Today, we have the author about whom Dean R. Koontz once said: “If thriller-reading were a sin [he would] be responsible for my ultimate damnation.” Please join me in welcoming Stephen Gallagher–author of Bedlam Detective, screen-writer for Doctor Who and creator of Eleventh Hour. Thank you, Stephen, for sharing your thoughts on the writing life!
Stephen studied drama and English at Hull in the mid-70s. In 1982, he wrote Chimera, his first novel, a string of 90-minute Saturday Night Theatres for Radio 4 and stories for two consecutive TV seasons of Doctor Who. He went freelance in 1980.
Beginning with Valley of Lights, Stephen published a novel a year, saw each of them optioned either for film or TV, and wrote all the screenplays. He was also involved with the setting-up of Chiller, YTV’s highly-rated but short-lived horror anthology series, and Carnival Films’ BUGS, on which he wrote 10 out of 30 shows and was script consultant on series 2 and 3.
Later projects included a 90-minute Murder Rooms episode and two feature-length Rosemary and Thyme specials followed by Life Line, a supernatural two-parter for BBC1. In 2008 Stephen was lead writer on Crusoe for NBC and started 2009 with a couple of scripts for the US version of Eleventh Hour, the series he created for ITV in 2006.
His more recent novels include The Painted Bride, The Spirit Box, and The Kingdom of Bones (a really artful work). The Bedlam Detective (a personal favorite for me) was published in 2012, and Stephen is now working on another Sebastian Becker story. I look forward to seeing it in print!
For more, visit Stephen Gallagher’s Website!
From the website:
Gallagher has been called a horror writer, a fantasy writer, a non-fantasy writer, a writer for big screens and smaller ones, a writer whose considerable talent has enabled him to slip in and out of genres precisely as if those tidy little boxes didn’t exist—as indeed they don’t for his character-driven books. In this one, Sebastian Becker (The Kingdom of Bones, 2007, etc.), his fast-track career abruptly derailed, contemplates an uncertain future. Now that the Pinkertons have sent him packing, he faces 1912 back in his native England, employed as the special investigator to the Masters of Lunacy. Englishmen of property deemed too loopy to look after anyone’s property face Bedlams of one sort or another, their property removed from their care. It’s up to Sir James Crichton-Browne, acting for His Majesty’s Government, to render judgments informed by evidence his special investigator Sebastian provides. The job pays poorly but is nuanced enough to be interesting. And it gets even more so when Sebastian meets Sir Owain Lancaster, a scientist who’s been widely respected until he blames the failure of his lavish Amazonian expedition on a series of attacks by horrific monsters only he can see. No longer respected but still exceedingly rich, he becomes grist for Sebastian’s mill. Is Sir Owain really crazy? Or, much worse, is he himself a monster?
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences?
Asimov was a compulsive writer, I think, and fortunately he was a polymath with a lot to say. I don’t think that describes me. But I do have a story-making urge that keeps me restless. Ideas don’t exactly pour out of me but I find that as soon as I complete something – by which I mean, think it through until I know I’ve nailed it – I’m left with a void and then another idea slides in. It’s a little scary in that I don’t feel I have conscious control over the process. It’s as if there’s some psychological mechanism at work to ensure that I get a new idea because I need one, knowing that the void’s an uncomfortable thing to experience.Back in the early days my ideas and my sales more or less kept pace,one to one, but at this stage of my career I have a wish list of backed-up projects that are just waiting for the right outlet.
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give this work the time and energy it so deserves?
I seriously cannot remember a time when I wasn’t trying for it. I mean, all the way back to early childhood. I was about 6 or 7 and I wrote and drew a story about a naïve new ghost arriving at ghost school. My parents were suitably proud and praised me for it, while I’m thinking, “WTF, parents, that’s all very well, but how do we get it out there?” At 11 I was submitting stories to a boys’ magazine called The Wizard, which I targeted because it was the last of the British weekly comic papers to run prose fiction. I wrote the stories in blue ink on lined paper with my own illustrations. The editor was polite to the point of kindness. I eventually sold them a cartoon.
3. As an author and medical humanist, I am always interested in the intersections of history and fiction. I’ve also been a serious fan of Eleventh Hour (in its old and new form). Given that your work also explores these shadowy boundaries, can you say a bit about the relationship between research, history and the creative process?
I’d say that research is nothing more than expanded observation and as such, it’s key to all creation. Art’s about insight, and you can’t offer insight into nothing. Research is about continuing to write with authority after you’ve detected the limits of what you know. If you’re doing it for a living, you need to be methodical. And even if you’re not doing it for a living, there’s nothing wrong with behaving as if you were.
With a contemporary subject I’ll always visit the places I’m writing about, interview people who work in areas where I need to reflect their expertise, keep running notes of my own impressions and experiences as I go – many of those will find their way into the text. With historical subjects you can’t be quite so first-hand,but you try for the same standard. One warning I’d give is, never use someone else’s fiction as research. It’s already been diluted or corrupted to the author’s purpose. Step past it to the source materials.
4. As you work in television as well as text, could you say something about those two different worlds? How did you find the process of working between them with Murder Rooms and Kingdom of Bones?
I suppose that first I should clarify… my 2001 Murder Rooms episode and my 2007 novel both carry the same title, but they’re not related. The book was originally to be called Victorian Gothic but neither my agent nor publisher felt that was commercial. My editor picked Kingdom of Bones from a list where I’d included it as a late thought.
For me there’s a big, though not necessarily obvious, difference between working in prose and writing for the screen. In a novel, you’re inside the characters looking out and you create the novel’s world through their perceptions. Whereas on the screen we’re shown the world directly, and we infer people’s inner states from what they say, what they do, and from the context in which they’re shown doing it. So the story can be the same in both cases, but the way you bring it to life calls for two entirely different processes. Inside looking out, outside looking inward.That’s why novelisations feel thin, and completely literal dramatisations don’t take life.
5. I came to your work through the Bedlam Detective, and (as a Gothic literature and historical medicine scholar) I am excited about Kingdom of Bones. These differ markedly from your other work, however. Can you talk to us about the process of working in different genres? Do you have a “favorite” text or style?
I don’t consciously affect a style. I try to write as plainly as possible and let style take care of itself, although in The Bedlam Detective there’s a chapter which is a deliberate pastiche of the kind of Gaslight-era fiction typified by Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. But that’s really a character piece laced with irony, because the narrator’s idealised version of himself is at odds with the person that Sebastian Becker observes. Largely I’m just trying to write clean prose, avoiding present-day colloquialisms if they’d puncture the atmosphere. If there’s a model I aspire to, it’s probably John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
6. I am particularly interested in the way you weave plot lines together with history and mystery in Kingdom of Bones. Can you share a little bit about your process? How do you build a mystery, so to speak?
7. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision?Writers’ block?
[Answered together] It begins with a steady collection of notes, snippets, fragments, ideas… then a major point in the process where I gather all the fragments together and look for the story running through them. I mean gather them physically, rip them out of the notebooks and move them around into bundles, one for each distinct section of the novel. I’m not driven by logic but by images, incidents, big set-piece scenes – the building blocks of a structure. Logic comes after, as I look for the connections between the elements. They’ve all come from the same place, is my reasoning, so they’re all related somehow. I just need to let them accumulate until they reach a critical mass. Then I’ll find the line through them and that’s my story.
Then comes the first phase of research. What will I need to know about to tell this story? Adding the notes and references to the relevant sections.
Then dialogue. This is a legacy of my radio days, but I break down my outline and write all my characters’ dialogue in a self-contained pass. This is the point at which where they really take life, and I like to focus on this phase with no other considerations.
Second phase of research; the specific details of the world. Up until now I’ve been thinking that the hard part was ahead of me, now I start thinking that the worst of it’s behind me. A simple psychological trick and it shouldn’t keep working, but it does. If writers’ block exists, that’s my way around it. A lot of finessing of story goes on at this stage, the discovery of things that link to other things in unexpected ways and make the story stronger. The final phase is to tie it all together in a prose draft where the focus is entirely on the telling.
8. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?
It works for some, but it’s not for me. I do hang out and correspond with writers and readers, it’s a huge source of pleasure. But it’s a bonus. I don’t let it into the writing. No one sees my stuff until it’s done.
My agent reads me first and I take his insights very seriously, especially if there’s some structural heavy lifting to be done. I’m not as scared of that as I used to be. It’s usually about achieving clarity, and who doesn’t want that for their work? And it means a stronger piece to put before my editor.
My attitude on criticism is that it’s a dialogue between critic and reader. It’s way too late in the process to be of any practical use to me.
9. Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or even into screen writing? What about the need/value of agents?
Be aware of the small presses, and their immense value to the developing writer. Far more so than dumping your stuff onto Kindle and calling yourself a Published Author. If you want to write for the screen you should be concocting scripts, shooting your own stories, dragooning friends into your projects. A good agent is your anchor in an uncertain world, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to have one in order to get started. Your agent will join you at the appropriate stage of the journey, when you’ve grown enough to make proper use of him or her.
10. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
Through childhood; H G Wells, Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leslie Charteris. Through my teens I read classic science fiction and ’60s British thriller writers. Then I had the advantage of a very solid three years of education in English Literature that opened up new avenues to me, from the medieval mindset to the poetry of Thomas Hardy. I think the point is that as a reader I had a big, big net, and a special fascination with popular fiction. I can remember buying Westerns and Romance novels, neither of which were of particular interest to me but I felt driven to find out what was going on in that kind of writing. I looked at William Goldman and Michael Crichton and saw that it was possible to be both a novelist and a screenwriter; Goldman kept the distinction clear and Crichton’s later, less substantial work showed what can happen when you don’t, so I learned from both of them.
11. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
Whatever your genre of interest, I’d recommend seeking out the major non-professional club or society devoted to it and join up. Get the newsletters, log into the forums, join in the correspondence, then get yourself along to conventions and meet the people you’ve been talking to. You’ll be mixing with the authors, editors and critics of both today and tomorrow.
I think the only truly useful book on screenwriting I’ve ever recommended is Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a great primer if your interests tend to the fictional dark side but generally speaking, the more dogmatic a how-to book is, the less of use it can give you. The worst ones come with diagrams.
Thank you, Stephen, for taking time to speak with us!
And–join us tomorrow for the Friday Fiction Feature!