Q & A: Mark Smylie Talks About ‘The Barrow’

Mark SmylieI have to be honest, these author Q&A’s are not usually my thing.  But despite my love of The Barrow it is not a book without controversy.  As Mark Smylie was willing to address these controversies, how could I turn down the chance?

Rather than give a long introduction though, lets just get to it.  When Mark answers questions he doesn’t mess around.

1) Mark!  Thank you so much for answering a few questions.  I was a huge fan of The Barrow, the best debut I have been able to read in the first wave in my short time blogging.  I want to toss you a soft ball or two first, and then ask a couple of questions of a more serious nature.  I warn you, I have never done a Q&A before and things could get a bit wordy as I try to narrow down what I am trying to ask.

No worries, Nathan; thanks for taking the time! Wordiness is practically my middle name, as I’m sure you’ll see.

2) First, for those like me who had no idea The Barrow was set in a world you had already created, how does it fit in with the Artesia comic series?

The Barrow functions as a prequel, though it can also act as a stand-alone book. You don’t need to know anything about the Artesia series in order to read The Barrow, though readers of the comics might see lots of little connections and references. It has different concerns and characters and a different focus than the Artesia series, which was more an epic military fantasy about a war that wracks the Middle Kingdoms and its neighbors (which are the central setting in both the comic and the novel). The Barrow is set prior to the start of the war, and in some ways is exploring what the society and culture of the Middle Kingdoms is like before a giant wrench gets thrown in the middle of it. One of the main characters of The Barrow, Stjepan Black-Heart, is the brother of Artesia, the eponymous main character of the comic series, and he has appeared several times in the comics so far; Artesia doesn’t really appear in The Barrow except in Stjepan’s dreams, which flash back to the death of their mother as a recurring motif.

3) Was it a natural transition to go from comics to writing a full novel, or did it require a big Artesia Volume 1reset of the brain?

Yeah, there are definitely some differences that required adapting new writing strategies and habits.  Everyone writes comics a little differently; because I was both writer and artist, I mostly concentrated on writing dialogue and then would thumbnail sketch the page and panel layouts for the comic, already knowing in my head what I wanted the pages and locations and characters to look like. In switching to a novel I had to figure out how I wanted to handle description; I suppose there are some readers who might feel I went a little overboard with it but as a writer I was generally happy about how it turned out.

In discussions with other writers there does seem to be a trend in reader preferences away from description and towards the utter centrality of dialogue, and some writers clearly embrace that and enjoy it; I don’t, if I start reading a book and there’s pages and pages of dialogue with virtually no description or direction I usually stop reading it. That could be a generational issue; I suspect for many modern readers that they see themselves, for lack of a better way of phrasing it, as actors engaged in the performance of a text, and dialogue is something you can project yourself into, while description is just words.

The Barrow4) This book has seen its share of mixed reviews.  Obviously I loved it, and I wasn’t alone.  But with not every book being for every person it picked up a few critics as well.  I would love to ask a few questions based on some of the more controversial aspects.

To start with this book was highly sexualized throughout.  Very few scenes got off without some underlying sexuality.  While I have some theories on why this is I would love to know your thoughts on how the book evolved this way.  Was it something you planned thematically, something that happened organically, or something else altogether?

Yeah, sexuality and gender dynamics are and always were a fundamental part of the text; the main crux of the narrative, after all, is a map appearing on the body of the character Annwyn (which you don’t even get to until page 200 or so; I will fully admit that I took a leisurely stroll to reach the real starting point of the story), and then essentially what follows is this very intricate, socially-coded negotiation for this band of adventurers to get access to her body (and hence, the map). So the whole question of the male gaze, of men looking at the bodies of women, and hence who has control over the bodies of women in a patriarchal, feudal culture, was always an explicit theme (not simply subtext but in fact actual text), and from that starting point it seemed natural to look at the way that sexuality is treated in fantasy generally (which is often, I think, not at all) and how it would function in a world in which magic and occultism are real forces. Artesia as a comic book also has very strong sexual content, though it could be considered more “sex-positive” in the sense that Artesia as a character very much controls her sexuality, being from what I would think of as a sexually more progressive (or at least more open) culture from within the setting, while the female characters in The Barrow are stuck (much, I think, to their detriment) in a more closed, conservative, even reactionary culture. Sexuality in The Barrow is damaged, twisted, perverted (in the sense that it has been perverted) because I think that’s what happens to sexuality in a patriarchal culture that both devalues women and treats sex as a problem rather than as a pleasure.

5) There was one scene that stood out even more than the others to a few friends I want to question a bit more closely.  The Unicorn Horn.  I know it was the stopping place for at least one who gave the book up.  It was probably the most sexually explicit scene in the book.  I don’t want to ask you to defend it, don’t get me wrong.  But when writing it did it stand out to you as much as it has for others?  Make you second guess it, or conversely, feel like a key piece to the story?  Or was it just one scene of many that built your story?

A lot of the sex scenes in The Barrow are there to scare you; The Barrow is, in many ways, a horror story, and many of the sex scenes are there to make the reader uncomfortable and throw them off their game, so to speak, like the “bright baubles” that Harvald warns Erim about in the Prologue: “’Things are never what they seem. Never get distracted by the bright bauble.’” That was as much an admonishment for the reader as it was for Erim, because The Barrow is ultimately a book about deception. I don’t think American readers are scared by violence or the destruction of the body much anymore; at least not when it conforms to their narrative expectations. I think people start to get scared, to feel dread, when they suddenly realize they don’t know what’s going to come next, when they don’t know what the outlines and outcome of the story are supposed to be. And the sex in The Barrow is there to confound your expectations about what’s expected and appropriate for a fantasy story.

That scene may, admittedly, do that a little too well; but I’ve also seen some reviewers call out other scenes as their stop moment, and then conversely many reviewers and readers were able to get past it to discover what the story is actually about, so everyone presumably has their own personal limits. At that moment you’re getting several narrative threads all driving to their peaks simultaneously: the curse consuming Harvald’s body, the loss of the map (and its transfer to Annwyn), and this reveal of the extent of debauchery that occurs when Dieva (the goddess of pleasure) starts to be displaced by Ligrid (the goddess of perversion, and one of the rulers of Hell as outlined in the Prologue)—so yeah, it’s supposed to be this scary, insane moment. But the scene also contains, in many ways, some crucial clues, for readers who can see past the sex: for example, if you didn’t already suspect that Gilgwyr is one of the Nameless, that scene, and the presence of the Ligrid priestess, should be a huge clue. Gilgwyr’s kind of out of control at that point, he’s really taking a lot of risks with arranging the performance, and it’s supposed to feel dangerous for everyone involved (but obviously for Ariadesma in particular). And of course, there’s also another subtle clue that there’s maybe something else going on around Gilgwyr, in the Gilded Lady’s reaction to the performance.

I haven’t really felt it necessary to second-guess the sex scenes that are in the book; I feel, at least as an author, that they all serve very specific purposes and reveal very specific things about the characters and their world and the narrative that they are participating in. But I will admit to being a bit surprised at how easily it was to distract some readers and reviewers from what’s going on in the story under the surface.

6) Erim is a female hiding under a male guise. Hardy original on its own.  What made it Artesia Volume 2: Afield - The Second Book of Doomsdifferent was her story never revolved around any real threat of discovery or danger due to her gender.  Always the plan? 

If you read histories of women who have disguised themselves as men, for example when serving as soldiers in wars, one of the interesting things is how often and how long they are able to elude discovery, sometimes until they are either killed or wounded, at which point their fellow soldiers finally discover that they’re women. I think there is a natural inclination in most cultures (at least prior to the 20th century) to assume that the clothes that you wear reflect some fundamental truth about you, so if you walk around dressed like a man, then most people will see you as a man and treat you as such. It’s not that you wouldn’t be in trouble if you were discovered, but more a question that because of cultural conditioning that such deviations from the norm are not expected and therefore are unlooked for.

This is a bit of an aside but paradoxically I wonder if gender-bending may actually be harder to disguise nowadays because we are more attuned to deviance and the presence of deviance (in the sense of things that deviate from the expected; so that’s intended to be without moral judgment on my part). I’m an 80s kid, and so I grew up with everything from Boy George, Duran Duran and the New Romantics movement, David Bowie, midnight showings of Tim Curry in Rocky Horror, eventually Tilda Swinton in Orlando and Terence Stamp in Priscilla (admittedly both 90s films)—there was a lot of heavy-duty androgyny back then, and it often feels that since then there had been a lot of culture war pushback, even from places and scenes that would not think of themselves as reactionary (90s grunge is very butch, for example, and the hipster movement often deliberately grounds itself in an “ironic” 50s style with very exaggerated male and female costuming). It’s always surprising to me that as modern and progressive as our cultural sensibilities have become there are still some things—long-haired “hippy” men, women cutting their hair short, guys wearing dresses or kilts—that can set some people off and seem to trigger all sorts of fear and loathing, in part because some people still prefer to have a strict visual coding that what you see is what you get. Anything else threatens their sense of identity and cultural stability, somehow.

That danger—of discovery, of punishment—certainly exists in Erim’s world, most particularly and officially in the Inquisition of the Sun Court of the Divine King (the sharp, shiny tip of the patriarchal spear, as it were). Erim always has to be careful—she bathes or relieves herself separately from the other characters, for example—but she has been passing as a man for a while so I think for her the fear of discovery is background noise rather than a constant clear-and-present danger. She ruminates a bit on the fact that it’s easier to pass in a city, for example, and that the countryside makes her nervous because people are actually more conservative there; and her sour attitude to the Inquisition, mentioned in passing, is in part due to a fear of them. But she also trusts herself to present as male to most people around her. Stjepan already knows and is able to abet her disguise; and I do think she lucks out that in the one instance where someone else does discover her secret (after she has been wounded, true to history) that it’s Godewyn, who doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about that kind of thing. Godewyn isn’t really a progressive, he’s just too self-centered to care about other people’s issues or secrets.

 7) She also considers herself a sexual deviant yet we never see the evidence, despite the highly sexual nature of the rest of the book.  Does she have a past we don’t see, or perhaps is it a cultural conditioning that makes her think of herself this way?  Or something I am going to have to wait a book to learn more about? 

Yes, there’s a very fast clue, almost a throwaway line, in the Prologue that hints at (or perhaps even declares?) where Erim’s view of herself comes from, when she thinks “there were none but the Damned that would take the likes of her, so the temple priests had assured her when she was young and they played with her in the dark.” Every character in the book, male or female, has had their sexuality constructed in some way by the cultures around them—I tend to favor nurture over nature when it comes to that old argument—and none perhaps more so than Erim, who as the line implies was molested as a child. I think growing up in a patriarchal feudal culture is going to be bad enough for most women (and men for that matter), but in Erim’s case she has been, in effect, deliberately shaped by those that interfered with her.

I’m not an expert, strictly a layperson in such matters, but observationally people who are sexual predators in positions of power over young people often exert a kind of Jedi mind trick (if you’ll forgive so casual an expression) on their targets by trying to get their victims to believe that it is some sort of flaw or deviance that is active and inherent in them as the victim—their appearance, their demeanor, their behavior, or their very nature—that is bringing about their molestation. That’s often part of how a predator in a position of power is able to escape detection for so long, because they’re getting into the heads of their victims and using their authority and position as both a shield and a weapon, by convincing their victims that the only persons at fault are themselves.

Once again from a layperson’s understanding, victims of that kind of early abuse can have a wide variety of responses (ranging from a complete rejection of sex and embrace of celibacy, to becoming abusers themselves, to intense promiscuity, and just about everything in between). And there are no therapists in Erim’s world to help her through it. In Erim’s case her cross-dressing is in part an attempt to escape the role that has been laid out for her by her molesters; it’s her way of starting to wrest some control of who she is and what she can do away from men who were essentially trying to program her for life.

But yes, as you note, even though she thinks of herself as a deviant (and her sexual impulses become more subdued the further they go on their quest, as the demands of survival kind of drive those thoughts out of her), we don’t really ever see her do anything. That was quite deliberate. With The Barrow, readers who like to read purely from an identification standpoint (where they project themselves into a character that they like) might have trouble with the book, depending on their expectations and prejudices. Half the characters you follow are outright villains (even if they do not immediately announce themselves as such, though the sex scenes should be major clues), Stjepan is bisexual (which might put off some readers), and Annwyn either appears to have too little agency or, by the time you reach the end, perhaps too much. In some ways, Erim is a variation on a horror trope, the so-called Final Girl trope first identified and named by the film theoretician Carol Clover in her book Men, Women & Chainsaws, written in the early 90s. The Final Girl is usually a desexualized—or at least sexually unavailable—female character that manages to become sole survivor of a horror film by dint of pluck and luck and that can serve as a stand-in for the (at the time) usually male audience members for the horror films of the 80s (think Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in Halloween, or even Ripley in the original Alien); I wanted to complicate that a bit by giving Erim a very intense sexual imagination, but leaving her actions open to interpretation, so that she could still potentially serve as a point of identification for both male and female readers. That might work okay for some readers, perhaps not for others who reject even the hint of a sexual life in a character. In terms of how her sexuality evolves or reveals itself, we’ll just have to see how that plays out over time.

8) Ok, last question.  The Barrow actually wrapped up its plot pretty tight.  What can we look forward to in this series future?

The next book, Black Heart, will follow the survivors of the barrow on several intertwined trajectories, most notably the upcoming campaign against Porloss, the rebel Earl of Orliac who is hiding out in the hills with a small army of bandit knights, the preparations for which are mentioned several times in The Barrow. There are all sorts of little plots and threads that will get picked up on in the book, particularly around the Guild and the Black College in Therapoli, the machinations of the King’s Shadow and the High King’s Court, and then there are the looming events of the Artesia storyline as well. She’s introduced as a character in Black Heart and then the next book, Bright Sword, will tie into and cover the events of the first Artesia graphic novel.

Thank you again, and I look forward to more great stories from you in the future!

Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the book some, and I hope you like the sequels!

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