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Fantasy fiction with Mark Charan Newton

8 June 10 words: Adele Harrison
Surreal, fantastical landscapes enable this Notts author to address the identity politics of sexuality, race and belonging..
"Issues of race or sexuality are not readily confronted, which is strange considering the sense of "otherness" is quite a common and simple-to-expore theme in fantasy"

Mark Charan Newton has worked in publishing in Nottingham for years and presently works for Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop. He came to my attention though as a writer when I read, reviewed and loved Nights of Villjamur last year. Nights has just been released in paperback and the second in the series City of Ruin is now out in Hardback. Mark is also June’s pick of the month at Waterstones. Since the books tackle some interesting issues in a fantasy setting and with local genre event Alt.Fiction coming up it seemed a good time to talk to him about his work.

Although both Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin have an investigation threading through them they are otherwise very different in focus. For those new to the books can you tell us a little about each book and why you went in such different directions?
I'm terrible at summarising the books, but Nights of Villjamur is very much a novel that sets up the series - Legends of the Red Sun. It introduces a cast of characters against a backdrop of an ice age, and was always more about their personal problems than the Big Events they're involved in. It's based in and around the city of Villjamur, a baroque place with a vast history, and the capital city of a sprawling Empire. Within it, there are a mixture of plots - crime noir, epic fantasy, some slightly science fictional elements, all mixed with the odd traditional trope of the genre, with which I had some fun.

City of Ruin is something I wanted to be self-contained, but that also builds on this backdrop. It takes place in another city entirely, at the other end of the empire. The new setting, Villiren, has sold its history: It’s a booming, industrial sprawl where corruption is rife, gangs run the underground, and money has the final word in everything. It’s a messed up version of Los Angeles, perhaps, whereas Villjamur owed much of its aesthetics to a European city. Without trying to offer too many spoilers, a military unit is charged with the protection of this city, which faces the threat of a hostile invasion from another island in the archipelago. There’s a lot going on, and the characters are truly odd and nasty people – though I hope readers love them as the lines of their own moralities are questioned. The noir story at the core of it uncovers some pretty grim territory, as the investigator hunts down a serial killer of a rather gruesome and surreal nature. More than anything else, I wanted the novel to reflect issues going on in the real world – be it of sexuality or politics. I certainly hope I achieved it.

Did you have more freedom writing City of Ruin? 
If I'm honest, it's incredibly tough to get published, but now my foot is in the door, I had more room to breathe creatively. I didn't have to worry about offending editorial tastes - which was always there at the back of my mind. So with City of Ruin, I just embraced my inner weird. I could be as mad as I wanted, so I was. I often think fantasy fiction doesn't tend to be nearly fantastical enough - there's so much still untapped in this genre - and that was something I personally wanted to address. And - finally - I get bored very easily. If the second book didn't feel different, couldn't be read in isolation, I would have lost much of the creative energies involved. So for my own sanity, I had to do something different!

Mark is always keen to meet fans. Catch him at Alt Fiction on Saturday 12th June and see what other placards you can get him to hold up...  

You touch on tolerance issues in NoV but expand much more on that in CoR, you already mentioned sexuality and politics, but also racial tensions and without giving too much away also dramatically differing moral views and other weirder differences. Were these issues something you actively wanted to engage with or was it simply that they were right for the characters?
Absolutely I wanted to engage with them. Fantasy fiction doesn't have to shy away from the real world. In fact, surely it's more powerful if it engages with it? I don't think all fantasy novels should just be only entertainment or what used to be called simple escapism. Entertainment is cool, the bare minimum. If you can engage with real world topics on top of that, if you can try to expand someone's horizons with regards to tolerance, then that is certainly a good thing, and it might also raise levels of respect for the genre. All ambitious stuff, of course, and I'm sure many will always see fantasy as meaningless literature despite that, but I wanted to at least try.

But also, it's worth noting that the characters in the books aren't forced through situations - they developed naturally. I just didn't want to ignore something serious, just because it was uncomfortable to write about. That also made it a challenge - and that's what makes the process exciting.


So how do you think genre fiction fares generally at dealing with real world issues? Both addressing them in the writing and being inclusive as an industry?
It depends on the genre. Some crime writers - Henning Mankell comes to mind - mix the story and the issues perfectly. As for the fantasy genre, well, I'm not so sure it does for the most part. Some writers - China Miéville - assiduously bring great and essential themes to the table.

As for the industry issue, well - there are not many minority writers who are embraced in our genre, and fewer achieve the mainstream success, that's certainly true, though I don't think it's down to intentional prejudices. The genre has had it's minority successes - Octavia Butler, anyone? - and so readers have been ready to embrace those topics for years.

Yet even within the market, issues of race or sexuality are not readily confronted, which is strange considering the sense of "otherness" is quite a common and simple-to-expore theme in fantasy. Things can be weird, things can be alien. Anything can happen, and writers can play with the concepts easily.

I'm not sure the situation is intentional - and certainly not conscious as far as publishers are concerned. Perhaps it's more difficult to explore, for example, a real life Black gay experience in a secondary world? All I know is that the more "majority" writers that embrace all this, and feature characters in their books of differing preferences, genders or races, then it will become less of an issue. These things have to start somewhere, irrespective of the background of the writer.

Always judge a book by its cover...

You have talked in previous interviews and on your blog about the importance of cover art to sales so is fantasy being courageous using representative covers or is it something about the audience or the publishers that make it sit easier?
Ah, the covers are simply doing another job entirely. When they're working best, they're communicating a subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle sales message to readers "you read x, then you'll like this". With so many books out there, it can be difficult to know what to look for when you're browsing. Anything that reminds you of something else you enjoyed is bound to be picked up.

This is something that applies to those readers who don't spend their time looking at reviews online or in newspapers, or who take recommendations from others. It's little to do with bravery, but more a business decision on behalf of the publisher, nothing more, nothing less. And of course, if the design looks great and fresh on top of all that, then that's a good thing...

A question that stumped me recently, but if someone wanted to try Fantasy for the first time, who would you recommend they start with?
I'd first ask what they'd previously read. For those seeking a gentle introduction, I'd say perhaps Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock, or even Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Both based in the real world, both embracing the fantastic in their own unique ways, and both engaging reads. For those seeking a deep literary engagement, I'd suggest Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun sequence. For those wanting something similar to Lord of the Rings, well I'd suggest George R R Martin's Game of Thrones.I used to work in a book store, so I could go all day on this topic!

You're appearing at Alt Fiction. Tell us something about it?
The event is one of the only UK genre events that concentrates a) purely on genre literature, but b) dedicates itself to the processes and gives advice, so it's a must for anyone who's interested in the writing industry, or wants to be a writer. I've not seen the programme yet but I should be introducing my new novel, and giving a reading, as well as speaking on panels about fantasy fiction. Part of these things are always promotional for authors, but it's a good opportunity to connect to the crowd about fantasy literature, and hopefully answer any questions.

How does it differ from similar themed events?
It's an intense, one-day experience, so you don't have to put yourself up in hotels like you do for some SF and Fantasy conventions, and it focusses solely on the literature aspects. Many others talk about other media - science fiction in TV, Film, Gaming - but this is essentially about the books and the industry.

Finally then, because sadly we don't have all day, best thing for writers or aspiring writers about being based in Nottingham?
There is a lively arts scene in the city, and in the East Midlands in general. Plenty of genre events are local - FantasyCon in Nottingham, Alt. Fiction in Derby - as well as smaller, bar-based affairs, which are part of other arts gatherings. There are a couple of universities who certainly help in bringing a creative energy to the smaller events, which is always good. And, of course, fantastic cafés and bars in which to write. I recommend the Alley Cafe, Malt Cross, and Lee Rosy's.

To hear Mark on our latest Write Lion 6 podcast
Mark will be appearing on panels for Fantasy and The Internet and Social Media for Writers at Alt Fiction on Saturday 12th June at Derby Quad
Adele’s website
Mark’s website

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