Where the streets are paved with magic – Paul Cornell interview

I recently read Paul Cornell‘s London Falling (Tor UK, Kindle edition) in one sitting, a rare thing fr me these days. His take on London, which did remind a little of some authors mentioned below, is invigorating. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the book before dashing off to Edinburgh for the books strand and the Stripped comic festival.

Paul has written for television (Doctor Who, Primeval amongst others), comics (including Wolverine, Saucer Country, Batman and Robin amongst others) and two previous novels, British Summertime and Something More.

A recent vein about writing about criminals has been an apparent “honourable” criminal fraternity of the Krays and so on. How much of this was in your mind with the gangs and moving away from a new folklore? How much of this is reflecting changes in culture? How much of an influence/distraction are the work of Ben Aaronovitch, or Peter Milligan‘s Greek Street or Si Spencer‘s The Vinyl Underground?

I don’t believe in ‘honourable’ gangsters. Toshack certainly doesn’t fit that bill when it comes to dealing with the outside world, it’s just that his added dimension makes him able to treat a number of people close to him decently. I try and be as up to date as possible with the criminal London portrayed in the Shadow Police books, which my sources allow me to do. I’m a great fan of all three authors you mention, but the only one of those I’ve read is Ben’s. And that was just the first one, to check I wasn’t treading on his toes. I try not to read in the genre I’m in, but I regard the group of London urban fantasy writers as people like Sarah Pinborough, Sophia McDougall, China MiĆ©ville, Neil Gaiman, etc.

You have a slightly comical interlude with the representatives of three faiths. How much of this was a comment on the changed Britain and also updating one of the cores of Horror, the focus on Christian based solutions?

It was an attempt to include faith, which these days tends to get excluded, when, in this case, it would be the logical thing to look into. It’s slightly comical because my police heroes now, of course, have a much more concrete idea of matters numinous than the liberal clerics do. I’m a believer myself, so it’s trying to reposition where that lies in the modern world in terms of fantasy.

Yet under this, there is a strong adherence to the “laws” of Horror and magic. How important is it to use these to anchor the reader into genre whilst also updating them?

I rather think of these books as SF novels, in that they’re puzzle-solving stories, where the nature of magic itself is put on a dissection table (or rather an Ops Board). I see genre as a set of rules to play with or break. Rules are a bit different to genre expectations. I was surprised to find that London Falling was regarded as being more horrific than urban fantasy normally is.

A running theme in London Falling is memory and mythical memory. Part of it reminded me of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, especially when Brutus appeared but also the soil. How important is it to build on these myths but also reflect on their changing nature? Given the work of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd in exploring the city’s history and mythology and also the native mythology of the area, how do these constrain or help writing about the city?

Mythago Wood is indeed a very important book for me. I think it’s true. Sinclair and Ackroyd are very much touchstones, very much what these books seek to be about. I’m looking to go forward in developing a fictional world that’s inspired by their work. And by the Situationists. I’m trying to set up absurdities in that tradition too.

You mention the “hidden culture of London” with the characters who become attuned to it getting the Sight. Is this something to do with writing about cities or England?

Well, every city has a hidden culture, but London, like with everything else, just has more of it. We’ll be getting down into the layers of it in the second book, The Severed Streets. ‘Jack the Ripper is back, but this time he’s killing rich white men.’

Are there going to be more novels with these characters or this version of the city?

Absolutely. The new one’s out in December, and I’m looking to write five in all, by the end of which the whole city, in time, space and other dimensions, will hopefully be laid out like a diagram. With characters at an angle to that, obviously.

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