A tale of two cities

Mark Charan Newton was born in the UK in 1981 to an Indian mother and an English father. An environmental science graduate, Newton worked in various jobs including bookselling, before becoming an editor, and eventually one of the founder-editors of the Solaris speculative fiction imprint. He currently lives and works in Nottingham.

You’ve said that the first book in the series came partly out of a conversation with your agent where he advised that fantasy books about cities were marketable at that time. Why do you think there was & is this fascination in SFF with cities – a spin-off from the interest in writers such as Vandermeer, or is there something about the city as a reality and an idea that makes it so fascinating and fertile ground for fantasy?
It’s hard to say why trends like this take off. I mean, they certainly gather momentum because publishers tend to think they can pitch books to fans of one that has previously succeeded. It’s a safe strategy. But what sparked it in the first place? I don’t know. Fantasies in the 70s and 80s very much was about castles in the wider landscape, that’s for sure, I’m not even sure where things began to change. Maybe with Perdido Street Station, which was very much championing secondary world urban fantasies.

As for cities appealing to SFF fans and writers, it has to be because they’re the perfect way to represent another world. Cities are where people, commerce, social trends, the arts, government, all meet in one vast, sprawling, horrible and beautiful place. To create another city is to create spaces that seem more defined, that possess more presence, than rural surroundings, or even towns. They’ve history in themselves. Plus, from a creative perspective, cities are wonderful for creating and controlling the right mood: they can be dark and foreboding, or clean and fresh – even terms such as light stone or dark stone lead to subtle ways of controlling the reader’s experiences.

You’ve talked about Villiren as an ‘anti-baroque’ city. But it’s also, in the series’ terms, a ‘third world’ city (at least, Villjamur would see it that way). Were there specific places you’ve visited, or read about that inspired the way you constructed Villiren? Likewise Villjamur…

To some extent, American cities, though I don’t mean it in any derogatory way. Compared to European cities, there’s less history in the architecture, which generates an utterly different mood if you’re used to old buildings. Places like Los Angeles are designed, generally, not so much for beautiful aesthetics. They’re quick-build urban sprawls, there to get the job done, to house loads of people.

I couldn’t think of a fantasy city which was a quick-build locale, one that was totally about cutting costs rather than building elaborate structures, so it seemed an interesting notion. Once I’d thought of Los Angeles, it didn’t take long for concepts like the gangs to move over, and so on.

It was important for Villiren to contrast strongly with Villjamur, which is very much a European city: cobbled streets that wind around each other, apparently in no logical manner; the bleak weather of the UK; the very old architecture that stands out of place against surrounding buildings. There’s subtle history there and Villjamur is an old city, so it fit the bill perfectly. What was old in Villiren had largely been torn down for the sake of throwing up newer, blander structures. And that seemed to fit in with the modern economy, too – things being built to save costs rather than for aesthetic beauty.

It’s been slightly surreal reading TBoT this week, as London goes up in flames. While there certainly have been other writers who’ve embedded political critique in the worlds they imagine (Ursula le Guin, for example, and right back to HG Wells), why do you think so few have dealt with themes around the collapse & legacy of Empire, given that so much SFF is at base about colonisation?

Yes, I find it particularly odd given just how many Empires there are in SFF worlds, that there is seldom room to examine just what is wrong about Empires in the first place. It’s the standard template – as it has been throughout history – to represent a dominant culture, so perhaps that’s why it’s useful to the novelist. Sure, you get a few critiques of slavery here and there, but that’s not exactly dealing with the demeaning way in which an Empire robs a country of its heritage, culture, not to mention its wealth. Superficial, almost apologetic approaches to Empire do tend to annoy me a little, if I’m honest.

But also, many SFF novels are consolatory – they’re there, some say, to escape from the concerns of this world. And that’s a fair enough reading experience – certainly not to be sniffed at given the times in which we live.

Tell us about your writing process. Are you one of those writers who plans meticulously, with plot-lines pinned up on walls (or the computer equivalent), family trees & maps etc? Or are you led by your characters and what you think they might do/ how they’ll interact? Or—?
The more novels I write, the different each of my approaches tends to be. Generally, I plan a little around a theme or concept, flesh it out – but not too much – then begin to write. That first few chapters in rough is a great way for me to explore that world further – before I return my thoughts to the planning once gain. It’s cyclical from there – planning, writing, planning writing.

Of course, I’ve an overall map of where I need to get, but I enjoy finding out what certain characters say or do, and how they change throughout the novel. I’m a great fan of adding layers after the first draft – because by the time I’ve finished one draft I know how and where to add further dimensions to the book, much like adding paint to canvas.

Power, class, race and gender are powerful forces in the books… Yet you’ve said you aren’t in the business of pushing your own politics at readers (and I think you succeed in making readers think, without being didactic or polemical). How do you negotiate that tension while you’re writing? Are there points when you’ve thought “Uh Uh – that would be too obvious?”
TBoT looks so closely at a subject that people don’t often notice the framework – which is indeed political. The overarching themes deal with anarchy – in the true political sense of anarchism, which contrary to what many think, is highly (self) organised. It’s not mayhem as such. The set up compares the anarchism of a perfect society at the beginning, with different attempts at achieving anarchism, to what others think anarchism is – chaotic and uncontrollable.

The key notion that links it all together is the concept of power – hence the use of superheroes and superpowers. That said, real politics is consciously in everything, but mostly in the background. At the foreground you’ve got all these superheroes connecting the stories together, and that’s what most people will be focussed on. Lan’s character is, I hope, unique, which will also mean that readers are caught up in her story.

So what all this rambling is trying to say is, I think the trick is to make sure the politics is dealt with properly, but not overtly – to keep it in the background. Because that’s what politics is, for most people – it’s in the fabric of our worlds, and not the centre of it, and you can get away with playing with huge political themes if it’s all done in the background. If people see the politics in the story, then that’s great – it’s there for those readers too. It’s a wink to them. But if not, there’s still (hopefully!) a decent story that will entertain readers.

If people weren’t enjoying the plots or characters, at the expense of pushing an agenda, then I’d be doing something wrong. Also, I think it’s useful not to bring one’s agenda to the table in the first place. Perhaps it’s more useful to say to yourself, ‘Here’s an idea. How would it work in this or that set-up?’ Then politics will fit in and around narrative, rather than interrupting it.

Because I have the joy of writing about music as well as SFF, I have to ask: what might be the musical soundscapes of Villjamur and Villiren? Is there stuff you’ve listened to where you think ‘That almost might be the kind of thing they’d play in a Villiren bar—” (And do you have a playlist when you’re writing?)
I go through huge phases when it comes to music. Sometimes I can’t bear to listen to anything with lyrics in, and I find myself listening more and more to film soundtracks so as not to disturb my mind too much. That said, early on in the series, I was certainly listening to a lot of music, from alternative indie bands to jazz to hip-hop.

I think one of the better bands to fit the mood of the world is Radiohead, especially on the album Kid A, since it tends to capture that bleak, far-future feel so well. Beirut are another band who would most definitely be playing in some bar in Villjamur. Some other artists include Death Cab for Cutie, Miles Davis, Smashing Pumpkins, Jeff Buckley, Owen, Seth Lakeman, and maybe the Arctic Monkeys.

As I head towards the end of the series, it feels like I’ve worn out a lot of my music, you know? I mean, there’s a limited number of bands that can produce the right mood when you write for four or five years.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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