We were extraordinarily pleased to capture a few words with Mark Charan Newton.
As much as I respect what you did with Nights of Villjamur, I’ve already gone on record saying it was “rough around the edges” and, curiously, you’ve also suggested that "if anyone was going to read just one book of mine, I’d like it to be [City of Ruin]”. What happened between the two? Was it the progression of the story? Something in the process? Or something entirely within you?
I’ve looked back at Nights quite a bit and wondered what the difference was. I think – and still maintain this is the key point where it differed – that I tried to do too many things to please too many types of perceived audiences in my head. I tried to cater for the traditional fantasy audience with some more traditional characters; I tried to be a little too clever with dialogue that I think it fell flat for some. Also there was a lot of editorial work – I had to reduce the novel by a quarter, which was quite a challenge.
When it came to City of Ruin, I had my foot in the door and could do what I wanted. So I wrote what I wanted to read, not what anyone else might want to read. I just let go. If I wanted to mention porno golems, I was going to write about them. If I wanted a confrontational gay or a domestic abuse scene or a serial killer, I was going to do that. If I wanted half-vampyr gang lords, a huge monster made from the body-parts of the recently killed, or a giant spider, or whatever, I was going to do that. Plus I thought there were areas I wanted to improve – my depiction of females for one: I wanted them to – you know – not be walking, talking vaginas.
I don’t know. I felt quite determined during the writing process of City of Ruin and, by the end of it, absolutely drained. It took a lot out of me and I’m conscious just how much of an improvement it is over Nights that it was quite tough to write The Book of Transformations. I doubt I could get that same feel of an adrenaline rush as that book produced, so I wanted to change gears and do something different. Ultimately, I think I tried to impress with Nights and ended up failing; with City of Ruin, I was just having fun.
Can you talk a bit about the origins of Villiren? The city is a crumbling outpost on the edge of a falling empire. You never indulge in ostentatious world-building, but as City of Ruin develops, an incredibly detailed picture unfolds - trilobites, bone archways, sweeping onyx statuary, cobblestones, juicy steaks (urp)... how much of this is planned in advance and how much comes out while writing? You’re a big advocate of genre artists on your blog - do you squirrel away visual inspiration as well?
Whenever I create a city I like to explore it through the characters and the story, and let that inform the world-building again. So I create probably half of it in advance, and the other half comes out in writing. Then, what I usually do, is go back and layer stuff on top, when I’m more confident that I know what the city looks like. Though, I did sketch out a map, which got transformed into something awesome in the book.
Specifically for Villiren, I wanted to create a kind of anti-baroque city. Fantasy cities nearly always head in that baroque direction, based on something European. I thought – what would be a kind of Los Angeles equivalent to London, in a secondary world? And that’s where I leapt on the kind of rapid-development, gang-dominated, blandly constructed kind of city (with a few weird bits mixed in for my own amusement). Then I started to layer on the kind of post-McCarthy suppression of workers’ rights, manipulative corporate interests, and let that all settle into the background of the city.
As for championing genre artists – yeah, I totally have pictures saved away. Those artists carve a direct tunnel into what fantasy is all about: unashamedly exercising your imagination. I’ve found Scrivener is a great writing utility, because I can just drop images into a sidebar to help brief me on what I think something might look like. And artists do something that writers aren’t really allowed to get away with – writers have to – for the most part – explain the story. Artists create the scene and force the viewer to explore whatever questions are created.
From the tantalizing extract for The Book of Transformations (released 3 June!), it sounds like we’re back in Villjamur for the next book. Will there have been any changes in the empire’s capital city since Nights of Villjamur?
Villjamur will seem different in a couple of ways: the first is that there’s a new Emperor, who wants to make his impression on the city. It’s a place that needs to change, needs to impress its people. On the other hand, I’m viewing it through very different characters for the most part, so it will feel a very different place because of that. The tone is different, too – I wanted to give it the slight feel of a superhero movie (I am ultimately writing about superheroes), without it coming across as cheesy or even parody.