Monday, 16 September 2013

An Interview with Kate Orman: Dr Who Author, and SF writer

Kate Orman is an Australian feminist and science fiction writer. She has written a few of the more notable Virgin Doctor Who New Adventures  (and was the first and only woman to do so) and some of the BBC Doctor Who Eighth Doctor Adventures.  As well as loads of other things.  Here is her website, so you can see what else she’s been doing, and a list of the Who novels she’s written.  Also, it’s a brilliant commentary on her mind, her website – she is always posting fragments of thoughts, bits from books she’s reading and reactions to theories, news, sociology, anthropology etc.  I can get lost there a while – and I encourage you to, as well!  In the pic above, she is with her husband, Jonathan Blum, with whom she has co-written several books.

I’ve been reviewing, in my rambly way, lots of Dr Who books over the past year.  One day I reviewed one of Kate Orman’s, not for the first time – but she stunned me by replying in the comments section and starting a conversation.  What a nice woman!  I then got a bit ambitious and big headed, and asked her for an interview…she stunned me again by agreeing.  I had masses and masses of nosy questions for her, and she’s answered quite a lot of them here. Hope you enjoy reading the answers as much as I did.

Did you always want to write, or did you have train driving or Prime
Minister ambitions etc first?

My vague plan, from the age of twelve onwards, was to become a geneticist and cure cancer. Looking back, it's obvious something else was bubbling up - I didn't just study science in high school, but English Literature as well. I coasted through university, and was hopeless in a laboratory. In high school I was attempting my own science fiction stories, and during university lectures I was often taking notes in one folder while writing fan fiction under the desk in another.

But it wasn't until Virgin Publishing announced the New Adventures that I made a concerted, organised attempt to get something published. Probably the first concerted, organised attempt I had ever made to
accomplish anything!
Was science fiction always the home for your writing, the best way to express what you wanted to say with your stories?

It was certainly always what I was interested in writing (and reading, and watching). Well before I started scribbling Doctor Who fanfic during lectures about DNA, I was writing stuff pinched from Larry Niven, and from anything set in a stringently ordered futuristic society.
Are there authors you find stay with you for decades, you can re-read their work and it always says something new?  Or do you find your taste constantly changing and adapting as you grow?

I've been very deliberately reading more widely in recent years. I never studied history or politics, or anything outside my own little window of interests - science, SF, some ancient civilisations. So now, when I read a novel set in, say, India or Nigeria, everything about it is new and exciting. I just have this immense gap in my understanding of the world to try and fill.

Were you a Dr Who fan from the start, or was it something that crept up on you?  What other science fiction TV do you like - then or now?

I didn't discover Doctor Who fandom until the late eighties, when I was in university. But I grew up in that blissful era when Doctor Who was on TV most of the time - that is, Australia in the seventies, when the ABC (our version of the BBC) could be relied upon to repeat its small store of Third and Fourth Doctor stories at least once in every year.

Childhood and teenage favourites included Blakes 7, The Tomorrow People, Star Trek (especially James' Blish's adaptations of the original and animated series, and Next Gen), Knight Rider, and The Real Ghostbusters - I can still watch and enjoy all of these. (But I can only take Battle of the Planets in its original form of Gatchaman.) Later, there were shows like Star Cops and the original Twilight Zone. I'm currently watching the anime of Gantz (I prefer the movie adaptation). If we widen the field to include the more fantastical, the list would include Sapphire and Steel, The Prisoner, and Death Note; and I've just finished watching Fullmetal Alchemist.
When you were writing for the Dr Who New Adventures and then Eighth Doctor Adventures, were you allowed much leeway, or was there very strict continuity to follow?  How free did you feel to explore themes you love?

Major events, such as the arrival or departure of a companion, were decided by the editors. Every so often we'd get a document outlining the upcoming run of books, typically giving us a rough idea of those big events, and perhaps asking us to pitch books which would contain those events, or which would fit into a broad theme. When new companions were introduced, we'd get a description of their characters, so that we could include them in our pitches. Other than those landmark events, though, the editors were relying on us to come up with ideas!
Do you find your feminism always plays into your stories, the Dr Who and your other work?

There is no better genre than science fiction (and its inseparable companion, fantasy) for exploring feminist ideas. Feminism, like any progressive movement, is about imagining the world as it could be, rather than just accepting the status quo.

The original science fiction I'm working on right now is this sort of book - the biotechnology involved lets me play around freely with sex and gender. (Although I've been able to do all the fun world-building sciency stuff I enjoyed so much as a youngster, such as in Niven's "Known Space" stories.)

Feminist ideas crop up even when the subject isn't a feminist one, of course. My most recent sale was ‘Skull Time’ (published as ‘Head Case’ in Cosmos Oct/Nov 2011), which was about neurobiology, but involved a woman trapped by both technology and by a violent husband trying to get a call for help to the outside world.
And what would you say to those young women (I've met quite a scary few) who feel the battles of feminism are all won, its over, and there's something ...ugly and strident and unattractive - and uptight, about still calling yourself a feminist? (Grrrr, is my articulate reaction.)

I suppose you could show them a collective photograph of the local House of Representatives, or college board, and ask them how they feel about all these old white men making decisions about their lives. Especially their sex lives. ;)
Do you feel your philosophical/religious notions inform your work too?  I read on your blog that you feel there was no beginning to everything and there will be no end (I totally agree).  Is there more room to play with and express these sorts of ideas in science fiction than other genres do
you think?

Mythology shares with science fiction that larger, freer canvas for telling stories about the way the world is, was, could be. I trawl through myth, religion, and anthropology looking for ideas about the universe and our relationship to it (also a major topic of SF) which I can use in my writing. For example, "Skull Time", the story I mentioned above, was inspired by a Hittite ritual.

My characterisation of the Doctor is partly drawn from the Wiccan male deity, the Horned God, who falls only to rise again - much as the Doctor "dies", only to regenerate. My understanding of the God is as an alternative masculinity: full of energy and passion, caring and protective; not domineering or tough; more likely to use a joke or a trick than to reach for a weapon. It's a set of characteristics that suit the Doctor well.

Thankyou very much indeed, Kate Orman, and sorry this post took me a little while to get up!  And more Doctor Who books reviewed soon, and more of Kate’s work too.

In the meantime - back to the Guest Season next post.

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