Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Speculative Spotlight on Mark Charan Newton (Part 1)

It's been a while, hasn't it?

Please, do pardon The Speculative Spotlight's absence for so long. I got it down from the attic just now, and it's a little dusty, perhaps, and the bulb needed replacing, but everything's in fine working order now, and what better reason to bring everyone's favourite interview feature back than for Mark Charan Newton, author of THE LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN - I might have mentioned it sometime this week? - and blogger extraordinaire.

He needs no introduction, of course, but given the length of time we spent chatting and how little of our chat actually revolved around the books, perhaps it's best for me to say a few words about Mark. Last year, he shot to fame with NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR, the first volume of a quintet of fantasy novels that took the blogosphere by storm. My review of that book went up yesterday - do have a gander if you haven't already. In short: I don't know that the incredible hype has done it any favours, but irrespective of whether or not you believe Mark is the second coming of Jack Vance or any of the other genre greats his work has been compared to, I had loads of fun with it. And the sequel, CITY OF RUIN - released last Friday and due for review on these very pages on Friday coming - really is all that; it one-ups just about everything that made NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR stand out in the first place.

But we'll get to CITY OF RUIN in due course. Today, dear readers, it gives me great pleasure to present to you the first part of my interview with esteemed troublemaker and epic fantasy author Mark Charan Newton.


Afternoon, Mark.

And a very good afternoon to you.

I should start by saying that it’s an absolute pleasure to have you here on the blog. You were among the earliest and most vocal supporters of The Speculative Scotsman in the early going, and I think I have you to thank for much of the traffic the site sees to this day. So thank you, Mark, for using the power you wield over the blogosphere to point it in my direction - and for agreeing to this little sit-down, too.

It's my pleasure. To be honest, I'm all for highlighting promising and smart new blogs – there's so much white noise out there, that for new authors and bloggers (yes, I'm lumping them together in this) to be heard requires a lot of effort. So anything I can do to say to people "you really should look at this site" benefits the community at large, right?

With that aside, let’s set the tone for what’s to come. Mark Charan Newton, prestigious genre author and interim internet shit-stirrer: how does your garden grow?

I always find it funny, this new reputation of mine to be a shit-stirrer - I'm not sure I really am. I think you can look at it two ways: the first is deliberately going out there to wind people up, which is what I try not to do, and I think that is reflected in the quality of the debate in the comments section. If you go out there to deliberately provoke, you end up looking like a bit of a dick, let's face it, especially if you've not got the chops to back up and defend your argument. I think the great proof of this is the Death of SF post, which never once got into a flame war (though I'm always afraid I'll upset someone).

I like to think I take approach two, which is To Ask Awkward Questions. If there's some issue I genuinely think needs airing, I'll phrase it in such a way that - I hope - fosters debate. And I've worked on all sides of the publishing industry - from frontline bookselling, to being in an editorial seat, and now to writing – which helps me to know what questions can be asked. Plus, I understand what doesn't matter (the flap around cover art is always amusing, because covers aren't aimed at bloggers but the casual customers, whose money shapes the industry).

What I find really flattering, though, is that people really dig the blog – at a recent signing, people were commenting about the site as much as the books, and even io9 are now linking to some of my posts. I can't pretend it's easy to maintain it, to keep thinking up debates, and I hope I can, but it's nice for me - it's more instantaneous, and I get a reaction from people immediately. When you write, it's months - years - before people give you feedback.

I think we can see immediately that my garden grows in tangents.

And here I was hoping you’d regale me with a few choice tales of your vegetable patch!

But hey, I’ll take it. Perhaps shit-stirrer isn’t the right phrase, then, nor even troublemaker. Certainly, though, you post incredibly regularly, and every other question you pose helps to create the sort of debate that keeps us bloggers on our toes. You engage - something of a contrast to many authors, who blog only occasionally, and presumably more that they might be seen to satisfy some publicity rep’s advice than because they genuinely want the sort of discourse between writer and reader that you advocate.

We’ll get to the ups and downs of that, shall we say… “special relationship” a little later. For the moment, though, I have to ask: how in God’s name do you do it, man? How do you balance the writing life and all its associated obligations with such provocative and sustained blogging and still have time to spare for anything approaching a life?

I can bore people about my vegetable patch, too. Actually, it is linked to the internet question - in that I felt I was spending too much time on things that weren't... real, you know? So growing vegetables is a great distraction from the artificial digital world. It makes you feel vaguely human again.

Yeah, a lot of authors get the blogging thing very wrong, don't they? There's nothing worse for a potential fan to see then one dry post every four months, is there? Or indeed authors that constantly talk about themselves, or a review of their book, sell, sell, sell. That said, some writers maintain hugely entertaining blogs - Jonathan Carroll, for one, and Neil Gaiman - who, let's face it, did it as well as anyone.

How do I manage it? Well, you know - it doesn't actually take that long to actually write a blog post, but on top of a full-time job, and the novel writing, it doesn't leave me with a huge amount of free time, I'll admit that. I'm lucky that I can work hours that get me home and writing at a reasonable time - and I can do stuff like exercise in my lunch hour - which leaves the evening free for the books and associated fluff. I don't have a TV, and you often find that you sacrifice nights out with friends because you have to keep working, which is the unspoken difficult part of this career.

The blogging, though, is often a quick reaction to something I've seen online – a news item, or just something that prompts a thought - but it's finding worthy topics that take up the majority of the thought-time. Then again, part of the way I always viewed the blog was to have it as my notebook - I'll put snippets of something I'll find amusing, or music that I like and think others would write. Now that I think about it, I'm doing the blog for exactly the same reason I decided to write novels - because I couldn't find the material I really wanted to read, so I thought I'd do it myself. As long as it's fun - and for me, primarily - then it'll continue.

I do want to stress though that it doesn't interfere with the writing, and for any new writers out there, nor does it have to. Like anything, do it because you enjoy it. And don't view any of this as a big task - I just do enough each day to keep things ticking along, and it doesn't stress me out.

A day job as well? Good lord...

Speaking of which, you were one of the founding fathers of Solaris, “a mass market, original SF, Fantasy and Horror imprint,” so it is told, which you and your co-conspirators sold on last year to Rebellion, who make, uhh... the ALIENS VS PREDATOR video games.

Wait, what?

But let’s gloss over that rather unusual pairing. I only bring Solaris up because I want to know: how was the transition between publishing and professional writing? Did your experience behind the scenes of the industry play into your approach when you opted to take a more creative role? Did that knowledge and understanding make breaking in any easier, or conversely, did it complicate matters?

I always tried to keep them as separate as possible. I was a writer before this point (I had my agent a few months before I landed the job). If anything, it made writing at home more difficult - I was reading manuscripts all day and then working on my own all night. That said, I think I can say that I had more of an awareness of the industry, but did that inform my writing? Honestly, I doubt it. I'm very much aware that nepotism exists in publishing - it is cringeworthy, but apparent in any industry where there are, you know, people; but I wanted to stay well away from it, because I'd be cheating myself. First and foremost, I want my writing to succeed on its own merits - that's all that has ever mattered.

And all that ever should. Would that more industry figures partook of that sort of transparency...

But before we move away from Solaris entirely, a related question: in May, the genre imprint you helped to launch published SHINE, an (outstanding, I should say) anthology of optimistic sci-fi shorts. That sense of optimism has been, in my humble opinion, missing from science fiction for so long we hardly knew to miss it anymore; we were, before SHINE reminded us what we had lost, at a point where endlessly dreary dystopias had become the status quo within the genre.

But you’re a fantasy man, of course - for the moment, at least. In light of which, I’d be fascinated to hear what you think the genre within whose boundaries you currently work is missing, in the same way SF seemed to have given up all hope.

It's important to stress first how wide-ranging fantasy is - from magic realism to the Big Fat Fantasies of Robert Jordan - so I'll speak mainly of the epic fantasy department, in which I find myself currently. So what's missing?

For one thing (and these are purely personal reflections) somewhere along the lines people have mistaken blood and guts for true experimentalism in themes and concepts. Violence isn't strictly adult (one only has to look at a school playground) or radical, but I've noticed there is much weight on it being so these days. Books (perhaps even films?) are valued for their violence. It's like a Cthulhu-like God of Genre is playing a trick, a sly flick of the wrist to make us avoid thinking about true thematic experimentation. Violence is fine in the text - I use it a lot - so much of this point concerns what happens outside the books, in the surrounding discussions. As an extension of this "mistaken radical" quality, I've noticed how people seem really into subverting tropes - I mean, WARHAMMER has been subverting tropes for a couple of decades, so for a start, the concept is no new development. (As an aside, I loved Scott Lynch's essay a while back on embracing tropes.) And it's all harmless, but with all of this, it's like we're thinking far too much about the stuff that doesn't matter. Steven Erikson is someone who I think is a radical Epic Fantasy writer, and isn't afraid to try new things out - and not everyone might love his books, but I'd certainly want more writers like him in this genre, because it makes things interesting.

I also think the genre in general (though there are examples otherwise) lacks enough experimental style - or rather, it frustrates me to read how many of us think that transparent prose is the apogee of style (and yes, I confess these things are a matter of taste). I often wonder where this comes from. (Perhaps business-type creative writing programs that teach simplicity is key in communications?) In fiction, prose can take many forms and styles, and other genres - especially SF - have played with such things no end. But I find there's a great deal of too-clean writing, and I mean no offence by saying this - there's nothing wrong with clean writing, and I like many books with such prose - but I'd love for a little more soul, just to make things interesting. Let's put this another way - one of the most common cars in the UK is the Ford Focus. Nothing wrong with that - it's a perfectly adequate car, does the job - but we all turn our heads when we see, for example, an Alfa Romeo Brerra driving by. I don't want to sound grumpy about our genre - there is indeed much to like out there, and all of what I've said is purely me pushing for more variety, rather than homogenising the shelf - something which, in the age of giant corporations in charge of production of The Novel, is something to think about.

Well, THE LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN certainly haven’t lacked in soul thus far. In fact, that’s one of the most distinctive things about your books: your voice, the sophistication of your prose. So sophisticated, in fact, and so set apart from the “too-clean” norm, that when NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR hit nearly a year ago to this date, critics started bandying about comparisons between you and China Mieville. Not to mention Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake.

That’s some pretty serious company for you to be keeping, even in the abstract, so early in the game. And while I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind complaining about such flattering comparisons, I might as well ask: have you any qualms about new readers coming to your work with such expectations? Ultimately, is such like-for-subjective-like association really necessary in literary criticism. Is it even helpful?

Whilst it's hugely flattering even to be whispered in the same company from time to time, I appreciate that every reader has a different interaction with a writer's work - so what works for one, doesn't for another. I can appreciate some kind of marketing need to make such comparisons, and somewhere along the lines, that filtered from publishing houses through to the internet: people needed those quick comparisons. Blog reviews aren't all academic essays - they're communicating to fans.

Being mentioned alongside those writers is particularly tricky - Wolfe, for example, has a very special kind of following, and any young whippersnapper being compared to him is unlikely to be received favourably. Particularly since the market is very different these days, and has different expectations and (sales) requirements - I'm writing in a much more contemporary style, not in the style of Wolfe. And this is nothing new - you saw it when China's PERDIDO STREET STATION hit the shelves, a few readers seem angry about him being compared to Peake. How dare he! These authors are institutions, and simply being compared to them is enough to cause upset. That's part of the territory, but I guess if you're upsetting some people so much, you're onto something good. :) One thing I'm not going to do is go all Terry Goodkind on readers who don't like these comparisons, and say they just don't get me, or they're stupid, or whatever. Every reader is a different species, and gleans their own unique experience from a book. It's as simple as that.

Essentially, what I'm saying is that I've been hyped to death, and I think many people are approaching the books with huge expectations. I really don't like that - I just want people to come with an open mind and hopefully enjoy what they read. But there's nothing I can do about it - I'm just grateful reviewers are talking about me at all.

They certainly are. Which is pretty incredible, all things considered: if, as you advise, we ignore THE REEF, your small press debut, you’ve only really been on the scene in your current capacity a year or so. And yet the entire blogosphere is abuzz with reviews of CITY OF RUIN; your name seems to be on everyone’s lips.

Did you wish upon a star - is that your secret? Going from the acknowledgements of your latest novel, out this month in the UK courtesy of Tor alongside a lovely paperback edition of NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR for those that missed it the first time around, it seems there might be a more rational, if no less remarkable causal factor behind your rise to fame...

The blogs have helped a huge amount. I mean, it's not just the reviews - forget about those. Many of the bloggers I mentioned at the time of writing CITY OF RUIN had constantly linked to my site, or championed the book on forums, or whatever. That's been a huge help - and sure, I've been constantly a part of online debate, but the bloggers have played a key role in raising my profile, which in turn has helped sell the book. In fact, most of my sales have been through online venues thus far (though hardcovers do well online in general), but that's decent evidence. Does one blog site hold huge influence? Probably not, but as a collective, then yes, bloggers are changing things - it's access to a direct reader community. Magazine and newspaper reviews are all well and good, but how many of those who buy a copy of said publication are fantasy book readers? It's hard to say. But we know people who cruise online sites are looking for hot books, and we know this audience is growing.

In essence, yeah - I'd be a fool not to thank those early adopters. They've helped me get this far.

Conversely, do you think it’s possible that bloggers can be hindrance to some, in as much as they’re a help to others? It’s certainly nice to think of us as a single collective, and no doubt what sway we hold over our readers would grow immeasurably if we could all band together, but in practice it seems more apt to describe us as a collection of relatively distinct cliques. As in so many things, circles of like-minded bloggers have come together over common interests, and surely the cost of such inclusion is the exclusion of those readers and indeed fellow bloggers who simply don’t quite fit in. Could it be that your close association with the particular sphere of bloggers to which I belong – the speculative sub-sect of the blogosphere, I suppose we could call it – is a turn-off to those outwith it?

Can bloggers be a hindrance? I suppose that's like asking if a particular TV channel is a hindrance - but if you don't like something you can always turn over and watch something else. If someone doesn't like a certain blog, then there's bound to be something else out there.

The cliques are a natural development, I suspect - but this industry is full of cliques. Just look at a convention and see the authors and publishers, or certain groups of fans or reviewers take to their own corner of the bar.

What the internet offers, though, is the chance for others to join - I mean, you yourself are a relatively new blogger, and you've already got a widely respected site. So if a reader sees nothing but cliques, and doesn't like it, then they can start something up on their own, and with the right amount of appropriate publicity, make a great job of things. I hate to channel FIELD OF DREAMS, but if you build it they will come - eventually, and that's surely what the blogosphere has done with regards to the previously perceived cliques of print review venues - blogosphere has built something new, and in my opinion is much more powerful than the print venues. What I will say though is that the more quality blogs, the better, because it keeps people involved, keeps readers coming back, and that can only benefit the genre in the long run.

As for my close association with the blogosphere being a turn-off? Well, if it is, then tough! I'm an author who happens to be a fan, I'm part of this community, and I'm having fun. And the rules of the internet have changed how authors and readers and reviewers interact, so I guess we're still defining our etiquette, but the response so far has been positive. So as long as I'm not pissing off too many people, I'll carry on regardless. :)

And fair play to you for that, Mark. For myself, I think - as we discussed earlier - you’re a singular example of an author at the forefront of an era of change. In much the same way Neil Gaiman was, years ago - though his involvement with a certain meddling Dresden Doll (I won’t go into it again) seems to have rather detracted from his place in this brave new world.

But as you say, the interaction between author, reader and reviewer has changed dramatically since the advent of the internet and the rise of the blogger thereafter. And I’m wondering, largely because I found myself pondering this very conflict whilst reviewing NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR for The Speculative Scotsman, if that relationship can also work as a detriment. I mean, I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but you’ve been so supportive of this site, and so generous with your time, that I’d damn near consider you a friend. I certainly will when you finally get on down to Scotland to sign my books and partake in a few of the local ales - come on, Mark!

And so, when I cast a critical eye over your work, there’s a voice in the back of my mind... a friendly devil sat on my shoulder reminding me always to be decent - not that I ever aim to be otherwise - because I know that the chances are you’ll read what I write, and the last thing I want to do is offend you, or worse, hurt you somehow. You said yourself, on your blog if I recall correctly, that “Little do online commentators realise how fragile creative egos can be. You might chuckle, but to some, a damaging comment can prevent a writer from doing his or her job properly. Some might crumble for a week, who’s to say?”

Worth adding to this, that I didn't strictly mean that nothing bad should ever be said - I'm always willing to listen to a decent, justified criticism. It was more the kind of antics you get on, for example, certain forums, where readers show no regard for the effort, or who bring their own agenda to a review. By all means, flag problems with the text - that is one of the most important things to help new readers with their buying decisions. And also, as an author, if there is a certain issue which crops up in many reviews, then it's something for us to think about.

Forum trolls have been giving friendly everyday internet-goers a bad name since the advent of the technology, of course. I’m of the mind that everyone with access to the web should have a sort of electronic ID card with points on like a driver’s license. Too many ROFLs and you lose a point; compare something to Hitler and you’re docked three. Certain message boards will require a clean record for participation, and if you have any more than twelve points your license is revoked - although behave for a bit and the Grand Moderators wipe the slate clean. In an ideal world, I suppose!

Enough beating around the bush, though. What I’ve been getting around to asking is simple enough, when you cut to the chase, but again, I can’t help but couch it - and this in itself goes to my argument. Do you think your proximity to the blogosphere, your networking within it as well as without, has in any way affected criticism of your fiction? Do you think bloggers perhaps find it easier to overlook a problem with your work than they would the work of someone who doesn’t trade Tweets with them, and indeed engage in the dialogue we spoke of before, because they’re afraid to jeopardise your interest?

Possibly. The same opportunities have existed for decades, for authors to be friends with reviewers, though at least the internet is more open about it. You see reviewers and authors mingling at conventions all the time. I like that Twitter and blogs are honest and open - these aren't the unspoken liaisons in a hotel bar.

But I suspect this is something to deflect to reviewers - because the question is, are bloggers likely to let the fact that they know someone (albeit digitally, in most cases) interfere with their reviews? Would you let your relations with authors get in the way of what you had to say about a book? Only you can answer that. As an author, I'm just out there having fun.

I honestly doubt it's had much of an effect - I've seen reviewers numerous times declaring that they wish they could have liked so-and-so more because they exchanged emails with the author, and I've had more than my fair share of lively exchanges with bloggers on Twitter to risk pissing people off, so it works both ways. Also, don't forget that, when the main reviews came in this time last year, no one had heard of me, and I didn't have the blog in full swing.


What a note to leave things on...

Apologies, all, but I can't resist a good tease at the best of times. So reviewers, what say you? Ever found yourself in a similar position?

Do stay tuned for the second part of my interview with Mark on Thursday, when we'll be talking politics, Nottingham, burn-out, the death of publishing and much, much more.


  1. You're getting the hang of this interviewing gig, Niall!

    Great job, from both sides of the table. Can't wait to read part two.

  2. Fantastic interview Niall and Mark. I have to admit I’m so time starved that I usually baulk at reading something ‘long’ but I ate this up and eagerly await the next!

    Re an author reading their own reviews, I can only come at it from my perspective and say I ate the damned things up at the beginning, thinking that I could learn from them. But the comments were so wildly varied and contrasting that in the end I just stopped ( Completely. I try not to read them at all now – unless they’re thrust under my nose by a fan or the publisher and a comment is demanded) I came to realise that too many cooks were sticking their fingers into the creative pie and I was beginning to do that thing you shouldn’t do when writing a first draft; I was looking over my shoulder to see who was reading and what they might think of what was on the page.

    Mind you, I still base my purchases on the reviews of trusted book bloggers, I think the blog format gives more room to express a rounded opinion and the comments sections leave space for debate which is always a plus. And then there’s the sheer entertainment factor. Bookbloggers like yourself, Raych,Graeme , The booksmugglers,eves alexandria and Bookphillia ( Bookphillia http://www.bookphilia.com/ )are worth reading for the sheer fun of it.

  3. I'd point out that Rebellion have been publishing 2000 AD for about the last ten years and Abaddon Books for the last five, we're not exactly new to this publishing lark!

  4. Fair comment, Jenni. 2000AD is about as genre as it gets, and I'm not one to differentiate much between books and comics. RETRACTED! :)

  5. An interesting interview with some good questions and responses, but maybe a tad too much adoration for Mr Newton.

  6. @Anonymous - You think? In fairness, the review of Nights of Villjamur that went up on Monday is pretty critical. And I was asking some pretty tough questions in the interview... if I come across as too nice, perhaps it's just because Mark's a genuinely lovely fellow and it's tough to be snarky or cruel when there's honesty and disarming forthrightness on the other side of the table.

    Thanks for reading all the same.