M.D. Lachlan is the pen-name used by author Mark Barrowcliffe for his brilliant Norse historical fantasy series. Recently at The Ranting Dragon, I reviewed both the first book in the series, Wolfsangel, and the recently released second installment, Fenrir. As you can probably tell from those reviews, I absolutely loved these enthralling titles with their exceptional writing and characterization, and intoxicating mix of dark magic, history and mythology. In order to learn more about these books and the man behind them, I contacted M.D. Lachlan and asked him if he’d like to answer some questions. He kindly agreed and here is the result!
Meet M.D. Lachlan (or, Mark the spear-Dane)
Firstly, thanks very much for agreeing to this interview!
Thanks for having me.
Things must be pretty busy for you at the moment. Your second Norse werewolf novel Fenrir was recently released and we’ve heard you have quite a few other books in the works as both M.D. Lachlan and Mark Barrowcliffe. How does it feel to be you right now?
Good. I’d rather have a little too much work than much too little!
This may seem like an odd question, but as you are two authors in one, what should we call you? Mark, M.D, Mr Lachlan/Barrowcliffe or something else altogether? For instance M-dog or Mark. D. Lachcliffe.
I’ve been trying to get my wife to refer to me as ‘mightiest of the spear-Danes’ for years. She’s clinging annoyingly to ‘Mark’. Which will do for me.
Can you tell us what your major projects at the moment are?
I have two main ones – book IV of the Wolfsangel series and a new historical fantasy set in medieval England. That will be under yet another pen name – Mark Alder.
Wolfsangel and Fenrir – History, horror and myth
For the sake of anyone who has not yet read any of your books as M.D. Lachlan, can you give us a short overview of what they involve?
They’re historical fantasy set in the Norse period. They contain all the elements of a historical novel but with the difference that the world of Norse myth is taken to be true. The gods manifest on earth and battle each other. The trouble is that they don’t always know they are gods, and many prefer to live ordinary lives as humans. It’s also a werewolf story but a new sort of werewolf – one that predates the Hollywood skin-splitting, full moon –howling variety. My werewolf takes months, maybe even years to change. Critics have called the novels quite dark and most say they’re original – something that hasn’t been seen in fantasy literature before. The idea of magic in the book certainly seems to be something that hasn’t been presented in fantasy before, which I find quite surprising as it’s based on real world shamanic practices.
Wolfsangel and Fenrir are quite different from your previous works as Mark Barrowcliffe. What inspired you to take the plunge into epic fantasy? Was it chance inspiration or an inevitable next step in your career as a writer?
Chance. I sat down to write a modern comedy and started writing about a werewolf who had lived for a thousand years. It surprised me but I liked it so I kept going.
There is a rumor running rampant across the internet (and tricking poor fools such as myself) that your werewolf books are part of a trilogy known as The Craw Trilogy. Do you have any idea where this idea originated? Are we all just unable to comprehend the fact that not all epic fantasy must come in a set of three? How many books do you plan for the series?
The book was originally set in WWII and the main character was called Endamon Craw. Maybe it came from that, but I’ve no idea how! The books will go on for as long as people want to read them. I’m on book IV now!
According to my sources a ‘craw’ is the crop of a bird or insect or the stomach of an animal. Anything you have to say to that?
Not really. I knew that but the name seemed to work when I wrote it.
On the subject of digestion, your fantasy novels are very dark and quite gritty in parts though I never found them unnecessarily gratuitous. Certain scenes in Fenrir especially were definitely not for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs. However, your previous works have had quite a different tone. How does it feel to write something that much more edgy and confronting. Do you ever surprise yourself with what your imagination comes up with?
I honestly think I underplay the gore. And it is a werewolf novel. He doesn’t tickle people to death. That said, I don’t think there are too many extended scenes of werewolf attack. The gory stuff, like what happens to Jehan in the woods in Fenrir, is there for a purpose. Those scenes did surprise me when I thought of them, though, particularly the one with Saerda. I don’t think of myself as a confrontational writer. I’m just trying to do something that I enjoy writing and that sustains the reader’s interest. I think we all have different strands to our personalities and I find it weirder that someone can write a whole career of the same sort of book than doing what I do and writing in different genres and tones.
I’ve heard that you have to restrain yourself from making too many jokes in your werewolf novels. Is this difficult? I can imagine there are some cases where humor would be inappropriate in the context of the story. Can you give us any examples?
I did make the original WWII story a bit jokey and I did cut most of them. I honestly can’t think of examples, though. Sorry! The Wolfsangel series is quite dark in tone and takes inspiration from writers like Alan Garner and, though it’s pretentious to say so, Shakespeare – particularly Macbeth. That leaves me little scope for humour, outside of what the characters themselves have in their dialogue. (Yes, I know Macbeth has the Porter, but he doesn’t set the tone of the play.) Ofaeti in Fenrir, for instance, is quite a funny character, I hope.
The medieval fantasy I’m doing will have more scope for funny characters and I’ve just come up with one today.
One aspect of Wolfsangel and Fenrir that really appealed to me was the unique and intriguing magic system. Any idea what inspired you in this respect?
Real world, magical practices. The idea that you need to suffer to achieve magical insight is fundamental to Christian ascetic tradition, yogic tradition, shamanism, south American Indian cults, Sufism, Native American Indian cults…. I could go on. It’s also central to Norse myth. Odin gives his eye for wisdom at the well, he hangs on the tree for nine days and nights, pierced by the spear. Ritual, of course, is central to all this. To me, this stuff is what I think of when people talk about magic. I’ve never particularly associated it with waving a wand and reading from a book of spells.
In many cases the horror impact of fantasy staples such as werewolves and witches has been diluted in modern literature. Nevertheless, your books manage to incorporate unique re-imaginings of both to great effect. Was it always your intention to bring an element of mystery and horror back to the werewolf and witch mythos, or was it incidental?
I love witches but I do feel they’ve lost their oomph in recent years. Macbeth’s witches scared me witless when I first saw them and I wanted to get that. The key to monsters, for me, is they should have alien and strange motivations that can catch you up and destroy you. But I don’t really decide to write anything. The witch queen sort of arrived in my head fully formed. She was scary but not scary enough when I first imagined her. She had a great deal of power but I wanted that power to feel really threatening. When I realised she was a child, then the character took on another dimension and became much scarier. That’s because children are monsters, really, by my definition. They don’t think in the same way that we do, they have different motivations, strange and powerful passions. That’s fine when they ‘re weaker than us and we can help and control them. When they gain the ability to rearrange your consciousness, to drive you into madness, they become more scary. It’s why the Queen of Hearts is scary in Alice in Wonderland or even Queenie in Blackadder. They’re essentially children but with enormous power.
The Hollywood werewolf had always bugged me. How does a 150lb man become a 2000lb wolf instantaneously? My wolf, therefore, transformed slower. He gets bigger by a very simple process – eating people. Also, the traditional werewolf compartmentalises his animal nature. It comes in a rage and recedes. My werewolf is slowly losing his personality to that of a beast and that, to me, is more scary.
That makes it all sound like a plan. In fact, I don’t plan, I more realise things about certain characters as I’m writing.
Specific gods of the Norse pantheon play quite vital roles throughout both Wolfsangel and Fenrir. Personally, I found these aspects of the books fascinating and spent quite a few hours researching Norse mythology after finishing Wolfsangel. What inspired you to write a novel involving this particular mythology? Is this the culmination of a longstanding personal interest?
I’ve been mad on Norse myth since I was a child. I was also a big fan of Beowulf. I’ve always loved the language of that, or rather the translated language. The myth has a grimness to it that I like. It also has a hale and hearty side, but not so much of that went in to my writing.
How much research was involved in writing about Norse gods? Where you ever worried that if you got it wrong you might get ‘eaten alive’ by critics or history buffs?
Very little about the gods as I knew most of the stuff anyway. Quite a lot about the Viking period. I knew the major points, but it’s the detail that catches you out. Is a shield wall a realistic battle formation in 793? What do the monastic huts of an English island monastery look like at this period?
Perhaps if I was annoying mercenaries or the mafia I would be more worried. History buffs, I think I can handle. That said, I make big efforts to get things absolutely right. If I don’t, I don’t worry too much, as long as the feel is authentic. I wouldn’t go as far as Barbara Cartland, though, who set the Battle of Trafalgar in the Caribbean.
Your characters are definitely one of your books’ main strengths. Do you have a favourite character throughout the series? Who was the easiest or most enjoyable to write? In contrast, who was the hardest to write and why?
I like Loki because his voice comes very naturally to me. The ‘knot’ speech was fun to write, where he ‘explains’ the nature of Odin incarnate on Earth as like an untied knot.
“A triple knot, like this, waiting to be tied. And what is a knot that is not tied? Not a knot? Not so. For if a rope is not a knot, then all things are not knots that are not knots and that is not a useful distinction. However, a rope that has been a knot but is a knot no more is more not a knot that one that has never been tied, which nevertheless is still not a knot. So we have degrees of notness matching our degrees of knotness, former, present or future, the triple knot of time. When something has once been something else, can it ever be what it once was again? I think knots. And what is a knot unknotted? Not a knot. And if the knot is retied? It becomes not not a knot, that is a knot once more. This is not a knotty problem, though it does concern knots, does it not? Three of them.”
Of course, it’s highly unlikely this speech works in Old Norse, but there you go.
I also like Jehan for just how tough he is. I’ve never written a character who is that resilient. I haven’t found any of the characters hard to write so far. If I did, I’d change their character, as it would be a sign things weren’t working.
Can you gives us any hints as to what to expect from the rest of the series?
It will move forward in time. Book IV is a quest and it’s set in England around 1066 – the end of the Viking era.
On werewolves, author battles, and unleashing your inner geek.
Your biography, The Elfish Gene, tells of your experiences growing up as a dungeons and dragons obsessed teenager. I’m sure quite a few readers can relate to that. Anything you’d like to say to any young readers struggling with their inner geekdom at the moment?
Go with it. The geek shall inherit the earth. In fact, in Bill Gates’s case, he already has.
Now it’s time to get a little bit nerdy. If you were a dungeons and dragons character what class would you be and why?
A really tough one. To be honest, I’d probably be a Non-Player Character Scribe! Can’t see that I have the talents to be any of the D&D classes. But, if I could choose, I’d be a character class I invented myself back in the day – The Witch (or the Warlock). I like kit and you get a lot of kit as a witch.
Would you rather spend 10 minutes trapped in a cave with one werewolf or 1 minute with ten werewolves?
Well 10 minutes implies I’ve already survived 9 minutes 59 seconds longer than I would expect to, so ten with one. My werewolf, of course, might even listen to reason. Up to a point.
You are challenged to a duel with fellow author and self proclaimed ‘angriest man alive’, Sam Sykes. What would be your choice of arena, weapon and plan of attack?
Sam’s American so, though he may be angry, it’s not the deep anger that we English suck in with our mother’s milk. This is the seething, self-destructive ‘I’m not OK, you’re not OK’ multidirectional scorn, the innate distrust of earnestness and optimism that is, happily, my birthright as an Englishman. You can’t get that without being raised on overcast summers, freezing holidays on the Welsh coast and vistas of Barratt housing. It’s a life where the best you hope for is only to be mildly crushed.
He also can’t drink. I know this because I saw him marvelling at some of the girls from Gollancz at a UK con and saying ‘you are half my weight and drink ten times as much.’ It’s not a personal failing, it’s simply not in his culture. My generation of English people went down the pub at 15 years old in order to blot out the horror and mundanity of our daily lives (and to try to warm up) and we never came out.
Sam might be able to stay the course for the first day or two but, sometime around 4 o’clock on the Sunday afternoon, only 48 hours in, I bet he’ll start whining about needing to go to sleep ‘ooh, this beer makes me feel so bloated’ when he’s only had 30 or so pints across the whole weekend. Again, I feel this is a cultural weakness. I went drinking for a weekend with one American writer, a supposed ‘alcoholic’ who shall remain nameless. He suggested, on the Saturday night, getting something to eat. That, I explained, was impossible, as it would require leaving the pub. He’d had a packet of dry roast nuts and eight packs of Cheese and Onion crisps (chips) , what more did he want? And food might absorb some of the alcohol. Think it through, fellah.
So, even though I haven’t touched a drop for 6 years, I’d choose the arena of a pub, the weapon a West Country Ale called ‘Old Tom’ (are you sure you want a pint of that, Sir? We normally only serve it in halves. ‘I’ll have two pints, then, Landlady.) and plan of attack – do the first gallon in under an hour and invite him to do likewise.
I am a former alcoholic (not AA, as you can see by that statement) who would destroy his cherished equilibrium, sanity and possibly even all the love in his life by going back to the bottle but it would be worth it just to beat Sam Sykes and watch him suffer the Old Tom gas attack for the next decade it took to shift the stuff through his system. You’ve never farted until you’ve farted on Old Tom. On that note, I bid you good day.
Thanks very much for joining us, Mark! I’m sure the answers to these questions (especially the last one) will remain burned into our memory for a long time to come!
Wolfsangel and Fenrir are availiable from bookstores now. I highly recommend you get your hands on some copies as soon as possible and jump straight into this fantastic series.