SAVE THE DATE: Mark Tompkins' book launch on March 3

A ‘Magical’ Journey: Author Mark Tompkins on the Writing Process, His New Novel, and Aspen Words

The inspiration for Mark Tompkins‘ debut novel dates back to a trip to Ireland a decade ago, when, lost on the back roads of County Clare, he came across a small castle. Framed on the wall of the castle’s tower was the legend of Red Mary, which led him on a long journey to research, write, and publish a novel blending historical events with magic and mysticism. That journey will reach its apex on March 1st, when Tompkins’ book “The Last Days of Magic” hits shelves.

Aspen Words was present for much of the journey, hosting Tompkins in writing workshops at the Summer Words literary festival and pairing him with a professional editor through its Editing Room program. On the eve of the book’s launch, Aspen Words sat down with Tompkins for a conversation about writing and the publishing process.  

Mark Tompkins with Garrison Keillor at Summer Words 2015

Mark Tompkins with Garrison Keillor at Summer Words 2015

Aspen Words: You came to novel writing later in life, having worked as an entrepreneur for most of your professional career. Why did you finally start?

Mark Tompkins: Writing a novel is a major decision for someone who didn’t initially take the path of going into creative writing and getting an MFA. It’s a complicated, long process. Then If you finish the novel, you will find out if it’s any good, which is itself daunting. It took me a while to work up the courage to do it.

From grade school through college, I was told that creative writing would be impossible for me due to my dyslexia. But writing was a compulsion. Once unfettered by academic constraints, I ventured into poetry, which felt approachable because it struck me as bad grammar raised to an art form. Photography was another creative outlet, as was writing nonfiction. However, writing a novel was always out there as the ultimate goal, yet out of reach. I took some workshops and even slogged through a two-year course on grammar for adult dyslexics. Eventually it came down to either abandoning my dream or sitting down and writing.

As much as I wish I had written my novel 20 years ago, I wasn’t ready until more recently.

AW: How did you decide on Ireland as the setting for your book?

MT: Faerie is in my blood, or at least Ireland is. My ancestors are from the counties of Clare and Meath, so when I decided to write a novel about magic, it had to be set in the Emerald Isle. While traveling in Ireland, I discovered a character that insisted I write about her, one who was inspired by the Celtic legend of Red Mary. This led me to base the book on the premise that all the old legends, myths, and faerie tales were true and the magical beings in them co-existed with humans during medieval times. In those tales, faeries were depicted as large and powerful; they even procreated with humans.

AW: What kind of research did you do for the book?

MT: One of the great things about setting the book in Ireland, England, Italy, and France is that it gave me the perfect excuse to spend a lot of time there. Being on location helped me capture the atmosphere and the nuances of those incredible places. Hanging out with pagan groups in Ireland was also a lot of fun.

I was always seeking eclectic used bookshops to rummage through for books on mythology, faeries, exorcism, and the like. My bookshelves became so crammed with tomes on witchcraft and demonology that a friend once quipped that he expected to arrive one day and find a crater shrouded in green mist where my house used to be!

Tompkins in 2012 Urrea workshop (C) Dan Bayer

AW: You brought some early versions of the book to workshop at Aspen Summer Words. How did that experience influence your writing process?

MT: I took my first writing workshop at Summer Words in 2011. For the application, I had to choose between the only two chapters I had drafted: chapter one, which was still horrible; and two, which began with the first sex scene I’d ever written (and is not even in the book anymore). So chapter two it was, which got me into the intermediate fiction workshop with Elinor Lipman. Lipman helped me fix chapter one and add a prologue.

In 2012, I had a little bit more of the novel done and attended the Summer Words workshop with Luis Urrea. That workshop was instrumental both in improving my writing and encouraging me to keep going. I had six good chapters, plus an outline, and was able to show work to the agents and editors. They all liked it, particularly Adrienne Brodeur [Creative Director at Aspen Words] who was still working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at the time. I got an email from her afterward reaffirming that she loved the novel’s concept and wanted to see it when it was done, and that was extremely reassuring. Particularly because shortly after, I went to a workshop in Wales called Milford. Milford has been around for a long time and it’s well known. Neil Gaiman went to it when he was young. The head of the workshop gave me a three-word review. No, no, no and that was it. Without the encouragement I received at Summer Words I may have stopped writing.

Instead, beginning in January 2013, I started full-time writing, five to six days a week, 9am to 3pm. I didn’t want to die having never written a novel.

AW: How did you stay motivated and keep to that regimented schedule?

MT: I’m a big believer that writing is a decision; it’s not a mood. You have to treat it like it’s a job. Sitting and working consistently, whether I feel like it or not, is a process that has a lot of magic in it. It allows the characters to remain fresh and allows the storyline to progress in a natural way. Writing is very much a momentum game, especially novels because they are character driven. They create the story and you follow behind and write down what they did and why. If you don’t keep your characters fresh, you end up leading them rather than following them and the story line becomes uninteresting.

AW: How did you find your literary agent and begin the process of getting the book published?

MT: The publishing world has consolidated. Editors and publishers now rely on agents to be the first line of defense to help screen books. It’s become harder to get a reputable agent than it is to get a publisher. Thankfully I didn’t have to go through the usual process of submitting my manuscript to many different agents. This is another way that Aspen Words helped, thanks to their contacts in the publishing world.

I met Viking editor Carole DeSanti when she came to do an Aspen Words talk in 2014. I ended up hosting her one evening because Adrienne Brodeur, Aspen Words’ creative director, was sick. Somewhere into dessert, Carol said, “I hear you’re working on a novel.” I told her about the book and she thought it sounded interesting and recommended I get in touch with the Gernert Company, a literary agency in New York.

A few weeks later when I called Gernert, I discovered that Carole had also called them and talked to Stephanie Cabot, an agent there, about my book. Some other agencies were interested so I got to go to New York and interview them instead of being on my knees begging them to take me, which is what I thought I would be doing. It was a blast. Stephanie really wanted the book and understood it, so I selected her.

tompkins at asw 2011

Mark Tompkins at Summer Words in 2011

AW: What was the editing process like?

MT: Before I showed the novel to any agents, I went through the Editing Room program with Aspen Words, where they bring in a professional third party editor to give detailed feedback. This process tightened up and clarified the story line during six months of hard work.

Stephanie Cabot is an old school agent in that she also edits. She decided the book needed another round of revisions, so I worked on that with her for a number of months. After Carole DeSanti bought the rights to the book on behalf of Viking, which is part of Penguin Random House, there was even more editing. We had these multiday sessions where I would encamp in a hotel room and Carole would come in every morning and we’d talk about the editing that needed to be done. I would revise and write all afternoon and half the night and she’d come in the next morning and we’d do it again. It was very, very productive. Every round of editing was great—after it was finished. When I’m in the middle of it, it’s agonizing.

AW: Through all the editing, what was the best piece of writing advice you received?

MT: Carole DeSanti told me, “Novels are vectors of emotional content.” Any passage that was not in service of the vector had to come out. I like history and tended to put a lot of it in my work, but Carole was excellent at trimming it back to maintain the pace of the story arc. Another way to express this is no matter how interesting a little side note was or how much I wanted to put in, if it was not in service to the story arc it had to go.

AW: What surprised you the most about the publishing process?

MT: How long it takes. Generally, it takes a year-and-a-half to two years from the day a publisher acquires a novel to the time they publish it. The editing, the positioning within the list of books coming out, and the PR lead-up all consume a lot of time. I thought I would write the book and give it to Viking and I’d go write another one, but you have to be very involved with every step of the process. Right now I’m doing a lot of interviews, guest blog posts, writing some short stories and nonfiction that relates to the book. It’s a much longer and busier process than I expected.

AW: What do you like to read?

MT: While I was writing, I read mostly research books like Swope’s An Exorcist’s Field Guide, O’Brien’s Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch, and the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, my favorite nonfiction reference book. Every now and then though, I had to rejuvenate my psyche by rereading a favorite novel and I keep a shelf stocked for just that purpose. With the writing of The Last Days of Magic behind me, it has been invigorating to dive into my to-be-read pile of fiction for the first time in years.

AW: What titles are on that shelf that you keep returning to?

MT: All of Neil Gaiman’s and Lev Grossman’s books, Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief, Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. When I’m writing my own book, there’s something safe and relaxing about reading a book I’ve read before.

Aspen Words will host a book launch with Tompkins for THE LAST DAYS OF MAGIC at Explore Booksellers in Aspen on March 3. 

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