Author Spotlight: Mark Cushen (LITTLE WHITE HANDS)
Hi! My name is Mark Cushen, and I’m a 33-year-old soon-to-be self-published writer from Scotland.
I’ve been writing in some capacity since I was I was ten-years-old, when I wrote my very own Goosebumps stories, which I was obsessed with as a child. Nowadays, though, I write my own original tales.
I have loved the fantasy genre in particular since I accidentally stumbled onto Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion masterpiece, “Jason and the Argonauts”, while channel-hopping one Christmas-time Saturday afternoon, somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8.
Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with stories of sword-wielding heroes battling monsters in fantastical lands, and I’m now attempting to create my own, having just finished my debut novel, Little White Hands, which will be released on May 1st. I’m hoping it will be the first of many.
When I’m not working or writing, I can usually be found in the gym, spending time with my family, taking walks through the woods near my home, or chilling on the couch watching my favourite movies and stand-up comedy specials.
Welcome to the Hive, Mark. Let’s start with the basics: dazzle us with an elevator pitch! Why should readers check out your work?
Thanks for having me ☺
So, the dreaded elevator pitch. I find these things more difficult to write than an actual book!
Well, with my story, Little White Hands, I’m just trying to bring a sense of wonder and adventure to the reader. I know that I’m not treading new ground with that goal, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can’t have too many adventure stories.
I like stories to be full of magic and whimsy and things that surprise you from one chapter to the next. I want to feel like I’m being taken on a very long journey, and seeing a diverse world with a variety of locales and cultures along the way.
I believe Little White Hands ticks those boxes. The episodic structure gives me the freedom to jump from one environment to the next, and keeps the adventure going at a good pace. You’re never hanging around one place for too long, but you also won’t feel like you’re being rushed away either. There’s also an expansive cast of interesting characters to meet, ranging from ghosts and faeries, to giant swamp monsters and pirates, and lots of other things in between.
Ultimately, I’m just trying to write the story that I’d want to read, and with so many lovers of fantasy out there, there are bound to be some with similar tastes as me. All my life I’ve been enamored by books like The Hobbit, Stardust, The Last Unicorn, and the Chronicles of Narnia, and left dumbstruck by films like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad—all epic adventure tales of heroes doing battle with monsters in far-off fantastical lands. For people with a fondness for those same tales as me, I think Little White Hands would be a very fitting addition to their book shelf ☺
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
I wish I could say I had a bulletproof writing routine that allowed me to be the most super-efficient writer in the world, but sadly, I do not. I work a Monday-Friday 9-5, and my job involves sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day—so as you can imagine, sometimes the last thing I want to do when I finish work is fire up my own laptop and start typing away for another few hours.
In truth, I just write whenever I can. Mostly that means weekends, which is when I get the bulk of it done, but occasionally I’ll take the laptop onto the couch with me after work and see what I can do with whatever mental energy I have left, normally with a movie playing in the background (but always one that I’ve seen dozens of times already, so that I’m not distracted by it). Sometimes, my writing output for the day can be as little as writing notes in my phone between sets at the gym, or when I’m lying in bed. It varies from one day to the next.
I did go through a period of trying to be strict and disciplined with my schedule, forcing myself to write an exact amount of words for a specific length of time each and every day, regardless of how tired I was or how stressful my work day had been. But it would always result in burnout, and I’d end up resenting the process. Writing for hours every day just doesn’t fit my current lifestyle, and losing my love for it is the last thing I want to happen, so I’ve learned not to force it or be too hard on myself on the days that I don’t manage to get a lot done.
Maybe one day this will change, but for now my process works for me. It takes me longer to get the work done than someone with a stricter schedule, but everyone works differently, and I’ve found that it doesn’t do well to compare to how others do things.
Besides, I’m not in a rush – writing books should be a marathon, not a sprint.
Finding the thing that works best for you is certainly important!
Speaking of worlds, what inspires your worldbuilding? Do you have a magic system/s? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
I tried to make the world of Little White Hands as whimsical and magical as possible, and to achieve this I use a soft magic system. I didn’t want to create explicit boundaries or well-defined rule-sets that might limit the reader’s chances to use their own imagination to explain certain things. To give an example, in one chapter in the story the protagonist meets a talking scarecrow. I insert a small line of dialogue to say that this scarecrow was brought to life, but I do not explain how this happened—I don’t even say that it was just done by magic. I feel like that would be lazy. This is not because I myself don’t have an explanation, but because I’d rather the reader use their imagination to come up with their own. Allowing the reader these small freedoms can help immerse them deeper in the story, which is ultimately what I want.
I like J.R.R Tolkien’s thoughts about these sorts of things, when he was asked about the origins of his famously-enigmatic character from The Fellowship of the Ring, Tom Bombadil, who does not really fit neatly into the story or the laws that Tolkien established for his Middle-earth: “Even in a mythical age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”
I like that idea. He’s right. Even in the real world, there are things that can’t be explained, and probably a good amount of things that shouldn’t be, either. I don’t want to explain everything that happens in my book, because it leaves little to the imagination, and takes away some of the magic that I want people to feel when they explore my world. I weave magic into the story in ways that will either create exciting moments or help move the narrative along, and if I do not feel that an explanation of the magic is needed to achieve either of those things, I won’t include one.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
I’ve no doubt drawn some influence from many books over the years, but none more so than The Hobbit, by Tolkien. I’ve read it dozens of times, and it remains my favourite book to this day. I like how every chapter introduces a new setting or character–it keeps the story fresh and there’s always a sense that a new surprise is just around the corner. I like that episodic structure so much that I borrowed it for Little White Hands.
There aren’t many other books that I drew direct inspiration from for my own book, but I drew a lot from works in other mediums. Two video games in particular which serve as huge inspirations to Little White Hands are The Legend of Zelda series, and a fairytale-like game with a hand-drawn art style called Child of Light. There’s also a stop-motion animated fantasy movie called Kubo and the Two Strings which I absolutely love, and which was also a massive inspiration for me. All of these works have child protagonists, and are very whimsical with an expansive cast of strange, fantastical characters, and these ideas appealed to me a lot. I’m not sure why I am drawn to stories with child or everyman protagonists, but I suspect it may be because it feels like the stakes are higher, because they are not typical heroes. It probably also draws on elements from my childhood, when I watched old fantasy movies featuring mythical heroes and wanted to be just like them myself.
Regarding creators that I would like to work with some day, there is an artist called Astrid Sheckels who creates the most gorgeous illustrations that would look right at home in any storybook. It would be a dream come true to have her illustrate one of my stories one day.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I always find that consuming other art helps me when I find myself stuck in a rut, specifically art that falls under the same genre as my work. So for me that means watching fantasy movies or play fantasy games, or reading other fantasy books. These will usually help me remember why I love the genre so much, and more often than not this will be enough to get the creative juices flowing again.
I also find it helps to have more than one project on the go at a time. Working on the same thing for a long time can start to feel like a chore after a while, especially when you reach those parts that are harder to write, or are just not as interesting. Those are the moments where the imposter syndrome and negative self-talk can make an appearance, to try and trick you into thinking that the reason you’re struggling is because you’re just not very good. Which usually is not the case at all. So before I reach that stage I like to move onto something else to keep my mind fresh. Taking that break away from the project also gives me the time and space to think of ways to fill in those less-interesting or harder-to-write gaps, so that by the time I go back to them, they don’t appear as daunting as they were before.
And on the rare occasion when even those strategies don’t work, sometimes the best thing to do is just admit defeat and take the day off. Live to write another day. It happens.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
I was incredibly lucky to be able to hire a very talented artist by the name of Jeremy Adams. I came across his work on Twitter during my seemingly never-ending quest to find a cover artist, and knew instantly that his aesthetic would be a perfect fit for the vision that I had in mind.
I told him what I wanted but didn’t want to be overly specific, because I wanted him to be able to leave his own mark upon it, and then he got to work.
The whole process was very easy. Jeremy got back to me periodically with drafts of each stage in the cover’s evolution, to give me the chance to provide feedback or make any changes before he continued on. I think I only gave a handful of adjustments at most, and they were very minor, because he managed to capture my vision perfectly.
I couldn’t be happier with how the cover turned out. There’s not a lot going on in terms of action on the cover but I still feel like there’s enough happening to tell a story, and the colours are striking but not too busy. I think it’s a perfect blend of simple and eye-catching, and will make whoever sees it want to open to the book to learn more.
I’ll be aiming to work with Jeremy again on the sequels, and can’t recommend him highly enough to anyone else who is looking to get some high quality art made.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? And do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing?
The main character of Little White Hands is a young boy called Garlan. He works in the castle kitchens and dreams of becoming a knight one day, but is reminded that, as a kitchen boy, this dream is ridiculous. To draw a quote from the story:
“You? A knight? Don’t make me laugh! You’re just a scruffy kitchen boy. And what’s more, you’re too soft! Too clean! I mean look at those tiny little hands, not a scratch or callus to be seen. Sir White Hands, that’s what they’d call you. What knight by that name could ever slay a dragon or win a championship at the lists? Never going to happen.”
Garlan meets a bunch of interesting characters on his quest, but he has two loyal companions who are with him almost every step of the way (and who are featured on the cover beside him). Joining him from the outset is an odd creature called Oldface, who appears to be nothing more than a floating wooden head with the likeness of a man’s face carved into it, which, to quote again the book:
appeared older than was probably intended due to the lines and wrinkles in the wood—a detail which was no doubt the origin of the creature’s name.
Oldface serves the role of the Garlan’s teacher and advisor during the adventure, and there is actually a lot more to him than meets the eye…
And then there is Trickster, the fox. He is a magical guardian spirit of a forest which Garlan ends up in about halfway through the story, and is on a very urgent quest of his own when Garlan meets him. Trickster ends up joining Garlan and Oldface on their quest and the conclusion of his own, and he remains with them for the rest of the story. He serves somewhat as the some comic relief of the group, and likes to make the occasional sarcastic or witty remark—even in moments where they don’t belong.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I start off all my days in the same way – exercising. It’s the best way for me to get energized for the day ahead, and if I don’t do it I’m almost always guaranteed to have a lackadaisical day. From there, I’d do my best to fit in family time and spend some time with my nephews. After that, though? Well, it all depends on the weather. I live in Scotland, which doesn’t see the sun very often, so if it was a nice day then I’d likely try and spend as much time outside as possible, going for walks through the woods or along the canal near my house. If it was a typical Scottish day though (i.e raining and windy), you’ll likely find me just lying on the couch working my way through my TBR pile or watching my favourite movies. Maybe even both, if I was feeling especially ambitious, jumping back and forth between the two until it was time to go to bed ☺
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
This is a tough one, but these are exactly the sorts of things that fantasy writers think about, so I have actually put a considerable amount of thought into this before.
I imagine the most common answer to this question is dragon, or a griffin maybe, because they are really cool and can fly, but neither of those do it for me because I’m not overly fond of heights, so the flying thing just isn’t very appealing. Unless it was a wingless dragon – I could probably work with that.
A centaur might be a good call. It wouldn’t need much direction, and I could communicate with it more clearly than I could with any non-speaking creature. Plus it could wield weapons, too, which is handy. But, I wouldn’t be able to see in front of me because he/she’d be in the way. So I guess that rules that out.
I think maybe a unicorn is the way to go. There would be a sense of familiarity, what with it being just like a horse, so there would be a smaller learning curve than the others. I think I might feel a bit guilty riding one though, because they represent innocence and purity; I’d feel like I was committing some sort of crime by treating it like a common warhorse. That said, there’s no place for guilt on the battlefield, so I reckon I could put that aside.
So, I’m gonna go with unicorn. And the fact that the unicorn is also a symbol of Scotland is a bonus ☺
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
A book I read for the first time very recently is The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. He is by no means underappreciated or obscure, at least in terms of accomplishments, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature two years after writing this book, but the reason I mention it is because I just don’t see it being talked about all that much in the fantasy forums and groups that I visit, or making it onto the lists of popular or best fantasy books, and that baffles me.
Simply put, it’s one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. I can see why it might divide the opinions of fantasy fans, though—it’s only 5 or 6 years old, but it’s written in an almost-archaic way, like a very old fairytale, so it’s very different to modern fantasy, which may be why it doesn’t get the fanfare and buzz that I think it deserves. It is hands-down one of the best fantasy books ever, in my opinion, and I’ve been recommending it to just about anyone who’ll listen.
Can concur – it’s an excellent book!
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel?
I have a few things in the works at the moment, one of which is a collection of fairytales and fables that’s been in progress for several years now, but was set aside in favour of Little White Hands. There are also two fairytale-fantasy standalones that I’m working on as well, one of which has two young sisters as the main protagonists. I’m especially keen to get to this one, as I really love the story, and writing main characters that are female will be new to me, so I’m excited to see what challenges that will present.
My main priorities just now, though, are the sequels to Little White Hands, which is the first in the Garlan Greatheart trilogy. Both sequels have already been plotted out (book 2 was actually almost completely planned before I had even finished book 1, while book 3 was only conceived in the last 6 months or so), so I now just need to get to work on drafting them up.
I’ll be working on them both simultaneously for the next few months, before switching my focus entirely to book 2 in an aim to release it next year, around the same time as book 1’s release.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
With this being my debut, I’m still in the very early stages of building a following and finding my audience. So as it stands, I don’t have any plans to host any virtual events or anything like that for this one. Hopefully by the time the sequel comes out I’ll have built up an audience that’s sizeable enough to warrant something like that. One thing that I have been doing on my website, though, is documenting the history of the book’s release process. That might be something which the readers would find interesting.
As for what I will be doing on release day? Honestly, I’m a bit of a worrier, so I don’t want to ruin the release of my very first book by being anxious about the reviews and the number of sales it’s pulling in, so I’ll probably just try and stay offline as much as I can that day and distract myself doing something else.
Whether I can stick to that plan is another thing entirely, though. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I suspect I won’t be able to stay offline for long!
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
As readers, the main hope we have when we pick up a book is for it to be so engaging that we zone out of the world around us and lose track of time. I want people who read Little White Hands to have that same experience, and to feel like they’ve been taken on a grand adventure. If my book can allow a reader to fully immerse themselves in the story and the world, and really make them feel like they’ve been along for the main character’s quest every step of the way, and make them want to revisit that world for more of the same, then that’s good enough for me ☺
Thank you so much for joining us today, Mark, and good luck with the release of Little White Hands!
You can pre-order Little White Hands here: