On Thursday at 10PM, Urban Fantasy Track Director Carol Malcolm interviewed author Ben Aaronovitch over Fan Track streaming. The interview ranged from Aaronovitch’s first break as a writer to the current status of his popular Rivers of London series.
Malcolm began by asking Aaronovitch whether he read a lot of science fiction as a child. The author replied, “The question is, did I read anything?” He described himself as “not a particularly good reader”—until he visited the school library at age nine years. He checked out and read Andre Norton’s The Lost Planet, which is also known as Star Rangers. For several years, until he was about fourteen, he read science fiction and fantasy steadily, sometimes finishing as many as three books a day. These were adult books because there wasn’t much available for younger readers. Because there also wasn’t as much science fiction and fantasy in general available then, he eventually ran out of options.
When he’d exhausted his science fiction and fantasy options, he turned to crime novels, including Val McDermid’s, and the women’s fiction his mom had. He said he’d become an eclectic reader but mostly chose science fiction. While he wasn’t allowed to read in class, he read while walking to school and back home.
When Malcolm asked how he’d started writing for everyone’s favorite timelord, Aaronovitch replied that he had done so before the show became fashionable in the United Kingdom. Then, “in the old days,” writers tried to attract the attention of script editors, who also sort of functioned as show runners. They tried to find one who worked on projects “in your wheelhouse.” Back then, such people were not deluged because of the need to write, print, and send out any submissions.
Script editor Andrew Cartmell liked Aaronovitch’s submission and wanted to talk to him. The discussion led to Aaronovitch’s writing a spec script for the show. Based on that, Cartmell offered him a Dalek episode, “and that was it.”
Aaronovitch also wrote for two other television shows. He pointed out that for every television credit, there are usually three or four projects that aren’t ultimately produced. Writers come up with various treatments and occasionally are paid. He described writing as “thankless and invisible.” Once a show goes into production, the writer often isn’t needed anymore, but he tended to turn up anyway for the catering, meaning the free food.
However, he said, having the writer in charges doesn’t always end well. He couldn’t go back to television writing now because he likes “being a god in my own universe.” Criticism makes him and other writers want to kill someone, so part of the job of being a writer is learning not to kill people who are critical. Workshopping helps writers to learn not to strangle people, and that criticism can be legitimate. His advice to those dealing with writers is “always start with praise.”
Switching focus to The Rivers of London, Malcolm asking how the author’s job at Waterstones managing science fiction and crime led to the series. This led to a discussion of the covers and what Aaronovitch referred to as localizing titles, meaning having a different title for a book in different countries. For example, the first book, The Rivers of London, was published in the US as Midnight Riot. He expressed satisfaction that the title has now been standardized and he has become “too big” for his book titles to be localized.
Malcolm asked for the elevator pitch for the series. Aaronovitch replied that he doesn’t have one, and the closest he can come is Gandalf joining a British cop show about a working-class bloke. It’s too British, he said, and doesn’t have a good American counterpart.
Discussing the decision to mix crime and magic in The Rivers of London, Aaronovitch said he’d originally considered the concept a television show, but no one would buy “Magic Cop,” its working title. He liked the idea of working cops doing magic. For the book, he wanted the policing to be as accurate as possible. Police working is generally boring, but spicing it up with magic fit snugly within his view of the real world.
He wrote four pages, and had Peter’s character. Reading it, he thought it would sell. Then he had to come up with a plot and write the rest. The characters kept getting better. As he wrote, he felt as if the book was already there, just appearing when he needed it, and that it was fun. For him, writing is tremendously fun.
Although he tries to make the police work realistic, he does occasionally make a mistake. People do sometimes point out errors, and then he asks them to consult with him. He has built a network of sources that way. The magic system is based on the idea that if Isaac Newton, who was interested in alchemy, had discovered a magic system, it would be like this. Peter Grant, the lead character in the series, says magic is like learning to play the violin if learning to play the violin would kill you if you did it wrong. A good teacher keeps a student from doing something fatally wrong.
Malcolm asked which characters in the series are the most dangerous. Aaronovitch mentioned several but concluded that that Thomas Nightingale is “probably the most dangerous combat wizard in the world.” While he can be killed—for example, by a sniper rifle at a distance—it would be very difficult to find someone who could outface him.
Aaronovitch sees both Peter and Nightingale as “total exemplars of the British stiff upper lip,” with Peter being the working-class version and Nightingale the “posh” version.
The graphic novels that tie into the series are interstitial, occurring between books. That way, those who like graphic novels can consider them canon, and those who don’t won’t have missed anything.
He described himself as being “kiboshed by COVID,” writing two novellas during that period. The first will be out in about two years. The other may never sell. It’s a Nightingale adventure with a main character who’s a “riff off P.G. Wodehouse” and is set in New York City in the 1920s. Doing the research for it, he found that New York was a “ferment” of intellectual and artistic growth.
Those curious about the next book may be interested to know the one Aaronovitch was writing at the time of the interview is set in Scotland. He said he was “having fun with the Scots.”
Anyone interested in viewing the entire interview can find it here