Interviews with Speculators: Mark Barnes
Mark Barnes released his first novel, Garden of Stones earlier this year. The novel is a dense and baroque fantasy that reads like no other. The reader finds themselves thrown into a world, people and events swirling around them. Barnes himself is a personality. You know he’s in the room, not only because of his impressive physicality. I met him first when we were both students at Clarion South in 2005. Barnes was a member of the ground floor dorm, the ‘chill’ guys who looked on at the rest of our torments with bemusement. He’s also a successful consultant and man about Sydney. His next book is out in a few days. If you want something different in epic fantasy, track them down.
1. Garden of Stones is your first novel. How’s the experience been?
It reminds me of the adage ‘you don’t know, what you don’t know.’ You can research, ask questions, and try your best to prepare for the journey, but it’s not the same as experiencing it.
Thus far the experience has been enjoyable. There are the highs and lows you’d expect, though I will admit to more good times than bad. In retrospect the writing was the easy part, and certainly the most fun. Finding and agent was also a high note, as it happened quite quickly and was pretty straightforward. Getting a publishing deal was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. We came quite close to deals early in the process, but it eventually took us almost two years before we had something we were happy with. Once you’ve the deal you’re inside the process, and there’s a whole new language and set of customs to learn. Thankfully our shared agent, John Jarrold, my editor David Pomerico, and the 47 North Author Team helped me navigate through. I can see where, without positive and timely guidance, a writer could get overwhelmed by it all.
One of the hardest parts is seeing my work reflected in the public eye. Reviews can be quite confronting, even when most of them are quite positive. Everybody has an opinion, their own tastes, and aren’t too shy about sharing them. No book is perfect, and not everybody is going to enjoy my work. I had to put on my big boy pants and deal with the fact that some readers simply won’t like what I’ve done. Fair play. Others will, and they’ll tell folks with similar tastes.
The Obsidian Heart, the second in the series, comes out on 15 October, so I get to relive some of the experience soon enough.
2. On the topic of reviews, I imagine that a lot of them would mention what is often called ‘world building.’ One of the things which is great about your fantasy world is that it reads like no other. There’s a whole ‘eastern’ or ‘middle eastern’ vibe to it. Obviously you wanted to step outside of the traditional middle-age Europe setting, but what else can you tell us about what attracted you to the world?
World building is something that has been commented on. I knew I was taking a risk when I moved the stories from the well-known setting of the European Dark Ages, to something different.
The main attraction was developing something new, and interesting, that readers would hopefully enjoy getting immersed in. Writing stories in an age of invention, in a more exotic setting, was more of a challenge. I was tired of reading variations on a theme, so it made sense to take my world in a different direction. There was a sense of freedom there, in taking it away from the familiar.
A brand new world, with different mores and customs, also informs a different set of characters, mindsets, and behaviour. The sediment of history, of new empires and nations laid over the foundations of those that came before, was also a lure. Given how much the past impacts the present, it was a great opportunity to work with different elements of society, learning, politics, etc.
It’s a big world, and there are European analogies in it. When the time comes for stories to be told in those regions, or for characters to visit them, I’ll be making sure I don’t write what’s been seen before.
3. You say ‘I knew I was taking a risk when I moved the stories from the well-known setting of the European Dark Ages, to something different.’ How much of a risk is it, do you think? In some ways, don’t you think that it’s a risk just to put out a ‘standard, regular, fantasy novel?’ I think about this all the time – the commercial versus the innovative – though I’m not sure I have any answer myself except to write the best book you can, and try to say what you have to say in the form necessary. What do you think?
I agree in that a writer needs to write the best books they can, about stories and characters in worlds they find interesting. Any book is a risk, and the more different it is from the norm, the greater the risk will be. What’s popular when you write a book may be old news by the time you’ve edited it, got your contract, and are then in print. The whole process can take years, and it’s a long time to forecast what’s going to be successful.
Would it be great for a book to be a commercial success, and adored by millions? Yes. Is it safer to stick to the tried and true worlds from where such successes have come? More than likely. Dark ages Europe and its derivatives seems to be the fantasy staple.
Like you, I wrote what I found interesting: which was none of the above. I’m hoping that The Echoes of Empire books manage, as they’re released and word of mouth spreads, that commercial viability can leverage from innovation. We’re in the speculative fiction business, so it seemed fitting to take a chance and speculate on how different a world and its people could be.
Q4. You say that you wanted to ‘take a chance and speculate on how different a world and its people could be.’ I’m interested in your process here, I guess. Where did you start with the Echoes of Empire books? What attracted you specifically to that world and its people? And how did that play out in the actual story you wanted to tell?
I wanted to create a world that was less a reflection of our own historical views, but more speculative as to what could be. Part of this was a general dissatisfaction with tired themes, and assumptions about the roles people play in society.
One of my biggest issues is with our perception of people’s worth, based on fairly subjective criteria. Why should your gender make a difference? Or your nationality? Or your age, wealth, social status, etc. We’ve become attached to some fairly predictable stereotypes. I was attracted to writing the kind of world I wouldn’t mind living in: where a person’s value is based upon their contributions. A world where even those who are trained for war prefer a peaceful solution, and where artists, and thinkers, are often the people others look to as their inspiration.
To that end I had a scholar as one of my protagonists, a man trained for war, but also an educated man who use thinks through problems, and tries to avoid killing. Another character, a female, is one of the most dangerous warriors in the world: but even her training is such that she would sacrifice herself, on behalf of the many, to avoid bloodshed. My female characters are—I hope—three dimensional and not beholden to historical views of women in society. They hold power, exercise it well, and are both strong and formidable because it is how they are, rather than something they’ve become because of abuse, or otherwise made by a man. The characters exist within a caste system, where scholars are at the top, but where people can know both reward for their skills and accomplishments, as well as punishment for their serious infractions, in their own lifetime.
Another thing I did was to remove the concept of deities, or any orthodox religion, from my world. It is widely accepted that there’s an afterlife, where one exists in the company of their Ancestors and friends when they die. There’s no concept of eternal punishment, or reward. No great power you must have faith in, or be damned.
In all I think it made for a world and cultures where character are driven by different motivations.
5. There are many things which impressed me about the book – the lush descriptions filled with so much detail, your concept of disentropy, the sense of history – but I especially admire your ability to capture an image. How would you describe your style and what role does style and technique play for you?
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’d describe my style as immersive.
There are those who won’t like it, their tastes tending towards a leaner style of writing. However if I’m going to create a world, and the people in it, I’d prefer the reader to at least see experience of what I experience when I develop the world. Given the entire world of my novels is a construct, the immersive technique is central to setting each major scene, and placing the reader beside the point of view character.
My style has changed through the process of writing The Garden of Stones, The Obsidian Heart, and The Pillars of Sand. A great part of that was feeling more comfortable with my technique, and gaining a better understanding of how to apply a style and tell a story, rather than write a novel. I’m learning more of my craft with each project, and am curious to see how it reveals itself in my next projects.
Q.6 So – if you’ll forgive the cliched question – what do you have planned for the future? What direction can we expect Mark Barnes to move in?
The direction would be forward. There are several projects that I’ve proposals for. Both my agent and 47 North know that ‘The Echoes of Empire’ is a longer story than the first three books. After so much time with Indris, Mari, and the others, however, I think we need to spend a short time apart.
At the moment I’ve: a steampunk idea; a few stand alone pieces that may grow in the telling; a parallel fantasy series also set in Ia, but with different characters; the continuation of ‘The Echoes of Empire’; and the project I recently started, and am most enthusiastic about, which is an urban fantasy. I’ll be sharing the first three or four chapters of the urban fantasy, as well as the proposal, with my agent around the end of October, or beginning of November, to see what he thinks.