Hey there, Insiders! Today we have a great interview, carried out by WIll Barber-Taylor; dig in:
Scott K Andrews and Simon Guerrier are two of the best and yet least talked about science fiction writers of recent times. Both of them have created fantastic worlds, yet they fill them with some of the most real and empathetic characters that the genre has seen. I’ve interviewed Simon a good few times in the past years and as always it was an honour to speak to him again. The honour is furthered by the presence of Scott K Andrews, whose writing is in a class of its own.
Hello Simon, thank you again for agreeing to answer some questions for the good folk at Genre Reader. Firstly, I’d like to ask having worked with characters created by other people before, particularly in your Doctor Who audios, was it easier to write a sequel to Scott Andrew’s St. Mark’s Trilogy without misunderstanding the characters?
Simon: Yes, my background in writing Doctor Who and other things helped, because I’m used to coming up with new adventures for established characters. I knew what was involved: rereading Scott’s trilogy and making notes about the characters and feel of the world, the things I could draw on and the things I’d need to try and match. But with all these pre-existing creations, it helps if the material you’re drawing from is strong: a world that’s easy to visualise, and characters whose voices you can hear in your head. So what made my job easier was that Scott had written such a distinctive series in the first place.
Hello Scott, thank you for agreeing to this interview for the readers of Genre Reader. Firstly, I’d like to ask how it feels to see concepts that you created handled by another writer and is it a strange experience?
Scott: It’s thrilling! I was offered the opportunity to write a novella myself, but I was up to my eyes, so I recommended Simon for the job. I was so happy when I found out he’d agreed to do it. Partly it’s payback, because it was Simon who first alerted me to Abbadon’s open submission period all those years ago, so the whole School’s Out trilogy is partly his fault. But I honestly think Simon’s one of the most talented writers out there and I was excited to see what he’d do with my characters – he didn’t disappoint. The whole point of the Afterblight world is that it was a collaborative experience anyway, so it feels right that the world should be carried on by other writers.
For those who are not familiar with the St Mark’s Trilogy, how would describe the situation your characters find themselves at the start of Fall Out?
Simon: You don’t need to know anything about the St Mark’s trilogy – or the other Afterblight novels – to start Fall Out; it’s all explained as we go. But the world is slowly rebuilding after a virus wiped out the vast majority of the population. In Oxford, there’s the beginnings of a new kind of British government, which summons Jane Crowther and Jack Bedford – two characters from St Mark’s – to discuss what to do about a major crisis. One of the country’s old nuclear power stations has gone into meltdown, killing hundreds of people and poisoning thousands more. And there are nine more power stations round the country, waiting to do the same. So what the hell are they going to do?
You’ve contributed in the past to The Afterblight Chronicles series from which the St Mark’s Trilogy is derived. What was it like working with different authors creating one universe and is it at all different to working with Simon on Fall Out?
Scott: On the original trilogy I worked closely with Paul Kane, whose Arrowhead trilogy cross-pollinated with mine in a few key ways, and it was a real pleasure. Being able to dip into his characters and settings when I wanted to certainly helped improve my books.
With Simon’s book, he had absolute carte blanche, but I did share the secret that I’d set up a sequel trilogy, and I let him know the jumping off point I’d had in mind for it. I was thrilled when he took that and ran with it.
Simon, was it at all easier writing Fall Out because you were able to talk to Scott?
Simon: Yes, though we didn’t talk all that much. He – very generously – left me to get on with it. At the beginning, he told me where he would have gone with things if he was writing it. I took that idea and developed it, and talked to editor David Moore about what else was happening in the Afterblight books, and shaped the outline round that. Once I’d written a first draft, there was some tweaking to get it more in line with what the other books are doing, and to get the characters and feel just right. But yes, it was nice knowing I had Scott to call on if I got stuck. And I sent him the final version for his approval. He still seems to be talking to me.
Are there any particular writers that have influenced your style of writing?
Scott: So many. The brevity and clarity of Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who novelisations is a big influence. Also Robert Westall for the way he made books for teenagers seem really adult; he pioneered Young Adult writing before it was considered its own category. And Joss Whedon for the way he puts character front and centre while bending established genre tropes into interesting new shapes.
Simon: For this one I was trying to emulate the style of Scott Andrews – the shock twists, the sassy dialogue, the bleakness of tone in this harsh environment. But yes, there are lots of writers who I admire and who I have borrowed off – not always while being aware of it. Like Scott, I owe a lot to Terrance Dicks and the concise, thrilling prose of his Doctor Who books. Paul Cornell taught me to think big in my writing – and very kindly helped me when I was starting out as a professional writer. I read Emily St John Mantell’s amazing Station Eleven just before starting work on Fall Out, too, which made me rethink some of my approach. I pick up stuff from everywhere.
How do you approach writing a novel, is there a way for you to get into the specific mind-set needed to compose a piece of fiction?
Scott: It depends on the book. For the School’s Out books I needed to access all my unresolved angst about my time at a boys boarding school, so that was quite intense, emotionally. I exorcised a lot of personal demons in those books. For the Timebomb books it’s been a little more fun – I’m mashing up all the great stories I loved as a child and hopefully putting my own spin on them. So it’s a bit of Doctor Who, a smattering of an old TV show called Timeslip, with a seasoning of Robert Westall and a garnish of Buffy. As for the nitty gritty of preparing to write – my editors at Abbadon required me to write a detailed outline to be approved before I could begin each book. I found that really useful, so I’ve maintained that discipline, and even made it more rigorous for Timebomb – mostly because you can’t do a time travel story over three books without having at least one flow chart (I’ve got about ten!) otherwise you’ll tie yourself in narrative knots.
Simon: As Scott said, the publisher wants an outline of the full story. So I start by making notes and thinking. Then I ignore those notes and try to write the outline in one go, getting down the essentials of the story. That goes back and forth with the publisher until everyone’s happy. And then you just have to write the damn thing. That doesn’t get any easier. You’re constantly worrying about whether it’s working, whether you can make it more effective, whether it’s exciting, distinctive, funny, insightful… I tend to start very slowly, maybe just 100 words in the first day. And as I’m going to bed it will suddenly strike me how to do it better, so those 100 words get scratched and I start again. And slowly you build up momentum, as the “voice” of the book itself develops. By the end, I’m getting through a chapter in a day, maybe more.
You’ve both successfully worked in other types of media to tell stories, such as Scott’s work on Sniper Elite V2 and Simon’s work for Big Finish – does the written word convey something that television and audio dramas can’t?
Scott: With Sniper Elite V2, I came in when the game was quite far into development. The developers had a bunch of discrete levels in nearly complete and it was my job to put them in an order and construct a narrative to turn it into a story. It was like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle and it was great fun. There wasn’t much dialogue, it was more like writing a really detailed outline for a novel and then handing it over to somebody else to do the actual writing.
Simon: I’ve not written any TV that’s been broadcast, but I’ve made some short films and things. And yes, you can use the medium you’re working in for the benefit of your story. In prose, you have to describe everything – the buildings, what people are wearing, what they look like – which I think is harder work. But also you can get into the heads of your characters in a way that only works on audio and on screen if you’re using narration, which can feel a bit like cheating. So you can make prose more intimate. That’s something you often see in screen adaptations of a book you love: the events and dialogue are all as in the book, but the screen version lacks insight into why people act as they do. You’re also not limited by practicalities in prose – the number of people you can afford in a scene, or how you’ll convey some big moment like a nuclear power station melting down. So it’s more intimate and also on a bigger scale. The fact it’s less limiting actually makes it more daunting in some ways.
Is there any particular piece of fiction that you are most proud of?
Scott: I wrote a series of Highlander audio dramas for Big Finish that I’m intensely proud of. They got amazing reviews, and one was nominated for a Scribe Award, but because they focused on villains from the TV show rather than an actual Highlander, hardly anybody bought them, which is understandable, so they never really found an audience. The two-hander play I wrote for Richard Ridings and Toby Longworth, All The King’s Horses, is my favourite of the things I’ve written, not least because Richard and Toby’s performances are just amazing.
Simon: My wife thinks a Doctor Who book I wrote is the best thing I’ve done – The Pirate Loop, which is about some naughty space-pirate badgers. I’m very pleased with that one, too.
Scott, you were going to contribute to the Ghost Rider 2099 series, which was sadly cancelled before it was produced. What was it like working on an updated version of a well-known Marvel character?
Scott: Yes, I wrote an issue of GR 2099 back in the 90s. It was actually inked and lettered but it never saw print. The story was a fun, albeit derivative, little standalone – all very William Gibson 90s cyberpunk. Not sure how well it stands up today, some of it feels very self-conscious when I read it back now, but it was a great learning experience and there are some bits of it I still really like, not least the art that Sam Salgood did for it, which was stellar. You can check it out here, if you’re feeling forgiving: GHOST RIDER 2099
I adored writing comics, it was my first writing love and I still feel a pang every now and then that it didn’t quite pan out.
Simon, why does science fiction and science fantasy attract you as a genre?
Simon: Good question. I think it goes back to being a child, and my elder brother or my school friends passing on stuff they thought would blow my mind. I got handed a VHS of Blade Runner, or was recommended books by Iain Banks. It’s still very exciting when that happens: my friend Sarah handing me a dog-eared copy of Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, or my friend Tara raving about the TV series Agent Carter before I knew what that was. And I try to achieve that effect in what I’m writing, to make people go “Bloody hell!” It’s not easy, though.
Scott, you’ve recently received acclaim for your new book series, TimeBomb. The first instalment sees our heroes Dora, Jana and Kaz brought together and flung into battling the nefarious Lord Sweetclover. The second instalment is published next year – can you give us any hints at to what will happen in the book?
Scott: The first book was largely told from the point of view of Dora, the seventeenth century English servant girl. Book two, Second Lives, delves more into the back story of Kaz, the Polish-Iranian boy from the present day. We’ll find out the truth about his mother’s death before the story moves out into the wider solar system and my heroes find themselves slap bang in the middle of the future war being waged by their mysterious nemesis, Quil. Hopefully there’ll be lots of thrills and twists the reader won’t see coming, and maybe a few tears…
Simon, you recently co-authored the highly successful Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who; how do you think writing the book has changed your attitude to the way you apply science in science fiction stories?
Simon: I think that book is a symptom of something that was happening anyway. About a decade ago, I read Bill Bryson’s brilliant A Short History of Nearly Everything, which really opened my eyes to a lot of science stuff that I’d ignored as a lazy arts student. It prompted me to read more science books that people recommended – like Steve Jones’ updating of Darwin, Almost Like a Whale, and Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe all about the weirdness of quantum mechanics.
Then I met Marek Kukula, the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He was interested in running an event at the museum where I’d get kids writing stories, but I soon asked his advice on a Doctor Who story I was writing, where I wanted the Doctor’s companion – a physicist – to ask the right sort of questions.
I kept on asking Marek’s advice for things I was writing, and he advised me to take the GCSE in astronomy that the Observatory ran as a night class. So I did that, and used lots of what I learnt in my stories, and elsewhere. We put some stuff about the planets of the Solar System into kids’ magazine Doctor Who Adventures, and I wrote a book about space for Top Trumps.
And then BBC Books asked if Marek and I would like to do a book on the science of Doctor Who. The response has been incredible: Marek and I have been all round the country to talk about it, and I was on Front Row and the Infinite Monkey Cage. We’re hoping to do more…
Simon, apocalyptic worlds are touched upon in Fall Out – why do you think we are so interested in the destruction of the planet?
Simon: I think it’s natural to worry about the future and whether things will work out okay. But it’s also thrillingly terrifying to imagine – from the safe perspective of a novel or film – how society as we know it and everything we hold dear can be destroyed. Fall Out is also part of a tradition about imagining how we might survive such a calamity – what skills and information we’d need, what practical steps we might take. So in some ways, it’s oddly reassuring.
Finally, can both of you reveal what works of fiction we can expect next from your deft pens?
Scott: I honestly have no idea. I’ve just started the final Timebomb book and I can’t really see beyond that right now. I have idea for lots of different books, and types of books that I want to try my hand at – not to mention a second stab at comics and maybe some TV projects. But right now all those projects only exist in my head, and I’ve no idea which will force its way to the front of the queue when Timebomb is put to bed. There’ll be something though – I don’t know how not to write, it’s a compulsion!
Simon: I’m currently writing more of my original science-fiction audio series, Graceless for Big Finish, and a couple of Doctor Who things. I’ve got some short stories coming up, too, and have been doing some work on an original novel – but that’s a long way off being ready for anyone else to look at.
With thanks to Scott K Andrews and Simon Guerrier. You can purchase Fall Out from Abbidon and all good retailers. TimeBomb can be purchased from Hodder & Stoughton as well as all good retailers.