Sunday, March 02, 2014

Interview with Mark Smylie, author of The Barrow - March 2, 2014

Please welcome Mark Smylie to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Barrow will be published on March 4, 2014 by Pyr.

TQ:  Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Mark:  Well, I guess if feels like I’ve always been writing one thing or another. As a kid I played roleplaying games, writing scenarios and creating worlds and settings, and I would write and draw my own comics, and I guess those impulses never really went away. I made a couple of stabs at creative writing (either comics or novels) before settling in to develop a roleplaying game setting that would become the Known World, the background to both the Artesia comics and now The Barrow; I started working on it in earnest back in the mid-90s. I wrote and illustrated three (and-a-half) comics series for Artesia, which were first published beginning back in 1999, and I’ve been working in publishing in one capacity or another ever since, increasingly on the publishing and editorial side of things at the company I founded, Archaia (now a graphic novel imprint at BOOM! Studios).

The art is the most time-consuming part of comics and graphic novels; I find the writing part comes faster. So I thought about the idea of working in the world and with the same characters, just in novels, as a way of trying to continue the stories in my head about this world while I’m still working on the publishing side of the business. The Barrow is actually an adaptation (and expansion) of a screenplay begun back in 2004 or so. I wrote the initial screenplay with my brother, John Smylie, and a friend of ours, Hidetoshi Oneda, who was a commercial director that worked mostly in Japan. I wound up rewriting the screenplay several times over the years based on notes from producers or readers, as it would occasionally see the light of day (so far without fruition) before disappearing back into my electronic desk drawer. My brother and I had always talked about the idea of turning it into a novel at some point, and with my duties at Archaia making sustained art production difficult, I picked up the screenplay and wrote out a prologue as a writing sample last Christmas break. I was very lucky that Lou Anders at Pyr liked the prologue and screenplay enough to offer the book a spot in Pyr’s lineup, and I found myself working nights and weekends to turn the screenplay into a novel.

TQ:  Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Mark:  I know most writers probably don’t like to admit it but I try to be a plotter; this may come from graphic novels, where you’re working with constraints on page count and page formatting that require you to know exactly where your payoffs are coming, down to their physical position on the page. I found writing a novel to be enormously freeing, however, and wound up adding a lot of material and character development that hadn’t been originally intended, largely because I realized I had the breathing room to expand the storyline and the world. But I like knowing where I’m trying to take the story ahead of time, even into the next books, so that all the right seeds are planted.

TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Mark:  Finding consistent work time always seems to be the most difficult thing. I’ve been very lucky to be involved with a publishing venture that’s had some wonderful successes, so by my way of thinking I have a great day job (which is probably not what you’ll hear from most writers), the downside of which is that it can occasionally be quite time-consuming. So being able to find solid blocks of time to sit down and just write, day after day, was the trickiest part.

TQ:  Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?

Mark:  Most of my thinking about fantasy was influenced by authors I read when I was a kid—Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft (horror and fantasy are aspects of the same genre, to me), Lloyd Alexander, Robert Asprin, Robert Adams, and Tolkien and Lewis, of course; it’s a pretty standard list, I suspect—and then got leavened by several generations of later fantasy writers: Kate Elliott, Mary Gentle, Jacqueline Carey, Thomas Harlan, Glen Cook (I only recently discovered Steven Erikson’s Mazalan books, which have a heavy Black Company-kind of vibe), S.M. Stirling, Elizabeth Moon, Greg Keyes, D.M. Cornish, and Phillip Pullman (who I think is a genius). That said, I don’t know if any of those authors would necessarily see themselves reflected in The Barrow; I might see the connections, but others might not. Recently I’ve been enjoying books by Joe Abercrombie, Warren Ellis (his noir detective work), Scott Lynch, Mark Lawrence, and John Fultz. I just finished Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names a little while ago and loved it and I’m in the middle of Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves right now.

TQ:  Describe The Barrow in 140 characters or less.

Mark:  Treasure-seekers with clashing motives find a cursed map to the barrow of a long-dead wizard, and launch an almost certainly doomed quest.

TQ:  Tell us something about The Barrow that is not in the book description.

Mark:  Hmm. Well, the description of the book hints that the map that the characters are following was destroyed but then reappears in an “unusual and unexpected place.” I suppose this warrants a spoiler alert warning, but the unusual place where the map appears is on the body of a woman, who is drawn into the quest against her will. One of her brothers is amongst the treasure hunters at the start of the book, and another comes along as her protector. One of the themes of the book is the (mis)treatment of women in a patriarchal (albeit fantasy) society, and one of the ways that’s (perhaps very bluntly) manifested is in the map literally appearing on her skin. Themes and questions of the male gaze, female objectification, female empowerment, and gender identity are meant to be woven into what might appear at first glance to be a very traditional fantasy quest narrative—at least if I got it right, in any case.

TQ:  What inspired you to write The Barrow? Why did you choose to write Epic Fantasy? Are there any other genres or sub-genres in which you'd like to write?

Mark:  Epic Fantasy (or its cousin, Swords & Sorcery) has always been my favorite genre; I’ll read or watch noir, mysteries, horror, science fiction, but the genre that always draws me back is fantasy. I appreciate world-building, and you tend to see that most in fantasy and science fiction. There’s a lot of different impulses going into The Barrow—the aforementioned themes of gender and sexual politics, a love of mythology and the language of fantasy nomenclature, some real world politics (the Balkan wars and the search for WMDs in Iraq, believe it or not), a fondness and nostalgia for roleplaying games. In fact a number of the scenes and settings are tips of the hat to old roleplaying game locations and tropes; when I first conceptualized the project, I thought of it as aiming for a “Dungeons & Dragons meets Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or The Usual Suspects” kind of vibe. And the setting of the prologue is in fact a riff on the cover of the original first edition AD&D Player’s Handbook. Despite the gaming influences, you don’t need to be a gamer to appreciate the story, I don’t think. And indeed, despite the fact that it ties into the Artesia comic book series, no previous knowledge of the comics and graphic novels is necessary to read The Barrow. I wrote it for a general fantasy audience, assuming that the reader was new to the world and the characters. I’d like to think it walks the line between the heroism of high fantasy and the abject anti-heroism of modern grimdark. The world and the characters are marked by myth and magic, by gods and cults, but the adventure in it owes more to, say, Treasure of the Sierra Madre than Indiana Jones or the quest for the One Ring.

TQ:  What sort of research did you do for The Barrow?

Mark:  I’ve been putting together the Known World, the setting of The Barrow and the Artesia comics, on and off for almost twenty years now. A lot of research tidbits have gone into it: I took from the Greeks and Romans for religious and cult practice, the ancient Celts, medieval feudalism, European shamanic and witchcraft traditions, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Venice during the early Renaissance, etc., mixed it all with influences from old-school role-playing settings like the Judges Guild Wilderlands and the world of Glorantha created for the game RuneQuest—and of course I hope I have added enough difference in the details to provide a new and interesting setting for fantasy readers. I’ve got a research library of a couple of thousand volumes that I draw on when I want to think about what the characters are eating, what they’re wearing, how they’re interacting with each other and the world around them. I mean, don’t get me wrong, The Barrow is an adventure story and a quest story first and foremost and I’ve tried not to bog the reader down in too much fantasy history, but I’ve also tried to flesh out a world around the characters that helps explain why they’re doing the things they’re doing (other than just the usual human impulses of greed, love, hate, lust, etc., though all that’s in there too).

TQ:  Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why? Who is your favorite good guy, bad guy or ethically ambiguous character?

Mark:  Easiest: Gilgwyr. He’s the owner of a brothel and a total scoundrel, so I found it very easy to let his bad behavior just kind of flow onto the page. Which might say something very terrible about me as a human being. The hardest: Annwyn. She’s the woman who winds up with the map on her body. I think it was tough to find the right tone with her, she’ll come across very much as a victim and that might rub readers the wrong way, but I hope she emerges as one who’s trying to grasp her way to some sort of agency. Deciding on a favorite anything is tough; almost every character in the book is ethically challenged, they might have personal moral codes but most of them are pretty twisted. But Erim is, I think, the secret heroine of the book; she’s a sexually confused woman masquerading as a man in order to get by in the rough-and-tumble underworld of this patriarchal and essentially misogynistic society. Her whole life and appearance is, in effect, a deception; but I think she’s one of the more honest and honorable characters in the story, even when she does things you might not want her to.

TQ:  Give us one of your favorite lines from The Barrow.

Mark:  Oof, that’s a toughie. I know that writers are supposed to “kill their darlings” but I had a hard time doing that, so there’s lot of little darlings scattered all over the place for me. A lot of them involve bad language, or spoiler alerts, so they don’t seem good to present. But since I’ve already floated the spoiler about the map appearing on the body of the character Annwyn, there’s a line from Stjepan, who could probably be considered the main character of the book, that I’ve always kind of liked. He’s trying to put her at ease, searching for ways to secure his access to the map, but hopefully the line reveals volumes about the world they live in and Stjepan’s attitude towards her and everyone else around him. Here's the whole passage for some context.
       He turned. Stjepan’s gaze drew sharp and he took a sharp inhale. There were map images and letters fading in and out and moving on the exposed skin of her long, curved back, and for a moment he marveled in wonder.
       “Will…will this be enough?” Annwyn said quietly over her shoulder to him.
       “I will do my best, my Lady, with whatever you show me,” Stjepan said. “I cannot imagine how difficult this is for you, and I wish there were another way, but time is pressing…”
       “Difficult? Yes. I have only allowed one other man this kind of intimacy, to my great ruin and that of my father's house,” Annwyn said quietly.
       Stjepan froze, looking at the two women, studying Annwyn’s downcast profile, the searching gaze of Malia. He was surprised at how directly she had acknowledged her scandal.
       “Your story is known to me, my Lady, and I will not condemn you for having once taken a lover,” Stjepan said carefully. “I am from An-Athair, and our traditions and mores are…different than in the rest of the Middle Kingdoms.”
       “My story. Of course,” she sighed. “You say you know my story. Then you know that I have been alone a long time, just me, my family, my household, my books, sequestered here in this house. To show my body to a stranger…”
       “You read, my Lady?” Stjepan asked cordially. “Your brother misrepresented you, then, I think. If you read, my Lady, then think of yourself like a book that someone else has written, and I must read.” He glanced down across her naked back. “A book like no other. Please trust me that we shall all do our best to lift this enchantment from you.”
       Annwyn turned, and studied his face for a moment. He found her gaze inscrutable and uncomfortable, but he met her eyes with his own, and did not flinch or turn away.
       “Then begin your work,” she said finally.

TQ:  What's next?

Mark:  I’m actually starting on the sequel to The Barrow, called Black Heart, which will hopefully follow the first book up and come out from Pyr next year. It’ll follow the survivor(s) of the expedition into the barrow as they scatter to different corners of the Middle Kingdoms (the part of the world they all live in). The story will actually have more of a military-campaign focus, as a lot of it will follow a punitive expedition sent into bandit-infested hills to seek out a rebel earl and his renegade knights, but readers will also see more of the politics of the region, the great tournaments of their spring season, and a deeper glimpse into the machinations of the Nameless, the cults of Forbidden Gods who conspire in the shadows to end an Age. A big giant fantasy novel, in other words…

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Mark:  Thanks for inviting me! I hope your readers enjoy The Barrow if they get a chance to check it out.

The Barrow

The Barrow
Pyr, March 4, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 700 pages
Cover Illustration © Gene Mollica

Action, horror, politics, and sensuality combine in this DEBUT EPIC FANTASY novel for fans of George R. R. Martin and Michael J. Sullivan, set in the world of the Eisner-nominated Artesia comic books.

To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map.

When a small crew of scoundrels, would-be heroes, deviants, and ruffians discover a map that they believe will lead them to a fabled sword buried in the barrow of a long-dead wizard, they think they've struck it rich. But their hopes are dashed when the map turns out to be cursed and then is destroyed in a magical ritual. The loss of the map leaves them dreaming of what might have been, until they rediscover the map in a most unusual and unexpected place.

Stjepan Black-Heart, suspected murderer and renegade royal cartographer; Erim, a young woman masquerading as a man; Gilgwyr, brothel owner extraordinaire; Leigh, an exiled magus under an ignominious cloud; Godewyn Red-Hand, mercenary and troublemaker; Arduin Orwain, scion of a noble family brought low by scandal; and Arduin's sister Annwyn, the beautiful cause of that scandal: together they form a cross-section of the Middle Kingdoms of the Known World, brought together by accident and dark design, on a quest that will either get them all in the history books, or get them all killed.

About Mark

Photo by Monika Broz
Mark Smylie has worked as a writer, illustrator, editor, and publisher for over a decade. His epic military fantasy graphic novel series, Artesia, was first published by Sirius beginning in 1999. He was nominated for the Russ Manning Award for Best Newcomer that year, and for an Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition in 2001. Over the years his illustrations have appeared in game books from Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, and most recently Kobold Press, and in collectible card games from AEG. He designed and illustrated a role-playing game based on Artesia that won the Origins Award for Role-Playing Game of 2006 and three Indie RPG Awards. He was also nominated for six ENnies. Mark founded Archaia Studios Press (ASP) in 2002 as a self-publishing home for his graphic novels, and the company, now known as Archaia Entertainment, has expanded over the years to publish a wide variety of American and European graphic novelists, including award-winning titles such as Mouse Guard, The Killer, Return of the Dapper Men, and Jim Henson's Tale of Sand. Mark still serves as the company's chief creative officer.

Visit his website at:

The Giveaway

What:  One entrant will win a Trade Paperback copy of The Barrow by Mark Smylie.

How:  Log into and follow the directions in the Rafflecopter below.

Who and When:  The giveaway is open to all humans on the planet earth with a mailing address. Giveaway ends at 11:59PM US Eastern Time on March 11, 2014. Void where prohibited by law. No purchase necessary. You must be 18 years old or older to enter.

*Giveaway rules and duration are subject to change without any notice.*

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. I'm more curious how one goes writing epic comic book to writing an epic novel. What was that process like?

  2. I have always read series with quest in them. Quest allows the limit of books so I don't need to figure out if there is ever an ending to them. I also love the hardship that the characters go through but at the end of the quest, there is always a revelation that they learn about themselves. Thanks for the book description and the giveaway.

  3. I like the sound of The Barrow very much and that crew seems like a great bunch. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

  4. This sounds like a really great book. I am a huge fan of epic fantasy and I love that this features a band of misfits. I am very eager to read it. Love discovering great new authors and books,

  5. congrats to Mark on the new release!! Thanks so much for the fun interview. This book sounds fabulous ;)

  6. I'm glad there is going to be a sequel. This sounds amazing. Love epic fantasy.

  7. Thank you for the chance to win and read The Barrow! :)

  8. The Barrow sound interesting! Do you also had a say when it comes to cover? Also is it difficult to write so many characters in this books?

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  9. Wowing at the amount of research you put into this book. Congrats on your book and enjoy your researching for the second book.