Today I chat with Author Mark Engels about his novel, Always Gray in Winter, how fandoms pathed his way to novel writing, and the importance of storytelling as a means of self-expression. Mark has some refreshing insights on writing that you don’t want to miss!
Q: I love to ask authors what came first, their plot idea, or their character. With speculative fiction, there is a third factor, world building. Your novel, Always Gray in Winter, features werecats, political intrigue, and a bit of genetic experimentation by what seems like a less than ethical scientist. Tell me a bit about the world-building that went into this novel? Which came first for you, plot, character, or world?
And no, I’m not trying to be that guy. It’s just how it happened. My novel’s origins go back to a plot outline I’d worked up for an anthro artist whose characters I’d come to love. Trying to launch a webcomic he’d publicly bemoaned lacking a firm grasp of his antagonist’s motivations, so I thought I’d help him out. We sat down at a convention together and went through the outline. When I finished he told me “it’s a great story, but it’s not my story” and that was that.
Or so I thought. My muse–she be a werecat, you see. She showed up one night on a job site shortly afterward and started shredding away at the inside of my head. Without even having decency enough to tell me her name. Jerk.
I would learn her name was Pawly, and that claws and fangs help her make a very convincing argument indeed. She wasn’t going to let me NOT write. She wanted her story told, wanted her family’s story told. And I was the one she’d sought out to tell it. Whether I thought I was ready to or not.
Q: What was your favorite scene to write in Always Gray in Winter?
A: There are so many! Chapter 2 features Pawly gettin’ her shred on, rescuing a trio of trafficked girls from their pimps (read this excerpt here). The sequence in which Hana and Mawro escape Poland after their aborted attempt to capture Professor Oporowo was another treat. But the one that still chokes me up every time I read it–because I was a sobbing wreck writing it–is when Pawly’s grandfather Dory pays a visit to her father’s niche at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
Q: What or who inspired your main character, Pawly?
A: She is part Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter franchise and part Nene Romanova from the anime Bubble Gum Crisis 2040. Add more anime flair in the form of Megumi Morisato from Ah My Goddess! and Ryo Hayakawa from Princess Nine. But Pawly’s anthro form? Homage to Steve Gallacci’s lyncean gal Dr. Elaki Kalakahaii from his cornerstone-of-the-genre spacefaring epic Erma Felna, EDF.
Q: What was your biggest struggle while writing Always Gray in Winter? How did you overcome that?
A: Identifying and solidifying my authorial intent. By that I mean figuring out not only what I was doing but why I was doing it. I came to learn the hard way the book I had in my heart to write may well not be the book any one person had in their heart to read. Going back to my werecat concept, it became clear when agent and editors posted “no vampires, no werewolves” in big bold print within their submission guidelines what they were really saying was “no shifters of any kind.” I concluded they didn’t want to read such a story in this post-Twilight world in which we live, that they believed the reading public wouldn’t either. The paranormal romance imprints were still taking shifters, though. Only trouble was they rejected my paranormal sci-fi thriller too. Why? Not enough romance, natch.
So I had a decision to make. “Trunk” my novel and write something else? Oh, no no no. Pawly, brandishing fangs and claws, wasn’t about to stand for that. Because let me be clear–if I wasn’t telling Pawly and her family’s story, I wouldn’t be writing at all.
I soldiered on. My main consideration for agents or editors at publishers going forward was: are you going to help me get my story to its audience or aren’t you? That’s what prompted me to research novel markets via the Furry Writers’ Guild website in the first place. I had several requests after querying markets listed and received a contract offer from Thurston Howl Publications. Who I then signed with to help get my book to its audience.
Because this was the book I had in my heart to write, the kind of book I myself wanted to read. I labored under the delusion others would too. And now my publisher and I have put it out there while seeking to continually engage the very readers for whom I first wrote it.
Q: Rumor has it you are a big anime, manga and anthropomorphics fan. How did these art forms impact your writing and storytelling?
A: Has a lot to do with why, despite my being a man, I chose a woman as my main character. My book also features an ensemble cast and spans decades and continents, all common features of many anime and manga plotlines. That said, I have had to deal with casting such into the limitations of a novel medium. Artists and animators have a lot more tools at their disposal to convey, for instance, that a flashback is occurring. I learned the hard way that a number of readers (and the agents/editors/publishers who purport to represent them) think the only right number of flashbacks in a book is zero. So I think my anime, manga and anthropomorphic influences were directly responsible for my feeling the need to write and my coming up with the ideas for my story and characters in the first place. I am still learning, however, how to best assemble the literary devices from each medium to be accessible to the readers whom I think will most dig my book.
Q: You have mentioned that fandoms where a huge part in spawning your creativity. How did fandoms lead you to write?
A: Fanfiction. Over twenty years ago. Starting with Battle Angel Alita and continuing through El Hazard OVA and Gurren Lagann. Astute readers will note there are gaps of several years between each franchises’ height of popularity. Because every time I wrote, I told myself “I don’t have time for this, and this is the absolute last time I’m doing it.” I would only write at all if and only if particular character arcs led me to conclude there was more story waiting to be told. And then I’d seek to tell it.
Just like I’m doing now with my werecat family saga series, in fact. This time, I can’t mooch off of someone else’s universe or characters. I’m grateful for the opportunity to build a world and characters of my own, though. For having consumed content for so long, I’m glad to be able to create content for others to enjoy. I believe anime, manga and anthropomorphics creators to a greater or lesser extent trust their work will inspire others and spur them to create themselves. That’s a responsibility I take seriously, one which I hope my body of work with demonstrate their trust in their respective fan bases was well founded.
Several of my fanfict writer colleagues became dear friends and trusted prereaders. They helped me vet my craft and my concept. So I’m quite glad at having found these creative outlets from within the fandoms to help get me ready to tender original work.
Q: Tell me about your writing journey. How did you discover you wanted to write? Why did you choose the genre and mode you did?
A: If it wasn’t clear already, let me make it clear now: something has to really move me before I’ll write. Those anime/manga series I mentioned–I wrote because I felt the creators left big (and fascinating!) parts of the story untold. Even more now than then, I really, really don’t have time for this. I’m active in my church. I’m a husband, a father, a professional engineer. All of those things, as well as my friends and other interests, needs must get short shrift because of my creative endeavors. Employ “balance” and my books will never get written. Perhaps that is my “mid-life crisis”–waking up one day one day a few years back and thinking “holy shit, I do not want to lay myself down to die having left these stories untold.”
That’s why I sat down to write my paranormal sci-fi thrillers about the modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats in the first place. The characters and situations that other artist developed for his yet-to-be-written webcomic moved me enough to remain loyal and consistent to my own. Pawly’s story would be told. I would see to it.
I decided early on to manifest Pawly’s stories and those of her family in novel form. I don’t draw well and didn’t want to commit myself to years of learning to, solely to meet my own high standards. If I could I might have done a webcomic in a similar vein to favorites like Twokinds by Tom Fischbach, Dreamkeepers by David and Liz Lillie and Lackadaisy by Tracy Butler. Though I would have loved to tell my werecats’ stories as a serial (and think they actually lend themselves well to being one) there weren’t many markets looking to publish them. A few that were had actually liked my logline tweets at several Twitter “pitch parties” I participated in. But all I got in reply after I queried them (their Twitter like being an invitation to do so) was one form rejection after another. So now with ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER available and having just finished the draft of the as-yet-unnamed second book, I’ll continue with the novel format until the story has all been told. Though if an artist approaches me offering to collaborate on a webcomic…
As to genre, oh!–one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to figure out. I think coming up with my logline and synopsis were easy by comparison (and many writers know those are pretty heady feats in and of themselves.) All I knew after I’d drafted my novel was that it was my novel, that it was Pawly’s story. “A writer has to read!” Yeah, I know, I get it. And I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Including various genre conventions which seem to vary a fair bit depending on just who is making the comparison. I bill ALWAYS GRAY as “paranormal sci-fi thriller” because I think those are the “base metals,” to borrow a metallurgical term. My book is an alloy of all three–having characteristics of each but not fitting strict definition of any.
Q: What advice do you have for those interested in writing?
A: “Cast not your pearls before swine.” Discern just whom you ought entrust your work to (along with your fragile ego.) And especially come to recognize to whom you shouldn’t. Feedback on your work is crucial to help you improve, but take care to seek out good feedback from quality people. Avoid those who coddle you and those who beat you down, because either will hurt more than help. A critique partner, a beta reader, the members of your writer’s group—think of them like you would a coach or a teammate. You depend on them to identify and reinforce what you do well, to call attention to what you don’t, to suggest resources and strategies to address same.
And I strongly advise all my fellow writers to not take any one person’s success story as gospel. What worked for them/there/then may well not work for you/here/now. The same is true for whatever advice they may offer. I believe that all feedback is valuable. But not all feedback is actionable. Because a lot of times feedback conveys unhelpful messages like “that’s not the way I would have done it” or “that’s not the way <insert favorite author here> would have done it.” And that’s not taking into account the abject schadenfreude far too many people gleefully perpetrate upon others. Feedback frequently tells the receiver as much or more about the offeror than it does the work itself. I’ll sum up with Bruce Lee’s wise words: “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
Q: What artists have impacted your writing or creativity the most?
A: Steve Gallacci, Stan Sakai, Reed Waller/Kate Worley, Hiroyuki Morioka, Sheryl Nantus, Brian Jacques, Robert C. O’Brien, Gene DeWeese, Ken Akamatsu, Yukito Kishiro, Kenichi Sonoda, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Ken Wolfe…
…among others, that is.
Q: You are friends with Author Stephen Coghlan, who I interviewed back in September. How did you guys meet? How has your friendship impacted your writing and creativity? What advice would you give to others looking for this kind of a connection?
A: I’m pretty certain Coghlan is my brother from another mother! Our likes, our temperaments, our motivations for writing are eerily similar. (LOVE YA, MAN!) Our meeting was more or less serendipitous, though. His book was scheduled to be published by Thurston Howl Publications a bit before mine. The blurb struck my fancy so I bought the book, read it, reviewed it (which anyone reading this can help me out greatly by doing likewise for ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER). Stephen reached out to me on Twitter afterward to thank me and we’ve been pals since.
I have had a similar experience with several of my Thurston Howl Publications stablemates, as well as authors and editors at other small presses. The greatest benefit I’ve realized from same is how a given publisher ends up publishing people with similar works (or, for the larger publishers, under one imprint.) Similar works come from similar-minded people, which helps foster relationships that enrich us creatively and personally. Coghlan and I are much the same. He gets me. And I him (or so I like to think, anyway.) The sort of relationships I advise any creative to seek out and cultivate, regardless of how intrinsically shy or introverted one might be. Knowing one has a sounding board for ideas, a shoulder to cry on and another fist to pump in jubilation helps build the confidence (and stroke the ego) one needs to go the distance in any creative pursuit.
So to do that? Get out there. I was active in online chat rooms and message boards decades ago for several anime, manga and anthro fandoms, long before I ever got into my head to write fan fiction. In fact, I think that was why I wrote fan fiction in the first place, having just enough ego to think “hey, friends, I made something I thought was cool and I thought you might think likewise.” And I made it a point to do a lot of listening (well, reading) before I spoke (or typed.) Because in so doing I could find out to what extent a venue offered me the chance to interact with like-minded people. It’s important for any given person to continually seek out diversity of thoughts, experiences, demographics and backgrounds. Ensure, though, people in one given group get you. And you them. Those connections (or lack thereof) will become apparent, and fairly quickly. Go with your gut. Read. Respond. Interact. Yes, some will stiff-arm you, talk over you, or give you the cold shoulder. Others will tackleglom you then proceed to give you a virtual noogie. Dey’z yo’ peeps.
Q: You mentioned that your followers, especially those on your email list, get details on your writing processes. Which do you think has been more beneficial to your writing, your formal English classes or engaging with a writing community as you wrote your novel?
A: I have no MFA, no MCW. Last time I sat in an English Comp class was over twenty-five years ago during college. Being an engineering technology major there was much more an emphasis during the rest of my college career on technical writing rather than creative writing.
As it became so in my professional life. “Just the facts, man, just the facts” was crammed down my throat (or shoved up my…well, you know) time and again. When I started writing fan fiction, I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was I had a story in me to tell and was determined to do so.
Twenty years later, little has changed, though I’ve come to know enough to know I don’t know enough. For me, engaging in the writing community has been the biggest benefit to my growth as a writer and its greatest detriment. Which goes back to my “cast not thy pearls before swine” comment earlier. So many web sites. So many books on writing. So many members of writing groups I participate in. So many prereaders, though only a select few have I any inclination to work with again (and they’ve made known the feeling is quite mutual.) So many opinions based on an individual’s tastes, their backgrounds, their lived experiences. The improvements I made came from these, though I held any and all suggestions up against my authorial intent to know whether a given one might be helpful. Helpful for me to tell the story I had in my heart to read. One which may not necessarily be the story they have in their hearts to read.
And that’s quite fine by me.
Meet the Author:
Boyhood interests in trains and electronics fostered Mark’s career as an electrical engineer, designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. Along the way Mark indulged his writing desire by authoring articles for rail and transit industry trade magazines. Coupled with Mark’s long-time membership in anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms, he took up writing genre fiction. Growing up in Michigan, never far from his beloved Great Lakes, Mark and his wife today make their home in Wisconsin with their son and a dog who naps beside him as he writes.
Mark is a member of Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the state’s oldest writing collectives. He also belongs to the Furry Writers’ Guild, dedicated to supporting, informing, elevating, and promoting quality anthropomorphic fiction and its creators.
Connect with Mark:
Check out Mark’s website, https://www.mark-engels.com/, for more on his writing, upcoming events, and to subscribe to his email list.
You can also connect with him on your favorite social media platform:
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mark.engels.39
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/mj_engels
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mjengels/
Don’t forget to check out Always Gray in Winter!
The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats is torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents. Born in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood following her family’s escape from Cold War-era Poland, were-lynx Pawly flees underground to protect her loved ones after genetically-enhanced soldiers led by rogue scientist and rival werecat Mawro overrun her Navy unit in the Gulf of Oman. Pawly’s family seeks her out in a desperate gambit to return their ancestral homeland and reconcile with their estranged kinsmen. But when her human lover arrives to thwart Mawro’s plan to weaponize their feral bloodlust, Pawly must face a daunting choice: preserve her family secrets and risk her lover’s life or chance her true nature driving him away forever.
“Part covert ops thriller, part werecat sci-fi, part Polish cultural heritage. This indie book is unique and a stellar read!”
— Mica Scotti Kole, book blogger and Free Writing Events organizer
“An intriguing tale of werecats and military operations that balances action with a well-rounded cast of characters. Buy if you like a touch of the paranormal with your military Sci-Fi.”
— Matt Doyle, author of ADDICT and Matt Doyle Media principal
“The most impressive debut novel I can remember! Mark Engels writes with a sure voice that’s witty, poignant, and just plain fun. I love this book!”
— William Allan Webb (member SFWA), author of STANDING THE FINAL WATCH and STANDING IN THE STORM
“ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER is an action-driven furpunk military thriller with strong characters and great plot twists.”
— M. Crane Hana, author of MORO’S PRICE
“A great debut…something big waiting for Engels in his career.”
— Brett Brooks, author of THE DEVIL WAS GREEN
Buy it here: