When I first started putting together this website, I got in touch with all the editors I could that I had worked for before. Philip Purser-Hallard was one of those editors, because of the story I’d just done for his Tales of the City collection. One of the questions I asked him to answer was whether he’d be willing to work with me again, to which he replied “there’s a specific project I have in mind which I’m hoping I can entice you into doing some work for. Let’s talk.”
He was in the early stages of planning an Iris Wildthyme collection for Obverse Books, and he’d settled on a typically Iris theme: stories set on Mars – every contradictory version of Mars that had ever been written about. He asked if I’d be interested in coming up with a story once the book was officially greenlit by Obverse, and being a big fan of Philip as both a writer and an editor I of course agreed.
The story I came up with was mostly inspired by a Radio 4 adaptation of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage, which details an alternative history of America where the Apollo moon landings were immediately followed (as originally planned) by a manned mission to Mars. Around the same time, there had been some media interest in the Inspiration Mars Foundation, whose plan for a privately funded manned mission to Mars had just hit a stumbling block and been forced to suggest a joint operation with NASA. Knowing I was looking for an Iris / Mars story, my brain kindly presented me with the image of Ms Wildthyme meeting these brave pioneers as they landed on Mars, and telling them about their place in the future history of the planet.
Getting the Story
It didn’t take long to come up with the general shape of the story, which proved to be lucky: my email and Philip’s email don’t seem to like each other, and his original email letting me know that he was ready to accept proposals didn’t arrive. Instead, I got the reminder that the deadline was nearly up, which gave me 3 days to come up with a proposal.
I spent a couple of nights researching as much as I could about the Inspiration Foundation’s planned trip and what the chosen members of the public would have to go through on their flyby of Mars. Knowing that I wanted my astronauts to end the story as the first people to land on Mars, I also did some basic research into what conditions they would face when they landed, and how they could hope to survive them. The research suggested a fairly linear progression – journey to landing to encounter with Iris – and so by the end of that final night I had a detailed enough outline to send to Philip.
The idea was pitched to Philip by email, and in particular highlighted that the story would be as close to real science as I could make it without killing my cast. A few days later he got in touch to say he was interested: he hadn’t received any other pitches that were “hard science fiction”, and so my idea had very little competition.
Given his knowledge of my previous work, he was pretty confident that I could bring the emotion to the story that it really needed.
I delivered the story early because I knew I had some other work coming up closer to the deadline, which meant that Philip was able to get back to me fairly quickly with his thoughts. The story on the whole was sound, but the climax of the story relies very much on believing that the main characters would volunteer for what was a very dangerous, potentially fatal, science experiment. Philip felt that I hadn’t quite sold that enough at the start, and so had weakened my ending.
I did some work to fix that, but in doing so over-egged it somewhat and ended up spoiling the ending. We took out some of the bits that I’d added in, hopefully managing to hit just the right balance. We also reinstated a joke that I’d written in and that Philip hadn’t quite got: it’s possible that with his proof-reader eyes on the text, he take it a little too literally … or, more likely, that I’m not as funny as I think I am.
What Happened Next
By the time the book was published, I was already working on two stories for Big Finish Productions, so the first I noticed was when the contributors copy arrived through my door. My wife noticed as well, and that night started to read my story to my two children (three and four years old), which was – I have to admit – a very uncomfortable experience. Fortunately, we stopped before we got to the jokes about farts and infertility.