❉ We chat to Simon Forward, author of ‘Blood of Atlantis’, Candy Jar’s latest ‘Lethbridge-Stewart’ novel.
Colonel – later Brigadier – Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart was the commanding officer of UNIT, an international body tasked with investigating extra-terrestrial threats.
‘Lethbridge-Stewart’ is a new series of novels set after the 1968 Doctor Who serial The Web of Fear – the serial where he first met the Doctor, helping him free London from the clutches of the Great Intelligence.
Hi Simon. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
These days I’m a full-time writer. This sometimes resembles part-time staring out of a café window, but don’t be fooled. I’m always working on something, even when I’m supposed to be taking a break. At times during my life, I’ve been a software engineer and had a go at lecturing in IT but I wasn’t kidding anyone. Storytelling was the only career I was ever interested in. Now mumble years old, I live in a seaside flat with my two cats in Penzance, Cornwall, just a short walk from the hospital where I was born which has since been converted into a mental health facility, which is handy.
What were your earliest creative influences?
Doctor Who on Saturday tea-times would have to qualify as one of my earliest creative influences. Accompanied by the likes of Basil Brush, which probably explains why I think he’d make a great Time Lord. That and the fact that my Dad raised me on things like The Goons (he used to do the voices even before I was old enough to listen to the shows) and Genesis. Throw in the sci-fi adventure books of Captain WE Johns and the Professor Branestawm books by Norman Hunter and you get some idea of the mixed grow-bag that fed my young imagination.
So, what have you written so far?
In terms of published work, I’ve written two Doctor Who novels (‘Drift’ and ‘Emotional Chemistry’), one Doctor Who novella (‘Shell Shock’), two Doctor Who audio dramas (‘The Sandman’ and ‘Dreamtime’), one spin-off audio drama (‘Professor Bernice Summerfield And The Bone Of Contention’) several Doctor Who short stories (some for the Short Trips series, others for charity anthologies), three novelisations for the BBC’s Merlin series, a handful of children’s books under pseudonyms and four and a half volumes in my own SF comedy series,’Evil UnLtd’. There’s also my fantasy fiction blog, The Tortenschloss Chronicles, where I’ve serialised fantasy tales one instalment per week and I’ve self-published a selection of those in an ebook anthology. The Chronicles are an exercise in creativity more than anything as those serialised fantasy tales are begun with no clear idea of where the story is going. Added to that there are quite a number of works I’ve written that haven’t yet seen the light of day, original novels ranging through sci-fi, YA and kids’ books, with the key word there being ‘yet’. Some of these works have remained hidden too long, so I need to explore different avenues for getting them out there to be read. That is, after all, the whole point.
Where can we buy or see them?
I’m not sure you can find my Doctor Who books anywhere very easily these days. At least, not at the prices anyone sensible would pay for them. But if you can track them down, good luck. My Evil UnLtd series though is readily available and for criminally reasonable prices, especially when you consider that 100% of my profits go to Cancer Research UK. It’s a bit wrong, I know, making Evil contribute to something Good, but that’s just the kind of twisted individual I am.
All these books are also available from amazon.com in the US and paperbacks are available via ad hoc email order direct from me, just by using the Contact link on my website, price £9.99 inc P&P (within the UK) per volume.
There’s also that Tortenschloss Chronicles anthology, which is currently only available in ebook form, although I do plan on paperback volumes at some point. But the really great thing about the ebook version is that it comes with free bonus DLC. That is, every six months or so, the ebook will be updated with a new pair of stories. Free to all purchasers of the book. Not many anthologies can offer that.
Tell us a little about your new book, ‘Lethbridge-Stewart: Blood of Atlantis’.
Blood Of Atlantis is, I hope, a fresh twist on all the other Atlantises that have featured in Doctor Who. I admit, in part because I just wasn’t sure whether I’d return to writing for the worlds of Who, in part because I was thoroughly enjoying a rewatch of all the old classic episodes, it became a bit of an homage to a number of specific stories, but also to the UNIT years in general. But while the nods are there and undisguised – attentive readers may find added enjoyment from the chapter headings – it’s more than just an exercise in nostalgia. There’s a hint of international Cold War techno-thriller in there, condensed somewhat to suit the length of the novel, and for me it was a chance to place a pre-UNIT Brigadier on the kind of international stage that I always imagined UNIT operated on, even if we never really got to see that in the original series. And there’s an ancient alien menace. Of course, because, you know, the late sixties and seventies were rife with those.
The book is part of Candy Jar’s ‘Lethbridge-Stewart series’; how did you get involved?
Serendipity, I guess. Happy accident. Or that’s the way it seemed from my point of view. Editor, Andy Frankham-Allen contacted me out of the blue on Facebook, asking if I would be interested in writing for the range. Apparently, Gary Russell – whom I’d worked with on my Big Finish audios – had suggested my name to him. Which was nice of him. I was reticent at first, not sure if I wanted to return to the worlds of Doctor Who. But worlds that have been with you since childhood have an irresistible gravity.
Writing as part of a series, are there any ground rules or restrictions?
There are clear guidelines, of course, and since my novel was number nine (I think!) in the range, there was already an ongoing continuity and series-specific characters that you had to familiarise yourself with. They’re boundaries of the field in which you’re free to roam. The hedgerows, if you will. In many ways, it was no different to having to write for the character of Evelyn Smythe or Hex for my Big Finish audios or for Trix in ‘Emotional Chemistry’. Characters I’d known close to zero about beforehand. So you’re (obviously) obliged to be true to them, but that’s not a restriction, just part of the discipline.
What opportunities presented themselves writing for Lethbridge-Stewart, as a lead character, without the Doctor to react against?
The character of Lethbridge-Stewart is like an uncle you’ve grown up with so writing for him is not an issue. But with the Doctor out of the equation, the emphasis shifts much as it would if you were writing a Doctor Watson solo adventure, minus Sherlock Holmes. Unthinkable, you might think, but it’s a useful reminder that these characters are smart, amply qualified professionals. You can set aside those moments where they might have been made to look a bit slow or dim compared to the Doctor or Holmes. It’s a chance to shine a light on their qualifications, so to speak.
Lethbridge-Stewart is one of Doctor Who’s most well-loved characters. What are the qualities that make him such an enduring character, and how does he stand on his own two feet in these books?
He’s that unflappable, stereotypically stiff-upper-lipped British officer and I guess a lot of his appeal does come from how he butts heads with the Doctor. The unflappable object colliding with a character who specialises in creating flaps. He could so easily have become a cartoon or caricature; more at home in something like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, but Courtney lends him that very grounded credibility and that great humour in the face of all the chaos and alien invasions going on around him. Without the Doctor there, you have to present him with other challenges and maybe other characters to butt heads against and I hope I’ve succeeded. One obvious route is to throw another eccentric into the mix and I have one character who fills those shoes. But another facet, perhaps more crucial to this story, that I’ve aimed to explore is the contrast and conflict between two very different military men with two distinct approaches and methods which, fingers crossed, highlights some of the Brigadier’s enduring appeal.
How much of the appeal of Lethbridge-Stewart came from Nicholas Courtney’s performance and characterisation? Did you watch any old episodes?
Before I agreed to write a Lethbridge-Stewart novel, I was already well into a marathon rewatch of all the old classic Doctor Whos, at the rate of one episode a day. This TV journey turned out to be well-timed because it took me through stories like The Web Of Fear and Invasion at key times when I was writing for the Brigadier in those pre-UNIT days and of course moved on through the Pertwee years where the Brigadier was ever-present and a constant companion as the writing continued. You can’t beat that sort of inspiration, where a character lives and breathes because of an actor’s performance and you have the chap’s voice in your head while you’re trotting out dialogue and internal monologue on the page.
Who is your favourite Doctor?
Jon Pertwee. No, Tom Baker. No, Pertwee. Tom. Aargh, don’t make me choose.
You wrote two original Doctor Who novels towards the end of the so-called wilderness years, which saw an outpouring of creativity in various media. What do you recall of that period – as a writer, reader and a fan?
What strikes me most looking back on that period is the extent to which those books and audios were so well regarded. Within the community – relatively small, compared to the few millions who watch the TV show these days – of loyal readers and listeners, the Eighth Doctor Adventures were it. With no series on the TV, you might think they were some sort of wilderness years but it didn’t feel like that – the gap was well and truly filled. That was our official Who. At my main convention experience at Gallifrey One in LA it was remarkable how the writers of any books or audios were really welcomed as VIPs. But that was just one aspect of the whole eye-opening experience for me, because before ‘Drift’ I was something of a fan in isolation, not really aware or connected to the fan community. That was the first time I connected to any degree with other fans of the show online. I joined Outpost Gallifrey and a few other lists and sites and suddenly I encountered all this established fan wisdom and attitudes to this era or that era of which I’d had no prior idea.
Who is your favourite author and why?
*agonises over choice* Erm, Ray Bradbury. His prose is poetry, while still being prose, and so many of his stories engaged my imagination quite early on in my discovery of science fiction and stayed with me long past the time I’d turned the last page.
Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors?
I used to be an absolute biblioholic. But these days, a large chunk of my reading ends up being research for this project or that project, work-related somehow, so my poor brain gets tired and my leisure reading ends up limited to one chapter a night at bedtime. My favourite authors would include Elmore Leonard, Tanith Lee, Larry Niven, Iain Banks, James Ellroy and a good number of classic authors, such as Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, for example. Basically, many and varied. Variety is my cup of tea.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
I’ve never entertained any desire to be the author of anyone else’s book. I have too many of my own original works that I really need to see out there and being read.
For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
If I’m honest, I prefer an actual book in my hand, but I’m no Luddite so for pure convenience I do most of my reading on a Kindle.
What are you reading at present?
‘Game Of Thrones, Book 4, Volume 1’. I’m nearing the end, I think, but it’s like one of those dreams in which you’re climbing a never-ending stairs Especially as I stupidly bought the whole series as a single ebook, so you have to read a lot before the progress rises even a single percentage point.
What has your journey as a writer been like?
Horrible. Rejection, disappointment, frustration become your routine diet. Eventually, all that self-doubt you start out with, worries about whether you’re good enough, subside to some degree as you learn and hone your craft and you develop a measure of confidence in your own ability, coupled with the realisation that it doesn’t make one jot of difference. So much rests on contacts and networking is vital and that’s one aspect I’m never confident I’m any good at. But then occasionally you wake up and you find one review in your inbox or online somewhere that makes it all worthwhile. But really that describes my journey as a published author, which is a bit different. As a writer, the journey has been varied and colourful and something of an adventure, in which you’re constantly learning and discovering new things. Writing is great, in short. It’s only when it comes into contact with the real world and the tough practicalities like making a living that the troubles arise.
Who designed your book cover?
A talented artist named Richard Young. I’d seen a number of his works on Facebook, so I was chuffed to hear that he’d been picked to do the Blood Of Atlantis cover. As part of the brief, I’d said ideally I’d like it to be a sort of homage to the fabulous Achilleos cover of the Target novelisation of The Sea Devils (a childhood favourite) and he definitely delivered. It’s almost exactly like I imagined, but better.
Do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process?
Absolutely. Forget about never judging a book by its cover. Just as trailers, posters, et cetera, help you decide whether you want to see a movie, a cover is going to catch your eye – or not – and help you decide whether to pick up a book, glance over its blurb or take a look inside and ultimately read it – or not. First impressions count. And writing’s not like music. The author can’t grab your attention with the first note unless you’ve stopped to cast your eyes on that first page.
Would you do it again?
Would I write another Lethbridge-Stewart novel? To have in my list of credits another title in this series? Why, that power would set me up above the gods! Well, okay, it wouldn’t do that, but yes, I think I’d be tempted to at some point. There are a number of my own pet projects that need my attention, but if I could find time for the Brigadier alongside those then I’d happily write another.
Where can we find your book? In what formats is your book available?
Check out Candy Jar Books directly, where you can of course get your hands on all the novels and short story collections in the growing range. Or head over to Amazon, where all the books are equally available.
Do you have any upcoming projects? How can readers discover more about you and you work?
For right now, I’m winding down my work for this year. For most of December I’ll be plotting, planning and generally preparing a number of projects for working on next year. I have a couple of works of kids and YA fiction that I’d really like to get out to readers somehow, whether through Kickstarter or Patreon or something like that. And I have at least one totally new mystery project that I’m keen to make a start on early in January. I have no idea how that is going to turn out but that’s just one of the many exciting stages of writing anything. If people wish to find out more about me and my work, they can follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to any of my blogs. Especially once I’m a bit more organised. Which could happen. Some day.
❉ Website: www.simonforward.co.uk
❉ Blog: Prefect Slog (Personal Blog)
❉ Blog: Tortenschloss Chronicles
❉ Facebook: Simon Forward
❉ Twitter: @prefect4d
❉ Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/4dprefect
❉ ‘Lethbridge-Stewart: Blood Of Atlantis’ by Simon Forward is available from Candy Jar Books, RRP £8.99 + P&P