David Wingrove: Science Fiction writer

Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 17 seconds

Everyone has a story. The relaunch of the iconic Chung Kuo science fiction series takes place in June at Waterstone’s in Islington. Here author David Wingrove talks influences and Islington. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill Photography.

David Wingrove. (c) Kimi Gill Photography for Islington Faces

Science fiction fans are sure to know the Chung Kuo series – initially set 200 years into the future – written by Islington-based author and science fiction expert David Wingrove. But what they may not know is that the Chinese setting to the series was dreamt up on a January walk in the 1983 to a SF shop on Holloway Road (the infamous Fantasy Centre, 157 Holloway Road which closed in 2009). http://www.lxnen.com/rogerbeccon/FC/

That idea for a short story became a world – Chung Kuo – that David turned into 20 books (around 2.5 million words). He’s also Islington’s most prolific living science fiction writer – the only possible competition would be from Douglas Adams who wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, except he died in 2001.

In addition to Chung Kuo David’s written the three Myst books that tie in with the world’s then (1990s) biggest-selling computer game (110 million). The game was like being aboard the Marie Celeste and David “had to come up with characters and plots and weave it all into the game world,” he says, as if nothing could be easier… He’s also just completed writing the Roads to Moscow time travel trilogy and, back in the 1980s, co-authored, with Brian Aldiss, the award-winning Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction.

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David studied English and American Literature at Canterbury University – eventually working on a doctorate on Hardy, Lawrence and William Golding (who was writer in residence at the uni). But where did his interest in SF come from? “On my 19th birthday I went on holiday to Yugoslavia. At the airport I realised I hadn’t got anything to read and as I’d never read science fiction, besides HG Wells and EM Forster’s The Machine Stops, I bought a dozen books, like Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov and read them all. I was smitten,” he says.

Most of David’s books are written from one end of his kitchen table – although he’s hoping to move into a writing shed in the garden soon. His wife, author and Coronation Street screenwriter, Susan Oudot (interviewed on Islington Faces HERE) often works at the other end, also writing. The couple also have four grown-up daughters.


Follow the carpet around Criterion Auction Rooms on Essex Road to see what’s on sale. (c) islington faces

Places David Wingrove likes in Islington

  • We’re a fanatical Arsenal household with two season tickets. I like the new Arsenal stadium but, given the choice, I prefer the old one.
  • I love wandering the stretch of Islington along Upper Street. It’s a perfect places for a writer because everything’s available and you can just chill out.
  • I like Criterion auction rooms. It’s nice to see what people are offering for sale. We bought a massive metallic pig from Criterion. It’s beautifully made and is kept on top of the piano. See the interview with Criterion auctioneer, Peter Ball, HERE.
  • We get Chinese food delivered from Xiong Mao at 324 Essex Road, N1. It’s mouth-wateringly delicious.
  • Caledonian Kebab near the bridge at Caledonian Road does wonderful kebabs.
  • I love walking around Waterstone’s at 11 Islington Green. I miss Borders a lot – it was a place to get a coffee and read a book. I remember queuing for four hours at a signing by Robert Pires, one of Arsenal’s greats. I enjoyed the midnight countdown for Harry Potter books there too. It’s strange how paperbacks and vinyl are coming back into fashion – it’s the thingness of things. People like an actual object they can buy.


David Wingrove. (c) Kimi Gill Photography for Islington Faces

Publisher problems
The Chung Kuo series has a huge fan base, having been published in 14 languages. But it has suffered from being passed between publishers, and different editors, as the companies changed hands. First interest (in 1988) came from Hodder, who did well with the books until they were taken over and became Hodder-Headlilne.

Again the series stalled when it was taken over by Corvus. David explains: “It was very frustrating at the time. The Corvus staff weren’t interested and instead of all 20 books being published, as agreed, they invoked a clause in the contract that let them stop at eight. It felt like my life’s purpose was denied me. What made it worse it that I’d already written the next six, and two were ready for the printers.”

It was only in 2016 that Corvus “reverted the rights to my book, effectively giving them back to me. I felt lifted, I was back in control,” says David with clear relief at the end of such a stressful impasse. As a result, he and his wife Susan, have now set up their own publishing company, Fragile Books. The plan is to re-release the first eight books at the end of June and then release the next book in the sequence every three months. He also aims to finish writing, and subsequently publish, the final four novels in the series by 2021.

To celebrate David is launching at Waterstone’s in Islington at the end of June.

SF life
David, who grew up in Balham, seems friendly as we drink coffee in Cote at Islington Green but he tells me that SF writers play literary Russian roulette with each other. “I’ve killed off various of my friends in books,” says David, laughing wickedly. “I recently published a time travel triology, Roads to Moscow, in which one of my friends dies a glorious death. I sent him a copy with the relevant page numbers marked!”

But in real life David’s not so cavalier, after having a terrifying escape from the Kings Cross Fire on 19 November 1987. “I was quite literally at the top of the escalator that caught fire, only minutes before it all went up. I went down to the Northern Line, passing – coming up – most of the people who were subsequently trapped in the fire – and caught the last Northern Line train to go through. There was a very strong smell of burning.

“Months later I gave evidence to the Hearing.But what I remember most is arriving home (we were living in Stoke Newington at the time) and seeing the first reports of the conflagration on the TV news. I was so shocked by my narrow escape that my legs ‘turned to jelly’. I quite literally collapsed. For days afterwards I could see all the faces of the people I passed and who must have been caught in that massive fire-flash.”

Rather sweetly, David ends the interview by explaining why he remembers the date that he first met his wife – 24 March 1978.  H head a job editing Vector magazine, run by the British Science Fiction Association, and that afternoon had been interviewing American SF writer, Robert Sheckley, in his flat in Earls Court. David and Sheckley had gone on to the Heathrow Hotel, to a science fiction convention, where Susan was to be found looking after Faber and Faber’s science fiction authors.”

Susan is now organising the launch party. “It’s she who has mainly got our publishing venture, Fragile Books, up and running, tapping into the computer and editing skills of their daughter, fantasy wrier Amy Oudot,” says David.

All that remains is for David to finish off the series. It’s clear that’s a task David relishes. In fact he’s got a tip for anyone considering writing a 180,000-word story, “keep re-reading and reminding yourself what you’ve done. And if fans say it’s wrong, then put it back together in a different way.” Seems like good life advice too.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola