Successful comedy writer Mark Barrowcliffe demonstrates that once he gets his teeth into something its pretty hard for him to let go. So, after reading his debut Fantasy novel we just had to chat to him about Werewolves, Norse Saga's and life without mankind's lead...
FALCATA TIMES: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
MD LACHLAN: I wouldn’t say I was afflicted with writing, it’s just that it’s something I love to do and I’m pretty unhappy if I don’t do it. That said, I’m not the sort of writer who would write if no one was going to read it. For this reason before I got published I did feel quite unfulfilled in life. I desperately wanted to write but, without an audience, I never got the motivation. I had a very lucky break, though. An agent spotted some of my journalism and wrote to me to say I had a good writing style. She asked if I’d ever considered writing a novel. I said I’d done nothing but consider it. As soon as I got the encouragement from her I was away, no stopping me.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
MDL: When I first read PG Wodehouse when I was 8 years old. I wanted to make people laugh like he made me laugh. Most of my fiction so far has been comic. Wolfsangel, however, is a serious book. If you laugh reading it, I’ve done something wrong! Reading Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin as a kid inspired me to try to write, as did TV series like Children of the Stones. I used to come up with stories based on them in an effort to scare the wits out of people. I was less successful at that at first than at comedy.
I think you can write in imitation of a comic writer (from the age of 8 to 35 I was writing in imitation of PG Wodehouse and Wilde) and people will find you funny. If you write in imitation of a fantasy writer people find you derivative. It took me much longer to find my own voice in fantasy, to recognise cliché and avoid it. I was writing fantasy of effect – like a series of dramatic stills from a graphic novel, concentrating heavily on world building and ideas. It took me to realise that it’s essentially no different to any other genre before I came up with something I liked. Once I concentrated on character then I found my writing improved sharply.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
MDL: Not sure. VS Pritchett’s novels weren’t that successful were they? Saki only wrote one novel and I don’t think it was a big hit. Raymond Carver never wrote a novel. So I think the word I’m groping for is ‘no’
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
MDL: I’d paraphrase the review I had from Adam Roberts. It’s two novels in one – one is a recognisable fantasy adventure, with likeable characters, life threatening situations, daring escapes, twists to the plot. The other is something far stranger, in Adam’s words ‘This is not a run of the mill Fantasy text; nor, really, is it even a riff upon those worn-smooth tropes. It is something genuinely strange, eerie, evocative.' It’s got a sort of magic in it that I don’t think has been seen before in fantasy, though clearly I haven’t read everything that’s ever been written so I could be wrong. It’s a werewolf you won’t have seen before, either, much closer to the Norse original than the Hollywood version – no full moon transformations (not part of Norse myth), no silver weapons hurting it, no 20 minute transformation where he unaccountably triples in weight. My werewolf takes months to change and you know where every pound of flesh he puts on comes from. I’m not at all knocking the traditional Hollywood werewolf, I love full moon skin splitters. It’s just that I wanted to think through the figure of the werewolf from a different angle, a ‘Werewolf Begins’ sort of idea.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
MDL: The myth of the werewolf reborn.
That’s six words. Might add ‘Vikings, Norse Gods and dark, dark magic’ into the mix too.
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
MDL: Well you’ll probably have guessed by now that I’m a PG Wodehouse fan. Unparalleled comic genius. Any writer who needs the right circumstances to write – A Room of One’s Own, so to speak, should look at Wodehouse. He was taken prisoner by the Germans in WWII, dragged across half a continent and locked in a freezing Polish internment camp. The first thing he did on getting there was borrow a typewriter and sit writing in the canteen.
In terms of fantasy, Le Guin would always be on my shelf and – though you could argue about it being in the genre – The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Alan Garner really captured my imagination as a kid – anyone who’s read The Owl Service will recognise its influence on Wolfsangel. Peter Ackroyd is very good – I would argue he’s as much a fantasy writer as anything else – and, of course, JRRT would always have space. If I ever have the money I’d love to get a first edition LOTR. It’s a massively flawed novel but, there again, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has a few cracks. I know everything that’s wrong with LOTR and can’t argue with its critics, other than to say that I love it because it does what a book’s meant to – it carries you away.
Nabokov is a writer I really admire. We think we own literature in this country but those Russians can give us a run for our money, I tell you. Also a big fan of Jane Austen, which might surprise people who only know her from the TV adaptations. She’s a brilliantly comic writer who, like Wodehouse, can leave me with tears streaming down my face. Philip Larkin has a place on my shelf and in my heart - as does TS Eliot.
I will no longer sit on a bookshop doorstep as I did that for the release of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. Rarely have I been so disappointed. By the end of it I was actually laughing out loud, which I don’t think was the author’s intention. Similarly, I used to await the latest Martin Amis with bated breath and then he went a bit rubbish. I wouldn’t sit on a doorstep for George RR Martin but I would pre-order his books. I used to snap up Patricia Cornwell's but they’re a bit like sticky toffee. You eat and you eat and you eat some more, then all of a sudden you feel a bit ill and can never face it again in your life.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your ideas develop as you write?
MDL: When I write comedy I just let the pen – or rather keyboard - take me. The first draft is my exercise in plotting. I write quickly and don’t mind discarding huge chunks if I’ve gone wrong. With fantasy, it’s a combination. I start with a gripping sentence or I ‘hear’ one of the characters speaking. Then I write flat out until I hit a tangle. At that point I will plot things out. The novel I’m writing at the moment, for instance, is half written and plotted until 2/3s distance. Just yesterday I grasped what the end would be. You have to spend a while with your characters to know what they would do in response to the problems you’ve set them. The first draft of Wolfsangel was 200,000 words long and took in the Blitz in WWII as well as the Viking part. I cut it back to 15,000 words and started again focussing solely on the Vikings because, though I had a good book, it was half an inch short of where it needed to be. To get the extra half an inch, as some readers may know, can require radical surgery.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
MDL: I’m a keen fencer and footballer, though not very good at either. I tend to be reading about four things at once – some for research, some for pleasure and some for a mixture of both. Some books I’ll read at home, some when I’m out and about and I’ll listen to some on audiobook. I find poetry very good to read when you’re doing other things as you can take it in snatches. At the moment I’m reading Lovely Bones and Sharp Teeth, for pleasure, The Medieval World View, for research, and I’m just about to listen to Gormenghast on my iPod while walking dog. Trying to summon up strength for a crack at Q, The Crimson Petal and the White and Ash but may intersperse with some shorter, less daunting books.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
MDL: I read RPG rule sets for games I’ll never play. Even my wife doesn’t know that, although she did surprise me to find me stroking my copy of White Dwarf Number 1. I collect RPGs from the 1970s.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
MDL: I have a dog, Reg. He is fictionalised in my third novel Lucky Dog. It’s a magic realist comedy about a man whose dog starts talking to him. It’s based on conversations I used to have with my dog.
Dog: ‘Come on, put on your lead, we’re going out.’
Me: ‘This isn’t a lead, it’s a tie.
Dog: ‘Every time you put it on you go somewhere you don’t want to. That’s what I call a lead.’
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
MDL: They were all fun to write because all of them surprised me, which is what you want as a writer. If I had to pick one, I’d say the Celt slave girl Saitada. She came from nowhere – I realised I’d forgotten to work out how a Viking warrior was going to feed two newborn babies on a four week voyage to his homeland. So I put their mother into the story. She turned out to be a major character, not only in Wolfsangel but for the entire series. It’s terrific when something like that happens, you see someone developing on the screen in front of you.
FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?
MDL: It’s difficult to pick the main protagonist in this book. I thought it was the werewolf but there are two others who could vie for the role. Not very, I think is the answer, if you take it as the werewolf. This is my sixth book, though my first fantasy one, so I think I’ve got past the thinly disguised autobiographical novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
MDL: Fencing helps me with the fight scenes certainly. It made me realise that, no matter how good you are, anyone can hit anyone once if they’re lucky. I’ve seen a beginner take a point off the British Number 1. Only one point, mind, but if you’re waving a piece of sharp steel in someone’s general direction there’s always a chance you’ll hit them with it. I also used do a bit of boxing and other martial arts, so I know that the most important thing about a physical contest is controlling your fear. You can be the most technically accomplished fighter on earth but if you can’t harness your fear then you’re done for. Half of Mike Tyson’s opponents beat themselves because they were so intimidated.
Obviously my early interest in fantasy, RPGs and the occult gave me a big boost when it came to writing fantasy. Wargaming certainly helped with battle scenes too.
FT: Where do you get your ideas from?
MDL: I don’t know. I write and they appear. This novel just popped out of me. I was sitting at the computer intending to write a modern comedy when I started writing about a Viking werewolf. The creative process is a strange thing and, when it’s working well, it bypasses the conscious mind. It sounds pretentious but I do think of myself as the first reader of my work. I see it appear on the computer screen but, when it’s flowing, I’m not aware of having any big influence on what comes out. I’ve been fascinated by Norse culture and magic since I was very young. Suddenly that mental file, which had lain in dust for years, opened and a werewolf jumped out.
FT: Do you ever encounter writer’s block and if so how do you overcome it?
MDL: It depends what you mean. I never get the inability to write, no more than I’m ever struck by the inability to talk. I do get the inability to write anything good from time to time though. The way I overcome it is to write it anyway. You can always press delete if you don’t like it in the morning. Sometimes – see my soul-rending 185,000 word cut above – you have to write a lot of mediocre or ‘almost there’ stuff to get to where you’re going. I’d advise people not to attach themselves too much to their writing. Look on it as a job of work. Some days you work well, others badly. Don’t beat yourself up over it or cling to something just because it took you a lot of effort. It hurt for me to bin 185,000 words but I felt a lot better once I’d made the decision to do it and got writing again. I looked on it as 185,000 words of background and I wrote Wolfsangel (130,000 words) in three months. It was so quick because I’d spent all that time with the ghost of the novel haunting the mediocre one I was writing.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
MDL: Having children forced regular hours on me. I still like working very late and – more occasionally – very early but kids mean you better do it while they’re at nursery.
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
MDL: I’m a lyrics nut so, if I play music, I end up listening to it. I never have music on as background noise no matter what I’m doing – apart from driving. I love music but I’m someone who sits down and listens to it, giving it my full attention. However, there’s a track that I think very apt to my novel – Thee Full Pack, by Psychic TV from Dreams Less Sweet. The lyrics are a bit pretentious but, if you can forgive that, it’s brilliant. Very werewolfy. The lyric ‘He is the father of fear…..’ could even apply to my conception of the Norse God Odin. Also, what I’m writing influences what I listen to rather than the other way around. I’m playing Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love on repeat at the moment. ‘When I was a child, running in the night, afraid of what might be, hiding in the dark, hiding in the street - and of what was following me…’
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
MDL: It would impress women. It doesn’t.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
MDL: The sweat of the subconscious. Does that require explanation? I mean, it presumes there is a subconscious in the Freudian sense. I think there is, though don’t ask me for proof.
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
MDL: It’s set about 80 years after Wolfsangel, still in the Viking age. I think that’s all I want to say at the moment, as I prefer to write it than talk about it!
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
MDL: Viking Answer Lady – very good on all things Norse, BBC News, Wonderlands, Facebook and Bible Gateway, as there are a few monks hopping about in my next novel.
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
MDL: No, I didn’t take any. I read a lot from a very early age, though. I also trained and worked as a journalist, which is invaluable experience for a fiction writer. I’m teaching a few courses now.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
MDL: My agent’s comment on the first submission I gave to her was ‘I’m struggling to think of one redeeming feature.’ I got over that by stopping trying to be Kafka and writing about my life as it was, rather than a romantic vision of myself as a doomed poet. (Interestingly, Kafka thought he was writing humour, which says something about him). I knew I could do it so I looked on her first criticism as just a setback. I listened to what she said and acted on it. After that I received very little negative criticism until my second book. Then I thought about it and decided it was merited so I made up my mind to do better next time, which I did. My third novel, Lucky Dog, is my favourite book, after Wolfsangel. With criticism, you should decide if it’s justified. If it is justified, make sure you don’t make the same mistakes twice. And, like the best football strikers, don’t let a miss worry you. If you made a mess of one book, you just have to make sure you bag the next one.
I think I’m an unusual case in that I was very self confident when I started. I’m less self confident now, not in my writing but because I know that writing a good book is only part of what it takes to be successful. A good book will be taken on by an agent, no question. If you’re good enough it’s not a matter of luck, success to that point is inevitable. It’s also very likely that, if the book is good enough, it will be bought by a publisher. Sometimes a good book might fail here – if you’ve written in a genre that’s suddenly fallen out of favour, for instance, or the industry might be going through a bad time and playing it very safe.
Once the book is sold to a publisher you rely on a whole bunch of people to get you a readership. That’s the bit where stuff can start going wrong. You can be unlucky, your book gets accidentally launched against a big competitor, you can pick the wrong title or your publishers can pick the wrong cover, the PR department might have bigger fish to fry that month, a book buyer for a major chain might dislike your writing, there might not be a big budget to buy you position in the bookshops, a critic might not ‘get’ what you’re doing or – and it definitely happens – read the first page, not like it and slag you off on that basis - all sorts of stuff.
Lucky Dog got great reviews (apart from one national newspaper whose reviewer clearly hadn’t got past page 4. Bitter. Me?) but for some reason didn’t sell that well. I still have no idea why.
All this makes you feel insecure. I’ve got no idea how you deal with that. I think you don’t, you just live with it.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
MDL: The best aspect, for me, is doing something I love and getting paid for it. The worst aspect is that there are ups and downs to any artistic career. Even if you’re riding high you know that you’re only one bad book away from financial disaster. That’s fun when you’re single, less so when you have kids!