Thursday, October 11, 2007

Interview: D. M. Cornish

D. M. Cornish is the author of the fantasy novel Monster Blood Tattoo (see my review). Visit him online at his website and blog.

What drew you to writing a story about monsters?

I think I just have that probably rather clichéd boy penchant for monstrous and ugly and slimy things – slugs and snails and puppy dog tails and all that. I just have an instinctive attraction to all things monster – I mean who can’t have some kind of fascinated horror at the balrog, or Cthuhlu, Shub Niggurath, Yogsothoth, Nyarlathotep, the Skesis, or Grendel for that matter (the cantina scene for goodness sake, sheer genius!!!).

Early on in the invention of what became know as the Half-Continent, in reading 18th C maritime history I kept thinking, this would be even better with monsters in it. Phrases like hic sunt beluae (‘here be monsters!’) have great romantic appeal to me. It is peculiar that when we say “romance” we seem to always leap to a female idea of it – roses, candlelight, selfless love from the partner (and all great stuff, too!) – but I wonder if boy-romance is not more about sport, skill and (in my case) monsters. So really I was not drawn to writing about monsters I think I was always there, ready and waiting – case in point, my first book (Attack from Mars) that I co-wrote with a fellow called David Finlay was about Martians and Jupitans, what more could a growing boy need?

How did you go about creating the world of the Half-Continent?

Very slowly, one piece at a time, with bursts of invention. A good case in point is right at this moment I am reading Lee Strobel’s A Case for a Creator – a most sensible and intelligent look at the arguments for intelligent design – and it is giving me all sorts of ideas and triggering all sorts of responses to the many different beliefs put forward by the scientists interviewed and cited. In an initial response, I decided that in the Hc there are fundamentally two kinds of habilist: observationists, who will believe in only what they can prove with their methods; and rhetorists, who mostly follow as rote the writings of the learned ancients with only some small innovations of their own.

From there I have been writing pages and pages of notes on how the people of the Half-Continent might think about such things as their origins, why there are monsters, where the cosmos has come from – if indeed it came from anywhere, what is mankind’s place in it all – metaphysical and philosophical questions. And I have not just been stating a one-sided belief system but one that tries to show the breadth of response to the Big Questions we see in our own world. Fun fun fun – though not for everyone, I guess that is why I am doing what I do.

Of course, during these more particularly fecund periods I will be jotting little notes on the odd phrase or stray word I encounter, or make lists of the many weird and wonderful names that come my way.

Tell us a little bit about your path to publication.

Ah ha, yes well that was rather circuitous. I am trained and still practicing as an illustrator – a drawer of pictures for publishing, editorial, advertising and the like. Born and raised in Adelaide, Australia, I moved across country to Sydney a year after graduating and there made my way as a freelance illustrator. After about 9 years I went on an adventure to the US then London and Paris before crash-landing back in Adelaide once more. With immediate work prospects I took my folio to Dyan Blacklock, the publisher at Omnibus Books (an imprint of Scholastic Australia) and soon had myself my first picture book to illustrate (Grannysaurus Rex by Tony Wilson).

One of my common quirks was to sit with Dyan and shoot the breeze and one day one of my notebooks fell out of my bag as I reached for something else. Marked clearly with the number 23 it was swooped upon by Dyan, who immediately wanted to know what was in it and where the other 22 might be. I told her it was illegible notes about a pretend world I had been conjuring for the last 10 (at the time) years. Further discussions had me showing more of the Half-Continent and its denizens including Rossamünd – “he’s a boy with a girl’s name,” I said. Dyan latched onto this and sent me away with the task of putting Rossamünd down in the Hc and telling us who he was and what he was doing. From the first thousand words I wrote in notebook 23 sitting in a café, Monster Blood Tattoo was formed and I find myself now a writer more than an illustrator – or perhaps both simultaneously.

Did you illustrate the story as you went, or after you'd finished writing?

As I went. Sometimes it helps the process of discovering a character, other times it is just putting down what I already know the character to look like. Sometimes (especially with the monsters) the drawing comes first. There are also images in the text that were drawn years before I ever knew MBT would exist, back in the early days of pure hobbyist invention – the illustration of the Misbegotten Schrewd is a good example.

What is your writing process like?

Haphazard. I start in the middle of a chapter somewhere then might have an idea of how it ends then a moment of what goes on in between. From there I work all the parts together till a chapter is done. Right now as I begin Book 3 (as of answering this I have written the 1st 3000 words – so far only you, my publishers and closet friends know) I have learnt from Scott Westerfeld a neat process that I am beginning to employ myself – of daily editing the previous 3-4000 of the words so far written then adding another 1000 odd to this. In Book 2, I was doing 2000+ words a day in great exhausting bursts, but was feeling like I had no time to fill out things properly. Fortunately many edits later the ms is looking much more in the vicinity of peachy re: detail and cohesiveness. For Book 3, I would like to have a lower daily target but a more steady output and give myself time to research deeply as I go, to dwell and ponder and tortoise-like, get to the end. No more being the hare for me, Lord willing.

Which character did you have the most fun writing?

They are all great for some reason, but probably for just shear flow I would say Europe, Freckle and Poundinch, but the wonderful, terrible Branden Rose herself most of all – I don’t even know how she will react to some things until we are right in the thick of the moment. Writing Sallow was hard-fun (schwerspascht, as the Gotts might call it – originally used in reference to the “joy” of fighting) like juggling making sure her stutters were consistent and still comprehensible; I think she might make an interesting character in her own book (I can hear my editor groaning – editing her was apparently not schwerspascht for Celia, my editor.

What can you tell us about the next Monster Blood Tattoo book?

I can tell you it is called Lamplighter – but most would already know that, that it is about 136,000 words long (Foundling was 83,000 words) that the Explicarium for Book 2 will be just as long as it was for Book 1, that it begins near on two months after Rossamünd first arrived at Winstermill – the headquarters of the lamplighters, that it introduces a whole new cast of characters – such as the hard-headed Grindrod, the lamplighter-sergeant – whilst keeping a few of the originals, that it will be in books shops, by the grace of God, May next year (that is 2008) – bring it on, I say!

What is your favorite thing about being a writer?

Completing a manuscript. Holding the finished, printed and bound book in my hand. Receiving mail from people who have been moved by the book enough to tell me about it and encourage me – that leaves a real glow. The process or writing itself is painful and frightening and has me well out of my depth. I wrote this statement earlier in the year (yes, it has taken me some time to get this interview back to Miss Erin) and I can now say that as I come in to Book 3 (still officially untitled) I feel more at peace with this whole “being a writer” thing. I can see myself more belonging in the writerly sphere rather than just some accidental upstart.

Thank you so much, Mr. Cornish!


Sherry said...

I must say I wasn't interested in reading this book until now. Thank you both for the interview.

Traci said...


Laini Taylor said...

Hi Erin (& D M!) -- thanks for putting this out there! I too found the world-building incredibly unique and cool, and am anxiously awaiting the next book. I think I may be among the few people who LOVE the title "Monster Blood Tattoo" -- I'm a horror fan at heart, and this really got my mind working, wondering what it was about! I KNOW I was in a minority though, seeing how the paperback has ditched that title altogether. Whatever. So long as folks get the book in their hands! I also had the pleasure of seeing the new art (for book 2) in a great big stack in my editor Tim's office (D M Cornish's US editor) last February. There's lots more of it and it's GREAT!

TadMack said...

Monster Blood Tattoo started slowly for me, but I was engaged enough to carry on, and then I was hooked -- HOOKED -- and then it ended!!

I know it must not end with Lamplighter. The man needs to get cracking... on the next sequel! Reader greed has reared its ugly head!

Great interview, E!

Sookie said...

Oh my goodness!!! I loved Monster Blood Tattoo!!! Great interview--I can't wait for Lamplighter.

Polka Dotted Pickles said...

Just the title makes it sound interesting.

Erin said...

Laini - so cool that you got to see the art!

Tadmack - lol! Thanks. :)

Ian L said...

Borrowed the hard cover book off my sister at the start of the week. Have been scrambling home each day to continue reading. Wow. Picked me up and carried me along just like the first two books of Gormenghast. Also brought back all the salty spray & thundering musket memories of "Smuggler" - one of my favourite 80s TV shows. What an amazing world. Thanks Mr Cornish... This is a book I will pass on to my children - to help grow their imaginations - and to widen their eyes as the hair on the back of their necks rises and as they look behind them on the road for eerie shapes leaning from the darkening forests (while they quietly reach for their jar of john-tallow)... :-)

eyanharve said...

Nice one and looking something different compare to other.
- St Austell Cornwall

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Hot Tub Covers said...

This book sounds intense!

Dan Tong said...

Monster Blood Tattoo is a Masterpiece and Cornish a rare Genius in my humble opinion. He stands among the greatest with Jack Vance, Ursual LeGuin, Ray Aldridge, David Wolverton and others.

Unlike other succesful authors, like much of the best selling me too vampire junk, Cornish is 100% original, a fine example of astonishing creativity at work.
Also even though supposedly aimed at young audience, smart adults will enjoy it possibly even more. MBT works at a number of levels, as a wonderful adventure story, as an exercise in world building at its best, as story of the moral ambiguities of Life, an introduction to how political matters may shape our society.
There are even more things going on than I can just now recall. Finally, the authors attitude and warmth comes right through the story and the characters. It is virtually impossible not to be moved by powerful emotions that he successful elicits from his readers.
It is a great privilege to be able to listen to such a master story teller.

Dan Tong said...
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