Posted on April 11, 2011 - by MG
The DARK PARALLEL launch season began with a lovely event at Waterstone’s Milton Keynes, where I was joined by the dashing former RAF pilot, YA author Mark Robson.
We swapped books and decided to interview each other about our latest offerings. Mark’s latest is a VERY shiny new exciting thing, a book about an adventure in the Bermuda Triangle! Massive coolness. I’ll be telling you about it in a few days. But for now – the interview swap. you remember how this works from my recent swap with Katherine Langrish. Interview with MG Harris about DARK PARALLEL over at Mark’s place – Trapped by Monsters. Interview with Mark Robson about THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE here at The MG Harris Blog.
Mark, you’ve been a regular on the children’s and YA literature scene for a few years now and are something of an expert when it comes to school visits! But for readers who may not have met you in their school or read your books, can you summarize your writing career and the fictional worlds you create?
Firstly, I never intended to be a writer. I was a pilot in the RAF and loving it, but whilst on detachment in the Falkland Islands, I got bored and irritable – so much so that my navigator uttered the life changing words ‘For goodness sake, Mark! Do something useful. Go write a book, or something!’ I took this as a challenge and have been writing ever since.
My first series of books were very much inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I wanted to write something that had a similar story arc, but that was more action driven and that utilised my military background. The Darkweaver Legacy was the result, out of which evolved my second series – The Imperial Trilogy – the story of a nineteen year old female spy who makes an enemy of a top assassin. By now I was no longer in the RAF, as I’d turned full time as a writer, so I felt the time was ripe to write a flying story. Dragon Orb a series of four high action dragon stories bring dragons from a fantasy world into World War I France, where they fly in secret with the Royal Flying Corps against the Red Baron! It was an unusual idea – sort of like Biggles meets dragons. The Devil’s Triangle, my latest labour of love, is my twelfth novel.
Would you say your influences are literary or screen? What are the big inputs into Devil’s Triangle?
I would say my influences are widespread. I’ve always read prolifically, so there are many influences there, some of which I’m probably not even consciously aware. Although I’m not a great cinema goer, or film buff, I’ve seen a good number over the years and yes, they most certainly influence me as well. I would say there is a good dash of Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park (book and film) and The Land that Time Forgot in this new series. Now that I think of it, there are some interesting parallels with a series by Julian May that I read and enjoyed in my teens that began with a book called The Many Coloured Land. It was set in the future where a one way time portal is opened to the Pliocene era and many of society’s misfits undergo sterilisation and then pass through the portal to escape from modern society.
Highly-evolved lizards have been in vogue ever since the original V-the Visitors series about a covert invasion of Earth by reptilian aliens. Do you think there is something in our obsession with reptiles as the enemy?
I think there is something inherently scary about reptiles. I have a fear (I wouldn’t say phobia, as I believe this to be a perfectly rational fear) of poisonous snakes. I’m OK with handling pythons and grass snakes, but I’m terrified of their poisonous cousins. Over the years I’ve stumbled across quite a few in different parts of the world, and although I’ve never been bitten, these incidents have only served to strengthen my fear.
In many of the stories I wrote as a young child, snakes were the bad guys. The very earliest story I still have from my childhood (I would guess I was about 6 when I wrote it) is called ‘The Friendly Crocodile’ and guess what… the bad guy is a snake. OK, so the hero was also a reptile in that story, as is Nipper in my new story, but I can’t help thinking there is something untrustworthy about reptiles that goes right back to the earliest times. Satan is even depicted as a snake in Genesis. No wonder we fear them.
This is the first time you’re writing in a ‘realistic’ contemporary setting, after a series of bestselling stories involving swords, sorcery and dragons. How different was it as a writer? And are you now converted to blending fact with fiction?
Oh wow! ‘Different’ doesn’t begin to describe it, MG! For me it was like learning to write all over again. I found it incredibly difficult to begin with, as I guess I’d become used to being able to just create my worlds the way I wanted them to be. The constraints of a real world story make the research of even the smallest details mandatory, and I found having to constantly stop writing in order to check out trivia incredibly frustrating to begin with.Now that I’ve written one story in this way, I must admit that the results are interesting, and more than a little pleasing. I think readers will identify with my characters more easily in this sort of story and I’m sure that I’ll continue to improve my storylines the more I write this way. I’m not sure that ‘converted’ is the right word, but I think you’ll be seeing more of this sort of story from me in the future.
The ‘Bermuda Triangle’ phenomenon has been rather neglected of late, and may I say what a genius idea it was to resurrect it! Is there a reason things have gone quiet? has the mystery been quietly solved, do you think?
I think there will always be those who will be believers and those who will dismiss the mysteries as a load of bunkum! Has the region gone quiet? That depends on what you read, but in terms of media coverage, I suppose you would have to conclude that it has. The most recent book I came across during my research was by an American author called Gian Quasar, published in 2004. He claimed in the book that there had been over 1000 unusual incidents recorded in region during the 25 years running up to the publication of his book. (This will obviously not include the famous incidents like Flight 19 and the USS Cyclops that were long before this.) How accurate his stats are, I don’t know, but the book was certainly an interesting read and there are dozens of websites dedicated to the ‘ongoing’ mystery.
The quiet undercurrent of public interest is still there, but no one seems to have used the mystery as the focus of a fictional story for a long time. I’m finding it fun to play with some of the reported phenomena of the region and use them as a vehicle for creating a science fiction/fantasy story.
Part of the realistic setting is that it requires an author to construct very credible family relationships within familiar constraints. I was impressed at how well you did this, how much time you were willing to give to the emotional impact of the disappearance of Clare (the missing mother). Was domestic drama an aspect that you relished writing? Did you get any inspiration for the relationships from your own family or extended family?
I’m not sure that I ever ‘relished’ the idea of writing domestic drama, but I do recognise that people like it. Look at what the writers of Dr Who did with the families of the Doctor’s various assistants over the past few series and it’s easy to see that family drama is a theme that crops up again and again. The popularity of soap operas seems never ending, so having an element of this in my ‘real world’ side of the story seemed essential if I was to give it broad appeal.
As for drawing aspects of the relationships from my own family – no, not really. Though I did steal the names of the characters from members of my family! My youngest sister is Clare, her husband is Matt, and their children are called Sam and Neve. I changed the spellings of their names a little in the story and made the children twins, which the real Sam and Neve aren’t. I did ask them first if they were happy for me to do this, of course. Fortunately they thought it would be fun to have a special part in the story. It has sort of made it their story, though none of the characteristics of the fictional characters are even close to the real people.
Parallel evolution is a fascinating topic! I will admit that a teeny part of me – the biochemist – did wonder why velociraptors would evolve to become human-like in the past 65 million years, when they had failed to go anywhere close to that in the previous 150 million. Evolution, as I understand it, happens because of external pressue. Organisms evolve out of a death-trap (by acquiring camouflage, for example) or they adapt to a lack of food. Velociraptors were already efficient predators, as far as we know, and likely at the top of the food chain or good as. So in the parallel universe, what might have happened to force them to evolve opposable thumbs and human-like intelligence? Is this a mystery that will be addressed in future stories?
I’m sure I read somewhere that had velociraptors been given enough time to continue to evolve, the projections were that they would have become more humanoid, and possibly even warm-blooded. I couldn’t quote the source now. It’s something I read sometime in the dim and distant past. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in this, but this article was in the back of my mind as I developed my ideas for the parallel earth. I think the combination of this idea and the cunning and adaptability of the raptors in the film Jurassic Park combined in my mind to evolve the raptors in the way I have. I don’t anticipate exploring the evolution process in future books, as the action will very much centre on the current political and social evolution (and revolution) that is about to shake the raptor world. There will, however, be more on some of the historical events in our world that have created the Bermuda Triangle legend into the phenomenon it is today.
Devil’s Triangle is actually a clever, subtle satire on contemporary energy and pollution issues. Did you plan this political angle? Personally I love a good political/religious undercurrent in children’s books, but find that it can become wearing if it is too preachy. Devil’s Triangle gets the balance absolutely right!
Yes, the energy and environmental issues were very much planned. The way the High Council in my alternate Earth seem set on covering up the true impact and ramifications of their global environmental problems from the wider raptor society was always intended to be a none too subtle parody. However, I detest books that obviously set out to preach on political or religious issues, so whilst the problems are ever-present in the story, I try to keep the focus on the characters. I’m delighted you feel I have the right balance.
At the end of Devil’s Triangle you’ve taken two characters to a horribly dangerous world from which it appears there is no return, with another character hell-bent on reaching the same destination. What is next for Sam, Niamh and Callum?
Things are set to change fast in Eye of the Storm. Sam and Callum discover that someone (Amelia Earhart’s grandson as it happens) has been developing flying machines in the alternate world. Callum instantly starts thinking this might offer them a way home, whilst Sam’s mum and her band of rebels are more set on stopping the raptors from gaining the power that flight brings. Sam and Callum are therefore set to take part in a ‘Mission Impossible’ style kidnapping at the start of book two. As for Niamh, well she manages to slip through the fingers of the police and goes back on the run… will she find a way to catch up with the boys? I’m not saying. What I will say is there is plenty of action ahead for all of them.
Wow – what fascinating answers. I could have chatted all day long with Mark, but we kept having to sign our books and meet readers!
Hope you’ve enjoyed that as much as I did! If you still haven’t read my own interview by Mark, hop over to Trapped By Monsters, or Mark Robson’s blog – where you can find out more about Mark Robson and his books.