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A Conversation with Mark Robson

If you've attended a UK secondary school during the past ten years there's a high likelihood that you've met Mark Robson, author of rip-roaring fantasy adventures and a tireless and inspiring teacher and speaker to schools and book-groups.  He started out publishing his own books (the high fantasy Darkweaver Legacy quartet) before Simon and Schuster picked up his Imperial sequence set in the same world.  Then came the Dragon Orb quartet, about teenage dragon-riders in another fantasy world, who occasionally fly through a dimensional rift into our own circa 1918, resulting in some smashing dragons-vs-triplane action over the Western Front.  

His latest, The Devil's Triangle is the first of a trilogy about the Bermuda Triangle, the area of sea between Florida and Bermuda where bats and aircraft are supposed to go missing more frequently than they do over other large patches of sea...  In Mark's story the disapearees find themselves on a parallel Earth where mammals never caught on and the dominant species are a race of highly evolved velociraptor types.

Philip Reeve: Like Roald Dahl and Captain W.E Johns, you've made the leap from RAF pilot to children's author.  How did that come about?

Mark Robson: It was a strange chance that set me writing.  I was down in the Falkland Islands on detachment in July 1996 and the weather that year was particularly bad.  We were getting 80mph winds with heavy snow that was actually getting through the roofing and settling in the corridors!  There was no way we could fly in those conditions and I got very irritable as I hate being idle.  I annoyed my navigator so much with my grumpiness that one morning he snapped at me, “For goodness’ sake, Mark!  Do something useful.  Go write a book, or something!”

What he really said was a bit more colourful than that, but it would be inappropriate to repeat the actual language here!  I’ve always loved a challenge and having always been a prolific reader, I’d often thought It would have been great if the character had done this, or if the author had twisted the story in a different way here. Why not write a book?  All I needed was paper, a pencil and some time… all of which were available in abundance.  I told Arnie (the Navigator) that I would write the first chapter to a book and if he liked it, I would write the rest.  I’ve never looked back. 

Philip Reeve: The Bermuda Triangle seems to have gone a bit quiet lately.  When I was a lad it was never off the telly in one form or another.  I remember an American sci-fi show called 'Fantastic Journey' which involved Roddy McDowell trying to escape from it, and there was even a Bermuda Triangle song by Barry Manilow.  I quite liked reading about it, because it was a nice long way away and so not as scary as aliens, who one always suspected might land in the back garden at any moment.  I'm intrigued to know what prompted you to write about it.  Is it an interest of yours, or just a handy way to get your characters into the raptor world?

Mark Robson: It appears there is still a remarkable amount of interest in the Bermuda Triangle, though if you ask most young people where it is, they don’t actually know.  They simply have a vague notion of it as a mysterious place where boats and aircraft disappear.  I was amazed when I started putting bits on my blog about some of the more famous mysteries just how rapidly the hits on my website increased.  Folk remain fascinated by the aura of mystery that surrounds the area.

My original intention was to write a follow-up series to Dragon Orb utilising the Bermuda Triangle, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt the setting offered the chance for me to attempt having contemporary characters enter a fantasy style adventure through it.  What I didn’t realise was how much of a change this would require to my writing process – having so much real world action.  My publishers loved the idea and commissioned it, but when it came to writing the first book, I found it terrifying.  It felt like learning to write from scratch all over again.  All the things I could get away with in my previous books because I was writing in an imaginary world now had to be correct.  I found my research time for the silliest little things became hugely distracting to the writing process.

There are many websites and books, (most a bit dated now, but a few newer ones) devoted to the mysteries surrounding the region.  The sensationalists will tell you that the effects are as active as ever.  I’m not so sure about that.  However, it was fascinating doing the research in the Florida Keys.  Whenever I asked anyone about it in interview while they were in a work related place, they all said it was a load of hokum.  Get the same sort of people in a bar in the evening and their stories are very different.  Apparently ‘everyone’ knows that Atlantis is on the seabed near the Bahamas and that there are weird magnetic anomalies in the area, to say nothing of all the UFOs and USOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects).  To be honest, my own experiences flying through the region as a military pilot were very mundane, but there do seem to have been a remarkable number of interesting incidents in the area, so who knows?  Maybe there is something strange happening out there. 

Philip Reeve:  The raptor civilisation's energy source in the book is ingenious - heating the earth's mantle to increase its magnetic field - and sounds convincing to me.  But it's starting to go wrong, with catastrophic climatic effects.  Is that intended as a parable about our own world?  I sometimes worry that all the new technologies we sci-fi writers suggest are in the process of ruining the world: it makes for a more interesting story if they go wrong, but are we giving children the idea that technology is a bad thing, and that they should be pessimistic about the future?

Mark Robson: I must thank science fiction writer and occasional editor of New Scientist magazine, Ian Watson, for that idea.  My conversation with him would have sounded bizarre to anyone listening in.  It went something like this:

Me: Hi, Ian.  Mark Robson here.  I wonder if you could help me.  I’ve got a bit of a problem.  I need to increase the earth’s magnetic field by several factors.  How can I do it?


Ian: Mark!  Ah, yes.  Interesting.  Well, the obvious solution would be to bring the moon closer… but that might prove a bit tricky!  (I’m thinking Yeah, obvious!  Silly me!  Why didn’t I think of that?)  I suppose you could detonate a mass of directed nuclear charges on the far side and try to shunt it a bit nearer, but I’m not convinced that would work and the splatter would be terribly messy.  Even if you did manage it, the side-effects would be horrific. 

Me:  Ah!  So not possible then.

Ian:  Well… of course, you know the earth works like a dynamo. 

Me: Yes, I vaguely remember something about that from my ‘A’ Level Physics days.

Ian:  OK, well the earth’s magnetic field is caused by the friction of the magma flowing around the earth’s iron core.  If you could speed up the flow, the friction would increase and so would the strength of the magnetic field.  Hmmm… how could we speed up the magma flow?  Make it less viscous.  Heat it, perhaps… hmm… that’s a lot of magma to heat…

And thus began the raptor’s cunning plan of pumping their nuclear waste into the earth’s core over a number of centuries, gradually producing the stronger field.  In theory, doing this might produce the effect I describe, though probably not at the magnitude I have it in the story. 

Yes, the inadvertent ecological disaster is intended as a parable.  The dangers of ignoring the warning signs of an impending global catastrophe are pretty self-evident, and there’s a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek parallel to the human race’s general attitude to global warming.  However, I’m trying to avoid it becoming too preachy in the story and I certainly don’t want to give children the impression that all technology is bad.  Personally I’m something of an optimist and feel that mankind is so adaptive that we will continue to find ways to overcome the problems we seem to be creating for ourselves.

The political situation in the raptor society also comes to the fore in the second book.  The rulers there are rather like a military junta who control their society with an iron fist.  While the general raptor populace are willing to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the causes of their environmental changes, one particular decision by their leaders in Book 2 will spark a very violent revolution.

Philip Reeve:  Do you do a lot of world building before you start a book, or does it come together as you write?  Do you plan your characters, or do they just grow?

I must confess that I don’t do anywhere near enough world building before I begin and that nearly always comes back to haunt me as I get further into a story.  I do try to get to know my characters a little before I launch into a story with them, but again, I should probably do more.  I have found with each series of books I’ve written that it takes until the end of the first book for me to feel like I know them properly.  Even then they surprise me sometimes.

Philip Reeve: What's next?

Mark Robson: Book 2 of the trilogy, Eye of the Storm, is well underway.  I’m just over half way through the first draft and hope to complete it in time for a pre-Christmas launch.  In this book the reader will learn that the crossing points between worlds are not limited entirely to the Bermuda Triangle region and that many other famous mysterious disappearances were actually caused by random storms in other parts of the world.  We find Amelia Earhart’s grandson has invented a new breed of flying machine, giving raptors the power of flight.  It also appears that Glenn Miller and Lord Lucan were victims of the effect!

What I’d love to do is set the real world element of the third (and final) book off the coast of Japan in the area Charles Berlitz dubbed “The Devil’s Sea” – another area of water with a similar reputation to the Bermuda Triangle.  This would, of course, require another research trip… one of the great things about setting a story in the real world!

Beyond this trilogy, I’m not sure.  I’ve got outlines for about another 10 books of various types, and ideas for a lot more.  Having recently gained my black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I’d quite like to try writing a modern martial arts story – the Karate Kid meets Jackie Chan in Grange Hill sort of thing.  I think that would be a lot of fun to do. 

Philip Reeve:  Thank you Mark.  Take it away, Barry!*

*And leave it there.

1 comment:

April said...

If the Karate Kid met Jackie Chan in a movie neither would have any idea what to do with each other - I'd expect crazy hijinx to ensue...

Great interview!

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