An interview with M.D Lachlan

M. D. Lachlan is the pen name for the fantasy work of author and journalist Mark Barrowcliffe. His first book Wolfsangel was published in May 2010 and is a unique mix of myth, fantasy, horror and history.

I recently interviewed Mark about his approach to writing, the ongoing series and the new novel, Fenrir, which is published later this week from Gollancz.

wolfsangelWolfsangel contained a mix of fantasy, horror, mythology and several other elements. As a fantasy novel it’s very different to the majority in the genre. Are you a fan of the fantasy genre?

MDL: I don’t know if I’d describe myself as a ‘fan’ in that I don’t specifically look for new releases in fantasy or limit my reading to the genre. However, there are plenty of fantasy books that I love and I would describe myself as a fan of good writing. I think I probably was a fan when I was growing up but my tastes broadened a bit as I grew older.

Who are some of your favourite authors?

MDL: I don’t read a lot of new stuff – I’m normally 15 to 20 years behind the times in my reading. In fantasy it would be Ursula Le Guin first and foremost followed by Tolkien, Moorcock (I know some people view those as opposite poles), GRR Martin, Robert Holdstock, Alan Garner, Angela Carter and Susanna Clarke off the top of my head. Outside it would be PG Wodehouse, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Nabokov, Jane Austen, Martin Amis, John Irving, Brett Easton Ellis and Muriel Spark. I also like a lot of poetry – Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Heaney, Yeats, Macneice and Eliot. If this sounds a bit high minded and pretentious – sorry. I grew up wanting to be a poet and haven’t yet quite accepted that I don’t have what it takes. I also like Robert Harris, Patricia Cornwell and George Macdonald Fraser.

Did any of these authors influence your writing?

MDL: Yes, I’m sure they did although I wouldn’t know how. I try to learn what I can from poets and to use strong, simple and evocative language. I try to create an atmosphere with my writing in the same way that poets do – clearly I’m not writing poetry but I think it’s possible to learn something about economy of language. I really admire Ted Hughes for his ability to conjure mythic atmospheres and I try to do the same. I also try to avoid clichés of expression and characterisation. My focus in writing is at the level of the sentence. I tend to let plot take care of itself. The influences for my fantasy writing come more from non-fiction, music and film. I grew up with books like A History of Witchcraft in England, TV such as Children of the Stones, films such as Hammer Horror, The Wicker Man and the music of Kate Bush, Killing Joke and Black Sabbath. Weirdly, one of the writers who has influenced me most is probably Cormac McCarthey – even though I could never say I’ve enjoyed one of his books.

The fact I trained as a journalist also has a huge influence on my writing.

What was your starting point for the series? Did it begin with the North mythology or somewhere else?

MDL: It began in WWII. I wrote a very long book about an immortal werewolf that flashed back to the Norse period. In the end we decided to turn it into a series, starting in the Viking age and going forward in history from there. With luck it will get to the modern day. The WWII story is written and I’m very pleased with it.

Why Norse mythology in particular?

MDL: I’ve loved it since I was a kid. I did projects on it at school and read a lot about it. I was a big RPG player and a lot of my D&D characters were Berserkers (they pre-dated The Barbarian class).

What (if anything) did you learn from writing Wolfsangel that you put into Fenrir?

MDL: I wouldn’t say I learned much but I did try to make Fenrir a different book. The books tell a repeating story – a cyclical myth being acted out on earth. This means that they could become very repetitive very quickly if I wasn’t careful. Hence I decided to make Fenrir much more pacy than Wolfsangel. Now Wolfsangel is pretty pacy but I conceived Fenrir as 24 with Vikings and werewolves. I also wanted to flesh out another of the main female characters in Fenrir. In Wolfsangel the character Adisla is quite sketchy. In Fenrir Aelis – who is basically her reincarnation – is much fuller.

Wolfsangel was set in the time of the Vikings and Fenrir is set in 886 AD. Did you always intend to move foward in time into different eras with the series?

MDL: Yes, once I’d decided to rewrite the original. 885/6 is the Viking siege of Paris. The book after Fenrir begins in 969 at the battle of Abydos between the Byzantine emperor and the rebel Phokas. This is still within the Viking period, which is generally accepted to end at Stamford Bridge in 1066.

I’ve heard from some writers that working on an existing franchise or character is both a blessing and a curse as they dont have to invent the entire environment, the clothing, the weapons etc. Did you find it easier or more difficult writing within the framework of that period and setting?

MDL: I don’t have the mindset to do a lot of world building. I admire people who do but I’d get bored inventing my own cities, races, economies etc and therefore wouldn’t be any good at it. When I played D&D I was always much more interested in being a player than a Dungeon Master. I want to get on with the action and leave the planning to others. The great thing about history is that it’s all there for you if you do the research. Also, history is very often stranger than invented worlds anyway. If you look at early medieval attitudes they can seem truly alien to modern eyes – can you imagine a world in which people legislated against innovation in industry, for instance, which did happen during the middle ages? Can we understand a society so utterly suffused with myth, religion and storytelling? The bad news is, of course, that you can get things wrong. I take great care to get them right but I’m not a historian. It’s straightforward enough in the Norse period but book 3 is set in Constantinople – a society of quite literally Byzantine complexity.

The scope for error there is huge but so is the scope for uncovering the wondrous and the strange. I do spend a lot of time trying to understand the attitudes of the age. I don’t want modern people in furry boots, I want my characters to reflect Viking ways of thinking. The risk of that, of course, is that some people might find them hard to identify with or not understand their motivations. For instance, someone seeking trial by combat when they know they are facing someone much stronger and more skilful than they are seems stupid to modern ways of thinking. To a Viking warrior it makes perfect sense – he dies a brave, notable and honourable death. As the Viking poem says: ‘Cattle die, Kin die. I know one thing that never dies. The glory of the great deed.’ The Vikings were very concerned about how they would be remembered and, to some, this was more important than life.

Were there any particular challenges you encountered while writing it?

MDL: Not Fenrir – it flew onto the keyboard and the characters seemed to invent themselves. The third book in the series – which is called Lord of Slaughter – has been much more difficult. A lot of characters appeared in it and the plot is very complex. I will need to simplify it before it’s published.

Can you tell us a little about what we can expect to see in Fenrir? And how does it connect to Wolfsangel?

MDL: Yes, it begins at the Viking siege of Paris in 885/6. A noblewoman has taken refuge in a church, fearing a wolf from her dreams – very likely a demon, she feels – is coming to kill her. A crippled priest – the living saint Jehan – is sent to persuade her to come out of the church. Her actions are bad for the city’s morale. A wolfman shaman is on a mission to abduct her, although his motives go far deeper than that. He sneaks into the besieged city to rescue her – just as another character who is seeking to kill her comes to the church. This is a half mad mystic who follows Odin – his name is Hrafn or Raven. He is accompanied by a band of Vikings who may or may not share his aims. The noblewoman flees him, aided by the wolfman. But why are so many people after her and what is the significance of her dreams? And what will happen to the priest who is abducted during the raid? I think it’s the best book I’ve written in my career so far and I’m immensely proud of it! It contains the same idea of magic that was in Wolfsangel – that it’s accessed through terrible suffering and self denial. It’s also acting out the same myth as Wolfsangel only this time some of the characters are aware of that.

How many novels are there planned in the series?

MDL: I don’t know! It goes to the modern day.

Where are you planning on taking the series next?

MDL: To Constantinople where the Vikings went as members of the Varangian guard – the emperor’s elite bodyguard.

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Fenrir is published on 21st July and for more information about the author and forthcoming signings and appearances you can visit his website and follow his blog or visit the Gollancz website. There is also a trailer for Fenrir, which you can watch online here.

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