Friday, 4 June 2010

An interview with Mark Charan Newton - Part the Second

As promised, here's the second instalment of the interview with Mark Charan Newton. The interview turned out to be bigger than expected, so look out for a bonus third final part in the near future!

Here we go...

You’ve recently signed a new contract with Tor UK for another two books, along with a two-book deal in the US. Your first novel for Tor, Nights of Villjamur, received a very positive critical reaction both online and in print, and the early signs point towards a similar reaction to your new novel City of Ruin. As if that wasn’t enough, you recently took part in a book signing alongside China Mieville, who is one of your biggest influences. Surely, when you were living in that caravan all those years ago and first embarking on your writing career, you never expected to achieve this sort of success so quickly?

No. And I'm still aware that it could all disappear just as quickly. I've been very lucky to get where I am (but I essentially wrote off six years of my life to get here), and I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing. Though of course every struggling writer dreams of success, it was more of an issue while I was unpublished. Now I'm published, if I'm honest, I try not to think in terms of such things. I'm just focussing on hitting deadlines and keeping things ticking over.

You’re fairly young for an author – you were only 26 when you wrote Nights of Villjamur. Has this inspired any negativity towards you?

Hard to say. I think writing is one of those deeply personal and emotional pastimes, and one of the most popular "ideal" jobs, so to see someone younger make a success of things is bound to irritate some people. Combine that with the very British quality of not wanting others to succeed, then I guess you could understand mutterings from certain quarters, and - online, behind avatars - that has the potential to manifest in any number of bitter ways. But again, it's an abstract problem, and one that, ultimately, I can't really afford to worry about.

Can you pinpoint a specific moment in time when you first thought “Yeah, I want to be a writer”? If so, what proved the catalyst?

I never thought I wanted to be a writer. I just gave it a go, because I couldn't find the type of book I wanted to read, and tried writing it myself. Simple as that. There are a hundred tiny influences, other writers who inspire, but the main thrust was really a dissatisfaction with what was on the shelf. You want to write, then write. If you're lucky, you get paid for it, but it doesn't mean you can't enjoy the process. There wasn't really any other driver.

Tell us about that moment when the news came through that you’d first been offered a book deal – what were you doing, and how did you feel?

I was actually staying at my friend's house - George Mann, who's also a writer. We'd been out drinking, and I was hungover the next day. I tried reading my emails on my primitive phone (how do we cope without the iPhone?) and saw that my agent had tried to contact me the night before to tell me that Peter Lavery at Pan Macmillan wanted to buy my book. As you can imagine, I was delighted, though still hungover. In fact, I probably did a silly dance, but it was a while ago now. The buzz lasted for a good few days, and I still get after shocks: when I see my book on a shelf, or get a good review.

It’s said that writers need a thick skin, though personally I think these days a titanium-alloy full body suit would be more appropriate. You’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a great critical reception on the whole, but how do you deal with the negative reviews that now and then come your way? Does it become easier to deal with them, or do they always hurt you as much as they first did?

I know I've been pretty lucky with reviews. If anything, this has created a cause for a few bad reviews on Amazon, from people who were surprised the book wasn't the Second Coming. Of course bad reviews hurt - writers have huge egos, and want praise by the hour, every hour - but I'm not ridiculous to think that everyone should like my books, and in fact, if I'm pissing a few people off too, then I think I've done a good thing. And yes, it gets easier - though for any new book, I think you want people to respond well - first month sensitivities, perhaps.

As mentioned, your first novel received an excellent critical reception, and you thank several reviewers – this humble blogger included – in the acknowledgements to City of Ruin. You’ve stated elsewhere that this online support was important to your early success, but exactly how important was it? Is it vital these days for a new author to win over the online reviewers?

It's not strictly speaking because of the reviews. Many bloggers have helped promote me - with interviews, or links or opinions on my own blog posts, and that has siginficiantly raised my profile. It takes an extremely egocentric author to think that they get where they are without help, be it from editors, agents, publicists, cover artists, or this newfangled blogosphere. But I don't think of it as winning over online reviewers - I just do whatever I do, and if people love it, great. If they don't, not so great. Besides, trying a charm offensive is ultimately fruitless, because there are hundreds of bloggers these days, and I just don't have the time. Those acknowledgements were exactly that - a thank you to the folk who helped me.

How surprised were you by the online reaction to, and the support for, Nights of Villjamur? It must have been a huge boost.

It's easy to look back and see the positive online reaction - but at the time, it was a slow, week by week, month by month, gradual - and very pleasing - process. The reviews were spread over a long period, so there wasn't an explosion. Mixed with that were grumpy forum comments, a disgruntled Amazon review or two etc., so it's all watered down. I can look back and just be very proud and know that I'm lucky. And realise - also - that it could turn against me at any moment...

You wrote City of Ruin mostly while Nights of Villjamur was awaiting publication, but now you’ve had to write the third novel in the series while all the praise and plaudits for Nights of Villjamur rolled in. Did this add extra pressure, perhaps a new-found need to meet people’s expectations? Do you feel like you’re specifically writing for an audience now, as opposed for yourself (if indeed you ever were)?

I'm always writing for myself. I'm conscious that an audience exists, somewhere, but it's a dangerous way of thinking to start writing for any other reasons for the enjoyment it gives me - because when I do that, it becomes a chore. Which isn't to say these elements aren't all mutually exclusive - I've got a bunch of ideas I want to write about, and I'm trying to persuade my perceived audience to buy into that.

What words of advice would you give your younger, unpublished self? Or would you just give yourself a good slap?

Quite simple: keep calm, be patient, and don't worry about what other people think.

Do you ever find writing a struggle, or is it all plain-sailing? Surely you must have days where you can’t find your mojo, or for some reason the writing doesn’t quite flow?

It's really not a struggle - and I don't mean that in any self-important way. Putting down creative stuff on paper is something that feels natural. Sure, I get days where I'm not in the mood - and I just don't do it, don't even think about it, and it's worth saying that the text I do put down is actually any good - it might get sliced out later - but putting the crap there in the first place certainly isn't an issue! No, the part I hate is editing...

Books on writing, and writing courses – worthwhile or a waste of time?

They have their place. There are a lot of things out there that actually stop people writing, that create fertile ground for procrastination, so I think it's striking a balance. Whatever works for people, really, though I'm sceptical you can learn all that much about an art from a book. As Neil Gaiman says, just write - and finish what you write.

Lastly, do you have any particular writing rituals? Certain music you listen to perhaps, or a certain place you like to write? Vegetable-fondling, perhaps?

I guess the only thing I try to adhere to is writing around a thousand words a session - no more, no less - if I'm in the middle of a great scene, I'll know exactly where to pick up the next day, which prevents writer's block. I think it was a Hemingway technique, but he also wrote standing up, and I'm not doing that. I tend to plan ahead during the day - often my lunchtime run in order to unpick certain plot knots.

I stick on iTunes. When I wrote City of Ruin, there was a lot of heavy music playing, though strangely for Book Three, I need either ambient stuff, soundtracks, or just silence. I go through fads. And I've started using Scrivener, for Book Three, which is a wonderful writing programme for Macs, and has helped me think in different ways, to plan more effectively.

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Many thanks to Mark for his time, once again. Final part to follow shortly!

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