Author interview with Mark Smylie

Author interview with Mark Smylie

Author bio:

While The Barrow marks his first published prose novel, Mark Smylie has worked as a writer, illustrator, editor, and publisher for over a decade.

His epic military fantasy comic book, Artesia, was first published by Sirius Entertainment in 1999, and then later by Archaia, a publishing company that he founded. He was nominated for the Russ Manning Award for Best Newcomer in 1999, and for an Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition in 2001. His illustrations have appeared in works from Wizards of the Coast (for Dungeons & Dragons), White Wolf (for Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse), Brigand Publishing (for Avlis), Kobold Quarterly, and collectible card games from AEG (L5R and Warlords). He contributed a short story to the Eisner-Award winning Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard anthology; designed and illustrated a roleplaying game based on Artesia that won the Origins Award for Role-Playing Game of 2006, three Indie RPG Awards, and was nominated for six ENnies; and contributed an essay on Artesia and religion to Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels, published by Continuum International Publishing.


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Hi Mark, welcome over at The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions.

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who Mark Smylie is? What are your hobbies, likes/dislikes?
MS:  I’ve variously been an artist, writer, and publisher in the comics industry for a while now. I’m half-Japanese (my mother was from Tokyo) and I was born in Florida; I currently live in New Jersey, close enough to New York City to use it when I need to, but still someplace where I can see deer every now and then crossing my front yard. As I have managed to turn my hobbies into work, I have a lot of books and cats to distract me, and I try to get in a daily yoga practice and the occasional RPG or board game night.

BP: The Barrow is your debut book, but you have a lot of experience in the publishing field; do you still know when and where you decided that you wanted to start writing and become an author?
MS:  Well, it often feels like I’ve been writing or drawing something for most of my life, so in general terms no, I don’t think I can point to a single moment where I said “this is what I want to do.”  More specifically with this book, I think I had been feeling for a couple of years that I had been spending most of my time on the business side of the publishing world (I’m the founder of a graphic novel publishing line, Archaia, which is now an imprint at BOOM! Studios) and had neglected my own personal work, and that it was time to start figuring out a way to get back into it.   

BP: What gave you the idea/inspiration to specifically write the story of The Barrow?
MS:  The Barrow is an adaptation (and expansion) of a screenplay begun back in 2004 or so that I wrote with my brother, John Smylie, and a friend of ours, Hidetoshi Oneda, who was a commercial director at the time working mostly in Japan. When I first conceptualized the project, I thought of it as aiming for a “Dungeons & Dragons meets Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or The Usual Suspects” kind of vibe, something that would appear at first glance to be a traditional quest narrative and that would then reveal a bunch of surprises and layers (well, if the writing was successful, at least). In fact the original impulse to the story was to do a piece as a commentary on the search for phantom WMDs in Iraq. The fantasy world equivalent of the WMD is often some kind of enchanted, magical sword of power (or a magic ring or some other ancient artifact), and our fantasy stories and fairy tales are filled with these very archetypal noble quest stories for powerful objects that can fuel our appetite for romantic adventurism. I wanted to do the cynical, gritty, doomed-to-fail version. But over the years that’s shifted a bit into lots of different directions, in part because I think there have already been any number of WMD allegory stories that have cropped up to comment on the invasion of Iraq, and in part because of the natural evolution of the characters and plot. My brother and I had always talked about the idea of turning the screenplay into a book at some point, so last year during the holiday season I had a couple of weeks to myself and decided to start working on a writing sample for The Barrow, this time as a novel. 

BP: The Barrow is out this March, if you would have to sell you book with a single sentence, how would it go?
MS:  Hmm, how about:  Nothing is what it seems as a disparate group of treasure-seekers with clashing motives find a cursed map to the barrow of a long-dead wizard and the enchanted sword hidden within it, and launch themselves on an almost certainly doomed quest.

BP: If you look at other books in the same genre as The Barrow, where do you think that it separates itself from amongst the others?
MS:  That’s a tough call, as epic fantasy and swords-and-sorcery are obviously very crowded and very deep fields. I’ve been working on the setting of both the Artesia comics and The Barrow for almost two decades, there’s even a roleplaying game that I did a few years ago to accompany the comics, so I hope that there’s a very rich and complex world for readers to sink into and explore. And the book (and comics before it) also deal frankly and explicitly with sexual matters—which might not necessarily be to everyone’s liking, admittedly—as both text and subtext. Themes and questions about the place of women in medieval/feudal/fantasy societies, the male gaze and female objectification, empowerment and gender identity are woven in at or below the surface of what presents itself as a very traditional fantasy quest narrative. A fair number of authors are treading similar turf, but I don’t think I can think of too many that are handling it in quite the same way, for better or for worse.

BP: Writing your first full-length book can be a daunting task, what was the most difficult part writing wise, compared to the comics?
MS:  Writing for comics is actually fairly different than writing prose or a screenplay, as you’re very constrained by page count and page and panel structure, which forces you to pay attention to exactly where on a page a particular piece of dialogue or visual reveal occurs, and how the eye of the reader flows from panel to panel. There’s a little of that same design thought that goes into prose, to some extent, but I actually found it enormously liberating to write a novel. I’m sure critics and reviewers will point out all the places where the book needs work, but for me the most difficult part was trying to make sure that all of the twists and turns of the plot made sense at the end of the day and that the book’s many characters and their relations to each other were being accounted for; I actually had to track character names and family trees in a separate document to make sure I was keeping everyone straight, but hopefully that work will make it easy for readers to follow along.

BP: Now that you have written your first full length book, do you feel that you have gained different experience than writing comics, that you will be able to use in your future works?
MS:  I certainly hope so. I’m still a little surprised that my first novel has found a publisher, and given how deep the fantasy field in fact actually is, I know I will have my work cut out for me to be accepted as a fantasy author.

BP: If you look at the story itself, what was the hardest part to write?
MS:  I suspect that some readers and reviewers will find the first part of the book to be a little slow, but I really enjoyed taking a bit of time to introduce the major characters and the world so that readers understand what all the stakes are and how everyone is connected. It was actually the second part of the story, when they’ve fully launched themselves on the quest for the barrow, that often seemed to me to be the hardest to write. The characters are travelling across a fairly detailed world, and I had to actually pay attention to and calculate out travel times and distances and figure out where they were going during their journey, at least if I was going to be true to the world I have created on paper and in the comics and RPG. I still think I fudged it a bit, they’re probably travelling faster than they should be realistically.

BP: Besides the hardest part, which part or parts of the book did you enjoy writing the most?
MS:  Well, the third part of the book takes place mostly in and around the barrow for which they’ve been searching, and I have to say that was the easiest and most fun part to write and hopefully where readers will see all the little details and character development of the first two parts really come together.

BP: If you would be given the chance to retract your book and make a final last adjustment to the story, would you do it? And if yes, which part and why?
MS:  Well, I might make a few small but global style changes, but overall I’m pretty happy about it. There’s a couple of secondary characters it would have been nice to spend more time with, but the novel is already 600 pages. And I did realize in looking over my notes recently that I’d wanted to add in a description of some carvings and reliefs on the wall of one of the chambers in the barrow itself for flavor, but forgot; it’s a minor thing, one that readers won’t miss having in the book, but that did bug me a little a bit.

BP: The Barrow is the prequel to your comic series but doesn’t mention being a stand-alone. Can you tell us what your plans are with this first book? Can we expect more set in this world?
MS: Yes, I’m actually starting work on two sequels now, Black Heart and Bright Sword. The Barrow was actually written so that if necessary it could be a stand-alone novel, but it shares characters and story with the Artesia comics. Luckily Lou Anders (my editor at Pyr) liked my pitch on the follow-ups, and the idea of the next two sequels is to tie the storylines of The Barrow and the Artesia comics in together. As with The Barrow, I’ll be writing them assuming the reader has never read the comics, but anyone who has read the comics will see things going on that ring a bell.

BP: Do you have any other projects that you wish to pursue in the near future now that The Barrow is being published?
MS:  Well, in terms of personal projects obviously the sequels to The Barrow are at the top of the list, but I’ve been slowly working on a second edition rules set for the RPG that accompanied the comics, to update it and take into account what’s going on in The Barrow, and there’s also a board game concept that I’ve been kicking around based on a game designed by a friend of mine, so we’ll see if we can put that together this year.

BP: Everyone enjoys fantasy in their own way, what do you like most about reading and writing fantasy?
MS:  I’m a romantic at heart, I grew up reading stories of adventure and heroism, almost always in a fantasy genre context, and that still stirs the cynical, older version of myself. Being transported to another world where you can follow characters that get to respond to the mundane by seeking the magical is, I think, both liberating and inspiring.

BP: And just lastly, if you would have to give your top 5 favourite books, which would they be?
MS:  Yikes, that’s another tough one. And it’s likely to change on any given day. At the moment—and assuming that we’re talking about fiction here—I’d have to list: Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (if I had to pick one it’d probably be The Sign of Four, and in some ways Doyle here is also standing in for a whole slew of 19th and early 20th century authors like Verne and Poe); His Dark Materials (okay, a trilogy) by Philip Pullman; The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (also admittedly a multi-book series); Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco; and the fifth would be a tie between The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

BP: Thank you very much Mark and good luck with your future projects and writing the sequels to The Barrow!!
MS:  Great, thanks very much for having me on board!


The Barrow is out March 4th from every good bookstore/seller

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