Another of Gollancz’s heavily promoted debut authors is all set to release his book Wolfsangel on 20th May. In celebration of that, we’d like to introduce you to M D Lachlan! He sits down and chats with us about research, Norse mythology, and whether Lad Lit is an appropriate genre tag…
Amanda: Welcome to FtCB – how are you today?
Mark: Very well. Beset by my children, like Boromir by the Uruk-Hai, but apart from that well.
Amanda: First of all, can I ask you to describe Wolfsangel in your own words and suggest why readers of FtCB may like to buy it?
Mark: It’s a new take on the werewolf myth, Norse mythology and magic itself. It’s a historical fantasy set in the early 9th century that involves Vikings, werewolves, witches and dark, strange gods. I’ve been told it’s something very new in fantasy – particularly the view of the werewolf and of magic. If you enjoy a page turning adventure interspersed with some extremely odd and sinister magic, this is the book for you! It’ll give you the werewolf as you’ve never seen the creature before! Also, it’s got terrific reviews from a host of authors you might know – Joe Abercrombie, Mike Carey and many others. It’s just starting to get reviews in the mags and blogs and, so far, they’ve all been great too.
Here’s one I really liked from Wertzone:
‘(A) primal force ripped screaming out of the annals of Norse mythology, drenched in blood and tragedy.’
Amanda: Wolfsangel is not the first book you’ve had published – you have also written in the genre of “Lad Lit”. What prompted the move into genre fiction, and do you intend to publish anymore under Mark Barrowcliffe as well as M D Lachlan?
Mark: I’d argue about the ‘Lad Lit’. I’d just call my earlier books comedy. As lots of critics noted, my work actually bore no resemblance to stuff like Nick Hornby and Mike Gayle. That said, the tag brought me a few readers so I shouldn’t complain about it. Yes I do. I have something that I’m sort of toying with but I’m worried it’s a bit too dark a comedy for a mainstream audience. Or even any audience. It’s the funniest thing I’ve written but a little bleak.
Amanda: Are you noticing differences between speculative genre readers and those who read your previous novels?
Mark: I meet speculative genre readers, which I never did my mainstream readers, though not for want of trying. Speculative readers are much more engaged than mainstream readers, much more ‘fannish’ – and that’s a good thing. Any writer wants people who engage with their work in a passionate way and there are no better fans than SF&F fans for doing that.
There are many more chances to meet them than mainstream fans especially through conventions. They’re also frighteningly well informed, so – because my stuff is rooted in real mythologies – I need to make sure it’s very accurately portrayed.
Amanda: In Wolfsangel, the level of historical detail is key to the authentic feel of the novel: did you do a lot of research for the novel? What did this involve? Were you never tempted to write purely historical works?
Mark: I grew up as a Norse mythology nut and knew a lot about the Viking period anyway. I re-read the Edda – the ancient Norse myths that were recorded in 13th century Iceland and I re-read a lot of the sagas. They’re important to give you the feel of what you’re trying to write – that weird Viking mix between a hale and hearty barnstorming approach to life with something much darker and more disturbing lurking beneath.
What kills you is the detail. How extensive was the deck on an early longship? What did an early Celtic Christian monastery look like? What was a monastic church made of, stone or wood? I tend to just write it as I imagine it but read lots of history books as I’m going along and amend accordingly. When I try to describe something I don’t know about, I’ll look it up. I also used a lot of books written by re-enactors because they have practical detail in – like the practice of having a cooking fire on a ship on top of the ballast stones.
Fantasy is in my blood, I grew up obsessed by it, so it didn’t occur to me to write pure history. I don’t plan what I do anyway. This story sort of popped out of me when I was writing something else – it suddenly emerged on the page. I didn’t make a conscious decision to write it. The Viking story arrived first as the backstory in a WWII adventure – the history of an immortal werewolf. Hopefully the series will eventually go forward in history to WWII and beyond into the present day. The WWII story is written and I’m pleased with it. The present day story is planned and that’s quite exciting too.
That said, I have a YA idea which is straight history.
Amanda: Linked to this, how did you find it trying to balance between historical accuracy and the needs of the story?
Mark: Not hard. I was worried that there’s a love story in this and that it might not be strictly historically accurate to put one in. Did people think in terms of love before the chivalric period? I think the answer is ‘yes’ from the research I’ve done.
Often a historical point can drive the plot. Longships, for instance, weren’t much cop in a storm, so the Vikings would beach in bad weather if they could. Also the correspondences between Finnish mythology – which features in Wolfsangel – and Norse Mythology gave me some creative food for thought.
The fantastic elements are derived from real historical sources and anything we don’t know – the berserker practices, for instance, I’ve filled in with educated guesses. Because it’s a fantasy you can take more liberties than in a strict history – Authun’s Moonsword, for instance is clearly an Arab scimitar. The true scimitar arguably doesn’t really appear for several more centuries – though it probably existed in crude form at around this time. Wolfsangel is a magic story, though, and the presence of the blade may be explained in later books…
You can’t take too many liberties because you lose authenticity so I’m always scrupulously attentive to the history. It actually makes things easier. Pure fantasy authors have to make stuff up when it comes to their world an make sure it all fits together. I just have to find it out and can concentrate on character and plot. It’s using a different part of the brain so you’re directing less of your creative effort to world building.
Amanda: Regarding the locations used in the novel, did you visit the Scandinavian countries to get a feel for it? If not, is this an area of the world you would like to visit?
Mark: Yes, I did. I got The Times to send me out to Norway to do an article on The Troll Wall, which features in the book.
It’s a stunning country and The Troll Wall is an amazing phenomenon – a mile high vertical cliff. I went to the top of it and I’m still shaking. The Norwegians are great fun too – nuts, as the above article says. If you get a chance to go to Norway, go. You’ll have to sell your house to buy a cup of coffee but it’ll be worth it.
Amanda: Linking Vikings and werewolves is an inspired idea (particularly given the heavy presence of wolves in Norse mythology): did you have an epiphany moment where it came to you fully-formed or were you working it out gradually in your head?
Mark: Actually I was worried it was a bit of an obvious one. The whole culture is shot through with werewolf stories. I’m really surprised it hasn’t come up before. The quote at the start of the book comes directly from a saga: ‘Brother, you cannot talk about me like that, scolding a noble man, for you ate a wolf’s treat, creeping to dead bodies with a cold snout, being hated by all.’ Of course someone may have combined Vikings and werewolves before. I clearly haven’t read every fantasy novel ever written. My epiphany moment was when I realised who the werewolf was, so to speak, how he fitted into the wider Norse myth.
Amanda: Just a cheeky question: do you prefer Odin or Loki?
Mark: Loki, by far. He’s the only Viking god who isn’t also a god of war. Odin, god of the hanged, poetry, madness, magic and war. Thor god of thunder and war, Freyr, god of fertility but battle-bold. Loki’s a trickster figure but he plays his tricks on the gods. He tends to help humans. Odin is mad, unknowable, treacherous and strange.
Amanda: The use of the ‘Wolfsangel’ rune in the book is another clever touch, but, when you introduced it, were you aware of the more negative connotations it has been given in recent times? Was this a concern? Has the book been translated into German yet? If it hasn’t, is there an intention to change the symbol used?
Mark: I knew the rune from seeing it in a book when I was a kid and its three meanings (which are in Wolfsangel, I won’t put the spoiler in here) fascinated me. Its origins are obscure – it bears similarity to an ancient Viking rune but also to a mason’s mark of the 13th century.
When I was researching the book I did come across its unpleasant adoption by a small number of Nazi units in WWII and, subsequently, by a small number of neo Nazis. I was mortified because that rune was part of my imagination from a young age. I thought long and hard about putting it in.
The first thing that made me think I was justified in using the symbol in the book was that it is still used in Germany today – in the coats of arms of various cities. Its Nazi connotation isn’t strong enough even in Germany to warrant its removal. The German publishers certainly haven’t raised it as an issue. I have checked the German law on the rune and it relates to its context. If you’re using it as a symbol of a repellent ideology, it’s illegal. Any other use, the law allows.
Secondly, I don’t think we should allow the far right to hijack an entire mythology and make it theirs. The Nazis ransacked Norse mythology and history and turned it to their own aims. Some of this history is unreclaimable. The Swastika, for instance, which in its runic use is speculated to be a symbol of the thunder god Thor, can never be used free of the vile connotations given to it by Hitler.
Many other lesser known runes, though, were adopted by the Nazis either directly or in slightly adapted versions. Notorious, of course, is the S of the SS – the so called Sig rune which appears to have been adopted from a rune of the Viking futhark – but other runes were appropriated too – the Hagal rune, for instance, which appears on the inside of the ‘death’s head’ ring of the SS. There are many, many other examples. The whole Norse pantheon was used, and even worshipped, by the vicious fruitcakes of the Nazi high command.
So you have a choice. You say ‘this mythology is entirely contaminated and I’m never going to use anything of it’. Or you say that the Nazi view of the mythology was itself a corruption – and not a very subtle or imaginative corruption at that – of what we know of Norse mythology and you reclaim it. I didn’t set out to make any political point in Wolfsangel but I did set out to give my individual vision of Norse mythology, which is a million miles removed from that of the Nazis.
The Nazis focused very strongly on the warlike qualities of the Norse gods. There are other much more complex strands both in the figure of Odin – king of the Viking gods and the trickster figure of Loki. I bring them out.
Plenty of other writers have written stories involving the runes and they seem satisfied too that the mythology is out of the Nazi’s shadow.
So, in short, I did think about my use of the Wolfsangel rune but I decided that if I couldn’t use that then I couldn’t really use any of the mythologies or symbols the Nazis raided. We’re not talking about the swastika here. The Wolfsangel rune’s Nazi associations are not widely known outside the closed and idiotic world of the extreme right and so have little chance of causing offence.
Also, ordinary and flawed humanity is shown as a valuable thing in Wolfsangel – a view that undermines any Nazi ubermensch posturing.
This was explored when Wolfsangel had a WWII component. The main character in the WWII story is an aristocrat and describes the wolf’s head that is his family’s crest as ‘one of those many venerable symbols the Nazis have so presumptuously appropriated’.
Just a word on the Vikings whose mythology the Nazis lifted. To my mind the Vikings were a very inclusive race. OK, they did a fair bit of plundering and sacking but, if you read the contemporaneous history – people like the Franks under Charlemagne weren’t shy around a bit of bloodshed either. Vikings showed themselves keen adapters of other cultures – the Viking warriors who settled in Northern France had lost most of their language and much of their cultural identity in a couple of generations and become the Normans. The Varangian guard served under the Byzantine emperors and Vikings founded modern Russia. In every place they appear to have adapted local customs and intermarried. Something of a blow to the racial purity brigade.
Amanda: With hindsight, is there anything about Wolfsangel you would like to change?
Mark: Not really. I’ve had the chance as there is a big delay between handing the book to the publishers and it coming out. I’ve read the book many times as it goes through the production process and if there was something I wanted to change then I would have done so. Oh, yeah, the Mini Cooper in chapter four. Only joking.
Amanda: How goes the writing on the follow-up to Wolfsangel? And, roughly, when can we expect to see it?
Mark: Extremely well. You’ll see it next year in May. It shows what publishing schedules are like – my deadline is this June. It’s a belter, I think.
Amanda: Are you prepared to offer our readers any hints about what to expect in the next book?
Mark: Can’t say too much without giving away the plot of Wolfsangel. It’s more of a thriller than Wolfsangel, though the signature strange magic is still there. My model was an early medieval 24 with a werewolf instead of Jack Bauer. It’s set 100 years after Wolfsangel and features some characters who have turned out well. Prepare for shocks! It’s given me a few surprises writing it, which is a good sign.
Amanda: Are you still involved in journalism? Which publications are you writing for at the moment?
Mark: I am involved. I’ll write for anyone who will pay me within reason! I write for the national press and magazines, when they ask me.
Amanda: Can you tell us briefly about which events and conventions you are planning to attend this year (after your enjoyable report about Eastercon)?
Mark: I’m going to Alt.Fiction and The UK Games Expo
Amanda: Thanks so much for allowing us to talk to you! Any last words for the readers?
Mark: Last words? Do you know something I don’t? Just do let me know what you think of the book if you read it!
This interview was already published on FanLit!