Mark Charan Newton, author of The Nights of VilljamurMark Charan Newton’s, best known as one of the editors at Solaris Books, is making waves waves these days, but from the other side of the industry this time. Reviews of his debut novel, Nights of Villjamur (REVIEW), have been popping up around the ‘net and all the early buzz is mighty fine. Hell, I loved it, too. From my review:

Nights of Villjamur is being bandied about by reviewers and publicists as a literary fantasy, delving into the underused Dying Earth sub-genre and written to appeal to those looking for something more from their fantasy. While this is certainly true, I was surprised at how much more there was to the novel from the perspective of a Terry Brooks fan. I was worried I would find a dense, overwritten piece of philosophical literature hidden under a fantasy verneer (think Terry Goodkind’s Naked Empire, but not piss-poor), but what I found instead was a tightly plotted novel that worked just as well as a fantasy novel as it did a piece of introspective literature. In short, it would behoove potential readers to drop preconceptions of ‘literary’ fantasy and give Nights of Villjamur a fair shot. With a more than competent debut, Newton seems smartly poised to tackle a wide swathe of readers with Nights of Villjamur, and his future as a writer is bright, indeed.

So, read on, and find out why Newton means as much to the industry as an author as he does as an editor, maybe even more.

The Interview

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. You’re an editor with Solaris Books and yet your novel is being published by Tor UK. What’s the story behind this?

   Well, I made sure the two remained mutually exclusive. I was writing long before I came anywhere near the world of editorial. (In fact, I have more to do with the backroom mechanics these days, rather than editorial work specifically.) I signed with my agent, John Jarrold, when I was about 22, and it’s taken me this long to get a deal. As far as my writing was concerned, it didn’t matter who I worked for.

   And it’s just not ethical if I submitted anything to Solaris – I mean, that’s like self-publishing, right? I wouldn’t want it. Hell, the guys at work would slap me silly if I wanted to add to their submissions pile. In all honesty, I was conscious of keeping things very, very separate – for my own sake. It just wouldn’t have felt worthwhile. It would be cheating. So even though I work where I do, I worked through the submission process like every other wannabe writer – and that included getting rejection letters…

22? That’s bloody young to be picking up an agent and most authors don’t seem to break in until much later in life. How did you manage to find an agent at such a young age, and what’s it like to work in an industry where, even at 28, you’re still considered a young buck?

   Young?! I don’t feel it. Every time I go in a bar or club I look around and wonder how I became so old so quickly. I groan when I sit in chairs. And that’s 28 at the end of March, young man – as of writing this, I’m clinging on to those last days of 27!

   I found an agent when I heard that John Jarrold was open for submissions, pretty early in his agency career. I simply sent him my work and got an email from him that same night saying he’d like to represent me – hugely exciting at the time, although it’s seemed like forever since then to getting published.

   But actually, being relatively young is intimidating. The older you get, the more wisdom you acquire, but the younger you are the more you think you know. This becomes apparent to many of us. So I wonder what an older person might think when they pick up my book – would they say: “What’s this immature nonsense – he’s too young to know about life, let alone write about it!” Or something like that. I actually think it might count against me to some extent, or maybe that’s just my paranoia.

Working at Solaris and juggling a writing career can’t be easy. How do you squeeze the time in to write and what’s your typical day look like at the office.

   Oh, well a little know fact is I also straddle over the Black Library imprint as well, so I juggle time between working on both. These days I tend to be less hands-on editorial, which is a big big difference – being so close to manuscripts all day and night took its toll. But, it’s an office job much like any other, albeit fun. I’m usually at home writing by 5.30 for a couple of hours – no more. And do that every night, so I have the routine. It’s easy once you get used to it.

Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

You’re a big music fan. Name 3 tracks I should add to my playlist while I read Nights of Villjamur.

   Just three, dammit? I actually have a massive playlist for the album – tracks I listened to often whilst writing – because music is so important to me. I should blog it really.

   As for the songs… Track 1: “Title and Registration” by Death Cab For Cutie; Track 2: “I Might Be Wrong” by Radiohead; Track 3: “Casey’s Song” by City and Colour.

Oh hey, City in Colour, a good Canadian band! Since you’ve the foresight to support the music industry of my native country, I’ll give you another chance to wax philosophical about music. How does what you’re listening to affect what gets put down on the page during a writing sessions?

   Massively! And not just when you’re writing – when I saunter about the city with my iPod on, I can be thinking of various plots and characters etc., and the music can be deeply inspiring. Music has such a stranglehold over emotions and mood – and I find that useful to get into a certain mindset when writing. Think about all the times when you’re with your friends or partners, and music just helps make a moment – if I can capture some of that, then that’s great. But there is the danger that you assume a scene has more emotion than it actually does, so it helps sometimes to have some really minimal tunes on, merely to filter out the background noise. Make sure the writing works on its own, because unfortunately you can’t sit all your readers down with the soundtrack you had in mind. In this respect, I’m hugely jealous of films – because you get to do that. You control what people see as well as their mood through music.

I know you’re a big fan of writers such as M. John Harrison, China Miéville and Gene Wolfe and count them as big influences in your writing. What does Nights of Villjamur have to offer to fans of those writers. And, on the other hand, what does it have to offer to those who are more into lighter, more traditional fantasy.

   I started writing in the first place after I read Miéville’s The Scar – I couldn’t find anything similar on the shelves. Nothing else did what that book did so I thought I’d give it a go myself, initially writing consciously under that dreaded New Weird banner…

   I mean the New Weird was a bit of a misnomer – a stillborn literary movement which these days just leads to rejection letters. In editorial offices, the NW died years ago; so I had to resort to more traditional aesthetics.

   But I hope that the spirit the New Weird (and New Wave for that matter) lives on in what I do now – an interest in doing something slightly different that the normal, writing with a conscious style, thinking of unusual themes and seeing if people want to think about different things. Mixing genres, too. So that’s what I think might appeal to fans of those writers. (And, for the very keen-eyed, I’ve slipped in a few references to them – someone in NOV, for instance, wears a Fuligin-coloured cloak, which is the same as worn by Severian in The Book of the New Sun.)

   But, all this pretentious solipsistic nonsense aside, there’s huge amounts of fun shit in there too. In fact, it should be core to any modern book – you can’t write classics like Viriconium in the modern publishing world, it just wouldn’t be accepted by editors who are looking for a modern story. I love fantasy – I’m not ashamed to say I write it. I’m a fanboy at heart, I do read in the genre, and there’s a lot to celebrate here.

   I mean, I’m not going to attack Tolkien simply for the sake of acquiring cool – I have RayBans for that task. I understand the importance of story and entertainment to readers. So I hope the pacing is good enough to appeal to the fans of lighter fantasy, that the narrative entertains, and that there are exciting enough creatures, and that the characters, although a little messed-up in the head at times, can charm…

   In a nutshell: the deeper things are there if people want to find them, and if not, then that’s cool too. Literary endeavor should not exclude entertainment. (But I’d also add to that: entertainment should not be an excuse for failed literature…)

Solipsistic? I’ll admit I had to look that one up…. One interesting thing you just mentioned is that you’re not afraid to admit that you write fantasy, but that you also read within the genre. I suppose this is a byproduct of your job working with a publisher of Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature, but what’s your view on those authors who write Fantasy but claim not to read much within the genre?

   I can appreciate that time becomes limited when you write – and that you want to read specific things for research or whatever (I read out of genre too). I think I have a problem when authors don’t like the genre they’re writing in – I mean, there’s something deeply self-loathing and masochistic about that. Why punish yourself? And every now and then you get someone who thinks they’re reinventing the wheel when they clearly haven’t read a genre book for years – they’d save us all the embarrassment if they read a few fantasy novels first.

   I think it’s great though when authors really love the genre, and buy books in it – because it supports other authors and the industry, that they’re not in it just to make some fast cash.

*coughterrygoodkindcough* Say you’re walking down the street one day and ran into one of these authors that either dislike the genre or simply don’t read it. What three novels would you push on them in an effort to change their minds?

   Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock – as an intro to those who are really afraid of genre, because this whole book is for me a meditation on the essence of fantasy and imagination. I actually think a good light and fun intro to epic fantasy (LOTR aside) is The Briar King, by Greg Keyes. (If they were more serious, and could hack the sheer depth and intensity, then I’d suggest Steven Erikson’s Malazan series instead.) And finally, once they’re a bit more used to things, Miéville’s The Scar – because it shows just how much you can do with fantasy, whilst still being a bit of a romp with loads of cool shit happening.

A nice varied list. I’m always happy to see love for Greg Keyes and his A Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series – in my opinion, he’s the most underread author of epic fantasy out there. In a world where Erikson and Martin rule, it’s a crime that Keyes doesn’t get more attention, considering I think he has enough in there to please Martin and Erikson fans alike, not to mention fans of lighter traditional fantasy like Terry Brooks and Tad Williams.

One debate that’s been going on lately has seen battle lines drawn between Tolkien-lovers and some authors who just don’t jive with him and The Lord of the Rings. Some of these include China Mieville, Michael Moorcock and, most recently, Richard Morgan. Readers claim it’s a stunt by the authors to gain attention (and Morgan didn’t help matters by pimping his own novel at the end of his Tolkien rant), but readers seem to forget that none of these authors (with the exception of maybe Moorcock and Morgan’s rebuttal to Tolkien, The Steel Remains) write novels that fall well outside the range of epic fantasy.

As someone who is trying to write thoughtful, literary fantasy that also crosses over into the realm of traditional fantasy, what’re your thoughts on Tolkien and the debate around his work?

   Yeah, it all has roots in Moorcock’s famous “Epic Pooh” essay, and this sort of thing has been going on for years. To be fair to Miéville, he was featured recently on a BBC series about fantasy fiction stating that we have a lot to owe Tolkien, especially for development of secondary worlds.

   I think his initial concern was more at the Tolkien clones, and the consolatory nature of the stories – and that’s a very valid point. You need debates like that so that genre evolves, and that authors constantly question the nature of their own work.

   You know what though? People can attack Tolkien all they want, but without him there probably wouldn’t be this vehicle for sales which supports the fantasy genre, and allows publishers to buy the more literary endeavors – which they know won’t sell anywhere near as many. These Tolkien-esque series support the careers of so many non-clone writers. Without Tolkien, they might not have a job doing this sort of thing; it would remain a hobby.

   To attack him to sound cool does have an air of the playground about it, but there are indeed criticisms to be found in the books – like every book (even though I loved LOTR). So as long as the dissection is using proper tools, then everyone is perfectly entitled to attack – debate is what makes literature more engaging. Moorcock did that splendidly, and Morgan had some interesting points to make. The problem is though that attacking a fan favourite so venomously carries the threat of not really publicity so much as career suicide…

I fall a little in the middle of the Tolkien debate. I love The Lord of the Rings, have read through them multiple time and count The Hobbit as one of my favourite novels of all time, but find Tolkien’s writing a bit dry and think the quality of novel (if not the depth of world building) has been surpassed many times by contemporary authors.

Isn’t it fair to think that some of these authors just don’t really like Tolkien? Why does them admitting this always have to equate to a publicity stunt and how can we have intelligent discussion about his works if the fanbase is just going to tear any detractor down without listening to what they have to say?

   I think it’s a fraction unfair to argue that LOTR has been surpassed by contemporary authors. That’s a bit like having a go at the novels of Jane Austen because they don’t feature computers, and that any novel with a computer is just SO much better because it’s so much more like real life. Things change, language evolves. I think so long as there is rational debate – brilliant. And the point of any piece of art is for it to be debated, surely. I just think it’s a case of using the right tools for the job though. So don’t have a go at Jane Austen because of the lack of computers, have a go at her because she couldn’t recognize the proper use a semi-colon.

   And trying to avoid an angry fanbase on the internet is impossible! It doesn’t matter what you’re discussing, it isn’t long until Godwin’s Law is invoked. This is something that can never be resolved so long as people get passionate about books. But I hope I’m not the only one to find online flame wars hilarious; best not to take it too seriously.

Many are referring to Nights of Villjamur as your debut novel, but you published a novel called The Reef through Pendragon Press, a small UK Publisher. Any plans for a wider release?

   No not as yet. I suspect if it ever was to be, I’d want to rework it somewhat. NOV is where I’d want people to get their first taste of me, so to speak.

What about word on a North American release for Nights of Villjamur?

   As far as I know, the book has only been submitted recently to prospective editors – Tor UK have World rights and wanted to send an edited manuscript out for viewing, to make things as perfect as possible. (Or, reading between the lines, until my wild prose was bent into discernible English.) I have my fingers crossed.

From the first pages, it’s clear that Nights of Villjamur falls squarely in territory of Dying Earth, a sub-genre ruled by older authors like Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance, but not all that used these days. What about the Dying Earth scenario appealed to you enough that you wanted to take up the mantle from some of Science Fiction’s greatest writers?

   “Because I’m stupid” would be the quick answer… But it’s such a great concept. Dying. Earth. What’s not to like? The setting really frees a writer up to do more things, stylistically as well as thematically. You’re not limited by cultures and technology because anything – anything – could have happened before things become more primitive. And I saw it as something that hadn’t been tapped for a good long while. I wondered to an extent what a more modern twist might look like, something suitable for modern palettes.

The prose and dialogue in Nights of Villjamur is startlingly contemporary. Was this an intentional decision, or just a product of your writing style?

   A lot of both. Firstly, I think there’s no reason fantasy fiction should be confined to ye olde speake. I can’t understand the arguments against modern dialogue that gets thrown at some authors these days.

   Secondly, the setting is not traditional, so it would have seemed out of place to not be modern stylistically.

   Also, I’m a big fan of many modern stylists – Don DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem and David Peace to name a few who impress me immensely – so it seemed impossible for me to avoid that myself. I get excited by writers in any genre who use language in bold, interesting ways.

Nights of Villjamur is the first volume of a series. What can you tell us about the volumes to follow?

   I want each of the novels to have as much as a standalone feel as possible – much like Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. So they’re all linked, but there are resolutions and completions and new characters as well as continuations. There’s no reason that books shouldn’t feel complete. A big thing I hate about series fantasy is when you think: Dude, come on, you were going to finish that plot a book ago but you saw the dollar signs, admit it.

   I’m not keen on talking about actual content, because so much can change and be hacked out, but the main threads continue and have resolution. Plots are terminated throughout. I want to challenge myself mainly. But suffice to say things get very weird, and characters more messed-up and darker.

I expect that most people who work on the publishing side of the industry are also writers. As someone who works on both sides of the fence, as editor and author, what kind of advice can you give for people wanting to breaking into the publishing side of things?

   Aside from having a good knowledge of the current market – and by that, I mean read lots of current fantasy and SF, not just the books published thirty years ago – I think the best thing to do is actually network. And not via the internet! Get to conventions and events, meet people, show an interest, make real friends, not Facebook friends. Don’t do it merely to get a job, do it because you love it. And then you’ll maybe meet the right people, hear that someone needs a new assistant, or there’s a new magazine starting up. Get involved in fandom and the industry. If you don’t get a job, well, it’s still fun, and you’re helping support and promote genre fiction – and that’s no bad thing.

I noticed in the acknowledgments section of Nights of Villjamur that you thank a couple of bloggers by name. This hints at the impact the internet, and the blogosphere by extension, has had on you and your writing, but I’m curious how the Internet and blogosphere have affected you as a writer and editor.

   The best thing about the internet is you can have discussions with more genre fans than five or six years ago. As a writer I guess you can get an insight into what fans like, dislike, would love to see, or want more of. It gets you thinking – which is great; every writer should be up for a challenge. Plus – and this remains the important thing – you talk to like-minded people. Writing can be incredibly isolating, so it all helps the mind. The internet has made fandom into one sprawling digital convention. Without the hangovers.

   I guess there’s the publicity angle for the publisher – you reach more potential readers. But the internet is so saturated by marketing people these days that it’s difficult to remove the hype and spin from everything. If you’re savvy (or cynical) enough, you begin to see the insincere crap pretty quickly. But man, there’s so much out there these days that it becomes increasingly difficult for a publisher just to keep up. And no matter what you do online, nothing beats getting a good book with the right cover if a publisher wants to shift units.

Well, Mark, it was great having you here on A Dribble of Ink! Best of Luck with Nights of Villjamur and everything else to come.

   Thanks so much for the opportunity and the conversation. I hope I didn’t rant too much…

  • Andy Remic April 14, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    A great interview, Mark’s a cool guy and deserves to do well with Nights of Villjamur. Looking forward to reading it myself :-)

  • edifanob April 15, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Great interview!
    I’m really keen to read the book by myself after reading the excerpt and all these promising reviews. Until the release I will continue to read Steven Erikson and Greg Keyes is on my shelf and China Mieville is on my shelf…..

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