Ranting Dragon recently reviewed Mr. Newton’s first book in the Legends of the Red series, Nights of Villjamur, and we enjoyed it immensely. An enthralling tale of murder, politics, magic and a coming ice age, Nights of Villjamur was an excellent first novel by a new writer on the scene, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell it was a debut.
Mr. Newton and I had been talking through Twitter about his writing and his upcoming novels, and, encouraged by his openness, I asked if he would be willing to do an interview. He said that would be great, so here we are!
Without further ado, Mark Charan Newton!
Mr. Newton and Villjamur
So Mark, let’s get down to it! You have just been given the chance to make a proclamation to the world about who you are and what you do. You have thirty seconds. What do you tell them?
You should know we Brits are rubbish at selling ourselves! Suffice to say I’m a guy who happens to be in a very lucky position—to be a published author with two great imprints on either side of the Atlantic. Aside from that, I love books, the environment, music and good whiskey. Anything I want to say about the world I can either do so in the books or when I rant on my blog.
We recently reviewed Nights of Villjamur, your first book, about the downfall of an empire set to the backdrop of a coming ice age, and we found it quite enjoyable. Is there anything you want to say about it that we did not mention?
I think the review was very honest, which is nice to see; but I think what an author sees and a reviewer sees are two very different things, so whatever each reader took from it, I’m happy with. (Unless they hate the book, in which case it wasn’t my fault at all.)
I want to talk about the world of Villjamur a little bit. Any particular thought or inspiration behind the city, the archipelago, the Freeze, the magic, etc?
Well the city, Villjamur, is very British, and I took a lot of inspiration from all around me for that: what the media says, the little cultural ticks. Also, I wanted to have this idea of a fading Empire and a city that’s living on its past memories to a large extent—perhaps a little like the British Empire. And as the series progresses you’ll see my criticisms with such ventures, too.
For the Freeze, I actually took my lead from a little-known SF novel called Hello Summer, Goodbye by Michael Coney. That book ended with ice coming in and a culture retreating into itself. I thought that would make an excellent start to a novel, and so I ran with it. The magic I wanted to be more scientific and rational—because let’s be honest, if magic really existed it would be monopolized, probably privatized, and run not for the benefit of others but for personal gain.
I loved the sense of character and attention given to the city of Villjamur. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or did it just develop from your writing?
Yeah, I wanted the city to be as much a character as any of the individual people were. Also, I wanted there to be plenty of space left for exploration so that readers would want to know more (and they can if they just imagine it). And I was conscious that, if I wanted to write about an iconic city, I’d have to put in the detail. Plus there always seems more room for interaction in a city—people are more likely to meet, paths are likely to cross then veer off again—so it just seems a perfect vehicle for story.
I read that you were environmental studies major. How has this influenced your writing?
It’s hard to say. I like to think that I’ve some knowledge of the importance of the Bigger Picture—that’s to say, the economics, the politics, the agriculture, all those sorts of things that play a role in our world. So they were on my mind when creating a new world. But I don’t know; it’s nothing really conscious, unless I’m blogging about it.
I’ve heard your works described as part of this New Weird movement, fantasy literature with an emphasis on the extremely strange or odd that usually crosses many literary boundaries. How do you feel about your placement in the category, and how do you feel about the creation of all these different subgenres (steampunk, bugpunk, New Weird, etc.)?
I’ve always thought the New Weird was a bit of a stillborn movement that happened… god, nearly 10 years or so ago now. Or rather, it never quite happened, and even what remains doesn’t contain much of the original chutzpa. Back then it felt like a conscious attempt at creating a new strata in fantasy, SF and horror—something that tried to be less overtly commercial and predictable. Not even concerning itself with tropes or anything like that, but looking for perhaps other aesthetics. I think of it with a sense of nostalgia, because that was the kind of stuff I wanted to write. Only, it didn’t sell all that much, so the great commercial machine of the genre took over again. A few years later it’s loomed its head once again—and that’s fine. I love all this sub-genre talk, though only when it’s done properly—there’s a sense from some writers that they want to appear different and say so very strongly. I don’t think sub-genres are really for authors to decide—taxonomy tends to be defined by others.
Many writers these days want to take the tropes of epic fantasy and find a way to make them fresh. Do you feel you did this with your own characters?
Tropes have been recycled, reused or redesigned for decades. The likes of C. L. Moore wrote some pretty good trope-reversing stuff in the 1930s. I’m in genuine confusion why we as a genre still concern ourselves with reversing tropes. If anything, trope-reversal has become the cliché.
Generally, though, it’s nothing I’ve deliberately set out to do; I write just whatever takes my fancy or fits the plot. I’ve got gay albinos leading an army. I’ve got vicious gang leaders and giant spiders and mad mass-murderers and, in book three, a transgendered former entertainer, now superhero. I’ve no idea where a trope ends or begins anymore!
On Writing and Craft
So did you have any sort of moment where the heavens opened up, trumpets blared and you realized you truly wanted to be a writer?
Not really, no. It just sort of happened. I gave it a shot, got an agent, spent years getting rejected and suddenly I found myself with a book deal. All I know is now it’s easier to write than not write.
How has your daily life changed since your book was released? For good, for ill, etc.?
Now there’s a question… It’s great in that I can reach out to more people than I normally would. I get to make up things and people give money for it—that’s not bad. I get to share ideas. But there’s a downside—the mild internet addictions (damn you, Google), the wanting people to like your work, the deadlines, the extra little things other than writing that a writer has to do. And whenever anyone makes a bad comment online—it genuinely hurts, even if for a moment.
You and I chatted on Twitter about how you were working on edits for your third book, The Book of Transformations. That being said, is there any part of the writing process that you’ve come to dread, or come to love?
I hate edits. I’m all about the creative part, the generation of ideas or sentences. That’s the fun stuff. Even when I go through and rewrite myself, that’s fun. But the edits are just hell—all the plot holes and character failings are all pointed out to you. It just isn’t pleasant. But then I get over that, listen to my editor, and switch on the creative mode to find any solutions needed.
Few people rarely get an inside look into the actual publication process; are there any aspects of the job you’ve come to appreciate?
The dedication and workload of people behind the scenes, and the sheer value of the right book cover over anything else. There is a huge amount of stuff that isn’t down to the writers. We just get all the glory.
Do you have any routines or rituals before you sit down to write?
I don’t think I can afford to, these days. I like good equipment—a MacBook Pro—and a good chair. So long as I’m fed and watered (I can’t write when hungry) I’m good to go. I think you fall into routines, but they’re not as interesting as rituals and have far less meaning.
If you had a time machine and could go back in time to meet an author, who would it be?
I’d quite like to meet Ernest Hemingway. The guy lived one heck of an interesting existence. Sure, not everyone liked his writing, but he created much of the myth of the celebrity writer. And he had six-toed cats.
One of your friends has come down with a strange medical condition: he can only read three more books for his entire life. What three books would you have him read?
Hmm… this could change all the time, but generally: The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrel, The Scar by China Miéville, and Underworld by Don DeLillo. Or maybe I should give that friend something more spiritual? The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, perhaps!
You and fellow author and Twitter aficionado, Sam Sykes of Tome of the Undergates, do battle. What is your choice of arena and weapon?
For the arena: a 1930s cocktail bar on the 43rd floor of a hotel, for sheer style points. My weapon of choice would be an attractive young lady—Sam’s got a weak spot for the ladies, so while he’s busy picking his jaw up off the floor, a couple of quick jabs should finish him off easily. BOOM!
Finally, people are always asking authors for writing advice, but we all know it’s a jungle out there. Do you have any survival tips?
For those who want to be published, the best advice is simply to write and finish what you’re writing. That’s more important than all the information out there, and you’ll probably need to finish a few things until you get the hang of it all. For those who are new writers, try not to follow the online debate too much, and get some sleep. And do something that gets you away from the desk from time to time.
Thanks a lot, Mark; it was great to have you! Good luck on your edits for The Book of Transformations, and best of luck for the rest of the series!
Nights of Villjamur is now available online and in stores. The second book in the Legends of the Red Sun, City of Ruin, is available now in the UK and will be released in the US in June 2011.