INTERVIEW: Mark Chadbourn on “Jack of Ravens”, Writing Trilogies and *Not* Thinking in Terms of Genres or Sub-Genres

A two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, Mark Chadbourn is the author of eleven novels and one non-fiction book. His newest book in the U.S., Jack of Ravens, starts the Kingdom of the Serpent trilogy. A former journalist, he is now a screenwriter for BBC television drama. His other jobs have included running an independent record company, managing rock bands, and working on a production line. He lives in a forest in the English Midlands.

Paul Weimer had the opportunity to ask Mark about his latest novel, trilogies and not thinking in terms of genres or sub-genres…


SF Signal: For those readers who haven’t read any of your novels…Who is Mark Chadbourn?

Mark Chadbourn: I do a lot of different things. In The US, I’m just drawing to a close a long – I guess you would call it – urban fantasy sequence, which began with World’s End and will end with Destroyer of Worlds. NIne books, a trilogy of trilogies. What would happen if the ancient mythological gods returned to our world today? Standing stones, prehistoric sites, magic, mysticism, fabulous beasts, the wild hunt, the original iterations of vampires, philosophy, psychology, politics. If you only like secondary world fantasy, it’s not for you. Save yourself the trouble. I’m not supposed to say that, am I? Sell, sell, sell! If you’re interested in the Occupy protests and the Burning Man Festival, you might like it. These books were first published outside the US starting about 12 years ago now.

On top of that, I’m just finishing up a three-book swashbuckling Elizabethan fantasy sequence – spies, Faerie and high adventure. The last book, The Devil’s Looking Glass, is out in the UK from Bantam in April, and in the US from Pyr later this year.

I divide my time between novels and screenwriting for BBC TV Drama. I used to be a journalist. I’ve worked all over the world, and written for some of the leading newspapers and magazines in the UK. I’ve been a political and environmental activist, and I once ran a record company and managed bands. Does that about cover it?

SF Signal: You mentioned that you are finishing up that trilogy of trilogies and have another trilogy going. What interests you in tackling such long forms?

Mark: I’d written four standalone novels and reached a point where I wanted to (a) challenge myself and (b) tackle something that had sweep and depth and complexity. I am someone who fully engages with the real world, with a lot of wide-ranging interests, and I was starting to see strange connections around me. Patterns, maybe, and I wanted to seed them into some kind of story, to work through them in my own head as much as anything, to see if there was any meaning there. But there were so many disparate elements – mythology and symbolism and ancient history and Jungian archetypes and…all sorts of things – that one book wouldn’t have done it justice. And certainly would have been convoluted. As I sketched it out, I saw the kind of space I would need to fit everything in. I told my UK editor, expecting to be shouted down, but she was hugely enthusiastic.

So I began to work up a story in mosaic form, where each book told a different aspect, where you could read them in different orders and get a new perspective each time. I call it a trilogy of trilogies, but that’s just marketing speak. It’s one story with threads running in and out of every book, back and forth. Things in the first published one don’t get paid off until the last. I covered two thousand years of human history, the world’s great mythologies, and three different worlds – ours, the Celtic Otherworld, and the one beyond death. And I threw in a whole load of other stuff too. It was a crazy obsession for me, and for a lot of readers, too, and a wild ride from start to finish. It was a lot of thinking and a great deal of research and months of wandering the land, speaking to wise people and crazy people and sleeping under the stars and waking up with the sun rising over a five thousand year old stone circle. For me, it was a life changing experience at every level, and I know I’ll never get the chance to do something like it again. Probably a good thing.

The current trilogy, the Elizabethan fantasy, has its own obsessions going on – the history is detailed, and the story slots into the spaces among real events as if it is a secret history. But each story pretty much stands alone while telling a wider arc in the background. I like that immersion. Having said that, I would like to go back to doing some standalone novels, though.

SF Signal: The Age of Misrule books are definitely complex; they evoke and do a lot of things. I am not sure if I could describe the series to someone else in a brief fashion. Considering word count, the headspace of writing a long series, and the immersion into the worlds you create while writing them, do you feel you are more of a “pantser” or a plotter in developing and writing your novels?

Mark: The complexity required that I maintained control of the work. Because of the mosaic nature of the story and the interactions and hidden connections, I needed to know the essential structure of what was going to be happening in all nine books before I began. There was no way I could set off to do a nine-volume interlinked story without some kind of road map. Having said that, I don’t believe in detailed plotting. I think it drains the life out of the story. Most of the truly exciting and surprising things in any tale come from the deep unconscious. As a writer, you’re not even aware of them until that spooky voice in the back of your head starts yelling at you to pay attention. And for a series that was as much about the dream landscape of the unconscious as it was about a fantasy quest, it would have been silly to try to do all the work in the front brain with a lot of rigid plotting.

When I write I tend to use ‘tent-poles’. I know how a story starts and ends and all the significant points along the way – where characters need to be, what point in their development they need to be at – but all the spaces in-between – ‘the canvas’ – are left free for the unconscious to do the heavy-lifting and populate with surprises and richness and mysterious connections. By doing it that way, I hoped to cut out the unfocused nature of pantsing and the lifelessness of plotting. As long as I could keep a 3D plan in my head of how everything fitted together I was okay.

SF Signal: So it sounds like you have a holographic stereo graph of the basic plan for the series and an individual book in your head. You don’t use software or other tools to keep it all straight?

Mark: When I first started writing the sequence, twelve or so years ago, I started jotting bits and pieces and reference down in a notebook, but I found it became easier to keep it all in my head. Notebooks and software are too linear and I wasted too much time flicking back and forth. I needed to visualise how all the connections worked across different levels and characters – up, down, sideways, diagonal… The head’s the best place for that kind of thing.

SF Signal: Although some of the Age of Misrule books involve time hopping, for the most part, they take place in a changed ‘modern’ Britain. The Swords of Albion books, starting with The Silver Skull, are historical fantasy. How different was it for you to set all of the action and characters in the past for a change?

Mark: Hugely different, but again it was part of a desire to challenge myself. The degree of research necessary to ensure the books were accurate was immense. There were times when I couldn’t write a paragraph without going off on three lines of study – not just the historical events and the people at the heart of them, but clothes, furnishing, food, modes and speeds of transport, weapons… So many things that I took for granted while writing a book set in contemporary times. But from a different perspective, it’s simply a secondary world fantasy – with this mysterious other world being the past.

SF Signal: Speaking of challenging yourself, are there subgenres of science fiction and fantasy you have not yet tried to write but have thought to put your hand to?

Mark: I’ve done contemporary SF, time travel, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery and secondary world fantasy, as well as mythological horror, psychological horror, ghosts stories and more, but these days I find I’m no longer thinking in terms of genres or sub-genres. There seems something oddly twentieth century about those unnatural constraints. I feel the story of now is about blurring boundaries, or breaking them. I know as a reader I prefer stories that aren’t easily defined. In the future, I’d like to skate along the edges of lots of different story-types, searching for what works.

SF Signal: the last two Kingdom of the Serpent subset of the Age of Misrule books are coming out this year in the U.S. What’s next for you?

Mark: The final volume of my swashbuckling Elizabethan fantasies, The Devil’s Looking Glass, will be published in the US later this year – the Queen’s spies journey to the New World in search of Dr Dee and the home of Faerie. Apart from that, I have a mysterious pseudonym which made the hardback bestseller lists last year and I’ll be completing a book for him. In the meantime I’ll be having a think about what I want to do next.

SF Signal: So where can readers find and find out more about Mark Chadbourn?

Mark: The best place is my blog www.jackofravens.com where I tend to rumble on about anything that interests me – from prehistory to science to writing.