Starburst: Tell us about The Executioner’s Heart.
George Mann: It’s the fourth book in my ongoing series about two Crown investigators – Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes – in an alternate version of Victorian London. This time they’re on the trail of a vicious murderess who has a habit of cracking her victim’s chests and taking their hearts as trophies. But how has this woman – known as the Executioner –survived for over a hundred years? And what has she to do with the political machinations currently underway at the Palace?
Hopefully it’s an intriguing mystery story with lots of action and adventure, including giant prehistoric birds loose in the Crystal Palace and hair-raising chases in hansom cabs.
How would you explain Newbury and Hobbes to someone who’d never heard of them before?
They’re like the Steed and Peel of the Victorian era, dashing about having adventures in a fantastical, twisted version of London. Newbury is an anthropologist and expert in the occult, and an opium eater, and is retained by the Queen, who is being kept alive beyond her natural lifespan by a primitive life-support system, to defend the Empire from supernatural or technological threats. Veronica is ostensibly his assistant, but is, in fact, also an agent of the Queen, charged with keeping a watchful eye on Newbury. There’s a very definite frisson between the two of them. They’re ably assisted by Newbury’s friend Sir Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard.
What do you make of the steampunk genre? What is it about Victoriana that appeals to you so much?
Well, first of all, I’m not convinced that what I’m writing is, in fact, steampunk. There’s a considerable amount of ‘steam’ and fantastical technology in Newbury & Hobbes, but there’s very little ‘punk’. I tend to use the furniture of steampunk as a texture, really. I adore the aesthetic, and who doesn’t love the idea of a fleet of soaring airships above London? For me, though, it’s all about the characters and the mystery, and I’m as interested in exploring the occult and fantastical elements of Newbury’s world as I am the technological.
I think, for me, the appeal of Victoriana is the opportunity it provides to create a fantasy out of the past. The Victorian era still feels close enough to be familiar, but far enough away to be utterly strange, too. I enjoy playing with that dichotomy, I suppose.
Do you consider it to be a new genre?
No. Not at all, people have been writing steampunk and Victorian fantasy for a good while. There’s certainly been a recent proliferation of material and interest, however, and I think a lot of that momentum comes from the fact the aesthetic has passed into the world of fashion. That said, I also think it’s partly to do with what I was saying a moment ago, about distance. The time seems right for exploring and deconstructing the Victorian era.
You’re currently working on Sexton Blake; what can you tell us about it?
Sexton Blake is one of the most written-about characters in the English language, with around 4000 stories, novellas and novels published between the 1890s and 1960s. He started off as a Sherlock Holmes clone, once Conan Doyle had sent Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, but soon developed a personality of his own, becoming more of an action hero as time went on. His golden age was between the 1920s and 30s, when some of the best pulp writers of their day were turning their hands to new and exciting instalments every week.
I’ve been a fan and collector of Blake stories for many years, and I’m keen to do him justice in my novella, Sexton Blake and the Vengeful Dead. It’s set in that golden age period, in the early ’30s, and features a returning villain, a dangerous cult and a guest appearance from one of my existing characters, Peter Rutherford. All very exciting.
You’ve worked in a lot of tie-in franchise stuff, what would you say was the greatest challenge amongst all those titles?
Probably writing the Doctor Who novel, Paradox Lost, simply because I’m such a fan of the show and was so anxious to get it right. I really wanted to capture the performance of Matt Smith and the rest of the cast on the page, and to make it feel authentic. With a lot of tie-in work, you’re working in someone else’s world, but with your own characters. Capturing someone’s screen performance in prose is never easy, but essential, I think, if you’re going to do a good job.
Can we expect to see any of your work in other media? Audio dramas, video game, etc?
Yes! There’s a series of full cast Newbury & Hobbes audio plays in development at the moment. I’ve written a brand new, three part adventure, and it’ll hopefully be debuting on audio sometime later this year. I’m also working on a four issue comic mini-series, again a brand new Newbury & Hobbes story. That’s due to hit shelves around this time next year, I think.
Is there a particular tie-in franchise that you haven’t been involved in yet that you’d love to work for? (And if so, what is it?)
Yes! I’d love to write a new adventure for Steed and Peel of The Avengers. That would be a dream gig. I’d also give my right arm to write for Spider-Man someday.
What is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you?
I’m allergic to coconut and I once ate a Thai Curry without realising what I was doing. The net result was a rather psychedelic episode during which I hallucinated my cat had glowing eyes and was swearing at me in a sinister voice. It lasted for four hours, and although it sounds ridiculous, it was absolutely terrifying at the time.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book for company, what would that book be?
Signs of Life by M. John Harrison. It’s a book that spoke to me in many, many ways, and I think Mike is one of the best writers I’ve ever read.
What other fictional worlds inspire you? What else inspires you (Music, TV, People)?
Music, mainly. I have an insatiable appetite for new music, and often find the work of female artists such as Kate Bush, Thea Gilmore, Tori Amos and Clare Maguire help to unlock my imagination and inspire me to write. But I’m also a huge fan of telefantasy, and anything from Doctor Who, through Jason King, to Hammer Horror have had an influence on what I do.
Tom Baker or Matt Smith?
Steven Moffat or John Nathan Turner?
Fantasy or sci-fi?
These days, fantasy. Not high fantasy, really, but stuff with fantastical elements.
Simpsons or Futurama?
Sherlock Holmes or Sexton Blake?
You can’t make me choose! I can’t conceive of a world without either.
Truth or Beauty?
THE EXECUTIONER'S HEART is out now in the UK and US. Read our review here or buy a copy below...