I love the mixture of absurdity and accuracy in writer Mark Teppo‘s bio (from his site): “Mark Teppo suffers from a mild case of bibliomania, which serves him well in his on-going pursuit of a writing career. He also owns a pink bunny suit. Fascinated with the mystical and the extra-ordinary, he channels this enthusiasm into fictional explorations of magic realism, urban fantasy, and surreal experimentation. Maybe, one day, he’ll write a space opera. With rabbits.” We delve into a range of products in this email interview. My thanks to Teppo for his thoughts/time and to friend of the blog Allison Baker for introducing me in contact with Teppo. One of his collaborations, The Mongoliad, actually had its official launch earlier today, be sure to visit the site.
Tim O’Shea: As an urban fantasy author, I’m curious did you grow up in a city? What is it that attracted you to writing in the urban fantasy vein?
Mark Teppo: I grew up in a speck of a town out in the Mohave Desert, and spent a better part of my formative years in a towns under 100,000 people. It wasn’t until I moved to the Seattle area going on twenty years ago that I really arrived in a city, proper. I grew up on a diet of thrillers and mainstream mystery fiction, which always seemed to take place in big cities. In the classic “write what you know sense,” this is what I knew: all the action took place in the cities. As for the fantasy part, well, I didn’t think I knew enough about international politics and guns to write a convincing thriller.
O’Shea: In a recent essay about your writing, you said of Lightbreaker, the first book in the Codex of Souls series: “I was going to write an urban fantasy book without vampires, lycanthropes, zombies, angels, or demons.” When and why did you realize you wanted to approach the book without vampires, lycanthropes, zombies, angels, or demons?
Teppo: In the original version of LIGHTBREAKER, written more than fifteen years ago, the protagonist was both a werewolf AND a vampire. Basically, I couldn’t decide which, and when I came back to the book around the turn of the millennium, I realized that (a) the market was already filled with both, and (b) I couldn’t really wrap my head around the vampire mythology in the 21st century. The old, Bram Stoker-era, vampire rules make little or no sense in the modern era, and being chained to them seemed like a real chore. Plus what I was really interested in was magic and religion, and it didn’t take much to see the easy solution to all my problems.
O’Shea: You recently released the second book in the Codex of Souls series, Heartland. In returning to the Codex of Souls series, were there certain characters or dynamics of the series that you were most looking forward to working with again?
Teppo: HEARTLAND is a continuation of the story started in LIGHTBREAKER, and was a book that I wrote five versions of before I figured out how to edit a manuscript. In many ways, I’ve been carrying around both of the books for a long time, and I’m very happy to have them behind me now. There was a lot of emotional baggage with the character that was really tough to not let flavor the work, and I’m fairly pleased that I managed to strip out most of it in HEARTLAND.
That said, I’m really looking forward to ANGEL TONGUE and KARMA KISS (books 3 and 4) as they’ve never been plotted or written. They are completely new territory for me, and I like the idea that I have no better idea what’s going to happen than the protagonist. I have some idea, but the journey of getting from the beginning to the end is always a marvel. I like to punish the characters a lot to see how they’ll react, and it’s always a fascinating evolution. I know where ANGEL TONGUE and KARMA KISS go (and where the series itself is going), but the details are going to be fun to uncover.
I like that I’ve closed the loop on the protagonist’s relationship with a person from his past; I’ve got someone new in mind for him, someone that I hope will stick around for a few books, and I’m building her background to be quite different from his. It’s the oldest trick in the book–throw together two incompatible elements and see what happens–and I’m embracing it shamelessly.
O’Shea: When one has a distinct vision of a universe or concept, as you do with the Codex of Souls series, is it more flattering or frustrating when readers interpret your intention with a plot or a character in manner you never intended when writing it?
Teppo: I had a friend IM’ing me every day as he read LIGHTBREAKER, and it was fascinating to watch the evolution of his understanding of the protagonist, and he offered a number of insights into the character that hadn’t concretely occurred to me. I think I learned as much about the character as my friend did, which proved to be useful when I was doing the final touches on HEARTLAND.
I think everyone will interpret a creative act differently; I think that’s part of the magic of sharing these sorts of things. You don’t all have the same understanding of the impetus and meaning of a piece of work, and part of my job as a writer is to make something that resonates for a lot of people. But I can only get better at making these resonances by paying attention to other people’s reactions. It can be frustrating, yes, when people seem to mis-interpret the work, but part of what I have to ask myself is this because I wasn’t clear enough? What can I do to make the next work more clear?
I’ve always cited Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series as seminal works that I enjoy coming back to time and again because there are always aspects of their work that I FINALLY understand in the latest reading. It’s not crucial that the reader completely syncs with my intention; I’d rather it give them something to think about (above the visceral entertainment of the experience, of course), and perhaps it will drive them to try something new or come back to the work again later and discover something else in it.
O’Shea: For aspiring writers, I think the arduous creative process in your work is something they should take note of–and appreciate the patience it took for you to get the first two books of the Codex of Souls series written. As you note in this blog post: “Drafts of the first two Codex of Souls books go back more than a decade”. How taxing was it for you to keep at the books, working and revising them over the course of several years?
Teppo: We shopped LIGHTBREAKER for about three years back in the day, and the main frustration at that time was that the urban fantasy market as we know it today didn’t exist. I was an untested writer writing something that no one could pigeonhole, and every rejection we got cited a different genre as where it would be placed. I took five years or so off in the interim (to sulk, mainly, and to indulge in some writing about experimental and electronic music). When I came back to writing fiction, I had a better idea of what I really wanted to do, as well as an awareness of the hard work it would entail. I found a new agent (rather, he found me) who was understanding about my desire to rework the book, and after that it was a matter of finding the right publisher.
I didn’t have any doubt that we’d sell it the second time around. It still took a few years, but we were being patient about who we shopped it to during that time. Like any book, by the time you actually see it in print, you’ve touched every word several times and it’s always nice to be DONE. It took another year before I stopped being able to cite chapter and page when someone mentioned a line from the book, and now I can actually pick it up and be pleasantly surprised by parts of it.
Every time I came back to the manuscript, it was clear what needed to be done, and so it was a part of doing the work. Taxing, yes, in that it gets very detail-oriented, but that’s the ugly grind of being a writer. I actually like it. I used to abhor editing and the detail work, but now I enjoy the fine-tuning that comes at the end.
It’s the first two weeks of a new book that I really dislike.
O’Shea: Can you recall when your interest in magick and the occult took root?
Teppo: I studied religion and mythology in college, when I wasn’t playing D & D. Somewhere in there, I stumbled upon Aleister Crowley as well as The Fields of the Nephilim, an English band whose earlier work was based around the legends of the Nephilim and Sumerian rituals. These days, I think The Fields of the Nephilim are the best example of chaos magick rituals set to music, but then I’m pretty biased in my love for them.
Eh, let’s be honest, I was a goth kid who was more into ritual and magic than wearing black and wanting to be undead.
O’Shea: Did your parents instill your serial bibliophilia in you, or is that something you nurtured all on your own?
Teppo: There were always books around when I was growing up. Every room had a bookcase or two in it, and every trip we took as a family included stops at bookstores. It was the way of the world, I thought. When my wife and I were shopping for our first house, there were certain houses that I would have this near pathological reaction to–I just didn’t like them–and it took me a while to realize that it was because they didn’t have any books in them. One place had their single bookcase shoved in a back closet. Creeped me out.
O’Shea: How did you end up as chief creative officer at Subutai Corporation? Is this your first collaboration with Neal Stephenson and the other officers in the venture?
Teppo: It’s my first collaboration with everyone. We’ve all know each other–either directly, or by one degree or so of separation–for a couple of years now, and the project grew organically out of some random conversations about a project (like they do). I was the detail-oriented writer guy who didn’t have a book due in the next six months, and after a few months of doing the work, everyone agreed that the position was a good fit for me. Kind of boring, really: I showed up, did the work, and will keep on doing it until someone turns out the lights and tells us all to go home.
O’Shea: Subutai Corporation’s first major project is The Mongoliad, an experimental fiction project designed for smart phones. How experimental will it be, do you all plan to push the boundaries of the platform with typography or in what way do you hope to experiment?
Teppo: It’s not terribly experimental in what it is: a serial adventure novel. What’s groundbreaking about it is the primary manner in which we’re delivering it to our readers–via smart phones and other mobile devices. The technology–and, more importantly, this generation’s adoption of that technology–has reached a point where we all have devices that are capable of reading things like serial fiction. I don’t think people like to read any less than they have in the past, but they are living much more mobile lives and the opportunity to sit down and read a book–or to read something on a computer screen–is rapidly becoming a luxury. It’s just not the sort of activity that we have TIME for anymore, at least, not in its previous iterations. We still have lots of down time when we’re waiting for a bus or for an appointment or a meeting–there’s no end of waiting–and what we’re doing now in that time is staring at our mobile devices.
Secretly, we’re all hoping some good, rousing serial fiction will magically show up on our screens. In the meantime, we’ll play another hand of Solitaire or update our Facebook status or try to send a tweet.
What these devices do is keep us connected with all our friends in this real-time virtual environment, and when you’re this hyper-connnected with your friends, you have a relationship with everyone that is based on very little filtering and is very immediate. If you’re all reading the same serial fiction and it provides mechanisms for sharing and discussions built-in, then the ability to have that next-day watercooler discussion–you know, how we used to stand around and dissect last night’s episode of Lost–becomes real-time. We’re all chatting and commenting about the fiction immediately after it is released.
Wouldn’t it be great if this discussion actually had an impact on the course of the story?
O’Shea: Is there a finite end point for The Mongoliad or do the creators have no idea where it will end at this point and want the story to evolve based on user response?
Teppo: We’re going to break it into seasons. It’s an arbitrary term, but the concept of a TV season is the closest match to what we’re envisioning. We do have some overarching plans for the entire world, but for the short term, we’re going to play things close to our chests and evolve the story as the audience seems to like it. The splash page for The Mongoliad mentions “Foreworld,” and that’s our umbrella name for our version of history because we’ve already scoped entry points that aren’t in the 13th century. We’ll run it as long as people care to show up and read, and we’re cognizant of the perception that the writers of Lost had to deal with (that there was no end planned), and so we’re going to try to iterate through cycles well enough that people feel a sense of closure at regular intervals.
It may be dangerous to have me in charge, as I fully believe that (a) you should leave the stage before you’re thrown out, and (b) writers have no dearth of good ideas, and so I don’t see any problem will wrapping up a story line or killing a character that people like–as long as it is done well. Everyone overstays their welcome eventually; it is just a matter of sensing when it is time to go before everyone else does.