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Monday, December 5, 2011

The Long Road to Astreya: An Interview with Seymour Hamilton

JK: Today I'm lucky to have with me Seymour Hamilton, author of the new Astreya Trilogy. My review of the first book is available here, and the second and third books will be released by Fireship Press this month and in January. The books are held together by some of the most original and authentic personalities I've ever read, so my first question is: how did you create the characters? 

SH: They showed up and demanded to get into the book. Once in, they often extended their initial role in unpremeditated and completely unauthorized directions, changed their names, had adventures and misadventures that showed that they were much more than mere plotting devices, and on occasion got left behind and had to be rescued.  

JK: Were they hard to keep track of?

SH: Through most of the writing process, I had to call the roll chapter by chapter from a separate sheet of paper on which I kept track of who was where in order to preserve them from the literary oblivion of the man who got into the ship/boat/inn/burning building etc., and never got out again.  Sometimes they explained themselves to each other, which was very helpful to me in that I was able to listen in. These revelations also helped me figure out what they were doing before, during and after their appearances in Astreya's story. A few of them kept secrets from me and everyone else, some of which were revealed later when another character unexpectedly spilled the beans. More than one remained inscrutable to the end of the third book.  

JK: So they really took on a life of their own. Are any of them based on people you know?

SH: Sarah [a character from AstreyaBook III: The Wanderer's Curse], to my surprise, physically resembles my maternal grandmother, perhaps because they share the same name. 
       Mirak's [from Book II and Book III] origin is two or three instructor petty officers who taught me how to march, do arms drill, and steer a whaler. I was 16, and was spending a year in London, attending a school called Haberdasher's Aske's Hampstead School, where the school uniform was black three-button jacket, black pin-stripe trousers, black waistcoat, white shirt, diagonally striped tie, and black cricket cap with school crest. One of the petty officers, the one who taught sailing, said the wonderful words that I put in Gar's mouth: "Great smoking rope-ends!" I couldn't make this up. Any similarities to other family members, friends or characters in other people's books exist solely in the mind of the reader. If it were not so, I'm sure they would have told me.

JK: Did the Astreya books require a lot of research? 

SH: Not really. I just made it up as I went along, based on having lived to 70.

JK: How long have you wanted to write this story?

SH: In 1946, when I was five, my father read Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner to me out loud.  At the time, I thought it was autobiographical. My father was a bearded master mariner who had spent the six years of World War II in the British Navy. I was conceived during the brief shore leave between his first command, a corvette in the Mediterranean and his second, a frigate in The Battle of the Atlantic. Before he died at 99 and three months, he read a first version of Astreya, and called it, "A good yarn, once you get rid of the bit where your hero biffs someone over the head with that novelist's weapon, a belaying pin."

JK: Ah, a father's approval! What other influences led to Astreya?

SH: When I was fifteen, I thought that the best thing a person could do would be to write a book that would be enjoyed by people who had read what I had read. At that time, my list of authors included Arthur Ransome, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, C.S. Forester, Captain Marryatt, and Captain Joshua Slocum -- all of them men who wrote about the sea and sailing ships.
        When I was 30, I wrote a PhD thesis on science fiction. My then-current list of authors included Ursula Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. The degree essentially made me unemployable at any university where I could imagine myself teaching. So I became a contract writer and part time civil servant for a decade, after which I reinvented myself as a professor of communication studies for a few years. Then I went back to editing/writing. In twenty years, I had written for more than 25 government departments and agencies, plus a few private sector companies.  
        The best moment of my writing-on-contract years was the day a bureaucrat looked over the first draft of a document I had prepared for him about the inconsequential doings of his small section of a government department.  He looked at me with a worried frown and said, "This is indeed what we do. You have made it clear, very clear. Could you take it away and... er... fuzzy it up?"

JK: That's funny, in a just-shoot-me-now kind of way. How did you escape that environment?

SH: In the 1970s, I escaped the daily grind for a few days and sailed as mate on a traditional 50-foot wooden schooner from Nova Scotia to Grey River on the south coast of Newfoundland. The coastline is a wall of cliffs that fall hundreds of feet into the sea. Had it not been for a flashing light on a navigation buoy, the entrance to our destination would have been invisible. Inside the narrow passage between the cliffs was a fjord that widened into several high-sided bays and inlets, on the least steep of which was a tiny community. We met with children picking cloudberries, which are like big, white blueberries, and found that we could barely communicate, so strong were their accents. Apart from the one or two summer visits from a supply ship, we were their first visitors in longer than the children knew. From this experience grew the opening lines of Astreya. 

JK: I can see exactly how that place would inspire Astreya's Village. Did the rest of the book follow as quickly?

SH: The first version won an unpublished novel award in a competition sponsored by the Nova Scotia government. I never asked how many competitors there were, out of fear that I was the only one. The prize was to have my hand shaken by Farley Mowatt, who was wearing his kilt. A short-lived literary magazine published the first chapter, and then reality emerged in the form of rejection letters telling me that the story needed work.  

JK: But you didn't give up.

SH: The vicissitudes of life forced Astreya into a cardboard box in the basement, from which it emerged in the 80's to be painstakingly transcribed from typescript to electronic copy. Over the next decade or so, the story only saw the light when it was being converted from Mac Classic to Word Perfect 5, to Word 2.0, and finally to Pages. Nonetheless, it grew fitfully, taking twists and turns into places it should never have gone. These short returns to Astreya's world were escapist moments as I plied the trade of writer/editor and sometime teacher of first year Business English. 

JK: How did it finally get out of the drawer? When did it become a trilogy?

SH: In 2005, I retired, and while my wife Katherine soldiered on, I went back to Astreya. This time, I seemed to know where I was going at least day by day, and sometimes even chapter by chapter. A total rewrite of Book I led me on into Book II, and then a third book became necessary to bring the story to a conclusion. Then there was tweaking: making the hints and nudges in Book I a bit clearer, attending to consistencies of time, place, distance and characters who perversely refused to accept their original names.  

JK: That's another sign of strong characters. At least they let you finish the story eventually. How did Astreya come to be published?

SH: Five years later, I was pretty much done, so I went in search of an agent, because all the writers' help-and-advice books, articles and web sites told me that this step is essential. Many emails later, an agent showed interest, talked Astreya up to a couple of Canadian publishers, one of which wanted to see more than a sample chapter. However, after a few weeks, they passed on the story, commended me with some polite and encouraging words, and then rabbited on about the state of the publishing industry and the international economy, as if I hadn't noticed.
       A week later, the agent quit on me. Since we had never signed a contract, I had to accept a pat on the head and wishes of good luck. Apparently, the agent gave up on Astreya because of the pressure involved in cleaning up the mess left after a publishing house had succumbed to the aforesaid economic winds of change. So I was back to square one.
       I read somewhere that Christopher Little, J.K. Rowling's agent, was a keen sailor and yachtsman, so I crafted an appropriate email, attached the first chapter of Astreya, and sent it off into the trackless electronic cloud.  I imagined that I might get a curt note from a flunky who was helping manage somewhat more money than the Gross Domestic Product of a medium sized country. (I later discovered that Little was no longer Rowling's agent.) Nonetheless, I received a polite reply, referring me to Astrodene's Historic Naval Fiction, a compendium of information and books related to the British enthusiasm for books about the days of sail in the Royal Navy -- a literary industry best known for C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels.  
       Probably noticing that I am Canadian, not British, and that Astreya is neither because he inhabits an alternate 18th century world that has similarities to Newfoundland, these splendid people promptly wrote back to refer me to Fireship Press, located in Tucson, Arizona, which is a long, dry distance from the sea, but which nonetheless publishes books about the days of sail, many books dealing with American themes and figures.  
       I went to, where I read Tom Grundner's straight-talking statement of how he works, together with the following: "Fireship Press does almost everything electronically so, if you need to reach us, first try: If all else fails, try: [the phone]."  When I discovered this forward-looking fact, I took hope, since I had just been reading the website of a publisher of fantasy and science fiction which, amazingly, requires paper submissions via snail mail, demands that any material be sent to them alone, and advises that their turnaround time is six months.
       The senior editor of Fireship, Tom Grundner, himself the author of three nautical novels about Sir Sidney Smith, a real person who lived at the time of the American Revolution, read the first chapter of Astreya and replied in a couple of weeks.  He liked it so much that he predicted good things as soon as he had a second opinion from someone who had read all of Book I. Two further of weeks of waiting later, Astreya was welcomed aboard Fireship, and the task of a final edit began. With your invaluable editorial help, we made the deadline of only two months necessary for the first book of The Astreya Trilogy to be published in time for Christmas.
       Tragically, I never met my new friend, because Tom died only three months after he had chosen to publish Astreya. His colleagues at Fireship nonetheless decided to continue the project, for which I will always be grateful.

JK: Talk about vicissitudes. I find your story very inspiring, a "Never Give Up!" for writers who hear the call to write and have been working at it (and probably a lot of other things) for a long time.
       Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. Would you like to leave my readers with any of the wisdom you've gathered along the way?

SH: Here are thirteen things of which I am sure, because most of them I learned the hard way.  
  1. Don't let anyone tell what to write -- unless they have a stake in what you're writing.  I have encountered people who thought that they had great ideas for a story that they wanted me to write for them. They were just too busy to do the boring simple part, I guess.
  2. Avoid people who offer to jump start your creative imagination if you purchase their course, workshop or personal coaching that features a special secret blend of psychobabble snake oil. 
  3. Never read anything that contains the words "writer's block." 
  4. Do not go near groups or websites or chat rooms populated by unpublished writers, where you will find eager folk swapping ignorance and undermining each other with sycophantic faint praise.
  5. Don't waste time with people who say things like, "Why don't you write like Elmore Leonard, or Stephen King? It can't be all that hard, because they write in short sentences and make a lot of money."
  6. Do listen to your son or daughter when they tell you that you put six people on a boat, and then took seven off, or that your hero's eyes were green in chapter one, and blue in chapter six.
  7. Do listen to an editor who is receiving money from a publisher who is investing money in making your manuscript into a book.  
  8. Do learn the craft of storytelling by reading and re-reading and studying books that you admire, but not when you're actually on a writing roll, or you may find that you have unconsciously plagiarized. (I spent happy hours writing a wonderful sequence which I later realized was a distorted echo of a chapter by Rudyard Kipling.)
  9. Marry someone who can put up with a very selfish person who likes to scamper around in his or her own obsessive little mind, alternately chuckling with glee and moaning in despair, and calling this anti-social behavior "working."
  10. Don't get three degrees in English Literature, because you will start to put the critical cart in front of the creative horse. My mistake. It took me far too long to discover that most academics and many critics have the highest regard for writing that they can talk about. Accordingly, they value hard-to-read books like Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, or James Joyce's Ulysses, both of which I never finishedMost readers value writing that they understand and enjoy. Consequently, they are people like me, who like to revisit Middle Earth, or fly with Harry in a game of Quidditch, or listen to the salty words of Long John Silver.
  11. Corollary to 10. If you want to tell stories, avoid professors in departments of English who write slim, sensitive novels that scuba-dive into the salty seas of self-analysis, self-discovery and self-justification, and who use the word "empower" a lot. Such people usually aren't interested in plot, which to a story-teller sounds a bit like a musician who doesn't like tunes.
  12. Blogging, website maintenance and corresponding with fans all get in the way of real writing, which is finishing your book. Choose carefully what you do with your time.
  13. Write now. Don't wait until you're 70 to finish your book. You may not find a publisher like Tom Grundner in time. Who needs posthumous publication?