IN CONVERSATION - Andrew Cartmel (author of The Vinyl Detective book series, former script editor of Doctor Who) 2

IN CONVERSATION – Andrew Cartmel (author of The Vinyl Detective book series, former script editor of Doctor Who)

I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” Andrew Cartmel replies to my ten year old son, who has just asked him. on Zoom, what had inspired him to become a writer, “since I first learned how to read. I immediately thought ‘I want to write books’, and it took a long, long time – about another 20 years, but I never wanted to do anything else.”

My son is quite ‘key’ in the procurement of this interview. It was he who, just under a year ago, bought me the opening trilogy of books in Andrew’s Vinyl Detective series, for Fathers’ Day. To my eternal shame, I read about two pages of the first novel, Written In Dead Wax, and then got distracted by other things, completely forgetting about it in the process. Fast forward about a year, and, looking for something else in our rather well stocked (thanks to my wife) bookshelf, I happened across Written In Dead Wax again. This time, I made a point to read it properly, much to the delight of my son, who’d been a little disappointed at my seeming initial indifference to it (although it was entirely forgetfulness on my part, rather than that). I’m glad I did. I haven’t been as invested in the lives of fictional literary characters for many years, and the series has been an absolute joy – exciting, fast paced, witty – hilariously so, at times, and even terrifying in certain moments. So I Tweeted Andrew to tell him how much I loved the books and asked if he might consider an interview. To my delight, he said yes. So I did some research, and, at the risk of incurring the wrath of any passionate Whovians out there who might be reading this, had no idea, until I did so, that Andrew is highly regarded by Doctor Who fans, having been script editor on the show during the Sylvester McCoy years, and had several novels about the eponymous Time Lord published in the interim period before the Russell T Davies version exploded back onto the small screen in 2005. We’ll touch on that later, but let’s get down to the nitty gritty of The Vinyl Detective first…

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God Is In The TV: The more I read of The Vinyl Detective, the more I feel that you ARE the embodiment of this main character, so how much of it is Andrew Cartmel, the author, playing out a fantasy version of himself?

Andrew Cartmel: Well…it’s absolutely that! So the obvious answer is just “yes”. Whenever you write something, if you want to bring it to life, you have to put your own experience into it. Because what else does anybody HAVE? I mean, you can do research, but we only have our own lives to go on. But let’s face it, this is an extreme example of that, because the guy lives in a house just like mine, with cats just like mine and a hi-fi just like mine…and a taste in music just like mine.

GIITTV: I love that you put the cats in the book. That wasn’t your idea, was it?

AC: No. You’ve obviously done a bit of homework! My friend Ben Aaronovich is a big, best selling novelist who writes the Rivers Of London series, which are these fabulous, supernatural police procedurals, and if you haven’t read them, they’re well worth a look. So, Ben and I met yonks ago when I was script editing Doctor Who – I discovered him and hired him as a writer, and we’ve been friends ever since. Anyway, Ben became the huge, best selling writer and I thought “Well, I’d like to do that!” and he said that the trick was to write about what you really love, you know, instead of trying to calculate something which might be commercially successful, which is what I’d tried to do before – using my brain to try and suss out the marketplace. But that doesn’t work. What really works, as he says, is writing about something that you care about passionately. So I thought, “OK, well, for me, that’s record collecting“, you know, crate digging, looking in charity shops, boot fairs – the treasure hunt for vinyl. And on the ‘Interweb’, increasingly these days, of course. So I started writing, and as you observed, built the character around myself, put in a lot of my own character traits…I mean, there are SOME differences – he drinks coffee and I don’t drink coffee, I do yoga and he doesn’t do yoga… but Nevada might, and I’m sure that Agatha does. And then, as the book started to take shape, Ben said to me “OK, are you going to include the cats?” and I said “No! I think that would just be one thing too far” and he said “No, you MUST include the cats“, so I did, and to be fair it wasn’t hard to talk me into it because I love cats. And I’m so pleased that he DID do that, because (laughs), for a lot of people, the cats are their favourite thing in the book!

The Run Out Groove

GIITTV: They’ve become quite an integral part of it too, haven’t they?

AC: Yeah… I mean, I don’t want to give anyone that it’s one of those ‘cat mysteries’ where they play a major role. They’re just there as a judicious little bit of spice in the recipe, so occasionally you get a little bit of cat, and it’s just enough, so people adore that, and what Ben said about it is that…when he started writing HIS book, which, as I say, became a best seller, he studied a “how to do it” manual called How Not To Write A Novel, and one of their tenets is to “never include a cat in your book!” – he flew in the face of that advice! But you see, my cats are quite realistic, which is what people respond to. Yes, they’re cute and adorable, but then they’ll go and do something really cat-like, like rip the head off a mouse – something primal, so although they’re adorable, they’re not… fake. I think that’s what people respond to, the fact that they’re there with all their foibles and disadvantages. I’m glad I DID include them, because they’re part of what brings the books to life for people. When I sat down to create the series, I thought, “If this is going to be a success, they’ve got to be satisfying crime stories with mysteries and thrills and suspense and all the rest of it, but the one thing that will keep people coming back to the books is if they fall in love with the characters.”

GIITTV: Oh, I have, totally. And one of the things I love about the books is that you lead us to believe that something bad is going to happen to one of the characters, but then, they’re fine, and the bad thing happens to one of the other characters instead (I gave an example to Andrew here but have omitted to include that, conscious not to spoil any surprises for future potential readers). So what I want to know is, how difficult is it to make those stories so unpredictable?

AC: Well, I’m very glad you asked about that because it’s a chance to for me to cite one of my all time writing heroes, and that’s the wonderful, wonderful British novelist, who’s no longer with us, called Peter O’Donnell, and he created a character that you may well have heard of, called Modesty Blaise, who was this comic book character and she was a bit like a female James Bond. There was a very bad movie made about her, at the height of the James Bond craze. You see, Peter O’Donnell started out writing largely in British comics, and he created, at the height of this Bond/secret agent craze, in the late 50s, early 60s – he’d done a number of newspaper strips before, including Garth – but he created Modesty Blaise, who was this fantastic character, and because he wasn’t just a comic book writer, he wrote some novels based on the character too, and…the comic strips are great too, I love comics, just as a sideline, but those novels about Modesty Blaise are IMMACULATELY written, and he’s such a fantastic novelist, because his stuff is funny, the characterisation is brilliant, he does his research, BUT, and this is the relevant point – he used to do this incredible thing where he sets up something very elaborately, like, say that Modesty and Willie were going to try to break out of prison – they’d get a plan, they’d work out exactly how they were going to do it, and it’d be a really great plan – you’d be really invested in it – and then (snaps fingers) something would go wrong, at the last minute, and they’d have to improvise. So this was a standard technique he’d use – he would build something up, get you invested in it, then something would happen and he’d send you off at a right angle. And it’s a really satisfying storytelling technique, so I’ve borrowed that entirely from Peter O’Donnell. So I guess the answer to your question is, I had really good teachers, and I was an attentive student! I’ve had the greatest teachers in the world – the greatest writers of crime and suspense fiction are all out there, they’re a school that never closes, and anybody who wants to be a writer can just study at the feet of these masters.

Victory Disc

GIITTV: Fantastic. I love the fact that it feels like it goes back even further than that – some parts of The Vinyl detective strike me as almost like a Shakespearean tragi-comedy…

AC: Oooh…that’s fascinating…can you tell me which bits might have made you think of that?

(I filled Andrew in, but once again, readers, I have redacted this part of the transcript of this interview, in an effort to prevent spoilers)

AC: What a great comparison – there’s nobody better to be compared to. I REVERE Shakespeare, not that I’m an expert but I’ve read bits and pieces work by him, and I’ve read ABOUT him. I love Macbeth and Othello – they’re the two that I really respond to. So on some level, if that was a response to Shakespearean writing, then I can only say I am really proud! But you are right because that’s a very poignant moment because we really see their relationship there – the sort of exploitation that goes on. (NB – Those of you who have read the second book, The Run Out Groove, and are wondering what Andrew and I are talking about, message me on Twitter or something and I’ll tell you. Privately, of course! – Albums Ed)

GIITTV: It’s great though that the reader comes to really care about these characters. Although I did find, in the first book especially, I was never sure who to trust and who NOT to trust, for quite some time.

AC: Yes. Of course that settles down a bit after the first book though. You see, it was always my intention to combine two different kinds of crime novels – well, two different kinds of detective novels actually. The kind in which the detective sits… he’s a lonely figure, and he’s approached by a beautiful, mysterious woman and gets involved in mayhem. So that’s the first book, but you see, there’s another kind of detective who’s NOT the lone wolf, who has a partner, often his wife – I mean, there was a TV series called McMillan and Wife, and, more importantly to me, there was the great Dashiell Hammett, who created The Thin Man, who was a detective – Nick and Nora Charles were a married couple who were a team…with a dog! (laughs) So I thought “Ok…in the first book, we’ll follow the trope of the lone detective and the femme fatale“, but then…and this is a spoiler, but not a terrible one…they get together and become a couple, and we get a different KIND of detective story going forward, which I was very pleased with. I could do both things, but I’m more drawn towards the “detective couple”, I just feel it’s more fun.

GIITTV: Absolutely, and also the female characters in your books are always very strong as well…

AC: Well it’s very kind of you to say that. It’s something that sort of subconsciously has happened in my writing, but I’ve been very aware of it lately because I’ve been writing stage plays. And of course when you write stage plays, you have to cast them, and I began to realise that there are very strong roles for the female characters. So that’s something that, as I say, isn’t really a conscious thing, but I do know that one reason that might have been happening is because one of my favourite writers, again, is a Canadian-Irish novelist called Brian Moore – he’s no longer with us either, unfortunately. He’s not really a genre novelist, he wrote a couple of mysteries under a pseudonym when he was first starting out, but mostly he’d write what you’d call mainstream novels and literature. But the point is, number one, he’s a fantastic writer – I recommend ‘The Doctor’s Wife‘ or ‘The Mangan Inheritance‘, or ‘The Temptation Of Eileen Hughes‘ if you want to check him out – they’re all wonderful novels, but the point is, he writes BRILLIANT female characters, and he was always revered for that. So I suppose I admired him and thought well, that is an admirable trait. I suppose it’s just something I picked up on.

GIITTV: And as a music nerd myself, I also love that you almost seem to educate the reader in the history of music in many parts of the book. I particularly love that you mention Lita Roza in positive tones, especially as she was a fabulous singer and performer, but is sadly consigned, for most people at least, to being a footnote in history, merely remembered for a godawful novelty song! Was that always the intention, to educate?

AC: ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?‘, right? It’s more like a case of “once I get started, try and shut me up!“, it’s just the way I carry on. To name another admirable novelist, there was a guy called Neville Shute, and the thing that really made his books work, as well as everything else that he wrote, is that he would put in little bits of detail where, say, the guy in the story might be an engineer who works on a lathe that creates things, so he’d put in a description of what it was like for him to turn a piece of metal on a lathe – not enough to bore you, but enough for you to think “Oh, that’s kind of interesting” – and crucially he knows his stuff! Which is what you want when you’re reading a book – the impression that the writer knows his or her stuff. So you feel secure in that world and drawn into it. So the similarity between me banging on about Lita Roza and the guy working on his lathe is that the hero is displaying his expertise in a convincing fashion, and even if you’re NOT into it…I mean, nobody could be less into lathing and pieces of machinery than ME, and there may be many people out there who are not at ALL interested in British female jazz singers of the fifties…but you think “OK, this guy knows what he’s talking about, so I’m willing to believe that he’s an expert and has authority, and I’ll be in happy in his company in his story about him.”

GIITTV: Oh absolutely, and obviously as an avid reader myself, I’ve formed my own ideas of who would play these characters in a film or TV show. So if you could choose ANYONE to play them…

AC: Now here’s the thing – I mentioned that I’ve been writing a lot of plays, especially during the lockdown period, and of course, this is a particularly silly thing to be doing when every theatre in the world is shut! Right? It’s dark theatre, as we call it, BUT what I have been doing is – I’ve been involved in fringe theatre for years, so I know some really great actors, directors and producers, and so in the course of the lockdown, I’ve been arranging online readings of my plays with these wonderful actors, using Zoom. So it suddenly hit me that with the date of publication coming up for the new Vinyl Detective (5th August), I thought “you know what? We could do a little Zoom ‘playlet’ – just ten minutes, a little mini-play about the Vinyl Detective“, a little dramatisation of it. So to answer your question, I’ve no idea amongst the FAMOUS actors in the world of movie stars, but I’ve got a damn good idea who’s gonna play the role in our little playlet. So I can both not answer your question at all, and answer with incredible specificity, because I’ve literally just cast it, in my head. None of these actors have been asked yet, so things could change! But in my head I can see all these people playing those parts, so I’m gonna make a little so I’m gonna write a little four hander, as we call them, with Nevada, Tinkler, Agatha and our hero, just driving along in a car and having a bit of chit-chat that lasts about ten minutes, and so I hope we pull that off, and if we do, you can take a look at how I visualise the characters, based on the quite wide range of actors that I know.

Flip Back

GIITTV: In my head, Tinkler has always made me think of the character Danny in ‘Withnail & I‘…

AC:: I do get suggestions. Who’s that red haired guy in ‘Harry Potter‘? Rupert Grint, yeah, people have suggested him for Tinkler, and he’s a good one, and a lot of people have come to me with a suggestion, so I’ve always looked up the actor and thought “yes, that’s a good suggestion”. The only one I have a clear idea for though – is Nevada, who, in the first book is described as looking like Louise Brooks, the early silent film actress, because A) she’s gorgeous and B) she’s got black hair and it’s a very interesting, distinctive short haircut. Since then, Nevada’s hair’s grown out. But I’m quite firm about her having black hair, because a lot of people instantly go to blonde whenever there’s an attractive woman involved and I’m kind of fighting the corner for non-blondes!

GIITTV: Now, you’re clearly a huge music fan yourself, so as Albums Editor of God Is In The TV, I’ve got to ask you, as Albums Editor, what’s the greatest album of all time, for you?

AC: Well, it’s an obvious one, but I think I can say with some confidence that it’s Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis. I mean, there’s a couple of other jazz albums that I think are right up there – I’ve got a little list and I really am that boring that I will mention them – but the thing about Kind Of Blue is that, I suppose the only reason I hesitate about that, is simply because it’s just so well known and so popular, but that shouldn’t affect it at all. What’s amazing is that the most popular jazz album of all time is actually also the BEST jazz album of all time. You know, what are the odds of that happening!

(At this point my wife came charging in the room, as Kind Of Blue is her favourite album too, so there’s a 5 minute chat about that, which famous people live near Andrew, where WE live – Leicester, to which Andrew replied that his favourite jazz shop in the world is in Leicester – Alan Ross’s Jazz House Records, a mail order company based on Vulcan Road)

GIITTV: Ok, getting back to the interview, not wishing to disappoint any Whovian readers of ours, I think we’d better touch on that, so it’s been a huge part of your career of course – you were script editor of Doctor Who during the Sylvester McCoy years…and that was a stroke of genius changing his character to being a lot darker…

AC: Well thank you. It wasn’t really a stroke of genius, it was just such a natural, obvious and needful thing to do at the time.

GIITTV: So what are your fondest memories of that time?

AC: I had some fab writers. I mentioned Ben Aaronovich, but there were other terrific writers like Rona Munro, Ian Briggs…I don’t want to leave anyone out now, I should really name them all, Marc Platt, Stephen Wyatt, the late, great Graeme Curry…but yes, it was very exciting working with writers – writing with them, so to speak, because I didn’t really co-write the scripts but I would help brainstorm them, so that was the most fun part. The LEAST fun part was when we’d see a wonderful script sometimes destroyed, either because the director didn’t have a clue, or there were problems with the budget or with special effects. But people are very forgiving when they look at Doctor Who these days, and they’ll make allowances for the occasional wobbly Dalek! But Sylvester and Sophie (McCoy and Aldred) were just a dream to work with. We lucked out having that team. Well, it wasn’t really luck, they were chosen by the producer, who did a very good job. I offered my advice in the sense that, when we were looking at these people, that I really liked them, but it was down to John Nathan Turner to make the decisions and he did, so good for him. So I have a lot of fun memories of Doctor Who, and I owe it a lot, because I had a chance to learn how to write novels – I wrote some Doctor Who original novels – it’s given me a bit of a background, and of course, I met Ben Aaronvitch, who I’ve done a lot of co-writing with, and I’m trying to follow his lead in writing a best selling series of novels. Keep your fingers crossed!

GIITTV: Would you say your novels paved the way for the Russell T Davies revamp of Doctor who?

AC: Oh, I wasn’t really aware of that until people pointed it out to me, but there’s a definite smooth continuity between ‘Survival‘, which is the last story I worked on, and ‘Rose‘, which was the first story that came out under the guidance of Russell. So yeah, we set the template for the new Who, I think that’s fair to say. They have some brilliant writers and a very good cast.

GIITTV: And I couldn’t help noticing, when I was doing my research on you, that you’d written a novel based on The Prisoner as well, which is one of my favourite TV shows of all time…

AC: Yes, that’s a good one! It is quite true to The Prisoner itself, because I LOVE the show, but there is a limit to what you can do when you’re writing for someone else’s creations – it’s like the difference between working for someone else and having your own business; you never have quite the same intensity, passion or energy, if you’re playing in someone else’s playground. The last couple of episodes are just surreal and out of this world, but that’s what makes them timeless now. At the time, they would have been infuriating, but the series has hardly dated at all, because it was shot with high production values, and they did a lot of stuff that they just got right, like Rover. Originally that was meant to be like a little moon buggy type thing, and it just didn’t work, so they used this kind of weather balloon, which was so much better and it looks great even today, whereas some kind of robotic device would have just looked naff. I mentioned the Doctor Who novels which are ok, but it takes a while to get good at any craft, and I think with the Prisoner novel, I was really beginning to write well. It was the second book I’d written where I really felt like I’d nailed it. The first book where I felt like that was a memoir I wrote about working on the show called ‘Script Doctor‘ – I’d very smartly, at the time, kept a diary, and it’s a fantastic book if you’re interested in that era of the show because it completely brings it to life, I think. I wrote down what happened, what people said, and thank God I did, because there’s no way you can remember the details after all these years. I’m not sure how many people that we’re addressing now, on your site, are actually interested in Doctor Who, but if they are and they’re interested in my period of working on it, they should get hold of a copy of Script Doctor. You can get it from a library if you don’t want to pay for it. It’s a terrific book. But I’ve sort of moved on from Doctor Who in my life now, and I want to be thought of now as the Vinyl detective guy, if that’s possible.

GIITTV: To be totally honest with you, that’s how I DO know you, because I had no idea you were even involved with Doctor Who until I’d read the Vinyl Detective books!

AC: Well that’s the right way round!

GIITTV: So finally, going back to The Vinyl Detective, you’ve got a new one coming out in August.

AC: Yes, publishing The Vinyl Detective is an annual tradition – we always publish a book in the middle of May, but this year, for reasons that will be familiar to you, it would be unwise to publish a book in the middle of lockdown! So they pushed the publication date back to August 5th. It’s the fifth book in the series and it’s called Low Action. Just to give a little bit away the record in question – because all the books revolve around the search for a particular, sought after record – this time, is a punk album.

GIITTV: You’re not going to tell us any more than that?

AC: To tell you any more than that would possibly spoil the fun, and I don’t want to do that!

Low Action
Low Action, the fifth book in the Vinyl Detective series, is published on 5th August.

Main photo by: Anna-Maja Oléhn

  1. Cartmel saved those last couple of years of Doctor Who in the 80s, made it an exciting end which pointed towards the future, at a point in which it was in danger of fizzling out.

    I listened to one of his audio dramas recently – Earth Aid – phenomenal!

    1. Yes, as I understand it, he is very popular with Who afficionados, Richard, for that very reason.

      And rightly so, as he is a lovely chap and an excellent author.

      If you haven’t read the Vinyl Detective books, I heartily recommend them.

    1. Hi Andrew. Here’s the good news from Mr. Cartmel…

      “I am hard at work on book 6 right now — or I would be if not for the seductive allure of social media! The new book is contracted to be delivered this summer, so I’d better get back to it!”

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.