Paul Cornell

The acclaimed Who novelist speaks on his work and the show that kick-started his career

I had the honour of meeting Paul Cornell at Manopticon 4 this Easter and the pleasure of interviewing him amongst the general merry-making caused by his fellow writers and colleagues at Virgin. I pulled him away from the beer-fest in order to ask him some general questions to find out what has made this innovative writer so successful. The answer seems to be: Fear.

Firstly, I had to ask him the key question:

Do you write as a Doctor Who fan or do you write because you want to become a writer?

'I think in my life the two things were always exactly the same thing. I was writing stories from the age of about six or seven and my interest in Doctor Who made those entirely Doctor Who stories from the age of about eight. So these days my fandom has enabled me to be a professional writer - there is absolutely no difference between the two things. I was a fan fiction writer whenever I had the time. I try and still be a fan fiction writer but time has become a very precious commodity. A fanzine has just asked me for a fan fiction story and I'm doing my damnedest to get it to them but I suspect I won't make it to the end of that one.'

Is writing a full time career for you now?


Did you use to have another job?

'I've studied at university and college during the time I haven't been writing professionally. I've got my MA in writing from Lancaster. I was a student, did a few part time jobs and then chucked it all in to become a writer. I've never really had another career. Well, actually that's not quite true in that I did a years worth of training at UCL to be an astronomer - not a years worth at all about a terms worth. I gave that up after six weeks after it became clear that I didn't have the maths to do it.'

How long ago did you decide that you wanted to become a writer? Was it from that very early age?

'Yes. I remember the actual week. I used to work my way concienciously past essay assignments at school and write the minimum requirements - 4 pages of basic story without ever thinking about whether it was going to be any good or not. I hated writing fiction essays. And then one week I got really pissed off and decided to annoy a particularly bad English teacher and so I wrote what I took to be an absolute personal attack - I had a go. That turned out to be twelve pages and she gave it an A. I still think she was a terrible teacher I hated her guts then and still do now but I think that rather sums up my entire career. My entire career has been an act of revenge and my first creative act as a matter of fiction was revenge and it was only from that point that I decided that I could actually enjoy it. That I had the actual ability to use words myself instead of them being things inflicted upon me.'

What's your first Doctor Who memory?

'This is very specific actually - The Brain of Morbius. It's very late because I'd been really scared of Doctor Who in the playground. I'd been scared of what other people had said about Doctor Who. So scared that I didn't want to watch it. I felt I was getting to old not to watch it so I tuned into the Brain of Morbius which is not the story one would recommend to a timid boy! But after four episodes when I was making myself watch it every week:- "The Doctor's won! The good guys won!" and I was so amazed by that - I was blown away that he'd actually beaten the bad guys because it looked pretty damn impossible from where I was sitting. It was a huge release of tension, a huge catharsis. It was brilliant and from then on of course I was addicted, as you do become addicted to things which you've won over. And I think that was the whole mystery of it for me - the fact that I had been terribly scared of it and now I wasn't. That's what really got me hooked.'

I suppose you were going in a bit at the deep end with Brain of Morbius, with all that violence. Did you enjoy the violence?

'I suppose yes you do, because conflict has to be violent otherwise the good guys winning over the bad guys doesn't really mean much. The week after of course it was the Seeds of Doom and I had a particular phobia about plants. That was six weeks of hell as well!'

Did you use to watch it behind the sofa then?

'No. It was either not watch it at all, which I did for most of my life, or then watch it completely. I used to even view other channels. I used to have BBC 2 on! Other boys would come to my house and they'd say: "oh, lets watch Doctor Who" and I'd say: "No you don't, we're not watching that!" I was a real spoilsport for them.'

Is there any particular fragment of Brain of Morbius that sticks out?

'I thought at the time it was the Morbius monster that really struck me the design of it and it thrashing about. I also remember very clearly him (the Doctor) lighting the firework to start the sacred flame going at the end. But because I joined it so late, these aren't misty memories for me. This is something quite solid, not something lost in the mists of time. I do have lost, distant memories of Doctor Who. I think I must have seen the ice warriors at one point in black and white because I had a vague memory of what they looked like before I started watching it and I remember plucking up all my courage and turning over from BBC2 to BBC 1 just as Lynx removed his helmet at the end of the Time Warrior (Part 1) and switching immediately back but that's it as far as those go.'

Can you remember the first story you wrote?

'Yes I can!' he laughs. 'In fact, the first Doctor Who story I wrote was first published in a fanzine out of Exeter.' He struggles to remember the name of the story. 'It must have been 1982, and I can't remember the title for the life of me, but its there if anyone wants to see it. It was a Davison story as all my early fan fiction was - Davison, Nyssa and Tegan, and it was about the TARDIS encountering a living cloud which Nyssa, because I had a huge crush on Nyssa -'

Who doesn't? (More laughter)

'- got out and helped it - it was dying and she helped it and made it all right again and they all went on their way nicely.' He pauses, lost in thought. 'No, I had such a huge crush on Nyssa that I was actually upset when I heard that Sarah Sutton was leaving the series and went around feeling heart-broken for a few days! Can't see why now! I look back and think - "as stiff as a plank!"'

(I voice a rather intrigued mumble)

'Well, let us just say I don't feel that the character was fully developed, let us say the actress in question didn't really have the experience to develop that character and the end result is, "as stiff as a plank."'

What do you think of Adric then???

'He's actually trying, he really is. He has a go, at least! Especially in Kinda. He's actually rather good in Kinda.'

How did you get the job of writing Timewyrm, Revelation?

'Rather wonderfully, I actually wrote in my application with two chapters and a plot along with everybody else who was invited to send manuscripts in and they accepted it. It's really quite wonderful and fairy-tale like.'

So unlike Terrance Dicks you hadn't been involved beforehand?

'I'd written a couple of comic strips for Doctor Who Monthly. That really can't be regarded as much of an advantage. I don't actually think I mentioned it even.'

I think I've seen your name in an old issue of Doctor Who Monthly, in the letters column.

'Oh yeah! Absolutely! I used to write to them every month during the Davison era. They finally printed one after eight months and then they stopped.'

With hindsight what do you think of Revelation compared to your other works?

'Oh, its very nieve. Politically, its very very solidly left wing and I'd think I'd introduce some more questioning elements these days. I remain solidly left wing, but its difficult to digest large tracks of propaganda like that. I think it sags a bit in the middle. I re-read it, and there are a couple of nice early peaks and then it just goes -' He sweeps down with his hand. '- before we get back to the ending. Its got a certain charm about it, I feel a bit teary when I read it. Its not a well formed book - its not very well made. I think what it comes down to is good set pieces, but not very well put together.'

Later on you got the chance to introduce the new companion to the New Adventures. How much freedom were you given in the characterisation?

'Quite a lot but with some limits. We were all asked to come up with a new companion, which is where Kadiatu came from and which is where William Blake in the Pit came from. Bernice was chosen, because of some things I was doing, an older companion, etc. There were certain things they took out. She was originally going to be pregnant, and I think that that was a stupid idea. I don't know what I was thinking of. It would have limited her, waddling about through adventures would have been absolutely ridiculous. I think that's the only thing that's got lost. There are some strange little things in the original description of the character, which was printed in Marvel at the time, which no longer ring true, like her fascination with tennis, but all in all I don't think there was much change.'

How did you come up with the twisted, sadistic idea of turning Nyssa into a vampire?

'Oh, I just thought it was there to be done. I think if you're going to do a vampire book one of them has to turn into a vampire, and it couldn't be Tegan because she'd be too cynical and unromantic about her condition. She'd be standing around the TARDIS going: "Aw, can't you get rid of these fangs, Doctor?" Nyssa would actually take it on board and it would become a really passionate thing for her, a thing of belief and dedication and action. I think it was just the obvious thing to do.'

She is fairly innocent, as well.

'Yes, absolutely. It was the idea of her trying to logically work her way through that that appealed.'

Will you write any more Missing Adventures?

'I have a plot in for one actually. I have a great deal of trouble with the Missing Adventures. I think the idea of writing a book that is like a TV show is a very difficult one and very few people can do it. I'm not sure I can do it. I've got a Hartnell adventure in because Hartnell seems to lend himself better to good books and the nature of the stories are essentially prosaic. It's rather more like a novel, so it doesn't feel so strange doing it as a novel and I've always wanted to do an Ian and Barbara story. But that would be my last, if I get a chance to do it, which I may not. I'd be quite happy for Happy Endings to be my last, but it'd be cool to do something odd and strange for my last one, I'm not sure. It's called the Knights of Pluto.'

Does this mean you're coming to the end of your Doctor Who novel writing?

'I am, and the line itself may be coming to an end. But yes, I'm definitely onto further things now. Either Happy Endings or Pluto will be my last book. I love the line and I'm a huge loyalist and supporter of it, but there are things out there in the real world that I want to do.'

Human Nature was very well received, certainly on the internet.

'I'm really pleased about that. It's just won the DWM poll - I beat Shakedown. I'm really pleased about that.'

The criticisms I've heard of it is that it was too focused on the Doctor and his personality and less on the story itself. What would you say to this?

'Absolutely guilty, but then again, character is story, personality is story. Also, considering the standard problem with the New Adventures that the critics seem to have is that there isn't enough of the Doctor in them, I think that having one which is entirely about him, even though he's not actually present, made a nice change.'

If Human Nature had been your first novel, do you think Virgin would have taken it on so enthusiastically?

'No. They wouldn't have actually taken it on as my first novel. Its one of those novels that you only get to do once you're two or three books down the line and have proved you can do it. There's no way on earth that I would have had Human Nature accepted as my first book.'

How do you think that the romantic interest should be handled in the new Doctor Who movie?

'I'm sure they're handling it very well!' He laughs once more. 'I think maybe it should be handled not at all. I think one of the defining factors of the Doctor is that he's the only hero in popular culture who doesn't associate saving the universe with getting the girl. This appeals to two groups of people. Children don't feel threatened and alienated by it and gay men have a hero who doesn't equate heterosexuality with heroism.'

So you don't think he should 'get his leg over' then!

'I absolutely don't think he should get his leg over! Mind you, more importantly I don't think he should pick up a gun and I think him carrying a gun is much more of an issue, but he isn't, which is nice.'

Who do you see as your greatest competition in the Virgin range of novels?

'I don't really see it as competition. I think we're all in this together.'

Who are the rising stars?

'Kate Orman is the best writer amongst us. She actually writes books which are novels and I think the rest of us are still trying to get that act together. I think she's going to have a really great future ahead of her. Andy Lane is a very good writer. Of course I worship the feet of Terrance. Lance Parkin, I feel is very good. Ben, blew me away totally with the Also People. Gareth Roberts is very sturdy indeed. He's going to go onto great things. There are others, but they're the main ones I've named.'

We've been seeing the Hit Parade in Doctor Who magazine for a couple of months now. Can you give me a couple of stories that would be on your Hit Parade?

'Kinda, obviously, because its television drama which not a lot of the rest of Who is. It's incredible. People look for parallels and hidden depths within it and there isn't really a code to be broken and a puzzle to be solved its just that's what drama is like - there are a lot of levels going on in the same time. I like Delpha and the Bannermen because its very sunny and happy and jolly and lovely. Large dollops of Davison and large dollops of McCoy. The Massacre which I've only heard on audio seems to me the most perfect piece of Doctor Who ever made - it sounds brilliant! The Androids of Tara, The Creature from the Pit, a lot of Graham Williams. I think that that type of happy go lucky Tom (Baker) is just delightful, but the Androids of Tara particularly. Everything comes together and it just works.'

Your favourite companion?

'Probably Ace, well Bernice if I'm allowed, but from the TV series Ace. Ian and Barbara are lovely. I'm really looking forward to working with them. William Russell is such a good actor - a wonderful character.'

If you could sum up the Doctor in a paragraph, how would you describe him?

'"He is never cruel or cowardly although caught up in violent situations he is a man of peace," which is Terrance Dicks' definition which I live by.'

Any new projects in the future?

'I have an episode of the Ward, which used to be Children's Ward, on in September on ITV. I've got a few TV things bubbling. We're trying to get a Random House book - Random House keep on saying that they're going to publish some original fiction which would be nice. Also, there a number of new things at Virgin that I want to be involved in. So television and novels are what I'm doing now. There's an awful lot coming up on the horizon.'

It was great fun talking to Paul and I hope that Curse gets the chance to do another interview with him in the future...

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