Saturday, 10 May 2014

Author Interview: Mark T Barnes - 'The Garden of Stones'

To celebrate the David Gemmell Legend Awards 2014, I invited the Morningstar shortlist nominees to participate in a series of interviews and guest posts to coincide with reviews of their debut novels. First up is Mark T Barnes, author of ‘The Garden of Stones’ published by Amazon’s 47North.

The Garden of Stones cover art.

Hi Mark, welcome to WWaS (Written With a Sword). Congratulations for being nominated to the shortlist in the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. For those readers who have yet to 'meet you', tell us a little about yourself.

 Thanks, David. It's a pleasure. The nomination came as a very welcome and somewhat bemusing surprise. As for me? I'm an Australian living in Sydney. Most of my time is divided between running my freelance business, writing, the gym, and taking what time I can to relax with friends, a good book, or my three rescue cats.

 So, how did you go from Information technology consultancy to writing novels? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

 My mother has a short story I wrote when I was about seven, and I'd been involved in writing on an ad-hoc basis for years. Mainly as a roleplayer, building worlds and running campaigns for friends, and tournament modules for conventions in Australia.

I didn't take my writing seriously until I attended Clarion South 2005. Though CS2005 was aimed at short story writing, it ignited a passion to want to write more, and have my work seen by more people. My first year out I had a few short stories published, and did very well in one of the quarters for Writers of the Future in 2005. I tend to be a long-distance writer, but due to personal reasons didn't start what would become the Echoes of Empire series until late 2009. I still do my organisational change consulting full time, though I am hoping that as more of my work is released into the wild I can at try and do less consulting and more writing.
Tell us about 'The Garden of Stones' in 50 words or less - what's your 'elevator pitch'?

When civil war breaks out in Shrīan, the ancient rivalries of the Great Houses threaten even further conflict. Indris, a knight of the Sēq Order of Scholars, returns against his instincts to a city he had foresworn to level the balance of power, thereby saving his people from further suffering.

How long did it take to plan and write 'The Garden of Stones'? Do you have a writing routine?

 First draft was about a month of planning and three months of writing, with another month of editing in the back end.

My writing routine is pretty simple: write.  :)  It comes down to you are, or you aren't. I wrote GoS outside of a contract so there was no pressure to complete anything by deadlines other than how much money I had set aside to live. I had taken time off work so tried to keep as close to a professional routine as possible which included a word count target on a sliding scale. When I first started I set myself 250 words a day. Then 500, 1000, etc until I was consistently writing circa 3000 words per day.

What inspired you to write 'Garden of Stones'?

I wanted to write the kind of book I'd enjoy reading. When I was younger I devoured epic stories, as well as histories and the classics. I cut my teeth on fantasies such as The Wizard of Earthsea, Lord of the Rings, Conan, the Eternal Champion stories, etc. Later is was The Book of the New Sun, Viriconium, Beowulf, and most especially Dune.  I found a lot of what I was reading was very similar, with a focus on Dark Ages Europe. I wanted to try and write something different, so started writing a world that was in an age of enlightenment, with more of a Mediterranean / Orientalist setting.

Now that 'Garden of Stones' has been released into the wild, are you happy with it? Anything you'd change?

I'm happy with it as a debut novel, but it has issues. There are no perfect novels and I'm quite critical of my work in order to improve my craft. Thankfully many people have responded well to GoS, and more so to The Obsidian Heart. Some of the decisions made were risky, and may have made the book less accessible to some readers. At the time I'd considered writing a new Act I, and having the existing opening be the beginning of Act II, to help flatten the learning curve for readers. I may still write that Act I as a novella.

 What was the hardest part of writing 'Garden of Stones'?

There was no one thing, as the journey presented different challenges along the way. Initially there was the anxiety of quitting work to write, and the outcomes of knowing I had a certain amount of time before money ran out. Being on the clock so to speak put a lot of pressure on to write enough words every day in order to finish the book. Working from home also poses its own set of challenges with regards to distractions. The home is full of them! Books, TV, music, DVDs, movies . . . and within easy reach were cafes and restaurants, museums and galleries, the cinema. Yeah, you don't really know how much else there is that you.

The worst part was the pressure I  put on myself to write a book that was reasonably different from other things currently in the genre, and to do it as best I could. I think it sucked some of the fun from the journey and I took it all a little more seriously than I did for the later two books. While I enjoyed writing GoS, and was proud of the outcome, I wonder how it might have been different had I been in a different headspace.

Of the characters in 'The Garden of Stones', which do you most connect with and why?

I think I empathise with Indris and Mari in equal measure. I wrote characters who had experienced life, and had suffered both joy and tragedy in order to become the people the readers get to know. But they also don't shy away from change, and both realise that the world is never set in stone. In the end both characters try to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost. They're also passionate, and able to love deeply without the need to conform slavishly to societal norms.

What would you like readers to take away from 'The Garden of Stones'? Is there a moral to the story, any life changing lessons?

I wrote GoS to entertain rather than educate: my hope was that readers could become lost in a new, beautiful, and exotic world and share the exploits of characters they could care about. As for moral, or life changing lesson? I think readers will take what they need from any story, and leave what they don't. Similarly different people will read into a narrative things the author never intended to be there. That saying there are themes of pride and downfall, compassion, honour and justice, the pitfalls of vengeance, and of taking accountability for who you are and what you do, or have done. And with the latter, knowing that you have a choice at every turn.

'The Garden of Stones' is the first novel in the 'Echoes of Empire' trilogy. With both 'The Obsidian Heart' and 'The Pillars of Sand' complete, what can we expect from you next?

At the moment I've written the first act of an urban fantasy that is with my agent, and we're deciding what our next steps are. I'm also writing another epic fantasy set in the same world as EoE. The story runs concurrent to EoE, but is in a different country and with different characters.

Were there any surprises for you, as the author, when writing book two and three? Did any of the characters do something you hadn't planned for? Did the plot twist of its own accord?

There are always surprises! I knew exactly what was going to happen at the beginning, middle, and end of this first trilogy, if not some of the finer details that came out of the books as they developed. I can't say too much in case I spoil something for readers, but I can certainly say the each of the main point of view characters grew in directions I'd not fully expected, but in ways that made me happy. Even the supporting cast grew in ways other than expected, where conflicts or affiliations emerged as the result of a piece of dialogue, or an action, that came as some kind of unlooked for inspiration.

The Pillars of Sand had the most change from my initial plan, for which I'm grateful. Some changes in The Obsidian Heart caused me to tweak a few things, and those things caused some big ripples throughout the third book. Early responses to the PoS are telling me that the changes seemed to have worked for the better.

What does it mean to you to being nominated for the David Gemmell Morningstar award?

Being recognised by readers and industry professionals for my work is an incredible, humbling, feeling. There was a lot of doubt that making a world so new, and veering from what was most familiar in the genre, was too risky for a debut author. Likewise writing what can be considered a book on the larger side at 145K words or so. But to be a finalist among such an outstanding selection of authors, including all those on the long list, shows that there is a place for taking risks and trying something new in an established genre. Hopefully other writers will do the same, and the genre will expand as  more people walking the path less trod and giving readers a variety of new and exciting stories to read.

David Gemmell is regarded as the 'big daddy' of modern British heroic-fantasy. Who is your hero?

I've a few, and for different reasons, and most of them aren't fantasy authors. At the top of the list would be Frank Herbert, Shakespeare, and Clive Barker. I have almost every novel David Gemmell published, and became a fan of his work through a partner who adored his work.

Do you read other books in your own genre? Who is your favourite author?

I've not read as much as I should have in the past two years with most of my time going to writing and the long tail of editing, and work on the audiobooks, for EoE. I do enjoy fantasy stories. At the moment I'm reading my friend Rjurik Davidson's 'Unwrapped Sky' which I think will be a finalist for next years Morningstar. I neither have a favourite author, nor a favourite book: I never have as no single author has written all of my favourite books, and what I enjoy depends on where I am in my life. The authors that have written some of the fantasy  books I love are J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, C.J. Cherryh, Guy Gavriel Kay, Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison, David Gemmell, Steven Erikson, and Joe Abercrombie.

Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you'd like to share with would-be writers?

Be patient with yourself and people in the industry with whom you work, and know as much about the industry as you can. Writing your novel is only the beginning, and you'll potentially face a lot of set backs and mismanaged expectations before you see your name in print. Some key points are research your agent as the right agent, be passionate about your work and your genre,  and this will  help get you where you want to go. And don't overlook the importance of your editors and first readers! You may kick and scream and wonder what they're thinking, but if they have to ask the question you haven't written something well enough. Those people are there to help make you look as good as you can.

Most importantly have fun with it, and write what makes you happy rather than what you think might make you money. Chances are one might lead to the other.

Thanks for your time Mark!
Check back tomorrow for a review of ‘Garden of Stones’.

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