Bestselling urban fantasy icon, Ben Aaronovitch, shares why joy and diversity are at the heart of good writing…and other tales.
by L.M. Towton (Michelle Sutton and Lauren Towers)
After months of Write On! Extra meetings and editing sessions with Lauren, I’m now a dab hand at video calls. As August draws to a close, I’m waiting to talk to author Ben Aaronovitch via Zoom. Beforehand, I check one very important thing: I have a steady internet connection, and our questions. Two things. And the cats are elsewhere. I’ll come in again.
Having met Ben before, I knew what to expect — in his own words: “Getting off the point is my middle name.” With a side-track into London freight train routes and an explanation why Lauren is unable to be on call (causing a brief discussion about being introverts in lockdown — Ben sums it up perfectly: “Introverts Unite. Or not.”), I ask our first question about dealing with demanding characters.
Citing our experience with characters who refuse to take no for an answer and how Peter Grant, the main character in Rivers Of London, ‘arrived’ fully-formed and insistent, I ask what makes particular characters harder to say no to?
“I don’t know! I’ve just had a character in the comics called Billy, who’s supposed to be this slightly dull Police Detective Constable. He’s there because there’s no way Stephanopoulos would let Peter go out without a regular officer. Then I thought, ‘You’re getting a plotline! You’re not supposed to.’ Now I have that sick feeling he’s going to work his way into the main narrative. I hate those characters. They annoy me. I love them… but I hate them!”
Ben mentions his ‘Green Room’, an imaginary room within his brain full of characters who want to be part of the story, demanding attention (we know the feeling!).
“Peter comes up with an interesting description of someone and they start to form. When they get to a certain weight they have to go into the story. Like Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wanting to do every part – that’s my Green Room.”
Ben is firm that, unlike some sci-fi, his characters don’t get to come back from the dead.
“Dead is dead. Which is why I’m careful not to kill off people randomly.”
Bearing in mind our concerns with writing as two white women, like Aaronovitch’s Peter, the main character in our WIP is a mixed-race Londoner and I ask Ben about his experiences.
“The reaction varies, generationally and culturally, from country to country. America insists on using biracial. I don’t like how it implies there are only two races and you must belong to one of them. Mixed race implies a wider heritage. But neither of these labels work particularly well as descriptions. My problem with writing Peter isn’t that he’s mixed-race; it’s that he was born five years after Return Of The Jedi came out! All my cultural touchstones are out-of-date. I made a chart of what he was watching when he was 12. His big films, for example, are The Lord Of The Rings, while mine are Star Wars! Growing up in North London surrounded by West Africans, I didn’t need to go far to write about Nigerian and Sierra Leone stuff. Once, I realised I’d based a character on a particular person. Whoops! But with a character like Guleed, I didn’t know any Somalis, so when she became a main character, I had to go out and find some. It wasn’t easy – I’m an introvert. The thing about writing outside your own experience is that you need interaction with the people you’re writing about, or do tons of research.”
Last year, the ‘Gollancz & Rivers Of London BAME SFF Award’ launched, with the winners announced a week before our interview. As the founder, did Ben have any expectations?
“I didn’t really. I’m old enough to have given them up. I wanted to see more diversity in books, especially SFF. As a bestselling author, I thought, what could I do? Rather than the prize being publication, we offered cash and an introduction to publishers. I don’t want the award to be about me, I want it to be about them. It could be part of their CV: BAME winner, and a Booker or Nebula. That’d be fun.”
Rivers Of London spans many formats: currently eight novels, two novellas, audiobooks and comics. Now there’s a short story collection: Tales From The Folly.
“At the beginning of the COVID crisis, we thought we should get something out to cheer people up, so I decided to release short stories as an eBook, through JABberwocky. The advantage being, we control the eBook rights and can then reissue for a publisher if we decide to combine those into a novel-length collection. We’ve never done it before and it was an interesting experiment – out within a couple of months of having the idea, as a ‘cheeryup’ thing.”
We drift onto audiobooks and actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who narrates the Peter Grant books.
“We lucked into him. I was asked if I had any preferences; I didn’t, except it needed to be someone who could do the accents: a black guy able to do all the West African ones. Not just straight Nigerian – there are particular North London and South London, West African and West Indian dialect accents, too. It was important to find somebody with an ear for them. It turned out Kobna did! Then it became an arms race between us, with me putting in accents to see if he could do them. It’s like magic. I can only do the Monty Python old lady accent.”
I have to ask about the proposed TV adaptation.
“I always describe it as ‘Schrodinger’s TV series’. People are working on it but you never know… If it does happen, it’ll be brilliant. I hope.”
For fun, I ask about ideal casting but Ben insists he has none, because he can’t remember names, unless they’re fictional. As with the majority of our conversation, I spend a lot of time laughing. That’s the impression you get from Ben when he talks about writing: utter enjoyment. It’s a relief for us to know the fun can continue.
“Writing is fun! If you’re not enjoying it, you’ve got to ask yourself, why not? I can’t imagine doing it if I hated it. I wouldn’t be writing Peter now if he wasn’t still fun, and as annoying as he ever was.”
With time beginning to tap impatiently at its wrist, we move on to the writing process. Does Ben have one?
“I wish I could say I do. My ideal is what I call ‘The Greene’ after Graham Greene. You wake up, sit down at nine am and write 500 words. Then you go out and stuff. I’m a very slow writer. I’m sporadic. I have bursts. I get up early, sit down at my computer and start procrastinating. By the time I finish, it’s only nine. Then I force myself to do writing, unless interrupted, until the evening. Though, that would imply there’s lots of writing going on in that period…”
Our writing time is mostly governed by Lauren’s work. This leads us onto a brief chat about collaborating. Ben admits to being bad at it, despite working on the Rivers comics with Andrew Cartmel. Like most people, he finds the fact we collaborate from two separate cities weird. (Don’t worry, we know we’re odd!) He uses this moment to share advice:
“You must write the book you want. You have no choice. Even if you could guess the zeitgeist once you’ve finished, it’s moved. Don’t write what you think others want.”
Before our last question, I mention Ben’s ‘Gruesome Grannies’. My nan is one. They are: “The Venn Diagram between ladies of a certain age who read Mark Billingham and me. They laugh at the horrible murders. I try to put at least one into every book to keep them happy.”
This brings me to another thing present in every Rivers book: geek references. With my own geekiness now loose, we chat Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Monty Python.
“I’ve got three types. Firstly, what I call ‘environmental references’, like the Hitchhiker’s ones in False Value, which came from Elon Musk naming his ships after Iain M Banks’ ones. Secondly, there’s Peter, who’ll make a geeky joke or reference whenever possible. Finally, there’s my own geekiness layered on top. Like Monty Python jokes; Peter wouldn’t know them from a hole in the ground. I only allow myself two Monty Python references per book.”
Much like I have within this. We end as we began, with a meander. This time into the ridiculousness of believing people arrange their bookcases for video interviews. Ben leaves us with some thoughtful parting words:
“There’s no right to be published. It’s a privilege. And there’s no right for people to buy your books. The audience knows what it wants but you don’t, you can only please yourself. Your best chance of getting others to read your book is if they can sense you’ve enjoyed writing it. Enjoy the writing. It’s important.”
Indeed. It’s easy to forget that when you’re submitting, as we are at the moment. Thank you, Ben, for reminding us to always look on the bright side of writing life.
False Value and Tales From The Folly are out now.
Connect with Ben: @Ben_Aaronovitch
Find the BAME SFF award winners here: http://bit.ly/gollancz-sff-bamewinners or: #GollanczRiversAward
Connect with SFF writing partnership: L.M Towton, @LM_Towton
Writing is fun! If you’re not enjoying it, you’ve got to ask yourself, why not? I can’t imagine doing it if I hated it. I wouldn’t be writing Peter now if he wasn’t still fun, and as annoying as he ever was.