STARBURST interrupted writer UNA MCCORMACK’s maternity leave to ask her about BLAKE’S 7, DOCTOR WHO, STAR TREK and becoming a best-selling author.
STARBURST: Una, thanks for taking the time to talk to us and we hope you are enjoying parenthood.
Una McCormack: My pleasure! Yes, I’m enjoying parenthood a great deal. Verity is a very happy and curious little girl, and we’re having a lot of fun together.
If we could start with the story An Eye for Murder, part of the July Big Finish Doctor Who collection Breaking Bubbles and other stories, could you explain how you came to write this and what influenced you in the choice of setting (apart from having been to Cambridge)?
An Eye for Murder riffs on the Dorothy L Sayers novel Gaudy Night, which is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery set in an Oxford women’s college (see how cleverly I’ve disguised my play’s sources!). I thought that setting a Doctor Who story in a women’s college would be interesting as not only it would let me write predominantly female characters, but it would also let me have some fun pushing the Doctor’s nose out of joint (particularly this Doctor). Everyone is more interested in Peri (even if they’ve mistaken her for someone else), and they aren’t impressed that he’s a doctor, because they’re all doctors too. Fortunately, this suited the general theme of the anthology, different perceptions or perspectives. I pushed my story a little later into the 1930s than the Sayers novel. I wanted the outbreak of war to be another shift in perspective in the story – the stakes suddenly become much higher. The midway point of the story is Chamberlain’s famous radio broadcast in which he announces that Britain is at war with Germany. The story has a real shift in tone after that. I’m delighted with how that came out – it was exactly as I wanted it. I’m really proud to be part of the Breaking Bubbles collection; I think it’s a particularly strong set of stories.
Would it be fair to say that academia is an important strand in your life? Apart from writing and parenting, you are also a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin and studied at Reading and Surrey as well as your undergrad degree at Cambridge. How have all these institutes influenced you?
I was eighteen years old when I went to Cambridge, and I’d come from a comprehensive school in the north-west of England, so it was hard not to be extremely romantic about the place. It was a great experience for me – I was bookish and interested in the work, and so I spent three happy years sitting in libraries, or talking earnestly to very clever people. But, in fact, that’s what I’ve done for most of my life ever since! Particularly online! I’d say that online fandom was probably a bigger influence on me than the places where I studied for my higher degrees. To be honest, I wasn’t a particularly good academic in my chosen field (sociology) – I’d become much more interested in writing by that time. My current setting has allowed me to have an academic career in a field that suits me much better – and allows me ample scope to do administration, which I actually quite like.
You lecture in creative writing; how do your students react to your own writing success? Are they your biggest critics or your biggest fans? How much has what you teach been influenced by experience?
My students are incredibly enthusiastic about the whole thing, even the ones who wouldn’t touch a science fiction novel with a bargepole. I’ve no idea if they read my stuff and I don’t expect them to, but it’s nice to have them cheering me on! I try to teach writing as both a practical as well as a creative activity, so I do bang on a lot about clean presentation, weeding out spelling errors, etc. These are things that make a manuscript or a submission stand out, but they’re also to do with pride in your own work. Above all, I try to remember that it’s meant to be playful, and it’s meant to be fun.
Apart from An Eye for Murder, you wrote the story Good Night, Sweet Ladies in the excellent The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, released by Big Finish in June. This story revealed some of Bernice’s back-story and contained many poignant scenes. Can you tell us how you approached this one?
James Goss was the genius here. (As an aside, I think James is a hugely talented writer, and he should be incredibly rich and famous. I hope he remembers me when he is.) Anyway, James got in touch and said would I like to write a story that felt like Dante’s Inferno. That’s the kind of challenge I like being set, so I went for it. At the heart, this was a story about bereavement – the loss of a parent at an early age and how that can cloud and disfigure one’s life. Benny didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to her mother – so the story is about giving her that chance… in a way. I was blown away by the performances. They’re just incredible. John Finnemore was incredible as Day; an ordinary man who’s completely out of his depth. And the final scene between Benny and her mum was all I could have hoped for.
You don’t only write for Doctor Who-related ranges, but also the Blake’s 7 range of audios that Big Finish release [the story Risk Management in Liberator Chronicles Volume 5) – can you tell us if you’re going to be writing any more Blake’s 7 and also how you found writing for the reduced cast versus a full cast release?
Yes, there’s another Blake’s 7 from Big Finish on its way: The Ministry of Peace. The format is very interesting, and took some getting used to: I worried about the piece feeling too static, but here you can trust the actors and the sound designers. I would of course love to do a full cast play. I’d particularly like to do one of the Blake’s 7 novels – I’m a novelist much more than a dramatist – although those slots are few and far between.
Your most successful work (at least in terms of sales) is the Star Trek bestseller The Crimson Shadow, which broke into the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year and prompted the local press to produce the headline ‘Enterprising Cambridge lecturer Una McCormack rockets onto New York Times bestseller list’. Ignoring the reference to rocket and admiring the use of enterprising, how do you feel about the publicity and the success of your novel? Does this inevitably mean you will be turning more attention to Star Trek and less on British Sci-fi series?
I kind of loved that headline! I have no shame. I was absolutely thrilled about the success of the novel – as my editor, Margaret Clark, said: “NYT bestseller status is like an Oscar – they can’t take that away from you.” What’s best about it is the thought that the book is getting read. As for the publicity – I’m a huge show-off and I loved it. I’d certainly do more Star Trek or Doctor Who if they came my way! I really would like to write a non-franchise novel. That would be a big creative risk for me and I get nervous just thinking about it.
Are there any other science fiction franchises (or other) that you’d still like to write for? Can we expect a Babylon 5 or Red Dwarf story at any point?
I wish – don’t we all – that I’d had the chance to write something for Firefly. I don’t watch as much as television as I used to, and I’m falling behind on things like Orphan Black, so it’s difficult for me to pick something current. I’d be more than happy to do some more Doctor Who!
In a previous interview, you mentioned that for fun you use Twitter and like reading. Now you have a child how much time do you have left for either?
I’m surprised at how much time I’ve found to read and do Twitter! Verity takes a lovely long morning nap, so I’ve been using that time to relax and read. Maternity leave can be quite isolating, so Twitter and a smartphone are a great way of keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances during the day.
And out of everything you’ve read this year, what is the one book that you’d recommend others to read?
Only one?! First of all, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So Great Ones) Saved My Life which I devoured in a couple of sittings. And secondly, Villette, by Charlotte Brontë, which is so extraordinary that I can hardly put it into words.
And finally, what TV show will you get Verity to watch first out of Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and Star Trek?
Verity saw the McGann webisode on the maternity ward and then was home in time for the anniversary episode! We’ve watched quite a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation together while I’ve been on maternity leave, and she seems to find Picard and Data particularly fascinating. I’ll save Blake’s 7 for when she’s a little older, I think!
UNA MCCORMACK’s books are available through all the usual outlets.
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