Thursday 10 June 2010

The Speculative Spotlight on Mark Charan Newton (Part 2)

Mark Charan Newton. It seems like wherever you look, he's there! He's in the cupboard under the stairs, he's between the daffodils in the garden and he's a distant figure silhouetted against the horizon in the wheat fields you drive by on the way to work. It beggars belief, really. You'd think there were several of him or something.

Well, he's also here, on The Speculative Scotsman, talking to me - or at least, one of him is. Would the real Mark Charan Newton please stand up?

If you haven't read the first half of my interview with Mark, in which we talked Twitter, forum trolls and blogging turn-offs, amongst a whole heap of other stuff, go on and get caught up. If you have, drop me an email with your name and address and I'll get your biscuit in the mail.

Enough of this madness. It's part two of the interview, everyone!


A year ago, Mark, as you said earlier, no one had heard of you, and I’ve heard it said that because of your relative obscurity, your creative wings were clipped with NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR. There were pressures to make the first book in a new series by a new author accessible to as large a segment of the audience as possible. Is that fair comment?

Absolutely, and with the added filter of a publishing house. My agent told me that if I kept writing out-and-out weird fiction, I'd never get published, because no editor in London was looking for those kinds of books. You have to ask yourself the question, what's more important, being published or holding out? Which isn't to say I sold out! I merely changed the aesthetics to something a little more familiar - possibly one which is more commercially appealing, I suppose - but I still am very proud of NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR. Now I have the publication deal, I can embrace my inner weird, and I hope that shows!

Oh, it does.

What, then, would the book have been if you’d had your way? Much the same, am I to understand, but weirder… new weirder, perhaps?

Weirder, probably, though I'm not sure how much more so - and most likely I would have looked upon the world as something more technologically and culturally advanced. It's hard to say now I'm so far into it. As for the New Weird... well. It's funny - a while back I said that the New Weird was a still-born literary movement, but there has been more talk in the couple of years than in the preceding eight or so put together. Perhaps it's finally been recognised, in some retrospective manner? But whatever the New Weird had in its original aims and ambitions, to bring a rigorous new dimension to the fantasy genre perhaps - and I admired that it wanted to be more than just entertainment, not that there's anything wrong with just entertainment – then I hope the spirit lives on in CITY OF RUIN.

Was there anything as per your original conception of NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR that you had to drop entirely, I wonder?

Yes, a quarter of the original manuscript had to go - I'm not sure I should be that candid, but never mind. The original manuscript was too big, and Peter Lavery, my then structural editor, asked me to hack it down - which was painful, but made the book a lot less baggy. I won't say in any detail what's gone though - largely because I can't remember now, it was a good while ago - but a lot of the reduction of the world count was to increase the chances of translation rights being sold.

And now they have been... this month, you’re being published in bona-fide American!

All kidding aside, it’s a huge achievement, and something I’m sure you must be very excited about.

Indeed - the American market is huge, and I'm privileged to be on the list of Bantam Spectra, and they've a great team there. Exciting times.

In the meantime, here in old Blighty, book two of The Legends of the Red Sun is arriving on bookstore shelves almost a year to the day of NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR’s publication. That’s a pretty quick turn-around for such an accomplished sequel. I take it you had a little lead time?

I did have a lot of lead time for CITY OF RUIN, yes - I think it was about 14 months or so from sale until NIGHTS was published, which meant I had a fraction longer to work on the next book. And I should be on schedule for delivering the third book in the series on time, too. The fourth - purely on speculation of the workload - I'm not so sure about, but we'll see. I'm a way off even starting it yet, so I could surprise myself. I know how important it is to get a book a year out for the first two or three books - purely in industry terms, the regularity helps get your name out there. The casual customer has a short memory when it comes to newer writers.

With CITY OF RUIN though, I knew exactly what I'd be writing, what story needed to be told, and what kind of toys I wanted to play with, right from the off, so I hit the ground running. And you get better at doing certain things, working out how many words it will take to tell a certain part of the story, building characters, all that jazz - such practice helps me be more efficient for the next one. But every writer is different.

Oh, and a deadline helps drive things a little quicker.

From a purely personal perspective, I’d love to see new books from you on an annual basis, Mark, though I don’t for a minute believe readers would simply forget about you if the sequel to CITY OF RUIN didn’t hit day and date next year. But there is the cautionary tale of Scott Lynch to bear in mind: an author with similar sort of profile to that you’ve achieved who promised, similarly, to deliver a book of THE GENTLEMEN BASTARDS sequence every year. Writing so prolifically, and with so much else on your plate, do you worry about burn-out at all?

The writing doesn't burn me out. The writing is a release of a hundred ideas fermenting away in my head. Between you, me and the internet, when I started writing, one reason I did it was to escape a dreary few months of my life, so it's always been the thing I do as a coping mechanism. Which isn't to sound diva-ish, I've always been into something creative throughout my youth - though then it was mainly music, tinkering away on guitars until the small hours.

Of course, this is easily the kind of thing to be quoted back to me in a few years time...

But as I say, the writing doesn't burn me out or tire me (though the edits certainly do...) - there is indeed a heck of a lot of other stuff that writers have to do these days, and it must be sustained for it to have any effect - there is no point blogging for a week, then doing nothing for a month or three, while you're setting up your career. The cumulative effects of the peripheral stuff – the blogging, the signings – is most likely to cause a burn out, but I think I would have been affected in some way by now if it was going to happen at all.

[If anyone is reading this in the future, and I have disappeared from the internet, then wipe that smile off your face.]

So what do you do with yourself when you’re not writing - or, indeed, working, blogging, signing, editing, etc? How do you like to unwind?

This summer, as I'm sure I've mentioned elsewhere, I've been growing stuff in my garden that I can eat - mostly it's a deliberate act to keep me offline, to do something actually real. I listen to stacks of music, sometimes still tinker with the guitar - though mainly acoustic music these days. I'm really into Yoga at the moment - don't laugh! It's actually pretty tough, and if you spend all day at a desk and all evening with a laptop, you need something like that to put your back into shape again. I go running. I like green spaces. I've an interest in politics. And, believe it or not, I still love to read...

Oh, I don’t often get the chance to talk politics. But let’s frame the discussion a little. Going back to your blog, you made a post in the aftermath of the general election debacle on the very subject. You wrote, “Readers seem to surrender themselves to the idea of politics within fiction on a regular basis. They are open to worlds of hugely varying political structures and concepts, and many genre authors are willing to explore new ways of thinking. But when it comes to actual, real-life ideologies, authors and readers start staring at their feet.”

So lift up thine eyes and tell me, Mark: how are you feeling about the state of the UK government?

Are you sure people won't click on another site at this point? :) As an aside, I was disappointed that a couple of the responses to that initial post were along the lines of, Authors shouldn't really talk politics. Of course they should. Everyone should.

I'm a man of the Left, though not a Marxist, and my opinions of the state of the UK government can pretty much apply to the state of UK politics over the last 30 years, with its ruthless pursuit of the neoliberal/Chicago School policies. In that I am spectacularly saddened. Now we have some of the richest folk in politics deciding that the poorest deserve to pay for their sins. The poorest, via the much-loathed State, must bail out those who preach the benefits of the free market (link) and various institutions continue to roll out their 'structural adjustment' programmes across the world, meaning more people are forced to suffer (link). At the same time, this is what a lot of our taxes are being increasingly spent on (link), as governments declare public expenditure must be further reduced.

Perhaps that sums it up. But, you know, I remain endlessly optimistic.

It, umm... sure sounds that way, Mark.

Politics really do seem to be a turn-off for a lot of folks. At a stretch, I can sympathise, I suppose: people come to fantasy primarily to get away from the real world, so the last thing they’d want are those writers who create the worlds they escape to hammering home their ideologies. And political opinions remain very personal to some; there are yet those who won’t say who they vote for. Commies the lot of ‘em!

And yet, flying the face of that reticence, there’s remains a willingness to engage in fiction which espouses more outlandish political leanings than any that’d fly in reality.

But back to the books. Overtly speaking, CITY OF RUIN is, I think, less concerned with politics than NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR. Was the movement away from that mode of narrative something you intended, or was it simply dictated by the story’s movement away from Urtica and the imperial capital?

It's interesting you think that - personally, I felt the political thought was much truer in CITY OF RUIN - that it greatly informed the construction of the world and the story. We get to see the true effects of political decisions, and especially the hegemony of the Empire. We see dead communities as a result of trade changes. We see the gangs play a role in strike breaking. (You can see more in this recent extract - skim down to the final section.)

Perhaps it's a different kind of politics in CITY OF RUIN. Back in Villjamur, we had the very obvious power plays and the humanitarian crisis, so maybe I'm now being a lot more subtle about it, I don't know. Maybe I disguised it a little. But it just goes to show how reviewers may look at a text very differently than the author does!

Overtly speaking, I said. Certainly the consequences of all the politicking in NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR are spread out before the reader in City of Ruin, but are political decisions made in book two, or merely followed through from the first book?

That's a fair point, yes, now I see what you mean. There are more micro decisions, perhaps - the portreeve (local leader for those who haven't read the book), is managing the affairs in Villiren, and doing his best to forge his own economy at the expense of others, so we see more of the local politics (more of a microcosm, in my head) but as for general Imperial policy, and the main plot, we're still following what was set-up in the first book.

But this is a dangerous game I’m playing. Back on terra firma, one of the most remarkable things about NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR was its titular setting; I’d have paid good money to read more about Villjamur. Plenty of authors are glad to get the worldbuilding out of the way and move on: in contrast, you seem to positively relish the prospect. Instead of taking the path most travelled, you pulled the rug out from under our expectations and shifted the action to another location entirely. Is that something we can expect to continue, as THE LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN progresses?

Yes and no. I had to split my focuses on Villiren - since it needed its own story telling, and I'd love for readers to come to this book and enjoy it without needing to have read the first. In book three, we do indeed return to Villjamur, and we meet some new characters - but that's all I'm saying! I want each book to have a strong flavour of its own, with individual agendas and themes. Slot them all together, and you get the big picture (though book four is probably going to require the reader to have read the first three).

But I do love worldbuilding - there's something to be said for the sensation of being confronted with a blank slate, and just creating. For me, that's the fun part, the discovery, the exploration.

How was it discovering Nottingham, “a city surrounded by ex-mining villages which were razed to the ground by witches (more or less),” when you moved into the place a few years ago? You spoke of coming to understand the city partially through DH Lawrence, I seem to recall... was that literary exploration literature a similar sort of thrill as you felt when creating the Boreal archipelago in literature? Do you think Nottingham has influenced the world you’ve built in THE LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN?

The experiences of moving to a new city and discovering the local area through local authors is not too distant from creating worlds yourself. Or rather, you can use your own experiences of discovery in the real world and transfer the methods to the writing. I've always believed that what makes a place come alive, textually, isn't merely the structures, but the people's relationship to their environments, their local heritage - and it's those things that make a real-world location unique to any other city or county. When you read local authors, even if it's decades ago, you get an appreciation of those things.

Nottingham - very much in the way you've mentioned there - was certainly an influence, but more so in CITY OF RUIN. Aside from the usual quirks of cities, and of local gang problems within, it was more some of the surrounding elements that contributed. There are communities throughout the archipelago that were built around the mining industry, and they have been left crippled when the Empire changed a policy here, a trade route there. They're dead settlements, and you can certainly see that in Nottinghamshire - towns crippled by Thatcher's brutal politics, and still - nearly three decades later - they are struggling to recover. Villages are like inner city ghettoes, with acres of abandoned terrain, the odd industrial structure which nature is slowly reclaiming. (It was a startling contrast to the rural Wiltshire I grew up in.) Once you're aware of that, it's difficult not to let it drift into the text. Thatcher’s politics had essentially created dying earth conditions around here.

So let’s say Villjamur was a real place, and you, Mark, were its DH Lawrence. Give me a little local colour from the realm of epic fantasy you’ve conjured.

If I were its DH Lawrence, presumably I'd be disgruntled with the locals, become highly critical of the wars, and exile myself to somewhere warmer? Or I could give a sharp paragraph on the things you'd see there: age-old statues, smothered in lichen; labyrinthine cobbled streets; tiers of the city layered up like a crude cake; hundreds of thousands of people milling about, hunched in thick clothing, miserable faces; a mishmash of architectures, from the baroque to the eccentric, precariously pitched so they look as if they're about to fall over; garudas causing downdrafts on stall awnings; beyond, the rolling tundra, towering fjords, spindly forests, broken communities, vast ancient structures; and everywhere, the endless falling of snow...

Generally speaking, THE LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN is read as epic fantasy, but both of your books are suffused with elements of other genres: crime and noir, science-fiction, mystery, even romance. We spoke earlier of what we’re missing in fantasy, of how "too-clean" writing, as you put it, is the Ford Focus of fiction, whereas more radical narratives stand out like shiny, new Alfa Romeos. China Mieville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY recently won the Arthur C. Clarke award, and it’s crime fiction in everything but name. So I put it to you: when virtually every fantasy novel has a bit of a kick to it, a twist of genre to set it apart from the morass of standard genre fare, is there still a place for straight-faced fantasy in the world today? Can we make the Ford Focus palatable again? Should we?

The important thing to remember about the Ford Focus is... a lot of people buy it. A huge amount. Some people like its reliableness, or perhaps its value or economy. (How far can I stretch a metaphor?) There has been such fantasy for decades, and it will not go away any time soon. Why? I can't say. Is it a bad thing? Perhaps not - I'm aware that it sells a lot, and bankrolls publishers to take more experimental novels on board.

But it's interesting you say everything has a bit of a twist these days: it's almost become the norm, to some extent - the perfect marketing solution. The same, but just a little bit different - like every Jack Johnson album. That's almost become the norm, if you see - not utterly radical like the days of PERDIDO STREET STATION, but just a fraction different. For a genre that can go anywhere, it seldom reaches for such radicalism - but whether that's good or bad isn't really for me to say.

Nor I, though I'll say it anyway: it's bad. But we're winding down here, and that's a whole can of worms I shouldn't stink out the place with this late in the game.

One last biggie: there’s been a lot of talk of late of the so-called death of publishing. An article by Garrison Keillor that has to be seen to be believed ran on The Baltimore Sun a few weeks ago, which had the LAKE WOEBEGONE DAYS author harking back to times the good old days of typewriters and editors. Is there anything to all the grass-is-greener muttering, do you think? Are eBooks and the perceived rise of self-publishing going to kill books and bookstores dead?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, Mark. You’re a pro writer now, you were in publishing before, as part of Solaris for starters, and you were an Ottakar’s man back in the day, weren’t you? Oh, how I miss my Ottakar’s...

I miss Ottakar's too!

It wouldn't be publishing without someone kicking off about the Good Old Days. I look forward to the time where I can look back on the blogosphere, before the Singularity kicked in, reminiscing on how it was good that we could send electronic mail to people and put two-dimensional pictures up. You go, Garrison! Don't let them youngsters get to you!

If you put seven ebook theorists in a room, you'd get eleven different answers (or three of them being a variation on "what Cory says"). No one really knows what's going on. Free downloads are registered as ebook sales, to my knowledge, which skews things massively, so the stats are not reliable. Years ago, people said computers would kill the book, but all it's done is support the growth of novel sales through online shopping and free extracts and virtual communities.

It's also important to stress that, when people talk about sales decline in the trade, the sections of the bookstore that get hurt are usually those with pretty elastic demand (if you can apply economic terms to the industry) . Celebrity biographies and gift books - in good times they sell loads, in bad times no one wants to know, because they have a very transient readership. Unlike fiction, and very much unlike SFF, which remains unaffected because of its loyal fans.

Self-publishing books will seldom have any influence – it's $$$ that makes the difference in this game. Publishers have to fork out cash for bookstore promotions, and advertising in magazines, and sending out hundreds of review copies etc, to get that book under the nose of the casual punter. Unless you're armed with huge amounts of cash to invest, then think again of getting much success here. I should say that some of these vanity presses are little more than a scam trying to seduce struggling writers with promises like "we'll send your book to newspapers for review!" - of course they can, the newspaper reviewers are just going to put anything like that in the bin.

And we shouldn't dismiss the technology, though - small print runs, or Print on Demand is great for local community books with a tiny readership; and it allows us to read previously out-of-print titles, as do ebooks. Digital publishing has brought authors back from the dead. How good is that? Technology will be seized by our community of readers and ultimately put to great use.

As long as people are reading, I don't care how they're doing it.

Quite so. A fair and balanced perspective, and not at all old-man moaning. Really, we should be denying grizzled grumps like Keillor access to the internet.

Anyway. I think we’ve burbled at one another just about enough, and it’s been an absolute pleasure, Mark. Before we call it a day, though, a couple of quick hits, if you don’t mind. First up, and we touched on this earlier: last word on the new weird. Dead as the dodo, or alive with possibility against all the odds?

I've said before that it was a stillborn movement, that the New Weird is dead, it is an ex-subgenre. And you know what, there's been more talk recently than ever before. It's a zombie movement, back from the dead – the tag is being used, without the previous taint in publishing houses "We ain't touching that manuscript - we'll never sell it!", and people are starting for the first time to know what it means. So who knows, perhaps the Weird is back again. It's certainly surprised me how people are looking for more of it though - that's a good sign.

Personally, I think there has always been a weird gene in the genre, from Hodgson to C.L. Moore to Miéville. I'd love to think I carry that gene myself.

On your blog last year, you put together a playlist of music to read NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR by. Any chance you’ll be doing something similar for CITY OF RUIN, now that it’s gracing bookstore shelves across the UK? What are a few of the most significant tunes that would feature?

Yes! I've a playlist lined up. It starts off with The Cure's "Lullaby", and features Mogwai's "Kids will be skeletons", Radiohead "Idioteque", 65daysofstatic "Little Victories", Martin Grech "Penicillin", Sufjan Stevens "Dumb I Sound"... In fact, I should really post this online soon. [He has: here - ED] I love having a playlist to write along too - it kind of helps with the whole direction of the project.

If I could eat your books - which is to say, if they were consumables literally as well as figuratively - what foods would NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR and CITY OF RUIN be?

NIGHTS would probably be a kind of curry, nothing too hot mind, more of a Chicken Jalfrezi, so you know something spicy is happening there. CITY OF RUIN is much more in Vindaloo territory, which may be a bit too much for a lot of people, but if you can handle it...

I can handle it!

And since I suspect I’ll get nothing out of you about book three of THE LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN, what will it taste of compared to the two courses of curry the first two volumes in the sequence represent?

Whereas the first two are still Indian curries, the third will be something more like a Thai Green curry. Not too far away, geographically speaking, but hopefully a very different taste indeed.

On that appetising note, then: Mark, I really can’t thank you enough for your time - nor, for that matter, your support of the little old blog. For your generosity and your kindness, then, not to mention the single most interesting chat I’ve had in ages, thanks so much.

And thank you, too, for the interesting debate and your hospitality – and for asking some genuinely tricky questions. It's been a blast!


And with that, we're done.

Thanks to everyone for reading. I know it's been a long one, but fascinating, no? And thanks again to Mark; the gent deserves huge amounts of gratitude for being so generous with his time and his words - his stock in trade, no less - as to put up with my pestering.

NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR is out in paperback now in the UK, and should be hitting the States in hardcover later this month courtesy of Bantam Spectra. Hereabouts, Tor made the sequel available last Friday. I'll be reviewing on Friday coming - stay tuned for that (not to mention a guest post from Mark and the results of Tuesday's signed proof giveaway) - but let it suffice to say, for the moment, that CITY OF RUIN is really rather good.


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