... Mark Chadbourn on Underground, World's End, the Hereward-Saga and his future projects
I began my writing life as a journalist, reporting from some of the world’s hotspots, and writing fiction in my spare time. At the time I was writing in the horror genre and my first novel was plucked off the slush pile and published.
Since then I’ve written urban fantasy - the Age of Misrule sequence has been published around the world - and historical thrillers under my pseudonym James Wilde. I’m also screenwriter and have had a lot of work on the BBC in the UK.
It was a huge shock because that was my first piece of published work! On the back of that I immediately picked up an agent so it’s fair to say it set my career in motion.
It’s about a teenager who breaks into an abandoned house only to discover the perfectly-preserved bodies of six teenage boys. The central theme is despair transmitting like a virus.
Very much so. I’d been writing in my spare time, but this platform in a national UK magazine brought a lot of attention from people in the publishing industry.
I’d been working on the novel in the evenings after I’d finished my day job as a journalist. When I won the award, I submitted the manuscript - unagented at the time - to the UK publisher Piatkus. They picked it up within six weeks.
I started to think this publishing business was an easy ride because everything had gone smoothly for me. It was later that I heard all the struggles most people go through. Just goes to show there’s usually a degree of good fortune involved - right time, right place.
It was written at the time when the UK government was closing coal mines and the communities that depended on them were suffering. The book is set in and around an abandoned coal mine where a supernatural force has taken root deep underground.
I grew up in a coal mining community and had many ancestors who’d worked down in the dark. My grandfather used to tell me stories of the Tommyknockers - the ghosts of miners who’d died underground. Many miners used to swear they’d heard them knocking on the tunnel walls or had seen them down there. That seemed like fertile territory for a story.
About a year. Mostly after work and on weekends.
What if the gods of myth returned to the modern day? How would we cope? The story details the collision between science and the supernatural, between ancient belief and contemporary thinking. It takes a traditional fantasy quest story and transposes it to a current setting with dragons over motorways and shapeshifters in supermarkets.
Church has one foot in the past and one in the present. He’s trapped in a psychological limbo after the death of his girlfriend and the trilogy details his own personal quest to find some meaning in a world that’s grown very dark. I spent some time designing the character to fit the deeper themes of the story.
Church appears in all three books of the first trilogy and in certain volumes of the subsequent two trilogies - the whole story comprises a trilogy of trilogies. There are other significant characters appearing alongside him.
I’ve had a long-standing interest in folklore and mythology. I could see connections running among many different and seemingly disparate stories, so I thought it would be an interesting idea to draw those threads together.
Each of the connected trilogies deals with the notion that there is a force linking everything in the universe - the ‘Blue Fire’ that is most prevalent at ancient sites like stone circles. That force manifests itself in different ways. One way is that it empowers five ‘champions’ to defend it.
The Age of Misrule had the first five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons and The Dark Age has another five. They’re all down-to-earth characters, the kind of people you would find around you, so not heroes in the traditional senses. One of the themes of the books is what exactly is a hero. Using normal people was an interesting way to examine that.
The Age of Misrule was a quest around the mystical sites of the UK, in essence. The Dark Age was an examination of a world where science had failed and the supernatural now rules.
Kingdom of the Serpent wrapped up this immense tale. The final three books had a quest through time, a quest across the world’s mythologies in different countries, and the final book had a quest across dimensions - our world, the land of the dead and the Otherworld of Celtic mythology.
Swords of Albion took some of the elements and set them in Tudor England, with Elizabeth I’s spies battling the supernatural.
The book is about the real-life freedom fighter Hereward who led the resistance against the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. History, not fantasy.
As there was no fantasy in these books, I wanted to make sure they were seen as separate from my past novels. It wouldn’t be fair on readers if they bought a book on name recognition and ended up with something they weren’t interested in.
I’ve always been interested in history - it was part of my degree at university - and I’d been intrigued by the life of Hereward for a long time. In fact, I first came across his story in a comic I read as a kid.
Like most of the history from that era, only fragments remain. We know he existed and he led a rebellion against William the Conqueror which almost succeeded and could have changed the course of history. We know about his father and his early life, and that he served as a mercenary in Europe. But we have no idea when or how he died.
I’ve stuck to all the historical facts and then tried to fill in some of the gaps in a logical but compelling manner. The last three books are set in Constantinople. We know a lot of people who fought in the failed rebellion against William fled there to work as mercenaries.
I included Hereward in that group, although we have no record of his life after the uprising.
I did vast amounts of research. Digging into records like the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and studying the weapons and fighting styles of the time. I spent a lot of time in the English Fenlands where Hereward hid away. It was important to get a feel for the land, smell the air, immerse myself in that part of the world.
Please tell your German readers and fans how the historical adventure saga will continue with the third novel.
I hope my German publisher continues with the series, especially as readers have been left on a cliffhanger. The third book details the final confrontation between Hereward and William the Conqueror and brings all the running subplots to a close.
Dark Age deals with the legend of King Arthur and how it might have arisen from history. It’s set at the end of the Roman occupation and looks at the Great Conspiracy - how all the barbarian tribes across Europe united for the first time to attack the Roman Empire along the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall in England.
The central characters in Dark Age are members of the arcani who were the spies of the Roman army operating beyond the frontier. The main protagonist is Lucanus who leads one of these bands, but is betrayed by his Roman masters.
The story tells how the Arthurian myths could have arisen out of real history. It’s set during a real event - the barbarian invasion of Britannia - and it looks at how many myths might be echoes of what truly happened.
Every novel has lots of inspirations - there’s never one core idea. I think of it like making a big ball of chewing gum - sticking individual bits together until you’ve got something substantial, with each piece of gum an idea.
Absolutely. I have very wide interests - myth and folklore and the supernatural, history, psychology, politics, philosophy, music, film… All of it finds a way in to the stories.
Mark Chadbourn: I read quite widely, but I wouldn’t see any one writer as an influence. As a child I loved Alan Garner, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien. Then I moved on to King, Pynchon, Eco. I read a lot of non-fiction which is a great source of ideas.
Novels are really a reflection of the author, the author’s interests and worldview, and that by definition makes each one unique. That’s what people unconsciously buy whenever they follow an author. It’s rarely just about the stories.
Producers at the BBC had read some of my novels and asked me if I wanted to pitch ideas. Since writing Doctors I’ve been developing new series for many broadcasters, including the big streamers.
I have many projects on the go. Most I’m not allowed to discuss because the contracts keep them locked down until the powers that be decide it’s time to publicise them.
One thing I am allowed to mention is my collaboration with the best-selling adventure writer Wilbur Smith. Wilbur read my novel Pendragon and liked what he saw enough to get in touch and see if I wanted to collaborate with him. We’ve got a book called The New Kingdom coming out in September which is set in ancient Egypt.
The Works of Mark Chadbourn