The ghost of London with Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell has had a rather diverse career. He started out writing Doctor Who novels in the early nineties, and since then he has gone on to write extensively for television, including Coronation Street, Casualty and the revived Doctor Who. He has also written several comics, including such iconic characters as Superman, Wolverine and Captain Britain. 2013 saw the publication of London Falling, the first in his ongoing Shadow Police series, centred on a police division unexpectedly thrust into the supernatural underground of the capital. The second book in the series, Severed Streets, came out last year, and Cornell was kind enough to talk with me about the series, its place in the contemporary urban fantasy scene, and the usefulness of Doctor Who fans in the Metropolitan Police.
I started by asking Cornell how he would describe the Shadow Police series to someone who had never heard of it. “The Shadow Police is a series about a group of everyday, undercover, modern London police officers, who suddenly gain the ability to see the magic and monsters of London. They feel that the only thing they can do to keep their sanity is to use real police methods against it. In book one we set all that up, and in book two they encounter what seems to be the revival of Jack the Ripper, who is only killing rich white men. It’s my critique of the Ripper legend, of Ripperology, of how what wasn’t even a blip in business as usual for Limehouse and the Docklands in general, Whitechapel particularly, became fetishised into the creation of the serial killer, while actually there were ripper-like killings before, during and after.”
I asked Cornell what first inspired him to write the series. “Way back in the day, about fifteen years ago, it was a TV pitch that I was putting together with Steven Moffat. That never got anywhere- all that remains of it is some character names and a central idea. The plots of the books are entirely new. I really like it when groups of professionals encounter the completely inexplicable, and have to rely on professional skill sets to deal with it. Urban fantasy also gives me the opportunity to write about now, about how things are right now, in terms of austerity, and the terrible conditions, politically, we’re under. All of these create metaphorical monsters, which I enjoy playing with.”
The London-centric fantasy novel has become a bit of a thing over the last few years, especially after the popularity of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, and authors like Neil Gamian and China Mieville getting in on the act. What do writers find so attractive about the capital? “London has lots of depth. London goes right down to the Boudiccan destruction layer, and beyond that. The Boudiccan destruction layer is where Boudicca leveled the city, and you can absolutely see it, as an archeological line across the strata of the rock. It not only has depth historically, It deals with space on the ground in a really interesting way. You’ve got little things tucked round corners and those invisible divisions between neighbourhoods based on class, that only the British seem to sense, as a kind of forcefield. These books are all about invisible influences, supernatural, political and financial.”
“Ben Aaronovitch is an old friend, and I realised years ago that me and him were working on basically the same sort of book at the same time. We gradually became aware of this, and I thought ‘He writes really slowly, I’ll have this out way before he does’, and he had three of them out before I had this out! So he’s sort of created this whole London urban fantasy genre. We’re in this tiny, tiny sub-Amazon section, of former Doctor Who writers, metropolitan police modern urban fantasy- there’s me and him. But there’s also loads of other writers. It’s thrilling that we’re all discovering such depths of interest in this exciting city. There’s certainly something to London, a real ghost to the place, a real sense of place to it. I think perhaps familiarity has made the British a little less excited by London than they should be. It’s an incredible city.”
A novel like this requires a lot of research, some of which requires the help of experts. “I have my intelligence officers, my police officers, and my pathologists. Certainly, my police officers have been incredibly helpful. One of them rose to the rank of Detective Chief Inspector in the Firearms Unit, having written for Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, back in the 70s. He provides me with information, but also with a writer’s eye to it. So he knows the shapes I can use. I know quite a few undercovers, whose work gets put in here, and whose names I have to keep secret. The Thanks in the back always include initials, and in some people’s case they think even initials is a bit too risky! Rather wonderfully, the Met, especially the undercover branch of it, seems to be full of Doctor Who fans, so I get a certain amount of access, which is gorgeous.”
I ask Cornell what it’s like to return to writing prose after spending such a long time working in TV and comics. “They do require different bits of your brain, moving between television, comics and prose. Prose is this immersive experience- you look at the clock and it’s nine o’clock, then you look again and it’s one P.M! You have to engage specific muscles for comics and TV, which are closer to each other than prose is. Television is about lack of resources; you can’t show the whole army, you can only show a bit of it, and you have to find reasonable ways to get around that, without underlining it. Comics is about a budget of space, having only so many words per speech balloon, only so many panels per page. Although most artists would say you really can’t show the army in comics either. They’d much prefer it if you didn’t show all ten thousand men coming over the top of the hill! [Laughs]. It’s really just making a mental adjustment. I quite often have to move between the two during the day, and I kind of always hope there’s lunch between them. It’s like one of those triathlons where you have to leap off your bicycle into the water. I always think their leg muscles must get really confused in that moment. I prefer prose. It’s just everything. It’s the whole thing. You get to be the director and the casting person and the lighting person.”
So, what’s next for Cornell? First off is a big Doctor Who comic coming out this summer, with artist Neil Edwards, whose “Capaldi is something to be seen”. On top of that, “There’s three other comics projects which are going to happen this year, I’ve got my collected short stories coming out this summer, which I’m very proud of, that’s a bit of a lifetime ambition, and the new novel. The third one in the Shadow Police series should be out in December. The first draft’s in, so unless things go horribly wrong, it’ll be out before Christmas.”
The sheer range of his upcoming projects demonstrates just how hardworking and versatile a writer Paul Cornell is, and after a nearly thirty-year career he is showing no signs of slowing down. The thing that attracts people about Cornell’s writing is his persistent sense of humanity; his characters always feel rounded and alive, even when they happen to be paranormal police officers or time lords from outer space. This humanity was what first helped Cornell break out as a big name, and it looks likely to sustain his work for a good while yet.


Photo courtesy of Sam Eades.