Interview: Simon Guerrier

Simon Guerrier is a writer who follows his passions but always leaves room for where curiosity may lead. His work in the media worlds of British classics such as Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and Sapphire and Steel is held in high regard and includes novels, nonfiction, and a wide–range of audio drama work for Big Finish Productions. As an editor, he’s helmed anthologies. Simon is also a documentary producer for BBC Radio 3. Together with his brother, Thomas, he has written and produced a number of short films, including the award–winning Cleaning Up, starring Mark Gatiss. Simon Guerrier’s work is known for its light touch. With his trademark humor and charm, he gently pulls the reader along until they are completely immersed in his story. Self–deprecation aside, he has a reputation for deft storytelling, as is evident in his poignant story “The Artificial Bees.”

Uncanny Magazine: There is a beautiful discussion in “The Artificial Bees” about how the sting of the bee helps bolster the pretense of reality, for without the pain, the bee wouldn’t seem real. It’s a lovely contrast to the moment when Randall decides not to inflict a similar pain on the man in the garden by informing him that he is, in fact, not real. Both of these elements seem key to the story. Which came first for you in imagining this tale?

Simon Guerrier: It’s all a bit hazy—and my notebook doesn’t help—but I think I had the ending of the story first. There’s a thing in murder mysteries where sometimes the sleuth lets the murderer go on some moral principle. So it started with a detective or investigator working out the truth and then deciding it was better not to share it with the person concerned. Once I’d got that, I worked backwards. For example, it seemed more credible that the man would not know he wasn’t really a man if he’d never had direct experience of other living people—so I wiped out humanity and made my detective a robot. I was also thinking how to hide the revelation, so having him feel pain and loss seemed a good way of muddying things. It’s really just down to lots of noodling through the logic of everything, usually when I’m meant to be doing something else. That vacant look on my face? That’s me hard at work as a professional.

Uncanny Magazine: This story is written in a sort of dystopian future where “all animal classes” have become extinct. Your novella “Fall Out” also steps into that world. Why do you think this type of story resonates so strongly? What do you personally find appealing about dystopian/post–apocalyptic futures?

Simon Guerrier: It’s exciting and a bit scurrilous to imagine the end of everything we hold dear. The more credible the details, the more it has an immediate, emotional response which is shocking but satisfying as a reader. I think dystopian fiction also lets us explore and discuss the things that worry and threaten us, so perhaps they make those threats less scary—because we’ve worked them through. That’s why it’s weird reading dystopian stuff from decades ago—the stuff they take for granted as normal seems just as weird and terrifying as the nuclear devastation. But then maybe that makes it sound like these things have a political or moral value, which isn’t necessarily the case. It’s more that it’s a good way to write a story with the feel of a roller coaster.

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve had an amazingly prolific and eclectic career—writing original fiction, tie–in fiction, radio dramas, short films, and nonfiction.  Which of these things is closest to your heart?

Simon Guerrier: I like the variety, and to some extent the different media feed into one another—so as I’m working on something nonfiction it sparks an idea for an audio play. Best of all is getting my own things made, whatever the form that takes. And most of what I’m writing feels like larking about, getting away with something.

Uncanny Magazine: Recently you collaborated with Dr. Marek Kukula on The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who, which is a fun, light–hearted book grounded in real science. An interest in science is something that runs through quite a bit of your nonfiction writing. Is this a lifelong interest or one you came to as an adult?

Simon Guerrier: Ha, no I was atrociously bad at science at school, despite some very patient teachers. As an arts student at university, I resented the kind of science fiction that seemed to think it should be about real science and was all wish fulfilment for engineers. Then in my late 20s, I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and it got me thinking differently. It was more than that he brought particular topics alive; he had a whole philosophy of wonder in inquiry. Now I’m as likely to base a story around a real scientific idea as I will a historical detail or fact. But I’m reading more science—and pushing my understanding of more complex areas of research—which is probably having an impact on the kinds of thing I come up with. So it’s about constantly looking for interesting titbits that I can do something with. And there’s just more science in there now.

Uncanny Magazine: Even when dealing with grim subjects, you are known for bringing in an element of humor or a sense of lightness to your work. How do you use that to draw readers into a darker story?

Simon Guerrier: It’s what I respond to in other people’s writing, really. I try to write dialogue that actors—or readers—won’t stumble over, and that calls for a certain lightness of touch. I once worked on a script where characters had names with apostrophes and accents, and it just took longer to record. So from that I wrote a script with names like “Minko” and “Zing–zang,” and we finished early and had more time in the pub. That is my motivation. But I also worry about being too pompous and boring, so I’m trying to mix it up and keep you interested. It’s quite pitiful, really: it’s just craving attention.

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve written tie–in works, both in audio and book form, for Blake’s 7, Doctor Who, and Primeval. What are the challenges in writing for established characters? How do you flex your creative bones within an established universe?

Simon Guerrier: I don’t think you can fake it. I really struggled to write the Dark Shadows story I wrote, The Creeping Fog, because, despite a lot of support from producers Joe Lidster and James Goss, I didn’t feel I ever had a handle on the tone of the series. I’m very happy with the finished play, and it’s beautifully played and produced, but I found that very hard to write and handed it in with no idea what they would make of it. Whereas when it’s a series you know—and love—you can already hear the characters’ voices, you know the kinds of things they would and wouldn’t do, and the kinds of situations that would be wild and surprising for them to get into. You’re constantly thinking, “How do I make this the same as the established series?” while at the same time, “How do I do something different?” But then that’s true of writing more generally, I think. If you’re writing a science fiction short story about a robot, you’re writing in the context of lots of other robot stories and have to find your new angle or perspective.

Uncanny Magazine: In addition to your audio work with Big Finish, together with your brother, Thomas, you have written and produced a number of short films. How do you make the shift from prose to script writing? From audio drama script to film script?

Simon Guerrier: It doesn’t feel like such a big leap to me, it’s just the different forms enable you or restrict you in different ways. When I was starting out as a writer, Jonathan Morris gave me a great piece of advice: that if you’re writing an audio story, make it something that can only be told on audio; if you’re writing prose, do something that wouldn’t work as a film. It’s a good way to try and use the medium to its fullest, which hopefully makes for a more rewarding experience. But the more you write, the more you pick up tips like that—and the more you want to try. I wrote the short film Modern Man to see if I could make something with no dialogue—which seemed a very exciting prospect after all the audio plays I’ve done. And I remember Peter Davison saying in an interview that audio didn’t allow visual comedy, so when I wrote a Doctor Who audio for him I put in some jokes where you had to imagine the physical situation. I love that sort of thing. Puzzling it out is what makes the job rewarding. It distracts from the numbingly dull slog of typing. Writing is lonely and it’s not always healthy to spend so much time wrapped up inside your own head. In fact, you asked about humour before. Forget the reader. Those jokes are there to keep me entertained as I hack my way through. But in a professional and strangely handsome way.

Uncanny Magazine: Simon, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with Uncanny Magazine.

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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