Interview with George Mann
To coincide with the review of The Executioners Heart we managed to catch up to the Doctor Who and Sherlock script writing author, George Man.
Ant: What encouraged you to write a series in the Steampunk genre?
George: I'm not sure what I write actually *is* steampunk. I've said it a lot recently, but in Newbury & Hobbes there's a fair amount of 'steam', but not a lot of 'punk'. I think what I always set out to do is write a Victorian fantasy story, and to give myself the opportunity to include everything that I love. The furniture of the steampunk genre is very much a part of that - who doesn't adore airships, clockwork robots, steam powered Hansom cabs - but there's lots of other stuff too, such as ghostly spirits, larger-than-life villains, the occult. There's some political machinations - but there's not a great deal of political commentary, which is what I'd expect from a 'punk' genre. I'm more interested in exploring the question of identity - what makes us who we are, what makes us human - and I think that's the fundamental difference for me. Not to say I have anything against steampunk as a genre - I love it, and I borrow from it gleefully!
Ant: The Steampunk genre was (falsely) proclaimed a dead one by some as recent as last year but seems to be enjoying a resurgence, why do you think this is?
George: Really, I think this is to do with the fact that the aesthetic of the genre has passed into the world of fashion. It's become a movement beyond literature, and that's given it a new lease of life, and ensured its longevity for at least a while. I think a lot of the people who might once have identified as Goths now identify as Steampunks, and that, more than anything, has fuelled that resurgence.
Ant: Who do you see as your biggest influences?
George: They’re largely musical, actually. I listen to a lot of female singer-songwriters such as Kate Bush, Thea Gilmore, Tori Amos and Clare Maguire (to name but a few), and that’s where I draw a lot of my inspiration. I think it’s all about the tone and mood they set, rather than particular stories or imagery in their songs, but I often find the key to unlocking a book is discovering the soundtrack that inspires it. Clare Maguire's 'Light After Dark' was a big influence on The Executioner's Heart, for example.
Of course, I wear some of my other influences on my sleeve – TV fantasy such as Doctor Who and The Avengers, Hammer Horror, Sherlock Holmes, H.G. Wells…it’s all in there, somewhere!
Ant: You are the first author I've known who mentions that they use a smartphone extensively for writing, do you write a lot on the move? how easy is it writing on the Iphone?
George: Ha! You’re the first person to really pick up on that. I guess it’s something that’s born from necessity, really, in that I don’t tend to get long periods at my keyboard that frequently. The iPhone has been a revelation, in that respect – I wrote half of The Executioner’s Heart on it, using an app called ‘My Writing Spot, which synchs everything back to a cloud-based web app. It’s great because I always have my phone in my pocket, so whenever I get time, or inspiration strikes, I can add it straight into the chapter I’m working on. I’ve become very adept at ‘thumb typing’.
I think it’s also symptomatic of how I prefer to work. I write little and often in the early stages of a book, almost making tentative forays into the story, and then when it reaches a tipping point about half way through the story, I’ll start spending longer at the keyboard, usually in day-long, sustained bursts.
Ant: You've written a number of stories featuring detectives, from Newbury & Hobbes to Secton Blake and Sherlock Holmes - what attracts you to the detective story?
George: I think most successful stories have a mystery at their heart. Maybe not as explicitly as a detective story, but a good mystery is what encourages us to read on, to discover more about a particular character or story. That's why pretty much everything I write is in that mode.
I do love the detective/crime genre, though. I love its tropes and conventions. I adore reading a good detective novel, especially if its populated with great characters, and it just feels like a natural, comfortable fit for me. Of course, I tend to let the fantastical elements creep in, too!
Ant: What's it like writing for both Doctor Who AND Sherlock (two of my favourite British shows)?
George: Writing for Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes is actually a very similar experience, and in truth, there’s a great deal of similarity between the characters, too. Both are ciphers, in many ways, and you’re best off telling your story through the keys of someone with a more ‘human’ perspective, which is why the Doctor has companions, and why Holmes has Watson. They provide a perspective for the reader.
The key thing is to remain true to the characters, I think – and in the case of Doctor Who, also to the performance of the particular actor you’re writing about. That’s an added dimension, really, and can be quite tricky. When writing Paradox Lost I was very keen to represent Matt Smith’s mannerisms and quirks on the page. If you can capture the characters, though, you’ve won the battle.
The Sherlock Holmes stuff I've written so far has been pretty traditional, rooted in Doyle's original stories, so I've not yet had the pleasure of having to capture a particular actor's performance.
Ant: You mentioned recently that you were asked to write an original audio story for the First Doctor (to be played by William Russell) would you consider writing a first Doctor novel (if the BBC let you)?
George: Absolutely! I love William Hartnell’s Doctor. The audio play was a single episode story, ‘Rise and Fall’, and I set myself the task of telling the biggest story I could in the shortest amount of time. It’s about the Doctor and Ian landing on an alien world and witnessing the rise and fall of an entire civilization, and all takes place during the twenty minute running time of the episode. It was a lot of fun to do. William Russell really made it, though, with his fabulous narration.
So yes, I’d jump at the chance to write a First Doctor novel. Are you listening, BBC Books?
Ant: The ending of "The Executioners Heart" is pretty spectacular (especially where Hobbes is concerned) is there anything you can tell us about where the story is going to next?
George: The next book, The Revenant Express, follows Newbury and Veronica’s sister, Amelia, as they make a fateful train journey across Europe to the icy fantasia of St. Petersburg, where Newbury has commissioned Faberge to build something very important for Veronica. Her life depends on the success of their mission, but they’re thwarted at every turn, due to a Revenant outbreak on the train, a murderous cultist out to reclaim something Newbury stole from him and a woman hell-bent on revenge. The story is interwoven with a sub-plot set months earlier, with Veronica and Bainbridge investigating a series of unusual corpses…
Ant: I've read that the Newbury and Hobbes series is planned as 6 books, have you already got the last two stories set out?
George: Well, The Revenant Express is almost done, and I’m tentatively calling the next one The Albion Initiative. It’s largely planned, and will certainly bring everything to a head between Newbury, Veronica, Bainbridge and the Queen.
I doubt it’ll be the last we see of Newbury & Hobbes, though – there are loads of stories left to tell, so while I might focus on writing some other novels for a while, there’s likely to be ongoing short stories and novellas in the meanwhile, and I’m not ruling out returning for more novels later if people’s appetite is there!
Ant: If you could be asked any one question you wanted, what would the question and answer be?
George: No one has ever asked me if I have a master plan. And of course, I do! Almost everything I write is part of a bigger fictional sequence, an alternate history of the world, stretching back to the 1880s from the present day. The links are all there, some of them (currently) more apparent than others. Some readers have already spotted how my books about the Ghost, a vigilante in an alternate 1920s Manhattan, are linked to the Newbury & Hobbes books, but I think some of those links might become more apparent in the future, when people are able to see more of the connective tissue. Books like my forthcoming Sherlock Holmes novel, The Spirit Box, really make some of those links apparent.
Ant: What have you got planned next?
George: Well, next up, in September, is a short story collection, The Casebook of Newbury & Hobbes: Volume One. That collects a whole bunch of the N&H stories to date, as well as a number if brand new ones. After that is a Sherlock Holmes novel, The Will of the Dead, which features a particular young inspector by the name of Charles Bainbridge in a key role. Beyond that I'm working on The Revenant Express, the fifth N&H novel, and starting to plan the sixth, provisionally called The Albion Initiative.