The Cat in the Hat talks back

An Interview with Kate Orman

Interview conducted by Richard Prekodravac at the March Tavern
Australian Museum Hotel, Sydney
3rd March 1995
As it appeared in Broadsword issue two

A brew of coffee sits in my cup next to the keyboard. A copy of Hummer isn't far away, the noticeable gap of Set Piece hangs overhead. I just have to turn off the radio to listen to the prerecorded interview with Kate Orman.
Kate seems to me an interesting character, (or should that be person). The only contact with her until now was through Data Extract, Bog Off, and Hummer, so with her as only a writer of articles, letters and NA she appears more as a character rather than a person. She likes Transit which means she must be a great person (character) to know.
Neither David or I had any idea what she looked like. Except for Bog Off issue 100 where there's a picture of her.
It's a black and white picture. Well she has red hair, which means if Bonnie Langford can't come back, Kate will have to step in as Mel. I wonder if she can scream?
But if she were to be a companion she would,... well I don't know.

Richard: I read recently that you started what finally became Hummer about eight years ago. Eight years ago Doctor Who was a very different series, what did you have in mind when you started Hummer? What could Hummer have been?
Kate: What kind of triggered it was, I was always very interested by the Aztecs but I knew nothing about them, and there was the central idea of The Left-Handed Hummingbird. And I remember, in fact when I was thinking of this, I was into very bad poetry based on television series, I used to do this a lot. I was looking at the Sixth Doctor and his coat and the fact that Colin was left handed and I thought there's a connection! Which is actually pretty nonsensical.
So I didn't end up doing that, but the idea that he was this sort of nasty Aztec god and he was the Doctor with these sort of strange shared, meaningless characteristics that kind of stayed because in the final version of Hummer you get the Doctor and this guy blurring together and kind of becoming one another.
So there was all that, and I wrote various scenes, I had Peri being taken over by Aztecs and trying to kill the Doctor with Aztec swords and, just rubbish really. And there were sacrifice scenes on top of buildings and just weird scenes or ideas. I didn't really write it, but I ended up actually writing a very strange version which is the equivalent of chapter 14. It was a Seventh Doctor story by then with old Ace, it's just the little section set on the Titanic. That was a Jason Towers' Pirate Planet fanzine and it was actually full of bizarre gaffs like Huitzilin, who was call Huitzilopochtli in the short story, he was supposed to be intangible but he kept picking things up. Jason published it and wrote to me and said; 'You know Kate this story doesn't make any sense, one day you're going to have to rewrite it so it all hangs together'. So it kind of developed over the years from this kind of basic stupid idea and then I really got into the Seventh Doctor and changed it.
Richard: In Hummer you seem to tell a lot of the story from the personal perspective's of Ace, the Doctor and Benny. Are these your personal perspective's on things? Benny says that people think history is made up of battles and...
Kate: Oh, the line about photocopying? That was actually something I had been reading about, especially in women's history they tend to, you know how history tends to be, well it is, it's battles and conquests and disasters.
You never hear of the under side of history which is more about as a plate of food is put on the table waiters and sewing and cooking and domestic life and all the stuff that the women were doing gets left out. So I was introduced to that concept while looking at books on women's history working in the library. And I thought you know it's true you never hear about that.
I'm really obsessive with the details. In Hummer you get all the stuff about what the Aztecs eat. In Set Piece there is so much detail about what the Egyptians eat. It was really embarrassing when I was reading it out to the writers' circle they were laughing every time anybody ate something they were going; 'More food in this book'.
I think I'm much more present in Christián, I used to get the panic attacks that he suffers from, so I was able to describe them in, what I hope was recognisable detail, so somebody else who had the same problem would go; 'Yeah I recognise that'. It's not exactly the author surrogate because we're quite different in a lot of other ways.
I think I'm probably more like Bernice than I am like Ace, it was at times hard to get a grip on her Ace, and you kind of want to make her sympathetic but she has got to be so aggressive and particularly in that book, so nasty.
Bernice is the only person who is still human at the end of the book. She's still trying to crack jokes and care about things and both Ace and the Doctor have got more and more nasty and dark as it has gone on.
Richard: In Hummer you seem to take delight in mentioning small cultural elements like Star Trek twice, Back to the Future, Hard Rock Cafe (Svartos) ...
Kate: There are about six Aliens quotes in that book, I'm really embarrassed by that ...
Richard: Indiana Jones ...
Kate: Oh, there's heaps!!! Have you read Set Piece, have you got hold of it?
David: No not yet, we can't seem to find it.
Kate: There is so much Temple of Doom in that book its very very silly.
Richard: I was reminded of Australian writers like Henry Lawson who filled their stories with a lot a Australian iconography. Do you think although they're smaller elements, they're very important to a novel?
Kate: This is where I'm hugely influenced by Paul Cornell or Andrew Cartmel who give you this incredible sense of being there. Because they obsess over details, you know the names of pop songs, what people are wearing, you get this real sense of place, you are really there, these things are really happening.
Now try and get that for an ancient civilisation, you've got to give people the sense they really are in ancient Egypt, and exactly what people would wear on their feet, and what their beds are made of, to place it. But of course if you screw up the details in ancient Mexico most of your readers aren't going to notice so it's much easier than trying to get Birmingham right or something.
Those other references, Dave McIntee is much, much worse than I am, he's got the first Quantum Leap reference in the NA. I'm really jealous, because I wanted to put a Quantum Leap reference in and he's done it, but he got it wrong. Somebody says sceptically of the UFO thing; 'Oh that's just like something out of Future Boy', and I'm going; 'no no no, the show is called 'Captain Galaxy' David, it's not Future Boy that's the name of the Quantum Leap episode'.
Partly because it's such a buzz for science fiction fans reading it to go; 'There it is', and also because yeah, people really do watch Star Trek in the real world, and they're not going to be watching Doctor Who in the Doctor Who universe. I want to put a Star Trek fan in the next book.
Oh I can't put it in the next one because it's not set on Earth, maybe the one after that. I would just like to have somebody who's a fan, and I wouldn't make a big deal of it, they're just there and they've got the t-shirts and, they've got the videos working.
Richard: Chapter 14 starts off at 'let's pause the video tape for a moment'. Are you making a statement on NA verses TV Who, by writing that, you're equating TV, video and then... as if the story itself is on video?
Kate: That's, you know, I didn't actually think of that. Well there you are, you have done something where the author's intention isn't there. I think you could actually look at that and say yeah OK here's this comment, lets pretend we're watching a television show because it's not really different. I like it I think I'll adopt that interpretation, I'm really try to say this is real Doctor Who. I think it's because I'm so much thinking that I'm watching it and you kind of mentally direct the scenes. I'm very obsessive about working out where people are standing in relation to one another and what they're wearing.
I think I'm very visual, you've got to remember to cover all five senses when you're writing, but because it's television you seem to always be thinking of what you would see on the screen. I want Alan Wareing to come and direct The Left-Handed Humming Bird.
Richard: How did you manage to get Ace's last story? Did Peter Darvill-Evans ring up and say would you like to do Ace's last story, or did you have an idea that was just so fantastic that ...
Kate: That's the one. No when I was vacationing in Britain in September before last, there was a dinner party where all the NA authors went, anyway, there were all these people, it was really fascinating and we just wondered about taking to one another. Goth Opera and Blood Harvest were born that night, Paul and Terrance just walked around for hours, it was so much fun to watch and all these ideas were being kicked around.
Pete says; 'Look we've got to get rid of Ace, even though I invented her, people aren't responding to her really well you guys have to think of a way to do it'.
And everybody is going; 'I'd kill her', 'I'd marry her', 'I'm going to kill her', 'I'll blow her up', 'Daleks will kill her', 'The Doctor will kill her'.
Pete's going; 'No we have to get the continuity with the end of The Curse of Fenric novelisation'. We're going; 'Oh Peter can't we kill her'.
He's going; 'No you have to do this', it would have been obvious to kill Ace off, so I was the person who thought of a way of doing it, and I actually said to Rebecca; 'Oh how about this', and she said; 'Yeah all right'.
I also said to her that night; 'Gosh. You must have so many submissions set in ancient Egypt' and she said; 'No we haven't had any', so I said; 'Oh well I better do one then', so that's where that idea came from.
Richard: Set Piece seems to be the most eagerly awaited NA ...
Kate: That's because everybody hates Ace. They want to see her shredded.
Richard: I was wondering if you took pleasure in this and sort of tried to get fuck in as many times as possible Kate laughs or as many sex scenes as possible or as many different drugs as much as possible, to get some nerdy fan say; 'Ooh that's not Doctor Who'?
Kate: Well that's the point of the whole thing really, it was Cornell who said; 'The aim of it is to piss off the fanboys, which is always worth doing'.
In fact, there's no drugs or sex in Set Piece, there's just enormous quantities of violence, which is the thing that's always thrown me. People can accept enormous quantities of blood and horror, but you put in a sex scene and wham, you're the Antichrist, it's terrible.
No Warlock has pretty much done drugs, or rather everybody in Warlock have done so many drugs, that there are now no more that we can do. We have to wait until Cartmel dies and smoke his ashes, its like that. All the drugs in the world were done in Warlock, so that's passe, we've done that.
I'm desperate to put a really incredible sex scene in the third book, I just want to put a huge chapter long sex scene, because I've never written a sex scene. I just think it would be really cool, because this is a thing that Kate Orman doesn't do in her books. So I'll do that.
What's in Set Piece that will piss everybody off? I don't know, several things that I can't tell you actually, they're huge plot spoilers.
I have to say I didn't put the drugs in Hummer intentionally to annoy people, but I was rather pleased when they were annoyed because it meant they were paying attention. To get a response out of people is such a buzz, even if it's a negative response. But a lot of people would say; 'I had trouble with this but I'm not saying that you're a bad person'. I got a lot of eMail like that, you know, 'I felt very uncomfortable with the Doctor doing it but I still though it was really cool', and that's the best kind of feedback, where they disagree with you rather than saying; 'Look I think you should be killed frankly, you should never write for NA again', I got a little bit like that.
Richard: Did you have any expectation yourself about Set Piece?
Kate: I thought it was going to be a catastrophe, it was so hard to write. With Hummer I had all this material and I'd worked out the plot carefully before I started.
With Set Piece I just started wading in to it and I didn't do my home work, I didn't work it out properly first and I really really struggled. I rang up Ben Aaronovitch really nervous, I got him out of the shower actually, really really nervously say; 'Look um Virgin said I should call you to talk about Kadiatu'. He was so helpful and I just have this notebook full if things that he told me about, you know, the Cartmelian Masterplan.
The only problem was I really screwed up Kadiatu I was saying she thinks this, he was explaining things from Transit that I hadn't fully understood, and had given me background. I've got this character wrong what am I going to get her to do in the last third of the book won't really work, I'll have to do something else. I was really nervous and people who know me will tell you that for months I was complaining, that I was so worried about this book and I was moaning about it all the time, I was working on weekends and I was really panicking about it. So I thought it would be terrible.
I think what happened is that I put so much bloody work in to it that I turned it around I mean I really worked my arse off and I think that was what redeemed it. Craig Hinton eMailed me to say he really liked it and I just thought; 'Thank god' if the DWM reviewer likes it you're away.
Richard: How much can you read into a NA? There was a line you put in Hummer where the Doctor had a scar over his heart where Ace had turned the blade in. Is this actually talking more about the Doctor's relationship with Ace rather than just that piece of information?
Kate: It's pretty symbolic isn't it, it's really beautiful that Paul picked that up use it again in No Future, where she stabs him again and he says; 'arch, the old wound'. So it kind of works well as a metaphor. That whole Aztec heart thing is so much fun because in mid western poetry the heart has always been used as the centre of the emotions. Having it cut out by somebody is about the worst thing you could kind of envisage emotionally. So yeah, I guess so, it's quite an obvious symbol. I like to think he still has that scar and always will for the rest of his incarnation. She doesn't kill him in, well actually I wont tell you about that, Set Piece goes bloody close.
Richard: The MA seem to have a strict format in the way they are written, and supposed to fit in. Do you think that introducing some of the 'objectionable' elements from the NA are appropriate for MA?
Kate: Not given the format that has been established for them, I mean they're meant to be pastiche of the show as it was on telly. I think that objectionable stuff you can still do quite a bit of, because there was that material always in the series, there was always politics, there was always social commentary and there was always tonnes and tonnes of violence and horror, I mean of course, fans don't mind that.
If you are trying to strictly capture the feel of the series, I mean you have got to write Troughton as a children's book almost, so no you couldn't do it if that is what you're strictly trying to do. I'm keen to see people just try and budge the envelope a little bit. Like do a Hartnell-cyberpunk, well that's not pushing the envelope a little bit, that's actually ridiculous.
I'd love to see that kind of experimentation but I just don't think that's what the MA are about and that's why its great that we still have the NA we can still try on new things and keep it up to date, whereas with MA we are very much looking backwards. It's a totally different approach.
Richard: Do you think there needs to be more continuity among the NA Kate laughs. The Doctor seems to be a different person in each of the novels. In the beginning you had, if you compare the Genesys Doctor to the Exodus Doctor, he seemed completely different?
Kate: The main problem is that it is really difficult for us to read one another's manuscripts. Paul's very good about it, he read all the manuscripts in the alternative universe cycle first. Yeah, there are some big continuity goofs, you feel like it would be really nice to smooth it out.
As for the Doctor's character I think it's actually a strength of the Seventh Doctor in that he is such a variable character and its good for the audience. If they don't care for the manipulative one then you can use a lighter one like in Gareth's books or a Witch Mark type Doctor. The thing is it would be good if you could get a little bit of all the different facets of his personality in the same book. So in some ways it's quite a good thing, but in other ways you think we need to get together and we need to talk more and plan more and say; 'What are you guys doing in your book we'll try and tie it together'. The NA authors who are mates do that anyway, they talk to one another and swap stuff so you'll get ties and common themes running.
Richard: To date you're the only Australian to have a NA published and also the only woman. Do you think that you are the token woman, or token Australian, or token non-British of the authors of the NA series?
Kate: Token would kind of imply that they got me in just because they thought; 'Well we better have a women', but no it was definitely merit guys. The problem is that there are hardly any female Doctor Who fans.
Ness Bishop in the UK is such an obvious person to write a NA she did a story for Decalog, but I don't quite know what happened there, whether she just never submitted one or what?
I think Sarah Groenewegen will get one eventually, there are lots and lots of Australians. More will happen. The series is settling down a bit now, it's getting more like a stable of writers and since they started with so many men, most of them are men. I plan to keep writing thousands of these damn things.

Have you ever noticed that in the beginning of Legacy Gary Russell wrote a little introduction, in which he thanks several people including 'Kate Orman for coming to England and just being a fiery Pakher'. I think that Gary based the character of Keri (the Pakher journalist) on Kate.
In the interview, we took out all the 'ums' and 'ars' but we left in the 'yeahs'. Have you ever noticed that Keri ends all her sentences with yeah...
I could be wrong, you decide.

The novels of Kate Orman include:

The Left-Handed Hummingbird
Set Piece
Return of the Living Dad
A Room with No Doors (1997)
Vampire Science (1997 with Jon Blum)

If you want to eMail Kate Orman, the godess of time and space
If you want to know more about this femme fatale, then there'sKate Orman's Page
But if you don't want to do either then you can just Bog Off!

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