Paul Magrs: Magic and Mystery

Photo: Paul Magrs

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 21 May 2015. Paul Magrs was fantastic to interview – such a lovely, down-to-earth man, and very tolerant of my amateur-hour shenanigans. As ever, this has been edited for re-upload, to take out some of my self-indulgent waffle and get us to the good stuff. Enjoy.

Paul Magrs is a versatile writer, to say the least. Over the course of his twenty-year career he has written a huge number of novels, short stories and radio plays, in genres as wide-ranging as literary fiction, magical realism, horror, and even Doctor Who spin-off fiction. He was kind enough to meet with me to discuss his latest novels, the importance of disregarding genre and the experience of writing his first memoir.

The conversation opened with his last novel, the picaresque adventure Mrs Danby and Company. “I always wanted to write a Steampunk novel. I’ve always liked that genre, even before it was called Steampunk. I realised that everything I liked were kind of mystery stories, that’s the thing that connects everything I’ve done, in a way; they’re all mystery stories. For me that goes back to that kind of late Victorian or Edwardian time of serialised adventure stories. I wanted to do one that interacted with, or chimed off stories from that time, and brought in those kind of characters, and was a proper romp as well.”

Did this format involve any structural challenges? “It’s quite hard work to end each bit in a cliffhanger, and obey all the rules of adventure writing, although I’ve kind of picked them up from writing various adventure stories for things like Doctor Who in the past. But then of course, with typical perversity, what I do is go and write it as a novel in letters and diaries, make it even more complicated in terms of sequencing the events. It was all kind of a headache. But I loved doing the three different voices of the characters, because they’re all a lot of fun.”

What attracted Magrs to steampunk? Was it just a genre he hadn’t done yet? “Yes, exactly that. Everything I’ve ever done, whatever the project, is about fulfilling some kind of ambition I’ve got for either a genre or a form. So for a while it was the idea of the magical realist novel, and then doing my own Doctor Who stuff, and then getting into things like space opera, or mystery writing, gothic-comic stuff, they’re all just ambitions, it’s like ‘What else do I fancy doing?’ It’s only last year that I published my first kind of memoir-y book. That took a while to get round to. But yeah, it’s always a process of ‘What do I really want to do next?’ It’s not the most organised of careers, it’s all intuitively moving in the direction I want to move in.”

This month sees the release of Magrs’ newest novel, the children’s sci-fi adventure Lost On Mars. What’s the story behind that? “I wanted to write a space opera for kids. Something that combined Ray Bradbury, and that vision of a quite exotic Mars, with the pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Little House on the Prairie. To have frontiers-people on Mars and their struggles, that was the starting point; the idea of the Little House on Mars. And then it became this kind of epic with a gang of people struggling across the surface of Mars, looking for civilisation, but not the civilisation they expect to find – they find a Victorian city, so it’s all a bit of a surprise. Again, it’s meshing and blending different fictional traditions and conventions, and seeing what I can get to come out of them.”

What attracts Magrs to this kind of genre play? “It’s completely natural. I could never colour inside the lines when I was a kid – it’s the same thing. Of course received wisdom is that it’s a difficult thing to do, and a difficult thing for people to sell. But I couldn’t write a conventional take on any genre. It’d be pointless. There’s lots of people writing conventional stuff.”

Last November saw the American release of Magrs’ sort-of memoir The Story of Fester Cat.   How has it been received? “I’ve been getting daily emails and fan mail from America and New Zealand and Australia, which is really lovely, and people have taken to their heart, because it’s a kind of mixing genre thing. It’s from the cat’s point of view, like Virginia Woolf’s Flush. But we still haven’t got a British edition, because most editors didn’t like the mixing of fiction and non-fiction. Again, you hit upon these ridiculous genre excuses, these marketing excuses, which is a shame.”

Despite this, audience responses have been overwhelmingly positive. “People love Fester. It’s the voice, very clearly singing out of that book. This kind of slightly rude, sweet voice.”

What was the writing process like? “It was amazing. It’s almost two years ago exactly that he died. It was the end of March 2013, and the next day, or the day after, Easter Monday, I sat down and just wrote like a demon, and the first draft was done inside a month. With him telling the story, his whole life with us, going back– it was weirdly like being possessed. I’ve heard about people being taken over by the voice of a character for the length of a book, and it hadn’t quite happened in the same way. It’s a very intense, kind of magical experience, really.”

So, what’s next for Magrs? “I’ve got a novel set here in Levenshulme, that’s a magical realist novel about a community, so it’s much more like the stuff I did right and the beginning, like Marked for Life or Does it Show?. That’s a bit weird, to go back to the original genre, in a way. That kind of soapy magical realism, which I’ve missed.” Whatever his next project may be, Magrs can always be relied upon to surprise his audience. He may freely hop between styles, genres and media, but one thing Magrs has never been is dull.

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