This interview with Paul Cornell was conducted by Kevin Mahoney in early 2000, in the wake of his novel, The Shadows of Avalon.
KM: At first glance, it seems that The Shadows of Avalon is quite closely related to Ben Aaronovitch's Battlefield. There are Arthurian elements, a missing nuclear missile, Doris (or lack of), and the Brigadier. But I'm still confused as to whether Battlefield and Shadows of Avalon happen in the same dimension. The Doctor states early on that the events don't occur in the same dimension, but then he later mentions that he's Merlin... Have the events of Battlefield come full circle?
Paul Cornell: My intention was that Avalon be totally divorced from the sideways reality that Morgaine came from. The Doctor being Merlin, of course, means nothing to Mab. He was clutching at straws. Not that my intention matters if someone else gets a good theory or story out of it.
KM: You have a reputation for putting a lot of pop culture into your novels, but I think it's the classical allusions which are more striking. Did you do Latin at school?
Paul Cornell: No, I had quite an everyday education. I just think that since Western culture's based on classicism, if you want archetypes you get classic forms as a matter of course.
KM: You've created characters called Aphasia and Cavis, which seem to be derived from Latin.
Paul Cornell: Aphasia is a clinical term referring to forgetting occasional words. I don't quite know what it has to do with her, sometimes my brain throws together things like that just to see if they mean anything. And often they don't and are left as oddities.
KM: You utilise the fact that one of the Doctor's former companions has a very Latin name... Bugger it! Are the Time Lords based on Romans, and what they stand for?
Paul Cornell: I hadn't ever thought of it. They're portrayed as a classical culture in Who almost as a matter of course, until they become Oxbridge professors. I try and deal with what the series gives me in terms of shape, but a lot of those shapes are a lot more complex than people think they are.
KM: Given the reason why the Catuvelauni are in Avalon, and that Gallifreyan guards have always looked quite Romanesque... Or, in relation to the Enemy, and the classroom debate in Human Nature, is Romana Boudicca?
Paul Cornell: Again, hadn't thought of the parallel, but she is faced with a similar problem.
KM: I'm guessing that the real reason why you set 'Shadows' in Avalon is only tangentially related to Battlefield. In Human Nature, Bernice has the choice of reading Le Morte D'Arthur or A Study in Scarlet, and she opts for Arthur. Are you a fan of Mallory?
Paul Cornell: I adore Mallory, particularly the shaggy dog story of naming the knights in the first half of The Death of Arthur. There's a man who knows his story structure, too. (She chooses Mallory because she doesn't want to think of Dr. Watson in her current situation.)
KM: In my view, Shadows of Avalon is a rich postmodernist text, into which I read a lot of subtle allusions which add to the text. You use the device of the Doris appearing from the dead and conversing with the Brigadier, and that set alarum bells off in my head, since I seem to recall you writing in SFX about another series I admire, Edge of Darkness. In that Troy Kennedy Martin series, Craven talks with his murdered daughter, Emma, it involves the nuclear issue, and includes Darius Jedburgh, one of my favourite fictional characters of all time, and a military man to boot. From reading Troy Kennedy Martin's introduction to the published scripts many years ago, I recall that Jedburgh was supposed to be some sort of mystical Templar. Does he belong to the Order of Brigida? Am I right to see Lethbridge-Stewart as a fusion of Craven and Jedburgh?
Paul Cornell: Once again, just things that must have been hanging around in my head. I stole the idea of Doris hanging around from Edge of Darkness consciously, but you're right, a lot of the Brigida/Brigadier stuff seems to have come along for the ride. I'm a big fan of Edge. I don't like taking too much of something, and what happens because of each 'ghost' is quite different.
KM: I've just moved house, and one of the few videos that were easy to grab from the boxes was that of The Armageddon Factor. I guess I put it on because it was related to what I was reading, since it also has Romana in it. But then as I sped towards episode 6, I became more aware of a huge irony in the Shadows of Avalon, due to an aspect of the plot which these two stories share. Was this deliberate?
Paul Cornell: Yet again... This one seems so huge that it couldn't be a coincidence, but it is. I write books entirely on the right side of my brain, and they tend to surprise me for years after.
KM: Prior to the publication of Shadows of Avalon, there was a huge fuss about your decision to include a black Time Lord. Now, IMO, you've dealt with this issue with a high degree of sophistication. What do you feel about it now?
Paul Cornell: I think it's obvious there are black Time Lords, because this isn't serious SF where things need reasons, it's Doctor Who. And even in serious SF, those reasons are only there to support racism, and once the radical deed is done, other, equally valid reasons come along to support the new version. All Gallifreyans, it must be noted, are British. Which is hugely less likely than some of them being black.
KM: Human Nature mentions the Bosnian conflict, and the race war in Shadows of Avalon reminds me very much of the Kosovo crisis. A lot of Doctor Who books seem political now, whether they're dealing with the arms trade or GM foods. What's your view on this? Has there always been a political element to Doctor Who?
Paul Cornell: I don't think Lawrence knows what politics is yet. Indeed, the introduction to Interference advances one of those teenage theories about how we don't really need politics that seem very attractive when you're a virgin. Kosovo was happening while I was writing the book, and seemed an apt metaphor, as well as an actual description of the events I was portraying. There's always been a political element to Doctor Who, because there is to everything. But overtly, the first instance of it is the Doctor's oddly anti-pacifist stance in The Daleks.
KM: One of the things which has made me far more enthusiastic about the current range of books is the use of first person narration. I never really cared about Fitz until I heard his voice in Frontier Worlds. Do you think the BBC books have missed Bernice's post-it notes?
Paul Cornell: I think it's vital to characterise scenes through the voice of familiar characters, the Doctor included. And I think that if more of the Doctor's POV was experienced, the books would be much more successful.
KM: As the creator of Bernice Summerfield, you're probably one of the best people to answer this question: does she have a future?
Paul Cornell: Well, you'll know the answer to this one now. Big Finish are starting a new range of Benny books, and I'm editing the initial short story collection.
KM: Travel back in time ten years - what was it like to be the first newbie fan writer published in the New Adventures? What were your hopes for the future of the range back then? Did everything pan out as you had wanted it to? How did you originally get this gig?
Paul Cornell: I just sent in a plot and a sample. I think I got in because I did huge arrogant things with the Timewyrm, and didn't try and ignore or marginalise it. The NAs went everywhere I thought they'd go and more. I think the Virgin range was vastly, incredibly successful. We redefined Who. To have all those peers to compare myself to... the best time of my life.
KM: Imagine I'm Cronin for a moment. What is it with balloons on strings? The Brigadier has a dream about one, and Aphasia carries a rather malevolent one in Human Nature. Is this a reference to 1980s pop culture, as in '99 Red Balloons', is Aphasia's balloon the bastard child of The Prisoner's Rover, or was it you who really had the dream about the balloon?
Paul Cornell: Nothing to do with Nena. Now the reference thing's been overdone, I'm trying to get away from it. That's how the ranges always work, authors reacting to each other. The balloon events, at least until the Doctor arrives, actually happened to me when I was very small. I wrote a version of them as a prelude to Goth Opera that never appeared anywhere.
KM: You now work as a columnist on SFX. How did this job come about? How does it affect the way SFX reviews your books? (They didn't seem all that chuffed with Shadows of Avalon). Are the anecdotes sent in by readers publishable?
Paul Cornell: I just started to hang about with the SFX gang, and moved down to Bath largely to be around them. Then I kept asking Dave Golder for a column, time and time again, until he gave in. It's always been an ambition of mine. I asked them to give Avalon to a complete stranger. They finally found one, after a long search, and he hated it. But it's testament to SFX's honesty. I get quite a few reader stories, and pieces of fiction, that I can't publish, but that's half the fun.
KM: In a recent column you wrote that you couldn't stand Saward Doctor Who, but I have the impression that Peter Davison's your favorite Doctor. Was Saward's writing too unsubtle in your opinion? All glitz and no substance?
Paul Cornell: Hardly any glitz, even. I just don't think the man has got the basics together. His dialogue is excruciating and artificial, his plots don't make sense, his characters change according to what scene they're in and he seems to get his first drafts televised. On top of that, he seems to actually dislike the format of Doctor Who and tries his best not to feature the Doctor too much, largely, I think, because he can only solve a plot by killing everyone, and can't let the Doctor do it. I do love Davison, in spite of everything, but I really wish Saward had never happened.
KM: I've read somewhere that Lawrence Miles has praised you for the success you helped bring to the New Adventures. Now that I've read Human Nature, I have to ask this: are the Aubertides precursors of Lawrence Miles' Mohandas the Geek in Interference?
Paul Cornell: It's possible, isn't it?
Thank you, Paul Cornell.