Hello Mark, it’s a great pleasure to meet you! Many thanks for making time for this interview and I’m sure our readers will derive much benefit from your thoughts and insights.
I’d like to start by asking you about your earliest literary inspirations. What writers and writing genres inspired you as a young soul and who/what currently inspires you within your own writing?
I read constantly as a child; Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, the Dr. Doolittle books, Agaton Sax, everything I could absorb, then as a teenager loved Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books (I wrote a few in that style, just for fun back then) but tailed off from reading; computer gaming became my obsession. I’ve loved imaginative writing most, things that pushed boundaries in creativity and added intellectual colour. It was really a very roundabout route to get back to writing and reading at all, with computer programming, music, and visual art all coming first.
Immediately, I’m intrigued, Mark, as I remember the highly imaginative works of Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, and other writers in this unique style with great fondness. Do you think that exposure to this specific form of fantasy-adventure writing sowed early inspirational seeds for future literary plans? Did this genre allow you to view writing in a new way…perhaps in less generic, more open-ended styles?
My first interest was gaming, and back then I thought of the books as games and often thought the prose was incidental! Now I think the opposite, and yes, I have thought of using techniques like those in these titles for artistic effect. It’s heartening that the books are now popular again after they died off in the nineties. This at least shows that technology isn’t the end of books, even for books that have dice and scores! I wonder if one could write a novel with dice and scores? It was the interaction, the effort invested in reading that made those books much more engaging than others.
As a 17-year old who once attempted to write a fantasy book armed only with a notebook, basic mathematics, and a 20-sided dice, I can utterly relate.
I’d like to ask you, as an established artist, do you find that the creative process is similar for your writing, Mark, especially in terms of personal inspiration? Are there familiar processes that take place both for your art and writing and, if so, have they changed or altered dramatically over the years? Also, to expand this notion to the creative max, do you find that there are similar inspirational cues and formats that you utilise for your musical compositions?
This is interesting. Yes, I think all of those arts do fuse and have common routes. I’m very organised and like to plan things. Many writers don’t, I find! But my ideas for paintings and stories often come in instantaneous flashes, like complete ideas. I sketch both down; with paintings it’s a tiny sketch, and with prose it’s a step by step list of what happens, just a sentence or two for each chapter with the essential details. This plan, maybe a page long, forms the essential skeleton of the work. I can refine it, add links between chapters or characters, switch things, all to create unity. Unity in structure is important in art, both visual, musical, and literary.
I feel that if I started writing without a plan, I’d spend too much time going back and smoothing off various ‘sharp corners’ to hone the final result. This sort of tweaking can take 90% of the time – and so is best avoided! The way I aim to do it is like painting everything so that it’s largely finished after a first draft. Ideally, it is this skeleton that contains the essence of the work, the feeling, the meaning, and the characters.
Music is similar too. I much prefer to quickly get down ‘the whole’. The actual composition, creation, painting, writing; those things then become like joining the dots, always sticking to the essential feel and shape of the original plan, and so even a large complex work can have unity.
You asked about music…which is a little different. I have written far more music than prose, and I do have several techniques that have varied a lot. Initially my music writing was very formulaic, always starting 4/4 with similar chords, any old melody. It’s easy to write pleasant tunes in a snap like that, but to write good music, I think now it’s a matter of a similar process with a root in emotion. Music is much more emotionally evocative and direct than other art-forms. You can’t convey much intellectual information with it, you’ll never convey a complex narrative (try writing Ikea furniture assembly instructions using only a recorder!) but you can convey feelings really explicitly, to an extent that the feeling of assembling that furniture can be conveyed in a way that others can recognise! Thus, music must start with emotion. Ideally, all art must, but narratives need intellectual direction too. There are only so many emotions out there, so narrative adds another dimension to an artwork.
Has this changed over the years? Yes, a little, but even in my earliest stories I liked to know how they would end before I started. The spark of the idea contained what happened, rather than writing and worrying what was going to happen! Authors who ‘make it up as they go along’ seem quite brave to me!
Concerning your recent novella, The Many Beautiful Worlds of Death, can you share some thoughts on the initial sparks that ultimately led to the creation of the story and characters? Also, was this a relatively smooth process, or was it something that slowly took shape over time, with inspiration arriving from many different sources?
I had the idea on November 20th, 2009, with the title ‘Mike and His Tumour’. Sometimes concepts just come to me and I’ll quickly write out the idea, and I did so here; 88 lines that describe in paragraphs what happens. I wanted to write something about the nature of life and death, akin to Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal (I love Ingmar Bergman films; maybe I was watching it on the 20th? Who can say?), and with other cinematic references, some moods from the panicked final scenes in Brazil (and, indeed, there are many ‘Gilliamesque’ feelings in the story, the images that the story paints in my mind). Each paragraph was about five lines, and each became a chapter in the final novella. Back then, I’d never thought about writing a novel or anything nearly like that. I think 2009 was my first year writing stories at all, so I just left it there. I’ve got several other ideas written in a similar style, but this was/is probably my most detailed synopsis. In 2012, I looked back at it and thought ‘I must write this!’ so I took a month or so out to write it! For those few weeks it absorbed me completely, but it was done relatively quickly and certainly enjoyably.
Regarding the specific genre of The Many Beautiful Worlds of Death, how much fun is it to plan out and piece together a science-fiction literary work? Do you find that this gives you a more creative, less-restrictive freedom within your writing structure?
The joy of this type of writing is the complete freedom. There are characters that are robotic, gaseous emotion clouds, locations change in time and space, reality has no rules. Perhaps this very lack of rules can lead to a sense of unreality, so it can be important not to push things too far, to avoid Deus ex Machina. The reader must at least care about the characters and see the world as real and rational. However, the story is a surreal allegory, and like the surrealist art that I paint and love there are elements that were spontaneous and could act on people’s minds in unconscious ways. There is a scene about the two dots on an LED clock blinking in which the dots are compared to life-rings in a sea of time, cast overboard, from a ship sailing on a cold and ink-black sea of time, gone forever. My writing is all about images.
Your focus on highly-descriptive narrative is intriguing, especially for young, imaginative minds and reminded me at times of scanning a series of visual paintings, taking in many details and observations. Did you physically draw many pictures/illustrations throughout the planning of your book to aid personal inspiration, Mark, or did all visionary cues remain within your mind?
All of the images were in my mind, but imagery was and is, a crucial part of how I write. I like to tell a story by picturing a scene, and then describing how it looks and feels. This should give a sense of immediacy and intimacy, as though the reader is transported there, into the realm of the characters. I feel as though I am there when writing – and I should. That way I can describe how I feel, and the reader will feel it too.
In an essay written in June of this year, you described art as ‘emotional communication’. Do you view your writing in the exact same way, or are there subtle differences between the way a piece of visual art and a written book connect with an audience? Also, in terms of your personal philosophies on life, the universe et al, do you see yourself as someone who seeks to plant specific psychological messages and meanings into your creative output?
Yes, I think writing like painting (and music!) is emotional communication. I suppose writing has even more power to convey more information. Isn’t it strange, the sheer power of the combinations of words and letters, the things that writing can convey? I could type ‘eterwvwr’ and just those eight letters could be read like a word, or letters. The shapes themselves create a unique look and feeling. You might think of eternity or waves, or so many things, all of these possibilities from just eight letters that on the surface don’t even mean anything! The power a writer has is immense (and that’s just the power of the language, never mind the innumerable variations of typeface, paper colour and texture, smell, thickness, and every sense used when reading a real book!). A book is far more stimulating intellectually than a film for these exact reasons, just as a painting is far more stimulating than an image on a screen.
On the last question, I don’t try to implant specific messages, but my creative process means that lots of subconscious thoughts and ideas will creep into the work to help convey what I’m trying to. Art is communication, so the ultimate way to create it is to feel the feeling and idea, then beam it out quickly; and with luck, you’ll shine that exact feeling and idea to everyone who experiences it!
Many thanks for your personal thoughts and insights, Mark. To conclude, now that The Many Beautiful Worlds of Death is complete, do you currently have further plans to create more literature for a younger audience, or are you more inclined to follow a spontaneous writing pathway; acting/reacting as inspiration arrives, regardless of genre or audience type/age?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure what I might write. This idea was one of my first and I’ve not been writing long, so my motivation until now has been learning to write and pushing myself creatively to learn the craft. That’s how I work on any artwork, the joy of the craft, pushing to new challenges. This is one of my primary motivations. As I become more experienced I might start to think about targeting a story or idea at a specific demographic…but in art, when I try to please an audience, it rarely produces good results. In art, the best work is written when inspired, I think, when the artist is inspired by a great, amazing thought. Perhaps the audience picks up on that ‘wow’ feeling.
My hero is Beethoven. An odd thing about his career is that many famous works, the violin concerto, the 4th symphony, were written quickly as passing whims while he worked seriously and intensely for months on his commercially targeted, yet largely forgotten opera.
Ink Pantry are hosting a special book launch with Mark Sheeky and his wonderful novella The Many Beautiful Worlds of Death in Leicester on Saturday 22nd October from 1pm at Café Mbriki. We invite you to come and meet Mark, who will be signing his books on the day, and the Inky elves who work behind the scenes. Come and join our Inky Jamboree and eat cake!