>An Interview With Mark Morris
Today folks I’m honoured to have Mark Morris, author of such classics as Toady, Longbarrow and The Deluge along for an interview.
GNOH – Hi Mark, could you please tell the readers a bit about yourself?
Sure. I’ve been a full-time writer since 1988, which is when I had my first novel, TOADY, accepted for publication. In the near quarter-century (my God) that I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve had 17 novels published, most of them in the horror/dark fantasy genre, around fifty short stories and have also written a number of Doctor Who – and Doctor Who spin-off – audio scripts.
GNOH – I first encountered you way back in 1996, with your novel Mr Bad Face. Since then I have tracked down everything you have published. Do you think the genre has changed for better or worse in these intervening years?
The quality of writing is as good as ever, but the horror market in terms of publishing opportunities has shrunk considerably.
GNOH – Which of the current crop of writers do you admire?
The current crop still includes many writers who have been working in the genre for decades, and of those I’ve never stopped being a huge fan of both Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell, whose work remains consistently excellent. In my opinion, Tom Fletcher is the best of the new, young, up and coming horror writers – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that he’s the most exciting new talent to have emerged in the genre for years. His first novel, THE LEAPING, blew me away last year, and his second, THE THING ON THE SHORE, is even better. I’m also excited by the work of Rio Youers, whose work is sharp and incisive and instantly compelling, and who has the rare ability to capture moods and emotions beautifully in just a few well-chosen phrases. But in the last twelve months I think we’ve been blessed with some excellent genre novels – Adam Nevill’s APARTMENT 16, Graham Joyce’s THE SILENT LAND, Joe Hill’s HORNS, Sarah Pinborough’s A MATTER OF BLOOD, and Gary McMahon’s THE CONCRETE GROVE, which I’ve read a pre-publication copy of and which I think is the best thing he’s ever written. I should also mention Robert Shearman’s short story collections, the third of which, EVERYONE IS JUST SO, SO SPECIAL, is out very soon. Rob’s stories are not strictly horror, but they’re dark and strange and quirky. I always think of them as the kinds of stories Robert Aickman might have written if Aickman had had more of a bent for humour.
GNOH – Looking back at your career is there anything you would have done differently?
Oh, probably. I’ve shot myself in the foot a couple of times, and have lost potentially lucrative contracts because of it. If I had my time over again, I would… well, not so much toe the line, but at least speak to my editors a bit more about my novel ideas before blithely launching into the next book. You see, my problem is that, although I work within the horror genre, I’ve never been comfortable restricting myself to a particular type of horror. To give you an example, in the early 90s I sold a big, apocalyptic, multi-viewpoint horror novel to a major mass-market publisher, who wanted to promote me as ‘the next Clive Barker’. They put a lot of effort into the novel, and then were horrified when I delivered my follow-up book – a very contained, claustrophobic psycho-thriller with no supernatural content whatsoever. Because it wasn’t the book they wanted they cancelled the contract and I ended up having to sell the novel elsewhere, for considerably less money. This has happened a couple of times, and while I think it’s important to stay true to yourself, I also think that such decisions shouldn’t be to the detriment of your career. So yes, the short answer to your question is – I’d communicate more with my editors.
GNOH – Do you have any personal favourites among your novels?
I’m still quite fond of TOADY, because it was my first. I’m also quite proud of FIDDLEBACK, which was published under the pseudonym J.M. Morris, and NOWHERE NEAR AN ANGEL, which was published by PS Publishing as a limited edition hardback. But, like most writers, I think it’s always what you’re working on now that you’re most in love with.
GNOH – how do you write a novel? Do you go with the flow or do you, like F Paul Wilson, get the plot written from start to finish, filling in the characters etc with each subsequent draft?
Neither. I plan quite carefully and then write slowly and painstakingly, tinkering endlessly with sentence and paragraph structure, editing and re-editing as I go. I’m not a writer who splurges out 5000 words a day and then goes back to tidy and hone it later. I usually write an average of about 1200 words a day, and try to get it as right as possible the first time, though inevitably I’ll give it another edit – or even several – when it’s finished.
GNOH – Every genre has to change and adapt, but do you think the horror genre is in danger of disappearing in a flood of badly written and poorly edited self published E-books?
I hope not. I haven’t read any of the self-published e-books of which you speak, and have no intention of doing so. E-books are obviously the future, but it is a worry when anyone can bang out a novel and have an e-book version up for sale on Amazon relatively cheaply. However I don’t really know enough about how the e-book market works to comment authoritatively on whether this will be damaging to the genre as a whole. Hopefully there will continue to be enough of a discerning readership out there to sort the wheat from the chaff, so that good writers continue to thrive.
GNOH, – You have also written a number of Dr Who and Torchwood tie ins. How did this come about?
I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was four years old, and it’s because of being deliciously frightened by the series as a young child that I later moved on to Pan Horror, Hammer movies, Stephen King and all points in between. I’d always, therefore, been loud and proud of my affiliations to Doctor Who, and this eventually led to a friend of mine, David Howe, who I’d met via the British Fantasy Society, asking me whether I’d be interested in writing a Doctor Who novel for BBC Books. This was in 1996, seven years after the original series had ended, but just after the BBC had shown the Doctor Who TV movie starring Paul McGann which they’d co-produced with Fox in the US. Although the movie ended up being a one-off, the BBC followed it up by bringing out a range of original novels featuring Paul McGann’s incarnation of the Doctor, and because David had written a lot of non-fiction Who books and was regarded as something of an expert, they got him in to aid them in putting together a stable of potential Who fiction writers. After my first Doctor Who novel, THE BODYSNATCHERS, had been published I was asked to write a second one featuring Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor, which was called DEEP BLUE, and this eventually led to me writing a couple of 10th Doctor novels, and a Torchwood novel, and then getting involved with Big Finish, who produce a monthly range of audio dramas featuring former Doctors from the original series.
GNOH – Do you approach these differently than you would one of your own creations?
Only in so far as my brief is to write something that is in keeping with the spirit of the show as seen on BBC TV. By this I mean that the books have to be fast-moving, exciting, witty and inventive, and they have to feature whichever Doctor and his companions you’ve been commissioned to write for. Of course you have to bear in mind that Doctor Who is a family show and that a large proportion of your readers are going to be primary and secondary school age, which means that the books should not feature any sex or swearing or ‘realistic’ violence – ie no stabbings or shootings or people being kicked unconscious or battered with clubs. There’s also a strict word limit you have to adhere to, and you generally work to a pretty tight deadline, so you have to be especially efficient, professional, reliable and focused. This might be seen by some writers as too restrictive, but I quite like the discipline of it, and find that I often thrive when working under pressure. One thing I should stress is that I certainly don’t see my tie-in work as any less relevant or important than my own work. Whatever I’m writing I pour my heart and soul into, and try to do it to the very best of my ability. I grew up reading Doctor Who novelisations, among many other things, and they certainly contributed to my love of reading and my love of the genre. Doctor Who books are very popular, and are read by a lot of kids, so I certainly feel a responsibility to deliver a positive and enjoyable reading experience. It’s hard enough getting kids interested in books nowadays without putting them off even more by delivering sub-standard, knock-off work that you don’t really care about.
GNOH – I imagine there are a lot of guidelines you have to adhere to with tie ins. If you were given complete freedom, to do what you wanted with a Dr Who novel, what would you do?
That question assumes that the format of Doctor Who is lacking in some way, and that by instigating various changes you would improve it. However, the reason I love Doctor Who so much is because it already has all the ingredients that appeal to me. It has a brilliant bonkers format, which enables the stories to be set anywhere in time and space, and it has the potential to be scary, funny, inventive, outlandish, serious, silly, exciting, educational – whatever you want it to be. If there’s one particular type of Doctor Who story that appeals to me most it’s the scary stuff. When I was a kid I was seriously and honestly terrified by (but also loved because of it) the Cybermen and the Autons. When I visit schools to talk about Doctor Who, kids talk about how terrifying the Weeping Angels are – and then go on to say that they’re the monsters they want to see again. So in answer to your question, I’m already doing what I want to do with my Doctor Who work. I tend to write – and have become known for writing – Who stories that are creepy and atmospheric and perhaps have something of a Gothic flavour. One of the advantages of writing the books as opposed to scripts for the TV show is that you don’t have to worry about budget. The second 10th Doctor novel I wrote, GHOSTS OF INDIA, was set in India in 1947, and had a cast of thousands and the Doctor teaming up with Gandhi. I loved that. To write something with such scale and scope was an absolute joy.
GNOH – Is there a tie in you’d love to write?
Actually there’s something potentially on the horizon now, which, if it comes off, will be fantastic to do. But I don’t want to say any more about it now for fear of scuppering it. So all I will say for the moment is: Watch this space.
GNOH – Your novel The Deluge came in for a bit of stick for its ending. Did you always plan to have it end that way? Personally I thought the book was excellent.
Thank you. And yes, I did always plan to end it that way. The whole point of The Deluge was the personal journey of the two main protagonists, Steve Marshall and his 13 year old daughter, Abby, through an uncertain and hostile landscape. After the set-up has been established, they head off across country, from London to Scotland, with a particular mission in mind, which is to try and find Steve’s wife and son (or from Abby’s perspective, her mum and brother). Along the way they meet up with various people, and have various adventures and encounters, and their journey throws up various answers and questions with regard to the situation they now find themselves in. In that context the story achieves what I intended for it to achieve, which is that Steve and Abby complete their journey and, without giving too much away, have their own personal questions answered. However, because of the nature of the disaster – 99% of people are dead, communication networks have been wiped out, food is in chronically short supply etc – many of the larger questions are not answered, and this seemed to irk some readers (mainly American ones, it has to be said), who clearly wanted everything resolved and tied up in a nice, neat bow. These particular readers accused me of copping out, and said that the reason I didn’t provide answers to many of the questions was because I wasn’t clever enough or inventive enough to think of them. On the other hand, some readers completely ‘got’ it. They loved the ambiguity and the mystery of the novel, and its open-endedness, and recognised that this very aspect of it reflected the fact that, however many loose ends were tied up, the future would remain forever uncertain and fraught with danger for the survivors, and that the ultimate priority would simply be to remain alive.
GNOH – Do you ever feel the need to write a sequel?
Not really. I’m not a massive fan of sequels, for the simple reason that most of them just end up being pale imitations of the original. Having said that, I have pondered the possibility from time to time, and if a publisher were to offer me a decent wad of cash, then I’d seriously consider it.
GNOH – I never realised that you wrote under a pseudonym what was the reason for that, and how did you choose the name? I’ll have to track those books down, as Ash says you gotta catch ’em all.
Well, there’s only one – FIDDLEBACK – which was published under the title THE LONELY PLACES in the US. The reason for the pseudonym is two-fold. One is that at the time the horror genre was dying on its arse, and Macmillan, who bought the book, wanted to find a new readership beyond the horror market. They therefore decided to market the novel as a psychological thriller, and asked me whether I’d mind putting the book out under a slight pseudonym, so that readers could differentiate my horror novels from my thrillers – in the same way that Iain Banks becomes Iain M. Banks for his science-fiction novels. The second reason was that FIDDLEBACK was written in first person from the viewpoint of a female protagonist, and Macmillan thought that the book would appeal less to a female thriller-reading readership if they knew it had been written by a man.
GNOH – Have you got any upcoming projects you can talk about?
I’m currently working on a couple of novels – one is the first book of an urban fantasy trilogy and the other is a dark YA fantasy with my good mate, Tim Lebbon. Both books are being written on spec, so I don’t want to say too much more about them at present. As well as those, I have some more Doctor Who and Torchwood work on the horizon, and I’ve been commissioned to write a few new short stories for various anthologies. More imminently, I have a new short story collection, LONG SHADOWS, NIGHTMARE LIGHT, coming from PS Publishing in September, and in the same month my next Doctor Who audio drama, THE HOUSE OF BLUE FIRE, starring Sylvester McCoy as the 7th Doctor, will be released on CD and download by Big Finish Productions. I also have a new short novel called IT SUSTAINS due out from Earthling Publications, hopefully before the end of the year.
GNOH – Many, many thanks Mark for doing this, I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time, and this has been a pleasure to do.
It’s been a pleasure for me too. Thanks for asking me.