❉ Daniel talks about his writing career and his latest book, EXILES – “Lost meets Lord of the Flies in space”.
“My Doctor Who fandom always existed alongside my life as a writer. I never imagined the two would come together. But when editor Peter Darvill-Evans asked people to send in ideas for the New Adventures, I suddenly realised I could do that. I dusted down an old idea and typed it up. And to my astonishment, he accepted The Dimension Riders and I was a published novelist at the age of 24.”
We’re asking, they’re answering. In the latest in our occasional Q & As feature, writer Daniel Blythe tells us a little about himself and his work, including his latest book, Young Adult sci-fi mystery Exiles.
In 1993, Daniel made his debut as a published writer with The Dimension Riders, the twentieth in Virgin Books’ Doctor Who: The New Adventures series of original novels that brought the franchise into the postmodern 1990s and introduced the much-loved companion Bernice Summerfield, who has gone on to feature in her own popular range of novels, short story anthologies, audio dramas – and a colouring book!
Since then, Daniel has gone on to write many works of fiction and non-fiction for adults and younger readers alike, including the ‘Emerald Greene’ trilogy and Autonomy, part of BBC Books’ series of original Tenth Doctor novels.
Exiles is having its Sheffield launch at Kommune, Sheffield City Centre, on 14 November, where you can meet Daniel and his publishers, Fantastic Fiction.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I grew up in the Kentish countryside, which is a very strange place. It can have a kind of unearthly stillness, as if it’s always waiting for something. You’re only an hour from the coast and an hour from London, but it feels like a very different world from either of those. I was quite a solitary child, very bookish, well-behaved. Thanks to a friend who lived on a farm, I got to go outside in the fresh air and have adventures – building camps and climbing trees, that sort of thing. I finally escaped my little village when I left for university – I did languages, without much idea of what I might go on to do. I worked in Germany for a year while trying to decide!
Who did you want to be when you grew up?
A writer, always – perhaps an adventurer or explorer too, but I know I’d never have had the temperament for that! Inspired by Swallows and Amazons, I used to like making detailed maps of secret places in parks and so on. I’m still growing up, though, so I’ll let you know when I’ve succeeded. I’m only fifty years old and I’ve decided I’d quite like to go backwards for a bit. Regenerating would be fun. Although you never know what you’re going to get, obviously.
What has your journey as a writer been like? When did you decide to become a writer?
I wanted to be a writer as soon as I could read. I was fascinated by the library, by all these people who wrote books and got their names on books: Terrance Dicks, Richmal Crompton, Anthony Buckeridge, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper. I would make up stories on the swing in my garden, picturing them very visually and then running inside to create them in the form of comic-strips. Friends and I also recorded little sci-fi dramas on tape, and did beautifully amateurish radio shows as well, some of which we scripted. But it was always books I wanted to write really. I was hammering them out on an old Olivetti typewriter from the age of about 12. In my teens I wrote a dreadful 400-page novel about unrequited love and nuclear war – the obvious obsessions of any self-respecting self-obsessed teenager in the 1980s…
My Doctor Who fandom always existed alongside my life as a writer. I never imagined the two would come together. But when editor Peter Darvill-Evans asked people to send in ideas for the New Adventures, I suddenly realised I could do that. I dusted down an old idea and typed it up. And to my astonishment, he accepted The Dimension Riders and I was a published novelist at the age of 24.
Slowly, things happened after that – I got an agent, who is still my agent today after 20-odd years, and she sold my books The Cut and Losing Faith to the Penguin group. So for a while I felt like a ‘literary’ novelist. I did some non-fiction, and some shorter fiction for reluctant readers, and then started writing for younger readers and doing workshops in schools. I’ve had 10 full-length novels published, plus assorted non-fiction and short novellas for the reluctant readers.
I do presentations to schools about my writing journey and I always concentrate on the positive. But in any writer’s life there are many, many frustrations and disappointments along the way. The biggest revelation to me was that you are not ‘in’ after your first book comes out – you’re still nobody as far as most of the publishing and reading world is concerned. You have to try harder with each book, and almost re-invent yourself each time. Publishing seems exceptionally youth-driven right now. Many editors are 15, 20 years younger than me. It’s especially hard for us middle-aged, mid-career, mid-list, writers who are, shall we say, not as ‘marketable’ as fresh-faced people with blue hair and interesting piercings and sixty thousand followers on YouTube.
Tell us a little about your latest book. What’s it about?
It’s a Young Adult novel called Exiles. It’s the story of a future penal colony for young offenders and ‘difficult’ types, who have been shipped off by the Earth government in a rickety spaceship to survive as best they can on this windswept world in the middle of nowhere. There are about 50 of them, and into their midst comes a mysterious outsider who upsets the status quo in a big way. It’s a kind of Lost meets Lord of the Flies in space, and I’m sure people will pick up little echoes too of many other influences, including Alien 3, the Blake’s 7 episode ‘Cygnus Alpha’ and the Doctor Who story ‘Colony in Space’, and one or two other things which I can’t mention as they might be spoilers.
But I didn’t set out to ‘write science fiction’. That was never my intention. I don’t want to compete with all the great, epic, concept-driven sci-fi out there. It’s just a story of a group of people and the choices they make, and how they try to survive against the odds, and the relationship between the human race and the civilisations and structures it has created. It’s also the longest book I’ve ever written, so I hope people can really lose themselves in it and get to know the characters.
Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
If he ever really existed, probably Jesus Christ, so we could sit down and have a proper chat about the man versus the myth… I’m sure he’d be appalled at many of the things which are done in his name by people who call themselves Christians. I grew up fairly religious, but I’m not any more – I got very disillusioned with it all.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
By objective standards it may not always be the greatest TV ever, but Doctor Who will always have that special place in my heart.
Monty Python: is it funny?
Parts of it are very, very funny indeed. As a student I had the double cassette of ‘The Final Rip-Off’ and I knew the words to many of the sketches off by heart. I think the Bookshop sketch is absolutely inspired – the concept, the structure, the delivery. That’s probably my favourite.
What book/s are you reading at present?
Rosewater by Tade Thompson and Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
What was the last film that you watched?
Probably Arrival on DVD. My son and I saw it in the cinema when I came out, whenever that was, and I though it was a long time since I had engaged with a film emotionally and intellectually in that way. You watch it in a very different way the second time round, for reasons which will be obvious to people who have seen it.
What film could you watch every day?
I would not be able to watch any film every day. I very rarely watch films more than once. That may be unusual, but I just don’t!
Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?
Well, if it was a friend who had never heard of Kate Bush, it would have to be one of her albums, either The Kick Inside or Hounds of Love on vinyl. It’s amazing the way her voice and her range of ideas and her artistry develop over the course of those first five albums. I saw her on the comeback residency she did in Hammersmith in 2014, and her voice was undiminished, still compelling. It was more like a piece of theatre than a traditional concert. Very memorable.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
Probably the one I’m working on! Slipped into my pocket as a USB drive. If it had to be someone else’s, then maybe Lord of the Rings as it was my literary obsession as a teenager and partly what drove me to write.
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
People enjoy it, and love it, and rave about it, maybe not for obvious reasons, and not because it is necessarily ‘popular’ or even ‘good’ – it just means something to them, and resonates with them somehow, and is very important to them for personal reasons which are not always easy to articulate.
What are you working on at the minute? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m working on the sequel to Exiles. I’m also developing a series of books for younger readers set in Victorian England – the research has been fun. I also edit and mentor new writers for a couple of agencies, and visit about 30 schools a year, delivering presentations and workshops.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
Read a lot.
What do you do to chill out?
I am lucky enough to live right on the edge of the Peak District, and I’m aware that I don’t always make the most of that! I think writers have days when things are just not working, and so then the only solution is to go out in the fresh air. I think here in Sheffield the only thing we lack is a coast. You have to go up to Whitby for decent seaside atmosphere – I go there every couple of years with the family and it always reveals something new.
What would you like to be your epitaph?
He was true to himself and tried hard.
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
That’s quite hard! I think the things that people think are unique about them rarely are. I’d love it if someone could tell me. Maybe someone could read all my books and then tell me!
We are at a bar, what are you drinking?
I drink a lot less than I used to. If I go out for a curry, a nice Tiger or Cobra beer to go with it, and any other meal is usually accompanied by a glass of Soave or Pinot Grigio. With some writer friends I can finish a bottle of wine or even two… probably not very healthy. But when I look back at my student-days drinking capacity I am frankly appalled!
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
My website is www.danielblythe.com and that has links to all my social media and so on, plus links to all the books and where to get hold of them. Exiles can be ordered from my publisher’s website Fantastic Fiction.
If anyone is in the Sheffield area and wants to come to my launch, it’s at Kommune in Sheffield city centre on Thursday 14th November at 7pm. I’ll be talking, showing various audio-visual stuff and signing books – and my publishers will be there too if any aspiring authors want a chat with them!
❉ ‘Exiles’ is out now and is available on Paperback (RRP £9.99) and on Kindle (RRP £2.39) from Fantastic Fiction.