On 12 October 2017 I went to the Portsmouth launch event for Ben Aaronovitch’s recently published novella, The Furthest Station (2017). He opened by explaining that he doesn’t give talks, so instead we were treated to an almost hour long question and answer session.
By way of explaining why he doesn’t give formal talks, Aaronovitch joked that writers are, by nature, introverts—‘we spend our time in front of a word processor on purpose’.
Questions about plans for further novellas elicited the revelation that Aaronovitch plans four more. The next will be about Pter Grant’s German counterpart. There will be one on Abigail because she’s a minor character who won’t stop insisting on a larger role (more on noisy characters below). The novella on Reynolds will be set in Wisconsin in the winter—you might need tea and a blanket to read about that much snow. Finally, there will be a novella about Nightingale as a younger man; this one will be set in 1920s Harlem and written in the style of P. G. Wodehouse. Aaronovitch noted that in so far as his style is like anyone’s, it is like Wodehouse’s. I wish now I’d asked if he intentionally gave Peter the same initials as Wodehouse.
Aaronovitch seems to enjoy the freedom novellas give him to experiment. They allow him to explore his characters without worrying too much about the timeline for the main novels. They also give him space to let his sometimes pesky minor characters speak. Apparently, Abigail will insist on further development, and Peter’s German counterpart is far more demanding than Peter. Though Aaronovitch tries to keep his minor characters in minor roles, the characters don’t always have the same plans–this can be a problem for a writer who follows his characters’ lead. For example, he revealed that initially, Beverley was supposed to open her mother’s front door to let Peter in and never appear again; clearly she had other ideas. Also, Molly inserted herself in the novels.
In response to questions about rumours of a Peter Grant television series, Aaronovitch would only say ‘Money has been spent on developing scripts’. He then went on to discuss the vagaries of television and film production and to emphasise that spending money on scripts does not necessarily mean anything will ever be filmed, let alone released.
A Portsmouth police officer was in the audience. He was impressed with how accurately Aaronovitch represented the gallows humour of police offers and other emergency services workers. Aaronovitch acknowledged that the police procedural details in the first novel were inaccurate, but says he now has ten policemen who help him with accuracy. When asked why he takes such pains to make the police procedural details accurate, Aaronovitch answered that if those details are realistic, it’s easier for readers to accept the magic as real.
In doing research for his novels, Aaronovitch discovered that one can go to the Met and pay to speak to a particular grade of officer; this has made improving accuracy much easier. However, he has found that journalists are far less communicative about their practices. He says it is impossible to get in to see a press room.
There were several questions about the overall narrative arc of the Peter Grant novels. Aaronovitch says he plans to write them ‘until [he] die[s]’. He made Peter young at the beginning so he would die before Peter reached retirement age, thus avoiding the situation Ian Rankin found himself in when Rebus reached that age. Regarding the shape of the narrative arc, Aaronovitch says he doesn’t have an endgame in mind and won’t know what direction it will take until he writes it.
The subject of the Peter Grant graphic novels came up; Aaronovitch said he’s ‘always wanted to do comics’. In addition to enjoying the genre, he appreciates how much easier they are to write—all the details of atmosphere and setting are left to the artist. Aaronovitch only needs to write the dialogue and sketch enough of the scene to guide the artist. He enjoys this because he is a self-described ‘slow writer’—he can produce graphic novels faster than traditional prose novels and this keeps his publisher happy.
Discussions of atmosphere led to discussing how he creates scenes and his writing process. Aaronovitch insists ‘you have to go and smell your environment before you write about it’. His need to visit the places he writes about coupled with his dislike of going out limits where the Peter Grant novels can be set. However, he is going to Germany to research the next novella. Also, he says when his son learns to drive, he’ll be able to move the action of his novels out of London more often—Aaronovitch doesn’t drive.
A question about his influences led to a confession of sorts that he has spent his life reading trashy fiction by writers including William Gibson, Andre Norton, C. J. Cherryh, and Ed McBain. As a researcher on Victorian popular fiction (which was considered trashy at the time), I don’t think he has anything to apologise for.
Finally, when asked about Molly he claimed he didn’t know if we would find out more about her, but then he said she might be getting a roommate soon. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see whether Molly decides she wants a larger role.