Through a Glass Darkly: The Mysterious Tales of Marcus Sedgwick

Marcus Sedgwick has won an international following of young and old readers with his Gothic adventures, mastered the art of short-story writing, dabbled in inventions, and is now venturing into graphic novels during 2013. Síne Quinn discusses the appeal of dark fantasy and historical fiction with this award-winning author.

It is rare that you come across an author with an ability to amuse and entertain inquisitive nine-year-olds and cynical young adults as well as to captivate adult readers. Marcus Sedgwick has the enviable ability to be funny, a little zany and to roll with an enthusiastic crowd of children during school events, while being able to compel and hold the interest of adult audiences at festivals and conferences. For a tall southern English man with impeccable manners, unbeknownst to him, Marcus Sedgwick is that rare figure of modern-day storytelling master, a true seanchaí.

His work in a children’s bookshop and later as a sales representative in publishing gained him a considerable knowledge of the publishing industry. He is aware of what each job entails and how working as a sales rep can make you cynical at times, but also gives you an understanding of what sells. As a result, he cooperates and listens to both his publisher and editor, and asks, ‘Why would you be rude to your publisher?’ Sedgwick is very fortunate that not only was his debut novel published (Floodland in 2000) but it received great acclaim and won the Branford Boase Award in 2001. ‘I’d always been interested in writing, but it was working in a children’s bookshop that made it clear to me that that was what I wanted to try and do.’ It is often said that ‘some’ authors become tricky during the editing of their third book. This fact surprises Sedgwick. He relates how working in the industry made him aware of the value of the editing process – although he admits he might have been a little tricky during his seventh book. He speaks about the immense respect he has for his editor and the work she does. This relationship with the same editor has flourished over 12 years ever since his debut. This combined teamwork is apparent in his stories, which not only are well written but also tightly edited.

Flood and Fang, the first book in the Raven Mysteries series, developed from a line that popped into his head: ‘I suspect I may have fleas again!’ The line remained with him but he took about four years to come up with the story behind it. It was a combination of ideas. The first was thinking about a creature that might have fleas and then considering what kind of creature he wanted to write about – a raven. Edgar the Raven, clearly a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe, emerged as the eccentric and charismatic protagonist of the series. With a limited vocabulary (mainly, ‘Erk’, ‘Hurk’ and ‘Futhork’ ‒ ‘which in raven speech is quite rude’), Edgar is a loquacious and tenacious bird. Often with great difficulty, he somehow manages to get the family to understand him. In developing this character, Sedgwick decided to reverse the order of a normal family looking after a pet, so instead Edgar has to look after the eccentric and somewhat clueless family he lives with, known as the Otherhands. Though a reluctant and slightly weary hero, Edgar does feel great loyalty for the Otherhands. So much so his persistence saves them and the house itself.

Unfortunately, the Otherhands are neither bright nor observant. Hence much of the story follows Edgar’s frantic capers from plan A to Z in order to get the family to finally realise what needs to be done, and then taking the credit for themselves. The other idea for the story was based on the Gothic cult classic, the Gormenghast trilogy, also about a big family living in a large castle, by English writer and illustrator Mervyn Peake. Indeed Sedgwick is a big fan and describes Peake as ‘similar to Tolkien’. Sedgwick thought that it would be interesting to do ‘Goth-froth’, which he describes as ‘Gothic humour or light Goth’, for eight-year-olds but with humour. When the idea for the book formed, with Edgar at the helm, it all evolved rapidly – with six books in quick succession.

Because of the Raven Mysteries, Sedgwick’s friends found it amusing to call him ‘Raven Boy’. However, Sedgwick’s mercurial mind turned the slagging into an idea for yet another protagonist, this time with a feisty sidekick, and so another series evolved. Without even trying, Edgar also influenced Sedgwick’s other new series, Fright Forest. He liked the idea of a double act and the banter that occurs between them, so Raven Boy and Elf Girl were created. Their antagonistic and unlikely friendship is at the core of the series and begins when Raven Boy falls out of a tree and flattens Elf Girl’s home. In this project, Pete Williamson illustrated both series for younger readers. His simple Gothic and expressive drawings are very much reminiscent of Edward Gorey; his striking and slightly macabre black-and-white illustrations look like they are rendered in charcoal. Though Sedgwick is an illustrator, he has illustrated chapter headings and thumbnail images as well as covers for some of his books. However, when he saw Williamson’s drawings he knew they were just right. Williamson’s illustrations capture the Victorian period with its ephemera and artefacts, including ornate portraits and other collectible objects, for instance, a Dodo, bell jars, etc. Befitting the Victorian obsession with death, Williamson has drawn a skull or two in every picture, even the thumbnail sketches.

In addition to Edgar Allen Poe, Sedgwick has paid tribute to other famous writers/poets by including them in his writing: Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon (in Cowards, 2003) and Arthur Ransome, in Blood Red, Snow White (2007), which is an intriguing fictionalised account of Ransome’s time in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Clearly, Sedgwick is interested in people who led fascinating lives and survived very difficult times. Well-known author Graham Greene is an ongoing inspiration to him, about whom he hopes to write in the future. He is also intrigued by the infamous Russian Baroness Moura Budberg and the remarkable life she led. She is sure to make an appearance in one of his future works as well as her many lovers. (Budberg was a writer, suspected of being a double agent, and was involved with Robert Bruce Lockhart, HG Wells and later lived with Maxim Gorky.)

It is clear from his range of books that Sedgwick is a fan of Gothic fiction. He mentions Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allen Poe and HB Lovecraft as just some of the writers he enjoys. He expresses delight that a genre he once believed to be looked down upon is now becoming more widely appreciated: ‘For years, Gothic fiction was such a niche, but now it is been widely accepted and studied more. It was once seen as an obscure genre in literature and almost looked down on, like pulp fiction. Now there is even a MA in Vampire Literature in Hertfordshire.’ (This MA is run by Dr George, see http://www.herts.ac.uk for more information.)

Continuing this interest in the fantastic and the past, Sedgwick has mastered the art of writing historical fiction for older readers as well as spine-tingling thrillers like his 2010 novel, White Crow. He enjoys research and will often take a year or more to ensure every detail of the particular era is recorded. For example, his research for the gripping revenge story, Revolver (2009), took him to Alaska in order to capture the greed and desolation of the lawless society at the time, in particular the desperation in Giron in 1910 at the end of the Alaskan Gold Rush.

Many writers avoid the challenge of writing short stories yet Sedgwick not only enjoys writing them but speaks enthusiastically about the experience of editing and compiling such a book. In 2010, he edited The Truth is Dead, an anthology of counterfactual and counterhistorical short stories published by Walker Books. His story, ‘The Burning Glass’, is about Napoleon Bonaparte during his detainment on the island of Elba. Sedgwick notes that for a good anthology, ‘you need to have a strong topic, a good combination of authors (about eight), and just 5,000 words is enough’. With counterfactual or counterhistorical stories, he stresses the need to have an event in history that people can relate to and know enough about. Continuing this counterfactual theme, he hopes to edit more collections of short stories in the future.

Sedgwick also enjoys playing music and briefly dabbled in inventions, keen to be an inventor as a child. In Midwinterblood (2011), he explored the advances in technology and social media in the multimedia device, OneDegree. He investigated the possibility of actually making this instrument but discovered there was a similar app available and feels that nowadays that kind of connection can readily be achieved via Facebook. Fortunately for his readers, his main focus continues to be writing. This talent clearly runs in the family: his brother Julian is also an author. Together they are co-writing a graphic novel, illustrated by John Higgins, entitled Dark Satanic Mills, which will published by Walker in 2013. Julian Sedgwick’s series Mysterium is also due out in 2013 (published by Hodder for 12‒14-year-olds), so watch this space! SQ