Interview: Space 1889 & Beyond: Mark Michalowski

Mark Michalowski has been making a name for himself in genre circles, with four Doctor Who novels and a Being Human book under his belt, in addition to numerous short stories. His latest novel is The Ghosts of Mercury for Untreed Reads’ Space 1889 & Beyond series…

How did you get involved with Space 1889 & Beyond?

Andy Frankham-Allen approached me, having read some of my Doctor Who stuff and asked if I’d be interested in writing something for this first series.

Initially, I was a little hesitant: this would be the first time I’d dipped my toe into the ocean of steampunk, and with Space: 1889 & Beyond  being such a collaborative effort – not to mention a shared universe created by someone else – I was worried that I might not ‘play well with other kids’! Like most writers, I tend to be a little bit protective and controlling of my own ‘creations’; and I’m always worried that I might simply not ‘get’ other writers’ characters, or do them an injustice.

Were you a steampunk fan before writing the story – and if not, has it made you one?

Nope, not a fan at all! The whole idea of steampunk has always intrigued me, but one of my many problems as a writer is that I’m a wee bit lazy when it comes to historical research. Biological and hard sciences are much more comfortable territories for me, and over the years I think I’ve built up a sort of ‘sixth sense’ about whether something feels scientifically correct or plausible, even if it’s fictional. I don’t have the same thing for history – in fact I chose to do geography at school instead of history. I have a pitifully inadequate knowledge of world events – particular ones in the past; and with the huge, informed mass of Space: 1889 game-players hovering (metaphorically) above my head, the whole thing seemed a worrying step too far for me. Until, of course, Andy – smooth-tongued devil that he is – talked me round. He may even have offered me money…

I don’t think it’s made me a steampunk fan just yet, but my increasing comfort with writing it has certainly made me less fearful of reading it.

What are the specific challenges of writing this genre, compared with a straight historical story, or a contemporary tale?

Mainly the research into the society, politics and technology of the era – not to mention the fictional technology that’s evolved for the series. The mindset of the Victorians themselves didn’t seem too hard to fit into. But, of course, the readers will be the ultimate judges of whether I actually managed that particular task.

It’s a comparatively short word count compared with your Being Human/Who stories. Did you find this restrictive?

Well, the word count in the original brief was comparatively short – something like 30-40,000 words for it as a novella. But, as usual, I overwrote, assuming that since it was an e-novella that a few thousand words over wouldn’t make any difference. Those ‘few thousand words’ mysteriously grew into ‘30,000 more’ and the first draft was, I think, close to 70,000. I blithely sent it to Andy, not thinking that it was a problem. But Andy gave me his best Paddington Bear stare and said he thought that the size of it unbalanced the series, which had never occurred to me. After a few beatings from Andy’s editor stick, I brought it down a little, and then Andy put down his beating stick and picked up his hatchet to have a go at it. The final work is about 57,000 words long – and has been ‘promoted’ from ‘novella’ to ‘novel’ status, which I feel a bit guilty about. But only the tiniest little bit.

In your work, your characters often “hold up a mirror” to themselves – but when you’re working with someone else’s toys (Doctor Who/Being Human/Space 1889), do you feel an obligation to leave things as you found them?

Andy has been an excellent – and very progressive – editor on the series, believing strongly that the characters should change and evolve in response to their experiences; so, within the limits of where he sees the characters going over the next couple of series, he’s been great about not only suggesting where the characters could, but also in accepting suggestions from us authors about where we could see them going. So that’s not been a problem at all.

You’ve created a new character for Space 1889 in Arnaud – what was your brief for this, or did you present him as part of your pitch? There’s a little bit of The Persuaders vibe to their byplay [the 1970s series featuring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis] – did you base them on any particular “odd couple”?

One of the things, I think, that sold me on the idea of saying yes to Andy was his suggestion of my creating a character who could possibly feature in one or two other stories this series, which was quite exciting – especially since he gave me such a free hand with Arnaud. And yes, I can see The Persuaders thing – I’m grinning at the thought at this very moment. It wasn’t a conscious thing, and I don’t think I had any particular ‘odd couples’ in mind at the time, but I did want someone who was a foil to Nathanial and a contrast to his slightly pompous ways and mannerisms: someone cheeky and irreverent who would be willing to challenge him. And, I think, as the whole saga continues, you’ll see Arnaud pushing him in some uncomfortable directions – for Nathanial, at least. In fact (don’t tell anyone!) I’m a little bit in love with Arnaud myself.

What else would you like to do with the Space 1889 universe?

Lordy, there’s a question. I’d love to see them venture out beyond the inner planets to visit Jupiter, Saturn and the others and all their moons. I have a real love for planetary gas giants. Oh dear, I actually typed that out loud, didn’t I? How very, very sad….

Read our review of The Ghosts of Mercury here

Thanks to Andy Frankham-Allen for help in arranging this interview.

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