Shells Chats with author Mark Hodder

How has Michael Moorcock influenced you as an author?

Mike has influenced me in so many ways, not just as an author. I discovered his work when I was about 12 years old, and I'm still entranced! The sheer audacity of his imagination taught me to just go for it, don't be cautious, don't be afraid to push at boundaries, don't be constrained by genre conventions. Above all, if you want to write fantasy, for example, don't only read fantasy. Take your influences from wide ranging sources, it will give your work greater depth and richness.

I should also cite Mike's work ethic as a major influence. I've wanted to write novels for as long as I can remember, but for decades the inspiration just didn't come. When I got to know Mike, I received the most valuable lesson any wannabe author can possibly learn: forget inspiration, just sit down and start to hammer at the keyboard. You have to treat it as a job. Even if you're not in the mood, your desk is your workplace and you have to be there, same as with any other employment. Write write write, and if you have to throw it away because it's rubbish, come back the next day and write write write.

You started to want to write at an early age, what made you finally take the jump into writing a novel?

A big lie! I always knew I could write but I could never think of a plot worthy of a novel, so I never sat down and tried. Then, in 2009, George Mann (THE AFFINITY BRIDGE, GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN) contacted me. He and a UK publisher, Snowbooks, were putting together an anthology of old Sexton Blake stories. George had been using my BLAKIANA website for research. I had a few self-penned Blake tales on the site and he read them and recommended them to Emma Barnes, the Snowbooks editor. One evening, after the anthology was complete, she emailed me and asked whether I had any non-Blake novels in development that she might be interested in. I immediately said yes. That was the big lie. She asked if I'd send the pitch in the morning. I said yes again. Then I flew into a panic! I gave myself no choice but to send that pitch, even though it meant staying up all night to create it from scratch. The pressure worked. A plot came to me, practically in its entirety, I typed it out, and I wrote a short story to demonstrate the characters and their world (that story eventually became the first two chapters of my second novel, THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN). The pitch was duly sent and, within hours, I had a contract from Snowbooks. Yay! Then George alerted Lou Anders at Pyr in the U.S., he asked to see the pitch, and — bang! — another contract! Since that day, my brain has been flooding with plots. I have enough story ideas to keep me writing for the rest of my life. It was just a matter of getting the ball rolling. Wow, I really owe George Mann a beer, don't I?

Can you tell us a bit about BLAKIANA and where it is located? Sexton Blake is the second most written about fictional character in the English language (narrowly beaten by America's Nick Carter). Thousands of stories were written about him by hundreds of authors and they were published in story papers from 1893 right through to the later 1970s. They were incredibly popular and Sexton Blake was a household name, but by the middle of the 20th century he started to go out of fashion and by the end of it he'd slipped into obscurity. I became fascinated by him and fell in love with the stories, which are a sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, so I decided to build an online bibliography, little realising what a massive undertaking that would become. Then Mike Moorcock, who pretty much started his career editing the Sexton Blake Library in the 1950s, offered his support and sponsorship and the site expended. I still love Sexton Blake but since writing THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK and its sequels I've not had enough time to update the website. I hope to put that right soon.

What do you feel is the most challenging as an author?

Two things: time management and money. Writing is very time consuming. It's difficult to achieve a work/life balance, and certainly for me it's still out of kilter. I live in Spain, and last summer my skin remained white. This year, I have to get to get a mild tan, at very least! And I have fond memories of whole evenings spent relaxing in front of the TV. I can't do that now. I get twitchy after thirty minutes. I have to get back to the desk.
As for money, I've been told over and over that hardly any authors get rich, so I suppose it must be true. If you want to achieve the dream of becoming a full-time novelist who doesn't have a "proper" job, you'll probably have to downsize and lower your expectations. I certainly don't have anything like the income I had when I was a commercial copywriter. But, on the other hand, I hated my work then and I love my work now.

It is rumored you’re a history buff of around the 1850's to the 1950's of British Literature. What is it that fascinates you about that time period with literature and how do you feel it has changed today?

It's more about the actual history than the literature, although I'm fascinated by the way the history is reflected in the story papers of the day. In those 100 years, Britain, my home country, went through such an extreme transformation that it's almost incomprehensible. My family, on my mother's side, was quite wealthy before the wars. Upper class. But by 1945 they'd lost everything. My grandmother had to purposely lose her airs and graces just so she could fit in with the working class people she was suddenly mixing with. That happened right across the country. The class system fell apart. People who "knew their place" suddenly found that their place didn't fit anywhere. I'm fascinated by that readjustment; by the generations who became dislocated from society and had to refashion it just to feel any sense of belonging.

Steampunk is becoming a popular genre. What is it about Steampunk you enjoy and what would you suggest to someone wanting to write it for the first time?

The trappings of steampunk are the icons of an assured, self-confident culture. For me, they signify pre-war Britain, which is very different from, but still echoes through, present day Britain. For an American author, they probably mean something else entirely, but I see in them the quintessence of idealised Englishness. It gives me an opportunity to play, because I know there was a very dark truth behind the glamour of steam locomotion and the expanding empire and the top hats and twirling parasols. I'm attracted to the contrast: the man in evening dress sauntering past a toothless old prostitute; the sweating labourer leaning on his shovel and looking up at a glittering airship passing overhead.

My advice to anyone who wants to write steampunk is: don't read steampunk! The icons are too seductive. You can take them, shake 'em about, join them together with words, and there's your steampunk novel. But it won't be a good one and it won't push the genre forward. In THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK, steampunk grew out of the story, rather than me draping the story over steampunk.

Can you tell us a bit about The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack?

It's the first novel of a trilogy, though it stands in its own right. At its heart, the trilogy is about consequences. It's about how the actions we take can have a deep and far reaching effect way beyond anything we intended. In JACK, one misjudged action and a few loose words transform the British Empire. They change history. People are presented with challenges and opportunities they were never meant to have, and it alters them, in some cases drastically. The novel features many people who really existed: Sir Richard Francis Burton, Algernon Swinburne, Charles Darwin, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Spring Heeled Jack. The latter is a figure from British folklore who reportedly attacked women during the 1840s before taking prodigious leaps to escape his pursuers. To this day, he's never been adequately explained. His crimes in the novel are fictionalised but accurate accounts of the attacks he actually committed. The story pits Sir Richard Francis Burton against this weird apparition.

The cover art for The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is just amazing. As an author and a reader, how important is the cover art to you when you see a book?

My God, thank you Jon Sullivan! What a masterpiece! And you should see his illustration for THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN. It's incredible!

I cannot count the novels I've purchased simply because their covers attracted me to them. It was the 1970s art of Bob Haberfield that made me pick up my first ever Moorcock novel, and it was Moorcock who made me want to write, so both from a writer and a reader's perspective, I think cover art is crucial. And not just the art but the design work, too. Nicole Lecht at Pyr did a phenomenal job. Just look at that beautiful typeface and the brilliant back cover. Gorgeous! If an author is lucky, he or she will have an editor who envisions the novel as a package and who can wrap it in visuals that accurately reflect the contents. I was lucky. I had the genius that is Lou Anders in the U.S. and the powerhouse Emma Barnes in the U.K. (who created a cover that's equally impressive but very very different).

Can you tell us about your upcoming book The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man?

In their second adventure, Burton and Swinburne find themselves entangled in the Tichborne case. This was the sensation of the Victorian age, and it led to the longest trial (until recently) in British history. Basically, what happened, was that an aristocrat who'd been lost at sea showed up ten years later to lay claim to his estate. Except it wasn't him, it was a dastardly swindler. In CLOCKWORK, the alternate history version of this event leads to a working class uprising, but Burton is quick to realise that there's something far more sinister going on.

Are there any upcoming projects in the works you can share with us?

I'm halfway through the third Burton & Swinburne: EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, which takes Burton back to Africa. The story ends with a shock of epic proportions which, I hope, will leave readers with wide eyes and slack jaws.

Towards the end of 2011, I'll begin a second Burton & Swinburne trilogy. First, though, there's another project I want to get under way … but on that subject my lips are sealed!

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