that's settled - i'll come and do a star bloody turn for you. But you know what? I'm a proper writer who makes not a great deal out of my books - and just like many other writers - I'm still trying to make a living. I'm not turning up to do free work because that's how i get my kicks. I'm not someone who doesn't need the cash. Just sort it out, will you?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

thinking about the Next Day... and about James Herbert

I've been thinking about it a lot... and i've just updated my status on facebook and surprised myself by nailing *exactly* what i think about my vague resistance the new Bowie album (as well as the fact it's missing Mike Garson on piano - and really, any tinkling, extravagant campery altogether..!)

here's my sudden thought this morning...

I'm still just not getting into The Next Day. And I've been obsessed with Bowie since I was 15. I feel a little like... when the rest of the world rediscovered Dr Who in 2005. They were going on and on and i was thinking... but, but... 'happiness patrol', 'lungbarrow', 'crystal bucephalus'... just like now i'm thinking... but ... but! ... 'thursday's child' and 'strangers when we meet' AND 'everyone says hi'...! Where were you then, you sheep? you dafties..?!

James Herbert died.

He wrote the first bit of gay fiction i ever read - and memorised! A surprisingly touching chapter in The Rats, believe it or not. It ends badly, obviously, but not because they're gay. Just because it's The Rats and *everyone* gets eaten, whatever their preferences. Herbert was always surprising and wrote very much about the world we live in - which is more that can be said for many contemporary novelists. 

The book of his I loved most was The Magic Cottage, which I read when I was sixteen. I might have loved it because my secondhand copy smelled very strongly of cigarettes. At the time though, I thought he was much better than Stephen King, because he was *here* and wrote about people you saw everyday.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Do you reread favourite books much?

I know that some of my most valuable and treasured reading is actually rereading. Most of my reading time is about the constant search for something new, something wonderful and something I haven't found yet. But some of the best times ever are spent returning to favourites.

The recent blog posts about World Book Day - and seeing photos of various people's favourite books from when they were kids has made me determined to pick out a heap of children's books for rereading.  i seem to have picked out the round number of nine...

Just looking at this heap of stuff - there are things here that are long overdue revisiting. Sylvia Waugh's modern classic 'The Mennyms'! Turns out that it's a full twenty years since i first read this novel. (It's about a secretive and possibly non-human family living quietly in a house somewhere in a North Eastern town. I won't give away their true nature here.)

I often write my name and the date I read a book on the first page - and so I know that I last read Michael Ende's 'The Neverending Story' twelve years ago. That's much too long a gap without returning - so on the heap it goes!

As a kid i never read E.L Konigsburg and so it was only in recent years Stuart Douglas told me about 'From the Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler' - about the two kids who run away from home and camp out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It turns out that was five years ago, and I need to go back to it to appreciate again how brilliant Konigsburg is.

Pamela Sykes' spooky and strange 'Come Back, Lucy' was a find from last year - but I knew I would be rereading it before long...

Some of the others I haven't read since I was actually a kid - those Cave Monsters, those insects aboard the giant airborne peach... and that adventure on Mystery Moor!

This feels like a little bit of a holiday coming up. A holiday into the past...

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

recent dramas

Two things to catch while they're still on bbc iplayer. First is 'The Lady Vanishes', which was a 90 minute drama from Sunday night. A remake of the Hitchcock classic (and the 1979 Hammer neglected gem.) I loved this version, I must say. Yes, it suffers from the usual idiotic contemporary TV cliches and stylistic glitches (GOD I wish they'd never invented HD. I like to *watch* drama - not swim in it.) But there was a lot to love about this. A very good leading lady in Tuppence Middleton, with misapplied lipstick and a snotty attitude that soon turns into twitchy, shrill paranoia. Plus, Tom Hughes made a very beautiful and watchable Max - keen to help and a little out of his depth, yet thoroughly heroic by the end. And some fabulous secondary parts played by Gemma Jones, et al. All of them sinister and rather less cosy than expected. I loved their Mrs Froy, too. One of my favourite characters in fiction, she is - even though she never does much but takes Iris to tea, beadily drops a few hints and spends most of her time tied up in her underwear elsewhere. 

It was stylised, glamorous and silly - and quite the opposite of the brilliant drama I listened to on Sunday night. BBC 3 had 'The Startling Truths of Old World Sparrows' by Fiona Evans. (This will only be available on the bbc website till next saturday, i believe, so do go and find it.) It's a wonderful play, with the voices of three old people mithering on as the snow falls down on their houses. Their words come apparently verbatim from actual people that the author, Fiona Evans and producer Pauline Harris interviewed - and they are collaged into a wonderfully rich pattern. It's all about resilience, recollection and vulnerability - with a gorgeous, chiming score. All the elderly characters are played by child actors and this adds something bizarre and unique to the play. I can't quite say what that is yet. Perhaps it sounds like a new kind of interiority. Perhaps we're hearing how these characters sound inside their own heads - young forever. The youthful voices sound so naturalistic and tough - they are wonderful performances. Just go and listen to it! It's worth a thousand zombie dramas, police procedurals or soap stars on fire. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

Fifteen Years Since 'Doctor Who - The Scarlet Empress.'

It's fifteen years since I finally finished and delivered my first Doctor Who novel to my editor, Steve Cole, at BBC Books. It had taken me a year to write, from commissioning in early 1997. It was a book that grew out of a year of turmoil. All that year - through a house move, change of city and start of a new job, and illness in three of the people closest to me - it felt like I was fending off adversity by submerging myself in magic and adventure.

Much of this book was written in cafe bars in Edinburgh in the summer of 1997. Jeremy had had a big operation and I'd go to visiting hours twice a day at the Victorian hospital and, in the two hour gap between opening hours I'd sit in a cafe scribbling in my Daler and Rowney sketchbooks. I ordered tall, foamy pitchers of iced coffee and sit under a metal table under sprays of exotic flowers. Here I could write to my heart's content and remain undisturbed. I sat very still in order to write a book that was in perpetual motion. It was a restless, gigantic, muddled-up odyssey.

'The Scarlet Empress' was one of those books I wrote as if it was going to be the last book ever. I poured everything into it: a childhood love of Marvel comics. Angela Carter's stories and fairy tales. The Arabian Nights and Hanna Barbera cartoons. Ray Harryhausen monster movies and Cilla Black LPs. Marlene Dietrich and Vladimir Propp. Mae West and Lewis Carroll. Looking back, i think I was assembling all my favourite things - the sounds, textures, colours - in order to fight off anxiety.

It was to be very much my take on Doctor Who. I wanted to write as if this was my one and only chance to write for the series. I wanted to say that Doctor Who had given me so much in my lifetime, and I wanted to give as much as I could back to it.

And I wanted to give him Iris Wildthyme, too. She was a character who would be a female counterpart to the Doctor. One who seemed to know more about his own past and future than he did, and one who had the tatty diaries to prove it. One who undercut his Time Lord bluster and called him 'sweetie.' A woman who dressed like a homeless drag queen and who travelled the cosmos in a miraculous double decker. She was mysterious, amoral, and possibly sinister. She was the Doctor's unwanted love interest - his Irene Adler, his Catwoman, his Mrs Slocombe. All rolled into one divine - and profane - package.

I also wanted to mess about with the shape of stories. Much is said about Doctor Who's endless flexibility, but mostly they are adventure stories. Even when they're not strictly linear, they are just shuffled about a bit. I think I wanted to think about other kinds of tales - musings, road movies, meanderings, picaresque twiddles, epic journeys, tales-within-tales, whispered legends, gossip, diary entries, interior monologues, doggerel,  pointless flashbacks... Or, at least, have the characters entertain these ideas.

It was never as simple as deciding to write a 'fantasy' adventure that was about 'magic' as opposed to a 'science fiction' story about 'science.' I can see why the book can seem like that at first sight. It was more about seeing what other genres and traditions I could draw upon. I was thinking about whimsy, surrealism, folk tales, as much as anything else. Above all - more than science fiction - Doctor Who seemed to me to be a compendium of fairy tales that just happened to have been told to us, so far, through the medium of late twentieth century science fiction. In another time and place it would have and was, in fact, quite different.

Sometimes the books you write are important to you because of the people you meet and the friends you make because of them. 'The Scarlet Empress' was the beginning of my great friendship with its editor, Steve Cole, who was magnificently encouraging all the way through the writing and publication. Once the book was out, I made a whole lot more friends as a result. Over the years since it's drawn all kinds of people into my life. I'm very grateful for that.

It's also had a fair amount of controversy around and about it, too. I think that's fair to say. I just wanted to do the thing in the way that seemed best to me. I'm glad i never had to do it anyone else's way, or had to fit in or copy anything and smooth it all down into something more conventional and well-behaved. I realise now how rare that chance actually is - in Doctor Who, in books, in anything at all.

(NB. The concept drawings of Hyspero i found online, and i know they're by students of June Hudson's, when she taught a course on design at the University of Redlands, in California, a number of years ago. If anyone can identify the artist, please let me know. The drawings of Iris and the Doctor are, of course, June's.)

Friday, 15 March 2013

end of the week...!

How's everyone out there doing at the end of another week?

I've had quite a busy time of it. I'm waiting to hear about a couple of big projects that are 'out there' on various people's desks, and meanwhile trying to get on with other things... starting new projects off, and inventing others. Pretty boring of me to be so vague - I'm sorry!

Anyhow, Fester has been sitting with me, most the week, on my desk or in my armchair as i've rattled away on the laptop keys.

The music accompanying me this week has been Evie Sands (apparently Dusty Springfield's favourite singer!) courtesy of Nick, and Mike Garson's album of his interpretations of David Bowie songs. The latter is a record i've been waiting for since 1985 - when I first heard an old cassette tape of Aladdin Sane and couldn't believe that piano-playing by Garson. He sounds like a drunken zombie clown at a drag ball in a radioactive futureworld - that's what I always thought.

Reading... well, i caught up with that on my blog here yesterday. Just to add - i'm loving the new Natalie Goldberg book about her writing teaching and Zen (and oh, everything. She writes about everything all at once and she's utterly inspirational.) And just this  morning a beautiful hardback first edition of Sid Fleischman's 'The Ghost on Saturday Night' turned up from an Amazon seller. I'm about to dive nostalgically into that.

TV wise - I loved the final episode of 'People Like Us' - a show that stayed brilliant to the end. They *have* to make more. The boys with the failing decorating business who made a ramp for the Nan with the amputated leg - that was just wonderful. Understated, true emotion. The write-ups, the reception (and, to be fair, the ads and title sequence) undersold this show as exploitation tv. But it was poetry.

Early next week i'm planning on writing something for my blog about my first Doctor Who novel, The Scarlet Empress - which I finished writing just about exactly fifteen years ago. If anyone out there has any particular memories of where and when they read that book, and what it made them think or feel (!) - please drop me a line and i might well use your thoughts in the blog piece. (email to: or just put a comment here.

Ok - here's the weekend! Have a lovely time.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

What I've been reading lately...

Here's what I've been immersed in recently, when I've been reading. Three books that draw you completely into their worlds, surround you with great characters in the midst of impossible situations - and drag you towards endings that seem perfectly inevitable and satisfying when you get there.

'A Cottage by the Sea' by Carole Matthews looks like it's going to languid, tranquil, holidayish and sweet - but once you're in that Welsh hideaway in this summery novel you find it's a hotbed of seething frustration, secrets and desire. Six very diverse and lovable characters are assembled for a week in this gorgeous, cut-off spot and Matthews carefully unravels each of their relationships - setting them down in new combinations and possibilities as their innermost depths are brought to the surface. Everyone will fall for Noah, I'm sure - he's just about the perfect love object in a novel like this. Flick drove me mad, though - and I don't know why the other two women ever stayed friends with her. And watch out for what happens with the golf club and the car at the end! But I don't want to spoil any of it.

Then I picked up a spooky thriller by Christopher Ransom - which turned out to be an out-and-out zombie novel. I'd noticed his books - four of them - knocking around in the Works, three for a fiver. (Btw, can I just say i love The Works? They stock remainders and books that would never make it to Waterstones, or if they did it'd just be in single copies on the shelf. I think people who'd feel intimidated by Waterstones even in its more customer-friendly incarnation feel happier shopping in the cheap and cheerfully brash The Works.

Goodness, but Ransom gets some stinking reader reviews on Amazon! I think he writes very well and compellingly. There are some stunning scenes in this Gothy novel about the creepy-family-next-door (ah, but who's the creepier..? Us or the neighbours..?) I loved the kids' birthday party that turns thoroughly nasty. I loved some of the suburban, domestic scenes of horror that reminded me very much of the recent 'Paranormal Activity' movies. I wasn't so chuffed with the flashbacks to the radioactive island, though.

I think there's a problem with Ransom messing with unreliable memories, narrators, switching points of view and introducing quite a slangy, cluttered, stream of consciousness register. This kind of impedes his story-telling. It makes you realise how smooth Stephen King keep his writing - and how skilled that is - even in a multi-pov complicated novel. Even when King hasn't got anything to say.

I think Ransom has a lot to say in this - it's a novel about the world economy tanking and the rise of the debt zombies! But he just needs to smooth it and calm down a little - and trust in his characters and their dramas. We don't actually need the writerly pyrotechnics.

Lastly and most recently, I've been reading Julie Cohen's novel, 'Dear Thing', which comes out in April - so i might be writing about it too soon here. Nevertheless, I just want to say it's a beautifully written book. It's about a woman who offers to have a child for a happily married couple, and about the seemingly inevitable tensions and dramas that spin out from that. Every one of these characters is alive and vivid - from Romily, the surrogate, hidden away at work in the museum with her cabinet of dead Victorian insects - to the slightly spiky and not always sympathetic music teacher, Claire. I've been living with them all for nearly a week - and was so pleased last night with the way that everything worked out, when I got to the end. There's some really breath-taking drama here - some turnabouts just when you think you know where it's heading - some extremely visceral writing about pregnancy and childbirth... and a spot-on ending. It's an immensely satisfying tale.

Whoops - i've gone on too long this morning. But this is what I've been reading. How about you?

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

In the Post Today


BLURB: "Sit. Walk. Write. These are the barest bones of Natalie Goldberg's revolutionary writing and life practice, which she details in The True Secret of Writing, her first book on the silent intensives she has taught for over a decade in small groups in Taos, New Mexico. This is a whole new slant on writing since her perennial bestseller, Writing Down the Bones-and it's now available to everyone. With luminous reflections on the rich life of the mind and heart that writing awakens, Goldberg guides readers through their own personal or group retreat, illuminating the steps of sitting in silent open mind, walking anchored to the earth, and writing without criticism. Just as Goldberg cuts through her students' resistance with her no-nonsense instructions-"Shut up and write"-The True Secret of Writing cuts to the core of self-understanding and connecting with the world. The capstone to four decades of teaching, The True Secret of Writing is Goldberg's Zen boot camp, her legacy teaching. Its stories of her own students' breakthroughs and insights give moving testament to how brilliantly her unique, tough-love method works."

I've had this on order from Amazon since the middle of last year and I've been greatly looking forward to it. I first read Natalie Goldberg when I was doing my MA in Creative Writing in 1991 at Lancaster, and I kept going back to her book 'Writing Down the Bones'. In the later 90s I  discovered the sequel, 'Wild Mind', which was even richer and more personal. Then I didn't realise until last year that she'd written more and I needed to catch up. I loved her books on memoir and especially her book about teaching herself to paint. And so i've been really looking forward to this one - about the Zen boot camp. I love a bit of tough-minded hippy-dippy stuff.

And then I've been sent a Gothic horror by Quercus in proof, because they thought it'd be up my gaslit cobbled alley:


BLURB: "A new killer is stalking the streets of London’s East End. Though newspapers have dubbed him ‘the Torso Killer’, this murderer’s work is overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel crimes.
The victims are women too, but their dismembered bodies, wrapped in rags and tied up with string, are pulled out of the Thames – and the heads are missing. The murderer likes to keep them.
Mayhem is a masterwork of narrative suspense: a supernatural thriller set in a shadowy, gaslit London, where monsters stalk the cobbled streets and hide in plain sight."

The blurb's not giving much away, apart from the generic coordinates - but I shall give it a spin anyhow, not having read anything by Sarah Pinborough before. I like the fact that she writes in a bunch of different genres all at the same time.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Sid Fleischman

When I was a kid one of my favourite books was 'The Ghost on Saturday Night' by Sid Fleischman. I just found out he died three years ago at the age of 90. Here's a fantastic poem by him, and it's pretty much what I've always thought, too:

I write what I am.
When I sit down to a blank sheet of paper,
I may become a yellow-haired boy,
a snarling pirate,
a prankish wizard’s ghost,
or even a dog with arrogant wolf’s eyes.
But beneath all the make-up, the wigs and putty noses
- that’s ME,
off on a fresh adventure and having as much fun as I can.

- Sid Fleischman

Monday, 11 March 2013

Cosmic Sale!

To mark the release of the new cd by that other Man Who Fell to Earth this week, Bafflegab productions have introduced a Vince Cosmos special offer!

Get this double-cd audio drama with gatefold sleeve, fabulous songs and starry cast for the amazing price of £6.99 - this week only.

Friday, 8 March 2013

literary fiction and the 'allegiance to language'

I was reading a piece the other day in the paper and it was talking about 'literary fiction' as a genre in itself. It picked up on the remarks of the editor of the New York Review of Books reprint range of ebooks (a list i've enjoyed dipping into in its hardback form). Apparently she has talked about literary fiction's 'allegiance to language' as the thing that marks it out.

As if no other fiction has such an allegiance?

I've said my bit again and again over the years. There are good books and bad books. Genres don't exist. Not outside of marketing.

I certainly don't think - any more - that literary fiction is superior to any other kind.

I used to think it was the genre where *anything* could be done. But I now think that's true of any genre.

I've had conversations with a lot of people over the years about what might make literary fiction different.

Is it fiction that has a commitment to groundbreaking form or language? Is it the creative laboratory where new things are thought up and thoughts are thinged? Is it just fiction concocted especially to win literary prizes? The kinds of books that people buy but never actually read? Is it just about novels with deliberately wonky stories and snobby characters?

All these things have been suggested. I even had someone quite recently suggest outright what many have implied: that 'literary fiction' is what you call fiction about well-off and clever people talking about 'philosophical issues of the day.' (And, following that, fiction with ordinary, working class characters can never be literary, really, unless it's foreign or Scottish.)

'Literary' is just another genre, with its own codes and cliches. One that was created for marketing purposes some time in the 1980s, say, to describe a certain kind of vaguely earnest, perhaps experimental, self-consciously learned and often prize-winning book.

As a genre - like any other genre - it has produced monstrous offspring.

Many years of reading, teaching, workshopping, writing, studying and more reading have given me a kind of checklist of the cliched features that Bad Literary Fiction often boasts...

And I am absolutely sure that I have been as guilty as anyone - at one time or another - of some of the following points:

1.  The ability to say the simplest things in the most complicated way possible.
2. Twisted syntax and word choice posing hopefully as stream-of-consciousness for a character having a not-particularly pleasant time of it.
3.  Epiphanies galore, in which the tiniest moment becomes transcendent and obscurely meaningful all of a sudden, accompanied by strange sensual effects examined microscopically in luminously belaboured language. And possibly, a bubble of childhood flashback presented in italics.
4. The forward momentum of a story being subordinated throughout to the conveying of mood. And when something looks as if it's in danger of happening, the chapter abruptly stops.
5. The assumption that earnestness = seriousness.
6. Also, sneering = cleverness.
7. The skilful concealment of actually having nothing to say.
8. The skilful concealment of the fact that looking stuff up in books isn't knowledge.
9. The achingly obvious admiration of writers that serious readers admire but nobody loves. And then copying them.
10. Assuming that your words weigh more, mean more, and are doing more. Not as much as any poet's, of course. But more than anyone writing in any other genre.
11. A wearisome meta-critique of the form of the novel itself running throughout the thing. Sometimes in the form of a particularly self-aware narrator, or interleaved fairy tales or even features borrowed ironically from other, lesser, fictional genres.
12. Cold, almost emotionless analysis of stuff in the world, bleached of any sentiment or actual feeling. Often lists of things are presented, or facts, or allusions to scientific or historical stuff that the author has browsed through.
13. The need to tell the world that - hey, rich people have it tough, too.

This last point is the trickiest for me. It's the question i often hit upon - is literary fiction always just a playground for the privileged?

Thursday, 7 March 2013

it's World Book Day... i thought i'd post a load of pictures of my favourite books when I was a kid.

Simple as that.

And world? Start treating your writers better.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Night of the Living Doctors...!

Just realised how I would solve the past-Doctors-looking-older-than-they-used-to-be quandary for a 50th Anniversary Special. I would have them all coming back from the dead as zombies and vampires...! All the previous Doctors return from the grave in order to devour their many companions and enemies and menace the current team. A little more macabre than celebratory, perhaps... but it could be a lovely, Gothic-tinged story... And couldn't that fit with Gallifreyan legend, perhaps... that previous incarnations brought back out of time become undead..?