Philip Palmer is the author of five ‘new pulp’ science fiction novels published by Orbit books: Debatable Space, Red Claw, Version 43, Hell Ship and Artemis . He is also an experienced screenwriter and radio dramatist, and his previous work ranges from historical (The King’s Coiner) to contemporary political (Breaking Point, Blame, Red and Blue) to epic literary fantasy (his adpatation of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. For TV he’s written the single film The Many Lives of Albert Walker, as well as TV series episodes of Rebus, Heartbeat and The Bill. His movie credits include Arritmia.
Tell me one little-known fact about Philip Palmer.
London Zoo launched my career as a writer. That’s a little known fact.
It happened when I was fresh out of University trying to write the Great Welsh Novel. That got me nowhere and I was broke, so I went to the Job Centre and took the only job available, as a cleaner of lavatories at London Zoo. There were four loos in all; my beat included the Giraffes’ Toilet and the Eagles’ Toilet (named after the animals they were NEXT to.) One of my tasks was breaking up the soap into tiny chunks so the general public wouldn’t use them all up at once.
It was a dull job, long hours of sitting in my office (!) while the general public trod their dirty feet on my nice clean floor. Perfect place to write! So I wrote a comedy script called Alistair, sent it to the BBC; they offered me a job at the BBC Script Unit as a reader; and my career as a script editor/script reader and eventually television screenwriter was launched. Alistair never got made; no idea where the script is now.
I miss the Zoo…there was a snowy owl there that I was particularly fond of.
Tell me about working for the BBC.
Imagine a corridor lined with scripts.. a paper snake running out of the door, down the corridor, into the next corridor…that was the BBC Script Unit when I worked for them. They received I think 13,000 scripts a year, almost all (but crucially NOT all) of them shite.
Essentially, the job of the Script Unit was to manage the slush pile…so that every single script sent to the BBC was given a thorough reader’s report and response. A few, the specks of gold, were forwarded on to the main BBC and a few careers were launched that way. And the Script Unit’s policy was to employ unemployed but talented writers for 3 month attachments, not as cheap labour but idealistically to give new writers a grounding in the industry. Apart from Habitat and London Zoo, this was my first job after leaving University.
I thought I’d hate it. Reading other people’s scripts! What could be more awful for a self-obsessed and solipsistic writer (as we all are).
And yet, I fell in love with reading immediately. Five to eight scripts a day, on a good day. I learned about bad writing, I learned about good writing. One writer had submitted 100 scripts over 20 years and had a file larger than a George R.R. Martin novel. As a result of this job, I became a hyphenate – a writer-script editor/reader. Which is what I’ve done ever since. After leaving the BBC, I took on reading jobs at various theatres including the Hampstead and the Tricycle, and for five years or so I was a script reader for film producers, including David Puttnam.
I now work a great deal with BBC Radio, which is the last bastion of BBC-ness. Tremendous commitment and esprit de corps, and a genuine public service ethos. I was in the recording studio at Broadcasting House for 6 days last week… pure joy.
I LOVE the BBC.
Tell me about the difference between the camaraderie of BBC radio and the solitary pursuit of writing books.
There’s a wonderful line in a Stephen King novel, it must be Misery, in which a novelist explains that novelists always dedicate their books to other people in order to conceal their own appalling selfishness. Tragically true! The joy of writing a novel is that you inhabit your own universe, you populate it with people, you get lost in adventures of your own creation; the downside of it is you don’t get to go out much.
Working in drama though means being part of a team. And in radio – which is up there with theatre as one of the most collaborative of mediums – you get to experience and share the camaraderie and sheer professionalism of the people who turn pages into drama.
Radio dramas are made by a small team of studio folk who exude quiet professionalism and wry humour. I’ve made good friends with a number of studio managers over the years, and on my last production – because it was a 3 ep recording – there was virtually a relay team of studio managers coming in to perform the different roles – panel (the main studio manager), grams (sound effects) and spot (sound effects). I wasn’t so much one of the team, as the only constant factor in the team….And the director-writer relationship in radio is a special one. (Radio directors also produce their own shows, so there’s no middle man/woman to get in the way of that key creative relationship.)
I also love the company of actors. Actors are by definition ‘people persons’; with huge emotional intelligence and charm-control, and hence are good to be around. Funny, professional, usually though not always great raconteurs, and courteous in the extreme. Actors have to be skilled at getting their way without seeming to be getting their way. It’s, ‘I wonder if I might try this’. Rather than: ‘For Christ’s sake that’s a STUPID idea.’
On my last show we had Bill Paterson the great Scottish actor in a two hander with Tim Woodward, a superb English thespian, son of the wonderful Edward (‘Callan’) Woodward. Each was brilliant; but I was also awed at how each helped the other. Supporting; encouraging; bantering.
It’s part of the skill of the actor; making the other actors look good. For that reason, readthroughs are the highlights of my year. I stop being god of my own multiple universes (sad! pathetic! deranged!) and become a valued member of a team. (Actually much saner.)
TV is less fun. I did a TV show that was shot in Yorkshire and asked if I could come to the readthrough, and was greeted with a stunned silence. So I never got to go the set; I never met the actors; I just wrote the script and saw it on the telly. Which is fine, but not exactly creatively fulfilling.
My claim to fame: I once met the legendary RSC and Harry Potter actor Richard Griffiths in a strip club. Now that IS sad! But actually, it was a fake strip club in Portsmouth, in an alley rigged up to look like a Soho street; and Richard was doing a cameo in a series called Perfect Scoundrels, on which I worked. Daft, but delightful.
Voice acting for radio must require quite a different skill set to that of the film/tv actor. Are there actors who came up through radio – not comedians/personalities – and are there well-known actors (to the great unwashed) you have worked with in radio?
There is an amazing institution called the Radio Drama Rep Company – full time radio actors who live in Broadcasting House (well, not literally) and who act in any production that happens to be on in the studio that day, and even do documentary voiceovers too. Sometimes these are unknowns, sometimes they’re very well known indeed. I did one play with Carolyn Pickles, who was in the Rep at the time but had previously been DCI Reid in The Bill. The last show I did had Don Gilet – star of Eastenders and 55 Degrees North – in the Rep company, giving 2 wonderful performances as 2 totally different characters in 2 different plays.
I don’t think there are many actors who start in radio – it’s more a place where actors at every stage gravitate. The pay is modest but it’s fast and actors are treated well. Though I did once meet a scary Voiceover Person, a puny looking guy who gave the end credits voiceover in a big booming voice. And I’m pretty sure that’s all he ever did…
Simon Russell Beale is one of the greatest stage actors of our time, and he does a huge amount of radio. He was Smiley in the radio version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and he was Narrator 1/King Arthur in my adaptation of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. David Oyelowe from Spooks was in the same production, as was Holly Aird from Waking the Dead. Caroline Catz – Doc Marten star – has been in 2 of my plays. And I was thrilled to work with one of my heroes, Nicholas Farrell – remember Chariots of Fire? – in a drama about a musical prodigy in which he played the music teacher. He even sang.
The only time my daughter (now 16) has ever been impressed by anything I’ve ever done was when I was working with Don Gilet last week – she’s a big East Enders fan. Bill Paterson means nothing to her; Lucas from Eastenders, now that’s a different ball game.
I hope you’ll excuse me for concentrating on the radio/film work but it’s just so different from the experience of most of the writers I’m talking to, so next…
Tell me about your film work on Arritimia.
That was a writer for hire job. I was recommended by a film producer friend to a Japanese producer who wanted a script editor for a project set in Cuba, written by a Portuguese writer and actress, and we met in Paris to discuss how to proceed. Talk about an international project!
Rather to my surprise, the script editing job turned into a ‘script doctor’ job which meant I was expected to write actual scenes of the script, in tandem with the Portuguese writer. I did a similar job on a rather well made Greek movie a while back; I wrote at least 25% of the script but I’m only credited as ‘script editor’. Which is great; that’s the Hollywood hack approach and I was happy to be one.
Then, on Arritmia, the Portuguese director left the project and I became sole writer, eventually sharing a writing credit with the Spanish director, who was also a writer.
I loved the experience, and the producers are still great friends. And I love the whole ‘writer for hire’ thing; it’s the challenge of it, creating something good and solving story problems, without feeling too personally involved. Of course, most of all I like writing my own original projects – whether they are novels, radio dramas or movies – but it’s nice sometimes to be ‘just’ a gun for hire.
You categorise your novels as new pulp. Can you define/explain the label?
Well I love pulp, from the Golden Age. The pace, the energy, the colour, the sheer zaniness. SF pulp, detective pulp, fantasy pulp esp Robert E. Howard, it’s all v. exciting for me, and has a raw originality that can’t be beat.
What I do is pulp with Palmer….not comedic but a little bit tongue in cheek. And with ‘stock’ pulp characters who sometimes prove to have hidden depths. I have squids in space (in Hell Ship) but I know how silly I’m being and I expect the reader to enjoy that silliness; and the squid in question proves to have a very complex character and backstory. I do a version of the old ‘settling a hostile alien planet’ cliche, but I include footnotes with alien taxonomy (Red Claw). Debatable Space is an old fashioned space opera with massive space battles; but with alternating sections of a woman telling her life story. It’s the Collision of Brows – high and low – that I find very appealing.
Neo-pulp sounds pretentious; so I like to call it ‘new pulp’.
Have you any thoughts on the new John Carter film? (This question was posed before the film came out.)
I’m desperate to see it. I adore the John Carter – Burroughs doesn’t have the prose style of Robert E. Howard but his ideas are stunning, verging on magic realist. I saw the recent Traci Lords version of Princess of Mars which I enjoyed despite the bad acting. Have high hopes of this new version.
Are you a film fan in general?
Oh I love film. And my life has been transformed since I started watching movies on my big screen computer – now I can pretend to be working, while in fact I’m sneakily watching movies. I also teach screenwriting and that gives me a chance to screen favourite films to an audience of 20 somethings who’ve never seen them before. I screened The Apartment recently and the students were awestruck at the wit, the pathos, and the sheer brilliance of the writing. Body Heat too – one of my all time favourite films – was a hit.
As well as writing novels I have my own film production company with 3 projects on the slate. Like all film producers, I spend my days pushing boulders up a hill, and at times I wonder why I bother; but then I remember why. I love film! I’ve got more novels to write than a lifetime can accommodate, I’m doing a huge amount of radio drama which gives me a chance to write drama and connect with actors. But I love film and my dream is to get my own Welsh version of Body Heat (a film noir called Inferno) made one day soon. Ah well – might not happen, but no one can ever say I didn’t try!
Film is a dirty business though; it’s only the stuff that appears on screen that’s magical.
Favourite movies: The Godfather, a masterpiece of storytelling. The Leopard, an elegant saga by the greatest of film-makers, Visconti. Robocop, because it makes me laugh. Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, both written (or rather cowritten) by the most neglected great screenwriter of all time, I.A.L. Diamond. Angels with Dirty Faces, and indeed, every other film with the younger Jimmy Cagney in. More recently, Let the Right One In and A Prophet and The Secret in Their Eyes – genre films of wonderful richness. Yup, it’s a passion, along with SF; and it always amazes me I actually make a living writing science fiction AND watching movies.
If you were offered the opportunity to remake any movie of your choice – because it wasn’t as brill as it could be or because it deserves to be updated or any other reason – what would it be and why?
Saw the question from you which read, ‘if you could remake any move of your choice’ (now corrected above – Bob) and almost launched into a HUGE psychodrama. But then realised it should have been ‘movie’. Ah.
I would love to remake the Wolverine movie – and make it a story of Storm and Wolverine, in love and with the world against them. I think Halle Berry is the most woefully underused and undervalued actress around – and the mythic connection of Earth Goddess and Feral Animal is utterly cinematic. But just the two of them without those armies of superheroes cluttering the screen allows for such genuine character development. For me, most of the X Men movies look like bus queues; you just can’t have that many characters in a movie. That’s what TV series are for…and that’s why the early series of Heroes were so good.
I refused to see the latest Conan movie, after seeing the dire reviews. And though I love the Schwarzegger Barbarian version, it does look very hammy now. I’d love to make a movie about Conan and the pirate queen Belit, based on the story Queen of the Black Coast. It’s a great relationship story – and shows Conan truly in love. It should be spare, beautiful, remorseless. It doesn’t need endless violence; the landscapes and the seascapes are epic enough.
Karyn Kusama did a movie called Girlfight, which had the exact same premise as a story I was developing – ie female boxing. Her version’s pretty good, but I’d love to take my own crack at it.
I have a very bad habit of script editing movies when I watch them – if only they had moved this scene here, or added that scene here.
Great movies should not be remade, just rented; when I was working in TV on a show with East Enders star Leslie Grantham, he appeared in the West End in a stage remake of Casablanca, playing of course the Humphrey Bogart role. Dirty Den as Rick? Oh per-lease!
My subconscious – which types really badly – asks great questions by inserting caps (emphasizing a non-existent sub-text) or leaving out letters. The one you didn’t answer is a much better question. So, if you were given a life Mulligan (a golf term – something you could have a second crack at) is there one you could share? My subconscious wrote cold instead of could.
When I left University my girlfriend and I were planning to go and teach English as a second language in Greece and started making applications. Then she got a Proper Job and we decided to hold fire on the living abroad thing. I was a wastrel writer, she brought in the money that kept us afloat. It made sense.
A few years later she gave up the Proper Job and became – like me – a freelance writer and script editor, and is doing very well indeed and is in fact now my wife. So it wasn’t a case of the two of us giving up adventure to slave away at dull routine jobs – neither of us do that. We both do our dream jobs.
But the idea of living abroad – learning another language – being immersed in a whole new culture – I do wish I’d actually experienced that. I’d be the same person, but a bit Greeker, and perhaps even a bit wiser.
I sometimes wonder if I should still do that one day – maybe when my daughter is at University. Live in Florence say, learn the language properly, study the art of gesticulation, be part of a different world.
Trouble is, I love London…so maybe Italy and Greece will always be just holiday destinations for me.
Other Mulligans (a term I’d never heard before…) – I wish I’d started writing SF novels in my 20s, instead of going into drama for so many years, before becoming an SF novelist a mere 5 years ago. But if I’d done that, I’d almost certainly wish I’d written drama as a young man, instead of writing SF all my life. Grass always greener eh!
Tell me about how you got into novels from your drama background.
The UK Film Council had a competition called 24 Words or Less for high concept movie ideas. I pitched an SF story, inspired by the Faerie Queene, a Spenser poem which I’d previously adapted for radio. I didn’t win!
The idea lingered. I started making notes. The notes became sentences. The sentences grew. At some point I thought I should write this as a novel and I did, in weekends and on holidays, whilst still plying my trade as a script writer and script editor.
After I’d written fifty thousand words, I remembered that MY CHILDHOOD DREAM WAS TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS. And now, I was doing just that.
Selling it was tough because all my contacts were in the world of drama. So I googled SF agents and found John Jarrold’s name lurking on the internet. I sent it to him; he read it and took me on; and I was sitting with two pals in Patisserie Valerie in Soho plotting how to get our movie made when the phone rang and John told me he’d been offered a three book deal with Orbit.
Damn. Good moment. I was eating a coffee eclair at the time. The perfect concatenation of good things. Now, I’m still writing drama but I’m on my sixth book, and I love that I can switch between those two worlds.
How much relation to the published book did that fifty thousand words you sent John Jarrold bear?
I didn’t send to John till I’d completed the whole book…and I only got 2 or 3 notes from Orbit. A fluke! I’ve done a lot more rewriting on the other books.
How long did it take to write the first book and has that time changed on later books?
I can write a radio play in a week. A movie in 2 weeks. A novel in – hell, I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out.
I wrote Debatable Space over, I think, about 18 months. Very much part time, I remember writing whole chapters on holiday in Italy and it didn’t feel like work. I came back as white as chalk and absolutely happy.
My second novel Ketos was an epic and it’s STILL not finished. I realised it was taking too long, and Orbit kindly allowed me to switch novels. That’s how I wrote Red Claw, an oldfashioned pulp thriller with a quirky high concept, in about 8 months. Very much in my territory as a writer.
Version 43 was done on the one book in a year deal, which publishers prefer. And that’s quite achievable. It’s about 4-5 months for a first draft, 6 month revising. If I wrote novels full time I could probably halve that.
But Orbit were so excited about my next 2 ideas they commissioned both at once and put a tight deadline – 2 novels in 10 months. That was Hell Ship and Artemis. Hell Ship was a NIGHTMARE to complete in that time frame, because it’s a huge epic with multiple universes. And I did hit the deadline but spent a week afterwards catching up on sleep . And Artemis is much more in the Red Claw pulp tradition – fast moving plot with kick-ass characters, which I also wrote in 5 months. I love Artemis – it finishes stories I started in Debatable Space, and 4 of my books to date – excluding Hell Ship – offer a portrait of various facets of the future world described by Lena, in Debatable Space.
It’s part of the essence of pulp that you write them fast. But to be honest, though I’m a very fast screenwriter, there are novelists out there who are MUCH faster than me. Awesome.
I’m now writing a monster book – about monsters AND much longer than the other books – and I’m loving it. It will probably take about a year from start to finish, but if I feel I need to take 2 years to write it, damn it I will.
I’ve no idea how Peter Hamilton writes those huge (and wonderful) books of his on such a tight timeframe. Each one is as long as 3 normal books.
So, Phil, in a perfect world, would you still be multi-tasking or would you have picked one area to specialize in and would it be something you are already doing or something totally new?
I think I am at heart a moaner. If I’m busy, I moan about how I’d like things to be quieter. If things are quiet – hell! why aren’t they busy!
So although I sometimes think it would be nice to do fewer things, there’s nothing I’d really want to give up. I teach part-time to earn money; but I love it and it keeps me fresh. I write radio and I work on movies. Every time someone asks me to write a short story, I say yes, of course! I like the adrenalin of it all. So in reality, I think this is me pretty much shorted; my grass couldn’t be greener.
I’d love to be the kind of person who could live in the country and go for leisurely walks and grow flowers in the garden, and write one novel a year and nothing else – but it’s just not me. Hate gardening. Love being busy.
No gardening, but outside of your multi-tasked whirl, what do you do with your leisure time?
Boxing, oddly enough. Not watching it, just working out in the boxing gym round the corner from me, run by former world champion Duke McKenzie. It’s my form of keep fit and there’s a great buzz there, and a camaraderie in the gym.
Do lager and red wine count as a leisure activity?
All my hobbies count as ‘work’; reading books, watching telly, going to the cinema. But they are still genuine hobbies. Second hand bookshops are a particular joy.
I think my best way of relaxing is to go out for the day to a park; or go away for the weekend to somewhere nice where there’s ambience and scenery and, um, a certain amount of lager and red wine.
I listen a lot to music on the iPod – though it’s been ages since I last went to a gig. That’s something I’d like to find more time for. I used to run a column on my blog called SF Song of the Week, and that was a great way of exploring other people’s musical tastes. Found some great new bands and singers that way.
Graphic novels; I don’t write ‘em, so that’s pure pleasure.
I love buildings too; looking at cathedrals or churches, or even just ordinary streets. The spirit of place means a lot to me.
Give me a brief soundtrack to the life of Philip Palmer. Maybe to be released as a CD slipped into the back of your biography.
Something by Carlos Santana has to be the title track of this CD – the one that’s slipped into the back of my biography…I’ve loved his music since I was a teeanger and I loved the way he reinvented himself with albums like Supernatural. Songs like Samba Pa Ti, She’s Not There, Maria Maria. Primavera. I remember running at dawn along the Mumbles penninsula coastal road with El Farol playing on my iPod.
Shaggy is another passion of mine – crazy funny filthy stuff. Probably ‘Hope’ is my favourite. I also have a soft spot for Goldie Looking Chain, the Welsh rappers, like, mun. (Top choice, Your Missus is a Nutter). Tom Jones is a secret love of mine, but I was able to go public when he did his album of gospel songs – Hell Below is a stunner. Crazy by Gnarls Barkley is an all time favourite. And I have a shameful fondness for Beyonce. I used a Destiny’s Child song (Independent Women) in one of my radio dramas – sung by Nicholas Farrell, of Chariot’s Fire fame. Gill Scott Heron’s The Bottle is a prose poem of genius, and man he can really sing.
My teen years were dominated by prog rock – bands like Yes and Genesis – who fell out of fashion and then fell back again. Ian Whates and Mike Carey revealed themselves to be prog rock fans in my SFF Song of the Week slot. Then in my twenties, I got into Broadway musicals and jazz – Gershwin, Cole Porter, and anything sung by Ella Fitzgerald (who I actually saw live in concert, with only one leg but still supreme.) Then I discovered mini-disks and compilation tapes and now most of my collection consists of themed songs, like Rock Anthems, and Naff Songs That You Love But Were Too Ashamed To Admit It.
Nina Simone, Avril Lavigne, Eminem…those have been my ‘must listen’ performers of the last few years. But I’ve also rediscovered Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Joni Mitchell (after watching The Kids are All Right, where the Joni Mitchell scene is a stand out.) And so You’ve Put a Spell on Me, Sk8er Boi and Stan would definitely be included in the album of my life. Together with Rise (Gabrielle) and It’s Raining Men by the Weather Girls and Desperado by the Eagles, Papa Was a Rolling Stone by the Temptations. Oh, and Sea Lion Woman by Feist, which Nikki Peeler introduced me to.
Yup, this CD is sounding good…the biography is probably going to be pretty dull though! ‘Wrote some stories’, that’s me…
And I thought I had a catholic (with a little c) taste in music!
Your answers have been so good that I’m going to give you a break and bring this slowly to a close.
Only two questions to go…
You are on death row convicted of murder (You’re innocent, I know, everyone on death row is), no late reprieve. What is your last meal?
Italian flat bread as an appetiser, washed down with Peroni Grand Riserva lager. Gourmet cheese burger with parma ham (not bacon) and hand cut thick potato chips and mushy peas, and a side order of parsnips in paremsan. Followed by Banoffi Pie with chunks of Yorkie Bar inside it, and accompanied by a bottle or two of vintage Rioja. Then freshly ground coffee and a gun so I can escape, drunkenly and fatly, from my unjust incarceration.
If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film director etc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single existing piece of ‘art’ by someone else.
Just one is hard. I’d love to have written ‘Let’s Do It’ by Cole Porter – ‘goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it’ – just that one line is pure genius. Or Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim; funny, dark, dramatic, brilliant words, wonderful music.
If I were a painter, then I’d be Rembrandt; probably his self portrait in the National Gallery is the one thing to be remembered for. Sad and bitter (he went bankrupt) and soulful. Or the one of the girl looking out of the window in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Or one of the Turners. Or a Raphael. Or the Brancusi sculpture of a fish in the Tate Modern; sleek and silver, like a spaceship. I’d love to have made that.
But most of all I’d like to be Sir Christopher Wren, a great architect whose churches dominate London and whose St Paul’s Cathedral (from the outside) is about as beautiful as it gets. (Inside it’s a bit of a jumble of styles, and doesn’t really reflect his Byzantine-influenced original conception – those Thornhill murals are MUCH too sane for such a glorious space.) The building of the cathedral also reflects the guile of the artist at its best. According to the accounts I’ve read, Wren’s original design was rejected, and so he submitted a much more timid boring design which was approved by the various jobsworths who were supervising the construction. Then, within infinite cunning, he built the cathedral to a different design entirely, much closer to his original vision but perhaps even better. It took decades for anyone to notice he was ignoring the brief and the approved blueprints, and by then it was too late to stop him. Way to go!
So, St Paul’s Cathedral it is…