❉ A natter with writer Paul Magrs about ‘Baker’s End’, his new ‘Mars’ trilogy, and much ado about Puffins.
Paul Magrs is the author of many books, written for all ages and in many different genres, including the Adventures of Brenda and Effie and numerous Doctor Who novels, radio plays, and audio dramas. ‘The Peterloo Massacre’, a pure historical Doctor Who story, was released by Big Finish Productions in March 2016 and received fantastic praise from reviewers and Doctor Who fans.
Paul’s recent output includes ‘Baker’s End’, a new comedy drama series starring Tom Baker (as himself) produced by Bafflegab Productions, and ‘The Martian Girl’, the second book in the Mars trilogy after the widely acclaimed ‘Lost on Mars’ – one of The Telegraph’s best YA books of 2015.
Let’s start with two of your most recent projects – firstly, your audio series ‘Baker’s End’ starring Tom Baker. For those who aren’t familiar with ‘Baker’s End’, how would you summarise it, if that’s not too tricky a question?
It’s a funny, macabre audio series in which we find that the retired actor Tom Baker has faked his own death in the village of Happenstance and, once his friends are gathered, spontaneously reincarnates himself as a large, dancing, doggerel-spouting cat. With the help of his acidulous housekeeper and his plucky one-time co-star he sets about getting involved in a series of spooky adventures. It’s rude and silly and rather dark.
‘Baker’s End’ has reunited you with Tom Baker and Susan Jameson – who played the Doctor and his housekeeper in your ‘Nest Cottage’ Doctor Who audio adventures – and your ‘Iris Wildthyme’ partners in crime Katy Manning and David Benson. What’s it like to get the old band back together?
I’ve had a kind of rep company over the years, with people coming back to be in my things. David Benson and Katy Manning are mainstays of most audio dramas I’ve written – whether they’re being Iris Wildthyme and her art critic companion Panda or any number of other creations. Tom and Sue were so wonderful together in the fifteen Nest Cottage stories we did between 2008 and 2011. I missed writing for the two of them, once AudioGo canned our series and Big Finish took over doing Tom’s Doctor. The ‘Nest Cottage Chronicles’ (as they called the complete series boxset) were great because they were original and new. It’s so hard to find something new to do in Doctor Who. So much of it is repetition and recombination and regurgitation. I’m proud that we took a new direction for a little while. We took on Tom’s Doctor and, in collaboration with him, invented a version that would be as he would play him now, in the 21st Century. His Doctor evolved each year on TV, and so it seemed right that he should have kept on evolving. He’s even more loquacious, mischievous and quixotic than ever.
And in ‘Baker’s End’ – which is set in a universe at least ninety degrees to our own, we have a meta-Tom, in a scuzzy old cat suit, and Tom’s in his element, I think.
Is it fair to call ‘Baker’s End’ a creative collaboration between you and the mighty Mr Baker? To the listener, it does sound like a fusion of your imagination and Tom’s own larger than life qualities.
We whizzed emails back and forth, sporadically over the years between Nest Cottage and Baker’s End. Sometimes they included little bits of stories or fragments of ideas. Not with any purpose in mind. Just sort of chatty. I know he used to enjoy working on my scripts. He enjoyed the language and the macabre elements and the audacity of them, I think. And then, last Christmas, Simon Barnard of Bafflegab and I hatched the idea of asking him if he’d like to play Tom Baker himself, having these bizarre adventures. As the ideas started flying thick and fast, it started to sound in my head like a mash-up of ‘Round the Horne’ and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’…
I put in lots of things that I thought Tom might like. We’d talked about sending all our characters to hell in one episode, for instance. We discussed goblins and dream diaries quite a lot. And the talking cabbage Eric is a character idea that Tom teased us all with many years ago: and I was keen to bring him in (episode three – Tatty Bogle – out in February!)
This September, Cardiff’s Firefly Press published your novel ‘The Martian Girl’, which is the second part of your ‘Girl from Mars’ trilogy, set in the wild-west of the Martian prairie and the Victorian steampunk City Inside. Can you tell us a bit about the series?
It’s a series of books I’ve wanted to write for years. The setting and the characters have been in my head for ages: they were just waiting for the right moment. I wanted to fuse certain aspects of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books with the atmosphere of some of Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories. Then, in the actual writing, all kinds of other things get tipped into the mix. There’s a strong flavour of The Wizard of Oz that’s somehow ended up in there…
What feedback to ‘Lost on Mars’ and ‘the Martian Girl’ have you received so far?
There’ve been some lovely reviews and mentions. Readers like them, I think. SF Said was kind enough to talk about a new movement in science fiction novels and of my being part of it – alongside Said himself, Philip Reeve and Malorie Blackman.
What have Firefly Press been like to work with?
They are wonderful. It’s very hands-on, and very much a labour of love for all concerned. Their list is fantastic – everything hand-picked and nurtured. So much of mainstream children’s publishing is bland and by-the-numbers. Firefly do their own thing and are doing really well with their choices. This year they’ve been picking up all kinds of awards – not just for writers, but industry ones for editorial and marketing. I’m very lucky to be with them.
Do you remember when you first decided you wanted to be a writer?
I must have been very young. All my school stories went way over-length. I’d fill up all these exercise books. When I was around eight was when I started typing them up into second drafts. I guess that was the moment of taking it a bit more seriously than is usual.
Which other writers have inspired you over the years?
So many. The ones I find most inspiring are those that are there for the long haul, doing their thing in the way that only they can.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
There’s lots I could say about this! I think I went through a dodgy phase in my thirties of thinking I should listen to what people in the industry were telling me. Agents, editors, publicists, journalists, other writers. I think I lost my confidence after a series of horrible personal and professional knocks. If I’ve evolved at all it’s been about overcoming some of that stuff and, in my forties, getting back the confidence I had in my twenties.
What struggles have you overcome as a writer?
Getting your books into bookshops is one of the single most difficult things about the whole business. I’ve been published by massive corporate publishers and small presses. Everyone talks about why it’s such hard work actually getting bookshops to stock books. It’s hard and dispiriting when publishers and bookshops don’t get behind your work. It must be wonderful when it happens. But in twenty-odd years as a published writer I have to say that all that side of it has been uphill and bloody hard. To write a book every year is hard enough. Then to be made to feel that the world doesn’t care either way whether you write or not is even harder. And then to go on, year in and year out, challenging yourself and growing – and still keeping on and nurturing your talent and writing the books you really want to. That’s hard work. And that’s what it’s been like.
What criticisms have helped you grow as a writer?
‘Keep it all ‘on camera’’ was a kind of catch phrase for David Craig, the poet and novelist who led our MA Writing cohort at Lancaster Uni in 1991. It’s stayed like a mantra in my head. Keep the story moving, keep it concrete, dramatic, dynamic. Keep us in the moment. Beware of the vague and abstract moments. Don’t lose your reader’s attention.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
So many people who want to write fix on that and forget to read and they forget to practise. Every day. For hours. You have to put the time in.
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
Seeing a story through to the end and feeling that – yes, it had to work out like that. I’ve got the turn of events right somehow, and found the right place to finish it.
What’s been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?
I really, genuinely don’t know the answer to that. Different books get differing responses: and sometimes it isn’t till years later that you hear them, and the effect that something had on its readers. That’s all about responses, but if you’re asking about what’s rewarding to me, because the work has turned out in a way that pleases me… I guess they all (mostly) do. I set out to do a particular thing with each project – and if it does that thing (it’s often an unquantifiable, inexplicable thing) then I publish it!
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
I’m not sure I have any that couldn’t be replaced. I’ve a great many books, but they are all reading copies. None are worth anything, really, in real world terms. But if I could salvage only one book because that’s all I’d have to read in the short term… then perhaps I’d choose Humphrey Carpenter’s sublime children’s book, ‘The Captain Hook Affair.’
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
When you off-handedly mention something from your personal pantheon of tat – some hard-to-love, obscure, mostly-forgotten cultural artefact – and most people ask you to explain what it is. And in doing so, it all turns to ashes in your mouth. But a certain few will light up with delight at the mention of your beloved and the way you explain it. That’s what it is to be cult.
What are you reading at present?
This autumn and winter I’ve been mostly reading children’s books published by Puffin in the ’60s and ’70s. Many of them are re-reads – of novels like ‘Stig of the Dump’ and ‘The Borrowers’ and some are writers and books completely new to me. I’d never read Elizabeth Enright’s children’s books before – ‘The Saturdays’ is a wonderful book. Just this week I’ve rediscovered the ’70s/80s children’s SF writer, Monica Hughes, who I’m sure I read when I was a kid – and then utterly forgot about. Reading and thinking about reading takes up such a lot of my time. I wish it could take up more. I find it very nourishing.
What are you working on at the minute? Do you have any upcoming projects?
There’s always a bunch of new projects at different stages of completion… some in the final stages before being presented to the world – others are still in the process of being made up. Every new project is like a great big Truth or Dare. And what can I tell you about the stuff I’m on with..? Well, it’s coming up to Christmas and I’m working on the first draft of the third book in my science fiction trilogy set on Mars. This one’s called ‘Heart of Mars’ and I plan to deliver it by February. That’s taking up much of my thinking time just now.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
The best way of seeing what I’m about is to pick up one of my books. You can start anywhere. I like to think of them as a big patchwork quilt, with lots of different colours and textures. They all interrelate at some level, and you can start anywhere. Perhaps a good place to begin is with ‘Marked for Life’, my first novel, from 1995, which Lethe Press is republishing next spring (along with ‘Does it Show?’, ‘Could it be Magic?’ and ‘Fancy Man’.) Or maybe with the first of my Brenda and Effie novels, ‘Never the Bride’. Or with ‘Lost on Mars.’ In some ways I think a lovely place to begin might be with my memoir, ‘The Story of Fester Cat’ – which is about the lives of my partner Jeremy, me and our first cat, as seen through his eyes.
Oh! And there’s my blog – www.lifeonmagrs.blogspot.co.uk
One lucky We Are Cult reader has a chance to win copies of 'Lost on Mars' and 'The Martian Girl' by correctly answering this question: Q. What is the title of the first book in the Adventures of Brenda and Effie series? E-mail your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header 'Paul Magrs Competition' (or similar) - the winner will be picked on 31 December 2016.
❉ ‘Demon Quest‘, the second series of the ‘Nest Cottage Adventures’, receives its first airing on BBC Radio 4 Extra during Christmas week with Episode 1 of 10 broadcast Mon 19 Dec 2016 at 6.00 pm.
❉ ‘Lost on Mars’ and ‘The Martian Girl’ are published by Firefly Press, both RRP £7.99. Buy now from the Firefly BuzzShop.
❉ The first two chapters of ‘Baker’s End’ – ‘The King of Cats’ and ‘Gobbleknoll Hall’ – are available on CD and download from www.bafflegab.co.uk