Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Gift Maker - Mark Mayes - Review and author Q & A

What would you do if someone knocked on your door in the middle of the night to give you a strange package: a small blue box, with a white bow, slightly bigger than a watch box, but smaller than a box that may contain a single book. And what if that box had your date of birth on it, would you open it?

This is exactly what happens to Thomas Ruder in the opening of The Gift Maker. When Thomas finds out that Liselotte, a fellow student who he has a crush on, has received a similar box, he's intrigued but he keeps quiet about the fact that he also has his own box, unopened, in his bedside drawer. Liselotte, having opened her box has invited Thomas to view it's contents but only after swearing him to complete secrecy.

Thomas is stunned by what he sees and confesses that he received a very similar box. Liselotte is angry that he didn't say anything before and won't listen to Thomas when he voices his concerns about the origin of these two strange gifts.

His concerns grow when the following day Liselotte doesn't show up at university and he finds a note in his pigeon hole telling him that she is on her way to Grenze to meet a man called Reynard who will be able to help her succeed in achieving her life-long dream.

Leaving his best friend Jo (short for Johann) at the station, Thomas sets off to Grenze in search of iselotte but Jo is soon not far behind them, armed with his own blue box.

The Gift Maker is one of those rare books that doesn't sit comfortably in any genre but this doesn't mean that the story is a confused one, far from it! It has an ethereal quality, the likes of which I've never read before. I was transported into another world that was full of dark secrets, eccentric characters and vivid descriptions. An unconventional journey of self discovery that makes the reader question their own beliefs about good and evil. I loved the clever way that the theme of the blue butterfly, which some believe symbolises a person's essence or soul, either past, present or future, is represented by the beautiful butterflies on every page. For a debut novel Mark Mayes has written a stunning, refreshing and enigmatic novel that will stay in my mind for a very long time to come and one that I would highly recommend you read.


Before becoming a writer, Mark trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He subsequently worked in theatre and television for several years, both in the UK and abroad. He has worked variously as a cleaner, care-worker and carer, salesman, barman, medical transcriptionist, warehouse worker, and administrator.

Mark has published numerous stories and poems in magazines and anthologies in the UK, Eire, and Italy, and in particular has had several stories published in (or accepted for) the celebrated Unthology series (Unthank Books). His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. He has been shortlisted for literary prizes, including the prestigious Bridport Prize.

In 2009, Mark graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in English (Creative Writing and Critical Practice) from Ruskin College, Oxford.

Currently living in South Wales, Mark is also a musician and songwriter.

I'm thrilled that Mark is joining me here today to answer some questions.

Photo by Tina White

Hello Mark. Welcome to my blog and congratulations on the publication of your first novel, The Gift Maker.
Hello Neats! Huge thanks for your kind words, and thank you so very much for the opportunity to appear on your wonderful book blog, The Haphazardous Hippo

Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Absolutely! Well, I’ve been writing for quite a little while. I started with songs, back in my early thirties, then gradually developed an interest in poems, and from there short stories. These later interests grew out of reading, various life events, and joining a local writers’ group that met in the library of my home town. From there, I did eventually take a degree course, at Ruskin College, fifty per-cent of which focused on ‘creative writing’.
I’d wanted to write a novel for a long time, or at least attempt one, and I did indeed make several attempts over the years. Often, the idea didn’t have the legs to sustain a book-length narrative, and in some cases it was a simple lack of confidence that brought it to a halt. I’ve done all kinds of jobs since leaving school back in the early eighties, but writing is now my main focus, albeit I will, of course, continue to do other work to keep body and soul together.

Where did you get your ideas for The Gift Maker?
I can honestly say, I don’t know. The story, as it grew, brought them into being somehow, and I simply tried to keep out of the way, as it were. I didn’t know it was going to be a novel at first. I thought I was writing a short story, starting with a scene of a man being woken by a knock on the door. Another way to answer this is that the ideas were rooted in imagination, rather than in any transmuted life experience or historical basis. I think elements of the story are quite dreamlike, so perhaps the ideas emanated from that realm, in the curious way dreams have to permeate our waking hours. Sometimes, writing can feel like a sort of lucid dreaming experience. 

Can you describe how your book took shape?
As the story grew beyond the scope of a short story, and eventually beyond the scope of a novella, I really had to consider the structure of what was being produced. In this respect, my dearest friend (also a writer) was an enormous help when I reached a juncture where I had to make some fundamental decisions; or else the story’s dramatic tension, and overall purpose, might have collapsed, or become over-extended. The advice I took was to bring the three main narrative threads together towards one physical setting – the strange border town of Grenze

Some of your character names are quite unusual. How did you come up with them?
Again, they are simply made up, although some have certain sources. A lot of the Germanic sounding names are to give a sense of another place; and a place in the not quite now, but not too long ago, either. Not Germany per se, but some Mitteleuropa state; similar in some regards to the settings that Kafka might employ – beaurocratical, somewhat oppressive, but also very ordinary in many respects. The character of Reynard I Bliss has a mixed source: Reynard being a typical name for the fox in storytelling over the ages, and hence a manipulative or cunning character; I Bliss, is a version of Iblis, another name for Satan, and drawn from Islamic theology; but also with the other connotation that he promises, or actually embodies, a state of bliss. The names came to me, in some cases, out of the blue, and often I chose them because of their sound, and perhaps because they were a bit odd, or funny. 

In The Gift Maker you take the reader to some very dark places. Was it always your intention to do this or was it just how the story developed?
I think this is the subconcious at work. Again, as with dreams, dark places and dark things rise to the surface, as well as being mixed with lightness, and comfort and harmony. For dramatic purposes, the characters need problems to solve, challenges, both outwardly and internally. Each character has their ‘hero’s journey’, to lesser or greater extent explored in the novel; and thus each journey will hold monsters, shape-shifting elements, heralds, and tricksters – at least that is the intention. I think some of these story elements emerge at a liminal level – you can call it imagination, or free-flow of ideas and thought – but I sense there are governing principles at work when we just allow something to unfold, seemingly of itself. 

How would you describe your book to entice people to read it?
I would describe it as a story where you really don’t know what will happen next, where people are not who they purport to be; moreover, some of the characters are not aware themselves of their true identity until circumstances conspire to bring this knowledge into the light. There are touches of humour, I believe, and a sense of deepening mystery as the story progresses. From feedback already received, it does seem to be a story that makes people think, not just about the characters and plot, but about their own sense of identity, their own life’s journey and purpose. 

You’ve written poetry, short stories and songs so was writing a book a natural progression for you? Which is easier to write?
I feel that all these forms are connected, and in some senses intrinsic to one another. At some level, they all come from the same place. As mentioned above, I needed to grow in confidence in order to tackle a really long piece – a novel; but we can only learn by doing, can’t we – and writing this novel, and the subsequent editing process, was a great learning opportunity. I don’t necessarily feel one form is easier to write than another, but different forms have specific demands. In the case of an extended piece of prose – a novella or novel – structure is clearly a central aspect to wrestle with. Having said that, everything has structure; perhaps with a novel it’s the sheer weight of information about characters and plot that needs to be held in the mind at one and the same time – at least during the editing stage, throughout which you are (hopefully) ironing out inconsistencies. 

Who are your favourite authors and who inspires you?
If I have to pick one writer, it would be Jean Rhys. But there are so many others. Added to this, it is often about individual works, rather than who wrote them. Over the last year, I’ve read (and reviewed) about thirty, or more, Urbane titles – a stunning array of novels and poetry, in a wide range of genres. I’m reading great short stories all the time from webzines like STORGY, The Writing Garden, as well as from the wonderful series of story anthologies called Unthology, put out by Unthank Books. It’s endless – as it should be.
It’s quite inspiring to get hold of letters by writers for inspiration, thereby realising they’ve all gone through periods of extreme doubt and perplexity. Some examples available are the collected letters and diaries of Kafka, and the letters of Jean Rhys (many discussing her arduous journey in creating Wide Sargasso Sea), as well as Raymond Chandler’s letters, which give wonderful nuggets of advice to other writers, and insights into his creative process. I take inspiration wherever I can find it.
Which book would you like to have written and why?
This would have to be a play: The Three Sisters, by Chekhov. It’s one of my favourite plays, and every time I’ve seen it, or re-read it, I’ve always been so moved by the intricate and heartbreaking humanity, and oblique comedy, it makes manifest, via a fabulous range of characters. All of Chekhov’s characters matter in his plays, however small the role – there are no functionaries. The final scene of The Three Sisters is utterly poignant to me; both hope-filled and courageous, yet stark in the realisation of how stuck and arid our lives can become.  

Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers?
I would wish to extend my deepest gratitude to everyone who reads The Gift Maker. It is such a privilege and an honour that people would take time out of busy lives, and among so many choices of things to read, to read something I had written – I am truly amazed, and so thankful. If you give The Gift Maker a try, I very much hope you enjoy the story. I would also wholeheartedly recommend the many other Urbane titles now out there to explore. I’ve read many of them, and am constantly delighted, encouraged, and stimulated by the work of my fellow Urbane authors.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions Mark and I wish you lots of luck with The Gift Maker.
Thank you so much, Neats. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

If you'd like to find out more about Mark you can use the links below:

Urbane Publications
Amazon UK

I'd like to thank Mark for taking the time to answer my questions and stopping by today and also Matthew at Urbane Publications for the beautiful review copy.

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