All Flesh is Grass – Interview with Una McCormack

As Time Lord Victorious reaches its closing chapters, the final entry in the novel duology – All Flesh is Grass by Una McCormack, out today from BBC Books and Penguin RH – unites the Tenth Doctor with two of his past incarnations and sees the end of the Kotturuh…

Even a Time Lord can’t change the past.

A wasteland. A dead world… No, there is a biodome, rising from the ash. Here, life teems and flourishes, with strange and lush plants, and many-winged insects with bright carapaces – and one solitary sentient creature, who spends its days watering the plants, talking to the insects, and tending this lonely garden. This is Inyit, the Last of the Kotturuh.

In All Flesh is Grass we are transported back to The Dark Times. The Tenth Doctor has sworn to stop the Kotturuh, ending Death and bringing Life to the universe. But his plan is unravelling – instead of bringing Life, nothing has changed and all around him people are dying. Death is everywhere. Now he must confront his former selves – one in league with their greatest nemesis and the other manning a ship of the undead…

Synopsis

This book, of course, follows on from The Knight, the Fool and the Dead by Steve Cole. If you need a refresher, I interviewed Steve about the book back in October.

Interview with Una McCormack

Author Una McCormack took the time to speak with me about the novel. To start, I asked Una how she first got involved with Time Lord Victorious

I think I first heard about it from Steve Cole, who emailed to explain the project and ask whether I’d be interested in writing the second book in the planned duology. I was incredibly excited and said, “Yes please!”

Una McCormack
All Flesh is Grass by Una McCormack; Cover Artwork: Lee Binding
All Flesh is Grass by Una McCormack; Cover Artwork: Lee Binding

With the release of an updated timeline, we learn that the book takes place during the Dark Times section of the Time Lord Victorious narrative. Not only that, the story is split into two parts between which the BBC Audio story The Minds of Magnox and a pair of short stories take place. I asked Una how that structure came about and the logistics of integrating other stories into her novel…

That was part of the remit: I was asked to make it possible for stories to take place within the action of my own book, so I simply covered that in a few lines. I didn’t collaborate with those other creators. I think it would have made things over-complicated in my own mind – and I had enough going on! But it was very straightforward simply to leave the gap for their storytelling to take place.

Una McCormack

Timelines

And, as with all entries in this multi-platform mega-story, All Flesh is Grass builds on and leads into other events in Time Lord Victorious. Lizzie Hopley’s Big Finish audio Mutually Assured Destruction takes place right after this and continues the story for the Eighth Doctor, who appears in the novel. How difficult was it to write a satisfying story and also make sure enough pieces were left in play for later writers to carry on?

Phew, it was not easy! There was a lot going on! I think the most important thing in projects like this is to check in regularly with the other people you’re working with, and try not to over-complicate things unduly. Make sure you’re clear on what needs to be picked up and resolved, and don’t try to leave too much up in the air for the person coming after you.

Una McCormack

With so many moving parts, there must have been things that writers wanted to do but couldn’t because of events happening elsewhere in TLV – like the real star of the show, Brian the Ood. Did Una experience this?

There’s plenty of Brian to go round in this book – if that isn’t a spoiler! I think I got to have a go at all the parts of the TLV set-up that really interested me: the Kotturuh in particular were fascinating, and they were the big pull storytelling pull for me. And I got to invent some fun new things of my own.

Una McCormack

The Doctor(s)

All Flesh is Grass centers around the Tenth Doctor following the events of The Knight, the Fool and the Dead where he’s embraced his new Time Lord Victorious persona. This is the first time Una has written the Tenth Doctor, having penned four novels for the Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Doctors while also writing short stories and audios for classic series Doctors. How did she approach the Tenth Doctor while also working in his new identity?

Yes, this is my first time writing the Tenth Doctor! He has a very distinctive voice, and usually monopolises any room that he’s in. Unfortunately for him, in the course of this book, the room also often contains various earlier versions of himself, who also like monopolising whichever room they’re in.

Una McCormack

But there’s also the other Doctors to contend with, as the Eighth and Ninth Doctors show up having been dragged into the adventure from the audios and comics respectively. Any multi-Doctor story is exciting for fans but it must be just as exciting for the writer…

That was one of the big draws for me. Getting to see what it’s like putting several Doctors together: what the differences are, etc. It’s a technical challenge in a novel as well, as you can’t rely on having the actors’ voices to differentiate, as you would in an audio play. So you’ve got to find a way to convey those Doctors on the page.

Una McCormack

And, I had to ask, are there any Doctor Who characters that Una had yet to write for on her bucket list. The answer…

I’d like to get a full house of Doctors. I’m doing pretty well so far!

Una McCormack

She’s not wrong. By my count, Una has yet to write for the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and War Doctors (also Jo Martin’s “Fugitive” Doctor if that ever becomes a possibility) so more than halfway there. Though since Una has also written for David Warner’s “Unbound” Doctor, the tally is a little confusing.

Who Trek

As well as being an accomplished academic, Una has also written countless Star Trek books (literally countless, Trek spin-off media is less well-documented than Who). Since All Flesh is Grass contains elements of a large-scale space epic, arguably more of the Trek variety, I wondered if her work in that franchise helped Una to write this story…

Yes, I’d participated in a large-scale series before on the Star Trek range: a five-book series titled ‘The Fall’. That was a great help – knowing that there are certain things that you can control for, and others that you can’t, and not worrying about either. I wrote the second book in that series, which meant I was involved more in setting up the arc, whereas for All Flesh is Grass I was bringing more to a conclusion.

Una McCormack

Steve Cole

This novel concludes the story arc set up in Steve Cole’s The Knight, the Fool and the Dead back in October. Steve and Una have collaborated on Doctor Who plenty of times – some of the first WhoShelf posts interviewed each of them while they sat next to each other at a signing event – but did the nature of Time Lord Victorious change their working style?

Steve Cole is fantastic to work with: very focused, very professional, full of ideas, and really generous with his creativity and inventiveness. He seems to have a limitless supply of really fun ideas. We had some tight deadlines on this project, and he was always there to be supportive, give guidance, make me feel confident that I could get the book done on time, and to a great standard. I love working with Steve

Una McCormack
Juno Dawson, Una McCormack and Steve Cole at a signing event for their Thirteenth Doctor novels at Forbidden Planet, November 2018

The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway

To close out our chat, I ask Una if she can tease any upcoming projects…

There’s nothing I can announce right now, but I’ve just had a Star Trek book released, titled The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway from Titan Books. The conceit of the book is that I’ve interviewed Captain Janeway about her life and career, and then edited that into a kind of memoir. It’s a celebration of both Star Trek: Voyager (twenty-five years old this year!) and also the show’s marvellous star, Kate Mulgrew.

Una McCormack

The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway by Una McCormack is available to buy now from Titan Books.

With thanks to Una McCormack for taking the time to talk to me and the good folks at Penguin Random House for their help in providing resources.

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