❉ We chat with George Mann about books, comics, films, Susan Cooper, Kate Bush, writing, and new book ‘The Whoniverse’.
George Mann is the author of ‘The Ghosts of Manhattan’, ‘Newbury & Hobbes’ and ‘Engines of War’ as well as numerous short stories, novellas, and ‘Doctor Who’ comic books for Titan. His latest book, ‘The Whoniverse’, was written with Doctor Who scholar Justin Richards and is out now from BBC Books.
Hi, George. When did you decide to become a writer?
I’m not sure I ever made the decision to be a writer. It was just something I was always going to do – whether people wanted to read it or not. I think I see writing as a way of life, really. If people weren’t reading my books – and I’m incredibly grateful that they do – I think I’d still be out there, shouting into the dark. There’s something cathartic about it. It’s something I need to do. Although it can definitely be a little masochistic too!
I do actually remember the day I decided to write a novel for the first time. I’d just got my first PC – a state of the art IBM 486, a rental from Radio Rentals – and was so excited to get it home and set it up. But then the only software that came pre installed on it was MS Works. So I had this shiny new machine, and nothing at all to do with it! So I opened the word processor and started writing, and by the end of the page I’d decided I’d keep going and see if I could write something coherent. It didn’t work out – the book was all wrong, and I abandoned it after seven chapters, but it was the trigger that made me seriously consider the possibility of writing something long form for the first time.
Which writers inspire you?
Lots! M. John Harrison is a beautiful wordsmith. Susan Cooper, for her characters and the wonderful sense of hidden history and a world that’s lurking nearby, just out of view. Fleming for his adventure stories, Arturo Perez Reverte for his mysteries, Kieron Gillen for his clever comics, Doyle for Holmes…the list goes on!
Your latest book is ‘The Whoniverse’, with Justin Richards. Tell us all about it.
It’s a history of the universe as told through the television adventures of Doctor Who. It’s lavishly illustrated and written from the perspective of a Time Lord historian, looking back on the history of his people, and how the Doctor and his enemies have steered the course of the human race. It was a lot of fun to put together.
Did you learn anything new about Doctor Who through writing and researching ‘The Whoniverse’, and what do you think a seasoned fan might get out of this book?
It was more a case of reminding myself about all the things I love about the show, an excuse to revisit favourite adventures, to look for the connective tissue between the old show and the new. For seasoned fans, I think that’s what the book is going to offer – it’s something to dip into, to marvel over the illustrations and remind yourself about your favourite adventures, and the legacy of this great, sprawling television show.
You’ve written several volumes of Titan’s Doctor Who comic books range. What are the unique opportunities and challenges of writing in the comic book medium?
I adore writing comics. It’s a very different medium, and it took a while for me to get used to the idea of collaboration, coming as I did from having written novels. With a novel it’s all you, all the time. It’s a very personal project. You control every word. What the reader gets has come directly from your head, channelled through your fingertips and onto the page (via the gimlet eye of an editor, of course). With a comic you’re actually writing the script for the artist, not the reader. What the reader gets is a hybrid, an amalgam of your words and intent with the work of the artist. It’s an exhilarating experience, and once you let go and start trusting the artist, rather than trying to keep hold of your own ideas, it always makes for a better end product. That’s certainly been my experience.
I feel lucky to have the opportunity to write both books and comics. With a comic you have to be so economical, to boil the story right down to it’s essential components, and I think that experience is making me a better novelist, too. It’s helping me get to the heart of my stories.
You’ve written two series of fiction, ‘The Tales of the Ghost’ series and ‘Newbury & Hobbes’. Tell us a little about those series?
Well, the Newbury & Hobbes series are Victorian mystery stories, with a fantasy/occult twist. They’re like an amalgam of all of my key influences: Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, The Avengers, James Bond, Hammer Horror… They’re liberally sprinkled with visuals derived from the steampunk aesthetic, but have as much to do with Sexton Blake and early occult detective stories like Flaxman Low and Eugene Lamont. They always have a crime/mystery structure, but there’s lots of action adventure in them too. And monsters.
The Ghost novels are set in the same alternate history, but 25 years later and across the Atlantic in New York City. History has developed differently – WWI has happened, but the outcome was slightly different, and there’s now a Cold War brewing between Britain and the US. The Ghost is a fighter pilot who’s returned from the war with a bad case of PTSD, and he deals with it by 1) throwing massive drunken parties at his Long Island home and 2) dressing up as a vigilante and going out at night to punch bad guys. He’s like Gatsby, if Gatsby fought occult horrors by night.
Having written short stories, novels and novellas, comic books and audio drama; for you, what are the pros and cons of each medium?
Blimey! I think the key to a good short story is a single idea, neatly delivered, with a twist. It’s a game if bait and switch. Roald Dahl was the master of this. So the challenge in delivering a good short story is getting the set up right, and then knocking it all down in the right order for the desired effect. There’s little room to ramble. It needs to be tight.
Novels, on the other hand, are like an endurance test. I always tell people that writing a novel is like climbing a mountain. You have to keep going, even when you don’t feel able. You need the stamina and determination to get over each crest. So for me, it takes a while for me to build up to it. It’s a bit like coiling a spring, tighter and tighter, and then suddenly letting it go in a burst of activity.
Novellas are lovely. They’re like a halfway house. A mini novel, with fewer subplots. Also often carried by a single idea or theme, but with a bit more room to explore the characters, setting and implications.
Comics I think I’ve already mentioned. It’s about learning to work collaboratively, but also to understand the specifics of the medium, such as the fact that all of the action in a comic actually happens between the panels. What you see is the result of those actions. Or thinking about the structure of an issue, where the page turns and reveals fall, whether you can get a point across visually instead of dumping exposition. That sort of thing.
Audios are similar to comics in many respects, or at least pose similar challenges. The difference is you’re writing for a different aurally rather than visually. So you need to think about audio cues, and how to paint the picture for the listener without having all your characters describe each location, or expression, or event.
What struggles have you overcome as a writer?
I think the key thing that many writers have to overcome – myself included – is a lack of confidence in their own ability. Self doubt can be crippling, but I think it’s often also part of the process – or at least it’s certainly a part of my process. There’s a moment in every project when you just look at it and think ‘Is that all just bollocks?’. You have to get past that pretty quickly, otherwise it can play all sorts of havoc. It makes me always want to do better.
What criticisms have helped you grow as a writer?
Constructive ones! It always helps when an editor is honest and straightforward with you. Often you know instinctively if something’s not working, but you don’t always want to admit it to yourself, because it usually means there’s more work to be done, and you’re going to have to scrap a chunk of work – sometimes stuff you’re really happy with – to fix it. In those circumstances you just need someone to say it out loud, to corroborate your instincts, and then you can pick yourself up and get on with what needs to be done.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
To not write what you think is “commercial”, but to write what’s interesting to you. Because that way you’ll do your best work, and if people are reading your work, it’s because they like what you’re bringing to it, not because it reminds them of something else. Do your own thing. Trust yourself to have a voice.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
To relax a little bit, and get a bit more savvy about what’s going on around you. To have a little more fun, and be a little more naughty.
What was the first record you bought?
A picture disc of the ET theme tune.
What was the first book that you loved?
‘War of the Worlds’.
Who is your favourite movie villain?
Kurtz from ‘Apocalypse Now’. I love the slow build to his reveal, the sheer tension and sense of his presence throughout the film, and the portrayal of his insanity at the end.
What films/books/records have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
That’s a massive question! I’ve mentioned some of them above, in terms of Holmes, Doctor Who, Hammer Horror, but music is a really fundamental part of my process. There’s usually a piece of music, or album, or selection of songs that I latch onto and listen to on repeat while I’m working on a project. It sounds more pretentious than it is, but it’s almost as if finding the right music can help me to ‘unlock’ the story. There are musical touchstones, too – Kate Bush, David Bowie, Lyla Foy, Bat for Lashes. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Avec Sans, Chairlift and Chvrches.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
The House that Jack Built, an episode of ‘The Avengers’ from series 4. It’s perfect in every way.
Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?
Doctor Who. David Bowie. Robin of Sherwood.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve been lucky to have only had a handful of jobs that I’ve stayed with over the years, but when I first started in the bookshop I was only 15, and was essentially a lackey. We had a first floor that couldn’t be reached by the lift, so it was my job to carry all the boxes of stock up the spiral staircase. Not much fun.
What was the last film that you watched?
‘Goldeneye’. It’s was on TV the other night and I was surprised how dated it looked. Still an absolute classic, though.
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
It’s a TV soundtrack, but Clannad’s ‘Legend’, the soundtrack to Robin of Sherwood, had stayed with me since I was a child. I still have my original vinyl, and I still go back to it.
Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
I would love to meet Kate Bush. I know they tell you not to meet your heroes, but she seems so lovely, and she’s been such an inspiration.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
Probably a Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’. I love how it intertwines mythology and magic and a coming of age story, and it speaks to me on so many levels.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Keep going! Write what you want to write, not what you think you should write. Put yourself into it. And work hard. Writing isn’t easy. But then all the best things in life are hard won!
What are you working on at the minute? Do you have any upcoming projects?
Yeah. I’ve been busy. I have a lot of upcoming projects. There’s another Newbury & Hobbes novel that’s written and with my editor, and there’s also the first book in a new supernatural crime series, Wychwood, too. I’m currently working on the fourth novel in the Ghost series, Ghosts of Empire.
In terms of comics, there’s more Doctor Who to come, along with more Dark Souls and Warhammer 40,000, as well as an original Newbury & Hobbes comic.
And for audios, there are a few unannounced projects, but there’s some Twelfth Doctor audios coming early next year. I’ve been having a ball!
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
Three of my toes are jointed backwards.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
They can visit my website, although for the most up-to-date news, Twitter is the usually best bet.
❉ ‘The Whoniverse’ by George Mann and Justin Richards is out now, RRP £14.99