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Lisa Shambrook lives in Carmarthen, “an old market town in the West Wales hills, [which] is inspiring as I’m surrounded by rolling hills, mountains, woods and forests, and I’m a stone’s throw from several gorgeous beaches. The scenery constantly changes and Wales, as a whole, has inspired my latest post-apocalyptic work The Seren Stone Chronicles and I’ve just finished writing the first drafts of all three books.”
I am aware that there is a community of writers residing in that part of the world, several of whom are, like Lisa, members of IASD. I suggested that this must offer stimulation and she agreed:
“I attend several local book fairs, and my fellow Welsh authors are a friendly, supportive, and generally amazing bunch. Christoph Fischer and Graham Watkins are regulars with me, and I recently met Penny Luker when she joined us too. I’ve met some truly inspiring authors within the IASD group and further afield in my local writing community like Carol Lovekin, Judith Arnopp, Thorne Moore, Judith Barrow, Greg Howes, and Cheryl Beer, and read some of their amazing books!”
Lisa recently made the move from self-publishing to a traditional contract with a small independent publisher, BHC. What made her decide on that route and how did she find BHC?
“I discovered BHC some years ago and they recently became my traditional publishers at BHC Press. I struggle with the formatting side of self-publishing and love the way they format my books. They offered me a contract a year or so ago for my Surviving Hope series and for A Symphony of Dragons and the contract worked well for me. I have also been given the opportunity with BHC Press to write an introduction and an original short story for their release of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and that was a real privilege.
I found self-publishing difficult within my emotional/mental health parameters and knowing my publisher is looking after me is helpful. I still have a great deal of say with my work and publishing, and marketing, as we all know, is something we take on as authors, so I do a lot of my own marketing too.”
She writes fantasies in which hope springs from tragedy and believes such themes are important in helping people of all ages cope with life’s ups and downs:
“The Surviving Hope books: Beneath the Rainbow, Beneath the Old Oak, and Beneath the Distant Star have dealt with difficult subjects. They work with grief, depression, self-harm, anger issues, and bullying. It’s heavy stuff, but essential to understand the human condition. I have suffered severe anxiety and depression for most of my life and so the themes have been woven easily into the books with compassion and empathy. The main theme of Beneath the Rainbow is living life to the full and reaching for those so called impossible dreams. I think it’s imperative for both the young and the old to understand these themes and to know they are represented within fiction.”
Lisa has participated in a number of collaborations, including with musicians as well as other writers:
“I worked with Samantha Redstreake Geary when she offered a chance to write for a project she was heading for Audiomachine’s album Tree Of Life. We each wrote a story that continued with the next author and moved through the entire instrumental album. I loved writing a short piece that resounded with the music and worked so well with my sense of empathy and beauty. She included me on a couple of other musical contributions too and it was a real treat as music and the written word work perfectly together!
“Working with other authors is revitalising, and I’m very proud of my collaborations, including You are Not Alone with Ian D. Moore, which many IASD authors will know.”
The proceeds from You are Not Alone are donated to the Macmillan Nurses cancer support charity in the UK. Other collaborations also enabled Lisa and her fellow writers to support charity:
“My favourite collaboration is Human 76 which I managed along with my daughter Bekah, and authors Michael Wombat, and Miranda Kate. My family loves taking out-of-the-ordinary family portrait photographs and we did a post-apocalyptic shoot a few years ago. A photo of my daughter became an inspiration to a group of my author friends and we decided to write a collection of stories surrounding her character. It became an amazing project, pulling fourteen authors together with a great original concept. Each story in this collection follows individual characters through a post-apocalyptic world and they meet the main character at some point during their story. She affects many lives as she searches for her kidnapped sister. I wrote Ghabri, our main character, and put together the opening and closing chapters, the other stories weave between and I was astounded at how well they all worked and brought a wonderful book together.
“When we put the book out there we wanted to support a charity and to fit the themes in the book ‘Water Is Life’ is the charity we chose. It provides clean water in countries without it, and it’s lovely to know you are contributing to something worthwhile and important.”
As well as writing, Lisa has a business which uses old books in a unique and innovative way:
“I have an Etsy shop called Amaranth Alchemy (Not to be confused with an American design consultancy with the same name, FP) which I began with my daughter, but I now run on my own. I hate seeing books going to waste and a local charity collects books to give back to the community, but some are beyond repair. I use books that have been damaged or abandoned and give them new life as book marks, picture frames, and other gifts. I breathe new life into old pages…”
I wondered if there were any copyright issues with such a business. She agrees you have to be careful with certain authors’ works:
“You cannot use Tolkien’s books as the Tolkien estate is very protective of any outside usage. Many old books are already in the public domain. I am only reusing pages that would have gone to landfill, and as far as I know there are no copyright issues with recycling.”
When asked about her favourite authors, she admits t having several:
“My most favourite author is Garth Nix, I adore the Old Kingdom series, especially Lirael my favourite book. I love Tolkien, having been brought up with The Hobbit’ and Lord of the Rings. I have eclectic reading tastes, so often choose books according to the individual story, rather than the author. I also love The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, and he’d be an author I’d like to meet along with Nix. I think I’d ask about their confidence in their writing, how they learned to accept and embrace their own styles, because I think that’s probably one of the most important things about writing. Not sure where we’d go though.”
In answer to my final question she confesses to being “a quiet introvert”, but she loves “to talk about the deep things of life. I find socialising almost impossible and struggle with people. I think I’m a bit of a squirrel – a scatty, secretive, panicky, hoarding, arty, curl-up-and-sleep, autumnal creature!”
I enjoyed my chat with Lisa. I hope you do, too. Why not check out her website where you can find more information about her books along with purchase links.
Tom Johnson is a retired Military Cop from Seymour, Texas. As well as moving around quite a bit as the son of a cowboy, his military service took him to Korea, France and Vietnam but he loves his home town:
“ I was born in Seymour, but spent twenty years in the military. My dad was a cowboy and cook, so we moved to other places during my early years. In fact most of my early education was in schools in Wichita Falls, Texas. After retiring from the military service we moved back to Seymour because our parents were in bad health, and we stayed after they passed away. Seymour is a small ranch and farm community,with a population under three thousand. However, we have two museums here. The Baylor County Historical Museum, and the Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Seymour is in the Permian Basin (think oil) where a dig site has been providing Permian reptile fossils for well over a hundred years. In fact, we have a 300 million year-old amphibian named after our town, the Semouria. The Whiteside Museum of Natural History has a huge display of animals from mammals to dinosaurs and reptiles. Schools from around Texas and Oklahoma bring students here on field trips, and many do return engagements. Students love to visit the museum, as do adults.”
Tom is passionate about pulp fiction (the real stuff, not the eponymous movie). I wanted to know what attracted him to the genre?
“First I became a collector of the old pulp magazines, and was fascinated by the yarns written in the 1930s & ’40s, and even the earlier stuff by Johnston McCulley. It was really a time for heroes, and Johnston McCulley and a few others started the costumed/masked crime fighters long before Superman and Batman tackled crime in comic books. The explosion actually happened after the Wall Street crash of 1929.
The public was tired of gangsters in suits and expensive automobiles while the rest of humanity stood in lines at the soup kitchens.
They wanted heroes and the Dime magazines gave them those heroes. While living in Wichita Falls, Texas I had access to the movie theaters in the 1940s and thrilled to the Saturday Matinee serials. These were stories right out of the pulp magazines, and I loved those old serials. As an adult I started collecting the serials- I’m now at 100 and counting, and this led to collecting and reading the hero pulps. As a writer of SF, I wanted to write new stories of the old pulp heroes, and have enjoyed some success in that genre. I don’t think I will ever tire of the hero stories. And you’re right, the movie, Pulp Fiction has nothing to do with real pulp fiction.”
Tom regularly collaborates with Altus Press, he explains how the partnership began:
ALTUS PRESS is owned by a very nice gentleman in Massachusetts named Matt Moring. My wife and I started the publishing imprint of FADING SHADOWS in 1982. We started publishing a hobby magazine that year, plus in 1995 added genre magazines and published new writers from around the world.
In 2002 I had a stroke and we had to slow down, so in 2004, 22 years after starting our imprint, we ended the FADING SHADOWS imprint.
Around 2005 Matt Moring contacted me wanting stories from the pulps to reprint. I began supplying ALTUS PRESS with the material Matt needed, plus he hired me to write Forwards and Introductions to his books. When he learned that I had researched many of the old pulp series, he asked me to let him print them, so he began publishing a lot of my work from the FADING SHADOWS period. At 78, I’m pretty well retired now, but I’ve recently written another Forward to ALTUS PRESS upcoming book, THE DOMINO LADY
Tom began writing whilst in the military:
I was a reader from an early age. Comic books at age 7, and the classic novel like Tom Sawyer by age 11. So I’ve always loved to read. My dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a cowboy. But I hated ranch and farm life. At age 16 we moved back to a ranch where Ihad to work after school and on weekends. I decided that wasn’t a life I wanted, and when I turned 18 I joined the Army and left ranch life for good.
In the early 1960s I was a desk sergeant for the MPs in France. While my units were on patrol I would create plots and characters and write little scenes of action. I guess I was bitten by the bug, so to speak. But I didn’t do anything with my interest until after a touring the jungles of Vietnam. When I returned home in 1970, I sat down and wrote two novels that would become the first two stories in the JUR series. I wrote them in long hand and pencil. Paid a typist to put the first one in manuscript format, and made copies which I mailed off to SF publishers.
Just as quickly I started receiving rejection slips. I needed to learn the trade. So I stuffed the manuscripts in a drawer and started writing articles and columns for newspapers and magazines. And when we started the FADING SHADOWS imprint after I retired from the military, my wife and I got into editing and grammar.
While researching the Mike Shayne magazine the publisher put me in contact with James Reasoner, the current Shayne author at the time, and James heard about my SF stories and wanted to read them. I sent him the first story and he made some good suggestions which I took to heart. I rewrote the first novel, and in 2002 submitted it to a publisher.
The publisher wrote back accepting the novel and asked for more.
I wasn’t doing anything at the time so sent the second novel to them, then the third. That began my real writing.
But you asked me about the military, didn’t you? My career field was law enforcement, but my training was infantry. I spent a couple tours in Korea, the first on the DMZ under fire in 1959-60. A wonderful three year tour in France, and a tour in Vietnam 1969-70. I spent most of the 1960s overseas. When in the States I had a hard time getting out of Texas. I think I was stationed at every military post in Texas. I joined the Army on November 24, 1958, and retired February 1, 1979. I still feel the military was a better option for me than ranch life. Twenty years in the military, and twenty years in publishing. I don’t regret any of it.
Looking at the covers of Tom’s books (some of which are reproduced here) it’s obvious that he does his best to imitate the style of the 1940s pulps he loves so much. How much of that is down to him?
I do most of it myself, though sometimes I use one of our old FADING SHADOWS artists to illustrate and a designer to set up the cover. I first look for a pulp cover that’s in the public domain, and if I can design the title, I’ll do it myself. I want something that will catch the eye of the reader. I don’t really care for modern book covers.
Tom is married to his editor – and he has encountered every self-publisher’s worst nightmare (not that the two are in any way connected!).
Ginger, my wife, does a good job editing my books. I will go over the manuscript several times until I’m happy with it, but then I turn it over to Ginger and she catches the things I don’t see. I do have too many files, though.
Once, when we uploaded a manuscript for print and eBook we uploaded an unedited file instead of the final version.
One of my readers saw the problem and let me know. I had to pull the book and upload the file again. Unfortunately, I had ordered 26 copies of the paperback for book signing, and that was a waste of money since the book was full of errors.
Some people regard pulp fiction as the bottom of the literary barrel, both from the presumed quality of the writing and from the subject matter and the culture it promotes. How does Tom respond to such criticism?
I’ve heard this a lot. And some of it is true. Pulp was formula, and the writers were trying to make a living at a penny a word during the Depression. There was little plot, little characterization, but lots of action. Lester Dent, the author of Doc Savage (as Kenneth Robeson)struggled to move from pulp to the slicks because he thought Doc Savage was junk and he would never be recognized as a real writer. But if we compare the sales of Doc Savage to the sales of Hemingway, Doc Savage probably sold ten times more books than Hemingway, and today Doc Savage is more popular than Hemingway. Unfortunately, Lester Dent died in 1958, so he never knew how popular Doc Savage would be. Some great writers wrote pulp fiction. They had to if they wanted to feed their family.
I was unaware of Tom’s age when I asked him the standard question about fitting writing in around working for a living.
With my retirement and what my books bring in I make good money. Besides, at 78 I’m too old to work (LOL). I’ve always heard never quit your day job to become a writer. But we are well off and have no worries about finances. If I never sold another book, it would not hurt our income in the least.
Not surprisingly, Tom’s favorite authors include a few who write ‘pulp’:
There are so many writers I admire. Past writers would be Edgar Rice Burroughs (remember Tarzan?) Robert E. Howard (Conan). I have spent time with many of the pulp writers. Today’s writers I would have to say K.G. (Gail) McAbee, who can write anything and it’s going to be good! And a dozen others, but if I mentioned a few and left out others I would get in trouble, so I will leave it at this. LOL
Asked to reveal something unexpected about himself, Tom confesses that
I am addicted to coconut. I love coconut pies and coconut cakes. I am as bad about coconut as some are about chocolate (LOL).
For the latest Pulp news, check out Tom’s blog here.
My latest author date is with Paul Ian Cross. Paul is originally from Redditch in the English Midlands but now lives in London.
“ I left Redditch in 1999 to go to university. I was eager to move to a city as I’d been in Redditch all my life, and I was ready for a change! It was nice to move away, but I do enjoy going back there to see my sister, brother-in-law and nephew who still live there. I moved to Nottingham for my studies and later moved to London for work, where I’ve been living ever since. I love London as we always discover something new there, whether it be a café, restaurant, art event or bar. However, the craziness of the capital can sometimes be too much. It’s nice to have a balance, and get away from the city sometimes.”
Paul is a research scientist. His first books were an attempt to introduce science in a lively and entertaining way to young children which he believes is an important mission.
“I’ve always had a passion for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, fp), so I always knew I’d go into a science career. I believe it’s very important for children to be introduced to STEM early on, as the concepts will be much easier to digest when they eventually study the subjects at school. We also need more people to go into the sciences, so I hope by introducing STEM concepts to children in a creative way it’ll inspire them to follow a similar career path.”
Paul has also explored family relationships, teamwork, and the idea that children can “achieve whatever they set their mind to”. In a world where adults sometimes seem to be beset by anxieties, does he think it important to give children and young adults a positive message?
“Yes, most definitely. I never felt good enough as a teenager and when I entered my twenties, I didn’t believe I’d ever make it as a writer. I was lucky to meet people who helped build up my confidence in both myself and my writing, and the rest is history. That’s why I want to share the message with children and young adults: you can achieve those dreams you’ve always had, you just have to try and work as hard as possible. It may not work out how you expect, but at least giving it a try is better than having regrets.”
He regularly collaborates with other writers and/or illustrators. I wanted to know how these relationships work? How were any disagreements resolved?
“Yes, as a children’s author the books we create are most definitely a team effort.
I’ve been lucky to work with artists, designers and illustrators who have captured my characters perfectly, so we haven’t really had any disagreements.
We start off by writing a contract together, so we know exactly how we will work together, so I believe that’s the reason why the collaborations have been so successful.”
At least one of his books is listed at Waterstones, something that is beyond the reach of many independently published authors. I wondered how Paul achieved that.
“When I started out as an independent author, I researched the industry as much as possible. I treated it like a job and I did so much work I almost forgot to write! I discovered that the best chance I had of getting into bookshops was to set up a small publishing house, and that’s when Farrow Children’s Books came to be. I named my publishing company after my Grandparents, Dennis and Vicky Farrow. At the moment, Farrow Children’s Books only publishes my own work, but with time I plan to open for submissions from other authors. It’s relatively easy to set yourself up as an independent publisher, you just need to register with Nielsen and purchase some ISBNs.
Now, all of my books are listed on Waterstones.com and they’re also available to order in over 500 independent bookstores around the world.
However, getting your books a place on the shelf is far more difficult, and it’s something I have only recently achieved. My first novel aimed at teens and young adults – The Lights of Time – launches on 27th November and I’ll have my first proper book launch at Moon Lane Books in South London, who will also be stocking copies. It will be incredibly exciting to see my book on their shelves! It’s an amazing children’s book shop managed by Tamara and Clare who also run Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill. I’m in the process of approaching Waterstones and Foyles and I’ll be pitching to them too, in the hope that they’ll stock a few copies on the shelves.”
Paul still works as a freelance scientific researcher as well as writing.
“I left my full-time job in the NHS in 2017, and set up my own consultancy. My business has two brands: my clinical research consultancy and my writing, under Farrow Children’s Books. I’m now able to spend half the month as a clinical research consultant, and the rest of the month working on my writing projects. It was a big change for me, with a great amount of risk, but I haven’t looked back since. It was the best decision I ever made!”
Paul would love to meet Andy Weir who wrote The Martian.
“I plan to follow in his footsteps and have my independently published novel developed into a movie! I’d ask him exactly how he agreed his movie contract, as I would like advice with this aspect! I’m currently working on a film treatment (basically a summary of the book) which could potentially be developed into a screenplay. My plan will be to pitch it to producers, to see if they’d be interested in taking on the project. Again, I did lots of research before starting this work, and the process is not as complex as it first appears – finding someone to take on your project is the difficult part. As I always say though, what’s the worst that can happen? They may say no, or they may completely ignore me. But at least I can say I’ve given it a go!”
Paul was kind enough to take time out from a holiday to answer my questions.
“I’m currently in French Polynesia on an atoll called Tikehau. We swam with humpback whales last week and we’ll be meeting a group of manta rays tomorrow! We’re on a two-month tour of the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. You can check out my holiday snaps on Instagram: @pauliancross.author”
My ‘date’ this week is with a woman who lives a stone’s throw from the ‘Dreaming Spires’ of Oxford.
“I moved to Oxford about thirty years ago, having flirted with the idea of living here for at least five years before that. I was born in London and lived there until my early twenties. I’d never want to go back there for more than a visit now.
I’ve found Oxford is an ideal place for writers, eccentrics, and artists. It’s a place that celebrates diversity, and where you can be anonymous if you wish, and yet experience the feel of a village if you want to find your tribe. I love the way history is embedded in its streets and secret alleyways.
My own personal history is embedded there too, now. The only thing I would change seems like wishing for the tide not to turn – I’m not keen on the vast new shopping centre that screams commercialism, and the mad traffic congestion. But I suppose those hazards are inevitable in our modern society.”
Lesley worked full-time as a writer from the age of 17 and, afterwards, had short stories published and/or read on radio over a period of several years before deciding to switch careers and become a psychotherapist. I wondered if that was a difficult decision to make.
“Not at all. It seemed an organic progression, just as turning again to my writing twenty years later felt the right time. My writing had always focused on the psychological motivations and quirks of human nature, and I was trying to work out my own salvation through it, without realising it at the time.
As I reached the end of my thirties I had survived a great deal of trauma and my move to Oxford had begun a process of profound healing. I trained as a psychotherapist to help me understand more of that trauma and what had enabled my survival, and having learned how to go beyond my own suffering, I wanted to pass that on. It’s something of a cliché that therapists are wounded healers, but it’s true.
My work in therapy and in writing fiction has not been so different.
For me, it’s always been about reaching for the truth, and communicating on a deep level with other human beings.
I recognise that like many introverts I also have a driving need for meaningful connection. It’s what keeps us all afloat.”
Her childhood was lived in a part of London that followers of the BBC soap opera ‘Eastenders’ would recognise. However, whilst the fictional ‘Walford’ has changed hardly at all in the 40 years since its arrival on our screens, the part Lesley knew has changed beyond recognition.
“It’s now very different – the little I’ve seen of it in recent years. I’ve looked up the street where I lived for much of my childhood on Google Maps, and it’s weird to see that it’s all part of Docklands now. The interesting thing, however, is that I only have to call on my memory to see it exactly as it was. I have strong images in my mind of the house where I grew up. I didn’t realise it was a slum, and took for granted the outside lavatory and the huge bomb site at the end of the road. Those early experiences in my working class family are vividly imprinted on me.”
Mention of bomb sites reminds me that Lesley recently turned 70. What do the advancing years mean to her in her life and her writing?
“In spite of the additional physical challenges that ageing brings, I don’t think I’ll ever feel old. The generations of women in my maternal family have been strong and feisty, and youthful in our outlook. I loved my grandmother, who in her late eighties still had a wicked sense of humour.
My mother died only two years ago, also in her late eighties, and she remained politically astute right to the very end – and made sure her vote got cast in the referendum, even though by then she was bed-ridden.
I’m anticipating clocking up quite a few more years than either of them. But I’m also prepared to give in gracefully at whatever age my number comes up. My friends range in age from their early forties to their mid-eighties, and
where like-mindedness and a lively, creative intelligence are present I don’t think age really matters.
As a writer I feel I am at my peak (though I’d probably have said that at whatever age I’d reached when doing this interview!) In writing my current novel I am aware that I am bringing a lifetime of experience and understanding to it. I write with increasingly more compassion and empathy for my characters – which is a reflection of one of the blessings of getting older.
As I see the end of my life no longer as a mere dot on the horizon, I am poignantly aware of my connection not just with other humans but with all creatures, all life. We are all part of ‘it’, and although I’m still no wiser about what ‘it’ is (a lifetime’s inner and outer journeying have been devoted to finding the answer to that) I feel more strongly aware that it is all-encompassing and beautiful.”
How did her past experience as a published writer influence her decision to self-publish when she returned to writing in later life?
“Initially I did put some effort into finding another agent, as the one I’d had for all those years before had retired from Laurence Pollinger. But I soon discovered that in those twenty odd years since I’d last been published the whole world of publishing had changed. It was a salutary lesson in humility to be reminded that for all intents and purposes, and whatever my previous history, I was now a new girl on the block.
I was reluctant to self-publish at first, but it was my son who persuaded me. I hadn’t even heard of kindle, never mind discovering the joys of having one. As it has been with most projects in my life, once I seized the nettle I began vigorously waving the flag for nettles everywhere.
It gets easier with each book I publish to learn the ropes of what’s required. The hardest part has been managing to generate the publicity, as I’m not comfortable with blowing my own trumpet. But I love the process of creating the ads for my books, and the covers. And the one huge advantage of self-publishing for me has been editing my own books (which I always did in the past anyway) and not having a publisher trying to convince me to put in more of this or less of that. I do like having complete creative control.”
Her training and work as a psychotherapist feed into her more recent writing:
“I’m sure the richness of those years of deeper exploration into the psyche, and more importantly the human heart, have influenced me more than I realise. I have always been fascinated in hearing people’s stories (sitting at the feet of my mother and grandmother as a child, listening to them gossip and relate anecdotes about their history, was a rich source of material for my imagination!) I brought that genuine deep interest to my work as a therapist, and I learned to look for patterns and layers in the stories people told about themselves and their families. I think that honed whatever skills I already had, so that I now embed those patterns and layers in the novels I write. I’m not sure I could write in any other way – because I have to be fascinated in what I’m writing and the characters who introduce themselves to me as I bring them into life.”
She is reluctant to start listing author she admires
“because I’d have a hard job choosing which were more important or influential. The writer who has impressed me most recently has been Philip Pullman. I watched a documentary about him and felt such a rapport with him and how he described the way he works. I admire the way he delves so deeply into his characters and the invented landscape he creates in his books. He has such an incredible imagination, and he brings philosophy and spirituality into his books in a way that encourages the reader to question and perhaps even begin thinking in a way they hadn’t before. I love a book and a writer who is able to do that. I don’t know that I could learn anything as a writer from spending time with him, because we all have our unique style. But I would so enjoy hanging out with him and just talking about the process of writing, and life, and what it means to us.”
Like me, Lesley is full of admiration for the way in which other self-published and independently published writers support each other through organisations like IASD. Some say that such support is less forthcoming from traditionally published writers. Some of the people Lesley worked with in the 1970s went on to become household names. Did she consider approaching them when considering re-entering the world of publishing?
“No, I haven’t done that. I did get in touch with a local writer who has had some success (and ironically, all those years ago, just before I gave up writing for psychotherapy, I gave him the name of my agent, which started the ball rolling for him!) I contacted him a few years ago, just before I started writing my last novel, when I was considering trying to get back into mainstream publishing. He wrote back and said he’d had a look at my profile on Amazon and all the reviews I had, and his advice was to stick to self-publishing. Although he had continued to be published by one of the ‘big’ publishers he was making very little money, and being messed around by them. As for those who worked with me on the magazine, it honestly hasn’t occurred to me to get in touch with them. I tend not to look back once I’ve moved on.”
I am envious of her disciplined approach to writing:
“I’m quite disciplined, which I think is essential. I’ve always had to have a ‘writing room’, wherever I’ve lived, although it’s also an internal space. The one thing I’ve always required is non-interrupted silence – which is probably why I’m much happier living alone, and have a cat who doesn’t even purr. I work in the mornings. My preferred routine is between breakfast and lunch, although because I also have a healthy routine of meeting friends in the mornings, that can be reduced. If I’m burning to get on with a particular chapter I’ll return to it later in the afternoon, but never past 6.30 pm. Every day I go back over the previous day’s writing and edit before starting anew. It helps to keep the thread active, and I’ll sometimes see where I need to insert a couple of paragraphs that link to something that has gone before or is about to be written.”
There is nothing not already exposed here or on her website that she would wish to reveal about herself:
“As you’ve pointed out, I reveal a great deal. Possibly too much. When I was writing the material for it (her website) I lost sight of the fact that complete strangers would one day be reading it. On the other hand, anyone who reads my novels can guess certain things about my own life (although the tease is – which bits are fictional?) I’m an odd combination of being both open and private. I’m honest about who I am, and the truth has always been important to me. The details I wouldn’t want to reveal are those that cause me pain to talk about or would in some way impact on someone else.
I’ve always been good at keeping other people’s secrets… and a few of my own.”
In 2003 Graham Watkins and his wife sold their Marine Engineering business and escaped to the country by purchasing a small-holding in the Brecon Beacons. His first venture into publishing was a “how to” book based on the experience, entitled ‘Exit Strategy’. I began our ‘date’ by asking him about his Welsh hill farm.
“My hobby farm is six acres. When we first moved here 15 years ago a neighbour asked, with a knowing smile, if the animals had started arriving yet? I had no idea what she meant at the time. Since then they have, including dogs, chickens, ducks, Welsh Black cattle and sheep together with foxes, polecats, buzzards and red kites proving we are, ‘red in tooth and claw.’ I’m actually an apprentice farmer under instruction from friends who know what they are doing. There’s no money involved but our freezer is well stocked and we eat honest food.”
The couple enjoy walking and this inspired Graham’s next publishing venture.
“Welsh Legends and Myths started as a walking book containing sixteen walks each associated with a local legend in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. It was an excuse to get out and explore. The project grew into five walking books ‘Walking with Welsh Legends’ covering the entire country and took four years to complete. Since then I’ve republished all eighty legends in one volume ‘Welsh Legends and Myths’ as a paperback, eBook and an audio book.”
The couple’s interest in travel and exploration is not limited to Wales, however, and in 2016 led them into unanticipated danger:
“I’ve always enjoyed travelling and started my working life as a marine engineer visiting the far east, South America and other far flung places. Since retiring we have continued to travel to other countries including, America, China, Africa and New Zealand – We were whale watching in Kaikoura in 2016 when the 7.8 scale earthquake struck.
The quake hit just after midnight obliterating much of the town and cutting it off from the rest of the world. All roads were destroyed. Marooned, we spent three days sleeping in our hire car, living on marmalade sandwiches, before being rescued by military helicopter.
Our next adventure is a month long road trip in Canada later this year.”
Graham also writes historical fiction. That requires a good deal of research and I wondered if he enjoys that aspect of the genre.
“For me, research is part of the joy of writing. I have a family connection to Merthyr and it was great fun delving into the history behind my book ‘The Iron Masters’. The timeline I produced for the novel contained a wealth of facts which I found fascinating, in some cases, almost stranger than the fiction I was creating.
‘A White Man’s War’ my South African novel was inspired by a tour of the Zulu and Boer War battlefields and a book written by Thomas Packenham containing the photograph of a young African man stood at attention in front of a group of army officers.
He looked terrified and with good reason; he’d just been sentenced to death for stealing a goat.
The title for the book came from a letter Boer General Cronje wrote to a Colonel Baden-Powell – that’s a name you might be familiar with.
It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingoes and Baralongs against us – in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness…reconsider the matter, even if it cost you the loss of Mafeking… disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.”
With Graham having written about the Napoleonic period in European history it should come as no surprise that David Howard is high on his list of favourite authors.
“His treatment of Napoleonic history is breathtaking. Another is Daniel Yergin. Who would think a book about the history of the oil industry would be a page turner? Perhaps the most inspirational is Jean-Dominique Bauby. His book ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ was superb. It reduced me to tears. I’m currently reading ‘Popski’s Private Army’ by Vladimir Peniakoff. I once worked with a friend, long since dead, who was one of Popski’s men. It’s an incredible story of heroism and endurance.”
He has been published by traditional publishers but now prefers to be independent.
“The publishing landscape is changing at a rapid pace. I’ve published with traditional publishers but more recently as an indie author. Why? Because
I like to keep control of my work and unless you’re a J.K. Rowling or a ‘Celebrity’ there’s no advantage in being with a traditional publisher.
Either way, the author ends up doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing.”
Asked about his writing process he begins by referring to Enid Blyton.
“I read somewhere that Enid Blyton wrote at the rate of 6000 words a day. Mind you, she was writing about Noddy. My limit is about 1000 words which I write in the morning. After that my eyes glaze over and it’s time to go and do something else, mow the lawn, paint the house or perhaps walk on the mountain.”
Graham is an accomplished public speaker, a skill about which he is characteristically modest.
“I’m told I like the sound of my own voice which must be true because I’m sometimes invited to give talks to different audiences. How good I am is debatable and I confess I once put a listener to sleep at a black tie Rotary event where I was the after dinner speaker. The poor chap almost fell off his chair. It might have been what I was saying but I suspect his wine consumption was the real culprit.”
Maybe it reveals a man proud of his own achievements to the point of insufferable arrogance. But, then, he’s American and I am British, brought up with that tight lipped English reserve of the stereotypes (though not of the ruling classes!).
But it also reveals a man with a mission to help others achieve great things in his chosen profession. His Word Weaver contests are part of that. I am definitely going to enter. And if you want an honest opinion of your own ability as a writer, and the chance to win a unique package of writing and publishing guidance, you should, too.
Dan’s contests are always worth entering, if only for the critique which is provided for each the first 50 entries this time around.