With work spanning TV, radio, non-fiction, comics, and novels, it is quite dizzying to attempt a quick round-up of the expansive career of Paul Cornell. Paul is the author of a plethora of comics, including work for Marvel and DC, has written many screen plays for TV including Doctor Who, Robin Hood and Primeval to name a few, a whole load of Doctor Who novels, and also novels set in worlds of his own making. Paul discovered at school that he could make bad things happen to bullies in fiction, and never looked back: “My whole career is an act of revenge...It's hardly believable, but the kid that was most bullying me really, really hated being eaten by sharks in prose.”
As this issue of Holdfast is all about landscape and setting, we focussed on Paul’s two most recent novels, London Falling and The Severed Streets, books one and two in The Shadow Police series. Often described as Urban Fantasy, Paul swears that they are SF. “I always say that [The Shadow Police novels] are in many ways SF novels because I am digging towards a rational basis for the magic.” Paul has made a point to never, ever mention the word ‘magic’ in the novels. “I have to do a search through each of them at the end of the manuscript process to make sure I haven’t used the word.”
Laurel talks to Paul Cornell about writing, the power of London, and the importance of intentionally diversifying SFF
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Whether or not London Falling is Urban Fantasy or SF, it is incredibly dark, with a gruesome serial killer who uses human sacrifice to gain power. Detective Inspector James Quill and his team find themselves having to adapt quickly to the supernatural world that the killer is a part of, a world built on a power directly connected to London. Paul explains, “[T]he rocks underneath, the shape of the buildings, does influence what's possible in London. But mainly it's about not just the memories of living people, but the memories of the dead as well.”
The power is limited to London and areas of high population, which somehow rings true for me in the ‘real’ world, in that there is a different energy and dynamic to cities compared to rural places. “I think cities just have more dense accumulations of information than rural areas have. Although interestingly, it's been pointed out that we say we go into nature to find simplicity but any natural scene is actually vastly more complicated than any artificial one, because leaves and trees are full of fractals...It's just we're vastly more used to that level of jigsaw complexity than we are to buildings with straight lines – so that feels simplest to us.”
Mora Losley, the villain of book one, is tied to a specific patch of land that gave her power, and in book two, a goddess is made by the shape of the barrow that she is buried in. For this, Paul drew inspiration from London’s landscape and its odd eccentricities. “London amazes me in the way that it uses space. There are all of these invisible demarcation lines. Some about money, some about different sorts of class.” And places that feel as though something strange is going on. “There's bits of London that do this for me. At Baker Street tube there is a change between two different lines which involves running down this slope which is still shaped like a natural hillside – you can feel the lumps underneath – and you pass on your right a war memorial to the [WW1] dead who worked on the Metropolitan Line... you find yourself stumbling down this hillside past a memorial to the dead of that war and ... it sort of takes you to that war. It's a physical reminder in your legs of being slightly out of control and running down a hillside – at exactly the place where one would put that if one was doing some sort of art installation.”
The power in The Shadow Police novels is tied to place, which got me thinking about people and place. Do we identify with where we live in the same way we might have done before the age of the web and cheap travel? “Even though part of us these days is detached and goes wandering across the internet... I think that people have a very strong sense of where they live. I was taken by surprise by my very powerful reaction to moving house a few months ago. I never really got it before... Even though I was leaving a place where I wasn't so happy, to [go to] a place where it looks like I [am] going to be more happy, I had a real wobble when I got here. And I'm still struggling to find out why. One really does put roots down, mentally. I think maybe as one get's older it becomes more painful to pull them up.”
Another wonderful thing about The Shadow Police novels is the diverse nature of the main characters and supporting cast. Although Quill is a white, straight, cis male, there is also Costain, a Black undercover police officer who is often misunderstood by his colleagues, Ross, an analyst with an agenda to avenge her father’s murder (turning the fridging trope on its head) and Sefton, a Black gay police officer dealing with more than one type of prejudice. There is rightly a lot of talk about diversity within genre fiction, and Paul feels strongly that white writers have a responsibility to incorporate and promote it. “I think there is only one-way to do this and that is to do it deliberately. You know, there's all this rubbish about 'it should arise naturally out of the narrative.’ How's it gonna do that? There isn't anything a writer does in a book that isn't deliberate, and that includes the omissions. There's just no mechanism for the presence of characters who haven't been represented historically in fiction appearing suddenly. You've just got to do it deliberately.”
"It was open season on rich, white men."
When writing characters from other cultures, there are a lot of things to be considered such as cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, and you have to do your research. “I think one has to ask... people from that culture.... the awkward stuff. And one has to not see them as the Other, but to inhabit them as fully as one inhabits any other character. I am Sefton. And that means to say, instead of thinking ‘Oh what would a woman think?’ It's me. And that's problematic – because of course there are differences.”
This also means listening to people with different life experiences, and admitting when you get it wrong. “In the new book there is a transsexual woman [Laura] who is Quill's sister-in-law...[There was a character] in book two, Haversham... who was originally going to be trans. But I talked to a friend of mine who has made the transition and said well, ‘Ok, so she's the host of this weird occult auction,’ and she said ‘I'll stop you right there, because we are always the signs of oddness.’ ... And so I thought oh yeah, absolutely got a point there, so changed Haversham into ‘always has been a woman,’ and in the new book Laura is the sign of domestic normality that Quill is trying to get back to.”
In all genres, but particularly with sf, fantasy and horror, the characters can experience events that would drive anyone to the limits of their sanity. I’m often left wishing that authors would look more at the mental repercussions this may have. Paul puts his characters through some truly harrowing experiences, and has decided to address what this might actually do to someone. “Quill develops mental illness as a result of the events in book two. I just couldn't see how he could do otherwise. If you were Fox Mulder in the X Files, you'd be a gibbering wreck wouldn't you?”
As well as reversing the fridging trope with Ross, Paul reverses the Jack the Ripper narrative, with a Ripper-like serial killer who won’t hurt women. There is actually the line in The Severed Streets: “It was open season on rich, white men”, which made me rather embarrassingly guffaw on a packed train. “There is something about the Jack the Ripper industry that I find really distasteful. And I just wanted to give Ross a big rant about how it's possible there wasn't even a real Jack the Ripper, that that was just business as usual for that time and place. We fetishised it into a villain instead of looking into the social circumstances. It's also really interesting to [have] a book about a serial murderer when we know that women are safe. And again that was deliberate. I say one doesn't look for applause, but I do think it is important to say 'I did that deliberately' so that other people can say I did that deliberately too.”
The Shadow Police series has so much to offer – along with its fascinating look at the power of cities and their rich diversity, it is fast-paced, scary, weird, and brilliant. Go check it out now!
Some Paul Cornell dates for your diary:
On 12 February the new edition of Human Nature, Paul’s Doctor Who book is out. On 26 February The Severed Streets paperback is out. On 2 May (Free Comic Book Day) Paul will be announcing something special, and in the first week of May, there will be another comics-related announcement that will lead up to some panels at Phoenix Comicon.