It’s been a year today that I opened this site and sent the link to Mark as a present, in appreciation of his books which I very much love. The inspiration for such an idea partly came to me as I was reading through the first draft of The Wheel of Osheim, which he kindly asked me to critique toward the end of 2014 (you can imagine how impressed I was with it). Another motivation was that I myself often took a long time in the past to find some of his earlier guest posts, interviews, or a fan art that I remembered someone created. For convenient, easy access I thought it would be nice to see everything together in one place in an organised fashion.
For a name I decided on the one George R. R. Martin called Mark, when at the Jo Fletcher Books’ fourth year anniversary party in 2014 he humorously referred to him as ‘that thorn guy’ in our conversation.
Since then I came to understand that a reader running such a site for an author is slightly unusual and rather unsurprisingly it did cause some confusion throughout the internet. I guess I myself didn’t have a clear vision a year ago about the future of this venture. A year and 42 blog posts later however I find that I ran a number of various competitions, published even more interviews, carried on providing and updating all sorts of information relating to Mark’s works and already have some plans for this year again. The site attracted over 17,000 visitors with over 35,000 views so far, a clear indication of the growing popularity of these books, which I’m of course very pleased about.
As a thank you to all who supported the site in any way or just visited and showed interest in some of its contents I thought I would publish a special interview today where among other things I asked Mark to talk about something we haven’t heard much about before: his childhood.
Hope you’ll enjoy it!
First of all, thank you very much once again for providing these pictures for this interview. I certainly hope you also thanked your mum for me, who selected them and took them all the way from London to Bristol over Christmas so you can scan them for me!
I gave her a trilobite for Christmas, she seemed pleased.
A little strange Christmas present… What did she do for work?
She taught physics but also a lot of other stuff – and did botany and zoology at university – we used to go fossil collecting on holiday regularly.
That explains it. She looks very young on this first picture. Can you tell us when and where it was taken?
That would be Champagne-Urbana, Illinois, at the start of 1966. Lyndon Baines Johnson was president and everything was in black and white. My parents had come to the States from the UK the year before. My father had finished his Ph.D (bio-chemistry) and been offered a job at the University of Illinois.
Were you a first child? Do you have any siblings?
How long did you live in the States?
My parents brought me to London when I was 1. I took my family to live in Virginia for three years when the oldest three kids were quite young.
What kind of child would you say you were? Easy? Shy? Troublesome? Quiet or talkative?
I imagine I would have been described as quiet and shy, though those are perhaps inadequate adjectives. I’m never one to initiate conversations or friendships, and you won’t get much out of me if what you’re talking about doesn’t interest me (unless I’m having a polite day or feel sorry for you). But with friends, and those friendships tend to be built around common interests, I think I’m neither shy nor quiet.
I was always interested in games and using my imagination, although my talent was for science and maths.
Looking at the next picture it’s hard for me to imagine you quiet and shy. You look like a very mischievous kid on this one. 😀 Did you have any favourite toys? Or games you liked playing with your friends?
Hmmm. I certainly played with my Airfix plastic soldiers a lot (World War II) … a lot of those guys died! I was into the Top Trumps cards when they first came out. And when I was 11 I started a school right next to the UK’s first GamesWorkshop and got into Dungeons and Dragons – which was a passion for the next 10 years or so.
And when did the passion for stories begin? Did your parents read to you when you were little? Do you remember any favourite tales from that time?
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone without a passion for stories (my imagination letting me down again), so at first this seems like a strange question. I can imagine people who don’t like to read – but stories reach us through so many other media. If you’re not interested in stories how can you be interested in life – your life is just your story, after all.
To answer the question though: yes, my parents read to me. My mother read me the whole of Lord of the Rings when I was 7. I was (and still am) a fan.
The earliest books I can remember are Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and The Cat In The Hat by Dr Seus.
How about later? What sort of books did you like as a teenager?
I was fairly exclusively a fantasy reader as a teen, with a smattering of sci-fi thrown in, and Asterix books for light relief. I was very keen on Michael Moorcock’s work, and on Stephen Donaldson’s.
When did you start writing? What sort of stories did you write back then?
I didn’t start writing in the commonly accepted form until my early 30s and not in any sort of earnest until my late 30s. And the stuff I wrote then was much the same as the stuff I write now, just less practiced. Actually I began with poems, then short stories, then longer ones.
As a teen I played Dungeons and Dragons, almost always as the Games Master, so that’s a kind of storytelling. You have to invent and write down the scenario, along with descriptions, and turn the results of the players’ actions into a narrative they’ll enjoy.
In my 20s and 30s I helped run a fantasy Play-By-Mail game (mostly before the internet was a thing) called Saturnalia. That was rather like text-based D&D, so it exercised my powers of story-telling, description etc in a non-traditional way.
I have friends who, given the opportunity, still like to regale me with stories of this or that D&D game. I’ve always found (sorry friends) such accounts to be very dull, rather like when people tell you their dreams. Basically, you had to be there.
That’s why I don’t think D&D inspired/based books are a good idea in general. The demands of a book are very different from those of a game, and good gaming experiences rarely make for good stories.
If anyone starts with, “Let me tell you about the time my half-orc swigged a potion of animal control…” I begin edging towards the door.
My favourite gaming memories are just of hanging out with friends, and occasionally realising that it’s daylight coming through the curtains and we forgot to go to bed.
What are some of your favourite times you spent with your parents?
Heh. I discover I’m very mercenary as my best memories are of Christmases, when of course I was getting presents!
I was also always enormously pleased as a little boy when my father (always busy) took time to play with the aforementioned airfix soldiers with me.
On this next picture you’re holding a cat. Tell us about this cat.
That’s Moscow. I wasn’t allowed a cat. We had a succession of gerbils and hamsters instead. But one day a lost kitten turned up in our garden. Not a tiny one – closer to half way to a cat. So we put up notices on trees around the area and looked after him.
But nobody came, so after a month he was ours. Then about 2 months later I arrived home from school to see some people at our front door. They’d finally heard about us and come to collect their cat. But when they saw my face fall they changed their mind and said we could keep him.
So he lived with us for 10+ years until he died. He was a good cat.
Is this why you have four cats now? Because initially you weren’t allowed to have one as a child?
Actually all of the quite large a number of cats we’ve had, with the exception of the kitten that came this Christmas, were snuck into the house by my wife and kids in my absence or without telling me. And each one I protested against on some semi-valid grounds.
How was it growing up in London in the 70s, 80s? Did you like living in a big city?
I didn’t have much to compare it to. I liked it well enough. My secondary school was in the centre of London a long way from my home and I ended up with friends scattered across the city, which meant spending a lot of time on the tube system. I never really took advantage of the things people get excited about in terms of big cities. I wasn’t a regular at the opera or the West End theatres or Leicester Square night clubs… But I guess it gave a sense of space and possibility. I did go to the Natural History museum a fair bit…
Hmmm. I stayed in a lot! I played a lot of video games with friends in the arcades that used to dot London. A vast number of 10p pieces vanished into Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Defender machines!
I played a lot of D&D with friends, at their houses or mine. And when (pretty late on as I went to an all boys school) I finally hooked up with friends who knew GIRLS we used to go to lots of house parties across the city. But we never went to any particular place – it was always to a house of a friend or a friend of a friend or a friend (chain in a whole bunch of ‘of a friend’s). We never went to clubs and not often to pubs.
That party season, although in my memory it seems to last for ever, only really lasted about the 9 months before I went to university and I think my longest lasting of the modest number of girlfriends acquired was about a week. It really wasn’t anything more ‘sophisticated’ than drunken party encounters. I make no excuses. I was 18.
It sounds like you stopped having fun once you went to university. :O Or stopped going to parties in any event…?
No, I went to plenty – but I wasn’t in London any more.
Where did you go to university and what did you study?
I did my first degree in physics at Bristol and a maths-based Ph.D at Imperial College in London.
If you didn’t want to stay in London, or spend an extra year in school to take the Oxford/Cambridge exam, it was one of the best universities for physics (& one of the best full stop).
What did you do after university?
I went to work as a government scientist and signed the official secrets act.
First I didn’t know who I was looking at on the last picture you gave me. Then I realised you must have finally found an actor who looks like he could be a brilliant Jorg Ancrath! Who is this guy? 🙂
Heh – Jorg is dark haired and I have the acting talent of a brick.
Where was this photo taken?
Athens. The summer of my first year at university. I was inter-railing with my girlfriend. That’s where you buy a Europe-wide train pass and wander the continent.
Did you travel a lot at that age?
It’s all relative I guess. I went inter-railing again the next summer and racked up a bunch more countries. A year or two later I went around south-east Asia and visited India. But I was never a hardened traveler in the way that some of my friends became.
Which countries have you visited?
Hmmm. England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany (East and West when the wall was up), Belgium, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria, France, Spain (including a small patch of Spain on the African continent), Yugoslavia when it was called Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, India, America, Canada, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Brazil.
I’ve probably forgotten one or two.
Which one(s) did you like best/were the most memorable?
Tough one. I really liked my brief trip to Rio de Janeiro. I love Amsterdam and Paris. The Greek islands are great. Bali is too. India was hard work but very memorable.
Have some of these experiences influenced your books? Both Jorg and Jalan travel around quite a bit.
I don’t know. To a degree. I’m not sure why they travel so much. Maybe because the Broken Empire is so big and it seemed a waste not to explore it.
In the current trilogy I’m writing, Red Sister, the main character spends 90% of the first book in a convent, a space not much bigger than a football pitch or three, so I wouldn’t read too much into it!
Art by Tomasz Jedruszek (portraying Ciri from The Witcher)
How do you find writing about a female protagonist?
Well, I’m having fun writing Nona, but her gender hardly ever factors into things. I just write her as a person with a particular personality, particular goals, etc and everything happens as I type just as it did for Jorg and then Jalan. I probably helped myself a lot by having the setting be a world where men and women are treated pretty much the same.
When I interviewed your editor, Jane Johnson, a few years back, she called Prince Jalan Jorg’s “polar opposite”. Where would you place Nona in between them? Is there anything you can tell us about her character yet?
Nona’s certainly not similar to Jalan or Jorg, but to say she’s between them might imply she’s a sort of average or amalgamation. I prefer to think of them as three corners of a triangle, all extreme in their own way.
I guess the most obvious difference between Nona and either of the two Js is that she places great value on friends, right from the start.
How was the feedback you received for Red Sister so far from beta readers and publishers?
I normally only use one (or zero) beta readers per book, but because this was a bit of a departure from my comfort zone I’ve used quite a few this time. The feedback has been (with one exception) uniformly excellent. Both my US and UK editor said it’s the best thing I’ve written. (The exception never gave me any feedback other than to say the first couple of chapters indicated not to be his sort of thing).
You’re currently writing the second book of the trilogy, which has the working title ‘Grey Sister’. Do you find it easier or more difficult to write than the first one, or there’s no real difference?
I’ll opt for ‘no real difference’. My trilogies (since King of Thorns in any case) feel to me like one story each. I end a book 1 or 2 with the same sort of judgement I use to choose where to end a chapter, only ‘more so’. So the actual writing of them isn’t fundamentally any different from book to book.
The much anticipated final book of the Red Queen’s War series, The Wheel of Osheim is coming out this summer and I would quote once again from Jane who tweeted back in August:
That sounds like another easy, lighthearted read, then? 😉
Well, The Red Queen’s War does contain a lot of humour and lighthearted moments as a whole, not slapstick but amusement that arises from Jalan’s personality and his interactions with his companions. But it’s also true that plenty of bad, shocking, and gruesome things happen, too. I guess book 3 is a touch darker than the previous two. Things are coming to a head – there are serious things that need doing, fewer options for running away!
I’m looking forward to having The Wheel of Osheim in readers’ hands. I’m very pleased with how Jalan and Snorri’s stories have gone. They both turned out to be characters I really enjoyed writing and I’m proud to have breathed life into them.
Thank you very much, Mark! I would finish this interview off with the publisher’s blurb – June can’t come soon enough!
“All the horrors of Hell stand between Snorri Ver Snagason and the rescue of his family, if indeed the dead can be rescued. For Jalan Kendeth getting back out alive and with Loki’s Key is all that matters. Loki’s creation can open any lock, any door, and it may also be the key to Jal’s fortune back in the living world. Jal plans to return to the three W’s that have been the core of his idle and debauched life: wine, women, and wagering. Fate however has other, larger, plans… The Wheel of Osheim is turning ever faster and it will crack the world unless it’s stopped. When the end of all things looms, and there’s nowhere to run, even the worst coward must find new answers.
Jal and Snorri face many dangers – from the corpse-hordes of the Dead King to the many mirrors of the Lady Blue; but in the end, fast or slow, the Wheel of Osheim will exert its power.
In the end it’s win or die.”
by Agnes Meszaros