Remember those interviews I promised would be back? Well here's a new one. Joining me for this Q&A is Mark Hodder, author of the brilliant The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. See my review for why you should check his book out. After reading his book I was extremely excited to get to ask him some questions and I'm delighted by how it turned out. Click through or scroll down for the complete interview. Enjoy.
LEC Book Reviews: Since you are an all new author this question shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Can you introduce yourself to us? Perhaps also share your path to publication?
Mark Hodder: As a kid I was totally enthralled by the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock (still am!) and by my early teens I knew for certain that I wanted their job. Imagine stuff. Write it down. Get paid. Perfect.
I embarked on a long-term plan that went something like this: 1. Do a degree in Cultural Studies to find out how fiction actually works; 2. Work as a commercial copywriter in as many different fields as possible to gain discipline and experience; 3. Write a novel.
Stage 2 of the plan took fifteen years, and for much of that time I was bored senseless. I kept myself sane during office hours by surreptitiously building a website about the fictional detective, Sexton Blake. In addition to listing and reviewing the thousands of Blake tales, I also cut my teeth by writing new Blake adventures, some of which I uploaded to the site.
My big break came in 2009. By then I’d had enough of commercial copywriting and had relocated to Spain, where I was teaching English as a foreign language.
Not long after my move, the awesome George Mann (THE AFFINITY BRIDGE, GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN, etc) and an independent UK publishing company called Snowbooks, decided to publish an anthology of Sexton Blake stories. George used my website as a reference, got in contact, and I helped out with the project. After it was finished, the also awesome Emma Barnes of Snowbooks, asked whether I had a story pitch lying around that she might be interested in.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Good. Email it to me in the morning.”
Eek! But, hey, how many times does a publisher ask a total unknown for a pitch? You HAVE to say yes when that happens! Cue one very long sleepless night pulling THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK out of nowhere!
LBR: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack has just been released in the US and has been for a while now in the UK. What are your feelings on the release of this, your first book, and the reviews it’s received?
MH: Completing a 120,000-word novel should have felt like a major triumph but I had no real conception of whether it was any good or not, and felt oddly nervous. Even when my lifelong hero, Mike Moorcock, wrote that it was the best debut novel he’d read for ages, I wasn’t convinced. I just thought he was being nice. Then the reviews started coming out and they were really, really, really positive, which is when a massive sense of relief kicked in. Suddenly I could look at my lifelong ambition and say: “Yep. I can do this!”
LBR: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a very sort of defined, peculiar and, to say the least, imaginative novel. How did the idea for such a book come about?
MH: Overnight! Seriously, there’s nothing like blind panic to get the creative juices flowing. Basically, I had less than twelve hours in which to make my lie the truth, in which to write a pitch plus a short story to illustrate the characters and tone of the project that I supposedly had lying around. Looking back on it, I realize that this was totally a self-imposed deadline. When Emma said “in the morning,” I’m sure she actually meant “soon,” but I work much better under pressure, so if the pressure’s not really there, sometimes I apply it myself!
So, question: what the hell am I going to write a novel about? Answer: why don’t I just take a bunch of things I’m interested in and mash ‘em up? So that’s what I did. Sir Richard Francis Burton was my main character from the get go. I had a shelf-load of biographies about him and had been fascinated by him since my teens. That instantly set the period: Victorian. Okay, so that means Sherlock Holmes-ish, because my great grandfather went to medical school with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and they were great friends—in the Freemasons together, too—so I’ve been pretty much breathing in Holmes since I was born. Burton as Holmes then, but who for Watson? That was easy. Sir Richard’s unlikely but real friendship with Swinburne offered such a great dynamic it couldn’t be resisted. Next question: what are they investigating? Hmm, I have real people for my heroes, so let’s look at the period for a real-life villain. Woah! Spring Heeled Jack? Freaky! Unexplained! Perfect! Problem is, Spring Heeled Jack started appearing way before Burton’s time, so the only way to get them together would be through time travel. Heyyyy, wait a moment, that’s not bad! And what if Jack wasn’t from Burton’s past but from his future, and what if, in coming back, he changed stuff, and Victorian England and some of its famous inhabitants got twisted? Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen I think I just went steampunk!
LBR: Your novel does a pretty good job of interweaving historical, cultural and fictional elements together. How difficult was it for you to do this?
MH: The initial hurdle was that I actually felt guilty writing about people who really lived. I mean GREAT people—heroes—who, in some cases, I was turning into nasty villains. Did you see what I did to Darwin? OMG, it’s just not right. However, as I got to work, and the plot became wilder and wilder, I realized that if the spirits of these people were watching, they’d either be laughing at the craziness of it all, or dismissing it as entirely irrelevant. Of course, having the idea for the “Meanwhile, in the Victorian Age …” section at the back of the book helped to assuage my uneasiness, too.
Other than that, the process was easy. I already had a good knowledge of the Victorian period, so it was just a case of allowing my imagination to run riot within the general boundaries imposed by the trappings of the time (with occasional hops over those boundaries!).
LBR: Also, because of the historical elements, your book must have involved some research. How much did you do and how did you go about it?
MH: Most of what I needed, I either knew or had at hand. There’s a lot of material about the Victorian Age on my bookshelves. I re-read a couple of Burton biographies and one of Swinburne, dipped into a couple of Dickens novels, and revisited a few Holmes cases for the umpteenth time. I needed to research Spring Heeled Jack, and quickly decided that the backbone of the story would be based around the real recorded attacks. Nearly all the assaults he commits in STRANGE AFFAIR actually happened. I stayed pretty close to the bizarre truth with him.
LBR: Burton is a relatively straightforward character. He almost always knows how to act, he is very driven and rarely questions himself. In short, your typical hero. With emphasis on flawed, nuanced characters being all the rage in the SFF genre lately how do you feel he fits in?
MH: In STRANGE AFFAIR I purposely placed the emphasis on world-building and on Edward Oxford, who develops a growing sense of unease as he notices how everything around him is bending out of shape. In effect, he looks at the environment through the same eyes as the reader. Since Burton is a part of that observed world, I had to paint him from an exterior rather than interior perspective, which is why his motives and inner conflicts remain, for the most part, hidden. Besides, in real life, he was such a deeply flawed, awkward and complicated character that any attempt to employ anything other than broad strokes would, I think, have ruined the pace.
In book two of the trilogy, his character will be explored in a little more depth, and I hope by the end of the third book, he’ll be more 3D than 2D. The real Burton undoubtedly took a long time to get to know—I think he had rather an impenetrable facade—so I feel no pressure to “unwrap him” hastily just because that’s the current fashion. He’s a slow burner, and this is one of those situations where attempting to be realistic would be thoroughly unrealistic!
LBR: I commented upon this in my review: your novel balances quite a few different storylines that are dependent on each other and intertwine very carefully. How did you go about planning such an intricate plot?
MH: If you’re planning to write your first novel, take my advice: DO NOT INVOLVE TIME TRAVEL! Every damned page of this book, I was asking myself: “Can Oxford solve this issue by jumping backward and giving events a very simple tweak? Will that unravel the whole plot?” Torture! The only way out of it was to have him try just that, and, in consequence, make an even bigger mess of things. As I progressed, I found that this added layer after layer of complexity and anguish to his storyline. Cause and effect is a bitch!
As for the rest of it, I had two basic plotlines weaving in and out of each other: a person accidentally changing culture versus people purposely trying to change culture. Who does what and when grew pretty organically out of the characters and the sequence of events, so it wasn’t as complicated to write as it might seem.
Oh, and I kept track of all the loopy-woopy time madness by drawing a loopy-woopy time chart. With a crayon.
LBR: Did you write The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack with a particular audience in mind?
MH: Not at all. Obviously, as the steampunkery developed, I knew that that particular genre stamp would be slapped onto the book … which considering the popularity of steampunk right now, is far from being a bad thing … but I just wrote what I wanted to write and hoped that someone, somewhere, would enjoy it.
LBR: There is a certain amount of satire and social commentary hidden throughout the novel. In what ways was it important for you personally to include this?
MH: And there’s even more in book two … but it’s not like I do it on purpose, really! In writing STRANGE AFFAIR I began with plotting, then characterization, and from the interplay between those two elements, certain themes arose, and that’s where the satire and commentary naturally occurred. It was a very organic process. Perhaps it’s where my own character shoehorned its way into the story, because I’m certainly the sort of person who observes life with one quizzical eyebrow raised.
LBR: What sort of a series are you setting out to write with Burton & Swinburne? Can we expect other books in the same vein as the first? Do you have a series arc in mind? A set number of volumes?
MH: What kind of series? Fun, exciting, funny, thought provoking, fun, entertaining, wild, fun, exhilarating, and fun. Oh, and fun. Did I say fun?
Other books in the same vein? Most definitely! Book two is, if anything, even freakier than book one.
Series arc? Yes. The first three B&S novels are self-contained stories but there is also an overreaching arc that was hinted at in book one but which comes much more to the fore in book two. This trilogy is set predominantly the 1860s. I have plans for a second trilogy, based in the same alternate universe, but taking place at the turn of the century (hint: the First World War starts early and some characters are not when they should be).
Also, if there’s a demand for it, I’d be happy to return to the 1860s for further adventures of Burton & Swinburne in “Albertian Britain.” I’d really like to do a “casebook” of shorter tales. Wouldn’t you like to know more about The Case of the Polite Parakeet?
LBR: Can you tell us anything about book two?
MH: It’s called THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN, it’s based around the famous real-life case of the Tichborne Claimant, it involves spiritualism, and there are more real historical personages in it. Stuff happens that, according to the natural laws of science, should be impossible. But how? I mean, just ‘cos the timeline is different doesn’t mean physics is different. Does it? Hmmmm?
I can tell you a little about book three, too. It’s provisionally titled EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON and it will see Burton returning to Africa. Isabel Arundell, who was cruelly cast aside in book one and is only mentioned in passing in book two, will be back in major kick-ass form.
LBR: Apart from Burton & Swinburne do you have any other SFF projects in the works?
MH: Yes, two, and I’m very excited about them, but I ain’t sayin’ nuthin’ until I have a publisher’s contract.
Okay, nuthin’ except:
1. Swords & Planet like you’ve never ever read before.
2. Very British 1960s superhero weirdness.
LBR: Finally, I leave this for you to - if you wish - engage in gratuitous self-promotion of your book...
MH: THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK is exhilarating and fun and offers food for thought if you are so inclined. And it’s got parakeets. Very rude parakeets.
LBR: Thank you for gracious responses. Any parting words?
MH: Zeitgeist. My favorite word of all time.