I associate the holiday season with two grand concepts: having a special space and time within which to write, and the gathering approach of the numinous. As you might imagine, those concepts intertwine to nurture each other.
I’m going to use the word ‘Christmas’ throughout this article. No disrespect to my friends from other traditions, or none, but this is about my own festival experience, as a member of the Church of England. (As the old joke goes, I’m not part of any organised religion.) ‘Christmas’ as it’s used in Britain is also the general holiday everyone has, whatever their spiritual affiliation. For better or worse, we never got to the melting pot of ‘happy holidays’.
When I was a child, Christmas was a break in the awfulness of school, a break in which I took a pad from my Dad’s insurance firm, and a pen, and found any place where, curled up like a foetus, my head balanced against an item of furniture, arse in the air, I could write my stories. They were influenced by the magic I could feel gathering around me. It was a magic that remained beyond my reach. I felt it when I looked up from the garden into a clear night sky over the Wiltshire downs, felt that any moment… something… something that would solve Britain, sort out who I was, how I fitted in here, would… materialise. (I wrote Doctor Who stories where it did.) On Christmas Eve, my family’s annual and only religious impulse was to go to Midnight Mass in a nearby village, and the ceremony of that brought me closer to the magic, especially at the moment of midnight, when I could feel that something joyous was reborn into the world. My parents always sought to immediately withdraw from that mystery, into a nip of whisky when they got home. They might have rushed back to the embrace of the secular, but I kept looking out of my bedroom window, desperately seeking Santa.
Though I couldn’t have told you this at the time, the stories I wrote then sought to tap into the power I felt so close to the world, but not entirely in it. They sought to use magic to make sense of, to change, the landscape around me, something I do to this day. (I’m not someone who seeks to draw a line between magic use within and without major religious traditions.) The stories often specifically rehearsed the ordeals of school and changed them, and sometimes I would take them to school and read them out, and once, perhaps twice, saw a change made in the world as a result. (You try reading to a school bully a scene in which he’s eaten by sharks. Actually, no, you’d better not.)
Back then, the writer’s Christmas that existed within my head was a lot better than the real thing, though my parents were kind and Christmas Day was a pure 1970s ritual of presents, scrambled eggs, lunch, sleep, the Queen’s Speech. These days the real Christmas still isn’t so great. My wife is a vicar, so her festive season is a time of hard, demanding work (readers of The Lost Child of Lychford will note where my research comes from). This ceases abruptly at lunchtime on Christmas Day, after which we rush off to visit our families in turn, and I end up on a farm full of animals where I’m knocking back four one a day antihistamines every day, and… anyway, it’s pretty gruelling, and my son Tom isn’t yet of an age where he gets what’s going on and can be wowed by it. Getting a babysitter for midnight on Christmas Eve… yeah, right… so I don’t get to share in that huge moment either.
But I still have something grand going on in my head at that time of year. ‘Getting groovy after Halloween’ as Saint Etienne sang in ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’, that increasing sense of pending arrival that makes me mark December 1st with Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘Must Be Santa’ on my Twitter feed. I can’t be in charge of what sort of fiction I write then, since it’s my day job (last year I was writing an entirely non-seasonal episode of Elementary), so instead I try to exhaust myself with an attempt to connect, my daily Twelve Blogs of Christmas. That run requires more work than the rest of the year’s blogging put together, but they do allow me to feel a daily check-in with my greater family, my audience out there. Exhausting oneself is also a well-known pathway to contact with the magical, that lost something I’m still seeking. About one year in three I get a sneaking glimpse out of the corner of my eye. I like to think Eddie gets the same slight vision having exhausted himself in the only festive episode of ancient BBC crime drama Shoestring. It’s often the same feeling of ‘only carry on’ that Sam gets instead of a celebration in that genius ending to Quantum Leap. (As you see, the collective warmth of popular culture has infused the magic for me since childhood.)
The Lost Child of Lychford is about Christmas in the darkest way. Lizzie is just trying to get through the season, a mystery preying on her mind, Judith is still dealing with her enormous, secret, burden, revealed at the end of the last book, and Autumn is lost and looking for love. Like Witches of Lychford, it’s about everyday life in a small Cotswolds market town, and the magic world that winds around it and through it, that sometimes threatens it and sometimes supports it. It’s also about the lives of three very different women, bound together by their varying knowledge of that world. New readers, though, can very much start here. It starts with a lot of comedy, and then I hope it leads you out of town, down the track into the woods. And out, once again, I hope. There is light at the end. That’s the story of Christmas, and, I hope, of my life, and of this book too.
Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, comics and TV, one of only two people to be Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, Action Comics for DC, and Wolverine for Marvel. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his television.