Friday, July 23, 2010

Exclusive Interview: Mark Morris

Article author: Alwyn Ash

"Those first four years when I was writing story after story and sending them out, and getting back rejection letter after rejection letter, seemed like an eternity..."

Alwyn Ash: Hi Mark, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Mark Morris: Hi. I'm married with two teenage kids, and have been a professional writer since 1988. I have seventeen novels to my name, mostly in the horror/thriller genres, and numerous short stories, articles and reviews, which have appeared in a huge variety of anthologies and magazines over the years.

What was your first published work, and how did you become interested in writing as a profession?

I've always written stories for fun (by the time I was 12 I had completed three full-length 'Doctor Who' novels, 'The Lizards', 'The Slime of Death' and 'Return of the Cybermen', which I still have to this day), so I didn't *become* interested in writing, it was just something that I always did naturally, like breathing. However, it wasn't until after I graduated in 1984 that I decided to make a go of it as a profession. I was then on the dole for four years before I eventually sold my first novel, 'Toady', the paperback of which hit the bestseller lists at number 7 on its first week of release. So I was off and running pretty quickly - not that there haven't subsequently been plenty of ups and downs along the way.

It's certainly not easy for some people, in the beginning, to get published. Did you encounter any knock backs or times when you just felt like giving up?

Oh yeah, those first four years when I was writing story after story and sending them out, and getting back rejection letter after rejection letter, seemed like an eternity. I'm quite stubborn, even pig-headed, though, added to which I had no idea what else I wanted to do, so I never seriously thought about giving up. There are times when I've been very down - when money's been tight, when publishers have decided not to renew my contract, when no one has seemed interested in my work - but nearly all writers go through that at various stages in their career, and if they've got anything about them, if they've got determination and faith in their ability and the wherewithall to just keep ploughing on, then they'll get through it eventually. Something always crops up.

Who were, and are, your inspirations?

There are lots of other writers whose work has thrilled and inspired me over the years - Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, John Wyndham, Dennis Etchison, Peter Straub, James Lee Burke, Jonathan Coe and... oh, many, many more. Plus I've been hugely inspired by TV shows, particularly those that I grew up with - 'Doctor Who', of course, and 'Sapphire and Steel', and Terry Nation's 'Survivors', and Brian Clemens' 'Thriller', and a huge amount of Nigel Kneale's output: 'Beasts' and the 'Quatermass' serials and 'The Woman in Black' and 'The Stone Tape'. I also love the cop and spy shows from the 60s and 70s, both the hard-hitting stuff like 'The Sweeney' and 'The Professionals', and the more fantasy-oriented stuff like 'The Avengers' and 'The Man From Uncle'. Even kids' TV back in the 70s was odd and challenging and disturbing. You'd get fantastic, eerie serials such as 'Ace of Wands' and 'The Changes' and 'Raven' and 'Children of the Stones'. What else? Oh, the Pan/Fontana/Armada ghost and horror story anthologies, which I devoured as a teenager, and lots of (mainly British) horror movies from the 60s and 70s, from the likes of Hammer and Amicus and Tigon, which from the age of about 12 I'd watch on Friday nights at 10:30pm on the 'Appointment With Fear' slot.

You've written for Torchwood and Doctor Who, and are known for your horror. I suppose the three are quite connected...

Well, *I* think so. As a kid, I remember being absolutely terrified by 'Doctor Who' - particularly the Yeti ambling down the mountainside in 'The Abominable Snowmen,' the Cybermen in the sewers in 'The Invasion' and the Autons coming to life in 'Spearhead From Space'. It was the remorselessness and the expressionlessness of these particular monsters that scared me, that 'dead men walking' kind of vibe, which for years afterwards meant that I was almost pathologically terrified of watching anything involving zombies (a fear which, I'm glad to say, I have now conquered, as there are so many great zombie movies out there I might have otherwise missed). But yes, 'Doctor Who', 'Torchwood' and horror movies are linked by many things - fear, tension, monsters, the constant threat of pain and death. It seemed to me a natural progression, therefore, when I was younger to move from watching 'Doctor Who' to watching Hammer movies, which offered the same kinds of visceral and cerebral thrills, but obviously with a more overtly 'adult' content - ie sex and gore.

What frightened you as a child?

Well, aside from the books I was reading and the TV shows and movies I was watching, as detailed above, I suppose my over-riding fear was the fear of violence, of being beaten up by bigger, rougher kids. There were a lot of tough, mean kids who lived nearby, and me and my mates would have run-ins with them now and again. In my late teens I was a punk, which meant that I wore a leather jacket and Doc Marten boots. However, although I might have looked tough, I wasn't really. I was into punk because of the music and the excitement and the camaraderie. I hated violence, and still do. It's vicious and ugly and depressing and frightening, and when you're on the receiving end of it, it bloody *hurts*.

I remember reading The Bodysnatchers. Doctor Who had been off our screens for what seemed like a lifetime and the only indulgence for us fans were the new BBC books featuring the Eighth Doctor and Sam. What was the inspiration for that novel?

I think the twin inspirations for that novel are very self-evident. The early Tom Baker years - which coincided with when I discovered Target novelisations at the age of 11 - are, for me and many others, 'Doctor Who's Golden Age. I therefore wanted to try to re-create that sense of Hammeresque excitement, and so decided to write a single sequel to two of my favourite stories from that era - 'Terror of the Zygons' and 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang'.

What is it about the Zygons that you think is so appealing?

They just *look* so brilliant! They and their technology are so fantastically conceived and executed, to the extent that they wouldn't look even remotely out of place in the shiny modern 'Who' of today. Also, 'Terror of the Zygons' is a brilliantly directed story, which enhances the creepiness of the Zygons themselves. All those shots of remote, windswept moors and cold, bleak shorelines are very (M.R.) Jamesian, and the incidental music is wonderfully sinister and doom-laden. Plus the actors who play the Zygons in their human forms are incredibly creepy. Lillias Walker is terrifying as Sister Lamont, and Ian Marter is great as evil Harry in the tense barn/pitchfork scene - a scene, incidentally, which wouldn't have looked out of place in any number of 'Beast in the Cellar/The Shuttered Room' type horror movies of the period.

Can you tell us about Cinema Macabre?

Cinema Macabre is a book of fifty horror movie essays by luminaries of the genre, which I edited back in 2006. The idea was for each contributor to choose their favourite (or *a* favourite) horror movie, and then write 1000 words saying why they liked the movie so much. The only rule was that everyone had to choose a different movie, so if you wanted to do, say, 'The Bride of Frankenstein', but someone else had already baggsied it, you had to do something else. Despite the fact that I could offer next to nothing in financial renumeration, the response to the project was overwhelming, and as such the list of contributors is incredibly impressive, boasting as it does the likes of Neil Gaiman, Simon Pegg, China Mieville, Mark Gatiss, and Jonathan Ross, who wrote the introduction. Incidentally, I'm now editing a science-fiction follow-up to 'Cinema Macabre', entitled 'Cinema Futura', which will be out from PS Publishing in September. Again, the (all-new) line-up, of sixty contributors this time, is extremely impressive. It includes people like Christopher Priest, author of 'The Prestige', Stephen 'Ghostwatch' Volk, and Rob Shearman, who, as 'Doctor Who' fans will know, wrote the episode 'Dalek', which re-introduced the metal meanies to a whole new generation of children.

So many people are asked who their favourite Doctor is - and I suppose this interview shouldn't disappoint. But instead, would you mind telling us, as short as you like, what you consider the strengths to be for each Doctor?

Oh, blimey. I'm not sure how to answer this question without resorting to cliche, and trotting out over-used words and phrases like 'mercurial' and 'bohemian' and 'cosmic hobo'. Instead, as a compromise, I'll list my favourite five Doctors. They are: 1) Tom Baker, 2) David Tennant, 3) Patrick Troughton, 4) Matt Smith, 5) Jon Pertwee. I feel I ought to qualify this by saying that I thought Matt was absolutely brilliant in his first season, and that he has the definite potential to climb higher, depending on what he does in the future. I would also like to make it clear that I love *all* the Doctors, even the ones that I like the least - not that I'm naming *them*, of course.

So who IS your favourite Doctor?

Weren't you listening? It's Tom Baker ;-)

[Haha, OK, swiftly moving on...]

You have also worked with Big Finish. Can you tell us a little about that?

I love Big Finish! Most of my dealings have been with Nick Briggs, Alan Barnes and David Richardson, all of whom are great blokes, and lovely to work with. They're all generous, patient and accommodating people, and they have done - and continue to do - astonishing things for such a small company. As 'Doctor Who' fans, we're incredibly lucky to have them, and I personally count myself extremely fortunate to be part of the BF 'team'. Alan and Nick showed great faith in my ability by commissioning me to write a script (the one-part McCoy story 'False Gods' on the four-story release, 'Forty Five'), even though I had never done any script work before. That first script was a baptism of fire (I was writing for experienced actors like Sylvester McCoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, for God's sake!), but Alan eased me through the process, smoothing over my gaffes and helping to mould my rough and ready efforts into a proper recordable piece of work. I have now just completed the first draft of my fifth BF script - and second four-parter - and genuinely do feel as though I'm getting better and better each time. This latest script is easily the best, and most ambitious, one I've done. That's not to say that Alan Barnes's input isn't still always invaluable. He's a superb script editor and frequently comes up with inspired suggestions to improve the work. We had an extremely productive ninety-minute chat about my latest script this morning, in fact, from which I came away buzzing with new approaches and ideas.

What projects do you have planned for the future that you can tell us about?

Apart from 'Cinema Futura' and the two forthcoming BF audios, which I can't go into details about as they haven't officially been announced yet, I've just completed a new novel called 'The Black', and am currently co-writing a YA horror novel with another writer friend of mine, Tim Lebbon. I have a new short story collection, 'Long Shadows, Nightmare Light', forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2011, and have three new short stories coming out in various anthologies over the next year or so. I also have plans to write a dark fantasy trilogy, and will hopefully be doing some more 'Doctor Who' work in the not too distant future.

Thanks to Mark - Twitter
Mark Morris interview copyright © Alwyn Ash 2010