Best known as the novelist behind the Rivers of London sequence, those of long memory may recall that Ben Aaronovitch has many other works to his name, including two scripts in the final years of the original Doctor Who, several popular spin off novels in The Doctor Who New Adventures, a slew of Jupiter Moon episodes and a quartet of Blake’s 7 audio dramas. On the evening of Thursday 10th January, Ben paid a visit to Edinburgh to speak at length about his work, including his upcoming novel Broken Homes, and Geek Chocolate were fortunate enough to share his company.
Geek Chocolate – Fantasy has enjoyed a resurgence in diverse styles in recent years, a new wave of much harsher epic quest fantasy, if you will, with Joe Abercrombie leading the way, the Harry Potter books which gave children an opening into so many possibilities, and your Rivers of London series, which along with China Miéville, for example, has been labelled urban fantasy. How did you come up with the concept of a wizard police department, and were you concerned that you could be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, or did you feel it was a sufficiently unique concept?
BA – I didn’t know there was a bandwagon! I worked in Waterstones at the time, and I ran the crime section and I ran the science fiction and fantasy section, and I’m lazy – why take two genres into the shower when you can take one? That was basically my thinking.
I like crime, and I could never go “I want to write a crime novel.” No, I want to write a fantasy novel or a science fiction novel. So it was either going to be a science fiction crime novel or it was going to be a fantasy crime novel, and the science fiction crime novel involved too much research, so it had to be a fantasy novel. Little did I know how much research the fantasy novel was going to take. If I’d known, I probably would have written a science fiction crime novel.
But there are people who go, “No, I think you’ll find that DNA doesn’t work like that,” so you have to be really careful with science fiction. People are very unforgiving. But if you go, “A wizard did it!” they can’t really argue with you.
GC – There is a strong mix in your principal cast – a strong black cultural influence, Asian characters, women, and that’s very unusual for fantasy, which tends to use different races as the outsiders, the enemy. Was the multiculturalism something that came naturally from setting it in London, or did you choose that setting because you wanted to include those diverse characters?
BA – You see, I find this a very strange question, because you set it in London, that’s who you’re going to end up with! The idea that you could set it in London and everyone would be white is just so weird. I watch things on television and I go “Everyone’s white!” I had a little bit of that coming through Edinburgh.
People ask this a lot, and I always find this a very interesting question, because I’m a Londoner, I grew up in London, I’m not an import, I didn’t grow up in the suburbs somewhere and then move in from some small town somewhere. I grew up in London, with all the baggage that implies, and so when people say to me, “You’re a Londoner, was it the multiculturalism that attracted you,” I go “I don’t know, it’s just there!”
The BBC was the first ever largely white organisation I was ever associated with. I lived in a mixed area, I went to a mixed school, all the colleges I went to were mixed, and then suddenly I moved into the BBC and the only black people were essentially the people doing the serving in the canteen downstairs, and nobody found that at all weird, and I was sitting there going “This is just odd…” That was back in the Doctor Who days, and apparently it’s changed, but I don’t know, I haven’t been back.
So, London, yes, and then Peter Grant. Peter just arrived. I didn’t think to myself I was going to write a mixed race character. Originally when this was a TV series, he was a woman, he was a Jamaican woman in fact, so when people ask if I decided to make him mixed race, as if he was white and then I changed him, no, he was originally a Jamaican woman and I thought I’ll make him a guy.
And then his father and his mother kind of appeared, and when you’re writing, when you’re coming up with ideas, it all goes into this big kind of stew, and you chop the vegetables up, and then suddenly you pull out an element and think, yes, that works, and I had Peter’s background, I had Peter’s dad, I knew who they were, I knew where they lived. And so then once you know that, you know what Peter’s like.
Once I’d written “My name is Peter Grant, and I am a member of that mighty army for justice known as the Metropolitan Police, and the Filth by everyone else,“ I knew who he was, I knew he was sarcastic, the tone of voice he had, I knew where he came from because of the way the accent worked.
It’s kind of like coming up to Glasgow or Edinburgh and going “Did you put a lot of Scottish people in Edinburgh because it’s Edinburgh or did you set it in Edinburgh so you could have a lot of Scottish people?” London is like that, so it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be.
GC – The American edition of Rivers of London was given the more dramatic title Midnight Riot. Understandable for marketing reasons, but there was also an issue over the cover, which concern expressed online that Del Rey were actively concealing the fact there was a black protagonist.
BA – It’s actually more pathetic than that. It’s one of those things when people end up doing a really racist thing without meaning to. What happened was, as far as I can tell, and I’m getting this like third hand. I’m also 8,000 miles away. It’s very hard to know what’s going on. If I’d been in New York, I could have gone round. It’s very hard to do by email, especially when it’s your first book, you’re not in a position to go “I’m sorry, I just won’t have this cover,” because you’re so pleased someone is publishing your work. Now I could probably do that, because I could go “aha, I won’t give you the fourth one.” Although I don’t do so
well in America, so maybe not.
They sent someone out to get a mixed race actor to do the cover shoot, and the people went and got the guy you see if you look at my website, and I think I know why they got that guy, but I can’t prove it, it’s all purely speculation. The problem is that America, and Britain too, only has two positive black stereotypes. There’s Ving Rhames or Samuel L Jackson, but especially Ving Rhames. bald head, bull neck, which is what they got, or Chris Tucker. That’s their two positive stereotypes. Everyone else is a drug dealer or a criminal or a prostitute or something, and so they went out and they got what they thought was a positive guy, but you do not read my book and then cast that guy as Peter Grant, not unless you really didn’t pay attention – he looks like a young Barack Obama, and Barack Obama has a neck.
Nowadays, people don’t have unlimited budgets and it’s done by committee, so they would have had to have gone back, and the committee would have said there was no more money because it’s a completely obscure British writer that nobody has ever heard of with a stupid title and there’s no point we’re not going to spend any more money on it. So in order to cancel the fact that they had cast Ving Rhames or whoever that was, I’m sure he was a perfectly nice guy, they blacked him out.
I saw it, and it was too late by then, I didn’t realise until practically the covers were printed, way too late, and I thought “this is going to cause trouble.” And it did.
GC – And the thing is, if they had just gone with that picture in the first place, there would be no fuss whatsoever, it would just be an image.
BA – Well, yes. Now what they’ll do is they’ll go with the British covers, when the books come round again. If I go to reprint, because I don’t do as well in America as I do here, despite Kate Elliott cheerleading me very nicely and various other people writing very nice reviews.
GC – The fourth volume, Broken Homes, is due this summer. How much are you ready to reveal at this time?
BA – Well, Broken Homes goes across the river, which means nothing to you because you live in Edinburgh, so we’re going to Elephant and Castle, because Southwark is a fascinating place, and it’s basically about architecture, political shenanigans, evil magicians… I actually can’t say without giving it all away. Stuff. Lots of stuff. Exciting stuff involving crime and magic. There you go. The tagline for me is Architecture can be murder.
GC – It would have been written in the period of first riots then Olympics. How much of that turmoil, upheaval and celebration fed into the words, or is that yet to come?
BA – Well, I was waiting for the Olympics to go away because I couldn’t put it in. What will probably happen now is that the books will be more recognisably set in a specific year now that we’ve got the Olympics out of the way, because that would have just dated it. If you had written it before the Olympics happened, then every prediction you make, as everybody’s predictions were, completely wrong. And if you write it after, everyone is going, “Oh, I’m so over the Olympics,” so you can’t win. They wanted me to do the Olympics and I said I just don’t think it’s a good idea.
The riots, I knew the riots were going to come along sooner or later, it’s London. You get riots in London, and what amazed me was that it took so long. I was taken aback by the new flashmob kind of rioting, not the kind of riots I remember, because I remember a couple of riots back in the eighties and these weren’t anything like that, those were territorial, you sealed off Brixton and ran around burning down Spudulike and Burtons. I don’t know why, it seemed very cruel. And this thing where people just converge, loot, unconverge, struck me, but judging by the fact that nearly all of them got caught, they would have been better putting things on and throwing rocks at the police.
GC – There’s been a thread running in the background, the Rogue Practitioner, which we presume will come to the forefront at some point – will that be sooner or later?
BA – The Rogue Practitioner! Yes and no. Each book is supposed to be a fun mystery of its own, it’s not a fantasy trilogy or a fantasy hexology or whatever, it’s like the Rebus books, like the Dalgliesh books, you have a policeman and he solves crimes, and I like to put a bit of continuity in it because he’s a young policeman, so unlike Rebus or Dalgliesh he develops as a policeman, develops as a wizard over the course of time, and people around him change because that’s the state of being young. So it’s a bit more kind of like Rebus has this gangster who he has a love/hate relationship, a continuous antagonism with, who he is always trying to outmanoeuvre, who is trying to outmanoeuvre him in some of the books.
I wanted that, but I didn’t want a Moriarty, he’s not uberclever. In Sherlock you have these weird fantasy characters who can outthink each other to ridiculous levels. He’s not some chessmaster, he’s a criminal, he’s very bright, he’s very smart, he’s very ruthless, but he’s not god, he cannot anticipate everything that they do, and that seemed to be the more the level of real crime that I wanted to get, so it’s real crime but it’s magic. I know that makes no sense. You should have seen me pitching this book. It’s crime, but it’s like real crime, but it’s magic. Magic crime but real! Thank you!
GC – And they kind of looked at you and said “Isn’t that called magical realism?”
BA – No, they didn’t actually, because they took one look at me and went “No!” If I’d been called Juan Jose Aaronovitch, then I probably could have been labeled as magical realism. Write a very thin book and have only white people in it.
GC – The other character who has been there in the background all along but whom we know very little is Molly. Are we ever going to learn her story?
BA – Molly! You can wait for Molly! Why do you people want to know? You’re only going to be disappointed. Everyone goes, “Oh, I want to know about Nightingale!” No, you don’t! You like the air of mystery. You know if I come up with some backstory of Molly being the seventeenth princess of Moonstar or something, everyone’s going “muuh.”
It’s the principal Stephen King talks about, it’s much more t
errifying before you open the door and see what’s behind, right up to the point where you open the door and you go “Oh, no, it’s a forty foot bug!” and then you think, alright, I can deal with a forty foot bug. It’s exactly the same with the mysterious backstory of characters. If you find out too much about them then you go “oh, that’s kind of boring.”
I’m not saying I won’t suddenly decide to do a Molly-centric story, and I will reveal more of her and Nightingale and everyone, but only when it feels right. I’m not going to sit down and go, “Today is the day that Molly tells you everything,” because then she would have to bite you.
GC – It’s been a long time since you wrote Remembrance of the Daleks, a very important story that took us back to Totters Lane in 1963.
BA – A very, very, very long time. A very important story for a certain subset of human beings. 99.99% of everybody else, not a very important story at all, can I point that out, not even for Doctor Who fans anymore, because there’s a whole new tranche of Doctor Who fans who go, “Oh, I don’t watch the old stuff it’s all wobbly.”
GC – As a new writer on an established show, how did you end up in the position of writing the twenty fifth anniversary celebration story?
BA – Ah, well, by being the right person at the right time, and I didn’t write the twenty fifth anniversary story, that was Silver Nemesis written by Kevin Clarke, who was a much more experienced writer. I think the idea was that they said “we need a Dalek story, who have we got,” and Andrew [Cartmel, script editor] said, “oh, let Ben do it.” So I did it. I’m amazed John [Nathan-Turner, producer] let him. I think John was just like, “oh, god, I can’t cope, alright, let Ben do it,” and I think he was quite pleased with the result. I got away with it.
I read that script sometimes and I sit there and think, it’s a very “first script” script, and thank god it was Doctor Who, because there’s some things in there you just wouldn’t have got away with ten to fifteen years later.
GC – Having rewatched it the other night, the big thing that came to me was not the script but that they needed more time for rehearsal.
BA – We made Doctor Who for half standard drama budget. To put that in perspective, that’s what they make Doctors on. In fact, they probably spend more on Doctors, proportionally, with inflation, than they did on Doctor Who, and that’s one set with some people in white coats. There wasn’t any time, if something went wrong it went wrong and it was on screen. If it wasn’t done right, if Sylvester fluffed the line, we went for the take with the special effects work, because we didn’t have time to go back. Cameras broke, it was ridiculous. There was a ridiculous amount of minutes per day. And that was quite an expensive one, too, so mine was quite plush by Doctor Who standards.
GC – Sylvester comes across very angry, but Pamela Salem comes across brilliantly. I remember her as Belor in Into the Labyrinth.
BA – I don’t. I remember her as Moneypenny in the Sean Connery remake, Never Say Never Again.
GC – The guy I felt badly for was Simon Williams, who used to be James Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs, because all he does is shout then run offscreen, and then shout, and run offscreen. But he does it with such authority.
BA – He had wonderful presence, and he was so tall, so he could shout and run offscreen very easily and get away with it.
GC – Going back to the living in London thing, I remember very specifically from the original broadcast, Ace finding the “No coloureds” sign in the window of the guest house, a very different reflection of the period than the more rose tinted world the show usually presented in those days.
BA – In 1988 we were going through a phase of nostalgia about the sixties, and I thought 1963 isn’t actually the sixties as we remember it, it’s actually more like the tail end of the fifties. They’re bubbling away, they’re not here. People are making James Bond, the things that will be in place to be the sixties.
If you’re doing a story about the Daleks, then you’re doing a story about Nazism and racism, because that’s what the Daleks are like. I’d watched the very first Dalek story, and they do do a kind of Nazi salute at one point, and I thought, okay, there’s no subtlety in this metaphor, so you may as well just take that. And if you’re going to do that then the themes must flow into it, so it becomes about racism, it becomes about misguided loyalty, it becomes about absurd notions of difference, and in a way that makes it easier to write, because you go “ah, that’s why the Daleks are fighting, because they don’t like each other.” You don’t have to come up with a complex five page exposition of why the Daleks are fighting each other.
GC – And that theme was still running through in the last Dalek episodes, something you started.
BA – Well yes! I am amazed sometimes when I go “hey, you bastard, give me some money!” But it’s probably unwise to do that.
GC – Another twenty five years have passed, and the big anniversary is this year. What would you like to see this November?
BA – I would like to see Ben Aaronovitch on the… I don’t know. I don’t know because for me it’s such a different show now. I like it and my son loves it. I’d like to get my son on the set, because then my son will think I’m a hero for the rest of my life.
I’d like Steven to do one of his very, very clever stories. I love his clever stories, and I would like him to take some time to do a very sneaky clever story.
GC – I’m sure he’s been planning this for a long time.
BA – Yes, I’m fairly certain this is what will happen. I can’t imagine he’s go into the fiftieth anniversary and say “oh, let’s do something a bit dull and routine.” – Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred were a great team, and you got to write for them again in Battlefield, and joining them in the guest cast were the fantastic Jean Marsh as Morgaine –
BA – Jean Marsh! I’d just seen her in Willow, and then she turns up doing the same character.
GC – But she’s so good at it!
BA – Yes, but with a much lower budget.
GC – Back in Upstairs, Downstairs, she was the most terrifying housemaid ever.
[caption id="attachment_1034" align="alignleft" width="301"]Nicholas Courtney and Jean MarshBA – Yes, but she was a great actress. I’ve worked with a lot of these older actresses and actors, and one of the things that is wonderful about them is the way they can turn it on and off. They just do it for the take, there’s no method, there’s no sitting around, preparing the part, they just go, “what, you want old, with an amount of contempt, or do you want it to be a bit funny?” And you go “I want a bit more contempt in there,” and they just give you a bit more contempt, and you think “I wish I could do that! That’s just amazing!”
GC – It was also the last appearance on the main show of wonderful Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. How do you look back on that story and those performers?
BA – I couldn’t kill him. He was supposed to die and I couldn’t kill him. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m so weak! He was brilliant. If I’d known he spoke Swahili I’d have put that in. I found out on location. I would have had so much fun. I would have had him and Brigadier Bambera speaking Swahili to each other through the whole middle third. And he spoke it very well. It just would have been so funny. I don’t know why it just amuses me, that idea. GC – Another classic British science fiction series celebrating this year is Blake’s 7, thirty five years since first broadcast, for which you wrote audio adventures, a very different challenge to either television or prose. How did you approach that, and how did you enjoy working with those iconic characters?
BA – Oh, they were fun, the characters, they were really fun, and I have to say, most of the people we got were really good. Colin Salmon is just very scary as Avon. I like writing them, I wanted to take it, because Terry Nation, bless his heart, writing in the seventies, was not the most scientifically rigorous science fiction writer.
And much like current Doctor Who, they’re not really writing science fiction, it’s just magic, which is fine, I have no problem with that, Star Wars is like that, lots of things are like that, but I can’t help it, I’m slightly hard, I’m not terribly hard by the standards of hard science fiction, but I just like a little bit more science in my science fiction to differentiate it from my fantasy.
I wanted to get into what was the Federation like, how did it evolve, in ways that Terry Nation just wasn’t interested in, and I thought that there was scope for Servalan’s character and Blake having the same goals, they actually wanted to both reform a corrupt system, it’s just that they had completely different ways of doing it.
GC – I recently wrote an article for the 35th anniversary, and I described the Federation as a very recently fallen utopia, because obviously there has been power and money there, but you can tell by all the horrible art that people have in their houses that a great many still have a standard of luxury.
BA – One of the things that goes wrong is that they didn’t think it through, so at the same time as the Federation has been in place and an oppressive regime for thousands of years, everyone acts as though they expect the courts to be fair, everyone acts as though policemen will come and help you…
GC – Rebel and Eye of the Machine featured a new cast, but for When Vila Met Gan, Michael Keating reprised his role from the show, and your brother Owen replaced the late David Jackson as Gan. Was that in your mind when you wrote it, and how did it feel to have him performing something you wrote?
BA – It sounds so like nepotism, but as a writer, nepotism doesn’t happen, trust me. I just said my brother’s really good at doing funny voices, lots of different accents, he’s very good at accents, basically because he’s a Londoner but he trained in Newcastle and then lived for a very long time in Sheffield and Coventry, trying to get parts set in that part of the world, and so he learned to have a lot of accents, how to do them properly.
I said he would be good for other members of the cast, for footsoldiers, going “Oi!” and “Get out of here!” and all that stuff, which you need in a budget production. I had no idea they were going to cast him as Gan, it never occurred to me. I was very pleased with that, because one does like to see one’s brother beholden to one.
So that was one, but Michael Keating was brilliant, it was quite scary how brilliant he was, he jumped right back into the part. You just close your eyes, and it was very strange. A little rougher, but basically the same character. He liked it, because the character was a bit more nuanced in mine.
GC – When writing When Vila Met Gan and Blood and Earth, where Jan Chappell returned, was there already an arrangement for them to reprise their roles, or was it just a hope if all the pieces came together?
BA – I don’t know about When Vila Met Gan. Originally it was just going to be a quick two hander, we were going to get the guy who played Vila in the original audio drama, and the producer said “Oh, let’s see if Michael is available.”
The second one, we got Jan Chappell, let’s do something about the Aurons, and so I stole quite a lot of the Aurons from C J Cherryh, who’s always a good mining source in these things, or rather I stole her approach. Downbelow Station, when she goes down to the Union side of the story, she talks a lot about what actually a society where cloned people were less than 100% citizens, what kind of a society you get, and what are the ethical issues.
I nicked a load of that stuff,
because she’s done it very well, is it slavery, is it not slavery, what are the implications, and then to that I added the implications of what happens if you have six hundred clonemates who all talk to you, it would be like the biggest chat room ever, and then being cut off from them, it would be like losing the Internet, no support from your cousins or your sisters.
I actually find these stories where you have to do half an hour of drama on audio quite difficult, because I’m widescreen, I want explosions, I want planes blowing up, and you can’t have that on radio. People have to go “Look, the plane has blown up!”
GC – There has long been talk of a return of Blake’s 7 to television, and you have experience with the characters and of writing for the screen. If it happens, how would you like to see it done?
BA – I know there are various strands on that and… I can’t really talk about that. I know what the actual state of play is on Blake’s 7, and I’m really not allowed to talk about it.
GC – Even the fact that there is a state of play is something in itself.
BA – There is a state of play, but television is like that. There is a state of play on a lot of things. You can grow old and die and make quite a good living just on development.
GC – And indeed, would you ever want to write for new Who should the opportunity arise?
BA – You know, intellectually I think to myself, “No, I will never write for new Who, it has moved on, it have gone past that,” and pretty much I would say yes before Moffat had finished the phone call, really. “Would you like-“ “Yes!” Like that. Yes, I would like a shot, because how could you not? My son would hate me, apart from anything else. I’d have to have a go. I’m not sure how good it would be, but you have to give it a go.
GC – Ben Aaronovitch, it has been absolutely fantastic. Thank you so much!
Broken Homes is published by Gollancz on 27th June
Special thanks to Ben for his time and Jon Weir for arranging the interview