Phase 1 of this year’s SPFBO is nearing its end, the finalists are being revealed, tears are being shed. To put the dot on the i, James Tivendale from Fantasy Book Review and I set out to interrogate the Godfather of the competition, Mr Mark Lawrence himself.
To see all of our content regarding the competition, check out my SPFBO page!
Mark Lawrence is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. His day job is as a research scientist focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence. He has held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. At one point he was qualified to say ‘this isn’t rocket science … oh wait, it actually is’.
Between work and caring for his disabled child, Mark spends his time writing, playing computer games, tending an allotment, brewing beer, and avoiding DIY.
Welcome to the Asylum! Take a seat by the fire, have a beverage of your choice and tell me something about yourself!
”Something” is a very blank canvas! A daunting challenge right at the start of the interview!
Uh … I don’t own a smartphone and have never sent a text.
Say, you can live in the fantasy house/lair of your dreams. What would it look like?
I have quite traditional tastes and used to think that my dream would be a medieval castle with curtain walls, a keep, and secret passages, though with all modern comforts inside as I am not hardy.
Of late though I’ve come to appreciate that houses tend to last longer than people do, and I think I would find all that history daunting. I think my generalised angst would suffer with the knowledge that my ownership of such a structure would constitute just a fleeting moment of its existence. So I might prefer to build something quirky from scratch in a corner dimension and have it wink out existence when I do.
What is your favorite fantasy creature and why?
I’m far from sure I have a favourite fantasy creature. I’m not really a creature kind of guy. I’ll say lizardman, because they had a cool picture in the first D&D Monster Manual and I used to have lots of them in my dungeons just because of it.
When and why did you decide to become an author? With your background in science this didn’t seem like a natural career progression.
I don’t think ”author” is a career progression for anyone. It’s not like you can opt to stop doing one thing and make your living as an author instead. And honestly, I never decided to become an author. I just took up writing as a hobby. I had been writing in various forms (such as writing D&D campaigns to play with my friends) most of my life. Against all my expectations I was offered a book deal. Being an author had never been a real ambition of mine. I was just writing stories for the fun of it. I don’t think being a scientist had any bearing on it. The same could have happened to a bus driver or a school teacher.
As a scientist, do you find science-fiction easier to write instead of fantasy?
I don’t. The hard bit of writing is the shape of each sentence, the pace and twistiness of the story, the depth and emotion of the characters, the dialogue, the story arc. Whether it’s ray guns and spaceships or swords and dragons is very secondary.
Which author would you say is your greatest influence as a writer?
I generally have difficulty in identifying influences. I am sure I’m influenced by other authors but it is very rarely at the conscious level. I guess the easy answer is JRR Tolkien who my mother read to me at age 7. I think those books coloured my imagination right from the start, making D&D seem like a godsend when it arrived in my life a few years later. My fascination with swords and sorcery, dragons and adventure, meant that if I was going to write then there was never any doubt about what genre it would be in.
After writing six books from a male POV (The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War trilogies) was it hard to switch to a female POV (Book of the Ancestor trilogy)? Did you find any difficulties when writing about a female protagonist?
I didn’t find any difficulties no. I try to write people rather than genders, and as such Nona was no more or less difficult to write than Jorg or Jalan.
How would you personally describe Nona's transition throughout the Book of the Ancestor trilogy?
Heh, personally I would describe it as a spoiler because my books are primarily about the main character, by which I mean that the character is as much or more the story than whether this kingdom falls or that mage is defeated. For me the plot is there to exercise the character and allow growth. So talking about what Nona is like and how she changes as she grows would be giving too much away.
What’s the true story of SPFBO’s birth? Did you wake up one day and decided to run this competition? In your opinion what makes it so different and successful?
You pretty much told the tale in your question. I bounced the idea off a few folk, Sarah Chorn from Bookworm Blues was the first one. And finding willing helpers, I did it. There wasn’t a lot of forethought or any agonising. It seemed a simple and fun thing to do.
I’m not sure what you’re asking me to differentiate it from. I guess the thought came to me because there was nothing (that I knew of) even close to it.
I guess it’s successful because why the hell wouldn’t someone, who has already written a book that qualifies, enter it? All it takes is an email. Authors want to be read and get reviews, and there’s a good chance you’ll get that if you take part.
The fact that we have discovered some really excellent books and done some good in bringing them wider attention is a big bonus.
SPFBO has had a huge impact on certain authors' careers and I'd personally say you are the Godfather of indie fantasy... which of the books from the contest that you've read (of which I know you've read many and supported) did you prefer the most?
Well, the truth is that I am a really slow reader with very limited time, so in fact I really haven’t read that many of the books, just a collection of the higher scoring finalists, and one or two others. I think it will be no surprise to anyone who follows me to hear that my favourite is Senlin Ascends. That statement is also true when you widen the field to include all the traditionally published books I’ve read in quite a few years.
One of the aims of the contest was to help readers pick up a self-published book with confidence that they will get a good read. I’ve taken advantage of that myself and allowed the contest to select great books for me to try. That’s not to say that the books that don’t make the final might not also be magnificent, just that the concentration of excellence among the ten finalists is higher than in a random selection of ten entries.
Mechanisms like this that give the reader confidence when selecting a self published read ultimately help all self published authors whether they are involved in the contest or not.
What inspires your writing? Do you listen to music, stare into the fire, listen to the whispering of the wind, make deals with the Devil?
I find ideas are most often uncovered in an empty mind. If I do something laborious that requires little thinking, like digging the vegetable patch, cycling to work, or pushing my daughter around the park in her wheelchair, then ideas just bubble up. And where most folk just let that sort of idea drift away, a writer plays with it and lets it grow.
What are you working on now? I understand Holy Sister will be released next year, as well as your new trilogy, Impossible Times starting with One Word Kill. How is this series any different from your previous ones, which were mostly labelled as grimdark?
My polls indicate that the significant majority of my readers haven’t considered any of my work grimdark since my first trilogy, The Broken Empire. There can be a reluctance among the genre to admit how varied a writer can be. It’s easier to define someone by the first book they put out, but I have never been one to stick to a role.
I think One Word Kill is different from my other books in nearly every way you can imagine. It would be much easier to list the similarities, which I think boil down to: it’s written in the first person and has a young protagonist.
One Word Kill is a book with some sci-fi themes, set in 1980’s London, and focuses on a D&D group.
Which of your characters do you identify with the most and why? Jorg, Jalan and Nona are three incredible characters. If you had to choose one of these darlings that you have written, which do you prefer the most? Who would you want to spend a day in the Asylum with out of these three?
I’m not really like any of my characters, but I guess the one I am closest to would be Jalan Kendeth. I would run away from the same dangers he runs away from. And he would be my choice to spend a day with too. He would be entertaining and not a threat … I mean, he might get me into trouble but he wouldn’t be dangerous himself.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the good or the bad ones?
Well, I get a lot of those, so I don’t read them all, though I am very grateful that people make the effort. I read the blog reviews that I’m tagged in, and netiquette dictates that you don’t tag the author in a bad review, so no problem there! And I try to ”like” a 5* Goodreads review of one of my books every day, so obviously I read that too. It’s a ”thankyou” and also it puts the review in my timestream and reminds some fraction of my 40,000 followers on the platform that the book exists.
So basically I only read good reviews, and those are easy to deal with!
Are there any books that have been/ are being released in 2019 that you are excited to read?
Not that I know of. I would have said, The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft. But I was lucky enough to read that one early. I’m looking forward to the book that follows Robert VS Redick’s Master Assassin, but I don’t think we will see it next year. And Winds of Winter plus Doors of Stone would be great but seem unlikely.
Howard Andrew Jones’ For The Killing Of Kings is out in 2019 but that was another early read of mine.
I very rarely read past book 1 in a series, simply because there are so many books and I can read so few of them. I like to try a new author as often as I can. So generally it has to be a really special writer to get me to pick up book 2.
While you are locked in here for eternity, we will allow you one book – what would you choose?
I guess it would be the foremost work on escapology.
Well then, we hope you’ll enjoy your stay in the Asylum! Any last words? *locks door*
Once upon a time there was…
If you’d like to get in contact with Mark Lawrence, you can find him on social media:
I probably don’t have to introduce his books, but here we go nontheless, check out The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War, The Book of Ancestor and Impossible Times trilogies!