Author Mark Charan Newton's first novel in his epic Legends of the Red Sun fantasy series, Nights of Villjamur, received a great deal of praise, and now he's set to break out with his follow-up, City of Ruin. What's it about? "In the frozen north of a far-flung world lies Villiren, a city plagued by violent gangs and monstrous human/animal hybrids, stalked by a serial killer, and targeted by an otherworldly army. Brynd Lathraea has brought his elite Night Guard to help Villiren build a fighting force against the invaders"¦.Meanwhile, reptilian rumel investigator Rumex Jeryd has come seeking refuge from Villjamur's vindictive emperor"”only to find a city riddled with intolerance between species, indifference to a murderer's reign of terror, and the powerful influence of criminals." Omnivoracious caught up with Newton recently to talk about his new novel and much more...
Amazon.com: Did you always want to be a writer? If not, what did you want to be?
Mark Charan Newton: Not at all--that was something that happened by accident. Initially I was taking a year out from university, waiting to enroll on a master's degree in biodiversity. I managed to get a job in a bookstore, which was really where the writing spark came from--there, I read The Scar, by China MiÃ©ville. There was nothing like it on the shelf, so I thought why not try myself?
Amazon.com: You strike me as the kind of writer who very deliberately works at improvement from book to book. What did you learn between writing Nights and City of Ruin, and how did that affect this second novel in the series?
Newton: Oh, a huge amount. There are so many things that changed, but mostly it was the mental preparation that was radically different. Originally I was writing for myself, and wondering if there was any point at times; that changed to then having the confidence of a contract behind me, so I could just get on with the story. This meant I could relax. I could do what I wanted to do. Also, having a deadline now meant I couldn't overkill certain elements of the narrative. But it also helps having gone through the process of editing a novel with a professional--I can honestly say that it's humbling, necessary and revolutionary for the craft.
Amazon.com: What can readers expect from this novel in terms of further development of your fascinating setting?
Newton: For those who are new to the series (because this novel can stand alone), as well as those who read the first, I hope that people will feel this book to be a decent assault on their senses, more so than in Nights. I've wanted to explore darker characters, with more surreal imagery, and blend the Weird with various topical issues--social and political--that one might expect to encounter in any modern city. There is more context about the history, but I've tried not to let the world-building take over too much. Of course, at heart it's a war novel, a story of a city under siege, so it's quite inward looking--there's more of the everyday world that's built up instead, the texture to the city itself rather than a grander history or narrative.
Amazon.com: How do you approach characterization? And to what extent is the city in the novel "created" by the viewpoint characters?
Newton: I try to create a character who does something unusual, or has something about their personality that marks them out as different. That's the starting point, because that then makes them interesting for me to write about (I have a low boredom threshold with characters). Then--just like everyone in the real world--I know they have problems, issues, or things they have to cope with--and I want that to be a decent part of what they have to do in the novel. For example, I wanted to know what it would be like if the military commander in the novel just happened to be gay, but was hiding that from people--what would that mean for the narrative, how would that shape his plot? How would it get in the way of his job? It's those kinds of questions that make it all interesting.
The social groups, the politics, all those little dynamics of the city are made up of people, and that can be all down to secondary characters as much as the primary ones. I have a mood for the city in mind, I know what it's got to feel like, so I need to have the main characters brush up against people that define that mood--for example, in City of Ruin, one small plot point is that the nefarious city ruler is undermining labor rights, so you get to see a slice of the desperation involved, the people who are on the edge, the people who are doing the undermining, and so on. But I think it's only at the end of the novel that you can tell if you hit that mood right or not. In Nights, I'm not sure I captured what I was after--in City of Ruin, I'm more confident I have.
Amazon.com: Is it difficult to find the right distance in writing this kind of fantasy? In other words, do you have to work at balancing the personal and the epic?
Newton: Yeah, though that's something I actually enjoy. My philosophy has always been to be conscious I'm writing a vast story, of course, but to populate the world with people who have things they also need to cope with at the same time. It seems that in many fantasy stories, the sole concern of the characters is the objective or quest or whatever. If that was anyone from the real world, they'd be worried about their kids or their medication, or paying bills and so on. I've always believed that fantasy novels need to meet reality half way.
Amazon.com: What influences on your work do you think readers might be surprised by? I noticed the opening quote from Mikhail Bulgakov, for example.
Newton: Writers can always make themselves sound way too cool or pretentious in these sorts of questions, and that's a risk I'm happy to take! Yeah, Bulgakov was a big influence on this one, as much for the deft and amusing touches with politics and metaphor, as well as the ways of presenting evil. Als Lawrence Durrell's the Alexandria Quartet, for showing a series to be more than just a linear narrative. Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings--because whenever you need a monster, he's your man. Henning Mankell's Wallander novels--because there's a mystery sub-plot running through each of my books, and Wallander was a pitch-perfect morose detective that somehow made me want to include that crime element in the first place. I used to be more conscious about being inspired by Katherine Mansfield's approach to writing--about going underground with the prose--but I think that's something that's worn off over the years (and no one could do it as well as her anyway).
Amazon.com: How has reader reaction changed how you see your own books, if at all?
Newton: Only one review has, a fairly recent write up of City of Ruin. It was a line about the book being a revamp or a recharged version of Nights; I remember when I first stepped up to City of Ruin thinking I wanted to create a book that was better, bigger, smarter, bolder. It made me smile because it seemed to connect pretty deeply with that sentiment, even if it was just a minor comment. It was as if he had seen through my defences and pin-pointed that very first thought. It unnerved me a little.
Newton: Though I've only read one novel from each of those writers, I think I prefer Patricia McKillip. Jack was a little too crazy.
Amazon.com: China MiÃ©ville or Angela Carter?
Newton: China--if it wasn't for his novel, The Scar, I probably wouldn't want to write in the first place.
Newton: Ursula--for The Dispossessed alone.
Newton: Joe--a tough one, both good writers, but Joe's a fan of single malt whisky, and that gives him the edge"¦
Amazon.com: What's the best response to the novel thus far, from your perspective?
Newton: Well, it was a brief message ages ago--when Nights of Villjamur had recently been released in the UK. It came from someone who was gay and just thought it was great that I'd written about a gay character who was "normal". A simple thanks, was all. When you strip away all the fluff of the industry, the ego-tickling of online reviews and whatnot, it really hit home that a writer can connect to a reader in a profound way--and that's what writing is all about. It's what makes it worthwhile.