A while ago I promised that an interview with fantasy author John Marco would appear in the near future. That time, I'm delighted to say, has now come. John has kindly taken some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his up-coming Skylords series, his new fantasy epic The Black Mirror and the writing life in general.
What more can you tell us about The Skylords series in terms of the storyline?
The Skylords is one of those stories that pulls together different ideas from various parts of my brain, some of which I’ve been harboring for years. Although each of the books is going to be shorter than any of my previous books, it’s still a deep story with lots of interwoven plot elements.
Basically, the first book is about a boy named Moth living in a city at the very edge of a world like our own during the turn of the last century. This is a world with steam trains, gaslights, and most importantly to the story, airships. Industry and science are just starting to awaken in mankind, and Moth wants to be part of it. Like a lot of kids he dreams about flying, and all he wants to do is get away from the secluded city he lives in so that he can become a Skyknight someday. The problem is, the world of humans borders a forbidden fairy world ruled by creatures known as the Skylords, and the Skylords aren’t too keen about humans taking to the sky. So it’s not just a story about Moth coming of age, but also about humanity coming of age as well.
That sounds fantastic. This is your first book that is aimed a little more at younger readers - how different was it to write when compared to your previous works? Did you find writing for a younger audience difficult?
I thought it would be very difficult to write for younger readers, but it wasn’t. It was challenging, because I had to tweak my usual voice a little bit, tone down the violence some, and really focus the story on one or two main characters. But a funny thing happened when I was doing this—I found that it made me a more disciplined writer. Instead of having a huge cast to work with, I had to make the story work with only a handful. And instead of being able to go on and on, as is so typical of the “epic” model of fantasy writing that I’m used to, I had to bring the world alive with fewer pages. I had to keep the action moving too. Every day before starting to write, I said a little mantra to myself, to remind myself of some key points about writing for younger readers, all of which involved keeping the story moving forward and engaging readers on an emotional level. Really, those are good points to bear in mind no matter who the audience.
You've mentioned that you hope The Skylords will appeal to older readers and your established fanbase, as well as a younger audience - was this a difficult balance to achieve?
In a way, because I don’t want to alienate the readers I have, who’ve always been so supportive and loyal. But what’s interesting is that I already have a lot of young readers. I get emails all the time for teenagers who’ve been reading my books, so it shouldn’t be a big stretch for many people.
Your previous works are very thematic in that they deal with a wide variety of themes such as redemption, loyalty and duty to name but a few. Can we expect more of the same from The Skylords series or will the emphasis be more on action and adventure?
Readers will still find a lot of the same kind of themes they’ve always seen in my books. I don’t think a writer can ever get away from that, in that there’s always a “John Marco” feeling to everything I write. I remember a person saying to me once that all of U2’s music sounds the same. And I thought to myself, yeah, I guess it does, but that’s okay with me because I like what I’m hearing.
People who’ve read my previous stuff should be happy with Skylords. I hope so, at least. Besides the coming of age theme there’s also a strong thread about abandonment running through the story, and how the idea of being left behind or being unloved can change a person’s whole view of the world. Despite all the airships and mythical creatures in the story, it’s still all about the characters for me.
Aviation is clearly going to be a big aspect of The Skylords, so again it sounds like you're writing a fantasy with a strong technological element much like your first trilogy, Tyrants and Kings. Is this just a coincidence, or do you deliberately set out to try and push the boundaries of people's expectations and write something a little different from the usual fantasy tropes?
I don’t ever set out to push any boundaries. There’s a lot of writers out there already doing that excellently. I just write about things that interest me. The idea of technological elements in a fantasy world always juices me up. There’s something about that paradox that’s fun for me to mine. A love the anachronism of a knight on a horse leading a mechanical war machine into battle, for example. Seeing that image on a book cover makes me want to pick it up.
As for aviation, that’s something I haven’t had a chance to explore until now. I’ve always had an affinity for planes, particularly early aircraft like zeppelins and World War I fighters. I’m sure readers will see those influences in Skylords. The Skyknights in the story, for example, are really an echo of those early fliers. Beyond hearing a call to duty, these guys were just plain ballsy. They knew the risks of getting into those dangerous planes, but they wanted to fly. With their goggles and scarves and leather jackets, they just looked cool. I just had to work that into a story somehow.
What came first - your desire to write a book aimed at a younger audience or the actual idea for The Skylords?
Hmm, I’m thinking about this and I’m not really sure. They sort of grew up together in my mind. I’ve wanted to write a story for younger readers for years, really since I started writing professionally, so I guess that came first. But it seemed like a natural to have a theme of flying go along with it. There’s always that innocence when a little kid looks up into the sky and sees a plane or helicopter and wants to be up there too. I see it in my own son, and I see it in myself still, after all these years.
What about your other project, The Black Mirror? You mentioned that your editor has said the manuscript needs some substantial re-writing?
The Black Mirror is one of those sprawling, really epic fantasy stories with lots of different characters and settings, battles, politics—all the things I love about epic fantasy. I turned it in to my editor and DAW about a year ago, where it took a while for her to read it. After she did she felt that the story had problems and needed work. In some places she feels it’s not fleshed out enough, and in other spots it feels too long, apparently. I haven’t gotten a formal editorial letter about it yet, or even had a real conversation about it with her, so I don’t know exactly what the perceived problems are. I say perceived because I still feel very strongly about the book that I wrote. In fact, I love it. I’m not saying it doesn’t need work, because all manuscripts do, but I think there’s an excellent story in those pages that readers will enjoy, and I’m going to keep pushing it along. One way or another, readers will get a chance to read it, I’m sure.
You once remarked that trying to write a novel while working a 9-5 day job was a "horrible grind" - does it get any easier once you make the leap to becoming a full-time writer? How do you deal with any distractions?
I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to discourage any writers out there who are working a regular day job and then coming home at night to write. They already know how hard that is, so there’s no need for me to pile on. I stand by what I said—it was extremely tough for me to go to a day job that I didn’t enjoy and then work on my first Tyrants and Kings book in my spare time. I’m not even sure I could do it now if I had to go back to that situation. For one thing I have a child now, and he takes up a lot of my time and energy and my love, and you’ve got to love writing to keep at it.
As far as distractions go, here’s how I deal with them—I rant and complain, get it out of my system, and get back to work. If you want to succeed in anything, you have to stop moaning about it and get it done. Distractions plagued me all of my life. They kept me from staying in college and finishing other things I started, but they don’t keep me from my writing very often because being a writer is what I really want out of life. Becoming a writer—like anything else—is a decision.
What, in a writing sense, would you do differently if you had to go back and start your writing career all over again?
I’m going to answer this question a bit differently, because I find the way you phrased it interesting. A lot of times people ask “what would you do differently if you could go back and start over again.” Instead, you asked what I would do differently if I had to start over again, and that’s a completely different question when you stop to think about it. My life has been full of ups and downs, and so has my writing career. There were times when it would have been easy—maybe even smart—to walk away from it and do something else. In a way, it’s like you’re asking if I would start over again if I had to, and the answer to that is definitely yes. Writers have to write. I don’t know why! Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse.
I can’t honestly say that I’d do anything differently. I made mistakes, I fumbled the ball sometimes, but that’s bound to happen in any endeavor. All that really matters is that I try to learn from my mistakes, keep striving to get better as a writer and keep moving forward.
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Many thanks to John for giving such an interesting and engaging interview. You can check out John's own blog here: http://www.johnmarco.com/
I for one think the Skylords sounds fantastic and can't wait to read more.