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Mark Charan Newton Interview

Mark Charan Newton, author of the Legends of the Red Sun series—presently Nights of Villjamur, City of Ruin, and The Book of Transformations—isn’t your typical fantasy writer. In fact, buying his books on Amazon will send your way a veritable myriad of different genres in subsequent recommendations. With themes ranging from “new weird”, to the exploration of race, gender, and deep socio-political themes, it’s needless to say that he’s a very new and very different mover and shaker on the fantasy fiction playing field.

Mark Charan NewtonMaking waves in the vast ocean of SFF, Newton’s work is not for those who want a simple, comfortable fantasy story, rather, his work is like a pair of new, shiny shoes: they’re new, the smell of the leather is tantalising and when you try them on in the shop they’re as comfortable as slippers, but get them home, wear them, trudge about and you might get blisters, but the sores will fade and at the end you might have a few blemishes—scars, perhaps—but you’ll also have a damn good pair of shoes.

Some readers will take to Newton’s work in a heartbeat, readers hungry for something different. Not all of Newton’s work is as “experimental” as the “new weird” flag implies, but his work is certainly not conservative. Delving deep into a plethora of issues, psychologies and philosophies, Legends of the Red Sun is an inventive, imaginative series with a larger-reaching central plot than most SFF novels in the modern market. It’s something exotic on the shelves next to the less extraordinary titles available. Basically, Newton’s work is something you will not have read before.

Those unfamiliar with the series can visit the books individually as they do work (in their own right) was standalone novels. However, as a massive fan of Newton and the series, I’d simply advise readers start where is best: the very beginning. Introducing the series is Nights of Villjamur (my personal review of which can be found here), which relies on noir themes and imagery, coupled with some traditional fantasy expectations, to introduce the city of Villjamur. Populated with vivid, believable characters, the first of the series sets the tone for subsequent novels and the vast array of themes to follow.

It’s difficult for me to present an accessible blurb of Newton’s work to announce what it’s about, so we’ll work with the cover blurb from Nights of Villjamur to whet the appetite, so that following the interview, the book (and following titles) can find themselves on everyone’s wish-lists:

The ancient city of Villjamur is threatened by a long-expected ice age, and thousands of refugees from the coming freeze are camped outside its gates, causing alarm and the threat of disease for the existing population. When the Emperor commits suicide, his elder daughter, Rika, is brought home to inherit the Jamur Empire, but the sinister Chancellor plans to get rid of her and claim the throne for himself.

Meanwhile an officer in the Inquisition, in pursuit of a mysterious killer, also uncovers a conspiracy within the Council to solve the refugee crisis by wholesale slaughter, and a cultist magician is causing a trail of havoc in his search for immortality and his obsessive quest to gain access into another world. To the far fringes of the Empire is despatched military commander to investigate a mysterious new race of undead that seems intent on genocide of the most gruesome nature.

And now, on to the interview!

For readers unfamiliar with the Legends of the Red Sun series, and indeed you as a writer, who is Mark Charan Newton as an SFF author?

I’m not even sure myself! I’m so involved in the industry that it seems impossible to tell. The books I write are not quite your typical fantasy – though everyone’s saying that these days. How about: I try to write books that borrow aesthetics from many genres; hopefully make people think without having to try too hard; entertain, upset, depress, make laugh; but ultimately leave the reader thinking that the book was very different, even if they didn’t really like it.

Following up on that, your work has been widely described as “new weird”, or “weird fantasy”; what does this mean to you? What is “new weird” and how does it feature in current SFF fiction?

I’Nights of Villjamur (cover)m most impressed that the new weird has taken definition long after the initial spark died several years ago. Now it’s a term that is being used more than ever, which is no bad thing. I once said it was a stillborn literary movement – that it never quite took off. It was only ever a collection of writers who were striving actively to challenge not just the conventions of genre fiction (because those conventions are really what defines the genre in the first place) but is self-consciously experimental, be that with prose or aesthetics or whatever. The loose collective of writers would think in terms of rebelling against what the audiences were used to: not so much a new wave, but certainly along those lines.

That’s no bad banner to stand under. I’d certainly stand under it myself, but I’d probably find myself in a smaller group than several years ago. Artistic endeavour, trying to experiment, trying different themes or whatever, has all become a bit of a dirty area for fantasy fiction. The commercial side of genre is hugely conservative in terms of experimentation, more than I ever realised. Is it a bad thing to say so? I don’t think so, though it feels like it is at times.

What would you say your main influences and/or sources of inspiration are in your work?

It changes a lot for each novel, and can simply be whichever authors I’m engrossed in at that particular point in time. It’s worth saying inspiration can be incredibly varied – from literature to film to music to what’s going on in the news. The latter has become more inspirational, I have to say; we’re living in incredible times, with incredible access to information. The blueprints of society are at our fingertips, and the current economic, political and environmental narratives are – weirdly – the ones that are most thrilling and bizarre.

Following that, your top three favourite authors, living or dead?

I couldn’t limit myself to just three! The list changes depending on my mood. But here are the writers who have made the most impressions on my mind – fiction and non-fiction: Don DeLillo, M John Harrison, China Miéville, Lawrence Durrell, Gene Wolfe, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot.

Everyone has a “comfort book”, a book they love, will always love, and will always return to, even if just to read a chapter or two. Usually a book that means a lot, inspired them to write, or pulled them to a specific genre. What is your comfort book?

The Scar (cover)Probably The Scar – though it’s been a good while. It’s the book that made me want to write genre, but also reminds me of an interesting period of my life. Generally speaking, I tend not to re-read much these days; I don’t seem to have the time because of the writing (be careful what you wish for!). I’m also tentative about re-reading, because often the best books are enjoyed at a particular moment in your life, that to return to them will never be the same again. Why not just leave that perfect memory intact?

If you had to sum up the series concisely, how would you describe it and in your eyes, where is its place—with its clear sociological and philosophical themes—within the current SFF market?

Again, I’m not even sure I know, as I’m so involved. Perhaps it can be considered as something that tried to bring a wide range of new themes and ideas into the fringes of commercial genre fiction. I’d like it to be seen as that, at least. I’d also like people to be either thrilled or really upset about the prose style, particularly for City of Ruin. No good comes from being bland in fiction, but there’s a lot of bland prose out there. Though this is my personal taste, of course.

Let’s talk about your world. The Boreal Archipelago is a chain of islands—some on the farther reaches inhabited by tribes less “civilised” than the major cities—populated by a variety of different cultures, and even in Villjamur and Villiren races mix — is this a deliberate move toward populating modern fantasy with more than the expected archetypical single-colour cast?

Race is divided down the species line in the Boreal Archipelago. It’s a geek thing, but in a world with very little sunshine, I couldn’t have darker skinned human cultures. So it seemed the best thing to do it this way. Also, it wasn’t particularly a conscious effort – it seemed the normal thing to do, too. The abnormal approach would have been to feature only white people.

You’ve created two particularly poignant characters whose sexuality and gender have sparked discussion: Commander Brynd Lathraea of the Night Guard, and Lan, a Villjamur Knight who enters the fray during The Book of Transformations, are gay and gender-reassigned respectively. How easy (or hard) were these personalities and psychologies to “get into” in order for you to write?

City of Ruin (cover)Brynd was much easier to write, though not always easy. I mean, I think it helped to think – as we should – that he was just a normal person, that his sexuality was just part of who he was. Once I’d just got over my personal performance anxieties about trying to write a good gay character, I got on with just treating him as normal. It got a lot easier after that mind-shift.

Lan was much more difficult to write – there’s so much to consider about her past, her psychology, how she sees herself and how the world views gender, and so many people I risked upsetting if I got things wrong. I had help from those who know more about the subject than I do – for which I’m eternally grateful. So yes, I had to do massively more research for Lan, but I knew she deserved it.

There’s been recent discussion about minorities in fantasy fiction on the forums here at Fantasy-Faction, with mixed views. As things stand in SFF, Brynd as a homosexual male, and Lan with her special medical history “represent” their own minority, and whilst you don’t “shoe-horn” minorities, you do bring a measure of awareness and maybe even education about these different psychologies: how important is this to you as a writer, and what’s your reaction to the mixed reception of the two?

Let’s put it this way: a mid-40s, straight white male with an average job and income, who does normal things, is not particularly interesting to write about. Writing is about challenging yourself, about exploring people and places that fascinate you. Otherwise it’s just so dull. Another chosen-one fisher boy becomes king? Boring.

So I choose people who are going to be interesting to write about: it just so happens that minorities lead fascinating and often challenging lives. There’s also something about writing about minorities that helps make you a more tolerant person, too; as a writer you share their difficulties. Writing about minorities can help authors become a better person – providing it’s done in the right way, obviously. Perhaps I’m making subconscious choices on this issue, on that front.

If we focus on Lan for a moment, how deeply into the issue of the actual gender reassignment process did your research take you, or was your line of interest based more on the experience and psychologies of gender reassigned people?

The process was, fortunately, something I didn’t have to go into too much in the novel. For a start, the world isn’t fully geared up to understand the processes; secondly, the magical elements of the novels tend to be pseudo-scientific, science that is never explained, so for internal consistency I just couldn’t explore this too much.

That said, it was largely based on those experiences and psychologies, but more collective experiences I’d read about, because I know everyone’s psychology is different. Many of Lan’s experiences (superpowers aside!) are based on real world experiences I read about in the news. Some of the stories she mentions are, disturbingly, real world events. People only have to Google ‘transgender’ and ‘murder’ to be sickened by our culture.

Sticking with Lan, there was discussion about the original design for The Book of Transformations at the “A Dribble of Ink” blog. Lan was pictured on the front cover originally, but was removed in lieu of a clearer cityscape view of Villjamur (which worked better for the book in the end). There were a few comments about how “regular” she looked, and how she shouldn’t necessarily look “like a man”, but rather, “unique”. You didn’t write Lan with a “unique” appearance, so surely that’s how you wished her to be viewed—in an “ordinary” fashion?

The Book of Transformations (cover)Yeah, I was waiting for people’s prejudices to appear in that comments thread…I mean, how dare a transwoman actually look like a woman! It’s ridiculous.

As far as I’m concerned, she’s a woman, plain and simple – both before and after surgery, she’s a woman. It just so happens she was not anatomically a woman at first. Simple as that! Now she is. But yeah, people’s judgements were very telling…

Let’s talk about Brynd. I think here you’ve created an excellent character who appeals to a wide range of people, and not “because he’s gay” or “the different character”: he appeals to straight males because he’s cool, and to gay ones because he’s presumably attractive: how does this make you feel and is Brynd’s character a success?

It’s strange, when people like your characters – especially Brynd, who I’ve been carrying around in my head since I first put pen to paper for this series (I originally wrote his scenes first, even though they appear later in the first novel). It’s kind of like seeing your friends do well at something – if that makes sense. You feel happy for them, as absurd as it seems for a character. I also find it mildly amusing, because on a personal level, Brynd would come across to me as a bit stoic; it’s the evil bastards such as Malum who would be far more interesting to spend time with.

What made you start writing in the first place? Is it something you’ve always done, beginning as a child, or did you “decide” to write when older, gearing towards making it a full-time job?

It was pretty simple: I read a book I loved, couldn’t find anything else like it, so wanted to have a crack at creating something myself. I hear that’s actually quite a common reason for starting to write. Music was always my thing, back when I was younger – that was my creative outlet for the time. Writing was never this dream job – and it still isn’t: it’s hard, painful, but exhilarating graft from beginning to end.

Did your experiences with the Black Flame imprint and Solaris books help you on the road to publication? Did you suffer any/much rejection along the way whilst publishing Legends?

At the time I think it gave me a little more market awareness of the things that weren’t selling, of the things not to write; and of course, it made me realise the variety of ways in which a sentence could legitimately be put together in fiction (my pet peeve is people who preach strict creative writing rules which are usually a lot of crap). I learnt how liberating and inspiring literature could be at every level. I met some wonderful people. But I’m never quite sure how much help it was – it was actually pretty tough working with words all day and then all night.

As for rejection, yeah, I had a full novel rejected, and of course a few short stories that were knocked back. You just have to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and get back to writing. Learn from any mistakes you made and try not to do it again.

Probably one of the oldest questions in the book, but, any advice for aspiring SFF authors out there?

Just write. Finish your projects, polish them, send them off, then start the next one right away. Don’t put all your hopes on your first effort – you’ll probably need to get rid of a hundred thousand words of rubbish before the good stuff comes through. The more you write, the better you get.

There’s also a lot of advice online these days, but try not to take it too seriously. If you see something you find useful, absorb it into your process – one thing I’ve learned is that every writer is different and does things in different ways. I find that the more preachy a piece of advice is, the less useful you’ll find it. (Especially those who bang on about showing and not telling, a team of people who go around the internet slowly killing the art of exposition.)

Read a lot, too, and don’t just read SFF novels because that starts to cannibalise ideas within the genre. Read outside the genre and bring in new ideas to it. It’ll serve us all well in the long run.

You’ve blogged before about music being an aid to your work, having said you create “writing playlists” and posted what works for you. What is it about music whilst writing that helps?

For me it sets the mood. I usually pick something that fits what I want to write about, and the plan is that it allows the right feeling to come through into the scene. That idea is probably a lot of rubbish, but it feels good to write like that. The main thing is it drowns away the noise from this world.

What can readers expect (without giving too much away) from the final book in the series and how will it relate to the previous three?

It certainly ties everything together, and hopefully gives closure, too. It’s an odd one to write: I find ending a series is really restrictive creatively – I’m at my best with a blank canvas ahead of me, with no limits. This book has limits – it’s series fantasy and its’ coming to a close. But hopefully it will answer most questions, but there will be a few things that don’t get answered – because life just isn’t that neat and tidy.

Oh, and it features a monster drawn by China Miéville. 🙂

After Legends wraps up, what can readers expect in the future?

The weird goes away, I can say that much. I want to write something that doesn’t have such exotic aesthetics. I want to write something where story is the centre of things. I’d quite like to try a first person narrative, too. I’ve got something in mind, but I don’t really like to talk too far in advance – largely because there’s always the chance that it might not happen.

What is your favourite quote from the entire series so far?

Mark Charan NewtonWithout giving spoilers away, it’s tough to say what my favourite quote actually is…But I can share one of my favourite periods of writing. It’s with Malum, the gang leader in City of Ruin. There’s a section, over half way through the novel, where he just loses it. Everything goes wrong for him; he loses control of his life. Though his character is abhorrent, he basically goes off the rails. We get to see what made him who he was. It was exceptionally intense to write his story from that point on – and it coincided with accelerating the general plot of the novel. I’ll never quite have that energy again, I don’t think, but I’m very fond of that period.

As a final bit of fun: if you were a reader of the Legends series, who would your favourite character be and is that the character you enjoy writing the most?

I enjoyed writing Jeryd the most, and he probable is my favourite overall. He’s a bumbling and a not-very-good detective – a good relief against the darker aspects of the story – and when I become much older there’s a good chance I’ll end up with his dry, pessimistic outlook on the world!

Mark Charan Newton’s books are widely available from all awesome bookstores, and of course, online. The Legends of the Red Sun series is published by Tor in the UK.

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5 Comments

  1. […] an interview with me over at Fantasy Faction, in which I rant about all sorts of genre and writing-related things, from the New Weird to writing […]

  2. […] over at Fantasy Faction there is an interview with Mark Charan Newton. The interviewer spends several questions talking to Mark about the LGBT characters in his books. […]

  3. […] Fantasy Faction talks to Mark Charan Newton about the third book in his Red Sun series, The Book of […]

  4. LowlyPeasant says:

    Ha, I like how it says “Interview Commence” as if it was some magic spell of power or fighting technique. Ahem.

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