Joining us today is UK author Mark Chadbourn. Mark has a distinguished career as a journalist for The Times, a screen writer for the BBC, and a writer of award-winning fantasy. I came to know his work last year when Pyr sent me a copy of The Silver Skull. Pyr has a knack for publishing good-looking books, and this one in particular looked sharp with its snazzy Chris McGrath cover. The Silver Skull ended up being one of my picks for FanLit’s Favorites 2009. Since then I’ve followed Mark on his blog and I’ve have consumed more of his work. Book two of The Swords of Albion, The Scar-Crow Men releases this week. I was excited to get a chance to talk with Mark, and to give FanLit readers an opportunity to get to know him a little better. Pyr has offered to give a copy of The Silver Skull and its sequel The Scar-Crow Men to one lucky commenter, so I won’t keep you any longer. Here is my chat with Mark Chadbourn:
Justin: Thanks so much, Mark, for stopping by. I’ve been a fan since first reading The Silver Skull, and this interview is long overdue. I was surprised once when you sniffed out my review on my zero-hits-a-day personal blog. I realized then how much of a double edged sword it must be to be an author who is adept at navigating the internet. On one hand you have instant access to the pulse of millions of readers; on the other hand you have instant access to the pulse of millions of readers… Ha! Is it difficult to not keep setting Google alerts, or to resist keeping a constant eye on your Amazon ranking?
Mark: I don’t actually have Google Alerts set or read any online reviews unless I am specifically pointed to them or stumble across them by accident. (I don’t quite know how I came across yours). On the one hand, who cares what people say about your work. And on the other hand I’m sure it can be absolutely soul-destroying if you actually go out there searching for reviews. You only have to look at Amazon where most reviews these days are five-stars or one-star. No book is for everyone and you’re going to come across people who loathe what you do. What’s the point in reading that? Plus, these days just about everyone who buys a book posts their thoughts/review/whatever online. The net is like a bar. You’ve got the couple in the corner having a quiet conversation, a few people debating some topic of interest, lots of people having fun in a raucous way and a few shaven-headed, piggy-eyed tattooed guys at the bar bellowing their opinion into people’s faces. Would you really walk in there and say, “What do you think of me? What do you think of my work?” And if you did, what kind of answer do you think you’d get? Apart from being sickeningly needy, I can imagine it can actually undermine the very skills you need to do the writing job. I have a handful or reviewers I respect and trust and I look to their opinions to see how I can improve my work. That’s good enough for me.
If I am pointed towards a thoughtful review of my work, I will often contact the writer to let them know I appreciate them taking the time. And those insightful reviewers do help me focus my thoughts and look at areas of improvement. They deserve to be told they’ve helped me.
Justin: I had never actually thought of the “internet as a bar” comparison, but it certainly fits. I see a lot of authors in a state of information overload. They get overwhelmed with data. I have a Google alert for everything you can imagine. If I ever reach even a modicum of notoriety someday I’ll be sure to keep your words in mind. The internet is changing a lot of things in the publishing industry, for instance, right now it’s apparent that digital publishing is a force to be reckoned with. With that in mind where do you see the publishing industry going in the next 10 years, in particular with SFF publishing?
Mark: When people answer this kind of question, they tend to look at the issue in a vacuum when it should really be seen in the context of all the tumultuous changes that are sweeping through society. The change in the last ten years has exceeded that in the last hundred years, and the rate of change is only increasing — so trying to predict ten years into the future is… a little demanding. A consequence of that is that you can no longer look back to predict what’s going to happen — all the rules have changed. Certainly, most media companies, businesses and politicians are struggling to cope with losing their old models. Technology isn’t only altering the way we consume and interact within communities in an unprecedented manner, it’s also changing the very way we think. One result is people now want information and entertainment easily and immediately. Ebooks serve that function and are in tune with the way people increasingly live their lives. Paper books, not so much.
Certainly, no one really likes change, so intellectually they attempt to hang on to the things they know. People love books, the touch of them, the smell of them. They don’t want to lose them as artefacts. Everyone uses this as an argument why they’ll never go away, but they’re missing the economics argument (one of my areas of study at university). It doesn’t matter if ten million people want to keep buying books if the profit model demands ten million and one. I think the tipping point for the moment when publishers decide paper versions are no longer viable is much closer than many people realise.
My old UK publisher announced in a recent email to investors that currently a quarter of all SFF books are now digital. The growth rate is phenomenal, mainly because our genre has readers who are early adopters. Because of the correlation between technology and the reader profile, I think SF paper books will go relatively soon. Fantasy will take a little longer.
The result of the shift to ebooks will mean greater choice for the reader. I used to work, briefly, in the music industry and you only need to look what’s happened there. Broad genres no longer exist. There is no “rock” consumer, no “dance/soul” — there are hundreds of sub-genres and not a huge amount of crossover. You’re already seeing some of that in fantasy now. People who will only read books with dragons, secondary world novels, whatever. Diversity will lead to a growing readership in the end, I think, because eventually everyone will have their own particular taste catered for.
Justin: I see your point with the SF books, but I say never underestimate us book nerds and our sentimental nature. It will be difficult to get rid of paperbacks. Though I agree that many publishers will eventually reach a point where they are deciding whether or not to continue printing physical books. Personally I haven’t jumped on the e-book bandwagon just yet. It’s funny that my mom adopted it earlier than I did. Let’s move on to another effect of digital publishing: piracy. What about file sharing/piracy? How much of an impact does it have on the industry, in your opinion? I’ve read the pros and cons to both sides of the debate. Is there room for a middle ground here?
Mark: It’s a problem, certainly. The vast majority of authors don’t make a great deal of cash and every lost sale impacts them in two ways — in their capability to put food on the table for their families and, ultimately, to continue writing for a living, and in the likelihood that publishers won’t commission any more work from them. But I don’t think it’s a great problem. There’s a study out there which says the 24-34 generation is happy reading pirated work, but the coming 16-24 generation takes what some would call a more, perhaps, moral approach. They’d rather pay. I do think there are a lot of people who will try an author if the work is free, rather than risk money on something they might not like, and they might then be prepared to pay for future work. But it would be good if that was a transaction that the author and reader agreed was acceptable. The other point is that a great deal of pirated work looks absolutely terrible… poorly formatted… If you’re happy going crazy trying to make sense of the words, then fine, but I’d rather have something I can, you know, read. In the near future, I think publishers and authors will be adding value to authentic books to make them more attractive to the paying customer.
Justin: I want to ask you a few questions specifically about the Swords of Albion series. You are currently writing a series of blog posts called “Finding Fantasy in the Past” and it’s answering some of the questions I have about the historical background of your novels and your motivation for choosing the Elizabethan era as a setting. I recommend that our readers check out these posts on your blog, but my question is, besides the Elizabethan era (late 16th century) is there any time frame in human history you’d particularly like to tackle?
Mark: Every era is endlessly fascinating. History is rich, and human endeavour is a place where you could lose yourself with the same sense of wonder you find in fantasy. I would point to my novel Jack of Ravens, which Pyr will be reprinting next year (as the first of the last three books in the sequence that began with Age of Misrule). It features the central character traveling across different eras of human history, which were all my particular favourites — what we call Celtic times, Roman Britain, the Elizabethan Age (it has the first appearance of Will Swyfte), Victorian times, WWII and the Sixties. I could easily set a novel in all those times.
Justin: You try to keep things very real in your stories. If there is ever a Fairy uprising I will be grabbing my Chadbourn books and keeping them for reference. I remember thinking how refreshing it was for an author to actually consider how a 16th century person would react to seeing something like an actual Fae manifesting magic in front of their face. They’d lose their damn minds. It’s such an integral part of your stories. What made you decide to take that into account, when nearly every fantasy I’ve ever read goes around it somehow?
Mark: I used to be a journalist and in my daily life I’m firmly rooted in the real world. I’m interested in psychology, among other things, so I’m always looking at how people react to experiences. Most of the books I’ve written are in some way set at the point where fantasy slams into reality. I think that space is the most interesting place to be. The contrast is the thing. The more reality you have, the more fantastic the other stuff appears. The more bleak something is, the more uplifting the eventual success. I think in this way fantasy says a lot about who we are, as human beings, about our place in the world — and the genre doesn’t have to be as purely escapist as some of its detractors say. Just because it says “fantasy” on the spine doesn’t mean you have to have people acting in an unrealistic manner.
It also helps that I’ve studied a great deal of folklore, including accounts of people who claim to have experiences with things they consider to be the Fae, with that strangeness and madness and creepiness. Most of them were truly, truly disturbed by what they thought they encountered.
Justin: I agree, people often forget that traditional folk tales do not usually paint such a nice picture of fairies. If Tinkerbell were true to form, she’d be spending her time floating children over London and then dropping them to their deaths on a nightly basis. The fairies in your stories are really quite frightening, especially in the Swords of Albion. What was it that led you to choose the more sinister portrayal of the Fae in your books?
Mark: A lot of my writing is based on the folklore that’s existed around the UK and the rest of Europe for millennia. In the old stories, say the ones from the Viking Age or the early medieval period, the otherworldly was a source of great fear. It was responsible for everything that went wrong in people’s lives. It’s only in very modern times where fairies were considered something for the nursery. For most of history, people had all sorts of tokens to ward away the attention of the ‘Good Neighbours’ or the “Fair Folk’. Even saying their name could draw them to you, it was said.
Our stories of fairies are really degraded memories of the Celtic gods. As the culture changed and the Christian religion crept in, these powerful, mercurial, dangerous gods who lived underhill or beneath lakes and the sea, in the liminal zones, became smaller, magical beings who were just as powerful and dangerous. The old religions existed for a long time after Christianity took root, and people would often have a cross and a token of Woden hanging in the same house, so these things weren’t forgotten. They just changed. For instance, when you look at the development of the word ‘leprachaun’ it comes from the Gaelic for ‘Little Leaping Lugh’ and Lugh was the Celtic sun god. So fairies always were powerful, frightening beings who could shape our lives and drive us to madness — I’m just getting back to basics.
Justin: After The Scar-Crow Men, what’s next on your agenda? I believe Swords of Albion is meant to be a trilogy. Will it be the traditional fantasy trilogy of 4 to 6 books, or are you really going to stick to the just-three-books kind of trilogy? Will Swyfte is such a great character and the world you’ve created there is stunningly detailed. I just can’t imagine there only being three novels taking place there.
Mark: I’m just starting work on The Devil’s Looking Glass, which is the final contracted work for Swords of Albion, at the moment. But the books were never conceived as a trilogy — they were simply standalone stories which describe the battles in a greater war. You can come into them at any point without needing prior knowledge. Three were contracted because that’s the way the publishing industry works, but I always considered the possibility of writing more if the interest is there — and it seems to be. There’s also movie interest. And there are so many other stories to tell with these characters in that world. I’ve barely touched on some very interesting parts of the globe in the Elizabethan age. Plus, I do very much like Will Swyfte as a character and there are some secrets in his past I would love to get to.
Justin: A Will Swyfte movie would be phenomenal. I want a part as “Random Terrified Villager #1”. It’s good to hear the number limit on the books thus far is only a contractual limitation rather than a creative one. After reading The Silver Skull and interacting with you on your site, it inspired me to write some on my own. I’ve written nothing I’d ever share with anyone besides my dog, but it’s writing nonetheless. As a writer, who do you look up to, or which other writers inspire you?
Mark: Within the genre, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, John Crowley, Stephen King, Alan Garner, Alan Moore — all helped shaped my interests, along with the Weird Tales writers like Lovecraft, Howard and the rest. Outside the genre, Umberto Eco, John Steinbeck, Iain Banks, and a lot of crime novels. I like to read very broadly, including a great many non-fiction books. I think it’s self-destructive for a writer to read only within his or her chosen genre.
Justin: What’s the daily routine like at the Chadbourn household? Do you have a certain way you get prepared to write?
Mark: I divide my time between writing novels and screenwriting — I’m a writer for BBC Drama — so I do a lot of writing. The trick, then, is to find ways to maintain levels of concentration and creativity. I do that with a lot of variation in the daily routine so it doesn’t become boring. Writing is great and it would be a terrible shame if it started to feel like a job. I always work on a MacBook so I can move around — sometimes in my study, in a cafe, in the pub, in the garden or a park in summer. And I always listen to music on earphones while I’m working. it helps set the mood sometimes, but it also keeps the outside world at bay, allowing me to sink into that deep concentration you need to write. Most of the time I don’t even hear the music that’s on. Then I always break for some kind of exercise — I run five miles a day, or workout at the gym, or do yoga. The endorphin rush is an aide to creativity.
I try to start at 9am and work through the day, but sometimes I like to write at night because that feels like a better fit for me. Not very social though! Stephen King talks about writing being a muscle that you have to exercise and that’s true. I’ve found that the more you write the more you can write, and the better you write. It’s easy for writers to slip into the ‘waiting for the muse’ mindset — I know one writer who does 100 words a day and thinks that’s a good day’s work. There’s a huge amount of pretension around writing, that doing a small amount each day equates with crafting. In the end, it’s just laziness. The quality of writing doesn’t come from the amount of time spent on each sentence but on the depth of concentration that can be maintained. If you can sink in to deep concentration for hours you can produce vast amounts of quality work. But that varies from writer to writer.
Justin: As an extension to the above question, what’s your process for writing? I know you are a heavy researcher. Do you outline a novel before writing it out, or do you just dive right in and go? Any particular tools you use to help you write?
Mark: The amount of research I do for these historical fantasies is huge, yes. Books, libraries, museums, galleries, locations. But with the crafting of the plot, I work with “tent-poles” to hold up the structure of the story: I know how it starts, the important events and turning points along the way and how it ends. Among all that there’s a lot of space. The heavy-lifting is always done by the unconscious — that’s where the really creative, surprising things arise from while you’re writing and you’ve got to allow space for that to intrude. I find heavily outlined works become dry and often formulaic. You have to have the quirks and the randomness that make a story come to life. As to tools, apart from the MacBook, I always carry a Moleskine notebook when I’m out in the field which is great for capturing details and impressions. I record sounds and notes on my iPhone. I use Evernote for clipping webpages and Dropbox for backing up work and working across devices. I mainly use Scrivener for the actual writing — books and scripts.
Justin: You’re responsible for my addiction to Evernote. I’m constantly adding various reminders, notes, and ideas to it. I can access it from my phone, my PC, my Ipod… it’s awesome. My last question: Any plans to drop over to the US for a visit and a book signing or two? I love when people ask an author when they will be visiting [insert far away geographical location], like you have your own private jet standing by for your book tour. Maybe the people at Pyr Books will let you borrow theirs.
Mark: I’ve been to the US a few times in the past, and I’ve been meaning to come over the last couple of years — my editor Lou Anders has been nagging me to go to DragonCon — but pressure of work kept me away. I definitely plan to come in the near future, though. I want to set a few weeks aside to travel around.
Justin: Whenever that happens be sure to let us know. DragonCon is the ultimate destination for fantasy nerds the world over. Hopefully someday FanLit can send a contingent there. We can meet with you and the Pyr crew and ride around in their jet. I want to thank you again for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Good luck on the new book, and all the great things you have going on!
Hope everyone enjoyed the interview. Don’t forget to leave a comment for you chance to win a copy of both The Silver Skull and The Scar-Crow Men.