Thursday 28 April 2011

INTERVIEW: Mark Chadbourn

Famed for his modern interpretation of the Celtic World which he blends with his own take on fantasy, we felt that it was high time that we had a chat with Mark.

Having tracked him down during a Pagan Ceremony (don't mention the sheep...) we had a chance to find out Comics, Sword Play and above all else how he goes about plotting his diabolically fiendish titles...

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?

Mark Chadbourn: Nobody likes to glamourise themselves and what they do more than writers. That sense that writing is an "affliction" allows them to buy in to the illusion that they are some kind of tortured artists, gifted and cursed by God in equal measure. The truth is, writers have a particular skill, like professional football players, and if they're clever and diligent they can make money out of it. They no more *have* to write than football players *have* to kick the ball around. The proof is when writers get very successful; a lot of them choose to do anything but write for most of the time. Don't get me wrong - it is very hard work and lonely, and only the most driven can entertain the idea of a career with words. But I do believe that storytelling is inherent. It can't be taught in any of the many creative writing classes available across the world, whatever they might say in their advertising.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

MC: Pretty much as soon as I could write. I loved stories - books, comics, TV, films and I was writing short tales all the way through primary school. I always had a sense that you could do this for a living and I was never deterred by all the many, many teachers telling me this wasn't a career option for someone from my working class background. My mother instilled in me the belief that I could do anything I wanted to do, and I think that's the greatest gift any parent can give a child. There are more than enough people in the world telling you what you *can't* do.

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?

MC: I think that if you can tell a story you can write anything. Telling the story, as I mentioned, is the key. It's not about the writing - that's the paint job on the structure. So if you can tell a story with the brevity that fits the short form, you can then develop the skills to add the complexity necessary for a novel. I used to be a journalist, which is essentially narrative non-fiction. I've written short stories, novellas and novels. I've written comics, TV series and movies. It's all storytelling - you just need to develop a different skillset for each form. That's where those writing classes and books come in. You can learn form easily enough.

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?

MC: For a start, I wouldn't persuade them. No book is for everyone, and it doesn't matter how much blather and hard-sell I spout, if my world-view doesn't match the potential buyer's world-view, it's not going to happen. But taking the spirit of your question, I'd say my books find the magic in everyday life and in people's everyday lives, and we could all do with more of that. How would I define the novel? It's historical fantasy, rich in the real detail of Elizabethan times, but with a thick seam of the otherworldly running right through the centre of it. I'm interested in the point where reality meets fantasy, and what that collision says about the two opposing sides.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

MC: The Scar-Crow Men is: a thrilling story of high adventure, magic and romance encompassing the real-life mystery surrounding the murder of playwright Christopher Marlowe.

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?

MC: These days when time is at a premium I tend to read broadly rather than focusing on one particular author. I'd rather have a rich variety of takes on life rather than one in-depth perspective. I read a lot of non-fiction, a lot of cutting edge science and historical research. Authors I hugely admire include John Crowley, Umberto Eco and Mark Z Danielewski. I used to be a huge Stephen King fan, but haven't been able to get into much of his stuff from the last fifteen years or so. Past influences include Ray Bradbury, Alan Garner, Michael Moorcock and the Weird Tales authors from the thirties.

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 idea's develop as you write?

MC: I use "tentpoles", in that I know how the story begins and ends and I know the main turning points along the way, but I leave a lot of space for the unconscious to add all the really interesting detail. The unconscious does all the heavy lifting. I tend to know my characters as strangers before I start writing, but they don't come alive until the story is well underway. Then I go back and re-write.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

MC: I'm a screenwriter in the other half of my professional life, and I love movies so I watch a vast amount of films and the better TV. Exercise is important because it really helps with the creative process so I run five miles a day, or go to the gym, or cycle, and I do yoga. I'm learning chi gung. I have a deep interest in current affairs, probably developed from my days as a journalist, and I'm a very political animal so I tend to get involved in issues that are close to my heart. Books I've read recently include Colin Wilson's Mysteries, which is a mind-opening philosophical take on what life means, and Danielewski's House of Leaves which is a post-modern horror story, and much better than that description allows.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

MC: I still read comics, and probably too many of them.

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?)

MC: No pets, although I always had dogs as a kid.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

MC: Robert, Earl of Launceston. He's a hugely damaged sociopath who struggles to connect emotionally with the world around him while his friends try to stop him slaughtering anyone who crosses his path so he can see what they look like on the inside. He's one of the good guys. I like people who are damaged. The flaws - why they develop, how people cope with them - are endlessly fascinating. And I like the contrast between sardonic, aristocratic aloofness and sheer bloody butchery.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

MC: Well, I am a scholar, wit, rake, swordfighter, and Byronic adventurer so exactly the same, I would say.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

MC: I'm interested in philosophy, psychology, environmentalism, science and the occult and aspects of all those things find their way into my stories. I soak up vast amounts of information and then spread it around. As mentioned, I love films so I think, and have been told, there's a cinematic feel to my writing.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

MC: The unconscious, which is a huge bubbling cauldron of everything I've ever done, read, seen and thought about, and every person I've ever met.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

MC: I work very hard to ensure I don't get writers block. It's very easy to burn out when you're writing professionally and you need to put as much effort into the downtime as you do into the work. That means constantly searching for inspiration, continually attempting to switch off the mind, always looking for new experiences. Those are the sources of creativity. I run, watch films, listen to music, but most importantly get out and mingle in the world. The worst thing a writer can do is lock themselves away in their room, permanently writing stories. The raw material for those stories come from life's experiences. Ergo, you have to keep having as many experiences as you can.

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?

MC: Sometimes I write at night, which is when I feel the stories come most easily. But writers who just wait for the muse to come are frankly lazy. You have to be disciplined. Stephen King always said writing was a muscle you have to exercise, and like all exercise, you have to make yourself do it. I write every week day. I always write on a laptop so I can move around. Sometimes I work at home, sometimes in a cafe or a pub, or the park or the garden in summer. Variety keeps it interesting and stops it seeming like a job. Why would you turn your back on going into an office, only to work in one room, like an office?

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?

MC: I find it difficult to write in silence, unless I'm tackling a screenplay and need to hear the voices in my head. I have music on all the time, on earphones. I have very eclectic tastes, but mainly try to listen to something new rather than replaying old favourites - although they have their place. This year I've been listening to the Inception soundtrack a lot, which I think is a phenomenal piece of work by Hans Zimmer, but I've also been enjoying work by Villagers, Laura Marling, Apartment, Civic Twilight, Sunbears!, the XX and Zero 7. You can see what I've been listening to on my page on

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

MC: That the hard part was getting published. The hard part is staying published. Every writer needs to keep convincing their editors and publishers to keep investing in them. You can never sit back and coast.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

MC: Writing is the science of living. More than science itself, it's the way we make sense of life and the universe around us.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

MC: It will be called The Devil's Looking Glass. It has Elizabethan spies, mysterious islands, pirates, a trip to the New World and the resolution of a major mystery from the last two books.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

MC: Just checking my history: BBC News, Facebook,, Marvel Masterworks, Huffington Post.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

MC: No classes, no instructions. I learned a lot from my work as a journalist - brevity, the importance of tough self-editing, discipline, the power of words...

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

MC: I feel slightly guilty about answering this when I know how much some aspiring writers go through. The first short story I ever submitted was published by a national newsstand magazine, Fear, and won me their annual best new writer award. On the back of that I got an agent. The first novel I submitted was accepted by the first publisher it went to - Piatkus - and I moved straight on to a larger publisher - Gollancz - for my second novel. I never had to face up to the barrage of criticism and rejection - though having said that, having been a journalist I'm exceptionally thick-skinned and I'm sure I wouldn't have let it deter me.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

MC: The best aspects: you get to live in worlds of your own making, you get to live in your head, you get to investigate anything that takes your fancy, you follow your own rhythms and your own dreams, you work when you feel like it, you do not have to put up with people you don't like on a daily basis, you don't have to put up with idiots telling you what to do, you don't have to feel like you're wasting away the most valuable hours of your life, you get to have fun continually, you get to be stimulated and inspired, you get paid for something you'd do for free, you get to mix with interesting, creative people, you get to walk in the sun when you feel like it, you get to stay in the pub the whole day if you like, you get to go on holidays and call them research trips, you get to read books and call it research, ditto films and TV programmes, you get a platform, you get to shout at stupid politicians and they listen, you get to help people and pass on your knowledge. The worst aspects: you have to make your own coffee.


Michelle Muto said...

Good interview. I always like to read about the authors behind the books. Thanks!r

Angela Addams said...

You always have great interviews!