Interview with Philip Palmer

Well, I finally decided that I would stop re-writing questions, and get them out to you, so I’d like to welcome you to my blog 🙂 Refreshments are always served, but the first of our never-ending annual lunches is on you… 😛

A: Yes of course, but I insist that that you buy the meal in the pizza place on Mars – bear in mind that the cost of transporting fresh ingredients from Earth is going to be exorbitant!

(Oh… I think I’ll stick to offering people cookies in future!) Just to get people tearing at their calendars for January 2008, could you tell us a little about your science-fiction début, Debatable Space?

A: I wanted to write a space opera, with intergalactic battles and weird aliens and a rollercoaster narrative…it’s the kind of stuff I’ve always loved. Ringworld was a big influence on me; there’s something magical and special about the Pierson’s puppeteers, and something indefinably glamorous about Louis Wu. And the way Niven creates alien worlds that you can visualise and believe in is so extraordinary.

So that’s where I started – with a childlike zest to write an all-action story set in space. But at some point in the writing process, quite early on in fact, I was ambushed by a desire to explore all the nooks and crannies of this world I was conjuring up. Instead of just proceeding from battle to battle, I began writing sections from the POV of all the important secondary characters. And Lena, who was supposed to be the hapless victim of an evil space captain, turned into the story’s protagonist. Lena then took over her own sections of the book, as she narrates her thought diary. And, frankly, I was rather amazed at where the story ends up. I hope that the book’s readers will be too….

Orbit have bought the rights to two other SF novels from you – could you tell us a little bit about them, and what their relationship is to Debatable Space?

A: Tim Holman is my editor at Orbit – he’s British, but is in New York at the moment setting up and running Orbit US. Tim asked me to lunch to talk about Debatable Space, which he wanted to buy; and prior to that he’d asked me to pitch an idea for a second book. So I had it all prepared – the further adventures of Flanagan and Lena, in a story called, I think CIRCLES OF HELL. So my agent John Jarrold and I met Tim for lunch – a great lunch, by the way, all the better for being paid for by Orbit – and Tim said Don’t write more Flanagan and Lena, write a totally new story set in the same Debatable Space Universe. So I thought, oops, wasn’t expecting that.

But then, quick as a flash, I immediately pitched him an idea for a ‘Russian novel’ set in space. I was thinking of big books like War and Peace and Crime and Punishment which create a whole textured and to non-Russians ‘alien’ world in which the main, exciting narrative takes place. So that kind of vibe and scale and scope, but on an actually alien planet.

Tim liked that idea so I then had to think of a story to back it up…and I came up with a yarn about Dolphs – genetically engineered human beings who can swim in the water like dolphins – who feature briefly in Debatable Space. This has grown into an ambitious epic novel called Ketos. For the etymologists among you, Ketos is the name of the planet on which the Dolphs settle – it’s a Greek word from which the word ‘cetacean’ is derived, and it also means ‘sea monster’. (And it is, in my view, a great and scandalously under-used word, so I thought I’d give it some limelight.)

I’ve just seen the cover for KETOS which is amazing…with a blood red sea and jagged, angry letters.

I have a storyline for the third book, but haven’t pitched it to Tim yet. So that one’s still at the ‘Will we try for a baby?’ stage.

But the moral of that whole story about the meeting with Tim is – I was all set on going for the easy option, a simple sequel to the story I’d written. Tim – well, he didn’t push exactly, he coaxed, he encouraged, he inspired – but damn it all, he basically succeeded in forcing me to test my own limits, to go out of my ‘comfort zone’. And I’m glad he did.

People tell me Debatable Space is ‘strange’; Ketos is even stranger. I guess that suggests I am, deep down, a pretty strange individual.

(I loved it, and it is a brilliant, brilliant book, so what does that say about me?!) On your blog, you recently mentioned that one of your ideas from Debatable Space actually turned out to be true, saying, “To be honest, as a science fiction writer with no science degree, I had only a smattering of a grasp of how such a spaceship engine would really operate. It just, er, kinda sounded good…” How much research did go into Debatable Space, though? There were quite a few good ideas in there, and while I have no science degree either, I could tell it wasn’t (all!) made-up!

A: I’ve been reading science fiction since I was 11 (I can’t remember the first book, but it ended up with the protagonist being eaten alive – I guess that trauma of that is what made me so strange…?) And I’ve been reading books on science avidly from about the same age. I love science, and scientific ideas, but have never had any formal scientific qualifications.

So to write Debatable Space I read a number of hard books on quantum physics and superstring theory and was rather chuffed to come up with the concept of Quantum Beacons, which is a way of faster than light travel which doesn’t (as wormholes do) violate Einsteinian physics.

But beyond that – I relied on instinct, and refused to get hemmed in by detailed explanations on how the spaceships work, or how the laws of physics are understood by the characters. Other SF writers do such stuff brilliantly, and I admire them for their erudition and their talent; for me, though, it’s all about story, and how characters are affected by the story.

I did have a qualm though on reading the proofs when I read a line about Lena’s spaceship having an ‘ion drive’. What the hell, I thought to myself, is one of those? It must have been a phrase that stuck in my mind from another SF novel I’d read. So I was a bit nervous about being caught out in a scientific solecism. Then I read about the spaceship Dawn, recently launched, which has an ion drive, which I now discover is the best possible way to power a spaceship. So luck was on my side there.

For me, one of the joys of SF is extrapolation, wonderful ideas about what might possible, based on what actually is possible. And I hope Debatable Space has extrapolations that entertain.

As a scriptwriter for film and TV, what would you say has been the biggest change in writing a full length novel, and how have you coped? Would you say your other experiences at writing, even if in different areas, has helped?

A: I think the experience of writing film and TV and radio has been hugely beneficial to my SF novel writing. The pressure and intensity of being a jobbing writer for telly has forced me to think hard, again and again, about how to tell a story. How to make the protagonist drive the story. How to weave in reversals and twists. And, most important of all, how to rewrite. Everything I write, I rewrite and refine a dozen times. In TV, if you don’t do that, you get sacked, so you do it.

Having said that, the joy of writing novels is in the freedom it offers. Writing for TV – I did about 14 BILL episodes at the start of my career, a real school of hard knocks – is all about adapting your vision to someone else’s vision. It’s about being obedient. Writing novels is about being original, having a voice.

Most of the fun I’ve had as a writer (prior to now) has been working for radio. There’s a similar freedom – once you’re commissioned, you’re trusted to deliver. If you don’t get it wrong, you don’t get told to do it again; though if you do get it wrong, well, then the script editing is fierce and focused and rightly so.

The biggest difference in writing a novel is that there are more words. That sounds facetious – but really, it’s just awesome how much more there is to do. Every section in Debatable Space is the equivalent of writing a feature film script. So time management and stamina have become real issues for me.

If you could co-write with one author, who would it be and why?

A: Neil Gaiman. Except that wouldn’t work – he’s too damned good, and his style is too individual and quirky.

So maybe it’s Mark Greig. Mark is a highly successful TV writer who’s written for Life on Mars and is currently writing for the spin off series, Ashes to Ashes. I commissioned Mark to write an episode of Taggart some years ago – I think it was his first TV commission – and he’s cool, and stylish, and has an ability to write thriller material that awes me. Plus he’s fun. I could imagine co-writing a feature script with Mark; or better still, developing a TV series together. And I love that collaborative way of working, for drama at least.

Oh and Joss Whedon. He can be part of our gang too.

(Wow, that would be quite a gang! I look forward to seeing your collaborations!…)What do you hope to achieve as a writer?

A: Solvency.

But that may be too ambitious a dream! So I’d settle for – creating a body of work that I’m proud of. And I feel I’m some way towards that – mainly because of the radio dramas I’ve done which are mine, all mine; and say something, and which audiences connect with. And with Debatable Space and Ketos out next year, I feel I have an oeuvre (oh I love the pretentiousness of that word!) of stuff that’s me, that’s got Palmer written all over it, and which has some resonance for the people who read or see or hear my work.

Could you tell us a little about the journey your story undertook to be published? How does it felt now to be soon-to-be published author? Being published on both sides of the Atlantic at once, I’d imagine that feels good!

A: Writing Debatable Space was a huge gamble which failed. I spent a year, maybe a year and a half writing it, and then, that was that. I just couldn’t sell it. I had an agent who was and is a highly esteemed and successful drama agent who didn’t like SF, and had no notion whatever how to sell the damn book. So I’d pretty well written it off and was moving to other things. But then, in a stubborn moment, I startling Googling SF novel agents, to give it one last try. One name kept leaping out – John Jarrold, former SF editor turned literary agent. So I emailed John – then I think I sent him the novel, or maybe just the first chapters – and he snapped it up. About three months later he’d got the book to the attention of every single SF publisher in the UK and sold it to Orbit.

I was in Patisserie Valerie with two very good friends having a chat and a coffee when John called to say Tim Holman was very interested. That certainly was a good day; although (on my part) a very bad and incoherent conversation.

The news that Tim was moving to the US and hence there was a very good chance of getting a simultaneous US publication was icing on the cake.

Writing’s a risky business; to do anything that’s good you often have to do so much on ‘spec’, which means for no money. So a great agent is vital.

And John’s a great agent; he’s extremely nice, and funny, and clever, and he delivers.

While reading, I became particularly fond of the fire beasts – super-intelligent, able to burst a man into fire, uber-cool … what isn’t there to love!? When creating an alien race, what would you say was more important – a distinctive appearance or an unusual characterisation?

A: Alby, the flame beast, is based on a friend of mine who is super-intelligent and able to burst a man into fire with a single glance, and who is called Alby – so that bit was easy. I think the key to aliens is making them real, without making them human. Who were those cuddly aliens in Star Trek which bred like rabbits – Tribbles? That was a great concept. And Asimov did an entire book from an alien’s POV and it was hugely intriguing.

But I think it’s very hard to avoid cliché when creating aliens, and that’s the challenge for an SF writer.

For the next book I’m aiming to create a whole series of alien creatures – an alien ecosphere.

Which characters have changed the most from your original idea of them to how they’ve appeared on the page?

A: Lena, as I say, started as a minor character then stole the book – cheeky minx. The other characters came alive in their very first scene – I could see them all. And the rest I think was about discovering more facets to each character; but they didn’t change so very much.

When writing, are you the kind of writer who sits in front of himself with notes written on everything (walls, cups, arms, etc!) — a planner basically, or do you just sit and write and let the Great Muse inspire you? (That questions was slightly biased towards the latter option, as that’s my approach!)

A: I lost all my Post-Its five years ago and haven’t been organised since. I do like to be spontaneous, when writing novels and radio. For screen work, I’m more inclined to plan intensely – I write ‘scene by scene breakdowns’, what some people call ‘step outlines’, which plan the story in every single beat and particular. Then I add dialogue.

For Ketos, which has a large cast of characters, I have a piece of paper stapled to the cabinet beside me with a family tree for all the characters. Otherwise, I get lost about who’s who and how they’re related.

I wrote a blog about Jeremy Dyson (the writer of League of Gentlemen) who likes to have everything totally organised, and claims it’s impossible to write unless you have a tidy desk. I by contrast have a room full of clutter and sometimes lose coffee cups for days on end. My computer, however, is pretty well organised, with Folders for everything and everything in its Folder.

(Ditto!) Are there any genre type of things for TV or Radio, that you’re currently involved in or planning? And do the those ever overlap into your novel writing? I caught a reference to Isaac Newton, whom you depicted in your radio play, The King’s Coiner, in Debatable Space, which is what made me ask =D!

A: I loved doing the Newton play – Isaac Newton, detective! was my pitch, and it’s a true story. I’ve been to the Public Records Office in Kew and read and held the interview transcripts of felons interrogated by Newton in his days as a thieftaker.

I have a couple of genre movies – a film noir and an action thriller – which I’m trying to get financed. And a cool new zombie movie I want to write when there’s time.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of overlap. I researched brainwashing and mind manipulation for my radio play Breaking Point; and that’s become one of the main themes of Ketos. I call it ‘hommage’, but basically I steal from myself all the time.

Well… it seems I’ve run out of steam! I’m sure by book two, though, that I’ll have come up with more 😉 I’d like to take the opportunity now to thank you for taking part in this Q&A, and wish you very good luck with the release of DS. I’ll of course be pimping Debatable Space as it’s release gets closer and closer! Any last words? (Make them famous!)

A: Thanks Chris. I don’t believe in last words – too deathbed a subtext for my taste – but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this Q & A.

I’ve just received the bound proof of Debatable Space, and it’s the coolest feeling.


Interview by Chris, The Book Swede

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