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 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. This interview initially ran in three parts, between 7 and 11 March, 2011.
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?
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.
You’ve got a close relationship with the UK genre “blogosphere” - five minutes on your site (or the dedication to City of Ruin) gives it all away. Just so our definitions are straight, what do you mean by the term “blogosphere”?
And back on our original discussion about starting out as a writer - what sort of support can a new author get from it?
Blogosphere: basically, the bunch of folk who champion fantasy fiction to a wide online audience. They’re more important than review sites because they’re based around community, and that’s what the internet (and championing books) is about. Review sites are worthless in terms of enthusing about books and communicating with readers (they’re niches of niches, talking to a specialist audience). By all means they can do their things – and I am interested, often, in what they have to say, but it’s the bloggers who are dynamic, engaged, having conversations in many places, get off their arses to book launches or just to have fun. They’re talking (as a hivemind) to a vast audience.
As for what can a new author get out of it? It depends. If they’re willing to assiduously contact, engage with, and give their time to a lot of bloggers (possibly dozens, and spread over quite some time – which is tiring) then they’ll slowly build their profile and get some good sales from it all (though, they should be doing it because it’s fun, too). If an author doesn’t do that, then they’re not going to really get much coverage. They’ll be lost in all the white noise online. Of course, some authors are lucky to have dedicated publicists and editors who champion their work; some publishers just throw a bunch of authors against the wall to see what sticks.
Nothing beats a good book cover and money spent by the publisher in promoting it heavily in stores or online. Money goes a long way in creating successes.
But it working with the blogosphere can also mean that you get something like this [see picture, right]- where the Guardian - a voice with mainstream appeal - is almost pushed off the front page by specialist genre blogs.
Is there a time in a writer’s career where he or she is better off focusing on the traditional media outlets and just letting the internet take care of itself?
Well, the thing to remember about the Guardian is that it’s both print and website giving you massive amounts of exposure in one relatively short period of time. The Google rankings are there as an after thought – and are probably not that important. (People tend to search for author names rather than book names. I’ve had infinitely more number of hits for my name over that of the books.)
The thing about the Guardian is that it looks cool to have that as a quote (though secretly I’m really after a quote from the Sun or the Daily Star – something really down-market) that you can slap on the cover of a book and it stays there indefinitely. It means something to a broad audience who are browsing in a bookstore. Newspapers, major magazines and other famous authors are probably the most effective cover quotes you can get – but there’s precious little opportunity for those. The internet is usually all most new authors can hope for – it’s not really a matter of choice. And, if you could control it all, you’d want exposure everywhere!
In a recent post, you snuck in the possibility that the blogosphere may have less of an effect than we (the blogocliques) like to think. This was in a discussion regarding equality and minorities in genre fiction - a situation where the shelves haven’t been reflecting what the bloggers are saying online. How could this be?
Aren’t bloggers just ordinary, book-purchasing, demographically-statistically-significant representatives of the genre-reading community?! Is it that all of those descriptors are completely wrong, or is there something that transforms bloggers once they immerse themselves?
Bloggers – and people online – are a small percentage of the book buying audience. There’s no other way to say it. Books that have had a lot of exposure online quite often don’t perform that well when you look at the cold hard light of sales figures. Likewise, books that are barely discussed online can do breathtakingly well in stores - they’ve had huge advertising campaigns, good placement, discounts offered etc.
The people that make or break a career for an author are the casual buyers, the ones who are browsing the shelves on a wet afternoon, who might only occasionally check something out online or read a review in a newspaper. They want to see a cover with which they can identify, an enticing back cover blurb, perhaps a good cover quote – and if it’s in a discounted offer, that’s even better.
What would you like to see from the blogosphere that would be helpful to you as a writer that isn’t happening already?
More autonomy; more reading of stuff that isn’t frontlist; more independence from publishers; less reliance on freebies (I say this despite wanting freebies myself). I’m glad there’s less angsty navel-gazing than there used to be - it was a huge distraction from book reviewing. People get so precious over snarky comments (IT’S THE INTERNET).
But then that’s more helpful to the health of the genre rather than me as a writer. I’d like to see more coverage of me, in that case.
As an aside, I’d like to see more variety and personality in general – that’s what made the original wave of bloggers so interesting. More articles, more thoughts and ideas. And, in general, I’d love to see more reviews that aren’t rehashing the synopsis.
Your series has been out in the US now for some time, and you’ve got fans on both sides of the Atlantic. You’ve got a good view on the differences between US and UK fan bases - is there anything they could learn from one another?
I think US fans are more open to dropping authors a line to say they enjoyed a book, but – honestly – I think we’re one homogenous, neoliberal organism these days. US fans tend to do things with more vigor and passion; UK fans are more reserved, but these are cultural things. Ultimately we’re sold the same stuff and read the same discussions, we’re all one family now.
Thank you very, very much for your time. Just one final, extremely important, question. What extinct creature would you want as a pet?
I’d like a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) because I could then make amazing Lolcat pictures thanks to its weirdly huge jaw. I’d be the envy of the internet.