An Interview with Simon A Forward!
So, let's jump right in and get to know Simon!
Let's start with something basic: When did you first start writing Sci-Fi?
Ooh, now let me see. I guess that would be when I was a kid of around seven or eight. With an imagination fuelled by Doctor Who, I was always scribbling away and filling up exercise books with my own tales of monsters and sci-fi adventure. To be fair, the stories probably weren’t great and I almost certainly needed an editor, but the writing bug was there. It was never enough to be a passive consumer of stories, I had to be making up my own.
What drew you to it?
In a word, thefreedomofexplorationandthevarietyandcolourand – okay, maybe I shouldn’t have attempted to answer that in one word. Early on in life, as well as things like Doctor Who and Space:1999 on the TV, there were the sf stories of Captain WE Johns (the man behind Biggles) and Harry Harrison selling me on the genre. Between them that’s a lot of vibrant colours and spaceships and gadgets, tough for an impressionable kid to resist. Plus as a middle child and the only boy in the family, I was something of a solitary youngster (feel free to awww sympathetically here) so probably welcomed the chance to range far beyond the confines of my ordinary bedroom. Later on in life I developed a taste for other forms of literary and cinematic escapism, of course, but as a budding writer at school the grades for my English essays were always accompanied by comments telling me off for continually writing science fiction and would it be too much to ask for me to write something else for a change. I think that’s what finally did it for me – it played to my stubborn, willful streak and I figured why settle for playing in the playground when you could design your own playgrounds.
Aside from your own work, who is/are your favorite writer(s), and do they influence your work in any way?
In sci-fi, people like Larry Niven and Alastair Reynolds. And Douglas Adams. Writers who managed to thoroughly immersed me in their universes. Steering over into fantasy, I love Ray Bradbury and Tanith Lee – no standard sword-and-sorcery-clone-of-the-rings style stuff for me – both of whom have a gift for lyrical prose that probably had a lot to do with beginning my romance with language. So many of the classics, I love – special mentions to George Elliot and Charlotte Bronte. Especially a lot of Russian literature appeals to my darker, more depressive side and my favourite book of all has to be Anna Karenina. No other book has moved me or absorbed me quite to the same extent. (Yet.) And all without the aid of spaceships. Variety is the spice of life, they say, and all of that goes into my brain, bakes at a high temperature for several decades and, I suppose, emerges as a number of different recipes of my own.
One of your first published works was Drift, a Doctor Who novel. How did that come about?
Drift was one of many book proposals I submitted to BBC Books as they were one of the few publishers (at that or any time!) who had an open door for submissions. Your chances of getting picked off the slush pile were remote, but I wasn’t about to let even the slimmest opportunity to write for Doctor Who pass me by. So I’d submit proposals – sample chapters plus synopsis – on a fairly frequent basis – it wasn’t like I had a shortage of ideas. Eventually, I was offered a short story commission in an anthology and it wasn’t too long afterwards that my idea for a (kind of) ghost story in the snows of a New Hampshire winter won over the range editor, Justin Richards. The idea itself was born in a matter of seconds, while watching the opening scenes of the movie Fargo. A car emerges into view out of a snowy landscape and it hit me, how it’s just as easy to hide something menacing in complete whiteness as it is in total darkness. It was that instant, that simple. I love it when ideas strike so suddenly, fully formed like that.
The phone call from the editor confirming that he liked it was the best moment of my life. During the waiting time, I hadn’t been lazy and I’d gone on to write half the book too, so this made completing it to deadline a good deal easier. At the time I also remember worrying that this might be my first and last published book, so I set out to write it as a proper novel, more than ‘just a Doctor Who book’. I’m not sure how successful I was in that respect, but I’d never been to New Hampshire and people who lived there wrote me and told me how well I’d captured the feel of the place in winter. That’s feedback I treasure to this day.
Why did you start the Evil Unltd series?
Ah, that was all because of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fairness to the show, I never watched that many episodes. But I found it overwhelmingly dull. All those people boldly going around the universe being terribly nice to everyone and everything. Bound by their prime directive and high moral principles, resolving crises with their own bland blend of pseudoscience and diplomacy. Come on, I thought. How much more interesting would it be if a bunch of self-serving bad guys travelled the galaxy. Similarly to Drift, the idea hit head-on – bam! – like a ship at ramming speed and pretty soon I had my ensemble cast of characters profiled and clearly pictured in my head like a Usual Suspects line-up. That was years ago – 2004, maybe – and the series has evolved from then, but it was the incredible reception the sample chapters got on authonomy that eventually prompted me to publish it independently.
What other books have you written?
In terms of published works, I’ve written other Doctor Who books – a Russian literature-inspired novel, Emotional Chemistry, plus a novella, Shell Shock – and three novelizations for the BBC’s Merlin series.
And a number of other licensed fiction books for kids, albeit under pseudonyms, to which I occasionally own up. They’re okay in their way, I did a professional job on them but they’re developed by committee and I wrote them to pay the rent and that is so far removed from why I write. There are way better works sitting on my hard drive waiting to find a home.
Do you have ideas for works in other genres? Do you think you'll write in those genres?
As much as I love sci-fi, I always wanted a varied writing career – different genres, different media. I’ve written audio dramas for Doctor Who, so that answers the latter to some extent. Still need to write a screenplay at some point, I suppose. As to genres, I’ve always had my fingers in other pies – what can I say, I like pies. I’ve completed a number of other manuscripts, including some that had samples uploaded on authonomy – Kip Doodle was a kids’ fantasy adventure book, my second hit on authonomy. There was Tortenschloss, another fantasy, more in the sword and sorcery vein. And more recently a little something with vampires, but – hand on heart – with a generous splash of originality, a vital ingredient for me if I’m ever going to write anything. Ultimately, what I’d really like to be known for are different series in different genres for different age groups.
What are you working on at the moment?
For the next couple of months I’m juggling two projects – the main one is the first book in a YA) sci-fi series (non-comedy) which had to be put on hold last year. It’s about halfway finished, but the characters and their universe have been neglected for too long. At the same time I’m writing a little each day on Evil 3, just because the ideas are there and wanting out, so I kind of feel the need to keep up the momentum on that.
Aside from writing, what do you do with your day?
It’s true, you can’t write all the time. Well, you can, but the likelihood of churning out drivel increases exponentially I find. So I have to take breathers. Often my breaks end up being writing-related – plotting and scheming and so on. Even if it’s sitting and relaxing and dreaming a little. But I do quite a bit of that on my walks into my favourite café, where I do a lot of my writing. Which is why if you ever see me in the street and get the impression I’m in my own little world, I probably am. Outside of that, I love to read and play music nice and loud, or I might put on a movie and there are a number of TV shows I follow. Also, I am a glutton for certain video games. As a friend of mine put it recently, as a break from work it’s like reversing the polarity. The good ones are inevitably more immersive than a movie and to be honest it’s an industry that seems to be embracing originality and creativity more than the world of books right now. Artists, writers, developers, honestly I’m sometimes in awe of the talent at work there – never mind how much fun the games are.
Anyone familiar with your twitter stream at all knows one fact about you. What is it?
Possibly that I have a cat on my shoulder. Not all the time, you understand, but it’s surprisingly common as one or both of our cats do love to use me as a climbing platform.
Pepsi or Coke?
Coke. If you’ve ever tried to snort a line of Pepsi you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Beatles or Rolling Stones?
A tough one that, since I’m not overly smitten with either. My (older) sister used to play the Beatles a *lot* - too much – in her bedroom across the landing from mine. So much of my young teen life was spent attempting to shut them out. And the Stones, well, I like a few of their tracks but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. That said, I’d never throw them in glass houses.
A wise woman once said: Hips Don't Lie. Do you agree, or do you feel Hips Can Fib (at least on occasion)?
I absolutely agree with everything Shakira says. The unbridled honesty of that woman’s hips makes me weak at the knees. I remember one time my sister asked me a similar question and, slightly under the influence of alcohol, I quipped that her hips didn’t lie, they were just ‘perhaps a little too liberal with the truth.’ Her friends lined up to hit me for that. So all I can say for sure is that no matter how honest or duplicitous a person’s hips, my sense of humour can get me into trouble.
What do you think is the best opening line of a novel ever written?
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'
There’s a line in the first Evil book that echoes that:
'It was a monstrosity. It was perfect.'
But foolishly I didn’t put that at the beginning.
I'd like to thank Simon for taking the time to chat with me here at Fourth Person. Obscured. I'm sure the readers will be glad he did, too.