Hey! I interviewed writer Andrew Cartmel for Genre Reader.
Andrew Cartmel will be well known to many of you as the script editor of Doctor Who during the McCoy years. Today he’s writing for the comic run of the Rivers of London novel series, as well as preparing to release a new novel series of his own. Andrew kindly let me throw questions at him. Despite being a huge McCoy era fan, I was very good and hardly even mentioned Who.
Ben Aaronovitch’s very popular Rivers of London novels are also now a comic series, which you co-write. How long ago did the idea to branch the series out into comics first come on your radar? Was it Ben coming to you with the idea?
Ben came to me. He’d been toying with the idea of doing a Rivers spin off comic from a very early stage. Maybe even from the first novel. And quite early on he had a fragment of a comic script — the first page of what eventually became ‘Body Work’. So that was the seed of that story. We didn’t know anything else, but we knew what the first page was!
How do you approach your novels and scripts; do you plan everything out before starting, or are you more a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of a guy?
I use to be the latter, but I learned the hard way to become the former. I think the results are vastly superior if you plan as much as possible in advance — and it is ultimately much less hard work. Of course, everybody has a different process. Quentin Tarantino says he just starts writing with no plan — and I love his scripts. Django Unchained was especially brilliant.
With your background as a Doctor Who script editor, the Rivers of London comics aren’t the first time you’ve stepped into an existing story world. This time though, you’re actually writing alongside the original author of the series. Has this been an easy process, or was there a period of feeling out what would and wouldn’t fly with Ben.
Not so much, because I’m so intimately acquainted with the novels, having read them all in draft form before they were published, and often discussing them with Ben — by which I mean he’ll run things past me and use me as a sounding board for ideas. So I was fairly well calibrated to the mindset of the books. The one area where Ben has tended to correct me is in Nightingale’s dialogue, but I think even there I’m gradually overcoming his resistance. (Imagine a sinister laugh at this point.)
How many abandoned novels do you have gathering digital dust on your laptop?
Jesus — good question. Fully finished novels? Let’s see… I’ve had a little search around, both my brain and the computer and I can definitely think of four. There used to be a lot more, but there’s been a recent and welcome surge in my back catalogue being sold and going into print . For example, all three Vinyl Detective novels were written before we got the publishing deal from Titan. So I wouldn’t say these are abandoned novels. Just novels which have yet to sell…
Next year sees the release of The Vinyl Detective, how long has this book been in the works for? And where did the original idea spring from?
Just to clarify — the book is called Written in Dead Wax, and the character is called the Vinyl Detective. Of course, the words ‘Vinyl Detective’ feature on the cover in a much bigger typeface than the title. But it’s the same with James Bond novels, if you’ll allow a modest comparison. As for how long it’s been in the works… thanks to your previous question which sent me on a rampage down memory lane, I can verify that with some precision. The book was well underway in 2010. As for the original idea, it had two primary sources. Firstly I was discussing with Ben the success of his own books, and he urged me to write about what I loved. So I thought… a crime novel about record collecting. The second thing was simply the phrase ‘Written in dead wax,’ which was really evocative to me and began to suggest the book. It’s a phrase, incidentally, which will mean something to a lot of record collectors.
What’s the biggest influence on the kind of thing you write? Another author? A TV show? Some other thing that is neither of those two things? SPILL!
I’m influenced, I suppose, by my favourite authors. These would be, in genre fiction, the crime writers John D. MacDonald (creator of Travis McGee) and Thomas Harris (do I need to say he created Hannibal Lecter?). And in the world of ‘literary’ fiction, the marvellous Thomas McGuane. Of course, there are innumerable others, but those are the writers I most admire and keep going back to. There are other specific influences, though. For example, in the third Vinyl Detective novel Victory Disc, I had some set pieces which specifically called for intense, claustrophobic suspense. So I made it a deliberate project to read (and re-read) a lot of Cornell Woolrich, because he was the master of that.
The Vinyl Detective has the subtitle: Written in Dead Wax; do you see the series running as long as you have ideas, or do you have a set number of adventures in mind?
See my earlier answer. Written in Dead Wax is no more a subtitle than From Russia with Love was. But yes, I do see the series running as long as the ideas are fun. I’m already a substantial way into the fourth novel, have clear ideas for a couple more, and a long list of titles which are appropriate for the series and which excite and interest me in the same way Written in Dead Wax did.
Have you ever read a book that scared you?
Yes. But I’d point out that there’s an overlap between suspense and fear. I recently was intensely afraid while reading The Martian by Andy Weir — an absolutely magnificent novel. But the fear there was that something terrible would happen to our beloved hero (and of course it often did), not fear per se. For fear per se I remember when I was a kid reading Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot and finding it so intense and scary that I had to wander outside into the garden to where my dad was burning leaves — a comforting return to normality and the real world. I’d add, though, that I don’t think King ever got better than that book.
What was your favourite book as a kid?
Hmm… depends on what you mean as a kid. As a teenager I was knocked out by John Fowles’s The Magus. When I was younger I adored The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Before that, The Marvellous Land of Oz by Frank L. Baum (a more interesting sequel to Wizard). Younger still, I used to love Bill Frog to the Rescue by Cam (Barbara Mary Campbell).
What are you reading/watching/hiding from right now?
Watching… I’m finally catching up on the last two series of Breaking Bad (no spoilers, please). I’m waiting to get hold of Series Five of Game of Thrones on Blu-ray (I’m old school; and I absolutely don’t hold with piracy — or watching Sky). But it’s not out until March, the bastards. So no spoilers until April. I really do think Game of Thrones may be the greatest television drama ever made. And I recently watched Darling and Nothing But the Best, two 1960s movies, because I was interested in their screenwriter Frederic Raphael. On the big screen, I’ve recently loved Sicario, written by Taylor Sheridan and Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin. Reading… In comics, I’ve just read the first two ‘chapters’ (i.e. 12 issues) of The Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman. In books, I’m working my way through the Hugo Bishop novels, a gentleman-detective series written in the 1950s by Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor). These I chose largely because (besides loving Hall’s Quiller novels), they’re old fashioned paperbacks which are small enough to fit in my pocket. They’re actually ‘pocket books.’ (That’s one thing I dislike about so-called trade paperbacks.) But besides being the right size, they’re also proving surprisingly good. Before Adam Hall it was Iris Murdoch. At home, where I keep the larger books, it’s a lot of non-fiction, often about jazz. When I travel (long plane and train journeys) I read the stack of New Scientist magazines which have built up since my last long plane or train journey.
After the classic run of Doctor Who finished, you were one of a number of writers who wrote Who novels for the Virgin New Adventures range; are there any of those titles that you’re still particularly proud of?
The trouble with the really old stuff I wrote is that when I think about those books, all I see is the flaws. Hence I can’t go back to them and read them again. I feel disassociated from them. Luckily this stopped at a certain point, when I wrote my memoir about working on Doctor Who, entitled Script Doctor, of which I’m very proud. And also a Prisoner novel called Miss Freedom. I felt I got that right. So those were the turning points. From then on I’ve been able to enjoy my own stuff — and look at it without fear of finding fault. That doesn’t mean I have no pride in the War Trilogy (as I pretentiously call my New Adventures novels — Warhead, Warlock and War Child), because people keep coming up to me and telling me about stuff in them that I’d forgotten was there. I think, hey — that sounds interesting…
Name me a ‘classic’ novel that you’ve started, then not been able to get through.
Oh Christ. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Too much crime and not enough punishment, as I compelled one of my characters to say about it. And The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. But in the case of The Tin Drum I strongly suspect it was a dodgy translation. A better one might prove much more readable. Of course, that could be a factor with Crime and Punishment, too.
‘Script Doctor’ is extracts from your diary during your time as the script editor of Doctor Who during the Sylvester McCoy era, and rather a wonderful read it is too, especially for someone like me whose favourite two seasons of Who are 25 &26. There, uh, isn’t really a question in there, is there? Well done, though. Good work and all that. I’m a shameless suck-up.
Thank you so much. Can I fussily say it isn’t really diary extracts but a gorgeously fashioned memoir cunningly incorporating material from my diaries of the time, thus creating a rich tapestry which brings a lost era vividly to life? That’s what it says here, anyway…
What’s the last great book you read?
The Martian by Andy Weir. Very emphatically. Thank you to the galactically groovy Lucy Kissick for turning me on to it.
Do you currently have any idea when the second Vinyl Detective novel might be released? Will it be a yearly schedule?
Yup, it will be May 2017 for the second one, entitled The Run Out Groove and May 2018 for the third, Victory Disc. Assuming the world doesn’t end, he added cheerfully.
D’you listen to music whilst you write? The TV on in the background providing a pleasent white-noise babble? Or d’you DEMAND SILENCE WHILST YOU CREATE FROM NOTHING.
Yes, music, absolutely and almost always. But whereas the nefarious Ben Aaronovitch will choose music specifically suited to the mood of the sequence that he’s writing, I can listen to anything providing I like it. So — a jaunty tune while fashioning a tragic death scene is not out of the question. I tend to prefer instrumental music to songs, though — often jazz or film scores; maybe even some classical (he lied, trying to sound cultured). Because sung words can interfere with the words I’m trying to conjure up in my head. Though if it’s a really good jazz singer, the words are almost abstract sounds — like an instrument being played — so they don’t interfere.
What does the long-term future hold for you? Apart from gradually succumbing to the dreadful passing of time. (You’re going to die.) But writing-career-wise, gimme the lowdown. (Seriously, you’re future worm food)
What is this death you speak of? While we’re arguing the ontological toss… Well, I’m enjoying writing comics and it would be good to broaden out into that area. I’d like to write other comics titles besides Rivers of London. I’m doing some short Doctor Who strips for Doctor Who Adventures magazine (the editor there, Jason Quinn, is terrific) and indeed I’m talking to Titan about doing some ‘grown up’ Doctor Who for their comics line. And eventually it would be great to create my own comic title. In other areas, I’d like to do a bit more writing for television. I feel that is unfinished business. More than any of those things, though, I want to write some stage plays. Besides novels, I would say that is my primary ambition. On the novel front, I hope to go on crafting Vinyl Detective novels, and I have another series I’ve started (first novel written) and I’d like to see that set in motion as well. It’s also a crime series, so I’d like to do one book in each series every year — two novels a year the way Agatha Christie used to do. You might have heard of her.