Friday, 30 August 2013

Interviews Interview with Peter Anghelides

Peter Anghelides

I’ve enjoyed the novel Pack Animals very much.  Although a few of the scenes within the book I had to review my ‘Mitchell’ story as a few pieces I’d included, a person called ‘Heiney’ who used thoughtforms, but at this point I hadn’t actually got that far in the book to discover this is what Gareth used to summon his creatures.  Do you find when you’re writing that often a character or a scene has already been used in someone else’s story?

Peter: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

When writing for a series like Torchwood, it’s more important to avoid writing something that has already happened in the TV series or one of the other novels or audios. Obviously, there are the regular characters who you expect to use, and any new character you introduce should be a complement or catalyst for the main protagonists. And generally, the editorial team will know what’s “in the pipeline” and thus not commission something from me that is too close to as-yet unpublished material. I studiously avoid reading any fan fiction, because that way there’s no risk that I will accidentally echo something that someone else came up with.

Occasionally, I might want to echo something from other sources. That might be an allusion to a popular movie or a classic novel. Talent borrows and genius steals, but tie-in writers get it off the back of a lorry, no questions asked. I stole that splendid metaphor from Ben Aaronovitch, incidentally. Do read his Rivers of London novels, they are fabulous. And they have a hero called Peter – what’s not to love?

There are some references in my Torchwood books to the other novels, because I was in contact with other Torchwood authors when we were writing. There are hints about scenes and activities in the TV series – literally as “tie-in” material, and because it’s a nice nod to the more attentive fans. And sometimes, something in my novels might get picked up in other media – like the Bekaran scanner from Another Life.

I felt sorry for Jack in this story; he did come in for some immense pain from almost losing a leg to crashing through various stands and being poisoned.  Is it one of those enjoyable feelings when you can punish an immortal man because no amount of punishment is going to kill him?

Peter: It’s precisely because he’s immortal that you have to think of what other dangers and conflicts to put in his way as obstacles. He can’t just sail through the story without any struggles. You end up with tactics such as targeting the people he cares about, so that he has to make a choice about whether they survive. Or he has to avoid getting killed because that will just hold him up during some urgent chase. Or you have him so badly injured that he’s incapacitated and unable to take action until he fully recovers, aware that the success of the mission depends on others.

I think the “leg hanging off” thing may have been one of the most debilitating physical injuries he’d had up to that point – unlike the conclusion to “End of Days” he is conscious but incapacitated. A more extreme example would come later in “Children of Earth” when he’s blown apart and has to slowly reassemble from his collected parts in a body bag.

Miracle Day does the opposite – what if only Jack can die? Is it such a good thing after all? Fascinating, clever stuff.

When you’re writing a TW novel how long are you given from the moment the plan is put together to the actual writing of it?

Peter: That really depends. The actual writing can take as little as two or three weeks. However, that could be stretched over a period of a month or two depending on what else is occupying my time as I’m doing it. The key thing for me is to have a clear outline and a view of the key moments. I know the destination, and the major landmarks en route, but the journey I take isn’t always a straight line.

I enjoyed Another Life, it’s the little things that stick in my mind. Mostly Jack’s shoes, a little insignificant thing, when the creature spat on his shoe and it ruined a good pair of shoes he couldn’t buy any more.  And he was a lot angrier in this, and swore which surprised me for Jack, I suppose at that time I was used to seeing him in Doctor Who which is toned down, and then on TW I think the only time he swore was when he snatched the ‘ghost machine’ off Gwen.  How much can you get away with when you’re writing coarse words?

Peter: Thanks again! It’s the little details that make the story real – you can picture that sort of thing, and it puts you in the scene. In terms of advancing the story, that thing about the shoes is irrelevant – but it gives you a vivid image of what’s happened, and it reminds you that Jack has a long, long history – he’s outlived more than those old shoes, he’s outlived friends and lovers he’ll never see again.

If you write it out that starkly, it would be too obvious and clunky. But a succession of little reminders like that add up to something more. 

Contrary to that, if everything that happens, or is said, or that is described is solely in the service of advancing the plot, then everything would take on the same significance, it all sounds like the same level or tone, which would get a bit dull. So I hope it’s more interesting to read. And it’s certainly more interesting to write.

Another Life was substantially written before I’d seen any episodes of Torchwood. We first three authors were commissioned before the series aired, and wrote the novels based on what we knew of the TV series – which was a long and fascinating conversation with script editor Brian Minchin. We knew that the BBC 3 series was going to be more “adult” than the BBC 1 Doctor Who series where Captain Jack originated. So I included some swearing, both in the dialogue and in the narrative.

Subsequently, the TV series toned down the swearing, and so did the novels. When John Barrowman read the audiobook version of Another Life (expertly abridged by Joe Lidster) Captain Jack didn’t do any swearing. Though John did narrate a line about “fuck-me shoes,” which was a point where I was naughtily misquoting a comment by Germaine Greer. As that scene was from Captain Jack’s perspective, it was technically him using coarse language.

I’d forgotten all about that when I decided to listen to the audiobook in my car. So my children heard some language they weren’t expecting to as I drove them to their grandparents. Bad parenting. Bad language – remember kids, it’s not big and it’s not fucking clever.

How did you get into writing for Torchwood and have you only written novels and audio dramas/books for Torchwood and Doctor Who?

Peter: The commissioning editor at BBC Books, Stuart Cooper, contacted me via my website and asked if I’d like to write the first of the tie-in novels for Torchwood. I took about a second and a half to think about it before I said yes. I’d written Doctor Who novels and short fiction before that, so I suppose that established my credentials. Subsequently, I’ve done audios for other TV series.

What was the first book you wrote and how many rejections did you face before you made it as a well known writer?

Peter: My first novel was Kursaal, in 1998, one of the earliest Doctor Who novels published by BBC Books. I’ve written at more length on my blog about how that came about:

I don’t know what counts as “well-known,” but that was my first proposal, and it was commissioned by BBC Books.

When you first began writing horror stories what book or person inspired you to write for this genre, or had you always had a liking for horror?

Within the horror genre what is the type of horror that you really revel in?

Peter: A lot of the Doctor Who that I liked was horror, so that’s the kind of thing I have enjoyed writing. Stories like The Ark in Space or The Seeds of Death are body horror, a peculiar personal apocalypse, an invasion of the individual that is scary and fascinating. You can see it again in my Tenth Doctor audio story Pest Control, for example.

Otherwise, it’s the usual suspects for novelists: Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, James Herbert, Stephen King. And lots of TV and movie horror, too – The Thing, Quatermass, mummies, werewolves, vampires, and even camp old nonsense like Theatre of Blood.

I was looking at your list of Doctor Who and Torchwood books etc on Wiki and notice I also have the audio story Pest Control read by David Tennant.  I chuckled at that.  I think with Catherine Tate playing Donna and her attitude to all things relating to the Doctor and his travels it’s hard not to smile.  It was a brilliant story I have to say.  How long does it often take for an idea to percolate in your head, before you’re scribbling notes onto paper, back of cigarette packet, beer mat!!!

Peter: I’m glad you enjoyed that. It’s one of the favourite things that I’ve written, and it especially benefits from David’s wonderful performance. That one went through several iterations with commissioning editor Michael Stevens, puzzling through precisely what I was getting at with some of my initial suggestions, until I honed in on that body horror again.

I’m always jotting ideas down. I did get organised with a little notebook for a while, but that soon filled up with additional scribbled notes on whatever I happened to have at hand – shopping receipts, train tickets, napkins, scraps of paper. I started to use notes on my iPhone, too. But nothing quite beats scribbling away in a notebook.

With me it’s usually a week or so before I can formulate the entire chapter, or have a starter and middle and wade towards an ending.  Although I tend to deviate a few times, let the story take me rather than keep it on track, or is this a bad habit I should start breaking?

Peter: I think it should be whatever works for you. If you’re worrying too much about the mechanics of how you’re doing it, there’s a risk you stop thinking about what you’re actually writing. What it is about the character or the situation or the location or the object that fascinates you, and that you just have to put down in writing?

My preference is to have a detailed outline, and then deviate from that if the story takes me that way as I am writing. But I know other novelists who want their writing to be a bit more of a personal mystery tour. You can indulge that a bit more if you’re not writing tie-in material, I suppose. If you’re creating something within someone else’s universe, you need an outline approved by the franchise owners and the publishers. But even that doesn’t have to be a straightjacket for the actual writing.

When you were in school were you avidly writing or was this an interest that picked up in adult life?

Peter: I loved writing stories in school, and indeed out of school. I remember being off school sick for a week, and writing reams of stuff and binding it together into a booklet. When I was in primary school, there were several weeks when my “What I did at the weekend” journal entry came down to “I turned on the telly on Saturday to watch the latest episode of ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians,’ and here’s what happened next…” And I read voraciously, outside of my required school books, especially at primary school.

So writing novels now as an adult is a hobby I get paid for.

Have you been to many or any of the Conventions for the Whoniverse and spin-offs?

Peter: As a teenager, I would go along to Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 conventions in London, which is where they almost invariably took place. I’ve been invited to a few more recently – Big Finish Day (because I write for them) and EasterCon spring to mind. But the convention I’ve attended most frequently, oddly enough, is GallifreyOne in Los Angeles. I’ll be there again in February next year.

What projects are you working on at the moment that you can share with us?

Peter: I have been doing a lot of Blake’s 7 for Big Finish, not all of which is fully announced – though the next thing out, in October, is a play featuring Steven Pacey as Tarrant and Paul Darrow as Avon.

When you were 12 what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Peter: I wanted to be an astronaut. Didn’t everyone?

Again, when you were 12, who was your Doctor?

Peter: I was in that difficult transition period between Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. I’d spent years thinking that only Pertwee could ever be my Doctor, even after seeing him with Troughton and Hartnell in “The Three Doctors.” Little did I know how quickly Tom Baker would win me over.

On Wikipedia there’s no personal details about you, so I have no idea about you, yourself, is this something you like to keep private, or is it just a case of not thinking anyone would be interested?

Peter: That’s very true.

What was the last holiday you took?

Peter: I spent three days painting a ceiling. A freshly-plastered bedroom ceiling, that is. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, with the hands of God and Adam and whatnot, but I am quite proud of it. Mostly because, after several coats, mine no longer has any hand marks on it.

Given that zombies are quite the ‘in thing’ at the moment, and although I missed out on the action of World War Z, defending yourself against an apocalyptic attack, how would you defend yourself against zombies and who would be in your zombie survival team? (you know the doctor, the tough guy, the hero, the one who gets killed first, etc)

Peter: The usual solution would be to have Charlton Heston on your team, because you knew that inevitably they’d get him, leave you alone, and you wouldn’t have to pry the gun out of his cold, dead hands to make a brave final stand. But he is no longer available, and I’m yet to be convinced that Will Smith is a suitable alternative. If I teamed up with him and Tommy Lee Jones, though, that would probably work.

Aside from finding you on Twitter, how can people find out about your work? Do you have a blog or website?

Peter: I combined my website and blog into which gets rather less of my attention than perhaps it should. When I started writing, I was grateful to authors who offered their thoughts and experience for free, and I thought I should share mine in a “pay it forward” kind of way. So the website contains information about my writing – including original proposals, story outlines, drafts, alternatives, and reviews. Plus the usual things you expect from a sporadic blog by me – shameless self-promotion, grumbling, and weak puns.

Some writers listen to music, often heavy metal, others prefer no music, what do you prefer when you’re writing, peace or noise or music, and which music?

Peter: Some of my pals say they have a soundtrack album for their novels, because they have songs playing in the background all the time when they’re writing. I can’t do that. I hide myself away in complete silence, with only the sound of my inept typing as I thump away at the keyboard with three fingers.

One of my novels, Frontier Worlds, makes a feature of songs recorded by Frank Sinatra. I know the songs, and occasionally sing them tunelessly to myself. But I didn’t play any of them as I was actually writing that novel. That’s the closest I ever got to a “soundtrack album.”

For anyone starting out writing horror, what tips can you give them?

Peter: Read a lot. Get an ear for what works and what doesn’t in other people’s prose, so that you have an idea what you might write in your own. Not copying them, not repeating them. But it’s easier to write if you recognise what good prose looks like, and the best way to learn that is to immerse yourself in it. 

Fans Questions

Mickie Newton: Who was the easiest and most difficult character to write for in the Torchwood team?

Peter: They all have their own elements of “easy” and “hard.” Owen is the hardest to like, especially in the first series, because he is selfish almost to the point of being psychopathic. By the second series, I was fascinated about how he’d got to that state, and then what his emotional and practical reactions were to his unexpected, possibly unwanted resurrection.

Conversely, Gwen is the focal character for much of the series, which means you have plenty of “evidence” for writing her. And the tricky thing there is to do something new for her, without veering too far away from the TV series.

Obviously, I love writing Ianto. I had a lot of fun with him in Pack Animals, especially.

Hazel Stanton: If you could have a part or write an episode of any show that is currently on air, what show would you choose and why?

Peter: I am currently fascinated by both Fringe and Lie to Me. Fringe is full of mad old nonsense, and is a more on-the-nose version of The X Files. And it has a hero called Peter – I can see a trend here,

Whereas Lie to Me takes what you’d think was a pretty straightforward premise, and then through Tim Roth’s compelling central performance and some really inventive plotting it continues to surprise and delight me.

They are “current” for me, because I’m catching up on old episodes. I am told that they are no longer being made in the US, but I will continue to deny that until I have the evidence of no more new episodes for me to watch. I am still grieving for The West Wing, and that ended seven years ago. No, don’t get me started. I’m filling up.

Pauline Howard: Have you a favourite Dr who story you have written?

Peter: I can never quite decide, because I like them all for different reasons. Pest Control, because of David Tennant’s wonderful reading and performance. The Ancestor Cell, for the fun of working with Steve Cole on a “finale” novel. Frontier Worlds because (I confess with no shame) it made me laugh when I re-read bits of it recently, and yet I felt it was such a slog as I was actually writing it. OrThe Chaos Pool because I had such outrageous fun with the cliffhangers. 

Thank you again for this opportunity Peter

You’re welcome. Thanks for asking.

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