Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Elements of a story

An interview with Michael J Hunt
By Alexander James

Michael J Hunt is a very full-time writer … though it took him a lifetime to get there.

These days he has acclaimed published novels to his credit, more books in the pipeline, runs a busy writers’ group, edits work for other authors and publishers, and even organises a hugely successful annual literary festival.

But, unknown to him at the time, his earlier life was a whirl of research and preparation for the many literary hats he now wears; a hectic history of global travel, adventure, study, diverse work -- and a double brush with death.

Now settled in the down-to-earth northern English town of Wigan, he can conjure up memories of scorching desert heat in the depths of a Lancashire winter, of snow-capped mountain peaks as he runs a muddy canal towpath, or of a ten thousand-mile trek around the Australian bush when he’s stuck in a motorway traffic jam.

And at the keyboard in a quiet terraced street, he can re-live days in African hotspots, his time as a policeman during a state of emergency, as a banker, as a tobacco planter, as a probation officer in the tough East End of London … and even has total recall of the vivid and often horrific hallucinations he suffered as he fought months-long battles, paralysed and helpless in hospital beds.

He said:

In a way, my whole life has been one long research project in preparation for my work as an author.

I left school at 15 and went to Africa because my father lived out there. I got jobs that allowed long leaves with pay. I was single and had no responsibilities.

I preferred being in wild country rather than cities and loved desert travel most of all because of the solitude and the luxury of sleeping under the stars. My second book, The African Journals of Petros Amm, is very much a ‘travelling’ book, so I suppose much of what I wrote is taken from those experiences.

When I served in a Rhodesian infantry regiment, we spent time on counter-insurgency manoeuvres and I always seemed to be selected as a ‘guerrilla’ (I suppose because I was pretty useless to the Company). This allowed me lot of freedom, since it was my job to set ambushes and not get caught. I learned about bush-craft from an Afrikaner ‘fellow-guerrilla’, some of which I was able to write into my first book,
Matabele Gold. I also borrowed the river where we’d operated.

I worked on tobacco estates, in a bank, became a Reserve Police Officer during the State of Emergency in Nyasaland, and I witnessed independence and the birth of Malawi; all the time, laying down knowledge of and a deep respect for Africa.

I made overland journeys through the Middle-East three times. I travelled once
through India. I trekked around Australia -- 11,000 miles up through the centre and over to the east coast. And I went from South Africa to London in a Bedford truck. That trip took four months … and we climbed Kilimanjaro and Nyiragongo in Rwanda, a very active, fourteen thousand-foot volcano, on the way.

I was stranded in the middle of the Sahara because the Algerians decided to arrest my German and Dutch companions and put them on trial in Oran on trumped up charges. They wouldn’t let us buy petrol and we couldn’t move, so we spent three weeks sleeping rough in the desert until they came to their senses and released them.
But the time came to cool his heels. Michael applied for university and won a place on the strength of his experience, in spite of not having the A-levels usually necessary.

He said:

I struggled academically. I was competing against youngsters straight out of sixth form college, and I’d left school with no exams at all, although I’d gone back to school in Rhodesia for a few months when I was 17 and got some O-level equivalents.

After four years at Keele University, I scraped a third-class honours degree. It was a terrific course, which included a Foundation Year, where you experienced every department in a series of lectures, tutorials and essays. The experiment has now been abandoned; I suppose it cost too much.
By now, Michael had met Jo in London, the girl who was to become his wife. He’d qualified as a probation officer and had begun his career in Stepney in the East End of London.

He said:

It was a great place to start. I was thrown in at the deep-end. But it turned out to be no tougher than County Durham and Wigan, where I recently finished my career after 33 years.

Perhaps I learned the basics of writing by doing so many court reports. I always believed in being as concise and precise as possible, and it’s these habits that I’ve carried forward into my fiction writing. My motto is ‘less is more’. Kind of Orwellian, eh?

My two books were mostly written at night, at weekends and on holidays. They never clashed with my daytime job because, as a probation officer, you learn not to bring your work home with you -- either in a brief-case or in your head -- otherwise you’d become a gibbering wreck.

That’s probably why I’ve never ever considered writing anything based around my time in the probation service and the people I met through it.
But Michael had not nursed a lifelong love affair with fiction writing. That dream was sparked by misfortune in 1986 when he was turned overnight from a keen sportsman to a bed-ridden, paralysed hospital patient fighting for life against the horrific, neurological illness, Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).

Michael said:

My main interest had been sport. I’d been a rugby player up to when I was 26, when I took up squash. Then the illness struck. It came out of the blue, just as I was recovering from a bout of ’flu, as is often the case.

One moment I was fit, the next I was in an intensive care unit for six weeks -- tubes and everything -- although I was unconscious and I don’t remember a thing. Then, I came to and lay inert for several months.

And this happened to me twice -- it was put down as the opposite of being a double-winner in the national lottery. There’s nothing like having to learn to walk three times in a single lifetime to put things into perspective.

It’s so difficult to remember what I was actually feeling when I was going through it. I tried to piece my life together, but I’d done so many long journeys that they always seemed to blend into a hotch-potch, especially my earlier African travels.

I hallucinated all the time I was in intensive care. The difference between hallucinations and dreams is that you know when you’ve been dreaming. Hallucinations are all too real and, because I never woke, I suffered from them continuously … they became as real as true life memories.

I was being hunted … and I was killed three times. Once, I was executed in a giant cheese wire by North Korean terrorists and cut into cubes. I actually watched my body being sliced up. The guy next to me in the hallucination was also cubed. He said: ‘For God’s sake, don’t move, else they won’t be able to sort us out when they put us together again!’ You don’t forget something like that.

My friends were my enemies and my sister was plotting to kill me. It was all pretty frightening.

When I had a character in my first book blasted unconscious by a German mortar in the First World War, I had him hallucinating … no experience should ever be wasted.

It took me a while, when I was conscious again, to work out that none of it had really happened. It couldn’t have, since I was totally paralysed. They even had to close my eyes for me at night. The only thing I could do for weeks during my recovery was to curl a little finger a millimetre by rubbing my tongue on the roof of my mouth. That was my sole entertainment for about three weeks. I can’t do it now, though.
Michael shares his GBS with Catch 22 author, Joseph Heller.

He remembers:

I saw Heller being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg and Melvyn asked him: ‘How much did the illness cost?’ (In America, of course, absolutely everything has to be paid for as you receive it, neurologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, day nurses, night nurses, treatment, drugs -- the lot.) There was a long pause, and then the great Joe gave a wry smile and said: ‘Quite a bit more than my divorce.’

I was lucky. Because of the British National Health Service, I was able to have [treatment for] GBS free of charge … twice! And now I’m about 90% recovered.

When I felt steady enough, I started to run the Wigan canals -- yes, right over George Orwell’s famous Wigan Pier -- and the surrounding countryside. During the last nine years I’ve covered over six and a half thousand miles. I know because I keep a record of every run. I started with half-marathons, did just about every one in the North West, and I’ve also managed two full Marathons; the last being New York at the millennium.
It was when the illness put paid to Mike’s squash ambitions that he discovered his new aim in life … to become an author and full time writer.

He said:

When it became apparent that I’d never play squash again, I realised I’d have to do something to exercise my mind, if not my body, and a chance meeting with a friend, who was about to start on a creative writing course, was the trigger that turned me into a compulsive writer.

Spurred on by his ambitions, I tried poetry and short stories, but I had a strong urge to do some more long-distance stuff, and I wrote two plays, which led on to novels.

There was only one subject that would interest me for such a long haul, and that was African history. I’d lived and worked in Central Africa for 14 years and I had numerous reference books, so I didn’t have to do any research away from home. I used my knowledge and imagination to create two lost worlds; the first in Southern Rhodesia shortly after the First World War and the second beginning in South East Africa in 1814.
Michael’s first two novels were published by BeWrite Books.

Currently, he is working on two more; the first, Two Days in Tehran (BeWrite Books, April 2008), about the problems faced by a group of travellers stranded in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah in 1978/9, and the second, The Tea Time War, about the Second Boer War, which is loosely based on his grandfather’s experiences in the Manchester Regiment at the siege of Ladysmith and beyond.

Much like his own colourful early life, Michael writes in freefall rather than slavishly following blueprints.

He explained:

I didn’t outline either of my successful books before I wrote them. I tried that once, and by the time I’d planned it through to the end, I’d lost interest in actually writing it. So, I always write now without knowing where I’m going from one day, or even one scene, to the next.

I started my 140,000-word African saga with a title and a blank sheet. Originally I was going to write a humorous book (it was going to be ever so funny) about a sleepy little mythical Central African country in the back-of-beyond. My character was to be called ‘Amm’ and the country he creates, ‘Ammnesia’ … and after the first page I
couldn’t think of any more funny things to write.

I scrapped the idea the same day, but kept the name, forgot about the humour, and started a 'What if?' story. What if a white man was stranded in South East Africa at the time when Shaka, the future Zulu king, was just beginning to impress himself on the continent. What if they met?

But although a story may develop itself, Michael advises anyone setting out to write historical fiction to have a sound grounding in what he or she needs to know to make the manuscript credible.

He said:

Get to know the country and its history. If you can’t visit the country, read as much as you can about it. Fashion your story around some actual historical event or events. Research before you sit down to write -- a research-led story -- or research as you go along -- an events-led story. I do the latter. But, whatever you do, pay close attention to sound research. Get your dates right and your factual actors behaving in character.
But as well as vast world-experience, imagination plays a vital part in important part in Michael’s work.

He said:

It’s really not too difficult for me to write desert scenes of 100F plus whilst wrapped in a duvet and wearing a woolly hat with my feet on a hot-water bottle at 1.30 am, in a very draughty, top-of-the landing study. The real secret is to be totally wrapped up in the characters you create.

The longer you live with them, the more real they become. I lived with mine for years during the creative process … writing every day -- without fail! So, I guess characterisation is the most important single element in fiction writing. If you don’t get the people right, no matter how brilliant your story and scene setting is, you lose your reader’s interest.

There were times when my characters actually lived in my head. We’d have conversations and arguments. Once I woke up in a sweat. My female character was saying: ‘No way would I do that.’ She was right, of course, and I was able to take a much more interesting route.
Michael J Hunt is no stranger to offering such sage advice to developing authors. He is chairman of his thriving local authors’ circle and, nine years ago, helped create a co-operative community press, Towpath, to paperback publish the work of budding writers.

He admits:

I’m particularly proud of that. We started off with a £300 grant and when I left, two years ago, Towpath had £2,500 in the bank -- enough to produce a book and a half.

It’s a simple model; everyone mucks in to help everyone else and all surpluses, after costs of production are covered, go into the next production. Towpath Press meets every fortnight for two hours in various places. We established good relations with printers and illustrators from the local College. Towpath has done about 30 books at the last count -- all for a total outlay of a mere £300.
Now that he’s officially retired from the very last and longest-lasting of many day jobs to become a full-time writer, Michael is busier than ever.

He continues to help run the annual literary festival in Wigan and Leigh as chairman of its committee, and also chairs the local writers’ group in nearby Ashton-in-Makerfield.

And as if that and completing his two books-in-progress isn’t enough, he also holds novel writers’ workshops at the festival and a novel writers’ support group that he’s recently started.

On top of all that, he’s now in demand as a freelance fiction and non-fiction editor with a webpage on Google and Yahoo.

He explained:

I offer a service for students or professionals who are writing in English as their second and sometimes third language. But I’ve also been approached by a publishing house to work on some of their novel titles.
Michael is also secretary of the North West GBS Support Group, which offers personal contact to sufferers and carers during and after the illness.

So how does he keep all these balls in the air?

He says:

Simple. I’ve got a great backup team. Every writer should have one. In my case, undoubtedly, my wife, Jo, and my four children -- now grown up, but not exactly gone.

Writing can be a very solitary occupation, even with a full house, and there must have been times when Jo felt that she and the kids were being neglected. But we’ve never had a single argument over it … although I’ve just had the thought that she might have been only too glad that I was otherwise occupied.
This interview was first published in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Possibly related books:


Related interview:

Medieval Life & the Supernatural: An interview with Hunter Taylor, By Alexander James, Conversations with Writers, March 24, 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010

[Interview] Chris Hardy

Poet, musician and song-writer, Chris Hardy has written and published two poetry collections, Swimming In The Deep Diamond Mine (Hub Editions 2002) and A Moment Of Attention (Original Plus Press, August 2008).

His poems have also been featured in magazines that include Acumen; Tears In The Fence; and Poetry Review.

In this interview, Chris Hardy talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing poetry at school in the 1960’s, influenced and inspired by reading English poetry, especially John Keats, Wilfred Owen, William Shakespeare and William Blake.

As for publishing, this started in the 1970’s when I came across poetry magazines in London, where I was living. I submitted poems to them and began to get published: Stand, Poetry Review and Slow Dancer were amongst the first to take my poems. It was easy to find out how to do this, but to get a collection published, while easier then than now, was still difficult. In fact, I did not think of doing so until later.

Throughout this period, and up to now, I was also playing guitar in bands and as a solo musician, and writing tunes and songs ... I have always felt that, if there were no poems being written, as I could not find anything to write about or did not feel like writing, then at least there was still the music -- and visa versa.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I write lyric poetry, by which I mean pieces of writing in a verse form that do not extend much beyond four or five pages.

Most of my poems are less than 40 lines long. I write like this because that is what my imagination creates. I sometimes intend to put together something longer but this rarely happens, mainly because it is ‘put together’ -- is artificial.

Over many years, I have come to rely on my imagination finding the material it needs in my experiences and making something new from that. What is produced is then shaped by me into a verse form -- stanzas, lines, punctuation etc -- that seems to emerge from the poem.

Often the first few lines set the form.

I do not sit down thinking I must write a poem and this is the topic, nor do I attend writing classes where topics are set. Again to me all this produces is artificial, manufactured, poetry.

I trust my imagination to make something, using words, from my knowledge and life: the poem, if it is a poem, will reveal what I was aware of but did not ‘see’ or ‘know’ before. Of course this leads to periods of anxiety when nothing appears, sometimes for months ... but I have to remind myself then that this does not matter ... what does matter is that whatever is written is necessary (to me) and ‘authentic’.

Who is your target audience?

I do not have a target audience. Once the poem is finished -- has been amended, added to, shaped and left lying around for a while -- I will try to get it published in a magazine or anthology, but why I do this is a good question: I think it is simply to get some sort of response or reaction.

I often try new poems out on other writers I meet at ‘Stanza’ meetings, but only rarely do I hear anything that I am willing or able to make use of to improve a poem -- though it does happen at times.

There is definitely also a desire to get some sort of recognition and approval, especially through getting poems into famous magazines like the The Rialto or The North, or winning prizes in competitions, and the odd prize covers the cost of all the postage!

I think it probably took 10 years of trying, once a year, sending six poems, to get one poem recently into The Rialto ... And I, and I am sure other writers, read these magazines asking ourselves, ‘You print that and not mine?!’

There is also a competitive element: many writers are competitive, with each other and with the publishing establishment: it becomes a small victory to finally get a poem published ... guitarists, by the way, are the same.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Frost At Midnight), John Keats (Bright Star), Wilfred Owen (Spring Offensive, Futility), Isaac Rosenberg (Dead Man’s Dump), Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas (Lights Out), Shakespeare (Hamlet, Othello), Gary Snyder (Turtle Island, Rip Rap), Allen Ginsberg (Howl etc) and other ‘beats’ -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and also Robert Duncan, e e cummings, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, T S Eliot (Wasteland, Prufrock), Ezra Pound (Cathay), Philip Larkin (Whitsun Weddings, Aubade), Sylvia Plath, early Ted Hughes, the very Larkinesque Carol Anne Duffy more recently.

I also find inspiration sometimes in the excellent poems that frequently appear in the small magazines I subscribe to: Magma, Tears In The Fence, Rialto etc.

I have been influenced, at least in approach and subject matter, by novelists such as Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner, Hemingway, Joseph Conrad: these and many other authors, of course, write from their own experience, which connects their work directly to reality. They all firstly create a physical world from imagery and through this and from this arises any underlying meaning: fact is far stranger than fiction and, once fiction is made from fact, fiction cannot lie.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I will start a poem with a word or a line that I have heard, thought of or remembered and these are often connected to memories, or from something just seen or read or heard. Memory is especially important ...

Once the poem gets going, I know it is something worth continuing with if I arrive, at some point, at something I had not clearly seen or known before I began. But whatever this is, it comes from and relates to some sort of inner or sensory experience.

I rarely, if ever, write about things I have never felt or known. In this connection I am not interested in any sort of Science Fiction, Television serials and do not usually watch films, or if I do, I cannot take them seriously as Art. Exceptions are 40’s and 50’s Westerns (High Noon), Some Like It Hot, Paths Of Glory, Doctor Strangelove, The Godfather ...

The Wire is the sort of TV I like and other than that, a few documentaries, and sport.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenges are twofold: writing something; getting it published. I have written above about both these things.

I do not ‘practise’ writing poems as I practise guitar: every day for at least one or two hours.

I have to be patient and calm and wait for the moment, which is also a mood -- when I become aware that anything and everything in the ordinary world is of interest and has a mystery: it is inexplicably strange that we are here, like this.

Then it takes a prompt: a word, an image, a memory, a line of verse, a phrase.

Getting published takes patience and thick skin.

You have to learn to take rejection and keep going. You also have to read plenty of poetry and research the scene -- there are, for example, many online magazines now. You also have to put up with interminable delay by most magazine editors. Very few of them will respond within three months, most take longer and some never reply even if you send, as you must, an s.a.e. The worst offenders in this regard are the editors of Arete, Poetry London, The London Magazine ... and as other excellent and very busy magazine editors do manage to reply promptly, I cannot excuse those who do not. The best are Acumen, Tears In The Fence, Smiths Knoll, Poetry Review, The North ...

Do you write everyday?

No. I do not write everyday, but I am ready to write -- I try to remember to have a notebook on me at all times. I have written poems on beaches, in lecture theatres, in bed, on buses ... all I need is some paper and a pencil or pen.

I do not type until I have re-written by hand several times.

I use a manuscript nook for drafting, sometimes I compose straight into it. I have kept quite a few of these as they are a sort of mine or quarry -- there is stuff in there that I might be able to use -- fragments, abandoned poems and also many notes, quotes, pictures.

I stop writing when I have nothing else to write down.

But one important rule, that I have to remind myself of is that, once I start I must not stop to correct, re-consider, censor ... that is fatal, as, if there is anything there, it might find its way out buried in a load of verbiage and imagery that can be pared away later.

Another helpful way of finding what a poem is about is getting someone else to read it -- they will sometimes see what the poem is really trying to reveal, or is really concerned about, and suggest ways of bringing this out, making the poem, in fact.

On the whole, I do not agree with the often expressed notion that a poem is ‘never finished’: I read poems written years ago and, while noticing that I might not have phrased or structured it like that now, I do not wish to re-write it ... it is better to start afresh. I have written many poems that took hours to get right, then found that what I have left is not really worth doing anything with. I will leave it, and possibly make use of any images, phrases, lines in a future poem.

How many collections have you written so far?

I have published two collections: Swimming In The Deep Diamond Mine (Hub Editions 2002) and A Moment Of Attention (Original Plus Press, August 2008).

I began publishing poems in magazines in about 1980 with a poem called Knife, in Orbis -- a magazine that I still send work to. Poems in Other Poetry, Stand, Poetry Review and Pennine Platform followed, as well as poems in magazines that are now extinct -- Slow Dancer, Urbane Gorilla, Oasis etc.

Since then poems have appeared regularly, in numerous magazines (over 60) including The North, The Rialto, Smiths Knoll, Tears in the Fence, Acumen, Brittle Star and many others.

Some of my poems have won prizes, for example in the National Poetry Society’s and London Writers’ poetry competitions, and a poem, highly commended by the judges, is in the 2009 Forward Prize Anthology.

More poems and information can be found at the following websites and ‘zines’ (online magazines),,, and

How would you describe A Moment Of Attention?

My latest book, A Moment Of Attention, contains a large number of poems and is somewhat erratically ordered on a thematic line from birth/beginnings to death/endings but with a questing, searching poem at the end that celebrates (I hope) the wonder of the easily accessible world. The title poem also emphasis this: it is about an old barn but the underlying idea is that life is just this brief moment of consciousness -- what is happening now is all there is, and the poem tries to show and say how easy it is to forget this and live disconnected from what is really happening, unaware -- like a person walking on a mountain and making a phone call.

Sam Smith, with his Original Plus Press, picked up the manuscript immediately he received it, and proved to be a most efficient and careful editor -- this is why I went along with him and did not try anywhere else. If you find a friend stick with him ...

What sets A Moment Of Attention apart from the other things you've written?

Poets usually simply collect together what poems they have that have not appeared in a book but that might or might not have been published elsewhere and then try to make a ‘Collection’: this means a book containing poems that are not going to be on one theme or in one style, but it is important to try and make the ‘running order’ work: each poem should complement, or contrast with, its neighbour.

Getting this order right takes several attempts and is never completely satisfactory. I compare it to constructing a musical ‘set’ for a band’s performance ... the songs chosen need to enhance each other and the performance.

My poems have always been on a number of limited themes: life, nature, death, truth, mystery, other people and myself, time, fate, history, religion ... in this, both my collections are similar and the next one will be too.

What has changed is my style: I now take much more notice of rhyme and rhythm and am focusing more on both, especially the iambic beat and the 10/11 syllable line. However, I have to guard against this interfering with the actual moment of writing ... and it is also apparent to me that my imagination is producing poems that contain a lot of half and full rhymes, that they condition the writing and unfortunately can also limit it ...

What will your next book be about?

My next collection is not in any sort of order yet. I have a Word file with about 50 poems in it, and an associated file with about 20 poems that I now do not intend to use ... there are many other poems that are in neither file.

The main file has the title, Write Me A Few Of Your Lines. This is the title of a poem about the great American blues musician Fred McDowell, the poem was published on a USA poetry website If the collection turns out to be about discovery (the poem is about how Fred was ‘discovered’) and revelation, then it will not be that different to the previous collections and poems!

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Keeping going when inspiration is absent, there is nothing to say and no one wants to publish what poems I have that I think are interesting and well-constructed enough to find an audience.

Even if you win a prize in the National Poetry Competition, or get a poem in the Forward Anthology or into a ‘prestigious’ magazine, nothing will probably change in your life -- it takes luck, contacts and, of course, the right poem to make money and a name ... most poets, in any case, do not want to earn a living as poets. This would mean writing to order like a journalist or forcing the pace as novelists do -- poetry should be written in the corners of your life and you need to live, not write, to write it.

Far too many poets work in Universities and especially on ‘creative writing’ courses: this means that their only experiences, from which the poems must come, are of writing and talking about writing. But the poetry that is about poetry is the most pointless, self-regarding and unenlightening of all ...

To me, the ideal poet’s life would be that lived by Gary Snyder, who worked in the forests of North America, or even Owen and Sassoon’s wars, T S Eliot’s bank and Larkin’s library administration. Wallace Stevens, Yeats and Arnold all worked in the world and wrote in a separate but connected existence -- as if life, work and poetry were connected rooms.

Some of the best poets are mainly thought of as novelists -- Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence: their poems are, to some readers, superior to their books because they were written to express essential emotions and experiences; not to support a fiction but to re-create a powerful perception of a fundamental experience.

Possibly related books:


Related article:

[Interview] Siobhan Logan, Conversations with Writers, February 20, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

[Featured Author] Hunter Taylor

Medieval Life & the Supernatural
By Alexander James

Publishers, with their obsessive desire to pigeon-hole novels, see a clear distinction between historical fiction and fantasy … but author Hunter Taylor thinks they’re missing a vital point.

In her book, ancient history is where fact and fancy meet on equal terms.

Hunter’s firm belief is that the supernatural must be accepted as an integral part of early medieval life to accurately recreate the times of which she writes and the mindset of those who populated the forests, villages and towns of a bygone era.

Before the line between reality and myth had been drawn, war raged between the new religion and the old -- and she calls on her own rich heritage as well as painstaking historical research to bring to life times of bloodstained reality and magical legend in her remarkable debut novel, Insatiate Archer.

Hunter’s family heritage is rich in ages old Celtic and Native American tradition and a store of folklore and intimacy with nature helped create the book’s unforgettable heroine, Susanna.

In her extensive and unfettered research, she found that the deeds of the mighty were carefully written down on parchment and calfskin, but the lives of everyday folk were recorded in poem, song and fireside stories that rang with their own truth.

Reality lay somewhere between documented history and magical legend in the misty past when witches and their public burnings were both equal facts of life.

This realisation led to the development of her complex and unforgettable lead character Susanna, whose startling, differently coloured eyes mark her as a sorceress, and who is a high priestess of the secret and sacred druidic groves, struggling to embrace the best of Christianity. And the deep-rooted superstitions and unholy terrors of those dark times also created the monstrous Yellow Curate who will stop at no evil to rid the world of Susanna and her kind.

Hunter’s seamless blend of 14th Century fact and myth produces a breathtaking odyssey through a land in the birth pangs of change, where Susanna is never more than a footstep ahead of the sadistic cleric obsessed with her destruction.

But the book’s mirror-true reflection of life in a cruel age where illiteracy and misunderstanding ruled is not the result of insightful and open-minded research alone; much is instinctive and drawn from the author’s inherited feeling for the times and people recreated in Insatiate Archer.

As a former military journalist, Hunter -- who is now a full-time author and lives with her husband in Texas -- also weaves into her work personal family folklore and a closeness to nature inherited from ancestors rich in the wisdom of ages.

She said:
I am on every page in my own right, but I am there in the presence of everyone who nourished or influenced me. My grandmothers are there with their store of homegrown remedies and old family tales. My Celtic father, with his never-ending humor and great creativity, is there. The people with whom I trained in the Army are there. My travels around the country and the globe are there. All the experiences of a lifetime -- and the lifetimes of those close to me -- come together.

My childhood was filled with the kind of history in which the story is set, with a strong oral tradition in tales of adventure and mystery. My father was Celtic Scots, and family lineage also includes direct ancestors who were Native American as well as old Germanic and Irish blood lines

This heritage of folklore and harmony with nature was a tremendous source of
inspiration as I wrote of times shrouded in myth and of people close to the earth, independent in their ancient beliefs and facing a changing world. Although my story is set six hundred years in the past, the circumstances and characters felt very close to home. I could feel part of them.

I could understand that, in their world, there was little if any distinction between the real and the supernatural. For the book to recreate this (what is to us) strange balance, it must honour fantasy as well as cold fact and include elements of both forms of the prevailing reality.
The result is that Insatiate Archer’s mystic heroine, Susanna, is a flesh-and-blood woman of her time, but one who readers can understand and identify with in the materialistic 21st Century.

Hunter said:
Susanna first came to me in the early 1980s while I was serving with the Army in Germany. Through the years, she evolved from a slightly fairy-tale being into a real presence, strong-willed and adventurous.

In the early 1990s, while living in New York City, I saw a revival of the musical, Camelot. It occurred to me then that of all the people in the Arthurian legends, the character of Nimue was largely unexplored. She is usually portrayed as conniving, a thief of Merlin’s magic who seals him in a cave and leaves him there. She did not seem so to me. I saw her as a highly intelligent young woman, assertive and independent. She became the ancestor of Susanna.

So the character of Susanna is original, although it has been said that all writing, no matter how the author may deny it, is to some degree autobiographical. I confess I did not see this as I was writing the novel. When it was completed and had sat the shelf for a time, I took it down and read it again. And it was there -- me and my family ghosts.
Hunter’s title is taken from poet Edward Young’s 18th Century Night Thoughts: “Insatiate Archer! could not one suffice? Thy shaft flew thrice, and thrice my peace was slain.”

Hunter explained:
When I saw the quote on an old gravestone in Norfolk, Virginia, marking the resting place of a mother and her two children, it seemed to sum up the losses suffered by Susanna in the book. The harsh impersonal randomness of life itself.

The intertwining of historical fiction and setting with elements of fantasy came about as a result of my reading King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the King James Bible, and Playboy magazine. These may appear to be wildly divergent sources, but they all played a role in the conceptualization. Our modern lives tend to become bogged down in mundane detail. I believe that real life today -- as well as in days of old -- is something of a combination of fact and fancy, of the ordinary and the extraordinary. So even in the 21st Century, we can understand the touches of fantasy that make my book a more accurate mirror of life in the medieval times of which I write.

I have been interested for some time in the idea and the history of the manner in which women were persecuted as witches. This goes hand-in-glove with the struggle between the old religions and Christianity.

The unicorn has a part to play in the book; a creature that’s been associated with Christ and the early Christian church, the older nature-based religions, and belief in gods and goddesses. The image of the unicorn has been found in such widely divergent localities as ancient China and on the royal seal of England. You may have noticed that even in cyberspace, it’s one of the most popular avatars in chatrooms and forums. It’s almost like a genetic memory.

But to ensure historical correctness I researched histories of religions, witchcraft, ancient myths and legends. For instance, one seemingly fantastic episode in my book is based on an event actually documented in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain.

As between forms of religion, I have no doubt about this blurred line between fact and fantasy in history. I feel that recognizing this in a novel accurately reflects the mindset of those who populated our world in olden days. I’m sure my ancestors would agree.
Hunter’s passion for writing goes back to early childhood and, ever since, she has always translated her thoughts into words on a page. She said:
I cannot remember a time when I was not serious about writing. I believe it would be truly traumatic for me if some circumstance should keep me from it.

My earliest memories are of a love of words; reading, and the enchanting experience of writing. As a child, I haunted the public libraries and read incessantly.

I remember reading the same lyrical passages again and again, savoring the way the words were constructed to evoke an emotion, a scene, or a thought. I loved John Steinbeck, and Jack London; Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Hardy; and later, Tony Hilllerman. And I cannot read enough of Erica Jong.

So I have always known I wanted to be a writer. It was a question of arranging my life to allow me to write; family responsibilities had to come first for many years. I don’t believe I had early successes or failures in writing, just in getting to a point in my life where I could devote myself to writing.
Even in uniform, Hunter was armed with a pen. She said:
I trained as a military journalist and wrote for military newspapers, magazines, radio and television for more than 20 years. I also read as much literature as possible, and took every writing, poetry, literature and English class I could find at nights and on weekends, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles.

I even took leave to attend longer courses. I once camped at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and lived in a tent to study [William] Shakespeare. I also commuted weekly from Germany to England over a period of several weeks to attend another Shakespeare course, and from Germany to Spain to complete a creative writing workshop.

I think the way to hone writing skills is simply to write as much as possible, trying different styles, subjects and venues. And it helps to have really good editors interested in your work, such as my editor at Fort Carson, Colorado, Sam Sears, and the people at BeWrite Books who helped me to fine tune Insatiate Archer.

My training as a soldier gave me the background and discipline necessary to focus on my mission and to develop an attitude of ‘failure is not an option’. These are things that serve me well in all areas of my life. All writers need a sense of discipline and mission to complete the long and arduous task of completing a novel.

One thing I have learned that Iwill share: you cannot write after all your work is done; your work is never done. If you try to write in your so-called ‘free time’ you will never write. You have to learn that the dishes will wait, the laundry is patient, dust is non-toxic and sandwiches are nutritious. All else can wait, but your Muse cannot. If you ignore her, she will become bored and desert you.
Life revolves around writing for Hunter, but it doesn’t fill every waking hour. She said:

I stay very busy, which I like; I have a low boredom threshold. I am an instructor at Central Texas College, I am pursuing doctoral studies at Union Institute & University, I write every day, I design and conduct writing workshops for disadvantaged populations, I am involved in animal rescue efforts and I am active in my church.

In my free time I say hello to my husband … seriously, I’m blessed with a life-mate who understands my drive, and helps me to find time for all I feel I must do. Soldiers don’t have a lot of opportunity to make lasting friends in the Army, because of the frequent moves. But the friends I have made have always known that I write; for me, writing is a normal state -- and my husband and my family have always been there as an inspiration.

I have traveled a long and often bumpy path, and each hardship has made me stronger. Many years ago my Celtic grandmother said that when people find happiness in their lives they feel a need to give something back, and that each of us has been endowed with our own special gift, one that we can share. It may not seem to us a very special blessing; we are accustomed to it, and we may take it for granted.

Writing is my gift and my passion, and is what I want to share. Writing is my way of honoring the many blessings in my life.

Insatiate Archer is the first in a trilogy of linked novels. Hunter is currently at work on the second, set two centuries later with a descendent of Susanna’s as protagonist. Again deeply researched hard fact and documented myth and magic will be interwoven to recreate a lost age in which reality had a less rigidly defined definition.

This interview was first published by Twisted Tongue Magazine

Related resources

Author's website

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

[Interview] Shells Walter

Author, editor and publisher, Shells Walter has been published in places that include Micro Horror, Static Movement, The Shine Journal and Demon Minds.

She is also actively involved with Sonar4 Publications, a science fiction and horror publishing house she started in 2008.

In this interview, Shells Walter talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing when I was 11 years old reading my first horror story by Edgar Allan Poe.

Poetry is where I started first, then short stories and eventually longer works. I chose to start wanting to get published in 2006. Up until then I wrote for the pleasure of it.

How would you describe the writing you are doing now?

Different and twisty.

I end up writing a lot of what I'm feeling at the time into my writing, of course what I find interesting or researched I put into it as well.

I don't have a target audience per se. Several people who like different genres have enjoyed some of my work. I think I tend to just write and hope people will enjoy my work.

Which authors would you say influenced you most?

Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Philip K Dick have influenced me the most.

I think they had this influence because they went past the barriers that so-called genres allowed them to go. They allowed the readers to be able to feel their work instead of just reading it.

I want readers to be able to have their own sense of emotions when reading my stories.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concerns as a writer is having something I thought was good turn out that it wasn't as good as I originally had hoped. My ways of dealing with this is having a good editor check over my work and possibly see the things I may have missed.

The biggest challenges at times is putting my stories into a specific category. Since my writing tends to fall in several different areas, people sometimes gets confused on where my stories may fit. I try explaining to them what the story is about and in hopes they understand it.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I was shy when I was younger and picked on in grade school. Writing had allowed me to focus my emotions and get them out.

Personal experiences to this day pull the direction of my writing, allow my emotions to run full force into the stories.

Do you write everyday?

I write when I can. I really don't have a set schedule as it depends on time that I have.

However, I often take writing breaks and that allows me to write on a daily basis and that can vary from an hour to three hours.

How many books have you written so far?

I have a horror novella called Bite This published in 2009 by Sonar4 Publications which deals with a Priest that gets bit by a vampire. He then questions his faith on why this happened to him.

Demon Alley, 10 short stories based on your favorite urban legends; a short story collection published by Sonar4 Publications in 2009.

And currently Justice Served, a horror novel published by Sonar4 Publications released in Nov 2009, which deals with a lawyer and the devil. He defends a case for the Devil and he loses it. He then becomes the Devil's personal attorney. His first case is defending the most notorious serial killer known. It is available in ebook and print from

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into Justice Served

At times, it was making sure details were accurate and changing some. Since parts of the novel is based on actual events, I twisted some because it was a fictional piece.

I allowed myself not to worry too much and to just write the story. Any real issues were fixed later if I felt they caused a problem.

Also, having a great editor does wonders.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Without giving too much away, writing on certain parts of the history in the novel on one of the characters. I have always been interested in learning about this specific person and it was fun including them in the story.

What sets Justice Served apart from other things you've written?

It has more twists and I believe it deals with more history, where others dealt more with just aspect of good vs evil.

In what way is it similar?

It has twists, something I enjoy putting into stories if they fit.

What will your next book be about?

There are a few projects coming out that I'm working on. One is called Dead Practices based on a Zombie Lawyer coming from Sonar4 Publications; a group collaboration of a zombie story published by Pill Hill Press; a group collaboration called The Gentlemen's Club, based on "The Secret Life of Hank Wilson", a short story of mine coming out in 2010 from Sonar4 Publications; and, Devil's Own, the sequel to Justice Served coming out from Sonar4 Publications in the future.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

To have someone say that my work has influenced in some way. Whether it be good or bad.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

[Update] Danfo Driver

My short story, "Danfo Driver" has been accepted for publication in Writing Free, an anthology of contemporary Zimbabwean writing. The anthology is published by Weaver Press and will be out soon. - Ambrose Musiyiwa, 7 April 2011.

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The Bracelet [Short Story], by Ambrose Musiyiwa, Conversations with Writers, February 17, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

[Featured Author] Joe Bright

Ghosts, a haunting and an exorcism
By Alexander James

Author Joe Bright’s newly published novel is about murder. But the fiction has lain to rest the ghost of a brutal, real life killing that had haunted him all his adult life.

Joe was still a high school teenager when the quiet town where he lived was rocked after the body of a missing schoolgirl was discovered in a pond near the railway tracks. She had been raped and strangled to death.

The killer later turned out to be an intimate friend of Joe’s family.
The whole town was in shock. But I was more deeply affected than most. The young killer was my brother’s best friend. I’d often laughed and joked with him around the Sunday dinner table and had gone out shooting rifles with him.

One day soon after the murder, while police were still hunting for clues, this good pal passed me in his truck when I was on the way back from a run along the same road where the body had been found. He gave me an odd look, as though he was worried about where I’d been.

Something about that look made me think for a moment that he might be the killer of that little girl. But … c’mon … he was a friend. I dismissed the thought and didn’t tell anyone about the encounter. Later, of course, I realized it had been a look of guilt. Our instincts are often more in tune with the world than we give them credit for, but when the instinct suggests something frightening, we often allow ourselves to push it aside.

I’d have been glad to see the killer hanged … until he turned out to be my friend. Then, I just felt sick. If he hadn’t confessed, I would have sworn they had the wrong guy. Why? Simply because I knew him, and we often choose sides based on association rather than on the facts of the situation.

The horrible knowledge that someone we trust completely can be so secretly dark inside scarred me. I could never shake the dreadful feeling that people -- even those I knew well -- might conceal something awful and dark in their hearts.

But writing The Black Garden served as a catharsis for me -- a kind of exorcism of a haunting. Using what I learned about murder, murderers and the difference their crime makes to those around them as a backdrop to the main story was therapeutic. I projected all my fears -- how little we actually know even our closest friends -- onto characters in my book. It helped me work through the inner conflicts that had dogged me since youth.

The Black Garden -- released this month by Europe-based publishers BeWrite Books -- is set in a small town in Vermont, far from where the real life murder took place in Evanston, Wyoming. And it is also set in the fifties, long before the actual murder took place in 1979.

A few years after the murder, Joe -- one of a family of eight brothers and sisters -- left Wyoming and received his BA in English from Utah State University.

He began his career as a technical writer for Thiokol, the manufacturer of space shuttle rocket boosters. He later taught English in Honolulu, Hawaii and Berkeley, California.

He currently lives in Studio City, California, and works as a graphic designer.

Joe always had an interest in the arts and attended college on a fine arts scholarship, yet spent much of his time playing the guitar, writing songs and performing with a band. He did a lot of short story writing in high school, but didn’t get serious about it until 1994, while teaching English in Hawaii.
This was when I wrote my first novel, and I’ve been writing consistently ever since. Five novels in 15 years; three are out on audio cassette, two have been self-published, but The Black Garden is the first so far to have hit the spot with a traditional publisher and been released internationally.

The Black Garden is set in a small town in Vermont.

For years, the residents of Winter Haven have speculated about George O’Brien’s misdeeds; however, during the summer of 1958, when Mitchell Sanders arrives to help the O’Briens renovate their home, he discovers that not all of their skeletons are in the closet where they belong.

Joe said:
Since the story is set in 1958, I had to do a lot of research about the era to make the setting authentic. I wanted to make sure the dialog didn’t contain slang or technical terms that didn’t exist at the time. I also needed to know how the police investigated a crime prior to the advent of DNA testing. Fortunately, one of my older brothers works in law enforcement, and I was able to pick his brain on procedures and protocol.

Most of my stories fall within the gothic suspense category. The Black Garden, though, is more of a drama/mystery. With its rural setting and dark theme, it still fits in the American Gothic slot, but without the supernatural elements often associated with the genre.

Murder is a small part of The Black Garden; but the theme of judgment runs through the story. Who’s right, the Hatfields or McCoys? Depends if you’re a Hatfield or a McCoy. I hope the novel gives readers a different perspective on events, and entertains them at the same time.

My protagonist is Mitchell Sanders, the outsider who moves to the small town of Winter Haven for a summer job. He doesn’t care about his employers or the community. He’s a coward who has run away from his problems in Boston and then finds himself entrenched in even bigger problems. He’s not comfortable speaking his mind while in the company of people he knows will disagree with him. Yet as the conflict mounts, he’s forced to take a stand and to grow as a person.

The black garden from which Joe’s new book takes its title rests behind the house of George and Candice O’Brien, a grandfather and granddaughter with dark secrets. The residents of Winter Haven have speculated for years about the deeds of the O’Briens, but in 1958, Mitchell Sanders discovers the horrifying truth.

Mitch has come to Winter Haven for the summer, hired by the O’Briens to renovate their home. Unaware of the controversy surrounding the family, he moves into the studio at the back of the eclectic garden, where he has a rare view of the lives of George and his granddaughter. He notes how George spies on his neighbors through his binoculars, how they refuse to speak of Candice’s parents, and how they never leave the house. Especially troubling is the way the townspeople turn cold whenever he mentions that he’s working for the O’Briens.

Their bad reputation stems back 20 years to when George’s daughter Carolyn was raped and subsequently gave birth to Candice. The accused rapist, Grant Baxter, is from one of Winter Haven’s more prominent families and, true to the unbiased nature of American justice, the verdict favors the wealthy. Rubbing salt into the wound, Baxter’s lawyer casts suspicion on George by inferring that he was the one who impregnated his own daughter.

Infuriated by the verdict, George managed to alienate himself and his family from the townspeople, who have grown more convinced that George is the guilty one. As the slander intensified, Carolyn broke down and took her own life. A few weeks later, Grant Baxter vanished, never to be seen again. Howard Baxter, Grant’s father, is convinced that George O’Brien had everything to do with his son’s disappearance, yet is unable to present a shred of evidence.

Joe said:
I chose Vermont for the setting mainly because when I visited there I was taken by its beauty and felt it would make a great backdrop for the story. The town of Winter Haven is fictitious; however, I drew a lot on my own hometown of Evanston, Wyoming, when describing the layout.

With a first traditional release under his belt, Joe can now take time to reflect on the years that went into its accomplishment.

He said:
It’s such a great feeling to finish a novel. I also write songs, and I remember how proud I was when I wrote my first, which took a few days.

A novel, on the other hand, takes much, much longer. Thus, the feeling of pride is that much greater. I wrote the first draft of The Black Garden, for instance, 10 years ago. Then it was a work-in-progress while I revised, adjusted, wrote a screenplay version, launched on the long and difficult search for a publisher, and eventually went into months of fine-tuning with my editor at BeWrite Books, Hugh McCracken.

The most rewarding part of it is having other people read and enjoy it. It’s a nice boost of confidence and encourages me to continue developing my writing skills and to work on the next novel.

The hardest part about writing is the blank page. It’s a lot like creating a sculpture out of clay. In the first draft, you are creating the clay. That’s the hard part. Molding it is the fun part. To help me through this process, I first write an outline, plotting out the story. Through this, I come up with my characters, establishing their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Once I know my characters, it’s much easier to know how they will react in a given situation.

Often I’ll write anything that comes to mind, just to get the writing going and to fill up that daunting blank page. I also tend to keep other novels around so I can pick one up and read a little to get me in the right frame of mind.

The first novel I ever wrote, I took the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach. That is, I just delved in without really knowing where the story would take me. Many writers work that way and do a splendid job. Not me. I ended up doing a lot of editing that I could have avoided if I’d have thought things out better.

Now I always outline. First, I write a brief synopsis of the story. Second, I figure out who my characters are. This often takes a month or more, because I really need to know who these people are so I can work with them. Third, I write an outline. My outlines include most of the dialogue and brief sketches of the action. So they tend to be around a hundred pages long. Fourth, I start writing the novel. It never follows the outline completely, since I discover new things while writing and often encounter flaws that I’d overlooked before.

I’m a graphic designer during the day and a writer in the evenings, so I’m at the computer all day long. The tragic part of that is that I have very little social life. I can be quite obsessive and have to force myself to take a break and go do something fun. I’m still trying to find the balance.

My parents and brothers and sisters have always encouraged me. It’s vital to have someone believe in you … especially when you’re having trouble getting agents and publishers to read your work. I’m very fortunate to have such a supportive family.

The Black Garden is published by BeWrite Books and is available from all major online book stores or can be ordered at any local high street book shop.

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[Interview] Bernadette Steele, Conversations with Writers, March 29, 2008