Hey there, Insiders! Time for another author interview. This time we’re wagging jaws with author and script writer Eddie Robson. Eddie has written novels, Doctor Who audio plays, his own sitcom for BBC Radio Four, and more besides. His new novel, Tomorrow Never Knows is out RIGHT NOW!
Hi, Eddie. How do you approach your novels; do you plan everything out before starting, or are you more a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of a guy?
I tend to plan. I worry about sitting down to write, having no idea what happens next, and staring at the blank page for hours. Also, from years of writing Doctor Who audio plays, I’ve got used to planning – you have to submit a full synopsis before you’re commissioned, because the BBC need to approve it, so I’ve always had a fleshed-out beginning, middle and end. That said, I’m experimenting with writing in a less planned-out way – I’ve just done a TV spec script where I had a bunch of ideas for the beginning, but only vague ones for the rest, and I found it as I went along, and that went quite well, so I might do more of that. No matter how much you plan, you always end up having to change stuff anyway. Things feel like they work in the synopsis and then don’t when you have actual characters doing them.
What’s the biggest influence on the kind of thing you write? Another writer? A TV show? Some other thing that is neither of those two things?
No idea what my biggest influence is. In terms of novelists, Douglas Coupland, Donna Tartt, Angela Carter, Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Auster. Two writers I’d never read when I started Tomorrow Never Knows, but who I started reading along the way and who really helped me find the direction to finish it, are Evelyn Waugh and Philip K Dick. But I’m influenced by lots of stuff, most obviously Doctor Who.
Your new novel, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, is out there and available to buy; why the heck should a passing reader take a chance on it?
That’s the hardest question! I wrote it because I couldn’t find a novel quite like the ones I wanted to read – I could find books that did some of that stuff, but not all of it at once, so hopefully there are people out there who’ll have the same reaction. Against the big ideas rumbling away in the background, I tried to put a lot of character and humour in it. I really wanted it to be entertaining, and avoid portentousness.
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?
I don’t know. I very rarely read horror fiction, and I don’t think I’ve ever read one that properly scared me. Paul Auster’s City Of Glass, one of my favourite books, has a really unsettling ending though.
How long has the idea for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ been rolling around your brain pan?
It goes right back to one of the Doctor Who fiction anthologies Big Finish used to do. There was one called The Solar System and there was going to be a story set on each planet. I always sent them two pitches in case one clashed with something else in the book, so I pitched a Hartnell story set on Jupiter and a Troughton one set on Mercury. They went for the Mercury one, but for some reason the other pitch stuck with me. I’d been watching a documentary series about Venice, and the foundation of the city really interested me – it was founded by people who’d been cast out of their lands and had nowhere to go, and they built a city in the water out of sheer bloody-mindedness basically, and eventually it became the centre of the world. I loved the idea of transferring that to a city on one of the gas giants of the solar system – you shouldn’t be able to build a city there, but someone did.
Gradually I built up more and more details around it, and worked out the characters and threw more ideas in. But I looked back at the original Doctor Who pitch, and although I did change it a lot – there’s no Doctor substitute character, the story follows its own line – I was surprised to see that the ending in the pitch is the same as the ending of the novel. So that was always there.
What was your favourite book as a kid?
A Roald Dahl probably – I think George’s Marvellous Medicine was my favourite of his.
You’ve written a lot of scripts; do you find it difficult to lurch over to prose? Which do you find ‘easier’?
I find scripts easier, for lots of reasons. I think my strengths are in dialogue and structure, and my main weakness is descriptive prose, so I think I’m better suited to scriptwriting. Scripts are much faster to write, and it’s much easier to hold a whole script in your head than a whole novel. I found that really difficult with Tomorrow Never Knows, making sure it all felt like a consistent world and that the novel had a good shape to it.
You’ve written a bunch of different Doctor Who stories, but which of them are you still most proud of?
I still think there’s good stuff in Memory Lane and Human Resources, which were my earliest ones. I was really delighted to write The Secret History, because I love the Hartnell era and Peter’s Doctor, and getting to combine all those things means it’s perhaps my favourite I’ve done. But I’m perhaps most proud of Urgent Calls – I just think it’s really neat in how it plays out a high concept through character.
What comes first for you, concept or characters?
Almost always concept, and then I think about who’d be the best character or characters to carry that concept. Lots of writers say you must start with character, but I find that really hard – I can’t just create a character and know they’ll give me enough story to power me through a whole script or novel – and things tend to spark for me when I get an interesting concept in my head. That said, the two things are bound up together for me – characters don’t exist in a vacuum, you define characters through what they do and how they react to what happens to them, so I think you don’t know who a character is until you’ve provided something for them to react to.
Do you approach starting a novel differently than you do a script? Or is the process broadly the same?
Starting a novel is a much bigger undertaking than writing a script, so I have to be pretty committed before I start and know that it’s something I really want to do, and know that it has to be a novel. Whereas I’ve always got script ideas knocking about, and I’ll start one if I’ve got a couple of days with no other work on, or if I’m getting stale on another project. I know I can get it done, and it’s always good to have new scripts to send round. I hate writing pitches, and often I’d rather just write a spec script. Every time I write a spec script, the response is better than for projects where I’ve only written a pitch document.
Do you plan on releasing more novels?
I’d like to, it’s just a case of having the time. I’m in a position now where I can talk to people about projects for TV, radio, theatre and film, and in the time it’d take me to write a novel, I could get half a dozen scripts done. And I often think I’d get on better if I focused myself more and stopped trying to write in all genres and media simultaneously. But there’s something irresistibly appealing about writing a novel – it’s just an immensely satisfying thing, a great chunk of words representing your own characters, story and world. And I do have a half-finished SF novel and an idea for a YA novel. I might try making it part of my routine in 2016 to write a bit of prose every day, and see how I get on.
Doctor Who aside; are there any other existing story worlds you think it would be fun to write for?
I’d like to have a go at Star Trek – I actually watched that before I watched Doctor Who, because Doctor Who scared me when I was very young. And I think the world of Batman is terrific, a great set of characters that’s brought out the best in a lot of writers.
Scripts are often described as a ‘blueprint’ for the finished article. A blueprint that lots of other people, from actors to directors, then bring themselves to as part of the process. Did you find a novel, in which it’s all ‘you’, liberating, or scary?
It’s both. I like collaboration, you have to embrace it if you’re going to work as a scriptwriter, but it’s also great to have that total control you get with prose, and be able to produce the finished thing all by yourself. But yes, if you screw it up there’s nowhere to hide.
How many abandoned novels and scripts do you have gathering digital dust on your laptop?
Loads. It depends how you define ‘abandoned’. There are lots I might get back to someday, or rip ideas out of and use again. I’ve got a novel and a half on there – the novel will never see the light of day, but I want to finish the half at some point. I’ve just counted the scripts and there are eighteen complete scripts on there that, right now, I don’t intend to do anything with. Bloody hell.
What are you reading/watching/hiding from right now?
Right now I’m reading Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I’m midway through a stack of TV shows including The Returned, Hannibal, Ripper Street, Community, War And Peace and 30 Rock, and I’m working my way through a boxset of Jack Rosenthal’s work for ITV, and I’m finally getting back to a great anime show called Noir which I started watching years ago.
Do you think you’d ever try going indie and release a novel yourself?
Yes. I was about to release Tomorrow Never Knows myself, and in fact it was only being too busy to polish it up for publication that stopped me doing it. But then Snowbooks got in touch and said they’d like to do it. I’d forgotten I’d even sent it to them – they had a backlog on their slush pile and it took them a while to get back to me. If that hadn’t happened, I’d have done it myself. If you think a piece of work is good enough, but you can’t get anyone to agree, I think you should have the courage of your convictions, push it out there and see what happens.
You’ve written stories for a variety of mediums, but in your heart, what do you consider yourself to be? Novelist? Script-writer? Comedy writer? Something else?
Script-writer, I think. I spent years thinking my future was as a novelist, simply because I couldn’t see the way into TV for me. Nobody in British TV was making the kind of things I wanted to watch. But all that changed after Doctor Who came back. It’s still tricky pitching the stuff I want to do, but people do listen and take it seriously, and it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager, back when all the cool kids wanted to write movies. Now all those Johnny-come-latelys want to write for TV.
Of course, just as I’d decided my future wasn’t as a novelist after years of rejections, my novel got picked up. The same thing happened when I decided I wasn’t best suited to theatre – I’ve just had my first full-length play produced.
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.
I have music. I find silence oppressive, it’s bad enough spending all day, every day in a room with your thoughts without at least some noise to give you some respite. I used to write with the TV on but I find it too distracting now. Mostly I listen to BBC 6music, which is totally aimed at people like me and even the stuff that’s on the playlist only gets played once every six hours, unlike other stations which play the same twelve records relentlessly all day. I’ve got Lauren Laverne’s show on now. A lot of my friends on Twitter listen to it as well, and we talk about what’s on, and Lauren’s on Twitter too and chats back to us, so it’s like having office mates, and all of that helps keep me from falling into a well of existential loneliness.
If you have your way, what does the long-term future hold for you?
I’ve ticked off two big ambitions – I’ve created a sitcom (Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, which I did for Radio 4) and I’ve published a novel – and while I’d love to do both of those again, my main thing is to get my own TV drama made. And write for Doctor Who, but one is a step towards the other. I think British TV drama is in a great place now, after a period where we were being utterly outstripped by American TV. So it feels like a positive place to go out and pitch. That said, given my track record of breaking into areas just as I decide it’s not where my future lies, maybe I should give up all hope of getting a TV drama made, and then it’ll happen.
Check out Eddie’s new novel HERE: Tomorrow Never Knows
Follow him on Twitter HERE: EDDIE
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