The Intel: Mark A. Latham
Mark A. Latham’s supernatural crime novel The Lazarus Gate introduces us to a new Victorian hero. Captain John Hardwick, an army veteran and opium addict, is recruited by a mysterious gentlemen’s club to combat an uncanny threat to the British Empire.
As his path crosses with that of “The Artist,” a mysterious yet brilliant painter whose medium encompasses something far more otherworldly than mere oil and acrylic paints, he soon finds himself drawn into a world just beyond our own. The Lazarus Gate is the tale of a secret war waged between parallel universes, between reality and the supernatural. A war fought relentlessly by an elite group of agents.
Latham has got form for this kind of fantastical genre mash-up. Formerly the editor of Games Workshop’s White Dwarf magazine, Mark dabbled in tabletop games design before becoming a full-time author of strange, fantastical and macabre tales. He gives us the intel on the first of his Hardwick series, how Victorian literature inspired him, the parallels between roleplaying games and narrative fiction and how a good editor can work wonders for any writer…
What is The Lazarus Gate?
That would be a massive spoiler… Suffice it to say, in a tale of Victorian science fiction, the central threat will come in the form of an Infernal Device ™. The Lazarus Gate is that device.
Your novel combines crime and supernatural elements in a Victorian setting – where did you get the idea for the exploits of Captain John Hardwick and The Artist?
That’s such a tough question – I think every writer dreads the ‘Where do you get your ideas’ question, because there’s rarely a single answer. I’ve lived and breathed Victorian literature since I was a kid, so I was always going to write something set in the era. Really, the books that I loved in my teens – Dracula, Allan Quatermain, The Man Who Would be King, The Time Machine, and so on – they informed the themes that I knew I had to touch on. The obsession with spiritualism, the Gothic, Victorian exoticism and Imperialism, the sins of the father being visited on the son… You’ll probably see shades of Count Dracula and even Fu-Manchu in the Artist, which is entirely intentional.
I’m also a pretty avid reader of horror stories (mostly Victorian and Edwardian ones, naturally), and so I always like to include some elements creeping dread in my stories. That doesn’t bode terribly well for John Hardwick at times, unfortunately…
Why is the Victorian era such a rich time for writers with a penchant for the fantastical?
We’re in a period of real appreciation for Victorian-era stories; while a few years ago we saw some failed attempts and false starts (The oft-maligned League of Extraordinary Gentleman movie springs to mind), we’re now entering a golden age for aficionados of the era like me. Shows like Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street, and the movie Crimson Peak, are getting the mainstream attention they deserve. The BBC’s Sherlock has reinvigorated interest in the Great Detective, and is even filming a very meta Victorian episode. The fantastical elements of many of these shows lend themselves so perfectly to the period – the Victorians were obsessed with the supernatural, the sinister, the fantastical. So many of the horror, SF and fantasy tropes we think of as clichéd today were created in the nineteenth century that it was just a really rich melting pot of ideas. Going back to the source seems entirely natural, to me at least.
I think the Victorian era has a mystique and romance about it. When people think of ghost stories, they often think of the fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London. When they think of detective fiction, they think of Sherlock Holmes. When they think of gruesome crimes, they think of Jack the Ripper. It’s such an evocative period in history, and for writers of a more macabre bent, like me, there’s a wealth of archetypal images to draw upon. More than that, I think that in an era where we’re just bombarded with technology and communications that make the world feel very small, it’s great to be able to hearken back to a time before the telephone or the aeroplane, when detective work had to be done with footslogging and deduction rather than high-speed international databases, and where help was several days’ ride away rather than at the end of a cell phone.
Very nice of you to say (if any Hollywood agents are reading this, their people can feel free to call my people, etc). It’s funny you should ask that though, as I was talking with friends about this in the pub just yesterday!
When I start writing a story, I often ‘cast’ the main roles, and sometimes even pin pictures of those actors and actresses up on a board. The reason is to help me with dialogue – ‘How would he deliver that line if this was a movie?’ Although I don’t write in anything like a ‘movie structure’, as an exercise it helps keep me consistent with characterisation.
A friend told me yesterday that she could see Johnny Depp playing John Hardwick, which really surprised me. Actually, when I was about four chapters in, he started speaking in the voice of Jonny Lee Miller from Elementary, and that kind of stuck. John Hardwick isn’t Hollywood-pretty, and he’s not really the typical action hero – he’s had a tough life, he’s not a great success, he’s wiry and scarred, struggling with addiction, but keeps it together in the face of adversity, remaining honest as the day is long in a world of deception and temptation.
As for the rest of the cast – I don’t want to influence how people see my characters in their mind’s eye, but let’s just say that there are definitely parts for Jude Law, Alan Rickman and Tuppence Middleton when the casting people come knocking.
You have been a tabletop games designer – what are the similarities between inventing games and writing novels?
I still am a [part time] tabletop games designer, for my sins. I think writing those sort of games flexes both your creative muscles and your organisational ones. Can you capture the imagination of your audience, and create a convincing world? Can you then create a framework of rules that logically fit together so that your readers/players can bring their own stories to life within that world? That’s at the heart of everything I’ve ever done.
It’s in roleplaying games, though, that I really cut my teeth as a narrative writer. When you’re the games master or storyteller for a small group, you have to balance those interactions so each of your players has their time to shine, encouraging them to stay ‘in character’, and rewarding their actions on the fly with new plot twists while gently nudging them towards an end goal in your story arc. All those years playing Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu probably made me a better writer.
Like many writers, you’re turning your attention to a Sherlock Holmes novel – what can you tell us about that?
Very little, if I want my editor to refrain from sending out the hitmen. I will say that it’s a bit of a genre mash-up, like many of Titan’s Sherlock Holmes titles. Naturally, as it’s me, you can expect a bit of Gothic horror and Victorian sensationalism; but I’m a stickler when it comes to Holmes. He will save the day using deduction and rationalism, no matter how esoteric the crime appears.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
I expect the really hard stuff is yet to come. But really, I think it’s that you have no one to rely on but yourself if you’re going to succeed. You can get support from all over, sure, but that’s not going to put words on the blank page that’s been staring you out for the last eight hours, or put an advance in your account. There are lots of things that no amount of writing advice and blogs can prepare you for. Those days when you think everything you’ve written is just terrible. The rejections, the really hard revisions… you have to steel yourself for that, and if you don’t think you’re up to it then you’re in the wrong business. It’s always been that way I think, but these days social media, book blogging, Amazon reviews… it’s made writers more accessible, and more vulnerable. I think writers sometimes get accused of having huge egos. Some of them do, I’m sure! But the average writer just uses the façade of an ego like a shield – it’s a pretty vital survival mechanism.
All of that makes it sound like writing is one long hardship. It isn’t, of course. It’s not as easy as I thought when I took the leap, in all honesty, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Build up resistance to the hard times, celebrate the good, put your soul into it… you’ll be alright.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
It’s a testament to my obsession with history that most of my favourite authors are long dead. Of them, I’d say Conan Doyle, Stoker, and M R James would be my top three, with William Hope Hodgson and H G Wells completing the top five. Essentially that’s because those writers all became masters of their niche, if not the creators of it, and there’s no way The Lazarus Gate would have been written without them.
Of the writers living today, I envy Neil Gaiman’s fathomless imagination, Susan Hill’s ability to evoke atmosphere with very few words, Stephen King’s incredible plotting, Sarah Pinborough’s consistent and prolific output, and Adam Nevill’s ability to make the most mundane situations appear absolutely terrifying.
Give me some advice about writing…
I’ll give you two bits of advice, born of my own experience. As I’ve only had one book published to date, you can take this with pinch of salt/delete as applicable…
The first is to be true to yourself and your ‘vision’, for want of a better word. Write the book you’d want to read, and put all your enthusiasm into it so that other people want to read it too. Don’t sully that first draft by trying to second guess what makes a ‘marketable’ manuscript, by following formulas and ‘rules’ prescribed by the MFA lecturer who wrote that self-help book ten years ago. Make sure it excites you first and foremost, and hammer it into shape later, . Which brings me to my second tip, and one that’s perhaps even more important:
Listen to your editor.
Seriously, finding a good editor is the absolute key to getting a good book on the shelves, because no amount of tinkering and jealously guarding your beautiful work is going to make that book shine quite like a skilled editor. A good editor will engage you in a two-way process, and open a meaningful dialogue designed to polish your manuscript. But you’d better be prepared to meet her half way. That’s when the ego-shield I mentioned earlier has to get put in a box for a spell.
What’s next for Captain Hardwick?
Well, that’s also a bit of a secret. I will say that the series isn’t all about John, although I have some pretty severe hardships in store for him, don’t worry about that!
The Lazarus Gate, is published by Titan Books in paperback and ebook, priced at £7.99.
Photo: Adam Shaw Photography