15 octubre 2013

39 to 50 - A talk with Mags L. Halliday (I)

Mags L. Halliday is a british writer from Exeter. In 2002, she published the only official Doctor Who novel to take place in Spain, History 101, through BBC Books. The Second, Fifth and Sixth Doctors had previously been in Spain on TV (Planet of Fire, The Two Doctors), but History 101 would be the first time a Doctor (the Eighth) would get involved in the turbulence of Spanish history: the start of the Civil War, Guernica's bombing and the immediately previous years at Barcelona. Ms. Halliday has kindly allowed to interview her about her novel.

Greetings from Barcelona! The "expanded universe" item that first and mostly captured my mind, from minute one, was History 101. As the only Doctor Who story to happen in Barcelona and to deal with the Spanish Civil War, the appeal is unmatched. The first question, hence, would be on the origin of the novel: how got you to write a Doctor Who novel, and how was the Spanish, Catalan and Basque setting chosen?
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Doctor Who publishers had a slush pile. This meant that they would look at unsolicited manuscripts from people who wanted to write for it. In the early 1990s I got the guidelines for the Virgin slush pile and submitted a 3,000 word synopsis and a sample chapter. It was derivative nonsense set in the future: heavily influenced by Cornell's Love and War. I got a rejection which basically said I should try again but try harder. I started to plan a past Doctor story set in San Francisco in the 1970s. At which point the books moved from Virgin to BBC Books.

I'd been talking on the "Jade Pagoda" (a mailing list for Who books) about how Anglo-centric the historical novels were. There was a tendency for them to be set in important periods in British or American history. There'd just been Autumn Mist [by David A. McIntee], which was yet another story set in World War 2. I had also been thinking about George Orwell, and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Reading up on Orwell made it apparent how key his time in Catalonia was to his fiction as well as his politics. I read Homage to Catalonia, and it revealed how destructive the Civil War had been to the fabric of Spain. It reminded me of the stories a Spanish academic had told me about growing up under Franco, and the false history they were taught in school. All those elements made me realise the Civil War was the perfect historical setting to make my points about history being more than "What the English Did".

So you tried again and tried harder.
In late 1999 I got around to submitting again, this time to BBC Books. I put together a synopsis and a sample chapter which I sent off to the BBC's slush pile. So, although I knew a lot of the authors, I was still just an unsolicited submission. Whoever was on slush pile duty passed it up to the editor, which was the furthest I'd got. Justin Richards, the editor, came back with what amounted to a "rework and resubmit" note. We batted it about, I added in story arc elements and finally I got a contract. 

One of the few bits to survive the commissioning process intact was the sequence in Paris. It's a microcosm, with the architecture revealing the huge, horrific political forces at work. So the massive monoliths of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia hide the small socialist revolution from Spain. 
Everything starts as the Doctor goes to Paris to see Picasso's painting...
It's great that you mention the Parisian sequence, because there with the "Guernica" (and the overall climate building around the pavilions) starts one of the main subjects of your novel: perception of history. The Absolute is maybe an alien, but as Durruti is killed and nobody agrees on the reasons, the same is again spotlighted: the dificulties on agreeing on a story that can be called History. Was that your intention from the start or part of the rewrites?
Totally from the start. I've a background in cultural history, art criticism, so I'd always been interested in perception. There's a critical theory, aestheticism, which claimed an artwork had an objective level of good/bad. As a good reader of Berger and the rest, I thought that was nonsense.

It's easy to hold that position on art. It's much harder on history. But histories are revised and re-engineered all the time: look at someone like Richard III whose reputation is still up for debate after 500 years. Factor in the fact that some histories have a political purpose, often one that it antithetical, and you have a huge cultural war of ideologies about what is true. The risk is becoming an apologist for an ideology you despise: writing fascist versions of events was very difficult.

Was Orwell's Homage a guide in setting the piece?
Homage to Catalonia was a great starting point, and gave me several of the key moments for Blair/Orwell in the book. I read two biographies too, to get different perspectives on Orwell.

I can't remember if it was Orwell or another writer who pointed out the Spanish Civil War is unusual because its history has been written by the losing side. Even within Spain, the Franco version of history was resisted.

Was the research hard? You submerged yourself quite a bit in the era...
I also read Anthony Beevor's History of the Spanish Civil War, which is a rather dry military text. The strange thing about reading books like that is I'd stop just after the point in time the novel was set in. And I was focussing on Catalonia and the Basque area so I know almost nothing of Madrid. I did come across a book collecting the memories of four Internationales, which was much more fragmentary. I found that at a book market in South Wales, for some reason. And books about aerial warfare, Picasso, the telephone...

I got as much out of films. Not just Land and Freedom, the Ken Loach film that borrows more than a bit from Homage to Catalonia, but a Spanish film called ¡Ay, Carmela!. I was writing just before del Toro started releasing films about the psychological scars of the war such as The Devil's Backbone.

Once I'd the shape of things I went to Barcelona - half-recce, half-holiday. That changed some things, such as adding in Park Güell. I imagined being chased through it at night and how nightmarish it would be!

On part-2 of the interview, we'll further talk about History 101's "legacy".

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