5:1: Interview with Mark Chadbourn

5:1: Interview with Mark Chadbourn

Mark Chadbourn is the genuine article. His career has successfully encompassed from journalism, fiction writing, and screenwriting over a multitude of genres. He wins audiences and new fans with every pen stroke. Why? Well everything he writes is bound by a certain commonality; beautifully rich prose, text layered so deeply that it’s impossible to untangle the blend of psychology, philosophy, and mythology that infuse his work. Not that you’d want to: you’re spellbound from the very first word.

He might have had a few glasses of Jack Daniels when we persuaded him that this interview was a really good idea, but, gentleman that he is, Mark was truly generous with his response.

For that we thank him.

Rowntree & Negus: You started your writing career as a newspaper journalist, what triggered the switch to fiction?

Mark Chadbourn: I always intended to write fiction. I was scribbling stories with a fantastic edge from when I was five or six and never let up from that point on. I’d written numerous short stories, comic scripts and aborted novels by the time I was ready to go to university. Throughout my late teens, I came under a lot of pressure from my family to consider a “proper” career, which was quite understandable. I come from a very working class family – several generations of miners – and for the first few years of my life my parents and I lived in one room of a house. For hundreds of years, my family had faced a daily struggle for economic survival, and ensuring you could earn and not starve was the only thing of real importance each generation of parents passed on to their children. My mother was the deciding factor that prevented me following every other member of my family down the pit. She was very strong-willed and determined that her children would be free to break the cycle of relative deprivation, and she fought very hard to ensure I got the best education any kid in that kind of working class environment could get. The importance of reading was drummed into me very early. Even so, writing was considered the kind of career I shouldn’t be thinking about because it was so insecure – securing the income stream was still the over-arching aim. My mother hoped I would be a lawyer, or an architect, and both of those were careers I considered while secretly knowing I could only ever be a writer. She didn’t deter my writing – she recognized certain abilities in me very early on – but it was always a hobby that could maybe become an earner at some nebulous time “in the future”. That thinking was encapsulated at my local comprehensive school where the careers teacher offered only two options – the pit, if you were of low educational attainment, or accountancy, if you were a dangerous intellectual. And it was absolutely the right approach for that time – a lot of middle class people today have no concept of how close poverty was to the daily existence of the majority of people. You don’t opt for pie in the sky aspirations if it means your family don’t eat and are living in rags.

So when university became a possibility for me, it was a massive totemic thing for my family – the first person in the family to go, and a symbolic gesture that after generations we could claw our way out of the gutter and achieve some kind of security and comfort for future generations. That had its own gravity. I only wanted to write, but I didn’t want to betray what everyone had fought for, for me – and it was a struggle for my parents to send me to university. There are still huge barriers for anyone from a working class background getting there. I started another novel while studying at Leeds University, but when my final year rolled around I had to consider a career, so it didn’t seem like I’d wasted the time and effort of everyone else. I was convinced the writing would take off eventually – I’ve never had any doubts there. Instinctively, I knew it was my only path. So I tried to keep everyone happy by applying for jobs that were completely unsuitable – one I remember was a sales rep for Pedigree Petfoods. It was pretty obvious to all the poor interviewers that I was a hopeless case – I’d usually done no preparation, knew nothing about the company or the job, and basically showed as much interest as I felt. But my family was happy I was, in their eyes, aiming high for some kind of – any kind of – white collar job, while I was getting down to my writing. Then I made the mistake of making a job enquiry to my local newspaper. I thought it was a good bet – I was always told journalism is over-subscribed, you won’t stand a chance. They offered me a post at the interview and that was that. I was a working stiff, and my writing had to be confined to what little spare time I had.

Yet serendipitously it turned out to be the best thing that could ever happen to an aspiring writer. It takes you into walks of life you never would have experienced otherwise, and gives you a constant flow of vital, life-changing experiences that you can bring back to your writing. I was very successful, moving to a big city paper, the Birmingham Evening Mail, where I covered riots, murders, strikes and just about everything else you can imagine happening, and then heading down to London to work on the national newspapers – big stories, big personalities, constant excitement. It was a fantastic time.

But I still wanted to be a writer of fiction. I finally finished a novel in my spare time, sent it in to a publisher and it got picked up straight away. That was my first novel, Underground, and from then on it was straight into the writing career. I feel quite guilty about the ease of the transition. I know a lot of authors had to struggle to get recognised, but I just had an inordinate amount of luck – right place, right time.

So everything worked out in the end. Journalism started out as an aberration that turned out to be the engine of my career as an author. Isn’t the universe a strange and interesting place?

R&N: And then you made a second switch from writing (and successfully selling) horror fiction, to fantasy – do you still harbor secret desires to write horror?

MC: You see, I don’t think horror to fantasy is a dramatic switch.

Horror is fantasy – it’s just a slightly different shading to what most publishers perceive to be fantasy today. My horror writing always had a strong mythological base, and the difference between Scissorman, my last horror novel, and World’s End, my first fantasy novel, is just a matter of perspective. I grew up seeing no distinction between horror, SF, and fantasy – it was all just imaginative fiction. I’d read Asimov, Tolkien, and Lovecraft in the same month, with the only yardstick being a good story. Nowadays, I’m baffled and a little depressed by how tribal it’s got among readers, and to a degree, authors. I personally hold the SF community to blame. Over the last twenty years, the hard SF branch has developed an arrogance and contempt for other forms of fiction that is truly disturbing to see.

In my writing, I want to carry forward my reading – that anything is fair game. I don’t sit back thinking, “Oh, I’m a writer of fantasy now so my stories must include this and this but not this”… I throw everything into my books that is of interest to me. The Hounds of Avalon contains enough fantasy to get it racked in that section of the bookshop, but it also has horror and SF in there too.

So the balance tips slightly towards the fantasy side now, but at some point a story will crop up that shifts it slightly towards horror, and I’ll go with that. I’m pretty idiosyncratic in my approach to writing – I put on the page what’s inside me: my thoughts, interests, beliefs. My books are me. If you read them, you know who I am. I don’t shape them to fit market perceptions, which probably infuriates my publisher and all the people involved with the commercial side of the business, because I’m sure it limits my sales. For them, the aim is to write a fantasy story that is broad enough to reach the widest number of people. Unfortunately, I’m writing fantasy for people who think like me, and I would guess that’s probably a limited market. However, I am now engaging in a campaign to change people’s thinking rather than to give them what they want!

R&N: Next year sees the launch of your third fantasy trilogy, The Kingdom of the Serpent. In today’s society, in your opinion, does this genre still have anything to offer?

MC: Fantasy is the broadest and most fruitful area in which to write. It encompasses anything that can possibly be imagined, on this side of death or the other. Logically, then, fantasy has infinite riches to be mined. Unfortunately, publishers tend to think fantasy is only ‘high fantasy’, a narrow band of medieval-based, Tolkein-inspired fiction. It’s like having the whole world to play in and never leaving your back garden. Fantasy deals with the archetypes of the unconscious mind, the dreams of our society. It allows us to probe behind the mundane façade of our day to day lives to discover why we really do the stuff we do.

Plato believed there were two ways of arriving at the truth – Mythos and Logos. Logos, from which we get logic, maps the world we see before us. Mythos, from which we get mythology, maps our inner world, which, in Platonic times, was just as important. I tend to think the inner world is as important as the external universe, but since the Age of Reason began and scientists have become obsessed with understanding by breaking things down into component parts, that belief has gone out of fashion. SF is the fiction of Logos. Fantasy is the fiction of Mythos, so from my point of view it has everything still to offer.

R&N: What else is in the pipeline?

MC: New novel, Jack of Ravens, the first volume of The Kingdom of the Serpent, out in June 2006. I have a science fiction series in development with the BBC. A graphic novel, Book of Shadows, out from Image Comics in America in the spring (it’s a prequel to the Age of Misrule), more TV scripts, a film treatment, and my first short story in about five years. And I’ve set up a film production company, Black Dust, with Graham Joyce. That should be enough to keep me going for now.

R&N: Back in 2004, you did an interview for Infinity Plus in which you expounded the principle of Archetypes and their use in your fiction. Is psychology an interest of yours?

MC: Yes, I have studied the subject for some time, though not in any sense that would lead me to practice it. I’ve read Jung and Freud, as well as many other aspects of psychological thinking. Much of it dovetails with my other interests in philosophy and belief systems, science, and mythology. One of the great failures of modern life is how studies are ring-fenced, when the majority are cross-cutting. A knowledge of psychology would help in lots of other areas of study, history, say, or archaeology. And, of course, it does help me as a writer because it lets you get under the skin of people. Jung was very interested in archetypes and how they affected modern thinking, and it does help me to place some psychological symbols in the stories to achieve particular aims.

R&N: As we’ve already said, you’ve written horror/dark fantasy; currently you are into your third fantasy trilogy. Is there an SF book in there as well?

MC: Absolutely. I’ve written SF short fiction and a successful SF novella, “Wonderland”. At the moment, I’m thinking I might like to do an SF novel after I’ve finished the current fantasy sequence…if someone will publish it.

R&N: You’re also a successful screen writer, how did that come about?

MC: As much as books, movies and TV have been a great influence on my imaginative life and my writing career. I grew up in the sixties and seventies when imagination was at the heart of daily life, unlike this modern world where everything mainstream is expected to be “real”. I watched The Prisoner and The Avengers and Irwin Allen’s slightly brain-damaged shows like Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I immersed myself in the Universal monster movies and Hammer Horrors. They were all such a part of my life it was only natural that, to me, writing these things was seen on a par with writing books. I always wanted to be a screenwriter and took a movie screenwriting course at the same time as my first novel was published. I didn’t have the time to pursue it effectively for around eight years, until I noticed a familiar name on the credits of the BBC medical drama, Doctors, someone I’d worked with on the newspapers. I dropped him a line about doing some writing, and he called me in for a chat. A lot of opportunities work like that. People are always suspicious about working with someone new, but if they know you, they’re often prepared to give you a chance, knowing you won’t fuck up and wreck their careers. That’s why conventions are often good places for aspiring writers, as it allows them to build relationships with editors and commissioning people.

Having said that, if I hadn’t hit the mark from the beginning I’d have been kicked out pretty rapidly. Film and TV is a brutal environment that doesn’t suffer people who aren’t achieving. I’ve since written many hours of Doctors and moved on to primetime dramas. The TV companies expect you to serve your time before they allow you to pitch ideas for series, and I’ve now reached that stage. I’ve got a science fiction series in the latter stages of development, and a few other genre things in the pipeline, so I’m moving towards the screenwriting I prefer. There are a few film things bubbling under that I can’t talk about, too.

R&N: Your knowledge of and ability to manipulate mythology adds a richness and grounding to your writing that some writing lacks. Is this down to your own fascination with your subject?

MC: I’ve been reading mythology since I was five, so it’s fair to say that it’s pretty much permeated my life, and therefore my imagination. Over the years, I’ve reached a degree of knowledge that stretches beyond the tales to the thinking that lies behind them, and I think it’s that aspect which influences the qualities you mention.

R&N: Some of the tales must be virtually inseparable from history and belief systems; what makes them so enduring?

MC: The ancients didn’t see stories as something separate from life. The imagination was as “true” as the things the eyes saw. For many cultures they were a part of their identity in the same way as history and belief systems. But they have endured because they generally deal with archetypes that map out what is going on in our own consciousness, and that has not changed in millennia. Archetypes are part of the secret language of our unconscious, and our deep minds still communicate using these forms. When we read mythology, we understand it on a much deeper level than our conscious, thinking mind is aware. That’s why we sometimes surprise ourselves by how we are moved to tears, or laughter, or fear, by certain images. Mythos will always be more affecting than Logos because it speaks directly to us.

R&N: Do you think they say anything about the way we live today?

MC: On one level, certainly. Not in the things we do, but in who we are, in the way they deal with our feelings and our thoughts, our spiritual concerns, our art, our connections with the natural world, and with each other. In these areas, mythological stories are filled with abiding truths that transcend the era in which they flourished, in the same way that Shakespeare’s work does (and of course, Shakespeare mined many mythologies for his own plays).

R&N: Much of your fantasy output involves Celtic mythology and a touch of Arthurian mythos as well. Would you ever consider doing an historical-action novel? Say along the lines of Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur novels.

MC: Absolutely, if a story presented itself to me. I love history – I studied it at university, and it remains one of my great interests. I’ve got an Elizabethan spy in the forthcoming novel, Jack of Ravens, which I’m keen to use in real-world tales.

R&N: Testimony, your non-fiction book on the paranormal, dealt with a family’s disintegration due to the strange goings on at their house in the Brecon Beacons. Does your willingness to investigate such a subject give any indication your own belief systems?

MC: All it shows is a willingness to be open-minded. I’m a Fortean, in that “belief” or hard-and-fast thinking isn’t something that really concerns me. I’m more interested in the why of things, and how people are affected by their own beliefs. Instinctively, I feel the world is a lot stranger than we give it credit, and certainly, I’m fascinated by quantum physics and the philosophies that go along with it. But I don’t believe anything strong enough that I won’t change my view if another piece of contradictory evidence comes along. And from my point of view, the world would be a much better place if everyone felt like that.

I’m always interested in writing books about the mysterious and inexplicable. Testimony tended to be a personal quest for me to try to understand what was going on, and any future book would need to be the same. I’m not interested in doing any money-spinning “UFOs in Roswell” books, unless I felt there was something else going on. I’m interested in anything and everything that goes on beneath the surface of what we see. I can honestly say my trajectory is moving away from, say, ghosts being the spirits of dead people, or the existence of nuts and bolts UFOs from other worlds, but I am interested in what those phenomena might really be – hallucinations, globs of energy, or whatever.

R&N: The lengths (and scrapes) you go to research your work appears to be pretty legendary. Is there an action man inside you or do you believe in suffering for your art?

MC: I’m too much of a hedonist to consider suffering as a viable option. I believe it’s the job of the writer to provide the reader with experiences, information, or thinking which the reader may not have had themselves. That means continually throwing yourself into new experiences. I’ve never actively turned away from dangerous situations (though not recklessly so) because the experience is a writer’s gold. It’s also important that to make any story come alive, you need to find the telling detail that can only come through experiencing it yourself. Man of action? Hell, yeah. Bring it on.

R&N: Say that tomorrow, you’re going to start on a new piece of work. The last one is completely finished, and you’re free to begin afresh. What process will it go through before it finally sits in our hands, in print?

MC: General mulling over ideas, themes, settings and characters, which takes the most time. Travelling round to real world locations and immersing myself in the atmosphere. Once I know what I’m doing, I write solidly day-in, day-out until I have finished the first draft, without doing any revisions. In the second draft, I put in all the stuff I missed out, work on the characters’ voices, sharpen up the themes and sub-text. Then another couple of drafts to hone it even more, when it’s sent off to my editor. After a few weeks, she comes back with any suggestions she has – thankfully, rarely more than a handful of minor points – and then it’s off to the copy editor. She tackles any ham-fisted sentences or bad grammar, and I accept or change back – you know, sometimes you just love a ham-fisted sentence. I write the blurb and the stuff for Amazon and the catalogues and do a cover brief which goes off to the artist. When the galleys come back from the printer, I go through and check for any literals that have crept in. And then the book comes in, and I see all the stuff that everyone missed but is now too late to do anything about…

R&N: Most of your work has a very British feel, which many UK authors abandon in favor of a more transatlantic style. Is this a deliberate decision on your part, or something that you naturally gravitate towards?

MC: I tend to see writing as dealing with what’s inside me, my thoughts and feelings, rather than any kind of job to make money. That makes the work a little idiosyncratic, rather than some polished, if slightly homogenous, item that will speak in a sort of universal non-voice. The readers I have tend to like that, and the readers who like the non-voice, I don’t want. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being culturally specific. Smart people like what’s going on in a foreign country, and I have lots of American readers who are interested in all things British. Too much of that transatlantic style would make reading a very boring experience, don’t you think?

R&N: So, if for some reason you couldn’t be a writer, what do you think that you’d be doing instead (any childhood dreams of being a train-driver, for example)?

MC: Film director, archaeologist, full-time campaigner for some issue or other. My childhood dream was, sadly, always to be a writer.

R&N: You’re keen on environmental issues. How do you see the current global warming situation unfolding? If you had one piece of advice for the world’s governments, what would it be?

MC: Die. Politicians are barriers to any progress in this world, and I say that even though I work closely with a great many politicians. As a general rule of thumb, politicians only ever achieve up to 50% of what is necessary in any given area, whether because of vested interests, weakness of will and lack of nerve, or whatever. If governments achieve only 50% of what is necessary to combat climate change, it will mean disaster. The onus now lies with the people to drive their governments in the necessary direction, because they’ll never do it on their own. Policy on both sides of the Atlantic gets changed once there is a public outcry. Whether that will happen is a different matter. Generally, I think things will only get done once there is unbearable suffering for a vast percentage of the population. Cynical, I know.

R&N: What were the major influences on your writing?

MC: Books: Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Stephen King, apart from the more literary ones who always look pretentious when you list them in an interview. Films: Citizen Kane, film noir, black and white horror, Ealing comedies. TV: The Prisoner and Twin Peaks. Comics: too many to list.

R&N: If you had to hold just one piece of work up as your finest – what would it be?

MC: “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke”, a novella that won the British Fantasy Award. A big part of it is autobiographical, so it’s even closer to my heart than all my other stuff. Possibly because of that, I feel the writing is the best I’ve done. Pete Crowther who published it under his PS imprint encouraged me to eschew all commercial concerns and just tell a tale from the heart. That freedom, which you don’t often get in mainstream genre publishing, drove me into new areas that I found truly inspirational.

R&N: If we were to pop round to your house, what would we find on your bookshelves?

MC: Many factual books on history, mythology, philosophy, psychology and belief systems, stacks of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by all the great names and usual suspects – Asimov, Bradbury, Dick, Tolkien, Holdstock, Barker, god, too many to name – when I look around, I could virtually build another house out of books – graphic novels, and one or two books of my own.

R&N: What are you reading right now?

MC: A study of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, and a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.

R&N: Lots of writers, along with other professionals, have taken to either blogging or hosting web-forums: indeed you have a forum attached to your own website. Many of us have been guilty of spending way too long in such places, but what are the benefits to a writer?

MC: Regular feedback from the readers and just mingling with like-minds, which are always hard to find in the “real world”. They’re actually a curse to writers because they suck up too much time, but occasionally it’s like kicking back in the Cheers bar, where everyone knows your name.

R&N: And when all the hard work’s done how do you relax (apart from drinking Jack Daniels)?

MC: Watching films, listening to music, running, yoga, sleep, antagonising people with different political views.

On that note, we’d like to thank Mark for his time. His next book Jack of Ravens: Kingdom of the Serpent is due for publication by Gollancz in summer 2006, ISBN 0575078006; in the meantime look out for two new graphic novels entitled Book of Shadows, to be published by Image comics in April.

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