Justin Richards is an important cog in the Doctor Who merchandise machine. Yes he’s the Creative Consultant for the BBC Books range, but more importantly he’s written some of the best Doctor Who fiction over the last few years.
You’ve been associated with Doctor Who in print for quite sometime now, how did you first get involved?
Depends on what you mean by ‘involved’ I guess. I was an avid viewer that became a fan – or maybe, actually, I was always a fan! My first professional involvement was writing some short pieces for Doctor Who Monthly, as it then was. Some character studies of villains, I think was my first stuff – which followed on from some fanzine work doing similar stuff. Then, a few years later, I got involved in the Virgin New Adventures novel series.
I was at University with Andy Lane, and he and Jim Mortimore wrote the brilliant Lucifer Rising which gave me the kick I needed to think maybe I could do one. I was a professional author at the time, writing user guides and help text and online tutorials for IBM. So I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of producing a lot of good quality text to a deadline. I wrote a proposal and some sample chapters and Peter Darvill-Evans at Virgin liked what I’d done and commissioned Theatre of War.
You’re Creative Consultant for the BBC Books range, what does that job entail?
Basically it means that I help the Editorial Director at BBC Books by giving him Doctor Who advice and doing the hands-on editing. So I work with Our Friends in Cardiff to decide what authors we want to approach and what sort of brief to give each of them. Then I do the standard editor’s job on each book, but with the added responsibility for making sure they conform to the various BBC guidelines and fit in with what the Doctor Who plans are for TV.
So, glorified editor really, but with the advantage that because I’ve been there for a while everybody assumes I must know what’s going on.
I guess you get quite a few writers pitching to you each week?
Yes. And because of the way the commissioning and approvals process has to work, we never – well, almost never – follow up on an unsolicited novel proposal. There’s always going to be some reason why it clashes or won’t fit or has the wrong tone for what we need in 12 months time or whenever. That said, I’m sure there must be an exception – where we have gone with a reworked version of something that arrived from an established author on spec, as it were. But I can’t think of it right now! It’s a good but frustrating position to be in. Good because there’s so many interested and talented writers to pick from, and frustrating because there are so many more than we can give work.
As much as anything, my job is to ensure there’s a balance between the books in any set of three – in terms of narrative style, content, plot, setting, and getting authors who complement each other. So the most frustrating thing is that there are half a dozen brilliant and enthusiastic writers I want to work with that I’ve not yet found a good ‘slot’ for. Bringing them in for a project that they’re not absolutely suited to wouldn’t be fair, so we have a few – equally frustrated! – authors waiting impatiently in the wings…
How do you deal with unsolicited manuscripts?
Politely. To be honest, as I said just now, an unsolicited proposal isn’t going to be suitable for all sorts of reasons. The best the author can hope for is that their proposal bumps them up our list of possible writers and makes us aware of just how good they are!
What makes the perfect Doctor Who novel?
I think much of the appeal of Doctor Who in general is that there’s no single answer to that! Every Who novel – or TV script, or audio, or comic strip – is different and unique. You have to ‘get’ the Doctor Who flavour into it. It has to be a Doctor Who story – not just some story that happens to have the Doctor in it. And that means he has to be instrumental to the way that story develops and concludes.
Which of your own books is your favourite and why?
Oh crikey. I get asked that on school visits a lot. Every time, in fact! And of course it’s impossible to answer – for my Doctor Who books, or my other novels. I like them all, and I know that some are better than others. But there again, some of the less perfect books could be favourites because I remember the exhilarating challenge of having to write Millennium Shock, for example, in 18 days. My standard ‘escape’ is to say that I actually have three favourite books right now. The first is the one I’ve just finished – because all the hard work is over and one with! The second is the one I’m working on at the moment, because it’s just such brilliant fun. And the third is the one I’m going to write next – because I’m looking forward to it so much and have so many ideas and it’s going to be unbelievably fantastic.
Have you ever tired of the series?
Not really. I’ve had times when I was more enthusiastic about it, but no I’ve never tired of watching, reading or writing Doctor Who in any form!
Who’s your favourite Doctor to write for?
I think they’re all favourites for different reasons. The more challenging are the Doctor’s where the actor’s physical performance is to the fore as well as the way he speaks. So the current 11th Doctor is quite tricky to get right, and so is the Second Doctor. But there’s a challenge too in – for example – getting the rhythm and flow of the 10th Doctor’s speech, or the randomness of the Fourth…
How do you approach the reference books? Surely these must take months to put together?
Each is different – and each has a tight deadline! Things like the Monster Miscellany or Companion Compendium for CBBC Books are slightly easier as the design is all done in-house, and I’m not ‘in-house’ for those. So I deliver the text – including my thoughts for how to illustrate it – and I’m done. For the BBC Books stuff like the Ultimate Monster Guide and so on, I’m also responsible for working with the designer – usually the brilliant Lee Binding – so that’s an added joy, of course, but also a lot more work!
Have you toyed with the idea of pitching a story for the TV series?
Oh all the time. But like I said about unsolicited submissions for novels, the TV people don’t want bundles of scripts that don’t fit with their direction and plans dropping through their letter boxes. They know who I am and what I can do and maybe one day they’ll come and ask. But to be honest, while I have some experience of writing for TV, it’s pretty thin. And the way you construct a narrative in prose form as a novel is very different from how you tell a story on television. Some writers can manage both – and I envy them. But the craft side of it is very different.
But hey – we can all dream!
What do you hope the new production team will bring to Doctor Who?
Sadly – or maybe fortunately – I’ve taken so long to get round to answering these questions that you all now know what they’re doing! Brilliant, isn’t it?!
Tell us about your other writing such as The Invisible Detective series.
I keep busy with so many things it’s difficult to know where to start! But just recently I’ve been doing some work with Big Finish on the Jago & Litefoot series – as a writer and also as script editor. That’s been – and continues to be – great fun, and I’ve got some other Big Finish work coming up that I think is probably super-secret for now. In prose, I have a couple of books out from Faber & Faber in a series called The School of Night, about teenage exorcists. Faber also publish my Department of Unclassified Artefacts books, which have been well received – “The Death Collector”, “The Parliament of Blood”, and “The Chamber of Shadows”. And most recently I’ve been finding out about electronic publishing. I have a novel called “The Skeleton Clock” that’s available for the Amazon Kindle and in formats for other eBook Readers from www.Smashwords.com – so get downloading!
Justin Richards, thank you very much!