When Mark Tompkins wrote his debut novel, The Last Days of Magic, it was natural for him to combine his passions for religious history and mythology. Years ago, while lost on the back roads of County Clare, Ireland, he found the genesis of a storyline – the legend of Red Mary – framed on the wall of a small castle. Following this early inspiration, he embarked on the rigorous historical, biblical, and geographic research necessary to construct a fictional world that would meld myth with historical events and characters.
A lifelong writer and patron of the literary arts, Mark founded the Aspen Writers’ Network and serves on the board of the Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute. His poetry has appeared in publications worldwide including: Grain Magazine, Parabola, Photovision, and Leading Edge Review. He has appeared numerous times on National Public Radio (NPR) discussing the creative process and been a guest lecturer on creativity at Texas A&M University.
Mark’s black and white photography is in the permanent collection of the Chinese National Photography Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. He received a Certificate of Merit from Prix de la Photographie, Paris in 2008, and was a featured photographer at the Lishui Photo Festival at the invitation of the Chinese Government in 2010. Also in 2010, Mark photographed the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake on assignment for the Wall Street Journal.
Of Irish ancestry, Mark Tompkins was born in Texas, and raised in Canada, England, and New Zealand before returning to America for University. His success as an entrepreneur now allows him to write fulltime. He and his family split their time between Aspen, Boston, and Houston. His wife is a research physician whose work focuses on Haiti.
Mark answered a few of my questions about his new book, The Last Days of Magic.
Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us about your new book, THE LAST DAYS OF MAGIC?
Mark Tompkins: The Last Days of Magic is an epic novel of magic and mysticism, Celts and faeries, mad kings and druids, and the goddess struggling to reign over magic’s last outpost on the Earth – medieval Ireland. The story is founded on the premise that old legends, myths, and faerie tales were true and the magical beings in them co-existed with humans at the time. In those fables, faeries were depicted as powerful, dangerous, and tall – they could not procreate with humans if they were the size of dragonflies! But if magic was once common, the question of what happened to it becomes intriguing. Who needed to do away with it, and why? In this novel, the answers are played out through the eyes of Aisling, a fractured and besieged Celtic goddess in human form, and Jordan, a Vatican commander whose concealed desires run counter to his official mission. Their stories converge in an Ireland threatened simultaneously by an English invasion and a faerie insurrection. All this is set within a historical framework with many characters the reader will recognize.
KC: What do you enjoy most about writing fantasy?
MT: I love the creative freedom to fit a world to characters and characters to a world. My tale started with a single character taken from the legend of Red Mary and the decision that her Ireland needed to be a magical one. From there, I resolved to connect magic to established medieval history that was already ripe with idiosyncratic figures. With each authorial decision I made, the story took on structure that both limited and, if my choices were good ones, strengthened it. As new characters entered the scene, I had to adapt them to the existing rules and, in turn, they influenced the ongoing worldbuilding. It became this complex puzzle that I found fascinating to work with. And when elements finally snapped into place as if they always belonged together, it was a sublime feeling.
KC: For you, what makes a good story?
MT: Specific to fantasy, if the magic is too powerful then the characters that wield it are not vulnerable enough and they, and their story, become boring. For me, flawed, at risk, and unpredictable characters are essential elements of a good book. I also enjoy stories that do not collapse under the weight of impossibility. I am happy to suspend disbelief and go with the narrative, but the rules need to be consistent and follow each other logically. I like to look back on a novel and think, if I took just a couple of things on faith, the rest could have happened. Include a well paced and intriguing plot, set in vividly rendered locations, and I am hooked.
KC: Have you read any good books lately?
MT: While I was writing, I read mostly research books like Swope’s An Exorcist’s Field Guide and O’Brien’s Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch. Every now and then though, I had to rejuvenate my psyche by rereading a favorite novel and I keep a shelf stocked with Gaiman, Grossman, Chabon, and a few others for just that purpose. With the writing of The Last Days of Magic behind me, it has been invigorating to dive into my to be read pile of fiction for the first time in years. I love a good end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story, and Mandel’s Station Eleven and Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks both fit the bill. Grossman’s The Magician’s Land was a marvelous finish to his trilogy. A friend had recommended Jones’s Archer’s Goon and it was a lot of fun. To satisfy my science fiction craving, I finally got to Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.
KC: What’s next for you?
MT: As I prefer novels not to leave me hanging, I resolved all of the major plot lines of The Last Days of Magic. That said, I am busy expanding the magical/historical hybrid world into additional countries, each with their own mythos. When I learned that European witch hunters were paid per witch, it was a discipline I had to investigate. A witch hunter character has emerged and she is determined to go up against some of the survivors of the first book, so I will have to let her out to play. I love writing villains!