❉We chat with bestselling novelist Jenny Colgan on Quick Reads, Doctor Who, her literary influences, the ‘chick lit’ label and why writers’ block is “bollocks”.
Although best known as a prolific writer of bestselling romantic comedies, Jenny Colgan is a lifelong fan of Doctor Who. In 2012, Jenny Colgan wrote the Eleventh Doctor novel, Dark Horizons, under the name J.T. Colgan (In case you’re wondering, the T stands for TARDIS).
Since then, Jenny has written for a number of Doctor Who spin-offs in various media including the Big Finish audio dramas The Diary of River Song, The Tenth Doctor Adventures and the latest Torchwood epic, Before The Fall, released to critical acclaim last month. She also contributed to to the prose collections Time Trips (2015), The Legends of Ashildr (2015), The Legends of River Song and the the charity anthology Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who edited by Steve Berry.
Jenny’s latest books are A Very Distant Shore and her latest novel The Summer Seaside Kitchen, both published this month.
We Are Cult chatted to Jenny about Quick Reads, Doctor Who, the books and authors that have inspired her, and advice for aspiring writers…
You’ve recently contributed to this year’s Quick Reads, which are published every year and aimed at improving and encouraging adult literacy. Can you tell us a bit about your Quick Read?
Quick Reads are for adults who’ve maybe had reading difficulties and are looking to get back into reading, or just for people in a hurry – they’re short, and plainly written. Mine is called A Very Distant Shore and it’s about a Syrian refugee arriving in a remote Scottish island to be the local doctor.
Were you a keen reader at school?
Of course! All writers are readers first really. I was an incredible bookworm, completely obsessed. I think I read every single thing in the school library, even the stuff I wasn’t interested in, like birdwatching and ventriloquism.
What are your treasured books from childhood?
I loved Malory Towers; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; What Katy Did; Anne of Green Gables, Little Women. All the big moralistic classics!
When did you know you wanted to write?
Well, I always liked to write but I assumed it was like wanting to do anything else mad really – being a pop star or in the Olympics or something; not something that happened to little girls from small Scottish towns.
“‘Chick lit’ is a disgusting term for a bunch of successful professional woman, it can do one. Romantic comedy is a perfectly respectable genre as far as I’m concerned.”
How did you begin writing? What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?
Oh, I’ve always written. I wrote my first book when I was 7. It was mostly about rabbits. I think. I have swathes of really really awful poetry kicking about somewhere too.
Can you tell us a little about the journey towards getting your first book published, and actually getting started as a professional writer?
Well I actually dreamed of being a comedian or a cartoonist. I did stand up for a bit – I was absolutely crap, really really awful – and drew a lot of cartoons, also very badly; submitted sketches to the BBC, that kind of thing, all without success. So I got a lot of doors shut in my face, for years. When I wrote the novel I just expected another bunch of ‘nos’, so when it actually happened – it got picked up by the second and third agents who saw it, and it went out to auction pretty much straight away – I was as surprised as anybody else. So. Persevere is I guess the message, even when people keep telling you you’re no good.
You’re best known for your romantic comedy novels such as the ‘Little Beach Street Bakery’ and ‘Rosie Hopkins Sweetshop’ series – I say ‘romantic comedy’ because you’re on record as dislking the ‘chick lit’ label! What is it about this genre that appeals to you?
Yeah, ‘Chick lit’ is a disgusting term for a bunch of successful professional woman, it can do one. Romantic comedy is a perfectly respectable genre as far as I’m concerned. Nora Ephron wrote masterpieces. And if you don’t think there’s much skill in being funny, then you definitely won’t like my stuff!
“The fake David Tennant regeneration was so brilliant. The entire country had a simultaneous nervous breakdown; it was just wonderful!”
In 2012, ‘Dark Horizons’ was published by BBC Books under the name J.T. Colgan, the first full-length original Doctor Who novel since the series returned in 2005. How did you come to be involved in the world of Doctor Who?
I’ve always been involved, if you like; as a childhood fan I won a competition to meet the Doctor and I’ve never really been far away. When I moved to London in the ‘90s I always wanted to go to the Tav (Ed: The Fitzroy Tavern in Belgravia, a meeting place for Doctor Who fans and professionals) but was just too nervous. I wish I had in retrospect! Then I basically bombarded them with pitches and things to write something when the new series came back.
What are your favourite childhood memories of our favourite time lord?
My favourite childhood memories are the Logopolis regeneration – I was utterly startled, it wasn’t like now when you more or less know what’s coming months in advance. That’s why the fake David Tennant regen was so brilliant; they managed to keep a lid on it. The entire country had a simultaneous nervous breakdown; it was just wonderful.
Since ‘Dark Horizons’, you have gone on to write numerous Doctor Who adventures across various media – short stories and audio adventures. What’s it been like writing for such a rich franchise, with so many storytelling opportunities?
I adore writing for the Doctors, all of them. I love exploring the different personalities, the way they talk, react. I always like writing best whichever Doctor I’m writing in any given moment. I also have a load of fun with the TARDIS, who I see as a separate character. But I’m equally happy writing for Ashildr and River: I adore writing the women in the Doctor’s universe, absolutely, River in particular.
“James Herriot is a huge influence on me. His belief in the essential kindness of most people is a tonic to read and I think the Doctor thinks like that too.”
How does writing for audio differ to prose, and what are the unique challenges and advantanges of audio drama?
Audio is unique in that you’re trying to build up a world in the viewers’ imagination without really being able to tell them what they’re looking at. It’s a skill I’m picking up as I go along, I think, without having people shout, “What’s that?” every five minutes. On the other hand, hearing actors bring your words to life is a massive thrill, and they make everything so much better.
How do you feel about your stories after you’re done writing them?
Ha! That very much depends on the story. So the earlier stuff – like Dark Horizons – I think, well, I probably wouldn’t have done bits of it like that now. Whereas Picnic at Asgard, which is River and 11 at a Valhalla theme park as she tries to work up the courage to ask them if they have kids or not- I’m really really proud of it. So. It depends! I can find it very difficult to listen to the audios if there’s a scene I don’t like.
What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
This sounds mad, but James Herriot – funny, humane, warm, grounded – is a huge influence on me. His belief in the essential kindness of most people is a tonic to read and I think the Doctor thinks like that too. Apart from that, Douglas Adams of course; he’s influenced everyone who’s ever read him; CS Lewis – I am very fond of his fourth wall breaking and use it a lot, and Dodie Smith.
“Writer’s block is bollocks. If you get stuck, go write another section and come back to it at the end. If you want it to be your job, treat it like your job.”
What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
Finish, submit, pitch, be a pest. You’d be amazed how many promising writers get left by the wayside simply because they don’t hit their deadlines or finish properly. If you can show up and get the job done on time, you have every chance of being hired over someone who might be more brilliant than you, but is incredibly flakey and late with things.
How do you deal with so-called writers’ block?
No such thing. It’s bollocks. Only millionaires get it. If you get stuck, go write another section and come back to it at the end. Accountants aren’t really allowed to get accountant’s block. If you want it to be your job, treat it like your job. Before I was a full-time professional writer, in weekends and holidays I’d go to the Royal Festival Hall in London and pretend it was my office and work there all day.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
A photo album my daughter made, of her with her favourite monkey toy.
Next month is World Book Day, the annual event to promote reading – have you been involved in any WBD events before?
Of course; I have three children! My middle boy Francis was very funny last year. He said he was going as Boy in a Dress. I said, Have you read it?, and he said no; I said, Are you doing it at school? and he said no. I think he just fancied wearing a frock. He looked fabulous.
What are you working on at the minute?
I am waiting on notes on a screenplay, and about to start a new novel. Also I’m waiting to hear about a potential new series I am absolutely desperate to do.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Yup, I always work at least three projects ahead, and I’m currently considering start something that will run twelve instalments ahead and keep me busy until 2021. Wow.
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
No, there’s nothing remotely interesting about me! I play the piano very badly and spoil my dog, but I don’t think that’s particularly unusual.
How can our readers discover more about you and you work?
❉ ‘Time Reaver’ written by Jenny T Colgan and starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate is available from Big Finish Productions.
❉ Jenny Colgan’s Quick Read, A Very Distant Shore, is available as a paperback and Kindle from Amazon and other retailers.