NewnhamWrites … Dr. Who?

New York Times bestselling novelist, Una McCormack (NC 1990) reveals who her favourite Dr. Who is, and why she would want to be stuck on a desert island with anyone … so long as he/she came from the USS Enterprise. 

Una specialises in science fiction and TV tie-in novels based on series such as Star Trek and Doctor Who. She also writes audio drama, with parts performed by David WarnerLouise JamesonSheila Reid, and John Finnemore, amongst others. Her short fiction has been extensively anthologised. At Cambridge, she studied History and Social & Political Sciences, and has a PhD in sociology from the University of Surrey. She is currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

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What spurred your interest in Doctor Who and Star Trek?
I watched Doctor Who as a kid, and never stopped enjoying it. Star Trek came a little later, when I was in my late teens, and The Next Generation started (that’s the one with Patrick Stewart, for non-aficionados!).

On a very simple level, I love seeing a starscape, and a spaceship, and thinking about the freedom that space offers, and what fun it would be if we could go and visit all the marvellous things that might be out there.

So does that mean you believe there are aliens out there?
The copout answer is that I don’t know! I certainly hope so. It’s more interesting that way, isn’t it?

How did you get involved in writing fan fiction?
Like most writers, I scribbled stories as a child, although I didn’t do so much when I was a teenager (too busy with schoolwork). I came back to writing in my early twenties, when I wasn’t so busy with exams, and started to play around with characters from my favourite TV shows, wanting more stories about them. I haven’t really stopped since!


Who is your favourite Doctor of all time?
My favourite Doctor is probably the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, who played the part in the 1980s. I was just the right age to be enjoying the show immensely. There was some quite adventurous storytelling then too, perfect to catch the imagination of an eight-year-old. My earliest fan fiction novel involved the fifth Doctor battling the evil Black Guardian with the help of… an eight-year-old girl.


… And your favourite Star Trek character?
My favourite Star Trek character is an alien called Garak. He’s quite a nasty piece of work, being both an assassin and a torturer, but he’s also extremely charming, curious, and intelligent. A lot of my stories have been about the rise, and fall, then rise (again) of his civilization. Garak’s world and species go from totalitarianism to near-extinction to fledgling democracy. I’ve had free rein to tell that story in the licensed novels and it’s been tremendously rewarding.


If you were on a desert island, which character from your fan fiction would you like to be stuck with?
Anyone from the Enterprise. They’re good at getting out of difficult situations, and they’re upstanding citizens who would feel duty-bound to save my life, and not treat me like the liability that I would be.


When you teach creative writing, what are the key tenets that you teach to your students? Do you believe in rules or do you encourage your students just to write?
What I try to teach is that the most important thing is to enjoy yourself, and to find the stories that matter to you and tell them to the best of your ability.

I also try to model what it’s like to be a working writer, i.e. what it means to be doing this for a living. So I don’t set rules per se, but try to show what it means to be professional. Which means taking pride in presentation, using standardized spelling and grammar, meeting deadlines, etc., as well as sticking at projects when enthusiasm and energy are low, but the work needs to be completed.

At postgraduate level, the discussions get more complex, but the basic message is the same: what are the stories that matter to you? How can you best tell them so that they will be heard?


What are you working on?
I’ve just submitted the manuscript of my next Star Trek novel, which is set in a university (on an alien planet, naturally!) For various reasons, it’s been quite a difficult book to write, and I’m really pleased with how it’s come out (so is the editor, more importantly!)

So right now I’m catching up on all the bits and pieces of work I didn’t have time to focus on while I was busy with the book – mostly final drafts on a couple of audio dramas. I’ve got a novella planned which I’m very excited about. I also have a sabbatical coming up next year, during which I’m planning to write the first draft of another novel.


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Why Newnham? Why SPS?
I really wanted to come to Cambridge. The advice I got wasn’t to try for one of the famous colleges, but to put down one of the less well-known ones as one of my choices. Naturally I ignored the advice and put King’s down as my first choice, and Newnham as my second. I was rejected from King’s, and then was lucky to click with my interviewer when I came to Newnham.

I did Part 1 History, which lasted 2 years, and then switched to SPS because I was interested in sociolinguistics. It was probably a bit of a daft decision (I make a lot of those), but it worked out fine. It was definitely the right choice when the time came to do a PhD. I’d stopped thinking with the detailed specialization of a historian, and become more interested in the kinds of questions sociologists pose and try to answer, which largely remain what I try to do in my fiction.

What’s the most defining memory you have of Newnham?
Waking up on my first morning and listening to the absolute peace and quiet and thinking, “I’m going to love it here.” And I did, and I still do. I’m sitting in Newnham library right now answering these questions.

What word springs to mind when you think of the following:

Writing: Challenge
Aliens: Hope
Newnham: Peace

Click here for more from the NewnhamWrites series. If you are a Newnham alumna and would like to take part, please contact me via my website.