Ben Aaronovitch has now published five books in his Rivers of London series (the sixth will come out later this year). The latest, Foxglove Summer, saw the main character, Peter Grant, take a case outside of London for the first time. The chair, Stuart Kelly, explains that this change caused an interesting shift in many of the aspects of Aaronovitch’s world and introduced the reader to life in the countryside.
Aaronovitch moves to stand and jokes that he likes podiums, you can hide behind them and they’re something to lean on. He says he won’t do a set speech, he discovered he was very bad at set speeches at a painful sci-fi convention where there were more authors than fans in the audience. Instead he will take questions because he’s very good at rambling 15-minute digressions that result in him needing to check that he answered the original question. Something he proves true over the subsequent interesting and hilarious hour.
The first question, preceded by “Yes, gentleman – no, lady. I have terrible eyesight, and I’m colour blind.”, is about the genesis of Rivers of London and his formative influences. Aaronovitch explains that his entire life was a formative influence and the first book came from a mix of ideas and the need to not go bankrupt, an easy fate to fall into when you’re living in central London and working in retail. He had a job in the Covent Garden Waterstones, where he was in charge of the crime and fantasy sections – “You can see where this is going.” – and suddenly noticed he was shelving authors he’d never seen before. Clearly, in the two years he had been working in Waterstones, they had been writing and publishing a book. This seemed like an obvious solution for his financial difficulties and so he began to work on Rivers of London. He laughs that he essentially wanted to write Gandalf at the Met. A book always comes from a lot of places, everything you experience and read goes into the pot and eventually something begins to emerge. One day he sat down and wrote a line of the main character introducing himself and suddenly he had the voice of Peter Grant.
Another hand goes up and the owner asks how he chooses the places in his books. Most of the settings in the first book were places he could get to within 15 minutes in his lunch break, hence a plot focused on Covent Garden. He often walks past somewhere and thinks ‘Ooh, great place for a murder!’. London, of course, always provides and has interesting bits of history everywhere you look. Sometimes he does make things up, or at least moves them. In Moon Over Soho he needed a lingerie shop in the centre of Soho, he couldn’t find one that was right, so he borrowed from Shepherd’s Bush. Likewise in Rivers of London he needed a bento place on New Row and ended up borrowing from a different borough. For Foxglove Summer he took a trip to Herefordshire to look at a few places he’d found on Google Earth. Then he stumbled across a building that looked like a wizard’s tower, couldn’t pass up the opportunity and moved his plot over a mile or so.
Someone asks if he gets feedback on the accuracy of his books from the Met. Apparently most of the feedback is positive and the advantage of setting the series in London is that the Met reorganises itself so often that even the officers themselves can’t keep up so the odd wrong acronym isn’t a huge issue. The best feedback he’s had was a man who said his father was a cop and had worked with every character in the book. The cops you get on TV are nonsense, the real ones are forever cracking jokes and pulling pranks. Aaronovitch wanted to disrupt the TV British cop stereotype, so he made his main character mixed race, left out the nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ and gave him an understanding of rules and paperwork. He also made him young so that he can’t retire before Aaronovitch dies.
Aaronovitch says that in his universe, he is essentially God. He has an understanding of how things work and what the limitations are but also follows the rules of cool and plot (i.e. making something happen because it’s too cool to pass up or because something is required for the plot). He also wanted to make the science of magic like real life science, where everything is messy and always changing. Terminology overlaps and definitions vary and some things work but no one is quite sure why or how to find out. He has now acquired five Latin advisors, all of whom give him different advice on how to write his spells. He feels his poor grasp of Latin is perfectly fine given that the people who created the spells in the books were often schoolboys more interested in the mechanics of what they were trying to do than the intricacies of Latin grammar.
The final question involves characters and whether or not they behave themselves. Aaronovitch laughs and explains that most of them don’t. Short sentences are often wise in novels but Peter Grant will not play ball; his sentences run on and his subordinate clauses have their own subordinate clauses. He mentions having particular trouble with ‘door opening characters’, who are supposed to appear to open a door for the main character and then fade but his never seem to. Beverly Brook was a door opener in the first book but has now become a major character. One of the police officers, Sahra Guleed, was supposed to pop up to make a one line joke and then never be seen again. Now she appears often enough that he had to go and do serious research on the London Somali community to make sure he got her right. Aaronovitch jokes that when he’s writing he can often hear Zach, a door opener in Whispers Underground, knocking at the edge of the plot. “Bloody Zach,” he mutters fondly.