Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

In Conversation with Paul Cornell

london-falling-UK-pb_500The dark is rising . . . Detective Inspector James Quill is about to complete the drugs bust of his career. Then his prize suspect Rob Toshack is murdered in custody. Furious, Quill pursues the investigation, co-opting intelligence analyst Lisa Ross and undercover cops Costain and Sefton. But nothing about Toshack’s murder is normal. 

I don’t read horror. I have very good reasons not to read horror, and I’ve discussed them here on more than one occasion. So I would never have picked up London Falling, a novel about a small dysfunctional group of police battling forces beyond their ken on the streets of the big city (and written by Paul Cornell, who specialises in all kinds of things I know nothing about, like Doctor Who and Wolverine and, well, sci fi), except that a trusted friend recommended it. Very warmly, in fact. “I don’t like horror,” he said, “but I loved this.”

What the hell, I thought (an unfortunate choice of wording, there). What kind of reader would I be if I never left my comfort zone? And come on, it was recommended to me by a Jesuit brother. A man of God. It can’t possibly be that traumatic. Right? Right? (I had forgotten about The Exorcist.)

So I bought London Falling and I started to read, telling myself that if it was that terrifying, I’d simply put it down. And it was that terrifying. Gang warfare, undead animals, bent coppers, talking (severed) heads, murdered innocents, whacking great holes in the fabric of reality and, at the centre of it all, an ancient embodied evil, the fiery one, the sum of all fears. Not my thing. Not my thing at all. Except I couldn’t bloody put it down. I read it right through to the end, sweating and cursing, and then I wondered if there was any more.

So, in sum: curse you, Paul Cornell! But thank you for answering my rather silly questions.

London Falling is the first novel in the James Quill series—its sequel, The Severed Streets, appeared in May. What inspired your move from scriptwriting, nonfic and graphic novels into fiction; and why serial fiction?

I began as a writer of Doctor Who novels, and I’ve always said I’d end my career as a novelist (hopefully not soon).  Prose is my favourite medium, and I’ve had little bursts of novel writing here and then always, so it’s really more about me continuing to do lots of different things.

How do you work? In blocs, or can you sustain several concurrent projects? (Anything you want to say about your writing day is very welcome. We love that stuff.)

Ideally, I’d like to write either 2000 words of prose, or five pages of TV or comics, a day.  But unfortunately, my writing life involving all those media, I often have to either do two shifts of that, or split them up some other way.  One has to make a mental gear shift, particularly when going back to prose.  I work on weekday mornings on days when my son’s at nursery, and half the afternoon; but we all share Thursdays, so I basically try and work a four-day week.  This means I often find myself catching up in the evenings, but I like it, while Tom’s so young, that I get to spend a lot of time with him.

What was your research process like? You have a great sense of the physical: did you walk the streets in Quill’s footsteps?

Mostly, yes, or at a last resort, Google street view.  I think a sense of the shape of the city is what people expect from a series about psychogeography.

How “real” is the supernatural London inhabited by Quill and his team? Did you work from existing local myths, or is it all glorious imagination?

A lot of is ‘true’, in that it’s real London mythology.  I tend to prefer to start with that, and then add to it if I need a specific effect.  I’d say about 80% of it is taken from my research.

The link between the writer community and the fan community is famously close in sci-fi and fantasy: in fact, I believe you cross that bridge yourself. What’s particular about that culture, and how have your existing readers embraced your branching out into horror? For that matter, how has it added to your experience?

I’ve always been fascinated by fan cultures.  I’m a member of at least three different ones.  There are big differences between SF, comics and Doctor Who fandom.  There are points of contact, but those cultures run in different ways.  I’m always distrustful of fandom as ghetto: we won the culture wars about a decade ago, and there’s no reason now not to be out and proud.  I’d much rather speak to the mainstream in a fan way than only speak to fellow fans.  My own readers come from so many different points on that compass that it’s usually a question of mustering them to get behind something that’s new for them, but they generally seem to enjoy being mustered.

I’m always fascinated by the theology of alternative universes, and I laughed out loud at the scene in London Falling with the vicar, the rabbi and the imam. I want to say that you’ve managed an original take on a bog-standard theme—the battle between good and evil—and yet it’s not quite that, is it?

As has hopefully now become clear, the cosmos of the Shadow Police books isn’t so much about good and evil, but about battles between great powers that have terrible effects on the mortals below.  I wanted to include religion, because it’d be foolish of my heroes not to look at the possibilities.

Finally, we always ask our guests to recommend five books, with a word about each.

A Dream of Wessex, Christopher Priest: The most British influence on Inceptionthat one could imagine.

Smiley’s People, John le Carre: He’s the master of character as well as plot.

The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson: I think this is my favourite of his, alternate European history.

Life in the West, Brian Aldiss: I love his non-SF work as much as his SF, and the voice is the same in both.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal: Regency fantasy which is very much deeper than it seems at first glance.

For more information about Paul and his work, including London Falling (Tor, July 2013), visit his website.

4 comments on “In Conversation with Paul Cornell

  1. Pingback: Updates Updates Updates | Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  2. Melrose
    July 10, 2014

    As good a treat as I thought it would be. The writing sounds very vibrant and fresh and intriguing. Not sure I could read a book, though, about horror, that I couldn’t put down, and I think, if you couldn’t, Kirsty, I probably couldn’t either! Great interview from both interviewer and interviewee!

  3. Alex
    July 11, 2014

    I love these novels. I have just reviewed ‘The Severed Streets’ for Shiny New Books ( and I can’t wait for the next in the series.

  4. Pingback: Radio Caroline

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