Yep, I think I can manage that! I’m 42 years old. Married with two children. I left school after A Levels to join the RAF as a pilot, where I spent 21 happy years dashing around the world in jets and generally never growing up. All that happened was the toys got bigger and more expensive! I’ve been a full time writer for about three and a half years now, and I’ve loved every minute of that, too.
What made you decide to put pen to paper?
Boredom! I was in the Falkland Islands. The weather was horrendous – 75mph winds blowing snow like you’ve never seen – and I got very irritable. My navigator, out of sheer frustration, said something like ‘For goodness’ sake, Mark! Do something useful – write a book or something!’ I made a deal with him that I’d write the opening few pages of a novel and if he liked it, I’d write the rest. Eleven books later I’m writing faster than ever and loving it. I gave up the flying over 3 years ago and haven’t really looked back.
Why write for children?
Initially I didn’t think I was writing for children. This is possibly why my books have been so popular with adults as well as the younger readers. To begin with I wrote stories that I knew I would have enjoyed reading as a teenager – but at the time, I read from the adult sections of the bookshops and libraries. These would include books by David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks and the like. Interestingly, many of the books I enjoyed most from the adult fantasy section in the 1980s are now being re-launched into the YA sections of bookshops. I still go back to some of those stories occasionally when I’m looking for ‘comfort reading’. When I started writing my own story, I just wanted to something that could be enjoyed by any age, so I didn’t specifically have young people in mind.
Dragon Orb grew from an online discussion about dragon stories. I argued that dragons had been overdone and swore I’d never write about them. (Boy, do I feel the fool now!) Besides, Anne McCaffrey ‘owned’ dragons as far as I was concerned. I didn’t think anyone could create dragons that were more engaging than hers.
One of the ladies involved in the ‘discussion’ was so pro-dragons, her internet name was Dawn Dragon. As I had been rather harsh with some of my comments I felt that a little appeasement was in order, so I wrote a short story called Dawn Dragon and it featured day dragons, night dragons, dusk dragons and a dawn dragon. To my surprise the response from readers of the website was instant and very positive. So I wrote a bit more … and a bit more … and Dragon Orb was born.
The basic premise is a classic fantasy quest – four dragonriders on a mission to save their world. The twist is that one of the dawn dragon’s abilities is to open gateways between worlds. When the gateways are opened, the world that the intrepid quartet find themselves in is ours – 1916 France. The result – dragons flying in secret with the Royal Flying Corps against the Red Baron! I had huge fun with the research and the flying scenes, which I believe stands this series apart from my previous work.
Do you have favourite characters in the Dragon Orb series?
I think the girl characters, Nolita and Kira, are possibly more likeable than the boys, Elian and Pell. Nolita is an obsessive compulsive with severe phobias. I had great fun with her – especially in the first book, where I made her experience all her worst fears time and time again. I have a mild phobia of heights myself. This no doubt sounds a strange admission from a pilot, I know, but I found the worst thing about flying big aeroplanes was climbing up the ladder to get in! Once in the cockpit the height felt more like depth and I was fine.
Kira is also fascinating. Born into a pseudo-African tribe, she has a driving ambition to become a hunter – normally an occupation reserved for the male members of the tribe. I know all about driving ambition! She did everything in her power to make herself fit the mould of a hunter. Just as she had convinced the men to accept her, Fang, her dragon, appeared and whisked her off to become a dragonrider. She was not best pleased! As a result, she has lots of compatible skills and oodles of confidence, but she would really rather not be a rider at all.
The boys, Elian and Pell are fun, too. Elian is the rather cliché, naïve boy hero, who thinks adventuring is going to be fun, but soon discovers it’s a lot more dangerous than he expected. Pell is darker – power hungry and willing to tread on anyone to get where he wants to be. They make an interesting quartet.
Tell us more about your two previous series’ – Darkweaver and Imperial.
The Darkweaver Legacy was a traditional epic fantasy series in the Tolkienesque style – magicians, battles, magical duels, but written with a distinct military setting that stands it apart from most. I was aiming to catch those readers who enjoyed Eddings and Gemmell – the heroic fantasy market.
The Imperial trilogy was never intended to be a trilogy. Imperial Spy was written as a one-off novel. It was an experiment to see if I could write a successful story in the same fantasy world as the Darkweaver books, but without utilising magic in any way. At the end of the first draft I killed the villain and tied up all the loose ends. When Simon & Schusters offered a two book contract, I was thrown initially. They liked the characters and the low-magic content spy/thriller/fantasy mix so much that they did not want me to stop at one … and who writes fantasies in twos? No one that I can think of! Hence, I changed the ending, and developed the idea into a trilogy with a certain amount of overlap with Darkweaver to draw in my established readership.
What is your writing day like?
A typical writing day begins with an hour of trivia from 9am until 10am (I don’t write well first thing in the morning!) Then I go to work. I leave the house and go to one of several writing ‘caves’ I’ve found – café’s, pubs, library, games shop etc. I then write from 1030ish until just after 12, and again from 1pm until 5pm. If I’m pushing a tight deadline, I will also write from 9pm until midnight. I did this during January this year in order to finish Aurora on time. I think my word tally for January was approaching 50 000.
I realise you have been let out of your cave by the monsters to take part in this Q&A, tell us more about being trapped by them (Trapped by Monsters) and what devious plans they are forcing on you.
Being Trapped by Monsters was a terrible shock. I suppose we should have seen it coming, but somehow none of us did. The effect on my writing has been surprisingly positive. Within a week of being trapped, I had already written an entire book for younger readers that has a monster as the hero. It is currently being submitted to publishers. I’ve always been able to work through noise, which was why I was happy writing in cafes and pubs. The noises in the caves are different, but once you get used to the screams and snivelling of the authors, blocking out the growls and slurping noises of our captors is easy.
The monsters think they have us totally under their control … and for much of the time they have. However, plans are afoot to get our own back. The anthology we were planning to write before we were captured is continuing in secret. I can’t say too much more for fear of word getting back to the monsters.
I’ve spotted that you are a big Ann McCaffrey fan – who else influenced you as a writer?
It was most of the usual suspects: Tolkien, David Eddings, David Gemmell, Julian May, but perhaps more than any of them, Elizabeth Moon, who I discovered initially when she wrote her collaboration with McCaffrey – the Dinosaur Planet books, but I went on to read her fantasy and loved it. The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy is one of my all time favourites.
What made you decide to take up Tae Kwon Do?
I did it for two reasons – firstly to encourage my daughter to persevere with it, and secondly as research for writing Imperial Assassin. To be honest I’ve always been a bit of a coward when it comes to fighting. My big yellow streak has always been visible to anyone picking a fight with me, as it runs down the middle of my back … which was in clear view as I ran away!
Two years of training in Tae Kwon Do has changed me. I’m about to take my red belt. I feel I’ve gained a good understanding of the martial art and how to hurt people effectively. It hasn’t made me more aggressive, but it has made walking along a street at night a more comfortable experience.
Have you considered writing a book about a boy, a dragon and kung fu? (in other words, what will be the next project after Dragon Orb comes to an end?)
I have a huge idea that will take in the Mary Celeste, the Loch Ness Monster, the disappearances of Amelia Earhart and Glen Miller, as well as a whole host of mysteries in the Bermuda Triangle … and yes, it will involve dragons. Not sure about martial arts, though. I can’t quite see a link at the moment to take that in as well. I have yet to sell it to my publisher, so it may come to nothing, but that gives an idea of where my thoughts are straying towards.
I also just noticed that Dragon Orb: Firestorm has made the shortlist for the Explore Book Award 2009 – congratulations! How did you celebrate when you heard the news?
I cracked open a bottle of very nice red wine and proceeded to drink it while editing Aurora. I just hope it won’t show!!
Who is the most famous person – apart from yourself, that is –that you have met as published author?
Well, that depends on who you are, I suppose. Most people of heard of the Queen, so I guess that would make her the most famous person. However, I met Sean Connery briefly at the Edinburgh Literary Festival last year. He’s pretty much the King of Scotland these days, isn’t he? That makes him quite famous as well.
What is, in your opinion, the best thing about being a writer?
Fan mail. No doubt about it. Getting a letter or an email from a reader telling me how much they’ve enjoyed reading my work makes the whole process worthwhile.
Do you have any good books that you have recently read that you would recommend to readers?
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. Having said I liked her fantasy, I was never hugely taken with her Science Fiction work. Remnant Population was unusual and enjoyable, but her other stuff never really grabbed me. The Speed of Dark, though, is an unforgettable book. It is a near future science fiction story. The main character, Lou Arrendale is a forty-something year old autistic man working for a big pharmaceutical company looking for patterns in streams of data. Both the story and his viewpoint are fascinating. I’ve read books with autistic protagonists before – ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ springs to mind, but this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In short, it’s inspired. Drop whatever you’re reading (unless it’s one of mine) and go get a copy right now! You won’t regret it.
Similarly, any good “how to” books to read on writing for aspiring authors out there?
I’ve not read many, but those I have read have all been good. Two spring to mind straight away - The Fiction Writers’ Handbook by Nancy Smith is simple, well constructed and easy to read (I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but I’m sure there will be copies available on the web somewhere). Also, Writing For Children by Linda Strachan is a fantastic read for anyone thinking of writing for a younger audience.