Tuesday, 1 June 2010

An interview with Mark Charan Newton - Part the First

Today marks the release of Mark Charan Newton's City of Ruin in hardback in the UK, along with the paperback of his acclaimed novel Nights of Villjamur (for those of you in the US, 29 June is the date of release for the hardback of Nights of Villjamur). I therefore thought it would be a good time to throw some questions Mark's way. This first part concentrates entirely on City of Ruin, while the second part will focus more on writing and the fantasy genre in general.

So, here we go...

You’ve freely admitted that you had to reign in your fondness for weirdness in Nights of Villjamur (NoV) in order to make it commercially viable, but that with City of Ruin (CoR) you were free to crank the weirdness up a few notches. Was CoR subsequently a more enjoyable book to write, and did your approach to writing it differ in any way?

City of Ruin was more enjoyable for so many reasons, really. This was the first book I wrote within a publication deal, with a contract, to a deadline. It felt fantastic, so yeah, it certainly helped with my enthusiasm. The release of that combined with the freedom, which was largely within my head, to just let go and enjoy the ride. It also combined with my natural competitiveness to want to do better myself, to see how far I could push myself - because what keeps this interesting is the challenge. On the other hand, it was also more difficult to write with the spotlight slowly turning towards me – there is something to be said for the writing conditions of being unpublished, without the surrounding fluff, but it's minor compared to the smile you have when you've got that first novel out.

The city of Villiren shares several similarities with Villjamur – it’s sprawling and rather oppressive at times, and has the same brooding atmosphere – but overall it’s a very different place. How important was it for you to set the bulk of the book in a different location – do you feel the need to keep things fresh, to maintain your own interest?

I enjoy the construction of a world, and the logical thoughts that come from the effort of creation. But yes, I certainly wanted to try my hand at a very different fantasy city, one which leans towards modern cities, than dwelling in the glories of yesteryear, and again that comes down to the challenges and hurdles being something that drives me to write.

There are strong echoes of M. John Harrison in CoR – most notably with regards to the often bleak atmosphere and the streak of absurdity that occasionally pervades the book. Would you say he was your primary influence when it came to writing CoR? What do you think you learned from reading his own work?

Much less so for this one, I think. In fact, I had fewer influences for CoR overall - I wanted to simply try my own thing and make an effort to create something fairly new, although I will always continue to give nods to books and writers who inspire - it almost seems rude not to do so. CoR was my quest for a significantly more modern epic fantasy - modern in the city, modern in the cultural and political references, modern in the character types. Viriconium does a very good job of distilling the essence of melancholy, of faded cultural glories - and there isn't't much of that to be found in Villiren. It's a brutal, forward-looking environment that embraces a more laissez-faire economy.

CoR reveals quite an epic history that was only really hinted at in NoV – since it drives the overall story arc in the first two books, you clearly had worked out much of these details prior to writing NoV. But how much did you know about your own world as you started writing CoR? Did you have a comprehensive knowledge of your own world, or did you fill in some of the gaps as you went along?

I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted, and a lot of these ideas have in fact been simmering away for years, though much of it was only sketched out. After selling NoV, I made a significant effort to flesh that out for the full four books. But part of the fun is creating a novel that can stand on its own, without needing the other books in the series to function fully, and I do enjoy the organic elements of creation at the start of each novel. So it's a bit of both.

It could be argued that NoV lacked a strong female protagonist, but CoR rectifies this with the character Beami who is a wilful, confident young woman. Were you specifically looking to subvert the gender roles so often found in epic fantasy, and did you find it difficult to enter the mindset of such a character?

Not so much as subvert gender roles - rather, I just wanted to write a realistic woman. I'm keen that, as a writer I want to develop, and I felt that female characters were my weak point, so I wanted a strong, independent woman, which didn't resort to the other end of the spectrum and be all ZOMG super kick-ass in tight costumes, since that's heading towards male fetish territory.

But yes, it's always difficult to write characters that aren't, well, oneself - and one of the great things about writing various characters with this in mind is empathising with various gender roles. For example, decisions such as how much does or should an intelligent woman trade on her looks to make her way in a culture that is, essentially, a patriarchy? And I know I'm not perfect at answering these questions - but it's important to try, surely.

Malum is particularly fascinating; an individual whose aggressive exterior hides his more fragile centre. Was there any particular influence behind the creation of this character?

He came from nowhere, if I'm honest, and he changed throughout. But one thing I was intrigued about was creating a tough character with deep flaws, and reason and fragility and purpose behind such brazen machismo - since one of the fascinating things about violent exteriors is exploring the reasons why people are like that. I refuse, for example, to see a barbarian as just a barbarian - there are reasons that person has become that way, and you can't ignore that.

Keeping on the subject of characters, you pay very close attention to your characters’ personal lives. Furthermore, their personal lives often clash with their professional careers, with a variety of results. The result of this approach is that it injects a real dose of realism to proceedings. Was this a specific intent of yours when you began working on the Legends of the Red Sun series, and do you think this approach is generally lacking in modern epic fantasy?

I'm glad you noticed that because yes, without a doubt that was my intention. From the outset, I wanted the personal lives to get in the way of the big events - because they do in the real world, too, and these things are very often glossed over. It's something that's common in most other genres, but I think occasionally gets sacrificed from epic fantasy because so much airtime is given to huge, culture-changing events, or to world-building. Which is not to say it happens all the time. I do want personal lives and vendettas and concerns to get in the way. Picking a gay character to be the head of an elite military organisation was a big declaration of this intent.

In CoR you explore a number of themes, along them masculinity, racism and sexuality. Did these themes arise as you began writing the novel, or did you have them firmly in mind beforehand and tailor your characters around them?

Most of it happens organically, throughout the shaping of the novel, and around half way through I'm usually aware of what the themes are. Though with CoR I wanted to write Malum as an examination of masculinity, and juxtapose him against Brynd as another examination of what it means - if anything. The racism - yes, that's often been lurking in the subtext, and it was a natural development in CoR - the story demanded it. And race doesn't have to be split down the colour line - race can be divided down the species line in secondary worlds, too. But I do think many fantasies shy away from confronting race issues (unlike the real world, in which they are very apparent), which is a problem with the genre, though there are good examples to counter this, and good writers are making efforts to talk about race. Is it a problem of the nature of escapist fiction to - often - avoid confrontation? Who knows.

It could be argued that organised religion is portrayed in a negative light in your world – does this reflect your personal beliefs, or is it merely a reflection of the way religion is regarded in a dying world where the sun is slowly fading?

I don't personally see religion as a negative thing, though yes of course there are problems - this is a subject that defies generalisations. Faith is hugely important to people, and I respect that. But the church in my creation (as we'll see in the next novel, as well as City of Ruin) is playing a special role. I won't go into details here, because that will give spoilers, but the problems so far encountered are more issues with power and influence of such an organisation rather than religion per se.

Two words: HUGE SPIDER. Was the inclusion of such a creature in CoR the culmination of some personal geek fantasy of yours?

Do I have fantasies about giant spiders? What kind of sick dude do you think I am?! More seriously: I love a good monster, and the giant spider has been used famously in the genre, but I hope I've put my own unique spin on things. I'm writing fantasy because I want to exercise my imagination, and I'd be too bored writing a pseudo medieval world that didn't possess a little weirdness.

I do think you're the kind of sick dude that has geek fetishes for giant spiders, hence the question! Moving on...like NoV, CoR is largely set in a bleak urban environment – what is it about such urban settings that appeal to you as a writer?

I have a strange relationship with the city. I admire many things about it (their multiculturalism for example), but I also find them hugely depressing places. It might be from having grown up in the countryside, and appreciating not inhaling Nitrogen Dioxide fumes or having thousands of shoppers looking for the Next Shiny Thing, so I suspect my opinion of cities sneaks through whether I like it or not. I don't think they appeal aesthetically - but they're certainly more interesting in which to create, and there are more types of people in one place, and more potential scenarios... The city, arguably, offers a lot to a writer.

Finally, I personally consider CoR to be a dramatic improvement on NoV in practically every aspect. How do you feel now that the book is finished – do you think it is a more comprehensive demonstration of your abilities as a writer?

I'm glad you think there was an improvement, too. After Nights, I still felt I wasn't writing quite as well as I could, that I had a few problems, though these things are always with the benefit of hindsight. Which isn't to say I'm not proud of NoV - I am, immensely so - but I can rest happy knowing that City of Ruin is out there, because it contains the weirdness I truly love with many of the cultural and political leanings that inform the work, more so than Nights. And writers grow - they get better at plotting and characterisation etc - but I think I've ironed out some flaws, and that comes with more practice. Though ultimately it's not up to me to declare whether or not the improvements are welcomed by all.

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Many thanks to Mark for his answers; keep your eyes peeled for part two of the interview in the near future...

1 comment:

Felix said...

"CoR was my quest for a significantly more modern epic fantasy - modern in the city, modern in the cultural and political references, modern in the character types."

Modern is good for a change. I'm rather tired of all these fantasies which have only prostitution and slavery as their "big social issue".