A Multi-Genre Writer and His First Book
Interview by Jo Ely, Contributing Editor
Mark Mayes has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies in the UK, Ireland, the United States, and Italy. His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. He has been shortlisted for literary prizes, including the prestigious Bridport Prize. He’s also had several stories published in the Unthology series (Unthank Books). His worked appeared in The Woven Tale Press Vol. IV #8.
Ely: You’ve had great success with your poetry and short stories, but getting that first book published is a big moment in any writer’s life. How are you feeling right now?
Mayes: Firstly, may I say a big thanks to you and to the wonderful Woven Tale Press for the opportunity to chat about The Gift Maker, and other writing-related matters. It’s a real privilege.
I’m feeling absolutely thrilled about my debut novel being published, and so grateful to the publisher, Matthew Smith, of Urbane, for his belief in this unusual tale, and for all his extraordinary hard work and expertise in bringing its publication about. I’m also feeling so appreciative of the early readers and reviewers of The Gift Maker, including the marvelous book-blogging community, who are such a vital part of current literary culture.
Ely: The city setting in The Gift Maker is so evocatively drawn, it feels like a character in its own right. A rather charismatic character, old-worldly and appealing but also slightly menacing. I kept thinking that I recognised Oxford in your twisting back streets and cobblestoned lanes, and I know that you’ve lived, and studied, there. Can you tell us a bit about that connection?
Mayes: This invented city has an amalgam of sources, in addition to pure invention. Oxford would certainly be there, in the mix, as would my impressions of certain European cities, including Berlin, Florence, Paris, and Bremen. I also lived in London for quite a few years, and that leaves an effect, of course. Early on in the story, there is a bridge that the three students cross in the tram. Jewelry shops and other fashionable emporia are attached, seemingly precariously, to both sides of the bridge. This has a very specific source in the Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno river, in Florence (albeit trams do not cross it).
Ely: Throughout the novel, your background in theatre and television comes to the fore; every chapter seems staged for maximum dramatic effect. How much do you feel your training in theatre has fed into your writing?
Mayes: I am enormously glad that this came across, and that a certain amount of dramatic tension was evident within the chapters themselves. I suppose I’ve read a great many plays, and have read them as one would stories. I was conscious, especially at the editing stage, of aiming to end chapters on somewhat of a hook, knowing that the action is to move elsewhere in the following chapter. My aim was to hold the reader’s interest across more than one narrative line, and I would be very pleased indeed if this was successful, at least to some degree.
Furthermore, many of the doyens of fiction whom I love are, to my mind, highly dramatic writers—even if the drama is unfolding solely in a protagonist’s head (perhaps especially then). I’m thinking of Jean Rhys, Raymond Chandler, and Kafka, to name but three.
Ely: I very much enjoyed the way you develop your characters in the novel—every one is a bag of subtle behavioural quirks with distinct manners of speaking. Has your training as an actor been an advantage in this development of character?
Mayes: I think it could well have been. Perhaps these activities, creating a “role” in a theatre production, and creating a (hopefully) fully rounded character on the page, are not that dissimilar. I understand that some actors work from the outside-in, e.g. looking for the shoes a character might wear, which then affects the walk, and so forth; whereas other actors work initially more internally, on a wholly emotional or “sense memory” level, to try to bring the character to them, so to trigger their own moment-to-moment reality—method acting, if you will.
In writing, I prefer the character to reveal themselves, and to do so incrementally. I don’t want to know them until they let themselves be known—through particular circumstance, through action. There is that old dictum about character being revealed under pressure, and I think that often holds true. When reading, I do like to see differentiation in characters’ voices, lexical range, tone, individual syntax, etc. It needn’t be glaring, but it’s good to see it there, as often it will inform how conflict might arise, or indeed, be assuaged. And characters can often mirror each other via speech patterns, and this may produce a further dramatic effect. Harold Pinter is especially good in that respect, I feel, as is David Mamet.
Ely: The Gift Maker conveys a world at once extraordinary, but also very real. The narrative voice, whimsical and sentimental without being weak, is very reminiscent of the storytelling voice often used to narrate films. How much have you been influenced by modern cinema in your writing?
Mayes: I’m really glad that a sense of fundamental reality comes through, as a baseline, which is then fractured by the extraordinary and uncanny happenings throughout the novel. I suppose we are all influenced by cinema and television to some extent; and these media have had a profound affect on writing, and certainly the novel form. Perhaps writing, as a whole, has become more cinematic, and tailored to a demand for near-constant action, rather than the contemplative or more discursive voice; albeit there is much that only the story or novel can do, vis-à-vis the camera—description of subtle internal states, deep subjectivity, various types of ambiguity, and certain uses of irony.
Ely: You write in lots of different genres: poetry, short story, you’re a songwriter, a novelist. Do you have a favourite to write in?
Mayes: I must say, I love them all; and they all cross over. There is story in song, and there can be poetry in prose. Song and poetry are, of course, closely allied, with one of the older terms for poetry being “song.” My hope is to continue trying to write in all these forms. I find that some combinations clash less than others, in terms of writing concurrently. Writing a poem while working on a story seems to cause no issues regarding prioritising one over the other; whereas, for me, writing a short story while attempting a novella or novel feels overwhelming to me—as the characters and fictional world of the larger piece demand all the attention.
Ely: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Please tell me that you have a weird ritual. No writer I interview ever has a weird ritual and it’s very upsetting to me.
Mayes: Lately, I’m writing, or attempting to write, at night. Partly because my sleep patterns are all over the shop, and partly as it’s quieter then, and the other things one can do are more limited. Having said that, it’s nice when you can write in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day knowing you’ve done your “bit”—it stops the creeping guilt response when you know you’re not getting on with stuff.
I used to like going to pubs and cafes to have a scribble—as the “noise” there is sort of general, offering a quaint sort of peace and detachment. Added to which, you may overhear some great lines of potential dialogue. Lately though, I need to be alone, in the bedroom, with the curtains shut, on a constant drip of tea.
Weird ritual: I’m not sure how weird this is, but I often go through story, song, and poem folders and files on the computer, putting them in better order, placing sets of folders into overarching super-folders; and making sure I’ve backed everything up twenty times on data-sticks and sent them to numerous email accounts and dropboxes. This can get me into a sort of numbed, slightly disassociated state, where hopefully something might kick off.
Ely: What do you see as the challenges with marketing a trans-genre book? The Gift Maker has been billed as a fantasy novel, but it’s also very much a literary book. How will you reach out to your real readers, who want fully drawn characters and poetic writing, but who also like their literary novels to be tinged with something surreal on occasion?
Mayes: In terms of potential readers getting a flavour for the style of the book, the excerpt that will be available on the Amazon page will be helpful; as will ongoing feedback and reviews that make mention of the more literary aspects of the novel; and indeed, Q and A’s such as this one, which really goes into some detail, I think.
Another aspect of this, which we’re are all prone to, of course, is not knowing the range of what you might enjoy until you encounter it. People like to be surprised sometimes, I suppose, by what they find themselves reading or watching or listening to. Over the last year or so, I’ve read a number of books in genres that I might not habitually have chosen, and have been enriched by them, and enjoyed the reading experience hugely.
Ely: What are you working on now?
Mayes: I’ve just completed a fairly long short story, which I’ve entered for the BBC Short Story Competition. I’ve also got a longer piece on the simmer, for which I really want to complete a first draft by late spring. I’m finding writing the ending particularly challenging; or, at the very least, producing an ending. I keep trying to write poems and songs, although they’ve taken a back seat recently. Talking so much, above, about plays and acting, makes me want to try writing for the stage one day—perhaps something small(ish) to begin with, like a one-act play.
Ely: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Mark!
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