Captain Jack, Gene Hunt and The World House

Blogger Alasdair Stuart talks to Torchwood writer Guy Adams about his books

Guy Adams is one of the best kept secrets in modern genre fiction. Having made his name on Torchwood with the superb "The House That Jack Built", he's moved on to short stories in the Torchwood magazine, books based on Ashes To Ashes, and now his first original novel, The World House. Released through Angry Robot , it's the story of a house which is the size of a world, the people trapped there and the awful thing that lives in its attic... blogger Alasdair Stuart talked to him about Torchwood, Gene Hunt, his influences and what the future holds for the man who carries the World House in his head.

What fictional characters first hooked you? And why?

Guy Adams: Doctor Who was the bedrock of my escapism, it was -- and still is -- perfect fuel for a young imagination waiting to explode. It's infinite and a child relates wonderfully to that. I used to do a passable Peter Davison in the playground, all breathy irritation and fast running.

In comics it was Spider-Man, the geek's idol -- like most comic characters actually, they're all dysfunctional bed-wetters by day that suddenly bloom into powerful wish-fulfilment figures when they put on the costume.

My young mind always relished scope and fantasy beyond character though, it was only later when in my teens and desperate to become an actor that character became as important. Then it was characters that I wanted to play, always people of extremes, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes or, again, the Doctor. They were the three I always wanted to play. I managed two of them!

You've done a lot of work with the Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes characters. Is there anyone who's easier to write as out of those two casts?

Adams: It was always Gene Hunt really, though I did insert some fictional stuff into the two making-of books I wrote for Simon and Schuster, Gene's the only character I've written to any... I was going to say depth but perhaps that's the wrong word! It would be slightly different when writing for the show -- especially Ashes to Ashes -- but on the level I was working he was a comedic cipher really, I was dealing in the two-dimensional aspects of his character. He was a sausage-machine churning out sexism and whisky sweat.

The three books I wrote in character as him were all designed to be utterly humour-led. The first two were policing guides, one in the seventies and then the second shifting to eighties London. The third was the most basic of all, a book supposedly knocked together by his fellow coppers Skelton and Carling that was a collection of all of the Guv's best quotes. The irony being that over ninety percent of them were original and written by me rather than lifted from the show! Though I still smiled to see the odd review that seemed to think otherwise... People seem to think the shows were packed full of quotable stuff, there's barely a handful that stand on their own two feet when lifted out of context so I had to make most of it up. It was hellish, like knocking out one-liners for Jim Davidson.

Did you have to make any stylistic changes when Gene and co moved from Manchester to London?

Adams: That was what allowed Transworld and I to develop the second book, there was enough of a variation both in policing methods, location and -- to a degree -- character that my editor felt there would be enough material to do a second policing guide. They're very different books, the first all brown paper and coffee stains, the second is crisp white and peppered with eighties graphics. All down to the marvellous Lee Thompson. For my money the best designer working in the business, he goes beyond the call of duty with his work which is why I insisted he share a cover credit on the Simon and Schuster guides, his involvement was just as important as mine. I'm lucky to have worked with him a lot over the last few years. He's my beautician, as I wander around the world of tie-in like Michael Winner, constantly being doused with pancake and cologne by my staff makeup artist.

Was there anything you'd have liked to do with those books but weren't able to?

Adams: Not really, I had a great relationship with both editors on those projects and they were always happy to let me stick my neck out. There are always limitations and I wasn't naive enough to not be aware of that but letting me insert those absurd fictional pieces in the making of books was brave as hell. They followed Lee and I as we became trapped in the world of Life On Mars following a train crash. Some people hated them but I thought it was a fun addition that mirrored the coma-aspect of the show. They culminated in a comic strip where I die and Lee wakes up! In a making-of book! How crazy is that?

For the humour books I will admit that I begin to relish sending the foulest, crudest stuff imaginable to Sarah Emsley, my editor at Transworld. The thing is, Emsley is just as foul and crude as me so she let most of it in! I even had a line about Thatcher masturbating... once they've let you do that you can do anything. The final quote in the third book was written knowing damn well it would be cut, it was me just trying to get a rise. It says: "What have I got against women? In an ideal world, nothing but my jiggling balls..." Filthy creature left it in. Now she's working with Cheryl Cole, so I like to think I've prepared her a bit.

Are there plans for any more?

Adams: No. Some thought three was too many -- I'll admit I was unsure before starting the third book and it was a struggle to fill it, it took a lot of one-liners to fill the agreed word count. As it stands though I think they're all quite good, some bits are funnier than others of course but then if I could churn out fried gold with every line I'd be rich and own Transworld rather than just work for them.

How did you get involved in writing the Torchwood novels?

Adams: It was lots of things coming together at the same time. One of the editors at BBC Books loved The Rules of Modern Policing and wanted to work with Lee and I -- albeit on separate projects. Justin Richards, who oversees the Doctor Who range had put my name forward as someone that might suit Torchwood -- presumably I’d been seen eating food out of bins or buying a suspiciously large quantity of lubricant. My mate, Mark Morris had been approached to do one and gave my name as another potential writer… all in all, Steve Tribe, the editor, didn’t have much choice but to ask me.

What was the creative process? Did editorial give you carte blanche or did you have to work within restrictions?

Adams: It’s not as restrictive as you might think. And what restrictions do exist are pretty obvious. You know the show, you know the characters and you must stay true to them and not break the whole thing. Someone else has to tell stories with them when you’ve finished.

Having been invited to pitch story ideas, you come up with three or four brief plots and then the preferred choice is selected by BBC Books for you to work up into a full breakdown of about 1500 words. That breakdown is approved by the production office in Cardiff and you get the go ahead to get on with writing the thing properly.

Once done, Steve Tribe reads it, just to make sure you haven’t inserted something silly like Jack turning into a Womble who loves to bugger Flumps, then sends it off for final approval.

What are the challenges of working within the Who universe?

Adams: I suppose it depends on your background. It’s a universe I am so utterly familiar with that it wasn’t difficult for me. Quite the opposite, if you’re a storyteller then you can’t help but formulate ideas for the shows you like, whether you’re ever asked for them or not! That’s not to say that there aren’t all the usual moments of indecision or stress but writing is always full of that, whether dealing with your own characters or someone else’s. Personally, I love that world so much that I would always relish the chance to work in it. I would never want to just do that -- I have too many variant ideas for stories I’d like to tell -- but if I got the call again then I would say yes without a moment’s thought. I’m at home there, I’ve lived in it since I was very young.

Were there any characters you found yourself viewing differently having written them?

Adams: I had more time for Jack once writing about him. Of the three main leads he had been the one to interest me the least -- which is strange given the scope that lies in the character I suppose. The way my story developed though it was clear that he needed to be the dominant character and I found that much more of a pleasure than I had expected.

A lazy writer might write Jack off as a two-dimensional Errol Flynn. A grinning sex organ with access to buckets of hair gel. Either that or get bogged down in the sort of ‘immortal angst’ that kept Highlander going for years. In truth, like all characters, he’s a mixture of lots of conflicting details, it’s that conflict that makes people interesting. Lazy writing points towards stereotyping but it’s boring to write and boring to read. Real people are funny, depressed, good and repugnant, all on a daily basis.

Was there anything you'd have liked to have done but were told not to?

Adams: I got a bit carried away with techno-porn which had to be trimmed back. A new Hub entrance in particular which led you up from a sub-basement level going past several disused floors. One of the rooms seen en-route contained a colossal brass horn -- like you would find on an old gramophone but immeasurably bigger -- that pointed at a small wooden chair. This was described as Madame Blavatsky’s Mind Trumpet… a Victorian device for projecting your thoughts. Tribe understandably told me to go and take a cold shower and then remove it!

Tell us about the short stories the Torchwood magazine is running, what are the challenges of telling a story in such a short space?

Adams: I actually find short stories exceptionally difficult. 4,000 words -- which is the limit -- is nothing, a tiny, tiny stage on which to play out a drama. The piece I’ve just done came in at over 6,000 words once I’d finished and then I had to hack at it like a demon. It’s my own fault, I picked an idea that was too big for the space. They’ve asked me for another one -- which was lucky considering, I’m not sure I would have done in their position! -- and hopefully I’ve learned from the experience.

The trick is to think of an idea that works with that word count, something that’s rich enough to be worth someone’s time to read but compressed enough that you don’t end up writing something that reads like a synopsis, all event and no character, no rhythm or shape.

What was nice on a personal level is that I recently met my brother, Max for the first time. His daughter is a huge fan of Doctor Who and Torchwood, I mean, really, she’s as bad as me! So the story I wrote features her as the main character, just because I would have loved someone to do that for me when I was her age. Obviously I had to put the story first, otherwise it would have been far too self-indulgent, but I wanted to tell a story about Torchwood -- Captain Jack in particular -- viewed from the outside so it was as easy to make her the focal character as anyone else. She was utterly shell-shocked, which is wonderful. I’m a soppy arse…

Thanks Guy.

This interview was conducted by blogger Alasdair Stuart. Read more about Guy Adams at his official website .