I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the talented Mark Charan Newton to drop by.
Look out for the give-away at the end of the post.
Q: I see we are cousins of a sort. I’m published with Solaris. I didn’t realise that you helped create this press. That must have been exciting. Did you have a Mission Statement when you put the editorial team together? And what are your thoughts on how the publishing world has changed in just the last five to ten years?
Yes, guilty as charged! As for a mission statement – if I remember correctly, at the time we were aware of a widening gap between the big mega publishers and the small press; that left a gap for mid-list authors or those authors who write more than one book a year and didn’t have a venue to publish. That lacuna was our publishing niche.
As for how publishing has changed? Well, it’s been doing the same thing solidly for the past ten years. Trends come and go, of course, and now we have ebooks which are simply another format like hardcover or paperback. There are fewer places to buy on the high street, and Amazon now has a powerful influence over the industry. It is tougher than ever for publishers at the moment – but it’s been tough as long as I can remember.
I think, if anything, I’ve become a little wiser of the past few years – in that I know not to react quickly to hype and panic. Things change. Trends come and go. Publishers are still here though.
Q: After working on one side of the fence as an editor, you then sold three books to Pan Macmillan. Did your experience as an editor give you any advantages when it came to writing your own book? And, conversely, did the experience of going through the editing process as an author, make you think, Oh, I wish I’d done things differently in the past with authors?
Probably no more than someone who reads a lot of fantasy and SF anyway. The only advantage I can really think of was to realise that there is a huge amount of creative freedom in both writing and the genre. There are so many critics out there who talk through their bums about prose – as if the art of fiction was some concrete bunch of criteria. How dull would life be, if fiction was a checklist of boxes churned out by a creative writing article?
Most of what’s written about fiction is nonsense – novels can take a huge number of forms, and that was a very pleasurable experience as an editor: to see those many different forms taking shape.
But to be honest, I always tried to keep those worlds separate: for the sake of both myself and the authors I worked with.
Q: You wrote a post about Genre Diversity called Bloggers’ Frontlist Fetish. This is where bloggers review and talk about the latest releases. You suggest we should be talking more about the great speculative fiction books that moved us so that new readers can find these authors. (For instance Joanne Russ and Tim Powers. To which I would add Mervyn Peake and Fritz Leiber. Certain scenes from Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books have stayed with me 30 years later, same with Joanna Russ.) You suggest that bloggers also take the time to search out interesting books from small press. I love it that small press can take a gamble on books that push the genre. Which authors opened your eyes to the genre?
I’ve mentioned several times about the impact that reading China Miéville’s The Scar had on me (suddenly I realised just what fantasy fiction could achieve). But the authors who opened my eyes the most are problably M John Harrison, Christopher Priest and Steven Erikson; for older authors, Michael G. Coney.
There’s just so much out there that is going to be forgotten in the scramble for the promo tables in bookstores. Sometimes I think bloggers should simply head into a second hand store and find something unusual to review. It’d make the blogosphere a more interesting place.
Q: You have a background as an environmental scientist. I can see shades of this surfacing in your first book, Nights of Villjamur, with refugees fleeing an encroaching ice age. Did you set out to write this theme into the book, or did it happen when you weren’t looking?
Not especially, I don’t think. I studied Environmental Science at degree level, and I think that does inform my fiction in a more subtle way: that is, a realisation of how politics, economics, climate and so on are connected and that realisation has an impact on the plot.
In Nights of Villjamur, there is an ice age that is predicted by astrologers, as opposed to scientists. But the challenge there is the polar (forgive the pun!) opposite of the challenges our society faces today: there the huge amount of scientific evidence (dating back 200 years) supporting the concept of a planet warming significantly. There’s also the battle against the doubt in the media, which is funded by oil companies and the like.
Q: City of Ruin is a stand-alone book. You say that if anyone is going to read just one of your books, you’d like it to be this one. Why is that?
It’s just a better book by a long way, in my opinion. Technically it’s better, the prose is stronger, I’m less self-conscious, I’m having more fun. Also, you don’t need to read Nights to enjoy City. So I’ll always encourage readers – if they’re going to experiment with my fiction – to head for that book. I’m more proud of it – and it’s got more of a wow factor, in my opinion.
Q: The Book of Transformations revolves around Villjamur and the encroaching ice-age, politics and the consequences of decisions. Do you plot your books in detail or do they evolve as you write?
A bit of both, to be honest. I plot, I write a bit, I revisit the plot to see if can be expanded upon… And it changes from book to book. For my new series, because of the complexities involved in the plot, there is a lot of planning to be done. I find my approach tends to fit what the book demands.
Q: I just discovered you have an earlier novel, The Reef, which has been re-released as an ebook. Does it also explore the themes of environmental impact on people and society?
Yes, though I wrote it a long time ago, so much of the specifics escapes me! It’s more to do with ecology and botany than environmentalism per se. Those themes were much more stuck in my mind (fresh out of my degree) than for Nights.
Q: You recently signed another 3 book deal with Pan Macmillan. Can you tell us a little about this new series? Will it be set in the same world as Villjamur or a completely new world?
It’s a completely new world – nothing whatsoever to do with the Red Sun books. I’ve drawn a line under those now and want to move on (for my own sanity!).
The world is very much inspired by the classical world, particularly the Roman republic and Empire – there’s so much there which fascinates me, such a level of sophistication and culture, which puts later centuries to shame.
The lead character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is a bit like a young lawyer-slash-detective, and certainly the polar opposite of a private eye (if anything, he’s a public eye). I’m really trying to steer away from noir pastiche because I feel that would be disrespectful to crime readers. The book is as much a crime novel as it is a fantasy novel. Imagine a mainstream writer trying their hand at a fantasy novel, and filled it with a paint-by-numbers story – they’d be strung up by the fanbase, which is why I’m not doing a paint-by-numbers crime novel, either.
So it’s a pseudo-classical-crime-saga!
Q: I’ve been following you on twitter and you often provide links to interesting articles on environmental topics. Do you think that writing books with these kinds of themes is a way of reaching out to people?
Not especially. I don’t think a mild environmental streak in the novels will reach out in a meaningful way to people; one is fiction, the other is science. Which is not to say it can’t be done, but it seems unlikely. If I want to write about the environment, I’ll write a blog post on it – that’s a much more effective way, in my opinion.
Q: Your mother was Indian and your father English. You grew up in a bilingual household with parents from two different cultures. Do you think this gives you a unique advantage when it comes to writing ‘alien’ worlds?
My mother rarely spoke her native tongue growing up; I had a very English upbringing, as it happens, so I can’t really claim an advantage with alien worlds. I’m not sure I do aim to write alien worlds to an extent – everything I write about is vaguely familiar, or based on our own culture.
Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy?
I don’t think there’s a gender difference in why people write. I’d like to think that people write because they want to write, irrespective of gender. As an editor I could certainly see little difference.
The boy’s club aspect probably comes from society wide prejudices – it’s still tough for girls/ladies/women out there, in any industry, and only a conscious effort from readers can help stop that.
Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?
Not at all. If it’s fiction, my first concern of a writer is: can they inspire me with a paragraph?
Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?
Ancient Rome! Probably from just after Caesar stepped across the Rubicon, until Augustus died – can you imagine a more exciting period in history, with such a profound change?
And I’d need to start off as a wealthy citizen of the Republic, of course. If you were poor, you didn’t tend to fare too well…
Giveaway Question: If you could bring back a figure from history, to rent your spare room or crash on your sofa, who would that be and where would you take them?
Read Mark’s Blog.
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Follow Mark on Twitter. @MarkCN