Marcus Bines is a fellow author who contributes to the Dragon Soul Press anthologies. His excellent short story Blessed be the Brine has been published as part of the Shadows of the Sea anthology. He has now contributed a second story, Snicker-Snack, to the Chasing White Rabbits anthology, based around characters from Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland. Let’s begin this interview by diving down the rabbit hole…
What is the enduring appeal of the Alice in Wonderland characters?
I think it must be something to do with their unpredictability – and how similar that is to how many of us experience life. All we know as we read the books and travel through Wonderland is that Alice will be curious, and everything around her will be insane and nonsensical; she has to navigate the insanity, aiming for a point where things make sense – if they ever do. That desire to wrestle the chaotic world into one of order is a very strong one for many of us I think! Wow, that was a bit deep for question 1.
Tell us a little about your short story for Chasing White Rabbits.
In my story Snicker-Snack, Alyssia is a young Londoner with a dull call-centre job and irritating colleagues who is sent a mysterious and ultra-sharp knife in the post. She quickly discovers how handy it is for defending herself against the capital’s ne’er-do-wells, but also that using it comes with some unusual side effects. The inspiration for the story was the Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll’s amazing nonsense poem (included in Through the Looking-Glass) that makes perfect sense once you ease yourself into the language.
Besides Alice in Wonderland, are there any other existing fictional worlds you would like to write a story about?
Well, as you can see from that synopsis, I haven’t exactly written about Wonderland itself, or even included any specific characters from Carroll’s novels – although if you look closely in Snicker-Snack you will find certain characters either hinted at or explicitly referenced. I’ve never really thought of writing in other fictional worlds, and if I did I think I’d like to do something fairly tangential, or inspired by another medium – like imagining the homeworld of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s sci-fi alter ego from the 1970s.
To what extent are your characters based on you or people you know?
Not much – at least not deliberately! Having said that, my current WIP novel series and my first published short story, Blessed Be The Brine (to be found in this anthology) both contain teenage characters. As a secondary school teacher, I’m sure there are shades of pupils I’ve taught in those characters. In fact, when my 15-year-old son read my short story, he complimented me on getting the teenage kids just right in the way they speak and act. So that was a relief!
Do you know your ending when you write, or do you start and see where the story or characters take you?
I’m not ultra-rigid in my planning, but I do think it’s kind of foolish to start a story without knowing where it’s going. Some of the most satisfying stories have a circularity in the character arcs that make them very pleasurable, and knowing the ending means you can get the beginning right I think. But I love it when characters and events pop up on the way in the writing process, ones you didn’t plan and that either throw you for a loop or fire your creative juices. I often find it’s the latter, thankfully.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
For me, it’s tapping into the creativity that I see as a beautifully human and inherently spiritual element of life. I spent years thinking I wasn’t creative because I couldn’t do it the way others did (e.g. making music, painting, drawing), but the chance to create a whole world that exists in my mind and the mind of the reader is a joyful, inexplicable and mysterious thing. What’s really weird is that the worlds I create as a writer almost certainly look different in the imagination of the reader – I find it hard to even get my head around that!
What is the worst thing about being a writer?
The fact that I have to juggle writing with other responsibilities – you know, ones that actually earn me money and mean my family can live in a house and eat food. I’m blessed to be a teacher, as I get whole weeks off work at a time, but it means that when I’m teaching, my writing progress is painfully slow. As teachers we basically cram 12 months of work into 10 months, so everything else that is non-essential tends to get squeezed. That’s where my writing goes at the moment, unless I can find the energy to get up at 5am. It happens, but not enough!
To what extent (if at all) do you agree with the statement “write what you know”?
I don’t think I do really – unless it means “write what you know when you’ve researched some stuff”! I tend to prefer writing female characters to male, and have never been female. My preferred writing genre is fantasy at the moment, which automatically moves my writing away from what I know in terms of daily life. But do I know the mundanity of a tedious job, as Alyssia does in Snicker-Snack? Sure. Do I know what it feels like to have to lead other people without the first clue how to do it (a challenge my main character Autumn faces in my first novel, Gods Of Clay)? Absolutely. So I think I’d prefer “write what you want and include what you know.”
Are you promiscuous or monogamous with your genre of choice?
Well, I’m still new to this really, having been writing for about three years, so I’ve stuck with one genre for now – namely fantasy. I find I can let my imagination loose that way, and I really enjoy it. But my novel series is a mythic fantasy which is fairly epic, Blessed Be The Brine was definitely tinged with horror and Snicker-Snack is an urban fantasy.
Which writers inspire you?
Oh man, so many. I’m currently reading a Stephen King novel for the first time in a few years, and am so impressed by the detail in his research and world-building – but it never bogs the story down. I’d forgotten how enjoyable his books are. As a fantasy writer (and a linguist in my history), obviously there’s Tolkien, whose worlds are ridiculously detailed, to the point where some modern readers struggle to engage. Personally, I wish I could re-read The Lord of the Rings every year, but I’d never have time! The movies will have to suffice. Michael Grant’s Gone series is a great example of YA-fantasy-horror, and when a novel’s opening line involves a teacher disappearing into thin air in front of the class, that’s a great hook! I don’t tend to read EVERYTHING a writer has produced, but recently I’ve loved Room by Emma Donoghue (I know, not all that recent!), The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (an amazing novel, written in a proto-Anglo-Saxon dialect, about the aftermath of 1066) and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.
In addition to the short stories, I understand you are presently writing a vast fantasy epic. Please tell us a little more about that project.
As already mentioned, Gods of Clay is the (current!) title of Book 1 of the series, which is going under the collective name Legends of Vanartha at the moment. The first book is mostly about Autumn, a 14-year-old peasant girl who suddenly receives a supernatural power – seeing visions of the future – and has to find out why by leaving home and family to go on a dangerous journey across her world. Simultaneously, several other characters from different walks of life (a princess, a fisherman, a diplomat and two ageing lovers) find they also have unusual powers at their disposal and have to choose what they will do about them. I’m currently about halfway through book 2 and exploring a range of avenues in terms of publication for book 1.
What advice would you give someone who tells you they want to be a writer?
Go for it – and have realistic expectations! If you have access to a pen and paper, or a keyboard and electricity, there’s nothing stopping you putting words on paper and creating something amazing – a world, an emotion, a reaction, a character – out of literally a blank space. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is always worth doing. Accessing that creative spark that makes us who we are is, I believe, a privilege of being human. But that’s no guarantee anyone else will love or even like what you create – and if getting other people to read it is your goal, there’s hard work involved, and learning the craft of writing (both on the technical spelling-punctuation-grammar-sentence level and how to make a story work), and persistence, and resilience, and a willingness to listen to and act on criticism. Among many other great qualities!
Chasing White Rabbits is out now and can be purchased here.