Getting measles might have turned me into a writer. Age nine-and-three-quarters I was confined to the back bedroom of a two-up two-down off Entwisle Road, covered in spots and feeling sorry for myself, gazing at the River Roch flowing under the railway arches. My favourite reading at the time was the Adventure series by Enid Blyton, the Just William stories, and a new passion - Biggles.
To fill the empty hours I dreamt up and wrote down a story (I think it was about Spitfire pilots) and even designed the book jacket. I loved the idea of the book as an object in itself, its binding, smell, feel, cover design and so on, and still do.
For several years I worked in Manchester as an advertising copywriter, the best training on the job a fiction writer can get. My first novel was an experimental effort, The Relatively Constant Copywriter, published in 1972. The course was set. From then on I earned my living as a writer, producing novels, short stories, some TV scripts, and a fair chunk of radio drama for the BBC. My first play, GIGO, won the Radio Times Drama Award no less, and another one, about rude Wigan comedian Frank Randle, grabbed a Sony award for best actor.
In 1975 my novel about Rochdale skinheads, Rule of Night, was published, which gained the distinction of having all six copies in the library of Buckley Hall detention centre nicked by the inmates. Thirty years later it was reissued by Pomona Books and garnered some terrific reviews in the Guardian and Time Out. I've also had fiction published by John Calder: The Man Who Travelled on Motorways, Vail (a dystopian vision of Britain as a police state) and Blind Needle, a chase thriller set in the Lake District.
More recent projects have been a feature for BBC Radio 4, "The Lighthouse Invites the Storm", about the writer Malcolm Lowry, which I wrote and also presented, short stories for literary publications Ambit and London Magazine, and entries in the Guide to Modern Fiction published by Oxford University Press.
My most recent novel is about a gang of lads growing up in Rochdale in the
Fifties, raiding other gangs for bommie wood (ask your dad to explain) and
discovering the joys, or otherwise, of sex. With the sub-title "A Fictional
Memoir" and packed with nostalgic images, in both text and photos, Down
the Figure 7 is published by Pomona.
Q&A interview with Trevor Hoyle, 28 April 2008
Trevor Hoyle worked as an actor, an advertising copywriter, a lecturer in creative writing and presented the arts and entertainments programme "What's On" for Granada TV before becoming a full-time writer, mainly of novels and short stories. He won the Radio Times Drama Award with his first play GIGO. His published fiction includes Relatively Constant Copywriter, Rule of Night, The Man Who Travelled On Motorways, Vail and Blind Needle. The Last Gasp, which was a Doubleday Book Club Selection in the US, is now under option in Hollywood. He has written three Blake's 7 books and the season C episode Ultraworld.
Being a war baby, when you were growing up the war was very fresh in the minds of those around you. Do you think the closeness of the war and the impact of the Third Reich has had lasting influences on your writing?
No doubt it had an impact because where we're born and how we're brought up has a major effect on the rest of our lives, and hence, if you're a writer, on anything you might later write. Not sure about the 'Third Reich' reference. As a kid growing up in Lancashire just after the war we played war games of course, and the Germans and the Japanese were the baddies - naturally.
Almost impossible to know what direct impact or influence it had on my work. Maybe for others to judge .
At what point growing up did your family obtain a television? What was it like, as a child or young adult at the time, to suddenly have access to this new medium?
I was about 12 or 13 when we first had a telly - I can tell you now it was a Pye, 17" or so. Some of our neighbours had TVs before us and it was magical to go into their homes and watch films and quiz shows - in fact you'd watch anything, even the intermission with a kitten playing with a ball of wool or a man ploughing a field for 5 minutes because the whole thing was just so wonderful. My main lasting memory of early TV though is of watching the Quatermass Experiment on my auntie's TV which frightened the living daylights out of me (out of everyone - it was a massive TV 'event' - maybe the first ever in Britain.) And I have a vivid memory of watching Peter Cushing as Winston Smith in the live version of 1984. I ran home at top speed through the darkened streets thinking Big Brother was after me.
Can you tell us a little bit about the first piece of writing you sold?
I had several stories in the local paper (Rochdale Observer) when I was about 13 but don't think they paid me anything. These were about a character called Tubby, inspired by the William stories, of which I was a huge fan - still am. My first proper paid work must have been several novels I did for NEL in the early seventies, just before I published Rule of Night about football and skinheads. It's really difficult to remember the actual first piece of paid writing because I'd been a copywriter for 10 years and so was earning my living that way.
Prior to your first novel you had written several short stories. Was it always your desire to become a full time writer, or did the success of your short stories alter any other pre conceived notions you might have had?
I always wanted to write full-length novels and wrote 3 or 4 (one of them 900 MS pages long about the acting profession) which were rejected over several years before one was accepted. I'd been writing in my spare time since I was about 9 years old (I even designed the jacket and title page) but for years it never occurred to me that I could make a living at it. Coming from my background, and not going to university, it simply wasn't an option - I didn't know anyone from my class who did such a thing. It was after I became a copywriter in a Manchester agency that it crept over me that people made careers as writers, and from them on I got the message - but I had been writing full-length work since I was about 16 - my first novel was called Mark of the Beast - but I did it simply because I was driven to it and had no choice.
Your first novel, Relatively Constant Copywriter (1972) was turned down by eighteen publishers before you eventually published it under your own imprint. Why do you think it had suffered such a tortuous path towards publication?
Copywriter was actually written in 1967 but not published until 1972. Even though I think it's okay for a "first" novel (I'd written the ones I mention above before it) it was very experimental and I think publishers were very conservative in those days (they still are actually). I'm fond of it because in Copywriter I discovered my own voice for the very first time - the previous ones had imitated the styles of others writers but here I felt that no one else in the entire world could have written this particular book (whether it was good or bad) except me, and the first important step for any writer is to discover and recognise their own distinctive voice. Some writers never find it and go on writing copies and pastiches of other people's work.
I should mention a couple of thing about Copywriter. First off, it picked up some excellent reviews in the Sunday Times, Guardian, Penthouse and other media. After it came out (published under my own imprint as you say) a publisher I'd submitted it to who'd rejected it rang me and said he'd been seriously thinking of doing it and would have taken it on if I hadn't done it myself - which was a fat lot of good then, wasn't it?
When did you switch to writing full time and was it a difficult transition?
I moved to Mallorca in 1969 and worked on a spy novel which wasn't published for another 5 or 6 years (The Sexless Spy). I was able to do this because I sold my share in an advertising creative group and this was enough cash to last about a year, but after that the money ran out. Then I did a stint with Granada TV, writing and presenting a weekly arts show, which kept me going while I wrote Rule of Night. The money on the early novels was not fantastic but was just enough to live on (I was married with two kids at the time) and the Granada money helped of course.
In the second novel of your 'Q' series trilogy, Through the Eye of Time, a group of scientists attempt to duplicate a human brain and chose to duplicate Adolf Hitler's. Of all of historical characters available to you, why did you select him?
Don't think there was a specific reason (this was over 30 years ago remember) except that Hitler was and is a fascinating historical character with obvious dramatic potential. There was no political or ulterior motive to the choice; it was simply what would make a good story.
How did your involvement with Blake's 7 come about?
My fiction editor, Nick Austin, who commissioned me to write the Q series, asked me if I'd like to do a novelisation of a new BBC science fiction series created by Terry Nation. Nick was editor at Sphere Books at the time, and as the money was good I said yes.
Your first Blake's 7 novel was a novelisation of the first four episodes of the show. At the time you came to write it, were these episodes "in the can" so that you could watch them, or were you reliant on the scripts for reference?
After I'd agreed to do the book, Terry Nation rang me to discuss the early episodes which he was still writing (he'd finished the first two as I recall) and as I'd by then published several SF novels he asked for some advice on the scientific/technical background to the show which he wasn't confident about. In particular he didn't know what type of spaceship and propulsion unit Blake and his crew should have. I suggested a couple of things and we discussed ion-drives and plasma thrusters and so on, but in the end I said it was probably better either not to specify the hardware at all or to keep it fairly vague, which is what he did.
In the novels most of the "scientific" jargon in exposition (not dialogue) is my invention because that wasn't Terry's strong suit, which he freely admitted. In fact he made one or two howlers which I had to correct - in one episode when someone is ejected into space he had them screaming, until I pointed out that space is a vacuum and sound waves don't travel.
Terry fed the scripts through to me in first draft so I could get on with the book, but they'd only just started casting it (I think Gareth Thomas had been cast but none of the others) and so it made describing the characters difficult because no one knew which actors would play them. I had to add descriptive touches later on as I was sent photographs of the cast. Television production often works right up to the week (or even the day) before transmission whereas publishing schedules work months in advance. This was in the days before computers so the final edited manuscript had to be delivered to the publisher before the episodes were recorded so the book could be printed, bound, etc and distributed. As you may know, changes are made in the studio on the day of recording by which time the actual book is sitting in a warehouse somewhere.
The first episode of Blake's 7, The Way Back, underwent considerable changes in the scripting process. Did this affect you and your novel in any way?
That all depends on whether the changes were made before or after the publishing deadline. If they were made afterwards it was too late to change anything because the book was with the printer's.
Were you aware that the book was sold in secondary schools pupils as part of the regular monthly book club purchases and became the "Book of the Month" in many of them?
No. This is news to me.
The novel was sufficiently popular that it led to an immediate follow up title Project Avalon which novelized five more scripts Seek-Locate-Destroy, Duel, Project Avalon, Deliverance (in a heavily truncated form) and Orac. Why did you decide to significantly excise much of the script of Deliverance?
I can't remember doing so. If it happened it was for one of two reasons. Either the script was heavily altered after the publishing deadline (see above) or the publisher decided to make the book shorter due to cost factors (publishers are wont to do this on occasion) but I personally wouldn't have made cuts to the original script - I never deviated by a single word from any script I was working on.
How did you come to write the third season script Ultraworld?
I'd worked with script editor Chris Boucher on some aspects of the novels and he asked me to contribute to the series.
Were you aware that the opening episode of season two Redemption had a similar premise?
No idea. If it had been that similar I think Chris would have pointed it out.
The production of your script seemed to have been afforded a higher effects budget than was customary. Can you shed any light on this?
Not sure the budget was any different actually. I did ask for a dozen or so "Ultra" aliens but they could afford only three. Small planet, Ultraworld.
Were you happy with how your script translated from script to screen?
Within the confines and restrictions of television, yes. You have to make huge compromises between the writer's vision and what appears on screen. I know they decided to dumb down the various riddles that Vila is feeding Orac to make them suitable to a popular audience - they were taken from a child's joke book I believe.
Were you aware that on its first showing in the US, the death throes of the Brain were deemed to be too gruesome and they were cut prior to transmission?
No, really! Doesn't surprise me though. American mainstream TV is a joke.
The first book was published by Sphere Books, Project Avalon by Arrow and Scorpio Attack by BBC Books. Why the changes in publisher?
Presumably Sphere didn't pick up the option or Arrow made a better offer - outside my influence or expertise. BBC Books contacted me to write Scorpio Attack a few years later and I wasn't party to the publishing decisions that led to the gap. I was always asked to write the Blake's 7 novelisations; I novelised the scripts I was asked to, I had no say in what was selected. Writers aren't in the loop on these matters. Publishing executives work in their own mysterious way.
In 1983 you wrote The Last Gasp and seven years later a revised edition was published in the UK. Can you tell us the basic premise of the book?
The Last Gasp was published both in the US and the UK in 1983 and a revised version in the UK in 1990. Nick Austin, who had commissioned the book originally, thought it deserved to be re-published in 1990 and asked me to update it, which I did. The idea behind the book was that due to man-made pollution of the oceans and forests the oxygen in the air would become depleted, leading to catastrophic results for humankind. I spent 3 years researching and writing the novel, which was hailed as a "landmark" in eco fiction by the Washington Post - but in early eighties America the media weren't interested in stories about the environment and global warming etc. I know this to be a fact because I went to the States to publicise it and didn't get a single TV or radio interview in 3 weeks from New York to Los Angeles. (Incidentally Terry Nation was living in LA at the time and asked me to send him a copy of The Last Gasp which of course I was pleased to do.)
The Last Gasp is currently under option by a Hollywood Production Company. What can you tell us about this?
The novel has been optioned three times by Hollywood production companies and I've been told that filming could begin later this year - though I won't hold my breath waiting for it to begin. Movies are like that.
Your next novel was the critically acclaimed black comedy Vail set in a futuristic Britain. In the cold war atmosphere that prevailed in Thatcherite Britain at the time, future scenarios tended not to be upbeat, but in many ways yours was particularly doom laden. Was your novel a reaction to the political climate at the time?
Absolutely. I hated Thatcher and everything she stood for. I think she destroyed the soul and spirit of this country and I will never forgive her for it. Yes the book was doom laden, as you say, but many readers found it wonderfully funny too - black humour taken to the extreme. I like Vail very much (and I am very critical of other novels I've written) and it comes as near as dammit to the novel I had in mind when I planned it, which is not often the case.
In 2003, your reissued your 1975 classic Rule of Night which centres on a 16 year old violent hooligan, Kenny, who despite his acts of violence, sexism, racism and callousness you still care about what happens to him as you discover the person within. What drove you to write the story and then republish it when you did?
I've written about this myself; have a read of Return of the Skinhead.
Of your many radio plays, GIGO, a comedy drama where the hero becomes increasing 'obsessed' with acausal connections in life, won the Radio Times drama award for best play. How did such an original concept for the play come to you?
To be honest I haven't a clue. It must have stemmed from my fascination with quantum mechanics, which I've studied in a lay fashion for over 30 years - in fact the Q trilogy in the seventies was inspired by this too. The fact about GIGO (stands for Garbage In Garbage Out, by the way) is that radio is the perfect medium to present such ideas in a dramatic fashion - you can suggest so much that excites the visual imagination on radio which wouldn't work at all on TV or film. I don't think the cast (which included the excellent Alun Armstrong) had a clue what it was about, but that didn't matter, they didn't need to.
What can you tell us about what you writing right now?
I have another radio play (MindScape) already written, which I'm waiting to hear if the BBC will take it. The big problem with radio drama is that you have only one market - and if it's turned down by them you have nowhere else to go.
I have a novel I'm working on about a neo-fascist takeover of Britain in the not-too-distant future (kingdom of darkness) using the internet as Goebbels used the press. This has been causing me all sorts of problems and I should buckle down to it and write the damn thing before the reality comes to pass, which it will do all too quickly.
There are other ideas floating around - a film screenplay about a girl stalking a French movie star, and there's a collection of short stories I'd like to publish. And there's a trilogy of novels set in the fifties (The Rock 'n' Roll Diaries) which is my era. .
I hope this is useful and informative and thanks for your interest.
Trevor Hoyle, thank you very much.