Throwback Interview: Jim Mortimore (2002)

Years ago, I had a column I wrote on the defunct Who Central site, which covered the then-current Eighth Doctor series of Doctor Who novels, writing reviews, thoughts, and the occasional interview.  For the purposes of archiving, I will be reprinting the author interviews I performed during this time period.  This interview is from 2002.

Jim Mortimore is the author of several Virgin New Adventure novels, including Lucifer Rising (co-written with Andy Lane), Parasite, Blood Heat, Eternity Weeps, as well as the BBC Past Doctor Adventure Eye of Heaven, the Bernice Summerfield Virgin novel The Sword of Forever, the Eighth Doctor Adventure Beltempest, and the “unofficial” BBC Past Doctor book Campaign.  He recently was kind enough to grant an interview for EDA Views.

JO:  At what age did you realize that you had an interest in writing fiction?

JM:  I guess I started writing pretty young. (There’s a little frontispiece in Eternity Weeps about me ol’ dad you could refer to).  Used to write horror stories in my rough book at school when I was eleven.  But before that, my mate Alan (Hayes – heh heh, hiya Alan!) and I used to type (Smith-Corona Manual!!) book-sized manuscripts for such sophisticated titles as “The Menace of the Crantiz”.  We used to draw the covers in felt tip pen and make copies manually for each other.  I think I was around 10 at the time.  Pertwee was on the telly; I used to watch him in B&W, ‘cos we didn’t have a colour set, in real-time, ‘cos there were no VCR machines.  (Now the average household has two colour TVs two VCR’s, Sky Digital and any number of Personal Computers. How the times change, eh?) .

One other important thing that changed between then and now is a subjective one:  At age 10 everything is new; I hadn’t lived through the jaded decades watching the same old same-old roll round in the flicks and pulps, and I hadn’t read and seen all the amazing novels and films that were waiting for me just over life’s teenage horizon. As soon as I had, of course, I realised that “The Menace of the Crantiz” and its many dubious brethren were so much junk – but comparatively speaking they had more imagination, more love and more sheer energy in them than anything I could ever have written after. Because they were the first. And they opened my eyes to a world I wanted very much to see more of.

JO:  Since what age were you a fan of Doctor Who?  How did you become a fan of the show?

JM:  I remember the first adult book I ever read. Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust.  A whole novel set inside a cruise ship buried in lunar dust, the passengers waiting to die.  It’s an almost flawless conception.  A race against time, and adventure novel; a concept work and a character piece, all in one.  I read that when I was five, bored in a Chalet on holiday in Lazedown, with 6:00am sunlight lighting up crappy plastic curtains and spiky carpet scratching my feet.  Mum and Dad were still in bed.  (Come to think of it my kid brother turned up a little less than a year later… hmm).  I’d finished the book by the time they got up.

Later that day we went to an amusement Arcade on the way to the beach.  I had an appointment with a go-cart but got waylaid by a full-size motorised Dalek you could get inside and operate.  The lights flashed and the voice ground it’s way into my brain (still waiting breathlessly for rescue in the dust cruiser Selene somewhere on Nearside).  The lights on the head flashed.  You could move the arms around from inside.

That was me:  hook line and sinker.

JO:  Which actor was your favorite Doctor?

JM:  When I was a kid I used to go to Saturday Morning Pictures.  ABC Minors’ badges, little singalongs, stand up for the national anthem, all of that. I went for absolutely ages.  And then one day when I was about 9 or 10 I realised Dr Who & the Daleks going to be on.  I was really looking forward to it.  But I was so excited I swore at mum about half an hour before my mate Ian’s dad was due to pick me up.  Mum wouldn’t let me go.  Dad backed her up.  So I missed all those technicolour Cinerama Daleks.  I missed the Petrified Jungle and the blasted mountains, I missed the Lake of Mutations, I missed the squashed chocolates and Dr Who reading the Eagle.  I missed it all.  Boy was I mad.

A month later it was on again, and again – due to extreme gobbiness – I missed it.  Imagine how bad I’d felt the first time round.  Now square it and add in how stupid I felt that it was my own fault – again!  I think the sheer frustration must have maxed out my brain or something, because I have no further memories of WHO (except for the odd meaningless flash of B&W TV) until Pertwee, a couple of years later.

As a consequence of all this I suppose my favourite Doctor has to be Peter Cushing.  He’s the one I waited longest to see.  He’s the one that holds the most meaning for that 9-year-old kid with a mouth too big for his own good.

Really, though, it’s the concept I like. That’s what I find so clever, so innovative, so intelligent. The flexibility and mutability of the character. The wit, the danger, the fun. When you get right down to it, guess you gotta love ’em all.

JO:  How did you break into writing?  Did you start off through fan fiction, fanzines, or did you leap right into “professional” writing?

JM:  My first real attempts at writing (perhaps I should say, my first attempts at real writing) were for DWAS’s Cosmic Masque fanzine, then edited by John Peel (who wrote some encouraging and really rather nice replies – I thank you, John. Beer’s in the post).  I used to record the show on my Gramma’s Grundig Reel-2-Reel tape recorder and ‘novelise’ them (cleverly ignoring the sound of me telling everyone else to shut up while I was taping).  I used to send little extracts of my work to Cosmic Masque and John would dutifully bung them back saying they were too long for publishing (and breached 83 types of copyright as well, I’ve no doubt), but, hey they were good, so keep at it. (I think I may still have a version of The Invisible Enemy that goes on for several episodes past end of Part 4).  Anyone that’s recently read and enjoyed Campaign (or indeed any of the slightly less illegal novels with my name on the outside) can thank John.  Anyone who hasn’t enjoyed them can also thank John – for me, because I’ve had a rare old time, I can tell you, this last decade or so.

JO:  What was your first published work, in any medium?

JM:  After the days of extracts were over I moved rapidly into long novels.  Long, unplotted, unfinished, novels.  I was just so into the idea of building words into sentences, sentences into houses; whole palaces of paragraphs, cities of prose (never buy your kids LEGOs when they’re off school with measles); that I forgot (or never bothered learning) that to build a house (or a palace, or a sentence) you first have to build a foundation.  It wasn’t that I lost the plot; it was more like I never had one to start with, or really understood why I should.

In point of fact this is still an issue for me and to date, the only (solo) book I have plotted intricately (and stuck to) is Blood Heat.  This may explain why it won favourite book of 1993 and is basically a damn fine yarn. Everything else I have written since (for WHO anyway) has suffered from various and increasing levels of experimental work, all based on the (somewhat flawed) idea that in certain circumstances a house doesn’t necessarily need a foundation.  (And me without a degree in writing, let alone architecture. Sheesh!).

Abandoning the unfinished masterpieces (I still have them in a cardboard box somewhere – great nostalgia and a superb ego-leveler) I moved on to other things.  Horror stories in rough books.  Human ornaments in melted glass, that sort of yuck.  Herbert Van Thal’s Horror collections (I read and re-read ’em all from the ages of 12-15) were a source of inspiration when I came to write the horrid parts of my stories.  From Herbert I learned all sorts of tricks. I added to the toolkit when Stephen King published Firestarter, then read all his backlist.  Fun, Fun, Fun!

Shortly after this Alan (remember Alan – The Menace of the Crantiz?) bunged me a tape by the Audio Visuals crew called The Space Wail. “Well,” I thought, in my usual gobby and arrogant way.  “I suppose they’ll need a writer then.”

By the time I managed to track down Bill (remind me to tell you the story of the flapjacks and the Land Rover crash) Baggs, I had heard a couple more of the plays.  They were good. Really good, actually, with production values that rivaled Hitch Hikers’ and stories that worked both conceptually … er… adventure-ally… well, anyway.

Whoopee, I thought. Blood Circuit, Second Solution and Carny followed in short order.  They were fun to write but hell to perform (Too much gob again, see?).  So I had to do a whole ‘nother load of learning.  Then Jon Way took a story (Pendulum) for Cosmic Masque and a short (can’t remember the title – a training mission for Ace in Space-Force which borrowed its violent irony from Halo Jones) for Sophie Aldred to read on tape for a charity ‘zine.  After that there was a period of broke; a longer period of blag; and then Lucifer Rising popped up. (Anyone who sends a thank-you beer on my behalf to John Peel should send a thank-you crate to Peter Darvill-Evans).

JO:  Did you pursue a degree in writing?

JM:  No. I could write.  I had work.  Didn’t seem much point.  (I realise now how wrong I was – but hey – now it’s too late! Gareth got the Eastenders job – damn his wretched eyes!)

JO:  You were involved fairly early in the Virgin New Adventures, and you wrote/co-wrote several of them.  Which one stands out as your favorite, and why?

JM:  Of the three early WHO novels I wrote for Virgin, they were all my favourite.  Lucifer [Rising] was my first and only collaboration; Blood Heat was a celebration of my new home, Bristol; and Parasite was an epic tragedy of plotting with probably the best concept I’ll ever have for a story buried at it’s heart.  (I’m going to do the concept again as Clarke-style mainstream sci-fi if I can ever find a publisher).  The others were fun.  I liked Sword [of Forever] a lot. (Mainly because having had the damn editor tell me to remove a crucifixion scene, I then just went hell for leather and replaced it with two new crucifixion scenes).

Actually, my favourite WHO novel is probably Eye of Heaven.  Mainly because Leela is just so much fun to write.  One day I’ll publish the insane, desperate and in no-way offensive epic 7-page volume justifying keeping the “Leela Rides The Whale” chapter in.  I think Steve [Cole, former BBC Books editor] capitulated not so much because of my perfect logic as because I beg so embarrassingly.  (Come to think of it that’s probably the moment when I realised that on the whole it’s much better to have your book cancelled than compromised).

JO:  One of the Virgin novels, Lucifer Rising, was co-written with Andy Lane.  How did the writing process differ for you when you’re with a partner?

JM:  The only difference is that with a co-writer the agonising editorial process is voluntary.  (I think all writers are masochists. Some are sadists too).

As a matter of fact the original idea to include Native American Indian mythology was mine but Andy substantially re-conceived it in the epilogue.  I think he was very worried about that, and surprised when I thought his idea worked fine.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s to be able to separate the subjective from the objective.  His idea added so much depth to the characters and such a nice twist to the plot that it simply had to stay.  It was best for the book:  personal opinions were irrelevant.

JO:  In Eternity Weeps, who’s decision was it to kill off Liz Shaw, and why?  How much negative feedback did you receive for it, if any at all?

JM:  “Mine. All Mine. Hahahahahahahahaha!!!!!!! ”

(Actually reading that back it might come over as a bit egomaniacal. Let’s try again.)

“Mine. Yeah, I had this idea that I wanted to pick a character and kill them in as many books as possible. Kind of a sick running gag. Neat huh?”

(You know what, let’s not bother.)

JO:  Your novels tend to have a “large-concept” feel to them- The Sword of Forever sticks out in my mind.  From where do you draw inspiration for your ideas?

JM:  Alan Moore wrote a line in the last good issue of Miracleman, the issue where the Hero rips the head off his childhood best friend because the Kid’s turned into an indescribable monster, and fails to realise that if power corrupts then absolute power fucks you up forever.  The line goes like this: “Look up, O Earth.”  He’s a God and he thinks he’s saving us.  He’s not.  He’s damning us.  The terrible beauty of it made me cry.  That was the first time I really understood the power of the written word, the power of the Idea.

Spider Robinson says every night before he goes to bed he leaves a bowl of milk and some cookies on the back porch. In the morning the milk and cookies are gone and a couple of ideas are there instead. (Joe Haldeman – Infinite Dreams)   In truth the universe we inhabit is a white noise of ideas.  They come from books.  TV.  Papers.  Drugs.  Graffiti.  Childhood photographs.  The shape of a dandelion.  The sound of rain in trees.  Idle gossip.  And on and on.  (The difference between a writer and a functional human being is that a writer has their senses permanently wired open and just enough money to buy a notebook and a six-pack of biros).  But perhaps the most important source of ideas – and this is one which can never be overrated – is people.  Your friends and family and neighbors, the kids kicking ball in the street, the disembodied voices that come from the TV or Radio.  People have minds, memories, experiences.  People form networks, build cities, communities, cultures.  People have wars.  People live and love and fight and die.  It’s friction that generate ideas – the friction between people; their opinions, their desires and gods.  You just have to keep your eyes on the horizon, because that’s where it all happens.  And when you see it, well, step on up and shake it by the hand (or tentacle, or neurone or temporal-event-signature-icon, or whatever).

Some people will tell you the horizon is far away but don’t be put off.  I’ve known days when ideas can be like ol’ Dutchman Frog jumping half as far to the shore each time he leaps; you know he’s never gonna make it home.  But ideas can be friendlier than you might think too.  Some days they’ll just step on up and meet you half way.

JO:  You wrote one Eighth Doctor novel, Beltempest.  How difficult did you find it writing for the Eighth Doctor, with only the television movie and several novels to go by as a guide?

JM:  Pretty hard at first – then something Terrance Dicks said helped me find a solution:  (to paraphrase) they may be different incarnations, but they’re all the same fellow really.  I stopped worrying about it after that.  Possibly that was a bad idea.

JO:  You do some pretty interesting things to Sam in that novel.  Did you find her, as a companion, lacking as much as fandom has made her out to be?

JM:  I found Sam a good point of view character because she is normal, human, someone I can identify with.  In that respect she was very much like Ian, Susan and Barbara were designed to be back at the start of WHO.  What was interesting for me was the idea of developing her character.  How would YOU feel and behave if you suddenly found out you couldn’t die?  (Yeah, I know – too much of my childhood glued to Captain Scarlet, right?)

JO:  Which range did you like writing for more- the Virgin Adventures or the BBC line?  And why?

JM:  I like them all, equally.  Each has it’s own challenge, it’s own rewards.  My friends all know I have a fuckoff threshold about this big.  I am impatient, restless, always looking for something new to do, some new way to re-invent the things I can do.  Writing is a really handy job when you happen to be like that.  And WHO is such a flexible medium.  Or it should be. Hmm.  That sounds confrontational.  Next Question, Justin!

JO:  Much has been made and reported about the controversy surrounding Campaign.  Here’s a question- just how different was the proposal and the delivered first draft?

JM:  (Notice the neat little editor-segue into the Campaign question, there?) The finished novel of Campaign is very different from the original outline.  In fact there were two major revisions to this project.

Version 1: a historical novel in which the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara were separated and had to live through the 8 years of Alexander’s Campaign until they could meet up again in real time to get away.  There were four plot strands, each of which affected the others.  The Doctor’s would have involved the assassination of King Philip, when Alex was a kid; Susan’s would have involved being his bride and bearing his child; Ian’s would have involved being a soldier in his army, a confident, a friend and possibly even a lover (Alexander was bisexual); while Barbara’s would have been rooted to the Indian side of the conflict – the Undiscovered Country for Alexander.  Each storyline would have taken place along a linear timeline (like stops on the underground) with events altering subtly to reflect actions taking place in the relative past, with the net result being accepted history as we know it.

Steve [Cole] thought this too complex so he suggested:

Version 2:  a historical novel in which the TARDIS crew meet Alexander and get involved with the assassination of King Philip.  They escape.  The end.

As you may imagine I wasn’t too happy with the conceptual dry-clean- too much shrinkage.  Not because it was less imaginative – but because it explored the ideas less thoroughly.  Then again, Steve’s point was that the book wouldn’t have been so commercial with a more sophisticated story.

The book was commissioned (as a sort of bastard hybrid of 1 & 2 which neither Steve nor I were ever truly happy with).  A while passed.  Got some more ideas for the book.  Steve left and Justin [Richards] stepped in.  Decided to stick with my philosophy of writing and be true to the book.  Wrote it the best I knew how.  Damn proud of it.  Had everything I wanted, everything Steve wanted, and a whole load more besides.  And Justin read it, and liked it, and wanted to make some changes which would have re-iterated the original dry-clean shrinkage (in much the same way Amazon tribes mummify their elder tribesmen’s heads!), then threatened me with allowing someone else to do it if I refused, which I did because I have never accepted either ignorance or arrogance and I hate bullies, and then commissioning editor Ben Dunn cancelled the title (twice) because Justin didn’t understand it (“I don’t understand this so 90% of the readers won’t,” in an email to me, later changed to, “it differed substantially from the outline submitted,” to the readership), and wouldn’t give it his approval to publish.

JO:  Campaign is a complex, thought provoking read that puts continuity and canon lovers through a roller coaster ride.  Was Campaign, in a way, a novel to quiet down the endless debate on canonicity?

JM:  My opinion of continuity was and is really clear.  Any development which serves the story or characters or concept is necessary and should be included.  Anything which doesn’t serve the story or characters or concept (and this unfortunately includes retroactively imposed continuity of the sort WHO-culture seems rife with) is not necessary and should be removed.  Simple, logical, objective.  The writer serves the book, not the writer.  (Of course any editor will argue that this viewpoint precludes any commercial consideration – but then editors love to argue.)

JO:  How did “The Game of Me” concept originate in your mind?

JM:  Taken over four decades, WHO has been successful because it speaks in terms of concepts, and delivers its ideas at many different levels.  It’s a sophisticated demonstration of (a) fundamental idea(s).  I realised following editorial discussions with Steve that no single story had ever embodied the complexity of sophistication necessary to achieve that which the program had itself achieved over the forty years of its life.  I also realised there was literally an infinite number of ways of delivering the same idea as a different story.

As you might imagine, this minor epiphany intrigued me, somewhat.

This was what I wanted to write about:  a fundamental idea delivered as fiction in the way that best demonstrated the idea.  Campaign would have to be not only a Doctor Who adventure, but an icon of a Doctor Who adventure.  (Hence the many differing faces of Alexander on the cover of the book.)  It would also have to be more than this, because ideas only come from people, and only through experience.  So it also had to be a metaphor, for life, i.e.:  the process of maturing, of developing and using ideas.

Like this:

For human beings life is a physical, intellectual and emotional process:  we are born, we experience, we learn, we age, we teach, we die.  Growth, maturity, happens as a byproduct of deciding which life experiences hold important information for us:  unimportant information is discarded and forgotten, important information is retained and ultimately used to shape our growth, our “destiny.”  This statement can be reflected as a metaphor:  a game, for example.  We begin the game; we experience our opponents’ intentions, and our intentions towards them; we try out different tactics, remembering those which are successful, and discarding those which are not.  We use this experience and sacrifice to shape our campaign and attempt to bring the game to a successful conclusion.

In the case of Campaign the game itself was not one of four players who were opponents, but of four players who each interacted with the concept of the game.  The winner was the first person to figure out what the game was, or even that they were playing a game.


Easy as pie, right?


JO:  Do you follow Doctor Who fiction these days?  If so, what do you think of the current state of the Eighth Doctor books and the direction Justin Richards has taken the range?

JM:  I haven’t read any of the books for many years.  But it seems to me that when an editor assumes commercial responsibility for a line and that line is then reduced by 50%, the situation speaks quite adequately for itself.  Remember Fred Freiberger?  Killed Star Trek.  Went up in the world.  Killed Space 1999.  Where is he now?  (Step out of the shadows of history Fred, I dare you – you killed my 2nd and 4th favourite childhood shows and my dander’s well and truly up.)

JO:  What is your opinion of the recently announced BBC novel cutback?

JM:  I suppose a decision has been made to minimise outlay and maximise profit.  Why else would a corporation which has just licensed Telos Publishing novellas and renewed the licence for Big Finish Audio Drama cut back on a line others are producing so successfully?

There’s a line that springs to mind regarding the occupants of the Golgafrinchum B Ark but let’s not, eh?

JO:  These days “Who” has diversified into various mediums- books, audio, etc.  Do you think “Who” can continue in this manner, or do you think that eventually one medium will overtake the other?

JM:  I have a theory: there’s no such thing as good art or bad art – only art you like or art you don’t.  It’s all subjective.  In my opinion all WHO is good WHO – and that includes fan fiction and postage stamps.  WHO has been with us a long time – four decades now.  That’s a testament to the concept.  A thing lives or dies by the strength of its concept – how else should people know it and love it?  If WHO dies – if it ever dies – it will be because the flame of imagination that ignited it when you and I were kids has been extinguished by accountants.

JO:  Any current projects that you are working on that you would like to discuss?

JM:  I’m enjoying writing music and editing for Big Finish Who audios.  First Frontier looks like it’s well and truly kicked the bucket, so I’m working on a fantasy novel for teenagers.  (Anyone who likes Alan Garner should love it.)

JO:  What does the future hold for Jim Mortimore?

JM:  There’s a heart in writing.  One day I’ll find it.  (Or more probably trip over it while avoiding the polite but heavily muscled gentlemen from the Bank, fall, bang my head, have a stroke or a heart attack and in the second before my life is extinguished have just enough time to wonder whether I left the gas on, and in the second following my death wonder whether you can be sued retroactively, as it were, for theft of classic gags.)

JO:  What advice would you give up and coming writers?

JM:  Always have some spare milk and cookies.  And keep your eyes on the horizon.  The future’s where it’s all happening these days.

JO:  Jim Mortimore, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to perform this interview.

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