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Friday, May 1, 2009

Interview with Mark Charan Newton

Official Mark Charan Newton Website
Order “Nights of Villjamur
Read An Excerpt

In support of the June 5, 2009 UK publication of Mark Charan Newton’s Tor UK debut, “Nights of Villjamur”, I was given the opportunity to interview Mark, and thanks to the assistance of Fábio Fernandes, Jacques Barcia, and Mihir Wanchoo, I’m proud to present the following:

Q: Let’s get right to it. Your
Tor UK debut, “Nights of Villjamur”, will be published on June 5, 2009. Now I’ve had the pleasure of reading an unedited version of the book, and it’s quite a mixture of different things like epic fantasy, noir mystery, and weird fiction. In your own words, how would you describe “Nights of Villjamur”, and what were you trying to accomplish with the book?

Mark: It’s an fantasy that at heart follows in the tradition of
Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and M John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence, two incredible dying earth fantasies which really inspired the creation of NIGHTS. (For the sharp-eyed, I’ve dropped a few references to those books too.) I loved those kinds of settings, and from there NIGHTS is really something that blends the aesthetics of mainstream lit, SF, crime (hardboiled noir), even borrows from horror, but it is fundamentally an epic fantasy.

I’ve been reading in genre for years—I’m a geek at heart. I buy genre books because I support the genre. But I always wanted to write something that felt consciously different. I didn’t want to “turn clichés on their head” because why bother? Just think of something different to write about. Clichés, if used well, can be fun. So what I hopefully finished up with is something with at least the intention of originality, and doing something to add a little zest to perhaps the most unfashionable of genres, the secondary world fantasy—something which receives snobbery even within the genre. That’s something I can’t accept—you can’t go around limiting acts of the imagination, because you might as well not write fiction. I won’t go on, I can feel a rant coming on!

Q: Can you tell us more about the world that “Nights of Villjamur” is set in and some of the book’s major characters?

Mark: I mentioned above that it’s a dying earth style novel, so I guess you could say it’s a world far, far, far into the future where the world has become more primitive—so it seems like a fantasy more than SF. Villjamur is an ancient city. A place that contains decayed structures that are still very much a part of it. Vast old towers, intricate layouts, a feel that it has been planned with no logic at all. It possesses a peculiar psychogeography. It needed to be old—the aesthetics of the novel needed to reflect the intentions: that to show time passing, to dwell on the theme of death a little. It’s populated by hundreds of thousands of people, and there’s a bourgeois culture. An ice age is setting in, and refugees have flocked to the outer gates but won’t be allowed entry. The ice age is actually a motivation for plots—it tends to hurry things along nicely.

As for the characters: I wanted to make them messed up to the same extent that normal people are, and give them contemporary social concerns: homosexuality, race, being afraid of dying, patching up relationships. I tried to give women as much a decent status as possible in a patriarchal society. Magic isn’t used as a get-out clause—in fact, the magic is more monopolized technology. And because I didn’t feel I could use skin colour as much as I’d have liked to (the sun has been fading, this is a fairly northerly setting) I did want distinctions though—because that’s real, that’s culture, so I included a human-based species to live alongside regular humans. I won’t give any spoilers, but, although you can never please everyone, I hope they don’t come across as bland! Oh, and there are garudas and . . . banshees! (Why haven’t banshees been used more often?)

Q: Even though “Nights of Villjamur” isn’t even out yet, you’re already hard at work on the sequel. Could you give us an update on how the sequel is coming along (maybe a working title, when you hope to turn in a first draft, etc.) and yours plans for The Legends of the Red Sun series?

Mark: I don’t especially like to talk about a work in progress simply because so much can change, but if I get my way, there’ll be gangs (based on modern day gangs), a shape-shifting serial killer, a city siege, and so much more weirdness. The flying monkeys might get taken out though. :)

Q: As readers may or may not know, “Nights of Villjamur” is not your first novel. That honor actually goes to “The Reef” (March 2008,
Pendragon Press). What’s “The Reef” about and how did you feel about the finished product?

Mark:The Reef” was consciously new weird, before I realised that as a movement the new weird was dead. It was in fact barely alive to begin with—just a couple of authors made much out of it. I only say this because if there are any writers out there still trying to write New Weird, for heaven’s sake, don’t put that on your synopsis—it’s likely to hit the rejection pile pretty quickly. Although I’d like to say that although I believe the New Weird is dead, I hope its spirit lives on inside of me.

So it was always destined for a small, indie press, but for a small press book it turned out very nicely. There were quite a few typos (such are the editorial costs of a small publishing operation), but it’s a very different beast to NIGHTS.

Q: Compared to “The Reef”, was writing “Nights of Villjamur” easier, more difficult, or just different? Could you elaborate please?

Mark: I wrote it back when I was 23, and wondered: did I have enough world experience to really write something worthwhile? Did I even have enough skills as a writer? I’m not so sure, but I can be critical and want to improve. Why wouldn’t I? I would much rather that people experienced me for the first time, as it were, with “Nights of Villjamur”. It’s very different, on scale, length of time to create, world building. More difficult, more ambitious.

Q: Another piece of information that readers may or may not be aware of, is that you’re employed as an assistant editor at
Solaris Books. Working at a company that publishes speculative fiction, how does that benefit you in your writing?

Mark: I’m hugely conscious of keeping these two worlds as separate as I can. People outside publishing can occasionally think there’s some grand inner sanctum, in which a secret handshake got me a deal. I was writing long before I worked in publishing, and got with my agent about two years before, and the rest was blood, sweat, tears and rejection slips—just like the rest. But I can’t deny that working in publishing can help you become aware of the faults of other writers or the things in novels that works well, and perhaps how to write a tighter plot or sentence.

Q: On the flipside, are there any negative aspects? I’m particularly interested in knowing how you juggle your time between
Solaris and being a writer, and preventing other peoples’ manuscripts from possibly influencing your own writing?

Mark: Well, when you read during the day, it’s not often the first thing you want to do when you get back home. It can kill the urge to read at times, but you just have to be disciplined. And as for influences—well, its no more different that having read lots of other books that I would have bought anyway. I mean, fundamentally it’s the same thing! All in all I’ve saved money on books, that’s the only difference.

Solaris actually publishes books for both US and UK markets. Have you noticed much of a difference between the two markets in regards to speculative fiction including sales, popularity, and what readers are looking for?

Mark: No, there’s very little difference, surprisingly. Generally readers want the same thing in both markets. We’re closer than we think.

NOTE: This interview was conducted before the sale of
Solaris was announced, which is why that topic was not covered.

Q: Moving on, you’re represented by the
John Jarrold Literary Agency (Ramsey Campbell, Peter Crowther, Ian Cameron Esslemont, Stephen Hunt, Paul Kearney, Jasper Kent, Robert V.S. Redick, etc). How did you hook up with John, what are the benefits of having an agent on your side, and what advice would you give a writer who is shopping for a literary agent?

Mark: About six years ago, when I was working in bookselling (running the sf and fantasy section!) I heard that John was starting up an agency, and I’d written about half a book so sent him that. And he wrote back the same night saying he wanted to represent me. And I jumped up and down with glee, or thereabouts, and maybe drinking was involved. That novel remains unpublished by the way, just to give you an idea of how long the process can take.

John is an amazing guy, an oracle and a ferocious guzzler of red wine. His advice has been instrumental in helping me develop as a writer, and although he can be direct in what he says, I think writers need that. He tells you how it is. There’s no shit.

Some agents can be con-artists, so always do your homework. Don’t pay them a single cent, penny, drachma or whatever, until they’ve sold something of yours. A quick Google can give you a great indication of how good an agent is, but do your research, find what agents are looking for—synopsis, first few chapters or whatever, and write them a covering letter. Be polite about it too.

Q: In speculative fiction, arguably moreso than other genres, cover art is very important. How important is cover art to you and how do you feel about the cover for “Nights in Villjamur”?

Mark: Search for a book on
Amazon. Take a look at the books that people also bought, and you’ll often see a lot of similarities. I think that goes to explain just how important cover art is. A huge chunk of the market will make their buying decision on the similarities of a cover. Which saddens me to a degree, but I can understand how book buyers make their purchases in a saturated market. So unfortunately, the cover is one of the most important things for new authors, in determining how many copies is sold. No matter how many reviews or awards a book might receive, if the cover ain’t right, the book could just vanish by the end of the year. We online sometimes get skewed into thinking that just because a book gets lots of coverage it will sell well. There’s a massive fan community that doesn’t come online, and they buy a lot of books . . . which is not to say the online world has a small effect, I’m just stating how important covers can be sometimes in terms of sales.

I was really excited to see the cover art for NIGHTS. It’s by
Benjamin Carré, a very talented artist. The image is really different to anything else I’ve seen for a long time. The city looks so realistic—and is exactly the mood and look of what I imagined. I was very, very lucky in that his name was one I put forward at the start of the procedure.

Q: It’s becoming more and more common to see novels adapted into different formats like movies, comics, videogames, animation and television. Just for fun, how would you like to see “Nights of Villjamur” adapted?

Mark: I’ve had the film cast worked out for ages. Eva Green, Scarlett Johansson, me as a cameo . . . oh serious answers. Well then. I’d love to see something directed by Shane Meadows, or even the milder more thoughtful side of Tikashi Miike. I must confess I’m not hugely au fait with computer games, largely because if I was, then my books would not get written. Ever. Pass me the controller.

Q: Now I just have some generalized questions for you. First, where does your inspiration come from (i.e.: nature, events, people, etc.)? In particular, what are your influences—in Fantasy, in Science Fiction, and in the so-called mainstream literature—and who are the authors that have influenced you the most?

Mark: Book influences:
China Miéville’s The Scar was the book that made me want to write in the first place. It seemed to out-class other fantasy on every level, and I couldn’t find anything like it. So I wanted to give it a go myself…

Other writers I admire: M John Harrison, Don DeLillo, Henning Mankell (Detective Wallander, was a starting point for my investigator in NIGHTS), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. But there are a good deal more who have influenced me to a lesser degree, mainly because I’ve only read individual books and not had the time to go into detail. A few years back and I’d have said Graham Greene or Ernest Hemingway. More recently, I’d add Steven Erikson, because even though I’m only partway through his monster Malazan series, and it could take me years to finish, I’m always in awe of his achievements. Oh, and
David Peace—I honestly think those of us who mutter “Gritty… fantasy” should read this guy’s crime series, the Red Riding Quartet, because they are some of the most savage and relentlessly intense pieces of crime fiction around. His prose sprawls like a mantra, and you just feel so depressed at the end. Great stuff!

Other influences: I read a few political blogs and books, which constantly inform world views. People-watching is always essential for me—why think weird things up when there are so many people out there to choose to copy? But I think generally to be like a sponge for quirky things in any media are useful. I nearly always carry a notebook around, because you never know when inspiration strikes. I’m interested in the unusual. I’d rather talk to someone who has had a difficult life than a perfect existence, and I think that comes across in my characters (i.e. there’s no wish-fulfillment lifestyle)

Q: What type of writer are you. An outliner or a freewriter? And could you give us an example of what a typical day may look like?

Mark: I have an outline of where characters need to go, by when, and what they need to do for certain things to work, etc. But I like to have a lot of organic development within that framework. Sometimes characters say and do surprising things, which give you an extra dimension. Then I like to feed things throughout, change things as I go along, think of cool things later down the line. But then I go back over everything to make sure it’s smooth and still according to the Big Plan. It’s like working on different areas of a mosaic too.

I work full time, so I get home from work collapse with my laptop and struggle along for a couple of hours. But most likely I’d have been thinking about a particular point during the day. Writing doesn’t start and finish at the keyboard. It’s not easy, but you have to have discipline—get rid of the TV, stop going out as much. And anyone can give it a go—I surprised myself that I could finish one of these damn things. You’ll only know if you can write by actually writing something.

Q: How do you cope with the stressful nature of schedules & deadlines?

Mark: What’s a deadline? :)

Q: LOL! In fantasy, some authors like to put an emphasis on characters or worldbuilding; others on storytelling. Where do you fit in this picture and what do you feel are your strengths as a writer? What about weaknesses or areas that you’d like to get stronger in?

Mark: I think strengths really aren’t for me to say, and it could end up a tad solipsistic. I’d like to think prose is a strong point, but that’s so personal. I enjoy worldbuilding—I am a geek after all, no matter what clothes I buy. As for weaknesses… I think as a male writer, I’m conscious of writing better female characters. There are more central roles for females in the second novel, but it’s one of those things to really understand how females operate in a male-dominated culture. Perhaps it’s a concern of every male writer (or at least it should be).

Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of fantasy fiction, and what is fantasy to you?

Mark: I’d say things are as healthy as they’ve always been—the genre weathers recessions well, because we’re not transient readers—we love these books. But it’s rarely been more difficult to get published (due to the nature of the industry, and with big conglomerates having merged over the past few years). Perhaps digitization will free it up a little, but not to the extent that the press would have you believe. In terms of the genre again, I think there’s a move towards a more conservative approach to literature. Marketing departments dominate decision making processes. Big cigar in mouth, wide open gestures: “We need a book that’ll sell to fans of (insert big author of the day here).”

But that doesn’t mean the books are bad, not in the least. Although having said that, as with everything, there’s a lot of crap out there—there always has and there always will be. I feel I’ve not really given an answer to the question…

As for Fantasy fiction: what was it Gene Wolfe said? “All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.”

Unless you’re Terry Goodkind, of course.

Q: Of course ;) So what books have recently impressed you the most, what are you currently reading, and what titles are you most looking forward to?

Mark: I’ve recently read
China Miéville’s The City and the City (one of the perks of being at the same publisher—blagging proofs as soon as they’re ready!) and whilst I’ll always have a soft spot for Bas-Lag, this was still another very cool piece of fiction—the equivalent of an independent European film in book format. Within the last few years I’ve become a massive fan of Don DeLillo, so regularly digest some of his amazing literary pyrotechnics. Rob Holdstock has a follow up to Mythago Wood which I can’t wait to get into. Jonathan Lethem is supposed to have something new out this year too (I loved Fortress of Solitude) I have a massive reading pile though, and things join it and fall off at random intervals. Won’t stop me buying more books though.

Q: Who do you feel is an underrated writer that deserves more attention and why?

Conrad Williams is a small press hero that is coming out into the mainstream a little more. He writes some of the darkest and intelligent horror out there, and is a master of prose. M John Harrison doesn’t always get the coverage he deserves—and there’s enough praise around for him without me gushing like a fanboy—but I’d advise everyone to read something of his.

Q: What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

Mark: Aside from writing when I had more time, I messed around on the guitar far more than was advisable. I get to gigs when I can, read, go running. Try and escape the city, or if I’m in it, loose myself in grotty indie-bars, or dusty second hand book shops. But the writing tends to kill your social life, and I’m awful now at maintaining contact with friends, or getting involved in much other stuff.

Q: In closing, is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself or “Nights in Villjamur”?

Mark: Buy it. And if you don’t like it, it can be used as a bed prop, fuel for burning (we are in a recession after all), or paint it for a gaming feature.

Later addition by Liviu who could not resist to ask Mark a couple of questions of his own:

1. In both your editor and author capacities, what are the things you would like online sff reviewers to do for your book as an author, or for the books edited by you as an editor? More specifically, what of the following are really important and what are useful but secondary?

1.Online Reviews
2.Amazon (of all stripes) Reviews
3.Other Online Booksellers reviews (eg B& in the US, BookDepository in the UK)
4. Author interviews
5. Book giveaways
6. Book excerpts on the review website
7. General book announcements like signing of contracts, author events, tours...

2. How do you perceive the role of online website promotion - ie the stuff from the previous question, with respect to the marketplace success of the book? The percent of online buyers is increasing, the percent of people looking for reviews of books online is increasing, but how does it stack in the overall picture?

Mark: Everything has an importance - anything can impact on a sale, it's just difficult to know to what extent. It isn't an exact science.

I would say all of those things you mention contribute - but we should remember that the Internet represents only a proportion of those who buy SFF books. There are many other outlets - book club associations, bricks and mortar bookstores, supermarkets even that have a massive impact. And one of the main things in determining a success is getting the cover right.

So yes, the role of online web promotion is very useful indeed, increasingly so in connecting with a tech-savvy readership - but we should remember that it is just one aspect of a vast industrial book machine. And as things move forward, publishers are increasingly having to pay to be involved in store or online promotions - so it's hard cash that still has a big influence in what makes something successful. You pay for putting a book in front of people - and that book stands more chance of selling in large quantities. You pay for lots of advertising, and that has a similar effect. Is that a good or bad book, or the one that's had most support?

One thing which is a personal thought is with regards to saturation. As more and more publishers and sites get involved, it's difficult to know what to believe when everyone is saying a novel is the "best book ever - honest!"

But I believe - and hope - the online community can retain it's anarchistic roots by talking about the books they love, and not just what publishers thrust into their hands. By maintaining massive fandom support, and continuing to share power and influence amongst themselves - forming the niche communities that they already are - then I believe that bloggers etc., can make much more of a difference.

NOTE: The very first picture used at the beginning of the interview, was taken by author
Alethea Kontis at a Lou Anders party at last year’s Worldcon in Denver.


The Reader said...

Wonderful Interview mr. Robert. This book is indeed turning out to be the most queries-about- book of the year.

Kate Elliot has come up with a new term for MCN's book NOV & a book she's writing with similar themes. Her title for this genre " Ice-punk fantasy" ;)

Teresa said...

Fascinating interview. And he's pretty cute. :-)

ediFanoB said...

Interesting and informative interview.
At the end of the interview Marc told us to buy the book.
I read Liviu's review and left following comment:
"Liviu, this is the 6th review of Nights of Villjamur and it is a good one. And like the other reviewers you recommend the book.
A Dribble of Ink,King of the Nerds!!!, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, Speculative Horizons, The Wertzone. When you aren't convinced so far to buy and read the book then read The exclusive excerpt.

Anyway I can tell you after reading Liviu's review I couldn't withstand any longer and I did something new for me:
I sent a pre-order to !!! You must know I live in Germany and I normally don't buy Hardcover!
Now I look forward to 9th of June, the estimated delivery date. I know what I will do when I get the book in my hands....

Marc, that means you sold one copy of your book. And you sold it to a foreign country!

The Witchfinder said...

Interesting to see him mention Mankell, I think, as I very rarely see him mentioned outside Scandinavia. But alas, though I can't speak for the translations, I found the books of his that I've read to be dreary stuff, with too much content and not enough substance. However, Wallander is a good character. Typical of a lot of modern crime, really.

That said, I am getting more and more exited about this guy, seeing as he's a Harrison and China fan, which is ALWAYS a good thing. I'll read for sure.

And the fact that he's a total man-hunk doesn't hurt either. :o

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