Viking Werewolves. 'Nuff Said.
An Interview with Mark Barrowcliffe
When I asked people what they wanted to see on the Project this year, a request for more "Blokey writers" was put forward. Although my first reaction was, "sure, that's easy enough", when it came to actually figuring out who to approach I found myself at a complete loss. I mean, I've interviewed plenty of male writers and a lot of people writing in male-dominated genres... but blokes?
So I decided to put Twitter to good new and try to crowd source me some interviewees. The marvellous Adele came to my rescue with two suggestions of friends who professed themselves to be the epitomy of blokiness. They also write books.
So, first up is Mr Mark Barrowcliffe, who also writes under the pen name MD Lachlan. Mark is a man of many talents who writes in a variety of genres, and his latest book, Wolfsangel, is out now. I'm about three chapters in already and thoroughly enjoying myself. Viking werewolves - what's not to love?
Hello Mark! Can you talk us through your path to publication?
I was ridiculously lucky. I wrote an article for The Big Issue on why you shouldn't feel sorry for men when their girlfriends finish with them - a flippant sort of piece. An agent - now my agent - saw it and wrote to me saying she found it very funny and asking if I had ever considered writing a novel. I said I'd done nothing but consider it.
I wrote something for her. She hated it because it was pretentious bilge in which I attempted to portray myself as a sort of alienated L'etranger figure. I asked for another go, wrote about my friends and Girlfriend 44 appeared. It sold quickly to Headline and became a bestseller.
I was, at this point, under the impression that being a novelist was a doddle that involved accepting large cheques for next to no work. I found out later I was very wrong.
Do you have an agent? If so, how did you secure representation, and what are the major benefits?
Yes. She asked me, as above. The major benefit - above all other - is that if your agent has a decent reputation then publishers will take them seriously when they recommend your work to them. You'll get read by publishers.
There are many other benefits too - they sort out your contracts, negotiate better rates for you, handle foreign deals (depending on your contract with your publisher). They'll also help selling film rights. If you're lucky they take you to lunch and make you feel like an interesting person.
So you’re a journalist, a contemporary novelist, you’ve written narrative non-fiction and also fantasy novels under the pen name M D Lachlan. If I forced you at gunpoint to choose just one genre to work in, which would you go for and why?
If you produce a gun and attempt to force me I'm afraid you're going to have to shoot me. You could have journalism and I don't really think I've got another memoir in me but I couldn't give up contemporary writing or fantasy. I love them both and I have work in progress in both. I'm also a ghost writer, which I really enjoy.
Was writing in different genres a conscious decision, or did your writing career just evolve that way?
Not at all conscious. Again, I was asked to write the memoir. One nameless major publisher were looking for a Dungeons and Dragons memoir and asked me to pitch on it but didn't quite like what I came up with. I'd done a lot of work on the pitch so my agent sent it to other publishers and Macmillan picked it up.
With the fantasy stuff, I sat down to write a modern comedy and found I was writing about a werewolf trapped in the schemes of the Norse Gods. I have no idea how that happened but, as the story interested me, I kept writing it. It's great to do something challenging and different to your normal stuff.
Why the pen name? How did you choose it?
The fantasy work is so different to the contemporary work that it would be confusing for readers. It's a matter of branding. Lachlan is my wife's name and my initials are MD. I wish I'd chosen 'Mark Lachlan' but my publishers asked me for a name and I didn't really think about it. A tip for choosing a pen name is to go into a book shop and see which names in your genre are at eye level on the shelves. Aim to get there. I didn't and I'm by people's toes.
Looking at your contemporary work, you really do seem to polarize your readers. Why do you think this is, and how do you deal with the reviews – both the gushingly positive ones, and the downright nasty ones?
Not everyone appreciates my sense of humour. It can be a bit black. Also people often equate the main characters with the authorial view. This isn't the case with me. I don't support people sleeping with others behind their partners back. Neither do I support wholesale slaughter in Saxon villages. My characters do both of these things.
On top of this, I have two books that I have mixed feelings about. Infidelity For First Time Fathers was the subject of a publisher-ordered rewrite. It was nothing like the original text. I'm not sure the original was very successful but the final version was more me doing an impression of me than me, if you see what I mean. I got 'deer in the headlights' second novel syndrome and the result is not as good as my best work. Read that and I'm not surprised you don't like me. I don't like me either all that much. Though that's my wife's favourite book. Mr Wrong, my memoir of all my relationships, got away from me. I get it right in places and there's some writing I"m very proud of but at other times I don't overcome the inherent problem of men when they write about sex - it can look like you're drawing attention to the notches on your bedpost. I meant to be very honest and confessional but at points it sounds callous and boastful.
Why people really like my stuff is that I'm a good writer. I have a good, original style - at least according to the reviews. I try to do what a writer is supposed to - present you with difficult and interesting characters faced by pressing and resonant problems. I don't try to present you with stereotypes and I don't use a lot of standard tricks to make my characters likeable. I'm funny, honest and irreverent. I also vary my stuff a lot. Girlfriend 44 is very black, very cynical. Lucky Dog, is cartoon like, upbeat and affirming. I've got a good turn of phrase too.
I don't at all mind bad reviews. I had a stinker for Infidelity for First Time Fathers in the New York Times and concluded that the critic was right. I decided to try to learn from it. Bad reviews on the web are fine too. There are serious reviewers on the web but there are idiots too. I particularly like the ones that are misspelled and full of BLOCK CAPITALS! I do seem to annoy the BLOCK CAPS and EXCLAMATION MARK!!!!!!! brigade. But people are entitled not to like my writing. Most of the time I think they're wrong for not liking it but sometimes they have interesting things to say which, if I take them seriously, will make me a better writer. As for the nasty ones - well I've handed out a bit of that in my time so I should be prepared to take it. One man burned a copy of The Elfish Gene, which pleased me no end. In my mind it put me in the same category as The Beatles.
The only bad reviews I hate are the ones where the person clearly hasn't read the book. I've had two like that in my career and it's maddening - people saying 'the plot is sooooo predictable' and then reviewing the plot totally incorrectly based on the blurb on the back and reading the first chapter. That makes my blood boil.
Good reviews I deal with by walking around reading them out to my wife until she attacks me with a spade or falls asleep.
Is there anything about the publishing industry that has surprised you? What do you now know about publishing that you wish someone had told you back at the beginning?
Careers can go down as well as up. I thought I'd made it with Girlfriend 44. I didn't realise that, as someone whose books were bought primarily by women, that the title Infidelity For First Time Fathers was not going to endear me to them, no matter how clever I thought it was. I wish somebody had told me to work harder and to concentrate on being a writer, not to get caught up in distractions. Give up drink might have been a good one too. I did five years ago and I'm an immeasurably better and more productive writer for it. I work very hard now but in the early years of my writing career I was lazy.
What’s the best writing advice anyone ever gave you, and did you follow it?
Be honest. Yes I did. You must write about the things that matter to you in the way that feels natural. I tried to be Kafka when I started. Unfortunately I'm an affable fool from the Midlands, not a hollow-cheeked Czech visionary. The advice I always give creative writing students looking for somewhere to start is 'write about your friends with honesty, wit and insight.' Obviously I'm not friends with any Viking Age werewolves but I try to be honest to the material. So I don't want to give you a modern person with a battle axe, I try to research and understand the real Viking mentality. I ask 'what is the honest response from a character in any given situation?' and never have someone do something just because it suits the plot. Characters must do things for a reason. I hate stereotypical characters and will always try to undermine those stereotypes. Whether I succeed is another question.
What are you working on now?
The copy edit of my second Wolfsangel novel, the copy edit of a ghost-written novel, a contemporary lit-ish black comedy and the third in the Wolfsangel series. I also have a thriller on the back burner.
What is your ultimate goal within writing and publishing?
I want to do the best work I can in a variety of genres. Beyond that, making a living is good enough for me. Oh, but I would like a 'posh' fantasy cover on one of my books. I like my present covers but they're clearly mass market. I'd like something that flattered my literary pretensions. A boy can dream.
And finally, could you sum up a key piece of advice for aspiring novelists in one sentence?
Read what you write very carefully and make sure you are saying what you think you are saying.
HUGE thanks to Mark for stopping by and sharing his wisdom with the project. You can learn more about Mark at his website, buy a copy of Wolfsangel here, or stalk Mark via his twitter feed. As for me, well, I'm off to read about viking werewolves. I just wish I'd thought of it first.