Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Mortlock by Jon Mayhew

Well, I've tried to avoid him for God knows how long but I've got to face it, Jon Mayhew's here to stay.
Born in the barbarians lands beyond Watford, it's fairly obvious to me that there is SOMETHING VERY WRONG about Jon, and it's not just his haircut. Being brought up by a den of badgers hasn't helped his social skills, or eating habits, but there's something spooky about him, and more than a little macabre about his writing.
MORTLOCK is a gothic, Victorian horror show, in all the best ways.
Gruesome, melancoly, and absolutely dripping with atmosphere it's the first book I've read in a long time that I finished in the day.
Here's the blurb:

The sister is a knife-thrower in a magician's stage act, the brother an undertaker's assistant. Neither orphan knows of the other's existence. Until, that is, three terrible Aunts descend on the girl's house and imprison her guardian, the Great Cardamom. His dying act is to pass the girl a note with clues to the secret he carries to his grave. Cardamom was one of three explorers on an expedition to locate the legendary Amarant, a plant with power over life and death. Now, pursued by flesh-eating crow-like ghuls, brother and sister must decode the message and save themselves from its sinister legacy.

It's not out until April, but I've been very lucky to have a chance to pick his Jon's brains recently and, while they may have left a difficult to remove stain on the carpet, his brains revealed much.

1. Firstly, and arguably most importantly, is it true than you were brought up in the wilds of north England by a den of badgers? I merely raise this because of the bristling nature of your hair, or is it just some special shampoo you use?
Shampoo? In the North? I’d be fed to the whippets if I even thought of using shampoo. The badgers have always been kind to me, so I’ve started to grow some grey hairs in their honour.
2. Most writers are advised to introduce their protagonist asap. You open with three characters that basically don't appear again and the heroine, Josie, is nowhere to be seen. Was this an issue since it seems to go so strongly against received wisdom? Can you give us a bit of background on the editing and rewriting process?
I was nervous of using a prologue at first and as you say, the received wisdom is that a prologue isn’t recommended. Personally, I quite like a prologue and as long as it’s needed, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a good way of showing events of the past instead of have tons of exposition.
Mortlock has gone through countless numbers of rewrites (I have genuinely forgotten how many). It was a sprawling book at first and through time it has become more and more streamlined. I shed a lot of favourite scenes and characters. Lots of darlings died in the rewrites but that’s what has to be done!
3. The book's amazingly rich in setting, but done without labouring the background detail about Victorian London. Can you tell us a bit about the research you did to build such a believably real world?
I start with a search of events and glean as much as I can from the internet. The Dictionary of Victorian London is invaluable and Lee Jackson should get some kind of medal for setting it up.
I also read Henry Mayhew and Ackroyd’s London.
But I wouldn’t let any of the research get in the way of creating a dark atmospheric Hammer Horror type London, which is what people want! Fog and shadows and filthy streets and ragamuffins. I was musing the other day as I travelled through Liverpool how rich the city is in Victorian architecture, so I’ve grown up amongst all these influences.
4. Josie really reminds me of Lyra out of Pullman's Northern Lights, a ragamuffin heroine with lots of guts and loyalty. How did Joise come about and was it a concious decision to have a female protagonist? Were there any issues regarding writing a lead character of a different sex?
Josie existed before Alfie, although Alfie was my first character in Mortlock. Josie stepped out of my first book that never saw the light of day. I have to admit, I love the His Dark Materials Trilogy and Lyra must have been lurking in the back of my mind. We hear a lot about books for boys and girls and I suppose I wanted to write something for children, so I felt including a male and a female main protagonist was the natural way to do it. At first, Josie was a rather stereotyped blonde-haired, blue eyed Victorian girly-type but I managed to edit her into something a bit more ordinary and believable. I had to consider clothing as well, Victorian girls didn’t wear trousers!
5. Your next book, Demon Collector, is set in the same world as Mortlock, but not with the same characters. Why not return to Josie? I for one would love to see much more of her. What can you tell us about it?
I love FE Higgins and the way she weaves her stories around different characters in the same universe. It gives you so much scope to mix and match characters later in clever ways or to overlap stories. I also felt that Josie and Alfie’s story had been told, it was complete. Though the eagle-eyed (or should I say crow-eyed) may notice the odd slightly lose end. The final Ballad gives a clue too!
6. You've turned DC around very quickly. How much of the next two books was decided at the point of your publishing deal? Did you have a trilogy in mind at the beginning or was this something that you developed with the publisher?
I had a Demon Collector synopsis roughed out when we sold Mortlock and it was part of the package. I didn’t have a trilogy in kind at first in fact Demon Collector started as a modern YA novel idea but it wasn’t working for me. The moment I pitched it into Victorian London, it all fell into place. I wouldn’t say I’ve turned it around quickly either, it’s sitting on my editor’s desk right now and I’m sure it’ll come back with lots of ‘suggestions!’
7. Without giving the plot away, what was the hardest aspect of writing the book? A scene, a character?
For me it is keeping track of the plot. As I write, I can go off on tangents. This is fine but often I end up down blind alleys and it leads to repetition. I find it easier to map everything out and then keep to the plan. I can always change the plan if I need to. I could write short exciting scenes by the thousand but it’s stringing them together and threading them through the development of the character that’s the trick.
8. Each chapter opens with a verse from an old ballad. Can you tell us how and why this motif came about?
I’ve loved traditional music since I was a child. One of the themes of the book is what you pass down to the next generation. In an early draft, a character tells Josie that we can still hear the dead talk through the songs that are passed down through the ages. I believe that. I wanted a way to link the book into the voices of the people of the time.
I read a beautiful book called The New Policeman by Kate Thompson and it was punctuated by Irish tunes. It gave me the idea of using gory ballads to open each verse.
The ballad, Twa Corbies, gave me the monstrous crow-like ghuls.

Needless to say, it's an amazing book and deserves a huge amount of success. If you're a fan of Darren Shan (and frankly, who isn't?), Phillip Pullman or just great, dark horror-shows, get this book. BTW, the circus scene will disturb your dreams for a LONG time.


Jon M said...

Spooky? Moi? Mwahahahahaha!
Thanks ever so much for the positive response to Mortlock, Sarwat. I've released your pet hamster now, he'll be wandering along the hardshoulder of the M40... if you're quick you might just catch him!

kathryn evans said...

Geat interview - though I have to say if you are not a fan of Darren Shan or Philip Pullman you will also love this book ( that's me!). And yes, the circus is still giving me nightmares in a deliciously colourful, watery tinged way.....