We were extraordinarily pleased to capture a few words with Mark Charan Newton. As well as being the author of Nights of Villjamur, City of Ruin, The Reef and the upcoming The Book of Transformations, Mr. Newton is a prolific blogger and an insightful member of the UK's online sf/f "scene".
Once we captured him, we didn't want to let him go. What follows is the first of a three part interview.
Starting at those distant pre-Villjamur days... Before Nights of Villjamur was released, you were already involved with books - first as a bookseller, than as an editor with Black Flame and Solaris. From my own time in a bookstore, everyone had a novel they were working on. Any advice on how to make this dream into a reality?
Heh, yeah there were a lot of writers. Those were pretty good days though – I mean, I was surrounded by people who just wanted to talk about books and writing, so it was a creative environment to nurture those thoughts about doing it myself. I read a lot (we could borrow books at the time) and got a real flavour for new and interesting stuff.
Personally, I tried to write the kinds of things I couldn’t find on the shelf – and I hear a lot of writers do that. I mean, not so wild that it would be un-publishable, but I wanted to scratch my literary itch. At the time, that meant writing new weird-ish novels – which landed me an agent, but publishers weren’t interested in that kind of thing.
So, I think what I’m saying is – read and spend time in bookstores. Read because it’s good and healthy and useful to your own writing; get in to bookstores because that’s the business end of things. I was lucky enough to be able to watch the new titles come and go, as well as having an idea of what sold and bombed. Once you do that – just write and keep on writing.
Working in retail and then as an editor, you would’ve been surrounded by a more commercial view. Did this impact your own writing? Was there a grubby little voice in your head going, “That’s good, but will it ever be promoted by Waterstones”? How do you tell the voice to fuck off? Should you tell the voice to fuck off?
There’ll be a voice no matter what you do. It’s healthy to question things. I like the voice. The voice is a friend. It keeps you on your toes. Believe it or not, for a while I ignored the commercial sensibilities. I did say, Fuck it, I’ll write what I want to write. Then my agent kept forwarding on rejection emails.
We had a couple of conversations where he told me to change the kinds of things I was writing about – nothing huge, more the aesthetics than anything else – and it was his advice which led me to write something more commercial. He was right, I was wrong. But I was learning just how much publishing is a business – it’s there to make money. God, the number of writers who just don’t sell enough to get by – it was staggering and sobering, and I could see that. It all started to create ideas in my head. Then a second conversation with my agent led to the discussion of cities. He said cities were a good commercial areas right then – fantasies set in impressive cities, that’s what a few editors were taking on. So I created Villjamur.
What all this waffle concludes, if at all anything, is that initially I was stubborn – I was young and thought I knew everything - but because of my agent’s advice, and because of the realities of being a writer that I witnessed through the day job, that changed me.
So, wham, Nights of Villjamur. Did you have any sort of early indications of its success?
I think I caught a kind of last wave of hype that the blogosphere could generate itself – now, of course, it’s back to the publishers hyping novels (which is what they’re meant to do). I was lucky because I caught that wave, but I was impressed – personally – at the number of review venues that liked it. That felt good. To get coverage in the Times and Guardian meant the most (that’s the kind of shit you can show your parents). Though I felt there was a bit of a backlash to that hype which I’ll probably never shake off – people approach it expecting loads, and it might not deliver for a lot of them. The worst thing, I think, is when big review venues compare you to Big Authors; because fans of Big Authors come out of the woodwork to denounce you.
I do think I’m incredibly lucky though. For better or worse, few authors will be able to catch that wave of hype again – as I said, that’s now paid for by publishers to a large extent.
“Because any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic...” (Nights of Villjamur 78) - not just a cheeky tribute to Clarke, but also one of the defining elements of your world. Forcefields, aliens, laser weapons, spaceships, stargates - why do you consider your books as “fantasy” rather than “science fiction”?
I could go all Gene Wolfe and say all fictions are fantasies; but, in essence, that would avoid the point I had in mind at the very start. I love the aesthetics of fantasy. I love the slightly backward-looking feel, the primitive vibe. That arguments are settled with swords. I am an unashamed fantasy geek. Plus I like the fact that, in fantasy, a writer can do more. There are fewer constraints; there’s a huge creative freedom. It’s about an endless imagination – which, also, is why I’m frustrated at a lot of lo-fi fantasy fiction, which seems to avoid using the fantastic (that said, I’m interested in exploring a lo-fi fantasy medium to see if I can get away without relying upon Weird Stuff).
I think there’s a yearning within every fantasy reader to escape to something more minimal. In fact, that’s possibly where (in general terms) fantasy and SF really splits for me, in its aesthetic construction – fantasy is minimal, backward-looking, yearning for something that it never quite grasps. SF seems too solution-based, too fatidic.
This is getting a bit wanky isn’t it? I like swords and castles – will that do?