Elements of a story
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.
In a way, my whole life has been one long research project in preparation for my work as an author.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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.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).
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.
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.Michael shares his GBS with Catch 22 author, Joseph Heller.
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.
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.’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.
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.
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.Michael’s first two novels were published by BeWrite Books.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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?
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.This interview was first published in Twisted Tongue Magazine
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.
Possibly related books:
Medieval Life & the Supernatural: An interview with Hunter Taylor, By Alexander James, Conversations with Writers, March 24, 2010