Out this week is the latest novel by Mark Morris, ‘The Wolves of London: The Obsidian Heart’ which gives us a thrill ride of adventure as we follow Psychology professor Alex Locke who long turned his back on a life of crime and has been drawn back into his past. Only, when he is forced to agree to steal an artifact known as The Obsidian Heart, he has no idea of the time traveling adventure he is about to land himself in or what threat an unearthly set of assassins that are only known as the ‘Wolves of London’ have in store for him.
Morris had some time to sit down with us and give us some details about his recent novel as well as some other fun information that fans are sure to want to find out more about!
Science Fiction (SF): Mark, thanks for taking the time to share an interview with us. First I’m sure our readers are curious as to knowing more about your latest work ‘The Wolves of London’.
The novel is described as a blend of street crime, science fiction, and horror – did you have any issues in leaning too far in one direction on keeping the different elements balanced?
Mark Morris (MM): Not really, because uppermost in my mind was simply the story – specifically, in keeping it as focused and interesting as I possibly could. I didn’t consciously think about which genres I was straying in to at any one time, or whether one genre was taking undue precedence over another. My own reading habits are not restricted to any particular genre, and I do think that people should read as widely as possible. I’m all for variety and cross-fertilization.
SF: Who was your favorite character in ‘The Wolves of London’ and what made them special for you?
MM: I love all my characters. They’re all great fun to write and to spend time with. I don’t have favorites as such, though Alex, the main character, is obviously the one I’m most invested in. He’s telling the story, so events are viewed very much through his eyes and even though he often doesn’t know what’s going on, or why, the book revolves around him. We’re party to his thought processes, his reactions, his emotions. Everything and everyone else is seen via his observations. We don’t get into anyone else’s head.
SF: What kind of research did you have to do for the novel?
MM: I did lots of location research, by which I mean that the book is set in London, but that I personally don’t live in London, so I did a hell of a lot of reading about the history, layout, appearance and reputation of different areas. I bought London guides and consulted my A-Z a lot (as Alex does in the book!) and even went for virtual walks via Google street view through the Isle of Dogs and various other areas, which I found incredibly useful. Aside from that I did research into Victorian London for the section near the end of the book (though that will come more to the fore in book two, a good 80% of which is set in Victorian London) and also some research into the First World War, and in particular into trench warfare, and the battles that took place around Ypres (though again, this will come to the fore more in book three). Beyond that there were just little bits of research done here and there, as and when I needed them.
SF: As I understand it ‘The Wolves of London’ is the first book in a planned trilogy. Without major spoilers what can you tell us about what we can expect going forward in the series?
MM: The next two books are called ‘The Society of Blood’ and ‘The Wraiths of War,’ and although the three books tell a single story – which, as you’ve already mentioned, is part crime, part horror, part steampunk, part time-travelly science-fiction – the three books are quite distinctive in that they’re each set, more or less, in a different time zone – although there is some cross over. So ‘The Wolves of London’ is set mostly in modern-day London, ‘The Society of Blood’ is set mostly in Victorian London, and ‘The Wraiths of War’ is set largely during WW1, though there will inevitably be more jumping about in the last book as the different strands of the story start to come together. In the simplest terms possible the three books tell the story of a doting father whose five year old daughter has been abducted, and who is doing all he possibly can to get her back.
SF: While you have a blend of genres put together in this novel, do you have a preferred genre of choice to write in?
MM: I guess horror is the genre that really floats my boat. I’ve always been drawn to the dark stuff, the creepy stuff. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, but it was the fact that Doctor Who was scary that really grabbed me as a kid, not that he could travel in time or had a spaceship that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside – though those things were cool too. But having said that, I think horror has very wide parameters. It can be supernatural or non-supernatural; it can be set in a creepy Victorian mansion, on a run-down 21st century council estate or on a space station in a far-flung galaxy. It can be gruesome or psychological; it can be straightforward or elliptical; it can be life affirming or nihilistic. And it’s probably the genre that leaks most readily into other genres. Elements of horror can often be found in crime fiction, in science fiction, even in a lot of mainstream fiction.
SF: What is your ideal writing environment?
MM: It has to be quiet, that’s the main thing. I can’t work to music – though I can occasionally work in public places like cafes and pubs and on trains if there’s just a rumble of noise in the background and I can’t distinctly hear other peoples’ conversations. Most of my working time is spent in my study, which I love. It’s on the ground floor at the back of our house, looking out over the back garden. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves on every wall, crammed with books and magazines and DVDs.
SF: If a reader loves your style of writing, whose works would you suggest that they check out?
MM: My love of the genre came largely from ‘Doctor Who’ and other spooky TV series of the 60s and 70s, from Hammer and Amicus movies, and from the dozens of anthologies, most notably those published by Pan, Fontana and Armada, that I devoured in my adolescent years. But after that grounding came specific writers whose work had a huge influence on me, most notably Stephen King, James Herbert (up to about ‘The Magic Cottage’ or ‘Domain’, after which I started to find his word increasingly stodgy and dull), Ramsey Campbell, M.R. James, Fritz Leiber (specifically the collection ‘Night’s Dark Agents’), Peter Straub, Clive Barker (again specifically his early works: ‘The Books of Blood’, ‘The Damnation Game’ and ‘Weaveworld’) and also, as I was starting to make inroads into publishing myself, writers like Charles L. Grant, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Stephen Gallagher, Dennis Etchison and Nicholas Royle. Aside from those, I’d recommend checking out the likes of Adam Nevill, Graham Joyce, Conrad Williams, Tim Lebbon, Gary McMahon, Stephen Volk, Tom Fletcher… And there are loads of great female genre writers around now too, which wasn’t really the case in my formative years – most notably Lisa Tuttle, Angela Slatter, Thana Niveau, Alison Littlewood, Alison Moore, Sarah Pinborough, Helen Marshall… oh, and many others. Apologies if I’ve missed anyone out. My brain’s gone into shutdown.
But coming back to my point about reading widely, and also about elements of horror being found in mainstream fiction, lots of my favorite authors are not genre writers – or are not regarded as such – but have still written some pretty creepy and macabre stuff. In that vein I’d recommend the work of Sarah Waters, Donna Tartt, Ian McEwan, Magnus Mills, Rupert Thomson, David Mitchell, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Stephen Gregory…
SF: You have both built your own worlds and played in worlds created by others. What would you say is your favorite part of writing in each?
MM: It always comes down to character. I’m a strong believer that the best fiction is character driven; that if you manage to create strong characters that people believe in, then the readers will become wholly invested in them and therefore in the story – to the extent that even the most minor events that happen to them will become major, or at least interesting in some way.
This is what Stephen King does so brilliantly. He creates wonderfully rounded characters that you care about and want to spend time with. In my own fiction, therefore, that’s what I find most satisfying – creating characters that I love and that come alive for me on the page. I always say that you know a character is working if you feel you know more about them than you could possibly need for your story, and also if their dialogue flows naturally and freely rather than being forced.
Obviously when I’m writing my own fiction I‘m building my characters from scratch, creating their lives, their personalities, which, when it’s going well, is incredibly satisfying.
And the same goes for tie-in fiction too, except here it’s a case not of building characters from scratch, but of tapping into already established characters and getting them right, bringing them alive in a way that makes the transition from, say, screen to page an effortless one.
When I was writing ‘Forever Autumn’, my first ‘Doctor Who’ book featuring the 10th Doctor (as played by David Tennant), I was aware that my challenge was to write a character who had boundless energy and enthusiasm, who was a hundred times cleverer and wittier than I was, and who never did or said anything that was remotely dull or even ordinary. The trick, for me, was to keep David Tennant’s performance fresh in my mind at all times, and I did that by watching a ten-minute clip from one of his episodes each morning and then going immediately to my desk and starting writing. By giving myself these daily ‘shots’ of Tennant I was able to harness his Doctor and reproduce him on the page, at least to my own satisfaction. That then made it easier for me to visualize him saying the words I was writing, which is very important. I find that to write the character of the Doctor convincingly you have to have a very clear mind-movie of your story running in your head – and it has to be so sharp that it’s almost like a memory of an episode that you’ve just watched on the telly. If you start to lose that, if it becomes fuzzy, then you run the risk of the Doctor getting away from you. Because if you write dialogue that you can’t clearly visualize the Doctor saying, you’re sunk. It immediately jars in the reader’s mind and the story loses all credibility.
One of my greatest joys in tie-in fiction was writing the relationship between Donna and Gandhi in ‘Ghosts of India’. Obviously Donna was my version of someone else’s fictional character and Gandhi was my interpretation of a real-life person thrown into a crazy situation. I loved trying to get those two characters ‘right’, or at least convincing enough to pass muster. I loved writing the dialogue between the modern, brash, forthright Donna and the very centered, mild-mannered, peace-loving Gandhi, and building up the mutually affectionate relationship between these two very different characters.
SF: We have a lot of ‘Doctor Who’ fans that follow the site and in our own staff, how did you enjoy working on such a popular franchise?
MM: For me, writing ‘Doctor Who’ feels a bit like coming home. It was the first fictional thing that scared me as a kid – ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ in 1967 when I was four – and it drew me into the genre and made me a fan of it, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
For me, ‘Doctor Who’ is the perfect format. It’s all genres in one. It’s science-fiction, horror, historicals, romance, even Westerns – and at its heart is a mysterious, fascinating, anti-authoritarian, incredibly witty, ever-changing and yet constant hero.
As I say, I started watching ‘Doctor Who’ when I was four, and I started devouring ‘Doctor Who’ books from the age of eleven (Terrance Dicks is a massive hero of mine), so to be able to contribute to the ‘Doctor Who’ universe, to officially expand it with stories of my own, is utterly mind-blowing.
The only disadvantages to working on ‘Doctor Who’ – if they can even be called that – are coming up with new ideas and new directions that haven’t been explored before (don’t forget there are fifty years of not just TV episodes to consider, but hundreds of other stories in novel and audio format), and the slightly daunting level of responsibility you feel, not only in wanting to get it right, but knowing that thousands of incredibly passionate and often ultra-critical ‘Doctor Who’ fans will be poring over your words and picking your story apart.
But the watchword with ‘Doctor Who’ for me is ‘fun’. Above all else, ‘Doctor Who’ should always be fun. That doesn’t mean it can’t be serious, or emotional, or dark, or scary, but at its heart it should always be fun – it should make people happy.
SF: ‘Doctor Who’ is only one of the franchises that you’ve worked in before. My favorite one that you’ve dabbled in though is ‘Hellboy’ as Mike Mignola’s creation is one of my favorite horror inspired comic book heroes to date. What did you think of working on ‘Hellboy: All-Seeing Eye’ and how much freedom did you have to play in Mignola’s universe?
MM: I have to admit, when I was commissioned to write ‘The All-Seeing Eye’ I knew very little about the character. It was my friend Chris Golden, acting more or less as series editor, who asked me whether I’d be interested in writing a Hellboy novel, and when I said yes he arranged for Dark Horse to send me a ton of ‘Hellboy’ and ‘BPRD’ graphic novels so that I could become acquainted with the character and the background in which he operated.
I’d seen the first movie – and loved it – but Chris’s instructions were to more or less disregard the movie version of Hellboy and focus on Mike Mignola’s version of the character, who was subtly but vitally different. Chris also said that he wanted me to set the story in the UK, and that he wanted me to write not a ‘Hellboy’ novel, but a ‘Mark Morris’ novel featuring Mike’s characters and set-up, which basically meant that he wanted me to write in my own style and explore my own ideas and directions rather than trying to ape Mike’s.
The process itself, once I’d done the groundwork and got a handle on the characters, was as straightforward as any novel-writing job. Chris picked me up on a few things along the way – when I started to stray into ‘movie’ territory, for instance, or on the odd occasion that I made Abe Sapien sound too much like a ‘prissy English butler’ – but overall it was a great experience. It helped, of course, that I fell in love with the ‘Hellboy’ universe and with the characters. And it was a real thrill when I was first shown the cover – an original piece of Mike Mignola artwork that he had done based specifically on my ideas!
SF: What other projects do you currently have in the works?
MM: The second book ‘The Society of Blood’ will be out at the same time in 2015, and the conclusion ‘The Wraiths of War’ will be out in 2016.
Also just out is the first volume of ‘The Spectral Book of Horror Stories’, which I edited. This is a pet project of mine. As I grew up reading the Pan and Fontana horror anthologies, I’ve long held an ambition to edit an annual non-themed horror anthology in the same tradition, and now, after over quarter of a century as a professional writer, that ambition has finally been realized. The first volume has a stellar line-up of stories from such genre luminaries as Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Volk, Lisa Tuttle, Michael Marshall Smith, Angela Slatter, Steve Rasnic Tem, Brian Hodge and others, and has been getting rave reviews right across the board. From November I’ll be reading for volume two, with a view to the book being published in September of next year, and hopefully the series will continue on an annual basis after that.
Also coming from Spectral next year will be a new novella called ‘Albion Fay’, and I’ll also be writing a novella for the new Salt/Remains horror line.
Finally I’ve got a new, currently unnamed collection coming from ChiZine Publications late in 2015. The stories will mostly be reprints, but I’m aiming to write at least three new ones, which will be original to the collection.
SF: Thank you for your time. In closing would you like to say anything to your fans or those interested in learning more about your work?
MM: Only that if you want to find out about my upcoming work, your best bet is to follow me on Facebook and Twitter. My website has been standing idle for three or four years now, and although I keep meaning to get round to building a new one – or at least, getting someone else to build me a new one – I’ve been far too busy writing to do anything about it, and can’t see that situation changing any time soon!
We’d like to again thank Morris for his time and the wonderful answers he shared with us today. ‘The Wolves of London: The Obsidian Heart’ is currently available in paperback.
Psychology professor Alex Locke is an ex-convict, forced back into the criminal underworld when his daughter is threatened. After he agrees to steal a mysterious Obsidian Heart, Locke is pursued by unearthly assassins known as the ‘Wolves of London’. Soon he discovers the heart can enable him to travel through time, and while it bestows him with his own dark powers, it also corrupts…