Mark Dawson’s first novel, The Art of Falling Apart, charts the adventures of a Manchester band called Dystopia from their lowly beginnings to the zenith of the career. A former DJ at famed UK club Hacienda, Mark paints a realistic picture of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle he witnessed first hand.
Mark Dawson’s second novel, Subpoena Colada, is set to be released in the UK in October, and with a screenplay version of The Art of Falling and his third book in the works, he has plenty to keep him busy (not to mention his day job as a successful lawyer). Nevertheless, Mark found some time in his busy schedule to talk to Word Riot. Want to know how he does it all? Read on…
JC: One point of interest that comes up again and again in reviews of The Art of Falling Apart is your tenure as a DJ at a club called Hacienda. What kind of club was Hacienda?
MD: In the late 80’s – say ’87 to ’89 – it was probably the most important club in the world. And I know that’s kind of speaking from an English perspective, but it was in Manchester, and Manchester at that time was responsible for bands like the Smiths, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays. All of the best English music was coming out from Manchester, and the Hacienda was the club where they basically all started. Madonna played her first UK gig at the house and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t there then, unfortunately. It shut down in 1989 ’cause there was a big problem with guns and drugs. They shut it down, reopened in about late 1990 with metal detectors and lots of police and stuff, and it was open from say ’90 to ’93, and I worked there from ’91 to ’93. In those days it was a good Indy scene. They kind of switched more to house music which is not my scene at all. I tended to play kind of the old style Manchester Indy music, also a bit of trance music, stuff like that. I did that for a couple of years. It was fantastic, really.
JC: Yeah it sounds like that. Word Riot is associated with Communication Breakdown, which is a music magazine, and I know the connection with writing and music is intense at times.
MD: Yeah – oh absolutely. The act of actually DJing is really exciting sometimes, especially when it’s working well. The scenes in the first [book] that are most personal to me [are the ones] involving the DJ. The actual places of writing those scenes was by far the easiest and most enjoyable – it really flows.
JC: In a way, being a DJ is like controlling the environment in the way that you control characters, you can kind of control the scene.
MD: That’s a good comparison. They are quite similar in the sense that you’re taking disparate elements and mixing them up to form something that you hope will be a fairly seamless whole. There are definitely comparisons there.
JC: Did you first develop the idea for the novel while working at Hacienda, or was it something that you thought of later recounting your experience there?
MD: No, it was kind of funny. I don’t know if you know much about James Joyce, but one of the things he said once upon a time was that – no actually its not Joyce its Nabokov – ideas come in the form of throbs: you’d be sitting around maybe thinking of something else and then something would very strongly come and interpose itself into your mind, and that is exactly what happened to me. I just had this image of a band on a stage – I didn’t know where it was, I didn’t know anything about the band but I just had a very powerful image of five young characters on a stage and kind of looking out into the auditorium, the audience and just seeing a blow of faces, everything blinded by the lights. This stuck with me for maybe a couple of months and then gradually I built on it and I was able to reveal more of it. I guess that was the seed really and from that the rest of the story grew.
JC: Right, and you had a lot of experience to build upon that.
MD: Yeah, very much. I’ve been involved with music for a long time and mostly through the DJing side of things, I knew quite a lot about how the industry works. Once I knew that was what I wanted to write, the rest of it tended to come quite easily.
JC: Were there any particular musicians or bands that influenced the makeup of Dystopia, or does Dystopia represent a kind of conglomeration of musicians you came across at Hacienda?
MD: It’s a bit of everything I mean the book is really heavily influenced by Nine Inch Nails. I was reading just a lot of Nine Inch Nails at the time – you know Trent Reznor all that kind of stuff – I’m a big fan of that. Also stuff like Gary Nieman – mostly the darker stuff. But I mean, some of the stories I’ve heard or even witnessed occasionally of band excesses – the kind of rock and roll lifesyle – a lot of that informed some of the things that Dystopia get up to.
JC: The characters of The Art of Falling Apart have an edgy vibrancy according to one reviewer. Did the plot evolve from the characters or did the strength and the vitality of the characters develop out of the nature of the plot with the heavy hitting issues of drugs, sex, murder – all that?
MD: It was very much character driven. Once I knew that I wanted to write about a band I started thinking about the members of the band and I guess it’s because [of] some of the bands I’ve known over the years – you can see how the relationships between the members of the band can influence how they develop. Central to the book and the dynamics between the band members is this jealousy between the songwriter who also plays guitar and the singer who isn’t very talented, but is very good-looking and gets all the adulation and the credit. And he’s also very self-conscious and full of self-doubt: on the one hand he doesn’t feel he should be in that position but he’s quite happy to take the benefit of being there. And on the other hand, the really talented one resents him for stealing his glory. And so it’s out of that slightly tainted relationship that most of the dramatic impulse of the book comes from.
JC: Right. I was in a punk rock band for a while and I know that being in a band is kind of like being in a marriage – you’re so closely tied together with these people for such long periods of time – it definitely adds to driving a book with character development.
MD: Yeah, absolutely. You kind of join [the band] in Las Vegas when they’re enormous; the first I guess the first third of the book, maybe the first quarter deals with them at the kind of apogee of their fame, then one of them dies and then the narrative goes back two years and eventually catches up on itself again. By the end of the book you know a bit more, and everything is resolved, but one of the best passages I found to write was the early days of them stuck in the back of a van driving up and down English motor ways trying to get to these shitty gigs that no one’s going to turn up to [and] everyone hates them. They’re just kind of support bands for the people [the audience] really wants to see. You know, I don’t know if you’ve ever played support slots before, but it sucks. No one cares about you. They didn’t pay to come and see you. They’re paying for music and to come and get drunk.
JC: Definitely. I definitely got booed off the stage once, [so] I know what you’re talking about. Writing is a second career for you. How do you juggle being a lawyer and a successful writer, as well as maintain some semblance of a social life?
MD: It’s difficult, actually. It’s tough, especially at the moment. The last month I’ve been very, very busy at work and so it’s been difficult to find time to write on my third book. I was working in the city of London for five years as a corporate lawyer which doesn’t seem my temperament, though the money’s there. I quit that at Christmas time because I wasn’t being true to myself, and I now work in Soho which is basically the artsy media part of London. And I kind of do media-law right now, which is much more my cup of tea.
JC: So, you switched from being a corporate lawyer to working in SoHo. It seems interesting to be a writer and a lawyer: one career is based on this assumption that you’re an artist in the streets and a lawyer you can be pretty successful with.
MD: Yeah. There are some kinds of shared times in the sense that its based on words, but its pretty tenuous. It’s a different kind of intelligence. The stuff I do in the daytime is analysis mostly. I have documents to read, I have to read and compare them and find arguments, stuff which can be good fun sometimes, but the really enjoyable stuff is thinking completely freely and being able to let it all hang out, which is what you get to do as a writer. That’s what I want to do eventually, and at some point I will do that at least for a year – just write full time, but you know you’ve got to pay the mortgage, as well.
JC: Were you always seriously interested in writing?
MD: Yeah, I’ve done it for ages. I first started when I was really, really young and I finished a science fiction novel when I was about twelve, I think. Which is crap looking back at it now, but it was fairly enjoyable when I was doing it, I guess. Then, I stopped from about fifteen to twenty. I didn’t do anything. I even stopped reading pretty much. And then I got back into it again and a friend had written this novel; he asked me to read it for him and I did and it was rubbish. And I said, “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
MD: The fact was that he’d actually written something, he’d finished something and I’d never been able to actually finish something properly. It was actually the kick up the ass that I needed and after that I was writing quite a lot. The Art of Falling Apart originally was going to be a short story and I sent it to an agent, she said “I really love it, but can you turn it into a novel?” So of course I was filled with excitement by this because she was a very good agent. I basically wrote like crazy for three months and turned this 5,000 word short story into a 90,000 word novel. I took it back [to her and] she said she loved it and then she sold it to Macmillan. So it all went quite well after that.
JC: So novels haven’t always been your primary vehicle, you’ve also dabbled in short stories?
MD: Yep, I’ve done a few short stories and I’m not really into poetry, but yeah, short stories I don’t mind and yes, I’ve done a few but I prefer the freedom of scope that you get with a novel. But occasionally if I’m blocked on something I’m writing, I’ll just write a short story and see if I can unblock it.
JC: How long did you have the idea for your first novel in your head before you sat down and write it, wrote it?
MD: Six weeks, I guess. Something like that. It came to me quite powerfully and I needed to think about it. But you know, as soon as I had thought about it and it started to develop itself, it was very hard to stop writing.
JC: How was it finding that agent when you sent out the short story. Did you just have a list of some people and send it to them?
MD: Yeah. I mean, I’d like to say it was kind of scientifically researched if I said that I’d be lying to you. It was educated guess work. There’s a book you get in this country that lists all the agencies and I went through it and picked out the ones I thought had clients that were writing on similar grounds that I was (or I felt I was) and I picked out three, sent it off, and two came back and said they wanted to represent me. The one I chose represents Ian Banks who’s a very famous author over here – I know he’s not as big in the states, but over here he’s a very edgy, contemporary fiction writer which is the way I see myself. She also [represents] China Miaville who is probably the best fantasy writer writing in the world at the moment, and a guy called Toby Lit who’s again another contemporary fiction writer. You can’t box these writers in genres. I don’t want to be seen as somebody who writes thrillers or somebody who writes chick lit stories. For me, my writing is contemporary fiction. My new book is a book about all kinds of things -young trustafarian kids with too much money, too much time come back to London over a summer. Have you seen a film called Bully by Larry Clark?
JC: I have, I have. I’m in love with Brad Renfro so, yeah.
MD: Right. Okay, it’s pretty similar to that looking at the dynamic of a group [in which] one of them is more dominant than the others and what happens when that dominant position is removed either by him being killed or murdered or whatever. I’m looking at that, but then the twist on this – and this is all metaphorical – is that they’re all vampires. I see these kids as being slightly parasitical themselves, and a fairly advanced metaphor is to make them all into bloodsuckers. That’s what I’ve done at the moment.
JC: You wrote an article in which you talked about the fact that you promised yourself that when you started writing that you would never write about lawyers.
MD: Yeah, I’ve broken that promise, unfortunately. My second book is called Subpoena Colada and the main character is a lawyer, but it’s not really a law book. In some ways, it’s been quite strange how it all happened because it’s about a lawyer who used to work in the city and then came to work in Soho, i.e. me and this is the year that all this happened to me. He’s just got a split with his girlfriend and doesn’t quite know what’s happened to his life and that was me about three months ago so it’s been really strange how it’s actually prefigured almost exactly what’s happened to me since it was accepted for publication. My editor would really like me to write (or at least was trying to persuade me to write) Grisham-type books because he knows I’ve got the knowledge to be able to do that and there’s no one in this country that writes Grisham books. So obviously, he sees it as a hole in the market that could be quite lucrative. I turned out one [Grisham-type] book in about two months, actually. It was very easy to write and it’s okay, but I can’t say I really enjoyed writing it. I don’t think it’s really something I want to publish. And I just decided like a month or two months ago that I wasn’t going to do that. I can only write on what really interests me and unfortunately – or fortunately, perhaps – writing legal thrillers just doesn’t do anything for me, so I won’t be doing that again.
JC: Yeah, in that article you called it your “big, brazen legal thriller.” It seemed interesting to go from this character intensive piece about a band and then moving away into the John Grisham venue.
MD: Yeah, exactly. If I was going to do legal stuff, it would be more Scott Tiero than John Grisham, but I’m not really happy doing anything like that, and I’ve kind of resolved it in myself that I won’t – I’m through with that now. If they don’t like it they can fuck off – I’ll do my own thing.
JC: [laughs] Your novels investigate areas like the law and the music industry in which you have had personal experience. How autobiographical is your writing beyond these backdrops?
MD: I think all writing is autobiographical in at least some way or another. You can look at my first book and there are bits of me. One of the characters is a DJ and a lot of [those scenes] are personal experience. You can see bits of me in all those characters and bits of everyone else. I think all of my characters tend to be amalgams of people I know or have come across [as well as] bits of me. The second book is slightly more overtly autobiographical in the sense that it’s kind of followed my life, but that wasn’t intentional, at least not consciously. Maybe- I was thinking about this last night – I think maybe subconsciously I was dealing with things I was unhappy with and I dealt with them first in my writing and then once that subject had been broached I dealt with them in real life.
JC: So it was therapeutic.
MD: Yeah, I think it was a slightly advanced way. Normally you write about these things slightly after the event, but I think I dealt with it before hand – the wrong way around, but that’s how it happened.
JC: Your books have been published in the UK and are available at amazon.co.uk. Are there any plans to publish your books in the US?
MD: Well, there are plans. I just got some news yesterday, actually. My agent is selling the foreign rights now and we sold our first foreign sale yesterday to none other than Russia. So, maybe I’ll be Mark Dawsonski or something, I don’t know. [The Art of Falling Apart] will be out soon in Russia and what usually happens I’m told is that once you sell one territory, the others tend to follow. I really would love to publish in the States because I think it’s a very US friendly book and I’ve lived in the States for quite a while, myself so I would really like to see how it did over there.
JC: You’re currently developing The Art of Falling Apart into a screenplay, correct?
JC: Right. My friends, my writer friends who dabble in screenplays tell me that they feel it makes their prose and dialogue tighter. Do you find the same thing?
MD: Definitely. Definitely dialogue, I mean basically a screenplay is all dialogue. All the directions, that’s important, but a screenplay lives or dies on how good the dialogue is. You look at people like David Mamet and that write absolutely razor sharp dialogue. Even though the moves themselves might not be great all the time, if you can write dialogue that fizzes it’s a real talent for a writer. I think going into a different form as in screenplays or scripts or theater stuff is a really good way to develop your ear and your dialogue. So that was something I was very conscious of when I am writing it.
JC: So Subpoena Colada is coming out soon, right?
MD: It’s out in England in October, yeah.
JC: And your third novel is – are you still currently working on it?
MD: Yeah, the third one is called Girl 23 at the moment. And, that might change, but that’s it’s working title. The big brazen legal, thriller is in my drawer at the moment not to be touched until I need it basically, i.e. if I get into trouble with the one I’m working on now and I need some money, I’ll publish it under someone else’s name [laughs].
JC: Okay, so that’s all the questions I have. I want to thank you for your time.
MD: You’re welcome.