Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday Night Spotlight - Into the Wild Blue Yon-der

Tonight, we get to sit down with one of the bigger sf&f fans you may never have heard of; Mark Yon. Mark is the administrator, known as Hobbit, over at SFFWorld. In describing Mark, the word kind comes to mind, but its more than just that. Mark has the same enthusiasm that he had the first time he came across sf&f. The same enthusiasm we all had at one time or another. Mark's enthusiasm is infectious, however. Classy and never gratuitously contentious, Mark displays (as much as one can on the internet) the kind of personality that I'm dying to meet in person one day.

If you get the chance, do yourself a favor and register on the SFFWorld forum boards and engage Mark in a conversation or two. Or, just read his book reviews and blog posts at SFFWorld.

The only part of the interview that I regret, was the loss of top-secret photos I had managed to obtain. I had complete 360° external and internal photos of Hobbit Towers, but was stopped by security on my way out and had the camera confiscated. Mark told me it would happen, but you've just gotta try. Ah well.

PW: What was your first encounter with sf&f?

Mark: That goes back a long way, Peter! I’m now realizing, with horror, that it would be about 40 years ago. When I was aged about 3 or 4 I used to watch a ‘60’s TV series here in the UK called Thunderbirds. It was a puppet show created by Gerry Anderson. I wouldn’t miss an episode, evidently. One of my earliest childhood memories is about being sat in a highchair, [having] my tea and watching it on TV.

The consequence of that was that I learned to read with the TV series. There was an accompanying comic called
TV21 that had stories and comic strips in it based around the Gerry Anderson TV series and set 100 years in the future. I’ve been told I spent a lot of my early reading time working out words from those magazines.

In terms of ‘proper’ reading, I was a fan of mainly SF first, no doubt as a consequence of what I’ve mentioned already. There were some short stories along the way, mostly in books borrowed from my small local library, who struggled to keep up with my interest. There were lots of books related to the TV series I watched –
Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Doctor Who - but my first ‘proper’ buy was a second-hand copy of Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein. I’ve still got it! After that, there was no stopping me. Mainly it was whatever I could borrow from my local library, as we couldn’t afford too many books. At that stage, it was mostly Arthur C Clarke and whatever Asimov and Heinlein I could get my hands on, which was pretty much what my library had. That, and authors such as John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids) and good old HG Wells (War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and so on.) There wasn’t much choice, but I rabidly read whatever I could get.

Later this developed into Fantasy books as well. The usual culprits here, depending on what I could find: The Hobbit (surprisingly!), and then in the late 70’s and early 80’s, more Tolkien, Michael Moorcock (Elric and Corum especially), Stephen Donaldson, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, David Gemmell.

Loved a good creepy ghost story too, mainly from the
Fontana Ghost Book series for children or, if I could get them and read them without others knowing, the adult Pan Books of Horror. It was about this time I first discovered Ray Bradbury, I think, but also Nigel Kneale, Bram Stoker, the Charles Dickens ghost stories, the Conan Doyle adventures, both the Professor Challenger tales and his ghost stories, as well as Sherlock Holmes.

PW: Everyone loves a list. Give us a list, ~5 or so, of books/authors/series/periodicals/anthologies, or whatever, that would epitomize your love of sf&f.

Mark: There are so many, and they change from week to week and day to day. There are some that I love to reread, though. I’m sure there’ll be something really obvious I’ll miss here, but I’ll give it a go.

1. My first choice is a bit of a cheat. I have a complete Arthur C Clarke story collection I love to dip into. It’s a very large book!
2001 was the first novel I read, borrowed from school, but I read the rest of his books as soon as I could get them. My favourite is usually The City and the Stars.

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I’m fortunate enough to have a signed copy of this one now. These were the first SF books I borrowed off my dad. They had lovely Chris Foss covers that made up one picture if you put the book covers in order.

M.R. James Collected Stories: I actually have a lot of copies of this one, in various editions. Like Lovecraft, there’s a strange style there that really shouldn’t work, but does. There’s something about old artefacts, academia, old large houses and that indefinable presence of something there but not seen. See also Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury.

None of the above can really be quoted as the best examples of the genre in terms of style or characterization, but if I had to pick out common criteria, there’s often a certain atmosphere there, or an engaging enthusiasm in a style that at some time I have really appreciated. I will be the first to admit that some of them have dated!

4. Of more recent authors, then here’s another obvious choice: George RR Martin’s
A Song of Ice and Fire. I think many know that I was reading GRRM’s work before Song of Ice and Fire, and there’s a lot there I love: Fevre Dream, Tuf Voyaging. But this series is my favourite (so far), even with its delays and annoyances!

5. And I guess I wouldn’t get away without mentioning Mary Gentle’s
ASH: A Secret History, which became a regularly mentioned recommendation by me at SFFWorld. It was a book that was one of those unexpected surprises, and so not what I was expecting when I started it. It’s also something I wouldn’t have said was something that I would normally appreciate. It is a book I can read and reread, as well as being a good, big, meaty SF/Fantasy novel. The ideas within it are quite awesome, the ending still baffling.

As for anthologies: I find any of the David Hartwell monster anthologies are usually great: their range and their knowledgeable commentary usually win me over, even when I don’t agree with everything said! See
Hard SF Renaissance, the Space Opera one, The Dark Descent. Again, all BIG reads!

I do find that the more I read, the more authors I appreciate. One of the things I love about SF and Fantasy is the fact that it covers such a wide range, from the exploration of inner and outer space to dragons, ghosts and vampires and everything in-between. At the moment I will read anything from (in no order at all!) Tad Williams, Tim Powers, Dan Simmons, Poul Anderson, Robin Hobb, Steven Erikson (though I am way behind on those!), Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, James Barclay, Jasper Fforde, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Joe Haldeman, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance… the list is always expanding.

I love the ‘old stuff’, but one of the most fun things I find about what we do is finding those new authors when they come along – Joe Abercrombie and Mark Charan Newton are two recent examples for me.

And I’m sure when I finish typing this there will be other really obvious authors I will remember but haven’t mentioned!

PW: Some people blog, edit, hope to publish, etc. You are the Admin for SFFWorld. Do you anticipate, or hope, your involvement in sf&f taking you down different paths in the future?

Mark: It’s a good question, that one, Pete. I’ve been asked a few times whether I’m also a writer or even someone hoping to get published. I must admit that, although it’s best to never say never, I am, always have, hopefully always will be, a fan who likes reading. Frankly, if I spent time writing, I couldn’t be reading, nor doing the things I do at SFFWorld.

There’s also another reason; and that is that the more I meet writers, publishers and so on, the more I realize how difficult it is to do those things well. I am still in awe of writers and how they shape words for a living. I was a little reluctant to review books for a long time, despite a few hints that perhaps I should. Now that I do though, I actually love it.

But it is a hobby, done in my spare time. So, for the time being, I prefer to spend my spare time reading and reviewing at
SFFWorld. Having said that, I have enjoyed beta-reading books before they’re published, though, so you never know. As I said, it’s perhaps better to never say never.

PW: How did you come to be involved at SFFWorld?

Mark: A very happy accident. Like many people, I found the website by chance on a Search (I think this was before I started using Google!), when I first got the Internet at home in about 2000/2001. Lurked for quite a long while, finally plucked up courage to join in, found I really liked the site. I became a member and in time volunteered to help. I was then asked to become a Staff member. I have always been grateful to Dag, the owner, and the staff who agreed to my joining, for that opportunity.

PW: What is the best memory you will take away from being a fan of sf&f, or of your involvement at SFFWorld?

Mark: I’m very lucky to say there are so many wonderful memories, in both of those. Talking to, or meeting authors, is something I love, and something I never thought I’d be able to do when younger. Reading those tales of places beyond my own experience was a formative experience. To one day meet those heroes, and also find that they are really nice people on the whole, has been an astonishing experience. SFFWorld has helped me do that, and at the risk of going all gushy, it is something I’ll be forever grateful for.

It is perhaps a little unfair to mention specific people. But George RR Martin, Joe Haldeman, Neil Gaiman, and Steven Erikson are all wonderful people to talk to. But so are many, many others.

As far as the website goes, it was, and still is, the people that make my day. Even now I get a major thrill just from being able to help people out, share common interests, talk books, swap ideas and theories about what we’ve read, or be just plain daft with such a brilliant group of passionate, intelligent, thoughtful and knowledgeable people in all walks of life. In fact, to be able to communicate to people in different continents still amazes me after a decade of doing so.

One last, slightly personal (and very biased!) addition to that. It also helps that I think that the staff at
SFFWorld are great. I’m not just saying that, though admittedly it is difficult to prove. I’ll just say that if I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t spend my time there. The hours they spend on the site doing all those things that they do, often behind the scenes and often unnoticed by those who are not staff… I’m always very grateful. Being part of that team is something I appreciate, even when things are not as nice as we like them to be.

PW: In the context of sf&f, what’s the funniest story you have to relate to readers here?

Mark: I’m never quite sure whether these tales work when separated from their original context. I’m also usually aware that, whilst they may be side-splitting to those present, they may not actually be funny to other people. However, the time at the WorldCon in Glasgow in 2005, when I found myself sat (by accident!) where George RR Martin sent people out to find cooked haggis in the very early hours of the morning was a sight to see. Not to mention the knighting of those brave men and women who survived the quest through late night Glasgow by George afterwards. If you ever get the chance to do so (he does it at every WorldCon he goes to, I gather), it is worth watching!

The other stories tend to blur with the passing of time and alcohol….

PW: As you look across the sf&f landscape (e.g. authors, publishers, bloggers, forum boards) what is your assessment of the “state of the nation?”

Mark: I still find it very strange to realize that SFFWorld and I are now ‘part of the nation’. We are now evidently regarded as part of the cultural furniture, and yes, I’m surprised that there’s not as many places out there that have kept going as we have done.

However, the growth of the genres, the arrival of the bloggers and twitterers, and the acceptance of what I’ve been reading for years as ‘weird stuff’ now as ‘mainstream’ are all magnificent things to behold. Anything that promotes enthusiasm and interest in what I like myself can only be a good thing. And the new writers on the ‘Net are generally a great bunch.

Despite all of the current difficulties of economic recession and rapid social change, I am impressed that the power of the imagination to engage and entertain endures.

PW: As a kid, I always wanted to tour the Bat-Cave with Batman. Give us, if you will, a tour of Hobbit Towers.

Mark: Where to start? Well, on the outside it looks fairly ordinary. However, like the Tardis of a certain doctor, Hobbit Towers is surprisingly bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. It has to be, to hold the many books it contains within its vaults, along its corridors and stairs. It exists across many planes of the multi-verse, at different times and in different places. Visitors have been known to get lost in the multitudinous volumes that exist in the Hobbit Library and vaults. In the Tower’s lower depths we have a dungeon, where all those dangerous (or dangerously bad!) books are kept. There’s also an area where the Hounds of Hobbit prowl, forever looking for their next victim. The Tower Gardens are usually watched over by Fred, the stone House mascot, who watches the house’s surroundings from his pillar, and a usually sleeping dragon on the patio. From the higher reaches of the Towers we have extensive views across the English Midlands, from the Sherwood Forest to Narnia. But I think the most fun about Hobbit Towers are all those dark and forgotten corners where things may, or may not, happen to be.

PW: Would you describe your most intriguing encounter with an author?

Mark: I’m pleased to say that most of the authors I’ve had the fortune to meet have been wonderful. Interviewing Terry Brooks as a Guest of Honour at FantasyCon in 2007 was quite an experience. Terry was a most entertaining and genial raconteur. Keeping up with the intellectual hurricane that is Hal Duncan was quite an experience as well!

PW: What would be your boldest prediction for sf&f in 2010, and beyond?

Mark: I’m quite tempted to say that my boldest prediction will be the completion of George RR Martin’s Dance With Dragons!

Or how about that 2010 will be year of acceptance by some authors, (mentioning no names, but let’s say authors such as M*rgaret Atw**d), that actually SF/Fantasy have as much value as some of those other good and proper works elsewhere.

And then there’s the discovery of that black monolith near Europa…..

I do think that SF will continue to grow in strength and develop in quality, as it has done in recent years. Fantasy will continue its domination and hack its way through the opposition. Urban fantasy will be replaced in people’s favour by whimsical tales of surrealist quality. Or perhaps not.

Thanks, Pete, for the opportunity to chat.

Next Up: I am still reading Gene Wolfe's omnibus edition of Book of the New Sun, titled Severian of the Guild. I am also in the midst of constructing a question set for an author who has agreed to be interviewed. May you all have a great week!


Seak said...

Thanks for the interview. I can agree that Hobbit is one of the reasons sffWorld is such a great place!

RobB said...

Mark is a terrific gentelman, I have to say. Working with him behind the scenes isn't really work at all.

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