Antipodean author MK Hume can be said to have galloped onto the Historical Fiction scene with the first of her trilogy based on the tales of King Arthur. With the first offering already out and with the second scheduled for release in October, we thought that we'd like to get to know this relatively new author who's made a splash with her interpretation of the 5th/6th Century. Here she chats to us about live, unsociable writing hours and above all the chance for immortality...
FALCATA TIMES: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
Marilyn K Hume: Long before I considered writing seriously, I always wrote for pleasure, and I’ve got the writer’s callus to prove it. I started writing for pleasure when I was eight years old because I adored heroic poetry (eg, Horatio at the Bridge and Hiawatha). I enjoyed entering competitions as a child and wrote a diary, although it’s patchy. Because I painted as well, I was able to keep the writing itch at bay. Later, when I became a teacher, I wrote gruesome stories for students and even when babysitting, I adored inventing and telling stories.
I am a storyteller by inclination, and I’d hope I was also a song master. I think all good writers have to be to describe their internal world that goes on, waking and sleeping, inside our heads. I’ll tell the tales, write them and paint them – but first I have to birth them! It’s like breathing, I suppose. A friend once called me a Pied Piper because of it. I love to paint with words, to choose the correct words and to find the most apt, unusual imagery, or to try to discover a way to turn what I see behind my eyes into pictures that readers are forced to see as well.
PS. I hate the Post Modernist idea that the author has no place in text, and that it’s the reader alone who matters. Yes, the reader makes us or breaks us as commercial successes, but I’d still write even if I didn’t sell a single book. Writing and painting is me, a more important guide to my thoughts than what I say when I speak.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
MKH: When I was a child, I had a particularly vivid dream (in colour) where I was riding a black horse across a wild landscape. I recall I was wearing a necklace of black diamonds in white metal (silver, I guess) and I was being pursued by something. I tried to writ down the details of the dream at the time, but I didn’t have the skills. I still remember the details of the dream.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
MKH: From my perspective, a short story demands a brief burst of incredible discipline. I wrote short stories from childhood for personal pleasure and, when I was teaching, I wrote gruesome little short stories of all types as examples for teenagers. I entered competitions, and won quite a few (just small local ones) but I really enjoyed the discipline of stretching myself out for 700 to 1000 words.
I also believe that it’s the best starting point for allowing a writer to set their imagination free. Why can’t harlequin and Columbine dance in Times Square at midnight? Could an incubus stalk a man and only be seen on a light reflective surface? What would have happened if Pontius Pilate had set Jesus free?
I eventually found writing a full-length novel to be relatively easy because I’d been writing short stories for years, and I was surprised how free and exciting I found novel writing to be. But I also believe academic, business and short story writing provided the discipline that has ensured that I pay attention to the vocabulary I use.
I self-published all my short stories some years ago under the title, Little Tales of Light Madness, and I was surprised how many sold through word of mouth and in spite of completely inadequate marketing skills.
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
MKH: Initially, I’d show them the cover. Unlike many books, the cover is a reflection of the contents in this case. I’d tell them that it is a different view of King Arthur, not medieval or magical or constrained by the rather distant, idealized and, dare I say it, wimpy image of Arthur. My Arthur has flaws, is violent and capable of savagery - but he’s a real man! A hero must be attractive, charismatic and brave. He/she must have real enemies, not monsters or ill-defined, magical threats. The invasion of the Saxons seemed to me to be an enormous problem that Arthur could pit his valour against. Besides, if Arthur existed, the Saxons really were his enemies.
I’m really passionate about this topic, and I’d trust my enthusiasm to help. Also, I believe in my Arthur, who is not a prototype idealized king. Nor are my other characters the traditional, legendary forms. I tried to create some sense of truth to explain why this man and his adherents would be preserved by the ancient methods of story telling.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
MKH: Valour, vile, death and despair! A man’s heart holds the only salvation for his people but he must give everything!
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
MKH: The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien) is my favourite book, closely followed by Tea With the Black Dragon and The Black Angel. I adore the writing styles of John Connolly and Carol O’Connell and I pursue their books passionately.
P.S. I also re-read Judas Child (O’Connell) every year as well.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?
MKH: I never know how the story will end. In my defence, however, I spend ever so long creating my characters before I pick up my pen. I can tell you about their ancestors, their parents, where they’ve grew up, everything, whether I use it or not.
Then, when the characters are more familiar to me than my own family, I pick up my pen and follow them through my story, recording what they say with my imaginary video camera. There are times when I become quite desperate because my hand can’t keep up with them as they charge through the world I’ve invented for them.
No, I don’t write down the character profiles. It’s all done internally. I’ve been told that I should follow a plan, but this method works for me. Of course, I have some idea of the broad time period and the over-riding conflict, as I’ve done a great deal of general research before hand.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
MKH: I read a book a day and I hunt through thrift shops for treasures. I write letters (as distinct from E-mails) because I love the rituals of letter writing. I hunt for gifts for friends or, if I have more time, I paint.
I’ve just finished Dexter by Design (Jeff Lindsay) and I’m also reading Myth (G. S. Kirk) as a refresher. To keep my wits sensitive, I’m also reading Dante’s Purgatorio with the Salvatore Dali illustrations. I dip into it occasionally, as I can’t even pretend that I can read it in one hit, but it’s normal for me to be reading half a dozen things at the same time.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
MKH: I don’t think I have too many guilty pleasures – I’m depressingly open as a personality, so the world generally knows everything I do. However, I have been known to derive enjoyment out of (mentally) punishing certain people who have harmed me or mine, and planning how to get away with it successfully. Once I’ve ‘killed her off’, I find they don’t bother me anymore! Pathological, I suppose, but it’s fun to imagine how ‘the worm could turn’ - and how I’d go about it.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
MKH: Animals like me. I have an 18-year-old miniature terrier called L.G. (for Little Girl) who was given to me when she was 8 because her owners had died. She’s convinced she’s a rotweiller and I admire her courage and her loyalty.
I own a cat called Salem who is eight and she was given to me when her owner had to move to an apartment that didn’t permit pets (Yes, I’m a sucker!!!). She’s a black-haired, green-eyed killer who has been fitted with bells because she insists on trying to feed me with birds, mice, lizards, geckos. I also find a very large black cat called Satan who comes to visit on a daily basis. He’s lazy, indolent and capable of bursts of enthusiasm for food and cuddles.
I inherited my son’s goldfish that live in a huge, 6 feet deep and 15 feet diameter plastic pond and are now an average of 12 inches in size. I feed them when I remember, but as they have a living environment, they’ll never starve. I don’t know if fish have ears, but they rise to the surface when I call out ‘fishie’!!!
I don’t consciously use my pets in my stories but I guess I admire courage, loyalty, ruthlessness, devotion and power - so I guess that explains me.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
MKH: Targo is my idea of a real man, and I had a great deal of pleasure creating him. He can say all the things I’d often like say, with impunity. He’s certainly mine because there are no equivalent characters in the legends.
FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?
MKH: I wish I were like the young Artorex, although I wouldn’t enjoy the price he pays to achieve greatness. I’m drawn to people who struggle with great troubles and strife, and I’m relieved when a person breaks the constraints of society and rises above their condition.
Despite my best efforts, I’ve never really fitted in with my various peer groups throughout my life. I suppose outsiders are therefore important to me, and now that I reflect on it, many characters are outsiders in Dragon’s Child and the other two books that follow. Even my villains don’t fit comfortably into their societies. I’d like to believe that the aliens amongst us are the one who achieve, because they don’t have the comfort of people who fit into the shapes that life makes for them. Artorex is a ‘square peg’, but is a really superior example, as are Myrddion, Targo and Odin. Even Caius is alien, and his vices reflect an inability to understand his peers.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
MKH: I read anything and everything. Obviously, wide and catholic reading really helps with all sorts of scraps of information. Art has provided me with habits of observation, the use of colour and an ability to visualise. Thrift shops provide a means of collecting people from all walks of life. I am an inveterate chatterer and even while sitting and having a cup of coffee, I collect fragments of conversation, pieces of faces and gestures, all the minutae that creates good characterisation. Even bad experiences are grist for the mill.
FT: Where do you get your idea's from?
MKH: Anywhere and everywhere! With the trilogy, I obviously had the legends to go by, even though I had to find realistic ways to translate these legends into prosaic life. I loved that challenge.
I like to write all kinds of genre. I would have to have to write historical epics until I died, although I love them. It’s the stories and the characters that face through the cracks that appeal to me. For example, what happened to Nefertiti? How would you feel if you were a survivor of The Charge of the Light Brigade? What would your life be like after you had won fame as a war hero? Did Pontius Pilate commit suicide at Lake Geneva? Where did Keats get the idea for Bella Dame Sans Merci? There are so many subjects for historical novels, so how can anyone get writer’s block?
FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
MKH: No. That’s not to say I don’t write absolute rubbish on some days, but I can also tear up what I don’t like and keep what I do. For me, the trick is to keep writing. Some of it will be useless but some will be fine. Therefore, I write every day because I have a ‘real job’. Many people think that being an author is a kind of hobby, and I believe that’s a dangerous path for any writer to follow. I write between 6am and midday, at least, every day, and I don’t ever get writer’s block.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many woudl call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
MKH: I write as above, but that doesn’t mean that thoughts of a book don’t go with me everywhere I go, so I can get things down or write a few pages. Having a quiet drink at a pub, or a coffee break when I’m shopping, or midnight when I cannot sleep – I just write whenever the mood takes me.
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
MKH: I write to the music of TV, my invalid son’s never-ending calls for real or imagined needs, the cat’s insistence on sitting on the page I am working on, and the occasional talk-back radio program. I enjoy music in the background, when I am afforded the opportunity, and I suppose I like stimulating stuff such as Meatloaf, Chicago, Leonard Cohen, Lily Allen, etc. Once again, I like a wide range of music as long as it stimulates - but I can do without it!!!!
However, I believe very strongly that the written word has its own musicality and I read my work aloud to make sure that the sound is true to what I am trying to say. Certain words and phrases can drive me crazy - because they damage the music and the song.
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publsihing field when you were first getting started?
MKH: My biggest misconception was how long it all took. I knew there would be a great deal of work involved, but I never expected that it would be quite so much. This is not a complaint, as I rather like the challenge and the discipline. What I didn’t realise was that when your publisher’s core business is historical literature, they expect perfection in the research that you present to their public – and if you come close to achieving their standards, then they will do everything in their power to “achieve the grail”. My agent has the same exacting standards.
What I never expected, as an Australian, was how genuine, clever and committed the people in the publishing industry can be. In Australia, writing is an exclusive club and you aren’t expected to apply unless you belong. When I first met my agent and publisher in London in 2008, it was with a great deal of trepidation.
When they told my how much they appreciated my work and the standards that I was setting, I’m ashamed to say that I doubted them because of the “Australian Cultural Cringe”. Even now, I don’t belong to “The Writer’s Club” or the Literati of Australia. I don’t think I ever will, because I fervently believe that there’s no sin in writing material that the public want to read.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
MKH: Writing is the food of my life! If we can agree that life is a very mixed bag of joy and tragedy, virtue and vice, heroism and cowardice, and anything else you care to mention, then writing records, analyses, enlightens and en-nobles life in all its vividness. It’s my food anyway!
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
MKH: Each of the volumes of the trilogy approximates a decade in the life of King Arthur. The first volume, Dragon’s Child, is set in Artor’s teen years up the to point where he becomes king at about 20 years of age.
Part Two of the trilogy, The Warrior of the West, chronicles Artor’s success in his wars against the Saxons, his unfortunate marriage and the building of his fortress at Cadbury Tor (My Camelot). This volume is set in Artor’s thirties. Targo is back, but he is very old. Nimue has grown into an adult and Perce has become Percivale, Artor’s purest and most decent warrior. Artor is at the peak of his powers, but he is constantly on guard to avoid the pitfalls of absolute power
Part Three of the trilogy, The Bloody Cup, chronicles the final decade of Artor’s life leading to his death in his late fifties.
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
Google on Seamaster, Omega watches (Can’t remember the address).
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
MKH: I tolerated one seminar by the Queensland Writer’s Centre on preparing for Publishing about six years ago and was bored rigid. The purpose of the seminar appeared to me to be about selling the lecturer’s recently released book. Most of the content was common sense.
I also undertook a Short Story Seminar at a convention held by well-known Australian writers but they read our work out to us, verbatim, which served little purpose to the audience as all present were quite capable of reading for themselves.
I learned most of my writing skills by immersing myself in literature, and have come to appreciate that you must study the good, the bad, and the very ordinary, to appreciate the differences between them.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
MKH: Nobody likes rejection, but any Australia writer gets used to it quickly. I always had the feeling that life would work out if I could just get someone to read my stuff. I soon realised that it’s getting an agent that’s hard (impossible in Australia) because 99% of all published works are contracted through an agent. If you’re a tyro, nobody wants to read you - so you don’t reach first base.
To get my writing career off the ground, I wrote a Mills & Boon style novel. I was frustrated to find that I passed through the hands of several of the company’s readers before I was eventually rejected. I wasn’t actually upset by the rejections, although I badly wanted to see myself in print.
I then proceeded to write a Georgette Heyer style novel (it was an excellent read but remains unpublished). This was followed by two historical romances set in the setting of the Australian gold rush. These also remained unpublished in spite of the fact that one of them was the winner of Second Prize in the Random House/Australian Women’s Day Literary Competition of 1996. The book won $5,000 against a Melbourne Cup field of almost 3,000 entries from Australia’s best novelists. My ego was assuaged, but my bank account remained empty.
I’ve struck a few of the pitfalls of publishing. One well-known internet publisher took one of my books on a twelve month contract, paid me nothing, and kept selling the novel for seven years. She ignored my protests during all of this time. It was only intervention of lawyers from the Copyright Council that got my novel off her website.
I was rather angry at the ethics of this particular lady. She was, and remains, a thief.
Basically, we have a situation where writers set themselves up for rejection as soon as they begin to write, as happens in all the creative arts. You can’t enjoy the praise without the criticism. Yes, it hurts, but you have to learn from it and roll with the punches.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
MKH: I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a salary – because writing can be an endeavour that you do for love – and nothing else! I’d hoped to make a living out of writing. And then, my life would be perfect!!!! I love being the master of my own destiny, and I’m prepared to suffer the drawbacks that come with this freedom. I am also drawn by the opportunity to say something that will outlast my lifetime. Some writers do have the opportunity to become immortal.