Mark Sebanc is one of the authors of the Legacy of the Stone Harp books (which I reviewed at Integrated Catholic Life recently). Mark was kind enough to answer a few questions I sent his way recently.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I live on backwoods bush farm in the depths of rural Ontario, about two hours west of Canada’s capital in a region known as the Ottawa Valley. I moved here with my wife and family back in the late 1980s from Toronto, where I was born and raised, a baby boomer child of post-war immigrants to Canada.
I was educated in Catholic schools pretty well all the way through elementary school, high school and even college, where I studied Latin and Greek at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, graduating with an MA.
The move to the country was prompted by the conviction—the strong visceral sense, really—that modern urban life was deeply flawed, disconnected from life’s natural rhythms. I had read a lot of Chesterton and the great American man of letters, Wendell Berry, and had always been moved, I suppose, by a desperately nostalgic longing for the rhythms of pre-industrial civilization, a feeling that modern urban life was a kind of exile. Maybe I come by this naturally. It’s probably in my bones, a part of my genetic inheritance. My parents both grew up in rural Slovenia during the interlude between the two world wars. It was a world probably closer in sensibility and infrastructure to the cultural and physical landscape of medieval Europe than it is to the world of today.
What inspired you to start writing?
My primary stimulus was simply an instinctive love of words, a sense of their beauty and texture and the power of language. Wordsmithing has always been something that’s come naturally to me. It’s a deep-seated part of who I am, although I’ve learned through life’s trials that my being a writer is not an essential aspect of who I really am as a human being or as a Christian. The danger is that our gifts can easily become an occasion of idolatry. Nonetheless, there’s a primordial, spiritual aspect to words and language. After all, Christ is the Logos, the Eternal Word of John’s Gospel.
I think a sense of my vocation as a writer was quickened early in my undergraduate career at the University of Toronto. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy and being bowled over by it. As I read, I felt myself being utterly transformed by the experience. For the first time in my life, as a result of Lewis’ artful re-creation of the Fall, angels became immediate, vivid realities, not just notions derived from the catechetical instruction I had received. These novels demonstrated for me in the most extraordinarily forceful way just what a work of beauty and imagination could achieve, how it could touch millions of people—something an academic disquisition could never do.
What’s the greatest challenge you face as a Catholic writer?
I’d prefer to say that we’re writers who are Catholic. There’s a big difference. What we’re doing, Jim and I, is not openly confessional any more than, let’s say, the Lord of the Rings is or any other work of enduring value that happens to be written by a Catholic. Our spiritual and metaphysical values are woven into the work itself, into the fabric of what we’re trying to accomplish artistically. And that gives us a huge potential audience. I think it’s the aspect of cultural disintegration that goes hand in hand with the spiritual disintegration in our society that’s the biggest challenge for writers like ourselves. People lead such hurried, frenetic lives. They’re so caught up in the thousand different distractions of modern life.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of writing and publishing?
By far the most challenging aspect of the whole enterprise has been the marketing of ourselves and our work, getting word out about our novels, especially as we’re relatively unknown as writers. Jim and I learned quickly that the old adage about building the better mousetrap and having the world beat a path to your door simply doesn’t hold true when it comes to writing and publishing. In itself, marketing is an enterprise that begs full-time commitment. Both of us have been so exceptionally consumed by the business of living and making a living in our respective day jobs that we haven’t had the chance to get out and beat the bushes nearly as much as we should have. For example, neither of us has done any signings, and our website has been somewhat neglected in recent months. I might add too as a further illustration of the constraints of time and energy that we’ve been woefully late in getting this interview done. Still, we expect to pull up our socks in the days to come, as some of the burdens we’ve been carrying are alleviated and our lives assume a calmer aspect.
What was the greatest challenge you faced as you worked on your book, especially since there are two of you as authors?
Our co-authorial arrangement, the very fact that we’re a team, has mitigated the challenges inherent in writing something as large and complex as a novel, let alone a series of novels. This is no doubt a testimony to our artistic and temperamental compatibility, as well as the respect we have for each other’s intellectual strengths. Probably—and this is really an amplification of my answer to the last question–the biggest and most challenging frustration has been finding the time and space within which to indulge our creativity. The responsibilities of family and work pull us in a thousand different directions, and we find ourselves hard pressed to find solid blocks of time that would allow us to build up a head of creative steam.
Your Legacy of the Stone Harp books are fabulous. What inspired your ideas?
I’ve always felt profoundly drawn to the Christian neo-Romanticism of The Inklings, that stellar group of writers at Oxford, who were so radically and sympathetically anti-modern. In one of his strikingly epigrammatic moments, the English poet Coleridge once said that every man was born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. I’m most definitely a Platonist.
In the late 1980s, I began to sketch out the ideas and do the research for this fantasy series, which is inspired not only by the transcendently relevant work of Tolkien, but by the narrative tradition established and consummated by the great English exponents of the novel of adventure, writers like Scott, Stevenson, Morris, Haggard, and Buchan. Among their modern heirs I would include writers like the superbly gifted Bernard Cornwell, as well as historical novelist Conn Iggulden, for example, and Paul Doherty, the English author of hauntingly atmospheric historical mysteries. I find most “literary” fiction boring and introspective, even gnostic, and tend to avoid it like the plague. In the eyes of many, I suppose, that makes me a philistine.
We’ve lost, I think, the notion of narrative or story as an essential medium by which the cultural values of civilization are conveyed. Modern Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre’s classic work, After Virtue, is a brilliant and fascinating exposition of this hypothesis. Ironically enough, contemporary fantasists are not among my primary influences, and I don’t read as much fantasy as I do other genres. Actually Jim and I have decided to eschew a sense of the gratuitously magical and have tilted our work in the direction of legend. We feel that this aids in the suspension of disbelief and serves to attract a wider audience of readers. We’ve already seen how this has in fact happened with our first two novels.
What books are you reading these days? What novels inspire you?
Recently I polished off Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, a deeply moving, indeed captivating, tale set in the English Middle Ages at the time of the building of the great cathedrals. I finished C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign as well, third in a series of brilliantly evocative novels set in the England of Henry VIII and featuring hunchbacked sleuth Matthew Shardlake.
Travel writing has always been an important part of my reading regime. John Man’s Xanadu, a recent title on my agenda, is an engaging account of the author’s re-tracing of Marco Polo’s historic journey to the East. I’m also revisiting the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom some consider the finest travel writer of the 20th century in the English language. In his masterpiece, A Time of Gifts, he describes his journey on foot to Constantinople as an 18-year-old schoolboy in 1933, evoking with consummate brilliance the sights and sounds of a Europe now long-gone, a richly textured landscape that seems as distant to us now as classical Greece or Rome.
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