An Interview With M. D. Lachlan
It’s amazing how things fall into place, today folks we I’m proud to have M. D. Lachlan over for a chat. M.D. is another one of those authors that I have always wanted to interview, but didn’t have the nerve to ask. And lo and behold I get the opportunity to interview the man himself.
How are things with you?
Very well thanks!
So what’s the deal with MD, what do we call you?
It’s my real initials – Lachlan is my wife’s name. I had to think of a pen name in ten seconds flat and that’s what I came up with. Mark is fine. I would never have picked initials if I’d had ten seconds more to think about it.
Could you give the readers a little bit of background information on yourself?
My real name is Mark Barrowcliffe. I’ve written five books under that name – three fiction comedies and two humorous memoirs. Under the name MD Lachlan I’ve written three novels of the Wolfsangel series – Wolfsangel, Fenrir and Lord of Slaughter. This will continue next year, along with another historical fantasy series under a different pen name. I still freelance as a journalist. I also ghost write for some celebs and no, I can’t say who!
Do you keep these pen names completely separate, or is it common knowledge that you write under these names?
I don’t make any attempt to keep them secret. It’s just a way of not having anyone coming to a book expecting something very different to what they will get.
So which are you, Lover, Loser or ladies man?
You’re referring to my memoir of every relationship I’ve ever had – Mr Wrong. The original subtitle was ’25 years of abject failure with women’. I preferred that one. Loser, definitely.
Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve been a fan of fantasy for most of my life, yet I never got into D&D, what was the appeal of it to you?
It’s a story you tell and listen to at the same time. It’s almost a unique art form in its own right. Also, my life was pretty dull as a teenager and D&D provided an escape. I feel privileged to have been in on the first wave and to have written the only memoir of it so far – The Elfish Gene.
A lot of writers seem to have started out as journalists, do you think a good journalist makes for a good writer? Or would you say that other than meeting deadlines etc the two writing skills don’t necessarily cross over?
I think journalism is a better preparation than a creative writing course. You learn to write quickly, simply and to length. Those are key virtues. And you get used to knockbacks. I remember one newspaper desk editor, in the last days of typewriters, passing me back my piece with one, four letter comment attached to it.
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
A difficult one. Comedy it would be PG Wodehouse and Martin Amis. In fantasy/horror/history/whatever it is I do it would probably be Ursula Le Guin and HP Lovecraft – the latter for the feel of the work rather than the storytelling style. There are plenty of books I love which would have been a more subtle influence. I did a lot of reading about the occult as a kid and this comes through in my work. I’m also a major Kate Bush fan. I try to get the feeling of her songs into my fantasy writing. Fenrir was inspired by the song Hounds of Love.
Can you remember what first motivated you to start writing, and has your motivation changed over the years?
I was always good at it. I was the kid at school who had his work read out in assembly and won prizes for writing and hence got more to write about as I became a target of hatred for my peers. Nowadays I write for a living – it’s my only income, so paying the gas bill is a motivation. I think at one time I wanted to say something deep and meaningful but now I’m more content to tell a story well. It is significantly better than working for a living.
And how would you describe your writing style?
It’s changed over the years. It used to be very baroque, full of metaphors and jokes – at least the comedy stuff. Now it’s simpler. I pay a great deal of attention to style as it’s one of the main pleasures of reading for me. I’m not someone who can say ‘yeah, I know it’s full of cliché, the sentences are clumsy and the author doesn’t always seem to know what the words he is using mean but never mind. It’s a great story.’ That, to me is like saying ‘Yes, the painting’s perspective is awful, the painter clearly can’t capture figures, the colour choice is appalling but never mind. It’s great subject matter.’ So I suppose I’d say my writing style is as good as I can make it with a great deal of effort and thought. Sometimes a bit hallucinogenic, mostly direct and simple.
How confident are you in you’re writing skills? I know a mutual friend suffers from great bouts of extreme self doubt over his writing.
I have self doubt all the time – not that I’m rubbish but that the project I’m working on isn’t right, that I’m not quite hitting the standards I set myself, that I’ve gone down a cul de sac and will never get out of it. Everyone has self doubt – read about Muhammad Ali, he had plenty although he was better than most at disguising it. The thing to do with it is to say ‘OK, I doubt myself. Good. I’ve got that out of the way. Now let’s crack on.’ There’s always the possibility, of course, that your friend is right to doubt themselves. Most people can’t write very well at all – including many published authors – but, for some reason, it seems harder to realise you’re a poor writer than it does to realise you can’t paint or play guitar. In writing, there’s a good chance that if you think you’re rubbish, you are. I’m not unsympathetic to bad writers – I can’t be; I teach and creative writing courses are full of bad writers trying to become good ones – sometimes successfully, more often not. But if something causes you so much pain, why do it?
Have you ever been concerned that your confidence may be misconstrued as arrogance?
It wouldn’t be misconstrued. It is arrogance. Arrogance is useful in any walk of life and can even make up some shortfall in talent – as anyone who has every worked in advertising or the music industry will tell you. So even if I’m wrong to believe in my abilities, I choose to keep that useful delusion.
You have to believe in yourself or you wouldn’t do it. My ambition isn’t to produce another potboiling fantasy or just to have a book out. I want to do something remarkable and for that you need to feel you can do something as good or better than anything that’s come before – even if you’re deluding yourself.
These days there is a lot of blurring around the edges of genre fiction, it’s not just horror, fantasy and science fiction anymore. Is this something you are in favour of?
Yes. I don’t understand genre and I’m not someone who will say ‘today, I want to read a fantasy novel. I’m not picking up XXX because it’s horror’. I want to read a good book. Genre is a very recent thing. Was Conan Doyle writing crime fiction? There was no idea of fantasy as a genre before Tolkien and for quite a long time after. I like an exciting, emotionally engaging book written by someone who has a talent for language. I don’t care what label you stick on it! I’d like to think publishers’ sales and marketing departments feel the same way but they don’t. When Wolfsangel went out to publishers in its original form it combined a story from the WWII blitz with flashbacks to the Norse period. I had people saying ‘we love it. Really love it. But marketing want to know what genre it is – at the moment it’s a horror, fantasy, detective, historical, lit-lite mash up and we don’t know where to put it on the shelf.’ Gollancz took a chance on the book and suggested turning it into a series starting in the Viking period. That simplified it and improved it, though I wasn’t pleased to have to do it at the time.
So do you think your book may reach a wider audience if bookshops just had one fiction section?
Maybe but I can’t see that happening!
Your books always seem to be labelled as fantasy, even though werewolves play a major role in the books. Does this annoy you as technically your books may not be reaching a complete audience?
I think horror fans would like my books. It seems that as soon as you put your protagonist in chainmail it becomes fantasy. In fact, Wolfsangel is a werewolf tale first and foremost and a very different kind of werewolf – not the Hollywood-invented one that changes with the full moon. Even as recently as 1951 in The Wolfman film, the werewolf doesn’t transform with the full moon. It’s a very recent invention. I’ve tried to do something a bit unusual and different with my werewolf.
The readers of this website will know that horror is about a lot more than gore. To me the most horrific aspect of the werewolf in Wolfsangel is **** spoiler alert! ***** that he only transforms one way. The loss of personality, of the ability to relate to the people he loves and, in turn, to be loved by them, is more horrific than his many and splendid eviscerations.
The book also contains witches and I was determined to make them creatures of horror, rather than fantasy. The magic they practise is based on sense deprivation, self-torture, hallucination, starvation and mind-numbing ritual. If your witch isn’t scary then there’s no point in having her, I think.
Did you base this magic system on a existing system, or did you come up with the rules?
It’s the system that appears in real life. There are no real rules – just the more you suffer, the more magic power you receive; the more magic power you receive, the more you suffer. You get this idea in everything from Aztec death rituals to yoga.
There is a huge amount of different magic systems out there, other than that of Earthsea magic do you have a particular favourite?
Rob Holdstock’s Mythago Wood with the creatures expressing deep psychological archetypes and race memory is very good.
The flip side to this is that some fans have complained that the books are too horrific. Surely though a fantasy story about Vikings, berserkers, etc, by rights should be horrific? Taking out all the myth and magic, those were hard and gritty times.
Absolutely. I don’t know how you’re meant to describe an attack on a monastery as a light-hearted romp. Or, when someone gets marooned on a boat full of corpses, how you’re meant to overlook the unpleasantness of that experience.
During the writing of these books were you ever concerned about becoming to graphic?
No. I describe what’s necessary to the plot. I’m not a gore hound at all and I thought I was being quite restrained!
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
A combination. I splurge, stop, plot, splurge again, plot, discard the plot, splurge, realise I’ve gone down a dead end, plot again, delete half of it, splurge etc.
Pen and paper, or computer for the first draft?
Computer. I’m a journalist, so I touch type. I can’t think with a pen. I think writing is more physical than people imagine and your subconscious forms connections to your fingers that aren’t there if you change your writing method. This is why all those old boys couldn’t change from Remington typewriters to world processors. The muse wanted to feel those keys going down and hear that clacking.
Do you have any rituals that you go through when you write?
No. I’m a professional writer and I can’t hang around waiting to be in the mood. I sit down, disconnect the net and get on with it.
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
Both. I edit as I go along, then go back and redraft. I run autocrit software to highlight clichés, repetitions, overused words, passive constructions etc and re-edit then. Then it goes to the editor and the copy editor. I re-edit then. Then it comes back on proof and I realise, a day before it’s due that there’s an enormous inconsistency. I rewrite that overnight, pass out, send it off and start the next one.
Before we talk specifically about your books, I’d like to get a feel for them. Can you tell us about the World of Wolfsangel? Is it a work based on Norse mythology, or is this your version of Norse Mythology?
Wolfsangel is based mainly in Viking Norway. It’s pretty much the world we know with the difference that Norse myth is taken to be true. ***mild spoiler alert!***
The gods incarnate as humans. They are on earth to enact in miniature the gods’ final battle at Ragnarok, when Odin, king of the gods, will be killed by the Fenris wolf. None of the incarnations of the gods – Odin, Loki, nor the Fenris Wolf, know they are gods. There are witches, one werewolf and shamen of the far North. The magic is based on real world magical practices that involve, denial, hunger, self-torture and hallucination in order to shock away the conscious mind and expose the magical being beneath.
The Norse myth is my version, inevitably, though I hope I remain true to the spirit of the Eddas and sagas. I concentrate on the darker aspects of the god Odin – Lord of the Hanged, Lord of the Slain, downthrower, backbiter, treacherous one, gibbering master of magic who boiled his brains when he tore out his eye for the secret of the runes at Mimir’s well.
There’s a slightly bawdier side to Norse myth that I downplay, although Loki has his moments in my books.
Vikings have been greatly misinterpreted in media, especially in films, have you tried to readdress the balance in your books?
No. They’ve been misrepresented the other way by TV historians as farmers and traders who had a sideline in piracy. They Viking period was the greatest explosion of piracy the world has ever seen and the Vikings pillaged and murdered from the Caliphate to the shores of America. I do try to make them realistic – not every Viking is ten feet tall with a horned helmet but you can’t get away from the fact that they were a fearful bunch of pirates and extortionists. The biggest misrepresentation is when the far right appropriate them as symbols of racial purity. The Vikings integrated into every culture in which they settled and disappeared very quickly as a distinct racial group. I wrote an article for The Times explaining how much they have in common with rappers – from the love of bling to the violence to the battles in rhyme. Jay-Z would have been welcome at the mead bench.
And why Norse Mythology, was this something you had always been interested in?
Yes. Marvel comics Thor inspired me to read about it as a child. When I was a kid fantasy wasn’t defined as a genre so I ended up reading a lot of myths and books on the occult.
What did you make of the Thor movie?
I thought it was OK but a bit boring. And Odin as a peace loving patriarch? Get out of here! I’m surprised they didn’t turn his ravens into budgies. A much better Viking-y movie is Valhalla Rising.
How much of the novels are actually based on historical facts, I believe the first raid that Vali partakes on is based on a raid on Lindisfarne?
Yes – it’s the first recorded raid of the Viking era. Wolfsangel has a historical setting, rather than being a historical novel. By that I mean it’s about people who never existed not a fictionalised account of the life of a king or hero. Fenrir is set at the siege of Paris by the Vikings in 885 and Lord of Slaughter begins at the Battle of Abydos in 989 – where the Byzantine empire first deployed its Viking – or Varangian – shock troops.
Were you ever concerned with getting it wrong? And has it ever been pointed out to you that you did get it wrong?
I’m obsessed with getting it right but I made a mistake about the mutual intelligibility of East and West Norse. They were basically the same language, though I thought dialect might render them mutually unintelligible. So in the advanced review copies Bragi couldn’t understand the Danes. By the first proper copy he could. Every historical novelist makes mistakes but I do make a big effort to minimise them.
Wolfsangel is the first in the trilogy, was it always your intention to publish it as a trilogy?
No. It’s not a trilogy actually – it’s a series. Originally it was one stand alone book set in World War II but it was huge and sprawling. It flashed back to the Norse age. We decided to cut it and start in the Norse age and go forward book by book from there. From somewhere the title ‘Craw’ trilogy has been attached to it or ‘Claw’ trilogy if you read Amazon US. The hero of the WWII story was called Endamon Craw so it may be that Amazon took that as a working title. It’s all over Goodreads now so it looks like I’m stuck with it!
You have mentioned earlier Ragnarok, how central to the series is this?
Ragnarok is absolutely central. I can’t say too much without giving the game away but the Gods are playing it out all the time on earth in human incarnations. The human incarnations are not aware they’re divine avatars.
What would you say are the other main themes of the book?
The struggle of the individual against destiny would be the biggest. The Vikings were big on destiny.
As with a lot of classic trilogies, does Wolfsangel end with a massive cliff hanger?
No. It ends with something that can take it forward to the next book but I like cathartic writing. I hope Lord of Slaughter purges you nicely at the end!
How does the story progress in the second book, Fenrir?
It’s set 100 years later and the characters from Wolfsangel are reincarnated. You don’t know as who and part of the fun I hope is working out who is who.
In the book the city of Paris relies on the blind and crippled Jehan of St Germain, to enlist the aid of God to help fend off the Viking attack? There are a lot of parallels between the two religions, is this something you touch upon in the book?
Yes. At one point one of the Vikings mistakes the image of Christ on the cross for that of Odin on the tree. There’s a big conversation at one point where Jehan, the blind monk, tries to bring the Vikings to Christ. It’s part comic, I suppose but it illustrates the similarities and differences in the early-Viking and Christian world view.
Do you think it was just pure coincidence that these parallels occur, or do you think it is the work of a hive mind mentality that may exists in humans?
Could be! The Norse myths were written down by Christians so they might have imposed their own myths on them. But the sacrificed god does pop up in a lot of religions. It could be that Christianity simply picked up on older pagan ideas. The Norse Myths we have, of course, are younger than Christianity but they may have come from the same source.
The third part of the trilogy has just been released Lord of Slaughter. So do we get to see Ragnarok in this book?
Can’t say. Sort of!
One thing that I have always wondered is just how Ragnarok occur in a world that shares many religions?
It’s only the twilight of the Norse gods!
Out of all of the characters in the series, who is your favourite?
Jehan, I think. He’s the crippled blind monk and the toughest character I’ve ever come up with.
Even the Vikings are a bit in awe of him, though he’s quadriplegic. I also like the witch queen of the first book. There’s something about demented, very powerful children that’s very scary!
If you had to pick one album as a soundtrack to the books what would it be?
Not an album but Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco by Johathan Harvey. We used bits of it for the Fenrir trailer here:
I’d listen to the full version too, because we spiced it up a bit with drums and I don’t think the composer would have been too pleased about that! It’s a challenging listen but the voices are beautiful. .
You mentioned at the start of the interview that you will be writing a new fantasy series under a pen name. Can you tell us about this?
It will be under the pen name Mark Alder. It’s set in the 100 Years war and involves a confrontation between divine powers!
Are there any other future projects you can tell us about?
I’m planning a YA-ish book which I can’t say too much about now.
Mark it has been a great honour getting a chance to chat with. I can’t wait to delve into Wolfsangel, do you have any final words for the readers?
No, thanks for having me! The honour is mine!
M D’s books can be purchased where all good books are on sale, both online and on the highstreet.