Lee Murray's Speculative Fiction Show - Mark Johnson
Welcome to Lee Murray’s New Zealand Speculative Fiction Show, an interview series featuring star acts from NZ’s science fiction, fantasy and horror community, including news, insights, and sneak-peeks of their latest performances.
Welcome to Mark Johnson, the author of The Madman’s Bridge, the first book in his epic fantasy series, Firewall, and finalist for Best New Talent in New Zealand's 2018 Sir Julius Vogel Awards.
Hi Mark, how has your summer been?
Mostly dry! I finally managed to finish Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson, then The Painted Man by Peter V Brett, The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stevenson and I’m just finishing The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer.
Are you the catch-up-over-summer type, or do you prefer to take a complete break from creative endeavours over the holiday period?
I find it hard to get good, solid chunks of work complete during the holidays because of my kids underfoot. I just focus on one or two aspects of writing and publishing. That lets me come back to the work in February with relatively fresh eyes.
You’re a graduate of AUT creative writing programme. What’s the most important thing your formal writing degree has taught you?
I learned the basics, of course, (show don’t tell, etc…), but importantly it taught me how I write, not how to write. The mentors at the program are gifted at allowing the students to figure that out. Also, I have to say, they’re astoundingly patient. Inhumanly so. But it’s only a year, and that’s not enough time to leave rookie status. You have to keep at it. Something that you’ve learned on the fly? Something I had to teach myself was to stop planning my work and just run with it. My best writing and plot elements so far, come from ignoring the intricate plans I set for myself and just running with a dialogue stream or plot diversions that occur to me right then.
Since graduating, you’ve become highly involved in Cloud Ink Press, a writers’ cooperative initiated by your AUT Creative Writing masters’ colleagues. What can you tell us about this fledgling indie press, and its plans for the future?
New Zealand has been hit really hard by the global fall of the bookstore. That’s because of our small market and the ridiculous price of shipping books out here. Cloud Ink was conceived by a group of AUT MCW grads as a way to get our books published, considering the slim-to-none chances a NZ writer has of being picked up by a publisher – either here or overseas.
We’re slowly learning and making smaller mistakes, and we’ve begun setting our sights on getting our books into overseas markets. We’re trying our hand at historical fiction at the moment. Watch this space!
You also trained as an English teacher. Does that make you a grammar Nazi?
LOL. I’ve never been detail-oriented. As a teacher, I always subscribed to the idea that so long as the errors aren’t intrusive, they don’t exist. I’d make a terrible copy editor. Though teaching high school has done wonders for helping me get inside the heads of nasty and confusing fictional characters and making them a little more realistic. And that’s just from working with the teachers…
The Firewall series is a world-building extravaganza with different characters taking a staring role in each book. That’s an ambitious project for a debut writer! Did you take your cue from a like series? What was your inspiration?
My greatest inspiration is Robert Jordan. In the pre-internet 90’s, his Wheel of Time changed what I thought fantasy was and set my imagination afire. Also, strangely enough, Charles Dickens for his serial writing. I call my writing intentions ‘Dickensian’ because I wanted to write smaller books as part of a larger novel, while being complete within themselves.
What’s excites you more: elaborate worldbuilding or in-depth character development?
The question that keeps me up at night is ‘how do characters grow within impossible environments?’ To attempt answering that, I had my characters think it’s entirely normal to live within a massive city-state that is also their god. I guess the answer is that I find those two aspects feed one another in my writing. I don’t view them as separately as other authors do, I’ve learned.
The cover artwork for The Madman’s Bridge is spectacular, as is the interior artwork. Do you want to give your artist a shout-out and tell us how you came to be working with him?
I actually asked TMB’s internal designer, Greg, to find an artist. He came back with Patrick McDonald, whom I’m very pleased with. Cloud Ink have nominated him for the Sir Julius Vogel Award for artwork. And yes, I’d definitely recommend him.
When can we expect the next instalment in the series? What can you tell us about it / maybe give us a back cover blurb?
I’m editing and assembling book two at the moment. I’d like to have it out by the end of the year, so we’ll see! It’s the redemption story of a woman who inadvertently caused the first book’s ‘inciting incident’, and covers her attempts to mend the damage. It’s less action/adventure than TMB, and more mystery/thriller. Working title: The Hidden Renegade.
Here’s the opening paragraphs!
“I don’t know, Sir,” said Terese Saarg, Head Seeker of Armer Stone Chapterhouse.
She stood at stiff attention before Keeper Lijjen, forcing her legs to remain straight and her chin high, not allowing herself to scratch the persistent itch at her side but letting her eyes blur and not focus on the dark-skinned Keeper. Some part of her had to stay relaxed or she’d break entirely.
Lijjen neither moved nor spoke.
On his desk, a small inset bulb within the rectangular recording artefact blinked steadily as it had in each ‘debrief’ she’d endured in this room. Keepers were required to keep a functioning recording artefact so every conversation and information could be retrieved at will. They were gifts from the Seekers’ patrons; the Royals, within Polis Sumad’s Centre.
“You suspect why I summoned you though, Head Saarg,” Lijjen said after Terese had been silent too long. His elbows rested on his thick wooden desk, his fingers intertwined.
Terese kept her face neutral. Here we go again.
So, the apocalypse is upon us and you’ve secured yourself a spot on the last shuttle off Earth. Unfortunately space is limited, so you’re only allowed to take three books with you. Which ones will you choose?
The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran. I try to read this once a year. It looks at ‘big concept’ ideas, like love or work or children. It helps me separate the melody of life from the white noise coming from everywhere else.
The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. It’s detailed life advice for the individual. Between these two books, hopefully we can recreate a dignified human experience somewhere else.
2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Lastly, we need hope if we’re going to a new place. Robinson creates an impossible solar system from our current one, unrecognisable to us. But within it he tells us that we can make things better. We can survive and we can make better people of ourselves and our children. For without hope, what are we really doing here?
Who’s your favourite unappreciated writer?
Guy Gavriel Kay. The man is so darned clever. I don’t understand why more people haven’t caught on to him.
What about a New Zealand writer you wish more people knew about?
Um Lee can we skip this question?
Thanks for stopping by Mark, and we wish you the very best of luck for that new release.
You can find me at
The Madman’s Bridge is on kindle at: