Please tell us everything we need to know about the new book!
Death on the Waves is the most recent in the Erimem series of Doctor Who spin off novels. Initially Erimem was a supporting character in The Eye of the Scorpion, a Big Finish Doctor Who audio play. At the recording, script editor and producer Gary Russell asked if he could keep Erimem aboard. Who was I to say no?
When Erimem departed the audios, I wasn’t ready to let her fade away, so I started her own range of novels, novellas and anthologies. It lets me work with lovely creative people, tell interesting stories and give new writers their first professional writing gigs. I don’t nail the books down to a single genre. I want the writers to write and tell the stories they want to tell. Tim Gambrell was telling a large scale, full-on sci-fi war story in the book before mine so I wanted to contrast that… and I was in the mood to pastiche Agatha Christie, so that’s what I did.
There’s a rather shabby ocean liner in the Med in 1934. Everyone aboard has secrets and everyone aboard has grievances. Erimem and her friends board the ship for a well-earned rest. Unfortunately that’s when the murders start…
How did you get into writing in the first place, and how did you first get published..? Has it been a long and difficult road, or has it been straightforward?
When I left school I had to wait to find if I had been accepted to Uni. I was going to do a degree in English. Cash was tight in the house and I saw an advert for journalists at DC Thomson, the publisher which was based in my home town. I applied for that, somehow managed to get in, and on my first day I was put up in the office of the Nutty comic. I was there to proof-read the last issue and help on the first issue of Nutty’s replacement, the Hoot. I got scripts to write straight away, so I’ve been writing professionally since I was 18, and facing deadlines since then, too.
So, I was immensely lucky really, to go straight from school into a journalistic/writing job which demanded constant creativity. I was also lucky that the guys I worked with were all incredibly supportive, funny and helpful. They made learning the trade an absolute joy.
What was your career like up till now, and how did it lead to being an author?
Working on the comics was a wonderful preparation for the challenges of writing. We were all writing half a dozen comics scripts a week as well as proof-reading and handling the pages through to process, which was a pretty full week. But we were also a company that had a merchandise programme, so we would often be dragged away to write things we had no experience of, and be given no time to get ready. For instance, one afternoon when I was on the Dandy, the editor came in from a meeting and said, “Drop everything. There’s a greeting’s card meeting in the morning. We’ve to give licensing 100 card ideas by close of play.” So we all came up with about 30 ideas each in an hour and a half. Some of us could draw and sketched the ideas out as well. None of us had training in greetings cards but the mind-set in the comics was that we could turn our hands to anything. Occasionally we’d be seconded off to work on completely different papers, some of them entirely text based, or maybe even to the newspapers. You just had to deal with it. That gave me the confidence – or the arrogance – to think I could take on most things.
The first thing I had produced away from comics was The Eye of the Scorpion for Big Finish. Before that I’d been talking to BBV about doing a script for them.
Actually, back in very late 1988 I had submitted a script to Andrew Cartmel for Doctor Who. He replied in 1990 saying he had left the show, but kindly went through my script, pointing out technical things I’d got wrong and then inviting me to send him ideas at Casualty. His letter, which I still cherish by the way, arrived a few months after my Dad had died and I wasn’t in any state to write anything. But it was positive and I saw it as encouragement to try again later.
That led to talking to BBV, I got an agent (a terrible agent, but an agent all the same) and had a TV show in development for a while, and then I submitted to Big Finish. Big Finish picking up Scorpion and Erimem gave me the thought of maybe using Erimem in a Doctor Who novel. I started writing something which developed into Blood and Hope, which I did for Telos’ series of Doctor Who novellas. That was my first book. I wrote it in 4 weeks just after I’d been diagnosed with depression. Writing has always been one of my coping mechanisms for dealing with being (I think quite mildly compared with some) bipolar. Writing just lifts the weight from me and I can deal with things better after losing myself in a fiction for a while.
After Blood and Hope I found novels less of a terrifying prospect and I’ve done about 40 now. The thing about developing a second career as a freelance writer was that at DC Thomson I was seen as somebody who could take on different things, so I wound up script editing radio for them, editing novels and ultimately working as a writer and “creative consultant” on a TV series for them, which meant being involved in editing every script.
These days I’m a freelancer, writing for anyone who will hire me. So, if anybody out there is looking for a writer at all… was that a bit too obvious?
What other kinds of writing have you been getting up to over the years apart from novels, and do you see it as important, to have various side projects and / or write in different forms?
I worked on the comics from 1985-2014. I wound up as editor of the Beano for a time. I still write comics when I can because I love them and it’s like being at home. At the moment I’m regularly on The Broons and Oor Wullie and I’ve written about 30 issues of Commando over the past few years. The great thing about Commando is that it’s a chance to delve into the psychology of war and the darker aspects of war. It’s not all about “Hande hoch!” and “For you, Englander, ze var is over!”. The publication has moved on since then. It’s now a lot deeper than that, and we often have stories from the view of, for want of a better word, the “enemy”. We’ve also introduced female protagonists who were a non-starter for many years.
I’ve written a fair bit of radio and audio over the years. At a guess I’d say 50 or 60 radio/audio plays. The most recent was the 50th anniversary audio revival of Up Pompeii, on which I had a role as one of the team doing a rewrite/edit to a stage script which used some existing material. It was rather fascinating – and a lot of fun – to wander about with Frankie Howerd in my head for a few months.
I’ve done some TV, though that’s a medium I’d really like to do more in, and I have the urge to do theatre.
One of the things I like doing most would be the teenage/Young Adult books I’ve done for reluctant readers. They deal with some really interesting subjects… racism, bereavement, coming out, isolation, peer pressure… these are all things we should talk about. I also think these books can draw people into reading who struggle with it. They’re written with a simpler style, with a more basic vocabulary, but the stories are still challenging. If we’re lucky… no, if we do our job as writers, we’ll draw some of these people who struggle with the idea of reading into people who enjoy reading. One of the best things you can do for a kid is give them books and instil a love of reading into them. There’s nothing as liberating or joyful as losing yourself in a good book.
How would you define the genre that your new book falls into?
One of the many things I like most about the Doctor Who universe is that there is room for so many different voices and flavours. I’ve done noir crime, epistolic historical, H. Rider Haggard pastiche, and the most recent, Death on the Waves, is a bit of a homage (French for rip-off, I believe) to Agatha Christie. So, it’s in the Doctor Who universe but it’s influenced by Agatha Christie and the regulars know it.
Doctor Who is a wonderful universe to be in though. It’s so rich and diverse. Look at some of the current series which have an association to the show… Iris Wildthyme, Erimem, Lethbridge-Stewart and Faction Paradox… all of them are very different and have their own flavours and styles but they enrich that universe as a whole.
Why did you fall in love with this genre in the first place, and which books / authors / series would you recommend?
I have been a big fan of Christie’s work for 40 years or more. She gives so many tropes to work with and the fact that the public know these tropes so well means that you can get a lot of joy from subverting them. In my ideal world I would love to write a Miss Marple story. I love the way she works, the way she quietly watches people and allies deduction to a deep knowledge of human nature and human wickedness.
I think my first experience with Agatha Christie was probably the 1940s version of And Then There Were None. I walked home from school past a second hand book shop every day. I started popping in and picked up Agatha Christie novels based on seeing that film. I think I really became addicted after Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple series started on the BBC. I just threw myself into the books after that started. Joan Hickson was extraordinary. That amazing stillness in her as the brain whirred… it’s a quite wonderful performance.
I’m hugely partial to Paul Doherty’s Egyptian mysteries with the judge Amerotke and Marilyn Todd’s Claudia Seferius series. The Amerotke books are absolutely packed with rich detail while the Claudia Seferius books are absolutely bouncing with wit and fun and attitude.
Do you take elements of characters or overheard phrases from people you’ve observed..?
I use a lot of the real world in my work, even though I often do sci-fi and horror. When I do The Broons and Oor Wullie, I delve into my family for a lot of family memories. The Broons in particular is very much like writing about my own extended family. This will mean little to most people beyond Scotland and the north of England but the Broons are genuine Scottish icons – Scotland’s first family, I’d call them. Everybody knows somebody just like at least one of the family.
For Commando I have used my grandfather’s exploits during WW1 – he joined up at the age of 15 because he thought it would be an adventure – as the basis for an issue and my Uncle Czepan was the inspiration for a trilogy, War Across Europe. It wasn’t his story but he certainly inspired and flavoured it.
Even when I’m doing sci-fi or a thriller or whatever, I usually try to get something real in the thoughts and emotions and reactions. That makes it much easier for the audience to relate to the characters. People are people, no matter the situation they’re in.
What are you going to write next..? Are you going to be working in the same vein?
If I was stroking my ego, I’d call myself a chameleon. I think a more honest interpretation is that I’m flibbertigibbet. I flit from genre to genre, from medium to medium and style to style. I think I’m kept fresh by moving between diverse projects. I also have a very short attention span… oh, look, a shiny thing.
I have a lot of projects in front of me for 2020 and beyond. I have a noir thriller that’s my next project after I finish the thriller I’m doing just now. I’ll be writing a western this year, which I have always wanted to do. That will be dedicated to my Dad. It’s a story I’ve had in mind for years. In my head it’s always been a film with Clint Eastwood directing Eastwood and Sean Connery, but I’ll be doing the novel as John Ford directing John Wayne and James Stewart. Does any of that make sense? I have a horror to write, too, along with a few other projects. I'm hoping Up Pompeii may go to a series and there’s the possibility of some other classic comedy work. I have Commandos to write, a cozy crime mystery novel and a few other things. There’s a novel I want to write – an alternative history about Elvis surviving his heart attack in 1977 and eventually closing Live Aid…but it’s actually about the relationship of the journalist telling the story with his ailing father. I wrote the first chapter three years ago. There was so much of my relationship with Dad in there that I’m a bit scared of going back to it. I’m not sure I can handle writing an entire novel when I’m sobbing all the way through.
One of the things I like about Doctor Who is that there are occasionally unofficial charity books. Anthologies and the like. I was in a few of those last year and I’m going back to the sequel of one of those projects. It’s a little treat for myself. So, I’ve got a lot of work in front of me, but there are still gaps in my schedule and I can’t wait to see what they get filled with.
How can people get hold of your work? Where do you recommend beginning with your books?
You can find most of my stuff on Amazon, I suppose, but I always prefer to go straight to the publisher – I’d rather publishers get the money than Amazon, so you can get my stuff from the home sites of the companies I work for… www.bigfinish.com ; www.thebespublishing.com ; https://spitefulpuppet.com/ ; https://www.badgerlearning.co.uk/ … there are links to everything on my site, www.iainmclaughlin.co.uk .
If you fancy the Erimem series, you’re best to start with The Last Pharaoh. That the series opener, it sets up the situation and the characters and explains where Erimem is in her life. I think one of the Big Finish plays I wrote, The Veiled Leopard, is available free somewhere on their site. That’s a pretty good guide to my style of writing.
Finally… tell us something surprising about yourself that your readers might not already know..!
I am also Holly Millar. I have been known to write romance novels in my time, and when I do, I write them under the name Holly Millar.