Aspen Times Weekly: Mark Tompkins’ ‘Magic’ Moment
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Last Days of Magic’ book launch party
Where: Explore Booksellers
When: Thursday, March 3, 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More information: http://www.marktompkinsbooks.com
‘Last Days of Magic’
400 pages, hardcover; $27
Mark Tompkins got the only three-word review of his burgeoning writing career at the Milford Writer’s Conference, in the summer of 2012, when a workshop leader told him bluntly: “No. No. No.”
Tompkins was at the vaunted science fiction and fantasy writers’ summit in Wales with the beginnings of his novel “The Last Days of Magic.” The manuscript was not going over well.
“The consensus was that I should go do something else, maybe get out of writing altogether,” the Snowmass Village novelist told me over coffee at Victoria’s Espresso, where he wrote most of it.
Despite the harsh initial feedback, and with the support of fellow writers here in Aspen and from the literary nonprofit Aspen Words (and, yes, some magic) Tompkins soldiered on with his book, finished it, and sold it to a major New York publisher. Due out March 1, “The Last Days of Magic” is among Viking Books’ prominent spring releases.
Tompkins will celebrate his debut novel with a party at Explore Booksellers on March 3, which will be followed by a six-city book tour.
This is the story of how “The Last Days of Magic” went from workshop dud to bookstores nationwide.
Tompkins, 55, has been a voracious reader since childhood, but was discouraged from writing as a kid because he’s dyslexic. He stuck with the hard sciences in high school, avoided English classes through college, and went into a career as an entrepreneur and real estate investor. He started writing poetry in his 30s.
“Poetry is bad grammar raised to an art form,” he laughs. “So you have fewer words to check and if you get it wrong people think you did it on purpose.”
He published some poems, took up photography and landed a few pieces in museums, but writing a novel remained what he calls “the holy grail.”
Eight years ago, intrigued by the Irish legend of Red Mary — who is said to have married and killed 25 of her husbands — he went to Ireland to immerse himself in the country’s folklore and mythology. As he dug into tales of faeries, magic and their interplay with Biblical stories, Tompkins found the kernel of what would become “The Last Days of Magic” — that the myths were true and the magic was real.
“I did not come at this as an expert,” he says. “I came at it wanting to write about Irish magic, and figuring it out as I went. … I knew I wanted it to be in Ireland. Faeries are in my blood, or at least Ireland is. In the old days, faeries were big and they were badass. They procreated with humans. They weren’t dragonfly-size. I wanted to find out where they came from, what were the origin myths, what kind of powers did they have?”
During his time in Ireland, Tompkins hunted libraries and bookstores for everything he could on the mythology. He met with several covens of witches and groups of pagans.
“Witches and pagans are a lot of fun to hang out with,” he says. “They tend to meet in pubs these days. And they’re very generous with their stories and their beliefs.”
He wanted to blend the tactile details of today’s true believers with the medieval myths and history. His story took hold in 14th-century Ireland, a land where faeries and magical beings do battle with the Vatican’s efforts to eradicate magic by force and by exorcism, then to suppress its history. The mix of fact, fiction, conspiracy and myth is more historical fantasy than high fantasy; more “The DaVinci Code” than “The Lord of the Rings.”
“There are a thousand Easter eggs in it, so you can look it all up,” he says. “Most of the stuff you think isn’t true, it is. And the stuff you think must be true isn’t.”
While Tompkins was immersed in the Nephilim and the Sidhe in Ireland in the fall of 2008, the global economy collapsed, which drew him away from his piles of notes on magic and witchcraft and back into business.
He wrote in fits and starts in his free time, not quite knowing where the book was going or what he’d do with it if he ever finished.
“When you become a writer, especially later in life — and you don’t go do the MFA and so forth — being a novelist is a dream,” he says. “It’s been hanging out there for a long time. And when you’re writing the first book, you don’t know what to expect. I may just be writing it for me. I may self-publish.”
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti also drew him away from the project, as he devoted time to relief efforts. His then-girlfriend, now-wife, is Serena Koenig, a doctor whose work on HIV in Haiti was featured in Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” They met in Aspen at the Renaissance Weekend retreat in 2008, and moved here full-time in 2011.
With just two chapters written, Tompkins work-shopped the beginnings of the book at the Aspen Summer Words literary conference in 2011 with novelist Elinor Lippman. She suggested he add a contemporary prologue, linking the story’s main action in the 14th century to today.
That summer Tompkins also joined the board of the nonprofit Aspen Writers’ Foundation (later renamed Aspen Words). This volunteer post would prove pivotal in the book’s charmed path to publication.
By the time the next Summer Words came around, in June 2012, he had an additional two chapters done. As part of the literary conference, he met with editor Adrienne Brodeur of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who would later become the artistic director of Aspen Words. She loved what she read of “The Last Days of Magic,” and sent him a note of encouragement a month later.
Her belief in the book was enough to keep him from despairing later that summer when the manuscript got lambasted at Milford.
“She said that of all the workshops she’d been to that year, there were only two manuscripts that she remembered and mine was one of them,” Tompkins recalls. “So that was affirmation to keep me going.”
At the start of 2013, he buckled down and started writing full-time.
“I decided, ‘I’m going to write the novel. I’m not going to die not having written a novel, no matter what happens.’”
He wrote out a complex outline on a ream of butcher paper and, starting on New Year’s Day, wrote at least five days a week, beginning at 9 a.m. and going until at least 3 p.m.
“I’m a great believer that creativity is not a mood, it’s a muscle,” he says. “The more you use it, the better you get.”
Victoria’s, the bustling coffeehouse and wine bar on Durant Avenue, became his creative home. Tompkins was a daily fixture there, tapping away on his laptop, nibbling scones and sipping Americanos or green tea.
“We love Mark,” says Victoria’s co-owner John Beatty, “We knew he was a writer, but he didn’t talk much about the book. It was more about his wife, his family, their journey.”
The café was pivotal enough to the writing of “The Last Days of Magic” that Tompkins thanks Beatty and co-proprietor Victora Haveman in the book’s acknowledgments.
“I like the buzz, I like the coffee and I like the pastries in cafés,” he says. “I probably tried every hotel lobby and coffee shop in town and this one was the most comfortable.”
Tompkins also craved a creative community in which he could talk about the frustrations and joys of writing the novel. So as he toiled away on the book, he founded the Aspen Writers Network, a monthly support and networking group, with the administrative support of Aspen Words.
“I know for me, just the ability to sit down with other writers and talk about the craft and the struggles is important, and to just ask, ‘Are you writing?’ ‘How’s the book going?’” he says. “Nobody wants to talk to you for more than 90 seconds about your book unless it’s another writer.”
Between 20 and 30 writers now meet quarterly through the Network, talking about their work and getting nuts-and-bolts advice from successful editors and writers.
After nine months of the coffeehouse routine, in the fall of 2013, Tompkins finished a first draft of the book. He again leaned on the services of Aspen Words to improve it, fine-tuning the manuscript with Brodeur and editor Jenna Johnson through the nonprofit’s customized editorial service The Editing Room.
Summer Words was once more a turning point in 2014. Carole DeSanti, a novelist and renowned acquiring editor at Viking Penguin, was coming to town for the conference. Tompkins picked her up at the airport, on behalf of Aspen Words, and took her to dinner. Best known for editing and publishing realist fiction by women like Dorothy Alison and Terry McMillan, Tompkins didn’t think to pitch her on his historical fantasy novel (and, in fact, was advised not to). But, over dessert, she asked about it.
He offered her the elevator pitch he’d memorized and been practicing: “A novel that merges biblical lore of the angel-human hybrid Nephilim with Irish mythology to produce a dark medieval adventure that pits the Vatican against the Celtic fairies…”
She asked to see the manuscript, Tompkins recalls, and told him: “I hate elevator pitches, but that’s a pretty good one.”
DeSanti also suggested he call literary agent Stephanie Cabot, of the Genert Company, and ask if she’d represent him.
“I figured it was a wasted effort, but it was nice of her to say,” he recalls.
But quite suddenly, the novel went from the quixotic coffeeshop project of a middle-aged Aspenite into a hot commodity in the literary world.
Cabot did take him on, and proved to be a good fit. She loved the novel, and worked closely with Tompkins shepherding it into its final form. She saw it as a hit in the making, and drew interest from several publishers before selling the book to Viking in September 2014, with DeSanti as its editor.
As “The Last Days of Magic” made its journey toward publication, the Aspen Writers Network cheered Tompkins on.
“At every step, he would come in and say, ‘Well, this is what’s happening now,’ and our jaws would drop,” recalls Julie Comins Pickrell, a Writers Network member and former interim director of Aspen Words. “It’s such a needle-in-a-haystack story and I couldn’t be more thrilled for him.”
A self-described “plot guy,” Tompkins got help from DeSanti on the finer points of the novel and elements like character development.
“I’m a good storyteller, but as a writer I needed work,” he says. “But story trumps all. And the writing, with Carole’s help and the help of The Editing Room, I think has gotten there.”
Now, the book is between two hard covers and set for release, with prepublication reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, and a splashy national marketing campaign from Viking behind it.
Tompkins is still bemused by how it all happened: “It’s the story other writers don’t want to hear, because it’s like, ‘How do you submit a novel?’ I still don’t know.”
As for what’s next, he has his eyes on European witch hunters.
“Now that I’ve built a magical, historical world and spent years doing it, I think I’m going to write some more in it,” he says. “I want to go to other countries to pick up their mythos, to say, ‘What if the mythology of France is true? What happens if I move my characters over there?’”
He’s started a second novel already. But with a book launch and tour ahead of him, it’ll be awhile before he’s back at his laptop in Victoria’s.
“I’m looking forward to the time when I can sit and write again,” he says. “The writing is the fun part.”
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