For many who read this site, our first exposure to the work of Ben Aaronovitch came with his pair of Doctor Who stories, Remembrance Of The Daleks and Battlefield. Or maybe you’ve followed his best-selling series of Peter Grant novels, which keep threatening to come to television? As he releases a new audio short to help raise money for Cityread, he spared us some time for a chat…
Can you tell us what you’re up to? You’ve done this book for Cityread: perhaps start with what that is?
Cityread is a charity that used to be London-based, but now they’re setting up in other cities around the UK. Our latest is Slough!
Yeah! One of the upcoming detective stories we’re doing is going to be set in Slough. It’s got to be done! So the idea is that it’s library-based. There are a lot of reading groups, library-based reading groups. And the idea was to get everyone in London, to get all the reading groups for one month reading the same book.
For example, this year it was Prophecy. And that’s an Elizabethan murder mystery, that’s set in London. They lowered the tone with me. It all started with Dickens about five years ago, which was a good starting point, as he was out of copyright!
They have plays, libraries in all the boroughs put on events. People put on shows. It’s all good stuff, and the idea is to promote the idea of reading.
People have a tendency to take libraries for granted. I don’t think we can take libraries for granted, because there’s a certain section of society that seems hell-bent on eliminating them. I can’t work out why they’d want to eliminate them, except that they’re just nasty people, and shouldn’t.
My colleague wrote a heartfelt, wonderful piece on libraries, and the sanctuary they offer.
My dad taught himself German in Whitechapel Library. He left school at 15, and became a well-known columnist on the basis of what he taught himself in that library. Which I think is very impressive given that I struggle to learn French! It’s really hard too, by the way, to try and teach yourself a language!
So how did Cityread and your writing come together? Was it with your first novel, Rivers Of London?
I’d never heard of them before! And they said “We want your book!” and I said “Why?!” and they said “Because it’s got London in the title!”
They liked it because it was accessible. London in the title was useful, but it’s very London-based. My publishers were also willing to print off 6000 copies and give them away for free, which I thought was a bit off [Laughs]. My publisher has the crack cocaine theory of publicity. They give away enough of the first book, enough will buy the second. Whether they buy the third…?!
It’s worked out, though!
I can’t complain! It’s not like I’m not doing very well out of the books! Then they said “Do you want to be involved further?”, because I really enjoyed it. I went to every borough in London and gave a talk at each library. I’d forgotten, which is really strange when you consider there are 33 boroughs. I did two libraries a day for about three weeks.
How was that?
It was brilliant. It was knackering! I went in all ‘I’ll stand at the back’, and by the end I’d lost my stage fright. I can now go out in front of lots of people and talk with no stage fright at all. It got worn away!
I got to see every borough [of London], which is not something people really do. And every single borough had something of interest. I was making notes, chatting to people, and I found that incredibly useful for work. A very interesting thing to do, and such a huge city.
There are rivers, little marketplaces, things that just appear! A village pops up and you go ‘AH! VILLAGE!’ I found it very, very interesting. I thought I can get behind this. London and libraries, two of the things I like, so I’m now on the board!
[The next Cityread] is next April. I always advertise it, and I’ll make a point of putting it up on my website when it comes around.
Getting people into reading in cities, then. It’s you and Dolly Parton!
[Laughs] Yes, yes.
It’s an odd Venn diagram, but there you go!
I’ve never been in a Venn diagram with Dolly Parton!
There’s a first time for everything!
I’m going to go and draw the diagram.
Let’s look at the Peter Grant stories, then. I’m a few books behind myself at the moment, I should confess…
Get the audio books!
Ah, that’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. I was reading last week that overall book sales are up, but that it’s audio books that are leading the charge. You’ve been backing audio books for some time…
I was desperate to be on an audio book, and I thought you were supposed to! They were like, no, you have to earn a certain number of sales. The production costs by definition are actually higher.
The crucial thing is the calculation has changed. Before, you were going to have to physically dish out some discs. So the first book, it would be ten discs or something, and then it went down to one MP3 CD. Libraries still get the CDs. Everyone else in the entire universe downloads it.
You produce the physical discs for libraries now, but you don’t have to produce them in quantities. The production costs are no longer so high. CDs are still expensive to press, relatively!
Which explains the different packaging you get for audiobooks in libraries?
Now they come in one jewel case. It went back to that in the period I’ve been writing the books. It went from everyone gets them on CD and downloads them manually, to everyone just downloads them from the internet, the rise of Audible. It means they’re much more accessible, which means more can buy them which means you don’t have to be such a bestseller to have an audiobook. Which is good news for actors, I would have thought!
Now, books that formerly wouldn’t have got Audibles will get Audibles. I think we’re heading for an equilibrium between paper, ebooks and audio books. A lot of people are like me: they have a Kindle and other things, and they also get books, and they also get audio books. With Terry Pratchett, I always used to get his book three ways! I paid three times!
I think the next change will be when you buy the hardback, you’ll get the ebook free. They’d do it now, but I think it’s technically quite difficult to do. Not everyone has a Kindle!
I also think that ebooks have led to the rise again of the novella.
And not the novella as a niche thing either. You’ve got one yourself coming out this year?
That was the first novella I’ve ever written. And they’re very tasty for an author. They’re not so long that you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, but they’re not so short that you go la-la-la-TWIST! Novellas are like abbreviated novels, you can get quite a lot of character and action in there without having to pour so much into it. Also, it’s quicker to write. You can do a novella between novels: I’ve got three months on the schedule – although some people can write them in a week! – you can fit them in. I write them between trips.
There never used to be a market for them, but now you can put them out as an ebook.
I think books are going to shorter. Some will do. I don’t want George R R Martin books to get shorter…
We just want those to get finished!
Some people aren’t suited to short books. I like reading big pages of description from Peter Hamilton because he’s got an interesting brain. Whereas if I’m on a plane, then a novella will get you from point A to point B quite nicely! I like them, and didn’t used to. It’s been a conversion for me.
Does it change how you write? Knowing that your text will also become an audio book?
For Cityread, I said to Audible, “Why don’t I write a short story to raise money for Cityread? Is that something you’d be interested in?” They said “Sure!” They’re giving it away free. They pay me to do it, and I pay Cityread, and Audible gives it away free! It’s nice publicity for Cityread, and it’s set in the British library. And it has librarians in it. That’s how that came about. I did it as a fun thing. I’ve always done short stories, for Waterstone’s special editions. They ask for an essay, and I hate essays, so I wrote a short story. Now I’m stuck with that!
For this project, then, for someone has tasted and enjoyed the Peter Grant books but isn’t up to date, is this a jumping on point?
You could. But you can pick up Rivers Of London on Audible quite cheaply now, and I’d suggest doing that. Especially for non-British people. Someone pointed this out to me, as then you can hear when he’s being sarcastic! A lot of non-English as a first language speakers can’t quite tell when Peter Grant is being ironic, so the audio helps. German, though, is a wonderfully ironic language. I’m just getting to grips with it!
Does it alter your writing, that the delivery is going to give you such precision over the expression of dialogue?
No, no really. Although Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s [who reads the audiobook] interpretation of some of the characters has started to creep in. There’s bound to be an interaction. I listen to them, to make sure I like them. Most of my characters tell me how they’re written though, rather than the other way around. I don’t have a choice, they make all the decisions!
Back in 2014, there was talk of a television version of Rivers Of London. Is that still happening?
Television is where it always is. Floating. I hate television! I love watching television, I really do. I’m watching American Gods at the moment. But I don’t know. You never know, it could go tomorrow. Or it might never go. That’s the thing with television, it’s either in a tearing hurry or freezeframe. There is no slow methodical progression towards being made. No stages. One day, you just scramble. It’s completely arbitrary, and it’s based on the whims of people who were beaten in private school a lot. So you never know what’s going to happen.
I have to ask about Doctor Who: did you ever come close to another go at writing for the show?
Was that your choice or someone else’s?
I knew that Rona Munro would come back from the classic series. She’s an internationally famous playwright, and fits in very well with getting people like Neil Gaiman in to write scripts. That made total sense to me. I never thought it’d be me returning!
Did you want it to be?
The thing is, I can give you this speech about how I’ve moved on and so has Doctor Who and we have separated, but they wouldn’t even get to the end of the sentence before I said yes if they asked! But they’re not going to. They don’t dislike or like me or anything, it’s just the way that television works. I’m not in the television loop. I’m not a television writer anymore, so I’m not going to be considered as one. I’d be terrified to write for it now: 45 minutes, and you’re up against some stiff competition!
There’s almost universal love for Remembrance Of The Daleks, your first Doctor Who. The only person I’ve ever come across who really doesn’t like your other one, Battlefield, is you! You give a very damning DVD commentary.
I didn’t like it, because my main complaint with Battlefield is the mistakes I made as a writer. Ones you don’t know about because you weren’t there when I was making it!
For you, you can enjoy it. For me, I’m sitting there going ‘WAAAAAAAAAAAAH why did I have too many characters? Why do some of them disappear half way through? What did I do that? Oh god, that didn’t work!’ Leaving aside all the other problems I have with it, my main one was that it was my second script and I bollocksed it up. As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t have the necessary experience.
If I did it now, I’d go I can fix that, pull that, put that together, and I would have known how to do that. But I didn’t know how to do that because I was, what, 25? And young. And stupid. Remembrance had been written in a mad flash of inspiration and not knowing what you couldn’t do. Everyone’s writing career starts like that, charging in and going YES I AM THE GREATEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD. Then you find out, maybe script two or three, that maybe you’re not.
I remember John Grisham writing of his first novel that he said there’s lots of things in there that he’d do differently now, but he wouldn’t change a word, because it was his first book. Do you share that with your work?
Oh god. Rivers Of London. There are some howlers in there. There’s some stuff in there that I’d like to quietly go back and rewrite but I’m not going to. I don’t believe you should do that.
What’s next for you, then? I know about the novella later this year, but is it more Peter Grant books after that?
There’s another Peter Grant that I’m working on now, because the lads will come over and beat me with a stick if I stop. Then if I can get this one in on time for a change – because I’m very slow – then I’ll have carved out a little bit of space to do something else. What that will be will depend. If the TV series goes, that’ll take up all my free time, because I’m executive producer on it, and I’ll be fairly heavily involved – hopefully! If not, then I may write something else. I might write another novella, because they’re quite fun, in the gap between this one being finished and it coming out there’s a quiet gap where nobody wants you to do anything. I may do another novella then, I’ve got it banked. Break glass in case of script lateness or something!
Most of it’s going to be Peter Grant unless something else comes up!
Ben Aaronovitch, thank you very much.