Mark Charan Newton interview

This Q&A should have seen the light last spring when Nights of Villjamur (Canada, USA, Europe) was published. Unfortunately, I was way too busy to conduct an interview at the time. Better late than never, right!?!

Special thanks to Graeme Flory from for tag-teaming with me on this one!

There's been a lot of talk about Mark Charan Newton lately, namely about tie-in fiction and cover art. So here's more from the man himself!


- How well-received as NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR been thus far?

Remarkably well, actually, especially online. I was very lucky (or so I initially thought) to have one of those hyped books, but I soon found out that people expected it to, you know, cure cancer, to be the second coming, that kind of thing. Strangely, it doesn’t do that, and so a few responses have been against the hype, but that’s all part of the game. All I ever wanted to create a book that people talked about – whether or not they loved or hated it – and that’s been happening so far, so I consider the first wave a success.

- Given how difficult it can be for British SFF authors to make it in the USA and vice versa, how rewarding is it to see NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR being picked up by Del Rey?

Difficult question. I don’t think an author’s origin country really has an effect on how well an author can do elsewhere. That said, an author will generally grow up reading one country’s book market, which will undoubtedly influence the writing style… But we’re a global community these days, and the internet and movies have changed things a lot. We he similar tastes. And UK buyers are importing books from the US, and vice versa. So I would say it’s easier than it used to be to sell in both markets, since tastes are becoming increasingly homogenous.

As for me, I was ridiculously excited for the book to be picked up in the US. I did a stupid dance. It’s actually Bantam Spectra now, a sister imprint of Del Rey (both owned by Random House, and both close to each other in the same building!). It’s the same editor, Chris Schluep – and he’s also edited China Miéville and Richard Morgan etc., so I’m honoured to be an addition to that list. It won’t be released until June (same time as book two in the UK) so I’ll have a better idea of the US reaction much later on next year.

- You have worked as an editor for a number of years now. How humbling an experience was it to find yourself on the other side of the table and get your own work edited?

If anything, I think it made it easier. I know that an editor wants to help make a book better, not destroy it! The people behind the scenes at a publisher really help make an author become successful, so I was rather laid back about the whole affair. Of course, there’s an element of diva in every writer, a case of “How dare you touch my prose!” but I got over it pretty quick, reminding myself that the changes are for the better. In the UK I've actually got two editors, to make matters worse! Julie Crisp handles the structural work, and Peter Lavery does the line-edits. Those who work on books really know what they’re doing – there is a big team of people behind the scenes, and they deserve more credit that they get.

- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR and its sequels?

I think I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself, and look for new directions. But, specifically, the things I was interested in exploring for fantasy fiction was concentrating on personal issues during epic events. For example, what happens if you’ve a gay character having to deal with his personal life, as well as momentous occurrences in the plot? It should be about lives, and not have people merely go through the motions. I didn't think it was particularly realistic.

Another thing was prose – I wanted to write a modern, stylistic book. And I knew it was a risk, but why should fantasy fiction in a secondary world be limited to ye olde speak? A few people have told me that the dialogue grated, or the prose didn’t agree with them – but that’s fine, if you set out to be a little different, you come up against complaints. The last thing I’d want is to have a book which, you know, gets a “Meh, it was all right” from everyone.

- What can readers expect from the upcoming sequel, CITY OF RUIN?

It’s very different. I’ve let loose basically, for reasons I’ll explore in the following question. But it’s grungier, more violent, sinister, and bizarre. The general set-up is that of a city siege, but the city in question is a real cesspit, and you wonder if it’s a city that needs saving in the first place. Plenty of gang violence thrown into the mix, really sinister sub plots, and bat-shit-crazy monsters, and a truly eyebrow-raising sex scene I really hope doesn’t get take out of the edit...

- You mentioned that CITY OF RUIN was the one that you wanted to write and you were really able to let loose on it. How did it feel having to write a whole book before you could get to the bit that you really wanted to write about?

Firstly, I’m proud of Nights of Villjamur, so I didn’t not want to write that kind of book – I loved the process, but I was very much aware that to get published, to get that first novel deal, I had to reign in my craziness. I’d been writing too much weird stuff, and kept getting rejections because of it, so I consciously made some aspects of the novel more conservative. No harm in that, right?

But in City of Ruin, I’ve let myself go because I’ve got the book contract, and I don’t have to err on the side of caution. It was a more natural book for me to write – so in essence, the type of book I’ve always wanted to write.

- You’ve mentioned that NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR was inspired by the likes of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance and M. John Harrison. I’m assuming that those influences are still there in CITY OF RUIN, but will we see any new influences come to the fore and shape this work?

Yes. China Miéville’s Bas-Lag stuff, very much so. The baroque weirdness, the sheer inventiveness. Reading Miéville’s books made me want to write in the first place, after all, so I think this will show more, but I wouldn't ever want to simply clone favourite authors - it's more me than anyone else. There’s one sub-plot in particular which owes a debt to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, but I won’t go into detail, because that will ruin my fun...

- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

If anything, I’d like to think I’m ambitious. I want to try new things. Even if it doesn’t always work, at least I’m consciously putting in the effort not to turn in a novel that contributes nothing to the genre’s development.

- By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?

Sounds ridiculous, but I'd probably still want to work on everything. I think a writer – at all times in his or her career – should always do something to improve. I mean, I'm 28 and hopefully have many more years to refine the craft. The moment I sit here and say “Yes, I think I’m perfect at this writing malarkey” will be a dire day indeed.

- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy/Hugo Award? Why, exactly?

Probably the Hugo. The Hugo is an award given to popular authors, ones which have a large fanbase, which means that I’ll probably already have a NY Times bestseller under my belt!

Although I do think awards like World Fantasy can give more to the genre – since they’re giving an airing, sometimes, to books which aren’t that well known. My favorite award is actually the Man Booker Prize, because it can pluck an author form obscurity and put him or her into the limelight. How wonderful is that? Awards that are popularity contests are great fun, a celebration, but surely successful authors are already rewarded by a healthy royalty and strong sales? This is just my opinion, but promoting new talent and different books only goes to make the genre stronger in the long run.

However, I remember talking to a buyer at a major UK bookchain about one of the country’s best-known SF Award (I won’t say which) and asked him how many more books he expected to sell, across the chain, of the winning book in the week after. And he replied, “About 50 or so.” Which goes to show the effects of awards on the front line.

- Various British SFF authors have had a hard time trying to find commercial success in the USA, and the same can be said of American writers in the UK. Is there a difference between both markets that can explain how difficult it is for popular SFF authors to fail to generate the same sort of interest on the other side of the Atlantic?

Marketing money and cover art – those are the only things I can think of that make a big difference. The realities of the book industry would shock a lot of people – publishers have to pay for promotions in stores (essentially, paying for the chance of success) and this varies from book to book, and between countries. Cover art, too, is one of the most important factors in what makes a book a success. Tastes can vary between countries on that front. Keeping this in mind, with the same book, one publisher could get it right in the US, and another fail in the UK.

That’s why the blogosphere is increasingly important, especially as online activity grows year on year. But no one really knows what makes a book a success, outside of those things. If they did, they’d be very rich!

- You’re a champion of well written tie-in fiction whilst also being a writer of original fantasy fiction; what particular shared world would you like to write in given half a chance? Is this something that you can see yourself doing in the future?

Indeed – I think a well-written book is a well-written book, period. As for a shared world… it’s really difficult, and to be honest, I’d probably find it more difficult that writing original fiction, because of the laid-back sprawling-ideas way I work. It’s something I could see myself doing in other formats – the idea of writing for computer games is hugely appealing. But I've no immediate plans, and I really don't have much free time.

- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

My answer for this is generally along the lines of: Who gives a fuck? “Literary” writers (whoever wears that badge with pride) would kill for the sales and readership and passion and debate that SFF books generate. In the future, as in the past, books will be judged not on the literary merit of the day, but on the longevity of that book, and it’s enduring popularity.

But I do think genre fans – bloggers in particular – can do more to help this, by not fretting about genre angst, about which literary magazine said what about SF, but by being more analytical and investigating books with more vigor. The more intelligent the debate, the less billingsgate and “ZOMG that author sucks cock” that gets propagated in forums, then the more the genre will receive respect naturally.

- Now that you are almost done with the final edit of CITY OF RUIN, what project will you be tackling next?

The next book in the series! It’s a four-book story at the moment, so I need to carry on regardless. I’m determined to finish these four before I do anything else.

- Anything you wish to share with your fans?

Yeah, don’t believe the hype. :)

15 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

interesting thoughts - especially on awards.


Cecrow said...

I'm not a big believer in what he says about no UK vs US difference. Most of the fantasy I've stopped reading without finishing was UK imports. Not dissing the country or its authors; I think it's something different in the style or the angle or something that just doesn't reach me, something I can't easily identify.

Mark said...

While I remember - just to add to the UK US differences: there was one thing I remember from editorial days. The sense of history was nearly always far deeper from European submissions compared to those from the US/North America. Which, I suspect, is an obvious cultural thing - to us, the buildings in our cities are hundreds of years old.

That's not criticising any authors, by the way - it was just an interesting observation. I can think of many North American writers (Erikson, for one) who buck this trend!

Unknown said...

Just from reading that interview I think I would really like that guy.

Jebus said...

From reading this and a bit of his blog this guy sounds like someone I could be reading for a long time - he actually makes sense and his novels sound interesting.

Being an Aussie I really don't understand the so-called US vs UK thing in either Sci-Fi or fantasy - I read SFF from the UK, US and Oz (and elsewhere if it is recommended to me highly enough) and I really don't feel any difference between them except each author obviously has their own style. I'd have no idea where an author was from if I didn't read their bio.

joe57 said...

my To Read List is already ridiculously long, but after reading this interview, I am definitely going to check these two books out. The "Who gives a fuck?" line cracked me up.

Paul D said...

Pat, is this the first time someone you've interviewed whose picked the Hugo over the best seller? I can't ever remember someone picking the Hugo. Usually there's some apology about picking the best seller.

Nolan Giesbrecht said...

Bit of a weird question
for Paul D.:

You the same Paul D. from Baseball Think Factory? Just curious...

Paul D said...

Nolan - yep. The internet is a small word. You are?

Nolan Giesbrecht said...

Nolan - yep. The internet is a small word. You are?

I'm on BTF every day [as well as Battersbox], but I really don't post a whole lot...think I only have just over 100 posts at BTF [and when I do, it's under "Nolan Giesbrecht"].

This place is one of my few other sites that I check every day.

Unknown said...

On the OK v US debate, it works the other way round as well. I couldn't finish Peter Bretts The Painted Man, too western in terminology for me. Ranch tsk farm please etc etc

Patrick said...

I think there is a significant difference between the US and the UK market.

Look at how many years it took for British bestselling authors like Terry Pratchett and Peter F. Hamilton to "make it big" in the States. Look at how Alastair Reynolds, who just signed a million-pound book deal with Gollancz, is virtually unknown on this side of the pond. Look at how Brandon Sanderson, who was already a bestselling fantasy writer in the States, and he couldn't get a UK book deal until it was announced that he would finish the WoT.

There are a lot of examples like these...

Now, how to put the finger on exactly what the differences are, that's another story...

MarkCN said...

I also think there's a difference between an author's perceived presence in another territory, and actual sales figures, which could be - and often are - miles apart. You need access to Bookscan figures! :)

Anonymous said...

"recognized as veritable literature"

Stop asking this f*cking ridiculous question. Have you ever gotten any answer that is interesting?


Brett said...

Anon: This question has received plenty of interesting answers over the last couple of years.

So it's far from being a ridiculous question.