Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Interview: Hugh Ashton

I got a special treat for everybody today. As promised, here is my interview with author Hugh Ashton, whose works you can all find on Amazon. Anyway, enjoy the interview:

Tell us a bit about yourself?

Perhaps somewhat unusually for someone writing about American history, as I did in Beneath Gray Skies, I’m British, and I live in Japan. I came here in 1988, as a technical writer producing the English manuals for a Japanese musical instrument manufacturer, and I stayed, marrying a lovely Japanese lady along the way. Since 1995 or so I’ve been self-employed, writing speeches, reports, journalistic articles, copywriting for advertisements and advertorials and so on. If you can write well and you don’t mind spending your days pounding a keyboard, there’s a market for quality English here in Japan.

When did you start writing fiction?

Probably wrote my first book when I was about 7 years old. It was a science fiction story, about eight pages long. No idea where it is now. I wrote bad adolescent poetry at school, and played around with writing after that, even submitting a few pieces to publishers and getting rejection notices. Why? Fame and fortune? Actually, that comes into it to a certain extent. Not the fortune, though that would be nice, but I think any author worth his or her salt has to be something of an egomaniac, especially when it comes to fiction. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities to create a story, and to tell it in such a way that it will hold others’ interest. And, of course, you have to enjoy writing. The process of researching – all writing needs research, even if it’s internal research inside your head – then organizing your thoughts and getting them into a flowing sequence of words, and producing a story; all this is something you have to enjoy. If it becomes drudgery, you’re not going to produce something that people want to read.

What book(s) influenced your life the most?

Very difficult question to answer. I try not to force my religious views on anyone else, but the Gospels are probably the biggest influence. What other books have influenced the way I live my life? I am not in any way a fan of self-help, improvement or inspirational books, so there’s nothing really in that category.

Which writer(s) would you consider a mentor?

Let me give you three. John le Carré, Len Deighton, Elmore Leonard. Le Carré for style, especially dialog and the art of saying a lot with a few words. Same with Elmore Leonard – he’s got an ear for the way people speak and think and he doesn’t waste words. Len Deighton for his meticulous research (he has helpers, of course) which finds its way into his fiction like Winter and SS-GB (the latter is probably my favorite alternate history title) as well as his non-fiction such as Blitzkrieg and Fighter.

What got you interested in alternate history?

I was taught history pretty badly at school for the most part. I was taught that history was a series of “this happened because...” and history taught like that is all facts and dates. Boring. I had little interest in history until I left college and I started to go out with a high school history teacher, who was an excellent teacher, and from her, I learned that history was about probabilities and not about facts – “this probably happened because...”. And so you have to start asking yourself, “Well, what would have happened if it hadn’t happened? Or if Y instead of X had happened instead?” So you get sucked into these counterfactuals, and before you know it you’re talking alternate histories. I don’t know for sure, but I guess a lot of professional academic historians play with alternate history ideas much more than they would like to admit, even if they never write them down as stories.

What is your opinion on American Civil War alternate histories?

Many of them seem to be written to exculpate the Confederacy, or at least to downplay the role that slavery played in the War Between the States. I’m not an expert on the War itself – I’m certainly not a Civil War buff who can recite every regiment that fought at Gettysburg and the order of battle at the first battle at Bull Run – but I am interested in the political and social conditions that were around at the time. I’m not going to name any authors in particular, but they seem over-concerned with the mechanics of the history to create real characters or dialog – actually, that may also apply to me at times – but I do think that, although my characters are in some way 2-dimensional, they have some depth to them that those of other writers don’t.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I’d like to think so. I mentioned some of my mentors and influences earlier, but I hope that when I am influenced by other writers, I am influenced by the best, and build on them to develop something that isn’t just a straight copy of what they are doing. I am conceited enough to believe that I am good at dialog, but this is something that’s created a few differences of opinion on the Amazon reviews. Some people find my dialog to be unrealistic and stilted. On the other hand, an editor friend of mine from Alabama felt I had nailed the Southern rhythms and content of speech – I worked together with another friend, from Louisiana, in order to get some of those.

Making the speech Southern is not just a question of substituting “y’all” for “you” throughout, and for the German speech, I didn’t want to use the “Ve haff vays off makink you talk” style, and nor did I want to translate speech in German literally into English (my German is actually reasonable, so I could have done that). But if you look carefully, I do actually play around with standard syntax to make a distinction. For example, Goering, whose English in real life was actually pretty good, says, “That will form the centerpiece for the bouquet I will be giving to my wife at her birthday” – not quite correct, and it marks him out as a non-native speaker. In Chapter 1, a character says “them colleges is only for the rich folks” – I think that gets the idea of the speaker’s background over pretty well.

What inspired you to write Beneath Gray Skies?

I answer that in the preface, and it’s attracted some controversy. Beneath Gray Skies has been described as “flaming liberal flotsam” on Amazon and the writer of this particular review suggested that I should be burned in effigy. Basically, a few years back, I was pretty disgusted with the direction in which America appeared to be going under Bush. I looked around and found that, in my opinion, many of the prevailing philosophies were those of the Confederacy. You don’t agree with me? Beneath Gray Skies is probably not for you. But quite a few people do agree, even if some find it uncomfortable that this message is in an AH novel.

So what if the South had survived? It wasn’t credible to me that the Confederacy would have won and maintained a hold over the Union – there wasn’t enough manpower to impose a carpetbagger-type victory over the North. So I imagined an independent South lasting into the 20th century. I then had to do a little back-story on why the South had been allowed to become independent, and what had happened since Fort Sumter, but that was relatively easy, and, I think, fairly credible. Seward, after all, had the dream of an American or European war to hold the Union together, and he was a very pragmatic politician. I can imagine my POD actually happening, and most readers seem to find it doesn’t stretch their imagination too much.

How did you come up with the title?

The working title was C.S.A. Obviously, Kevin Willmott had used that. But Beneath Gray Skies? The airship is in the sky, of course, and gray is the color of any dictatorship (in my mind). Butternut gray is the cliché for the South, so there’s a link there, and I wanted to also suggest the pervasive “gray” nature of a totalitarian state – think 1984 or Brazil. Why the American, rather than the British spelling? Because I am writing in American English. Not sure how the whole thing came about, really, but I still like it as a title.

Who designed the covers?

Me. Using stock art (paid for, of course) where necessary. I like type and doing design work, even if I’m not really a designer. I designed and typeset the interior as well. My first cover was really in your face – slapped you about the head with the Stars and Bars – maybe people thought it was going to be “The South Will Rise Again” type book – I don’t know – but it had all the subtlety of a brick to the head. The paperback cover of the current edition is somewhat more subtle. And I really went to town with the hardback/Kindle cover. Flames, a Pour le Mérite medal, a Confederate cap badge, and a Photoshopped Hindenburg. Had a lot of fun with it.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Intolerance is wrong, and it’s much closer to the surface of Western life than we care to admit to ourselves. Fairly obvious, I suppose, but it needs to be said.

What book are you reading now?

Crimea, by Trevor Royle. I’m reading it to get a handle on mid-19th-century Tsarist military thinking, as much as anything. This will find its way as deep background into my next novel.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

Not as such, though I often discover writers who I should have known about some time ago and have failed to discover. For example, Michael Chabon, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Believe it or not, I only recently discovered the joys of Trollope.

What are your current projects?

Marketing my existing titles. As an independent writer/publisher, you have to keep promoting yourself and your books. On the non-fiction front, I am working on two commissioned books on various aspects of IT, etc., as well as some journalistic and copywriting assignments – longish term ones. I also work in a bank part-time (writing boring internal audit reports) and lecture one day/week at a university here (presentation skills), so I’m pretty busy.

Do you have any new alternate history books you are working on?

Apart from the non-fiction I just talked about? Yes. Red Wheels Turning continues in the same universe as Beneath Gray Skies. It’s a prequel, though, introducing the main character, Brian Finch-Malloy, who was described by one reviewer as a “1920s James Bond”. The timeline is alternate, but doesn’t actually affect the plot too much. Real historical characters such as Lenin make an appearance, though. It’s a fairly straightforward “ripping yarn” in a genre best described as “steampulp”. Red Wheels Turning is due out very soon – Kindle and paper. However, it acts as a lead-in to a longer and much more complex AH title that I am working on. This will feature the same characters, and will involve the same timeline, used to a much greater extent. There are some great real-life events that occurred along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the 1920s.

And there’s a book of short stories about Japan that is due out some time – my attempt at literary, rather than popular, fiction. I’m not a literary writer, though – my aim is to tell enjoyable stories.

Do you see fiction writing as a career?

I would love to think so. If someone wants to pay me lots of money for the movie option rights on Beneath Gray Skies, I would be delighted. And I certainly have enough ideas to keep me writing for the rest of my life.

Do you have any advice for other writers, especially on publishing a novel?

Don’t trust your own first judgment. It’s far too easy to write 50,000 words or so, and say “I’ve written a novel”. You haven’t. You’ve written the first draft of a novel. Maybe. Put it away and don’t look at it for a few months. Now get it out and re-read it, as objectively as you can. “Murder your darlings” – in other words, don’t get too attached to favorite characters, scenes or phrases. If they don’t work, take them out.

Next, print the thing out and read it again. And again. Get a friend or two to read it – friends who are honest enough to tell you what works and what doesn’t work, in their opinion. You’re not obliged to take their advice, but you should listen to it. If you can afford a professional editor, now is the time to hire one.

Then you have the choice of submitting the manuscript to lots of agents, and making a collection of rejection slips, or publishing the thing yourself. If you go for the latter option, and you decide to go to print, make sure that the book is professionally produced. Most people can’t tell Palatino from Times New Roman, but they do know when something is badly laid out, or notice when their is a misprint or a speling mitsake [sic]. In my opinion, Microsoft Word is not the tool to use when producing books - get a friend who knows about layout to do the job for you using professional software. Covers? They get your book noticed. Simply taking a stock photo and overlaying the book title and your name in red Arial Bold is not cover design. If you don’t trust your own abilities – call in the professionals.

E-books – one word here - Smashwords. At the moment, they don’t distribute to the Kindle Store, but I have it on good authority that this will happen soon. And you can give away copies of your Smashwords titles to friends and reviewers.

But to sum up – be professional. There is far too much rubbish out there that should never have seen the light of day – in its present form. Walk the walk, go through the processes of reviewing, editing, copyediting, proofreading, typesetting, proofreading (again, preferably at least three times!) and you’ll end up with a better product.


This was my first interview I ever conducted, so thanks Hugh for being patient with me. I hope to bring you more interviews as well, so keep checking for new posts.

My next post I bring you my long awaited American Civil War alternate history rant and discuss an interesting perspective on the multiverse theory.


  1. Nicholas AntinozziJune 29, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    Thank you both for taking the time to post this. There are so many informative things to take away from this interview, I may just have to sit down and read it a second time. Great job, Hugh. I will say one thing that you failed to mention when it comes to history, the victor wins the right to write it. I do believe that is a point that can never be forgotten. The "what ifs" in AH is something everyone needs to consider. We need to learn from the mistakes of our past. This genre can never be over-rated.

    I have yet to read "Beneath Gray Skies," but it is the first book on my read list. When I'm writing, I can't possibly read anything beyond the newspaper. A fault of mine, to be sure. I will say that when it comes to the craft, no American writer holds a candle to the best of the U.K.. Hugh mentions Elmore Leonard, I would counter with Nevil Schute. "On The Beach" changed my life.

    I also enjoyed Hugh's candid honesty when it comes to writing. Egomaniac might be a bit harsh, but we do feel the need to express ourselves without fear. We have but one life and one voice, most waste it in obscure silence. That to me is sad. I'd say that writers tend to be more of a brave lot, wouldn't you?

    I thought all the points that Hugh made were spot on and that this was, by far, the best independent author interview that I have ever read. 5 Stars.


  2. Thanks for a great interview, Hugh.

    Gabi from Okayama, Japan

    (writing a daily report about life AFTER the quake ...)


  3. I enjoyed reading the interview, and think that Hugh has made some good points on which to ponder.


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