“Questions and Answers” – with George Mann

Hello readers and welcome back to another installment of “Questions & Answers” here at Raging Biblioholism.  I have the immense pleasure of welcoming to our show today an author who has become, over the last few years, a personal favorite – for both his joyously inventive writing and for the characters he’s created in his alternate version of our world.  George Mann is the author of the Newbury & Hobbes series (reviews of all installments can be found in our archives) as well as the Ghost novels and several other standalones, including a new Sherlock Holmes story to be published next month and a novel of the Eleventh Doctor’s off-screen adventures.

Any proper nerds in the audience should, even just by that short statement, be excited – but if you’re unfamiliar, George’s work takes us to an alternate version of our world: Queen Victoria is kept alive through means of a strange and terrible contraption, zeppelins fill the skies, and the end of World War I leads to a cold war… between the US and the UK.  It’s like our world but adjacent, not unlike what Fringe did a few years back on TV.  His most fantastic creations, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes (along with their friends and allies), have provided hours of enjoyment of the sort that’s hard to find in our more cynically modern age.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. George Mann to our stage.

(Applause.)

DB: It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here, George.

GM: Thanks so much.

DB: Let’s start at what is, for me, the beginning: Newbury and Hobbes.  Can you tell us about where they came from, imaginatively?

GM: They’d been around for some time in my head before I ever actually sat down to write The Affinity Bridge. I’d originally envisioned a series of short stories, rather than novels. The names of the characters came first, although I always knew they’d be exploring strange and supernatural mysteries in the Victorian era.
I suppose in some ways they’re products of an upbringing reading Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds, or watching Doctor Who and The Avengers, as well as Hammer horror, Quatermass, that sort of thing. Essentially, the world of N&H includes little bits of everything I love, and provides me with a format that’s flexible enough to allow me to write everything from crime and mystery stories, to ghost stories, to pulpy adventure tales.

DB: You certainly do pull from so many sources and they all blend together quite well – even within the stories, in a sort of ongoing world-building way.  It’s actually one of my favorite things about your work, the way you pepper these Easter eggs for your other stories (and other people’s stories at that) – what prompted you to create this unified-world in your works?

GM: I’m not sure where it started, really. I think it’s just an impulse I can’t resist. It adds texture to the alternate history that I’m building, and rewards the constant reader, who sees these little links between characters and stories. I think narratives come out of it, too filling in some of the gaps – why are America and The British Empire at odds in the 1920s, for example? What happened between Newbury and Veronica’s era and the time of the Ghost for that to come about? There are stories to be told in that.
It’s also something I love as a reader, too, when I happen across this sort of thing in the work of other writers.

DB: Speaking of the alternate history, I have to drop in a quick Ghost question.  Will you ever go into the background of why the US and Britain are at odds?  Or, to flip it in a Newbury direction: will we get to see Newbury and co. during the war?  This also, I guess, counts as two questions…

GM: And yes to both questions! In an upcoming Holmes novel, The Spirit Box, we see Holmes, Watson, Newbury and Angelchrist in the early days of the war, joining forces to foil a plot to destabilise the British government.
The cold war between Britain and America exists because of the Behemoth tank that the British built to win the war. It was a game changer, a true expression of British power and invention, and although we were fighting on the same side, it kicked off an arms race and a great deal of nervousness on both sides. That’ll all be explored in a bit more detail in the fourth Ghost novel, Spirit of Empire.

DB: What is it like, writing such established and classic characters as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who?  I mean, I’m terribly envious – it’s such an incredible thing to’ve done!

GM: Both of those characters have been a part of my psyche since childhood, and it was something of a dream come true to be able to write for them both. They’re such iconic staples, part of the fictional landscape of Britain, and at times it was quite daunting. I’d occasionally find myself stopping and thinking ‘I’m writing about the inside of the TARDIS!’. I really felt I had to do them justice, and to capture their voices accurately on the page. Particularly with Doctor Who where it was important to get the performance of the actors right too. They needed to be recognisable to anyone watching the TV show.

DB: Can I ask?  Favorite Holmes?  Favorite Doctor?

GM:  Favourite Doctor: Jon Pertwee. Favourite Holmes: Jeremy Brett, although Peter Cushing comes a close second.

DB: How about in your own writing – do you have a favorite of your own characters?  Or at least, who has been the most fun to write so far?

GM: Oh, I don’t know. It changes depending on which book or story I’m working on. I think the most fun I’ve had recently was finally introducing Templeton Black for the first time in ‘The Dark Path’. He’s a bit of a cad, and I really enjoyed his interactions with Newbury and the way it altered Newbury’s role in the story. I’m intending to do more with those two in the future. Definitely some more short stories, maybe a novel one day, too.

DB: Speaking of Newbury and his relationships, you deal rather deftly with romantic inclinations throughout the books and I, for one, appreciate that.  It seemed all too obvious and easy for Newbury & Veronica to get together – but you made it happen in a way that still felt organic.  And yet, there are still some questions that remain.  The Casebook references Newbury trying to take Clarissa to dinner – and Veronica and the Albino have a bit of a similar ‘history’.  But Veronica speaks so intimately of Newbury when talking to Rutherford that a reader can maybe assume…
Basically, I just want to know what I think we all want to know – will those crazy kids ever get together?  Or is it just a case of it never being the right moment?

NH: I think, as a writer, I have to be really careful with this. It’s too easy to blow the impetus of the series by dispelling the romantic tension between the two main characters. Think about your favourite TV series – it’s rare that things work out when the two characters you want to get together actually do.
That said, I think it’s clear from the way Veronica talks about Newbury in ‘The Albino’s Shadow’ that they end up together. Whether we see that happen on the page…well, you’ll just have to wait and see! Lady Arkwell is certainly a complication, and Newbury’s pretty enamoured with her, too!

DB: I’m so excited to see more from her – she’s quite a wrinkle and I love it.
So, politically, there’s a lot going on in these books. I’m fascinated by the ramifications of an extended Victorian age – and also how it echoes forward to some of the issues of the present.  I don’t necessarily want to ask about your politics but rather if you’re intending to comment – or inspire consideration – of modern political issues like income inequality, paranoia, despotism, the pros and cons of religion?  You’ve made me think about all of these things when I didn’t expect to, something I really appreciate in a writer.

GM: I think you’re spot on, here. That’s definitely a thread I’m pulling. I try not to be too heavy handed – after all, these are meant to be fun adventure stories – but I’m certainly interested in exploring the parallels between the Victorian era and the modern social landscape. That’s part of the reason why Veronica is how she is, a modern woman transplanted into a different era. That allows me to highlight some of the social inequalities that may, on the surface, seem outlandish to us now, but in fact are still fairly prevalent in the present day. You’re right to mention religion too – it’s something I’m using my characters to explore – how it can both help and hinder people when they face adversity.
One of the other constant themes in my work is the search for identity. I’m fascinated to examine what it is that makes us who we are, how we define ourselves, where the edges are. Where do we stop and others begin? Playing around with some of the fantastical technology in the books allows me to blur some of those boundaries, and yes, I suppose in some ways I’m also looking at how modern technology influences our lives and behaviours. I’m currently writing this on an iPad while crossing the Atlantic on an aeroplane. I have a mobile phone in my pocket that connects me to vast virtual networks of people. Does that change me? Does that alter my behaviour? I think it probably does. Social norms are changing. What N&H allows me to do is explore some of that in a fictional context.

DB: Speaking of – the technology of these books is so marvelously different and yet wonderfully similar to our own.  It’s one of the first times “steampunk” has really seemed like a viable alternate universe – but technology is just as much of a curse for the N&H universe as it is for ours.  Do you think we should embrace or fear technological advancement?

GM: Ha! I’m a complete Apple geek, so you’re probably asking the wrong person. I love my gadgets. But at the same time I recognise that they’ve cast something of a glamour over me. I do think we need to be, if not wary, at least cognisant of the impact these things are having on our lives. I was sitting in a bar last night with two friends, and at one point we realised all three of us were fiddling on our iPhones and ignoring each other. So while I absolutely think we should embrace new technologies, I also think we need to consider the impact they have on our lives, and make sure they don’t just become a replacement for some of the essential things in life – like actually talking to one another.

DB: Amen to that – and I say that as a gadget-lover too.  But there’s a darkness that can creep in when you think about it… and there’s a general darkness that has crept into your novel so far, both in terms of ‘horror’ and of the ‘storm clouds brewing’ kind.  Is that intentional or is their world just getting darker?

GM: I think that’s always been there, bubbling away in the background, and the darkness coming to the fore reflects and resonates with the journey of the characters through the series. Things are getting pretty bleak for them, and so everything seems worse. I also think its about me kicking back a bit as a writer and trusting my instincts a little more. I’m learning to embrace the weird, to allow it to creep a little more out of my head and onto the page. There’s some strange stuff going on in The Revenant Express, but it all seems to fit with where the series is naturally going.

DB: Do you believe, yourself, in the occult / supernatural?

GM: Not really, no. I guess I’m probably closest to an atheist than anything else, although I’m happy to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers, and likely never will. There’s room in the universe for lots of things I’ll never understand, and who am I to say that some of those things might not be analogous with the supernatural. I’m very much of the school of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’. Show me the empirical evidence and I’ll make up my own mind.

DB: Alright I have about a thousand more questions but I’m getting the warning from my producer, so let me ask you a few final ‘future’ type questions.  Aside from The Revenant Express (which even just from the vaguest plot summaries that I’ve heard / the end of Executioner, I couldn’t be more excited for – adventure on a train! cultists!) and the 6th book, what’s next for the world of Newbury, Hobbes, Gabriel Cross, Peter Rutherford, and the rest?  Do you have a big picture idea or does it somewhat depend on what publishers and the like will allow?  Will this series ever come into the present day?

GM: There’s lots planned. As you mention, for N&H we have The Revenant Express and The Albion Initiative to come, as well as a comic mini series and further short stories. There’s also two Sherlock Holmes novels set in the N&H universe, The Will of the Dead, out next month, and The Spirit Box, which is due some time next year. Further out, I’m planning two new Ghost novels, and beyond that, who knows! I’ve certainly got plans for a character in the 1970s, a new breed of Secret Service spy who picks up the mantel after Rutherford. After that, I’m not sure. Anything is possible!  I don’t imagine there’ll come a time when I’m not writing stories set in this fictional continuum, but I’m also planning something new, too, although it’s too early to talk about that yet.

DB: Alright, final question: the Casebook is such a throwback – as is the 2013 Annual (which I didn’t know about until I read the Casebook and did some research) to classic styles of storytelling.  Not to mention your love of a good Christmas tale.  Would you ever consider going even further into the “classical” story-forms – releasing a serial?  Doing a radio play?

GM: Absolutely, yes! I’ve actually already written an original N&H radio serial, which I’m hoping will be out some time next year, and I’m keen to do another annual, too. I’ve already mentioned the comic mini-series, and I’d love for that to prove popular and continue beyond the initial four issues. As far as serials go, I think there’s definitely something in the idea of releasing installments of an ongoing story via ebook, although in many ways the Lady Arkwell stories are already starting to build into a loose sequence.
The key thing is finding the time to write it all!

DB: I don’t doubt it – I didn’t think I could be more excited but now, having heard about all the things that are on the horizon… well, we’ll let you get back to the writing in the hopes that the proverbial Christmas comes soon!
George Mann is the author of the Newbury & Hobbes and Ghost series as well as of two new Sherlock Holmes novels, a Doctor Who novel, the editor of several collections, and I’m probably even missing some things.  His next-to-be-released project, a Sherlock Holmes novel entitled The Will of the Dead, will be reviewed on this blog next month in time for its release.
A big thanks to Tom Green at Titan Books and to Mr. George Mann himself for joining us.  This has been “Questions & Answers” at Raging Biblioholism – read well and we’ll see you again soon.

(Applause.  Lights fade.)

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