Monday, April 18, 2011

The Adventures Fantastic Interview: Mark Finn, Part 1

Mark Finn should be no stranger to hard-core Robert E. Howard fans.  He is the author of the Howard biography Blood and Thunder as well as numerous articles and essays about the man from Cross Plains.  In addition to his writings about Robert E. Howard, Mark is also a fiction author with a number of short stories to his credit.  He took time out of his schedule recently to sit down with Adventures Fantastic to answer a few questions.  Here, in the first of two parts to this interview, Mark discusses why he writes, why he felt the need to write a biography of Robert E. Howard, his admiration of jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden, and what other projects he has in the works.

AF:  Why do you write?

MF:  Why do I write?  That's a good question.  When I was a lot younger, I wanted to be an entertainer of some sort.  I went through a period where I remember in the 70s television would always have these variety shows, so I got to see ventriloquists and magicians, and guys who could do impressions, Rich Little.  I used to watch the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts with Foster Brooks.  I didn't understand why it was so funny, but my parents just thought it was the best thing ever.

AF:  I remember those.

MF:  Oh, they were so funny.  And Foster was great.  I mean really underappreciated kind of guy.  So I went through phases where I studied ventriloquism, and I studied magic.  I still play with magic on a strictly amateur basis right now.  But as I got older I wanted to do special effects makeup for the movies and found kind of accidentally that I was good at writing.  And I kept wanting to do other things.  I wanted to draw.  I've always wanted to tell stories.  I've always wanted to entertain people and tell stories.  However that needed to happen.  I found that of all the things I wanted to do, the thing that came easiest to me was writing.  If I spent a lot of time and went to school and learned art and got a degree in commercial art or graphic art and sat down and made an effort at getting into comics, I probably would be pretty good.  But I was always naturally better at writing than I was anything else, so by the time I was fifteen, I met somebody, incidentally, who was gifted in art the way I was in writing, so that's what made me go, "Oh, I get it.  All right."  And he and I have been friends, and he, John Lucas, has pursued the art career, and I've pursued the writing career.  For me it boils down to entertaining people, storytelling. I think that's our primary means of communicating with one another, whether it's a joke or "Honey, you won't believe the day I've had."  It's all stories.  I like that form.

AF:  What got you interested in Robert E. Howard?

MF:  I was a nerd.  (laughs)  Yeah, in the 70s I liked all the monster movies, the Saturday afternoon stuff, Jason and the ArgonautsIt was the time of Star Wars and later fantasy movies and Dungeons and Dragons and all that stuff.  Dungeons and Dragons, when it came out, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, had a list in the back of recommended reading.  That was interesting to me because I had been reading science fiction up until then.  I was just transitioning over into Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I got into D&D about the same time the Conan movie came out.  I was too young to go see it in the theater, but with a little finagling, when it came to HBO, I was able to watch it.  And so when I recognized that the Conan created by Robert E. Howard, according to the movie, was the same guy they were recommending the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons book, I said, "Well, I've clearly got to read this guy."  And so it was through other influences that led me to check out Howard.  That's been where my heart has been ever since.  Well, it just spoke to me in a way that very few other authors have before or since.  So, the short handed answer is through the movie, and the long handed answer is through Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the movie.

AF:  This could be a two part question, depending on how you want to interpret it.  What led you to write a biography about Robert E. Howard, and why did you see a need for a revised edition?

MF:  My initial intention with writing Blood and Thunder was two-fold.  One, I knew that Rusty and Patrice [Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet] were busy doing the Del Rey texts and preparing those and would have no time to finish these biographical projects and what they were doing in time for the Centennial [the centennial of Robert E. Howard's birth] in 2006.  That just sort of happenstance coincided with Chris Roberson from Monkey Brain saying, "Isn't the Howard Centennial coming up?"  And I said, "Yeah."  And he said, "Do you want to do a book for us?"  And I said, "Sure, I'll edit an anthology, and I'll put everybody together, and we'll do essays, and it'll be great."  And he said, "No, no, no, I'm thinking just you."  That was when the idea first came to me.  I knew right away that I couldn't do a kitchen sink, warts and all kind of book.  Those types of things take a while.  You've got to go three years in and really do a bunch of stuff.  I had a small window.  I had one year.  So I chose to write the biography I would have wanted to read, that I've always wanted to read as a fan, and couldn't.  I wanted a biography that was easy to read.  Not simple, but an engaging story.  I wanted something that dealt with the literature that he wrote, and I wanted something to put it all into context.  There were things I emphatically did not get in reading Dark Valley Destiny.  In fact I decided to make that the critical yardstick, if you will, for Blood and Thunder.  I looked at everything I didn't like about Dark Valley Destiny, and I either didn't do what he [L. Sprague de Camp] did, or I wrote an answer for what he posited.  And so as a biography, it's not a complete book in so much as it is a reaction to de Camp's various theses.  And so when it came out, I had to turn it in at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006. 
Then in 2006, a bunch of things happened.  Most notably, The Cimmerian magazine that Leo Grin was doing went monthly, and with the monthly schedule came all these finds, all this new stuff.  That's always the case, it's never gonna be finished because if I wanted to stop right now and add new stuff, I could.  But I had to have a cut off point because of the process they were using to do the book.  There was a lot of stuff found in 2006, interesting speculations and some cool finds, subsequently, in 2007 and 2008, that weren't in the first edition.  I made a deal with Monkey Brain for the mass market in trade.  So everybody was asking if there was going to be a hardcover.  I shopped it around to a few people, including Del Rey.  They liked the book, but it wasn't in their cards to do it.  They were just really wanting to concern themselves with the fiction.  So I went to the Foundation [The Robert E. Howard Foundation] because, again, Rusty and Patrice are still working on their own stuff.  Patrice is still preparing texts.  They've got the boxing and the funny western stuff left to do.  So that's somewhere between six and eight more books if they do it right.  Rusty, too, same thing.  So I knew that those biographies they're gonna have are eventually going to come out.  But the Foundation could use a biography right now that they could market and sell, so I thought, I'll just ask them.  But I wanted to put in the new information, I wanted to rewrite the last chapter, which is very problematic in the first edition.  I wanted to add a bunch of things people asked me about.  One of the few negative comments I got on the book was "I really liked learning about all the other stuff, but I kinda wish there were more Conan stuff in there.  He doesn't spend a lot of time on Conan, aannndd I understand why, but it still would have been pretty nice."  With that kind of luxury, with another year to go back through the manuscript, I can clean up a bunch of stuff.  Now it's got 30,000 extra words in it.  And all those things have been addressed.  All the technical errors and lapses in concentration on my part have been fixed.  I'm very happy with it.  It's a little weightier of a book.  The last chapter got completely reorganized and feels a whole lot more focused and less chaotic.  I would say probably four of the chapters at least have gotten a substantial revision or were completely revised.  Another four of the chapters had extra bits and pieces and things inserted into them, so if you've read the first edition once or twice, you'll quickly start hitting stuff where you go, "I don't remember that from the first time I read the book."   Then you'll go and get to the sections and go, "Wow, I don't remember any of this."  That's the new stuff.
Illustration by Mark Schultz

AF:  Any possibility that you can foresee a third edition somewhere down the road, or is this your final word on Robert E. Howard's life as far as a formal biography?
MF:  I would say, for everything that I wanted the book to accomplish, it largely did.  Now we have a talking point opposite de Camp's book.  The thesis I wanted to work into the first edition regarding Breckenridge Elkins is now in there.  Unless some big evidence shows up that changes something fundamental, I don't know that a third edition would need to come out.  I wouldn't want to do it unless I could put another thirty thousand words into it, and if I put another thirty thousand words into it, now we start getting into an awful lot of lit crit.  Which is great if you've read it.  If I'm talking about Solomon Kane, if you've read all those stories, then a little literary criticism discussion, breaking stuff down isn't going to hurt anybody.  You might agree or disagree,  You would at least be able to go, "Oh, yeah, 'Wings of the Night,' I've read that."  If I put it in there, and you don't know what I'm talking about, you're going to be more likely to skip chapters, which is exactly what I do when I read a literary biography and come across something I haven't read yet because I don't want to be pre-informed when I read the story.  So I don't think a third edition is in the works anytime soon.  I would be more inclined to just do more articles and essays and fill in gaps that way.

AF:  Any other biographies you plan to write?

MF:  Weirdly enough, yes.  (laughs)  I want to do a biography of Jack Teagarden, who was a jazz trombonist during the Big Band era.  He's from the town I currently live in, Vernon, Texas.  He's the Jimi Hendrix of the jazz trombone.  That kind of sounds like a trite way to say it, but he played the trombone in a way that it was not played before or since.  His style was so singular and signature that jazz trombone died when he did.  And so he's largely forgotten by modern jazz aficionados.  In the Big Band era, he was kinda on the second tier.  People have heard of him, go "Oh,yeah, I know that, trombone, right?" He's got a pretty big international following still.  I recommend him.  If anybody is reading this, do a google search for him on Utube and check out how he plays.  The guy was a virtuoso.  The kind of which, you won't believe what you're hearing is a trombone.  He's that good.  I want to do a biography of him.  I think he's a fascinating guy.  He's another one of those Texas creators who took two disparate things and combined them to make a unique sound.  I use him in the introduction to Blood and Thunder alongside of Howard Hughes and Bob Wills as inventive Texans who were able to take the best of two separate elements and combine them to make something new.  He's one of those kind of guys, and I'm fascinated by those type of guys.  Historically, I'm attracted to subjects who displayed that kind of brilliance, maybe even to the cost of their own lives.  Orson WellsBenjamin Franklin.  Howard Hughes.  Harry Houdini
Robert E. Howard.  These guys, Jack Teagarden, all had this sort of intensity about them, this sort of effortless means of creation that was responsible for why they were the way the were but also made them so flawed and so tragic.  I don't have a timeline on the biography.  I'm waiting for a bunch of stuff to come together.  I'm probably through writing biographies for a few years.  I really want some time to study Teagarden more before I get into it.  But, yeah, I definitely want to tackle him.  Now I have to be mindful of something.  I do not remember who said this, but there's a very famous quote from a critic.  I should now who said this.  The quote is writing about music is a lot like dancing about architecture.  I've got to find a way to write about his stuff, maybe not in a way that you understand it, but in a way that makes you want to listen to it.  That's really the goal.  If you're a jazz fan and you pick up the book, I've got to be able to write about what he's doing in a way that the jazz fan will say "Yeah, he totally nailed it."  And you, who have never heard him at all, will go, "I don't what he's talking about but, man, I got to check that out."  And that's a balancing act.  Who knows how long that's going to take?

AF:  I enjoyed your novel excerpt that you read earlier this morning.  What fiction do you have in the pipeline, and where can someone go to get copies of what you've already head published?

MF:  I've got two…I've got a bunch of stuff in the pipeline, actually.  I've got a lot of neat stuff coming out this year.  I just wrapped up a script for Dark Horse for their Howard theme anthology entitled Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword.  It's an original story about El Borak, Francis Xavier Gordon.  I'm really excited about it because it's the first comic book appearance of El Borak.  As such it's also a kind of an introduction to the character for people who don't know who he is.  This will get picked up by a lot of people who've maybe read Conan, Solomon Kane, even Kull. and might be curious to try this.  I've only got eight pages in it, so I basically have got to provide you with a sort of …I think of it as a fictional essay, really, on what makes him so cool.  Eight pages isn't enough adapt an original story.  It isn't enough to get into a richly detailed plot, so I came up with an incident.  So we basically decided as long as we have eight pages of El Borak doing the things that we know he can do best, it'll be pretty cool.  That comes out in May.  The novels I'm working on, I've got two in progress. 
The Domino Chronicles has been shopped to a couple of people.  I'm not sure if I'm gonna get any bites any time soon. 
The other thing I've been working on, I've been researching this guy for years, and I've finally got the means to put it into a novel form.  It's about Sailor Tom Sharkey, who was an actual golden age boxer from the turn of the century.  The story involves him and his adventures.  He was a very larger than life character, and the model for Robert E. Howard's Sailor Steve Costigan, at least in terms of physicality and fighting ability.  So for me, what I like about that story is I've loved the funny boxing stories for forever.  That's no secret to anybody who's met me for more than five minutes.  And as much as I want to go play in that sandbox, I really have a problem with pastiche authors, particularly the ones who don't get it.  Or "I want to do my thing with Conan."  Well, if you do your thing with Conan, why don't you go do something else?  So I decided that what I wanted to do was something in the funny boxer genre, but not necessarily a Robert E. Howard turn.  Because Howard's sense of humor is not my sense of humor.  My sense of humor is different.  And it would be bad for me to try and imitate Howard's sense of humor.  This gave me an opportunity to do something really funny in stories with this unreliable narrator, kind of a la Steve Costigan, but not a direct rip off.  We're dealing with somebody who's at the end of his life or he's in the twilight of his career and he's looking back and regretting some decisions he's made.  He decides to go on this vaudeville circuit, which actually happened. What he doesn't realize is that the vaudeville circuit train he gets on turns out to be a quest for a golden belt he left back in New York City.  Things get pretty weird after that.  By doing a kind of fantastical historical, that's something that Howard never did either.  His funny boxing stories are pretty straight up.  Definitely it owes a great debt to that work, but ultimately I've moved to where I feel far enough away from it that, again, only people who've read the boxing stories will go, "You know, that was a Costigan flourish."  I think everybody else is gonna read it and go, "Where the hell did you come up with this guy?"  And I'm gonna have to tell them, he's straight out of history.  That's a work in progress.  I hope to have that done this year and shopped around. 
If you want a taste of it, we've got a short story collection coming out here that will be ready before Howard Days.  It's called Dreams in the Fire:  Fiction and Poetry Inspired by Robert E. Howard.  It's actually a REHUPA project.  Current and former REHUPAns have donated stories to this anthology.  And we got a couple of ringers in there.  Bob Weinberg did a story for us; Don Herron has a good poem in there.  The whole thing is a fiction anthology in the vein of Robert E. Howard.  Everybody had different characters and different concepts.  We've got some pirate stuff.  We've got some American frontier stuff.  We've a Sailor Tom Sharkey story.  All kinds of things.  The entire book will be sold online, through the usual outlets, also through the gift shop [at the Robert E. Howard House].  And all the money goes to Project Pride.  So it's going to be our fundraiser book from REHUPA.  And we'll keep that active for a year, and all the profits we're going to give over to the Howard House to let them continue the good work and keep the place up.  So hopefully I'll have that out by mid-May, if not sooner.  That's in the final stages.  Really, right now between the novels and some more comic work that's coming down the pipe, I'll have quite a few things out this year.  I'm looking forward to having all this out and published. 

Next Week:  In part 2 of this interview, Mark discusses adaptations of Howard to film, the state of Robert E. Howard scholarship today, and what one question he would ask Howard if he could.

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