Interview: Paul Cornell

severed-streetsCornellPaul Cornell’s latest novel The Severed Streets is the second in his Shadow Police urban fantasy series, set in a London slightly askew from ours where a group of police officers have been granted the Sight and thus can see a side to the capital that most of the rest of us (luckily) can’t. An alumnus of Virgin’s Doctor Who New Adventures series, Cornell contributed three episodes to the revamped Doctor Who series under Russell T Davies, and is also an acclaimed comic book writer. He took some time away from working on the third book of the series to chat with Paul Simpson…



How much of a plan did you have for the series when you pitched the original book (“Cops and Monsters”)?

I had a vague shape in my head, which I originally thought could keep going as a series, and do that ending whenever we get to it. Then I thought, ‘I’m going to get tired and lazy – how about you set yourself an aim?’ so I’ve got five books.

And you were layering in threads from the start to pay off?

Yes. Lofthouse’s journey sorts itself out in book three, and I know what the ending is. I have a complete plot for book three, and there’s something about Ross which has been in plain sight the whole time which will pay off in book four. It’s a London lore thing which I’ve noticed one other person using in their London-related stuff without explaining it either – I thought, ‘Ah, we’re on to the same thing here.’

I recall reading when London Falling came out that it started as a television project, and now it’s almost going full circle…

People make so much of that!

How much did you need to sit down and start from scratch when you were working on the story as a book? Most successful ideas that have switched media have needed to go right back to the core idea rather than try to adapt it…

That’s exactly it. I had to go back and retool it completely. There was never a script, for a start. I had to write the story for the first time.

I have seen some reviews which go, ‘Oh this is obviously an adapted TV script’. No it’s not! The Witch of West Ham was in the pitch we made, and back in the day, we had some wonderful character designs which were done as part of my and Sue Vertue’s pitch. Those will probably never see the light of day now because we’ve gone so far.

London_Falling3There are far too many scenes of people solo for it to be from a TV script…

And if the TV show does happen, we’re going to have to retool it completely again.

Could you see it working as a ‘shared universe’ if it was on TV or would you want to keep it to yourself?

At the moment, the idea for the TV show is that it’s a series of serials, so hopefully I’d be writing all of them. Me and the TV company haven’t even pitched it to a TV station yet. This being television, television almost never happens.

How much did you know about London lore before you started researching the series, and how much has come out of interesting discoveries you made during the research?

I knew a bit; I have a huge bookshelf of London lore, but largely I go after one thing. I knew about the West Ham stuff, so when you start researching West Ham, you find all this stuff around the edges, and you have to pick and choose which stuff you use. It’s more like you have one thing and find stuff related to it. It’s where the research takes you, really.

Has that changed how you’ve seen the arc of the series?

A little. You’ve got to leave space as you go along for good ideas, and making the judgement of which are good ideas and which take you off-piste with no aim is a major skill. I’ve written a really detailed plot for book three and I’m hoping that my brain does not lead me away from it, but I’ve already had a good idea in the first 5000 words!

George R.R. Martin says there are two sorts of writers: gardeners and architects. Gardeners let it all grow organically and aim it a bit; architects have it all sorted out beforehand. I like it a little bit of the middle way but I tend to architect. It increases my fandom of George rather a lot that he’s a gardener – of all people with that? My God! He’s got a shape and won’t go beyond the barriers – but that’s just what we architects do, really.

You’ve written many different forms: what gives you the most satisfaction when you’re writing?

It’s certainly got to be prose; maybe a good short story, because those are the hardest. I very much have enjoyed the reaction of certain readers to the twists in the Shadow Police books. They hit the twists, and you get reactions on Twitter: that’s very satisfying. They weren’t meant to be books about twists, but they’ve sort of become the brand images of these books, so I’m taking care to put them in now.


SGaimanome of the surprises may not come as a surprise to those who know their London lore – such as Neil Gaiman… I was surprised how oblique he was to the story…

It’s for him having done it. The whole point of him being in the book was plot-wise to get the surprise of ‘Oh you brought in a celebrity and you had him be a murderer’; that was in my head before this series of books came along. I wanted to do a story about a murder at a science fiction convention where it turned out that a real life author would be the killer, because I thought nobody would see this coming.

It’s also thematic – the whole book says, everyone is complicit. No one is innocent, as the Sex Pistols had it. For your celebrity guest star to also be complicit I think is one of the most complete things I have ever achieved. I’m immensely proud of it.

It was lovely of Neil: you can see him quite easily saying yes to celebrity cameos, but you can’t see him saying yes easily to ‘…and you’ll be the murderer, and your fictional version will be left quite grubby.’ That delighted him – he laughed out loud at the idea.

Will this version of Neil get his comeuppance?

No, that’s it for him. I think playing that again, having him be a recurring character, would be too much. I’ve done what I needed to do. You only get to do that once; I don’t want to be decadent.

Is the Hell visited in the Shadow Police stories the generic Hell?

No it’s not the generic Hell. One of the things I really wanted to put forward is that it’s not about good and evil in this cosmos. These orbiting Greater Boroughs are things that have always been there, but have been changed. The Smiling Man created or altered that version of Hell to his own aims fairly recently – which is actually said somewhere in the deep structure of Quill’s journey, but he doesn’t have the knowledge to tell us much about that.

We’ll learn about how this cosmos was created, but I would point out that Brutus’s London has nobody in it, and the Smiling Man’s London has got everybody in it. There are various others that aren’t designed to have people in them. Brutus is Gay God, basically.

Smiling Man’s Hell seems to be very Sisyphean – everyone pushing their boulder up the hill and then having to start again…

A bit…

I wondered if there was a deliberate Graeco-Roman feel to them or it was a subconscious link?

It’s a bit of a subconscious link, I think. That’s not to write it off: I always think that what other people read into my books is as valid as the things I’ve come up with. It’s all probably there somewhere.

There are a pantheon of such minor gods that are associated with London; the Rat King is another one and we will meet two more in the third book. We will develop the notion of those who follow Hidden London and have the Sight as a sort of fandom. We’re going to a convention in book three!

Timewyrm%20Revelation%20CoverTalking of which… the Doctor Who New Adventures will be a quarter of a century old soon. Do you ever go and look back at those early stories?

No, I never read my old stuff. I think when I’ve retired, that’ll be the time to really enjoy that. I never go back, just keep going forward. I think they were so much of their time; they were pop music. At the moment they’re unfashionable in terms of ‘they’re so youthful, and they’ve got such odd structures, and they drop so many awful clunkers with references’ but at the same time it’s where modern Who gets created. People have no idea how much! It’s specifically the New Adventures, not even the BBC books…

Yes – the period when Rebecca Levene was editor notably…

The DNA of the new series gets created there and I think you could list over a hundred specific points. I’m very proud of that but I’m very afraid of sitting on one’s laurels. Got to keep moving. I’m very much looking forward to being Terrance Dicks one day, if I’ve been a very good boy, and be able to sit back and go, ‘I did all that – isn’t that great?’ (Not that I’m comparing myself to Terrance!) I’ve been doing a lot of reading about classic Doctor Who recently, and he was absolutely that in his time: he just kept moving.

Thanks for Sam Eades for assistance in setting up this interview.

Click here to read our review of London Falling

and here for The Severed Streets





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