Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Steven Hall Interview

What were your inspirations when growing up?

I was always lost inside some story or other. I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid. And Transformers. And Zoids. And Doctor Who, of course. And there were books. Lots and lots of books. I’ve always loved fictional worlds - the idea of there being some other place, or some other way of seeing things, has always been an obsession.

Which writers do you particularly admire?

Modern writers like Paul Auster and B.S. Johnson, although in the last few years I’ve been reading Melville and Dickens too. I read Moby Dick over and over. It’s astonishingly good.

Were you a Doctor Who fan in your youth?

Oh yes, although I liked the Daleks much more than the Doctor. A Dalek fan rather than a Who fan, I suppose. I could draw a pretty decent Dalek by the time I was six or seven. My room was covered in them. I’d love to do a Dalek story. I have a couple mapped out that I’d love to get out into the world in some shape or form one day.

Photographers assistant, private detective and fine art student…that’s an impressive and diverse career! What encouraged you to turn to writing? 

It found me, really. Stories were always there, inside my art and photography. My artwork gradually evolved into text, and then my text-based art evolved into fiction.

The Word Lord

How did you come to write for Big Finish?

I emailed their website and asked. It was the year after The Raw Shark Texts came out and I sent a copy of the book to Paul Wilson, who was running the Big Finish site at the time. He liked the book and we became good friends. From then on, Paul basically pestered Big Finish to give me a shot. I think Alan Barnes dropped me a line just to shut him up. Alan’s mail said something like: “Alright, pitch me a 25 minute story for the Doctor and two companions. No returning monsters. No promises.” I sent him a rough outline for The Word Lord and the rest is history.

Was this your first audio script and how do you find writing for audio differs from writing a novel?

It was. Audio is liberating in many ways, precisely because the form is so defined. Character dialogue and sound are the only tools available. I like the purity of that.

Did you find the reduced length of the story hampered the chance of a denser narrative?

Not at all. I started by thinking about the kind of story that could be told well in 25 minutes. The Word Lord was always devised for that timeframe, although once I was in the story I did wish I could’ve had some more time with Nobody. He seemed like he had lots more to give.

Were you happy with the finished result?

Very. Ken Bentley directed and all Ken’s work is fantastic. Thankfully, he’s as obsessive about getting things right as I am!

A Death in the Family

Can you talk us through the construction of such a mind bogglingly complicated script? Did the story start with the conclusion and you worked your way towards that or did you set this out in a more progressive, linear way where the ending was a natural conclusion to what had come before?

Alan mailed me in 2009 asking if I’d be interested in writing a story dealing with the fallout from what would become Project Destiny, and I jumped at the chance. I could see so many opportunities for great character moments there. The very first thing I asked was – can I have Evelyn? She was a must. Once I got the okay to include her, I immersed myself in the back catalogue and listened to everything with those characters. I came up with a long list of things I was interested in addressing, and a long list of opportunities that the previous stories provided. It was an exciting time. I was so excited by the scale of what I was trying to do. And scared by it too. Around the time I wrote the outline, I told John Dorney that I was planning to write a death scene for Evelyn. I remember he looked at me like I’d told him I was planning to walk out in front of a bus. She’s such a popular character, I think he was worried for my safety.

I’m so grateful that Big Finish had so much faith in me. They let me run with so much – can I write a death scene for Evelyn? Yes. Can I write the Doctor’s death? Yes. They trusted me with all this stuff. I remember thinking that we were either going to come out with something really interesting, or that my name was going to be unspeakable in the same sentence as Doctor Who, pretty much forever.

As far as the story structure goes, the big question was – is there a way to genuinely kill the Doctor, so that we truly feel he’s gone, and then to bring him back without it seeming like a cheap trick, or without cheapening the threat of death in the stories that would follow? Once I realised that Nobody No-One had the power to do all that, he was added to the mix too. From there it was about building a structure that could support everything I wanted to do – the action, the character work, and the various battles of words!    

How many drafts did the story have to go through before you were satisfied?

I think I finally signed off on draft 6. It was a lot.

Was the original outline very different from the story that was ultimately produced?

No, not very different. The outline was pretty comprehensive (and long!). The response to it from Alan was something like: “I… think I love it, but my brain has just melted.” He said he needed to run it past Nick Briggs before he could commission something so ambitious. I think everyone was aware that was I was proposing had the potential to go very, very wrong. But as I say, Nick, Alan, David - they all put a lot of trust in me and let me run with the story I wanted to tell.    

Picking up the pieces from Project Destiny gave a you a great starting point as far as the characters were concerned – was there much conversation with the other writers in this trilogy in order to make sure that the three stories flowed from one to the other?

I got in touch with Mark Wright and Cavan Scott who were writing Project Destiny, and who had also created some of the most important moments in the whole Hex/Cassie narrative. I wanted to be able to link in directly with what they were doing on Destiny, and I also I wanted them to be happy with what I planned to do with a lot of the elements they’d set in motion years earlier. It was important to me to be respectful to what they’d done. Mark and Cav both read early drafts and thankfully they were really supportive of the things I wanted to do. It was great to have their feedback and their blessing.

I tried, but wasn’t able to get in touch with the guy who wrote the story after A Death in the Family. I think maybe BF were keen to have something a little more standalone for the third part of the trilogy after what we were doing with our episodes. I still wish I could’ve given him a heads-up though! 

Did you enjoy writing for the seventh Doctor? What do you think his greatest strengths are?

I loved writing for him. For me, he’s the most multi-layered of all the Doctors. In many ways he’s the most flawed, which on the one hand makes him feel the most human and relatable, but on the other hand, the nature of those flaws set him very much apart from normal people. He’s a dangerous man. Of all of them, he’s the one that you never quite know what he’s going to do, and how far he’s willing to go.   

You examined his complicated place in the universe at large in A Death in the Family – what conclusions were you trying to draw? Which other Doctors would you like to write for and why?

I wasn’t really trying to draw conclusions, just to really look at the character. I wanted it to feel like we glimpse of some of the emotional reasoning behind some of the things he does, and then go on to show that ultimately, you can’t get a fix on him – he won’t let you. I’d love to write for Chris Eccleston’s Doctor. That would be fantastic.

How do you even begin exploring new angles with Ace, a character that has been charted thoroughly across several different media? Where did you want to take her character? What were the greatest differences between her and Hex?

I think Ace is one of the most complex characters in all of Doctor Who! I honestly don’t think we’ve seen even half of what’s going on with that character yet. There’s so much still to say. I wanted to look at what her life has made her, her priorities and contradictions. As I say, there’s still so much more to be done with her. Hex is great too. They’re both so human. They feel like they can both change, for better or worse, in very realistic ways. That whole team is fantastic. I’d love to return to them one day. There’s so much more I want to do with them. A lot of things I set up in A Death that I’d like to come back to.

Hex was on a particular journey after the dramatic events of Project Destiny. Did you find that continuing that story was a hindrance to the story that you wanted to tell or that it slotted in well?

Not at all, that journey was the story I wanted to tell! All the other characters in that story are tangled up in that same journey, and in the repercussions of it. I wanted to add to what came before, and hopefully bring a resolution to some of those things.

Bringing Hex and Evelyn together was a stroke of genius, tying up a loose end for both characters. How did that idea come about?

It was always the way I wanted to go. Everyone who listens to the stories had wanted it to happen for years, including me. I think I may even have said ‘can I have Evelyn?’ before I said ‘yes’ to writing the story. There was no way to finish that journey without her, and it made sense to me that the resolution of this storyline should be the end of Evelyn’s journey too.  

Whose voice came easier to you out of Ace and Hex?

I got to a point where I could write a line for one and hear the other answer! I’d done Ace and Hex before, but I had to listen to a lot of previous plays before I was happy that I was getting Evelyn right. These things have to be right. It matters. These characters are like family to a lot of people, me included.

Were you aware that you were killing off a much-loved companion in Evelyn and did this daunt you at all when it came to writing the ending?

Yes, and it was hard. My grandmother became ill just as I began work on the story and died about three weeks before I finished the final draft, so it was hard for me to finish writing the play in a lot of ways. A lot of emotion went into Evelyn’s sections, and I think you can hear that in Maggie’s brilliant performance.

Did you have to listen to some of her old audio adventures to capture the essence of the character? Are you a fan of the character and did you always see her dying in such a dignified way?

Yes, I listened to everything she appeared in. If you do something like this, it has to be right. I’m a huge fan of the character and I wanted her to have a death that did her justice - it had to be brave, but also down-to-earth and not at all melodramatic.  

Listening to the story were you happy with how it was realised? What strengths do you think director Ken Bentley and musicians Lauren Fox and Richard Yason brought to the story?

I’m delighted with how the play was realised. Everyone involved did such a fantastic job. Ken is wonderful. He has such good dramatic sense, and a great eye for detail. The music is amazing, isn’t it? I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. 

Did you attend the studio recording to hear your words coming to life?

Yes, I was there. Because it’s a complicated story and it ties up so many things that came before, I felt it was important that I was on hand to answer questions and be able to explain elements of the story if anyone got lost. No one did, of course! It was a pleasure to work with such talented people.  

What was your inspiration for the Word Lord?

I wanted to create an enemy for the Doctor who would put him in the same position his enemies usually find themselves in. Nobody No-One is very smart, very funny and outmatches pretty much everyone he faces. He’s also very Doctorish. I wanted someone who could out-Doctor the Doctor. The Doctor’s worst nightmare, basically. 

Do you think we might ever have a chance to meet All who is referenced at the climax?

I have All’s powers worked out, just in case. And not just All’s either. Nobody’s old Type 45 CORDIS is quite a relic. A certain, newer, Type 8687 CORDIS really shows up its faults...  And then there’s the whole tragedy of the Word Lords and what happened to them that I’d love to deal with one day. It might make people see Nobody in a slightly different light. Then again, maybe not.    

Will you be writing for Big Finish again?

I’d love to. One day. There’s a lot I’d still like to do. I’m snowed under for the foreseeable, but I’d love to come back down the line.

Have you been overwhelmed by the fantastic reaction the play has received?

Yes! I still am!

Can you tell us about your first novel, The Raw Shark Texts? What is the central plot and who are the main characters? 

The Raw Shark Texts is a book about a man who wakes up with no idea who he is. A doctor tells him that his girlfriend died in an accident on holiday, and that he developed a progressive memory loss due to grief and stress. Before long though, he starts to suspect that something more sinister is happening and that something is hunting him for his memories... 

Can you explain the eclectic use of ‘negatives’ and ‘un-chapters’, text images, fragments and letters in the novel?

The book is about identity and loss, and there are hidden additional sections of the novel that exist outside its pages, some online and some in the real world. Some have been found by readers, some are still out there, and some are lost for good.

What was the public reaction to the novel?

It was a crazy time. The book has been published around the world and translated into 30 languages. It did well and people are still reading it, which is the main thing.

Is it true that there is to be a film adaptation?

Well, they’re trying. We’ll see what happens.

What can you tell us about your second novel?

It’s probably the biggest, most complex thing I’ll ever attempt. It’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. It makes Raw Shark and A Death look pretty straightforward! 

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Lots of things, I hope. There will be the second novel, and then I’m adapting one of my short stories into an iPad film, and developing a new storytelling system to go along with that. I’m doing something with the National Theatre too. And then there are a couple of top secret things that have non-disclosure agreements attached, so I can’t even hint at those! But Book Two, first and foremost. That’s what eats up all my waking hours now.    

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