Update November 2012
Hugh Ashton is now endorsed by the Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. His hardcover 360 page compilation of Sherlockian goodness comes out soon. It is available for pre-release orders at http://221BeanBakerStreet.info/DeedBox/
Before we get started talking about your writing, let me apologize for the delay in getting your interview posted, Hugh. However, with the recent Amazon rankings of #1 and #2 in the Holmes category (that was higher than Sir Arthur himself) perhaps now is a great time to get down to it. I’ve really been looking forward to talking to you!
Tell us about yourself!
I’m British, and I’ve been living in Japan since 1988. I came over as a technical writer for a Japanese company, specializing in electronic audio and musical equipment, and stayed. I’ve been working for myself since then, usually as some sort of writer. Journalism, industry reports on finance and the like, copywriting and advertorials, interviews, speech-writing, etc. I’ve written letters for two people who have been Prime Ministers of Japan (Japanese ex-PMs is a large club, though), and I now have editors on three continents. I’m married to a Japanese lady, Yoshiko Nishio, and we are going to celebrate our 19th anniversary this year – our time together has flown by all too fast.
What do you do for fun?
I take photographs – I have a relatively expensive camera and I enjoy using it. I also play slide guitar (lap steel and resonator/Dobro) – country and blues style, together with a good friend from Texas, J.J.Vicars, who is a much better musician than I am, but allows me to pollute the soundscape together with him at times.
I’ve seen a few of those photos and you do wonderful work with that camera of yours! What’s your favorite animal, color, season of the year?
My favorite animal? Two-toed sloth, I suppose. I envy the lifestyle. Favorite color? Blue. Season? I like Japanese summers – 30C to 40C days, no socks, aloha shirts.
Yeah, what’s not to like, heh? You mentioned music. What’s your favorite singer, song, type of music?
Favorite singer? Not sure – I have so many favorites in different styles and genres. Favorite song? I suppose I have to say Dove sono from Marriage of Figaro – brings tears to my eyes every time, especially the descending oboe passage. Favorite type –pre-19th century classical, I guess.
Now that I did not expect. How about movies? What’s your favorite movie?
Maltese Falcon. I watch it with the book in my hand – John Huston took most of the dialog straight from the book. But I don’t watch many movies. I’ve never seen any of the last three released Star Wars movies, for example. Not sure what was the last modern movie I watched, and the last time I went to a cinema (movie theater??) was to see Avatar when it came out.
Well, that sure made it worth the trip to the cinema! Who’s your favorite actress/actor?
It’s a cliché, but Humphrey Bogart. I love the characters he plays, and the way he does it. I like George Clooney, too, as a modern-day Bogart.
There is absolutely nothing cliche about Bogart OR Clooney, but that’s a woman’s opinion! Now that we know you a little better as a person, let’s get into your writing! What kind of books do you write?
We’re talking fiction here, right? Alternate history, thrillers, Sherlock Holmes pastiches. I take it you’re not interested in retail finance or wealth management practices in Asia?
No, I think not! Name some of your books, including your latest.
“More from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD” – three stories of Sherlock Holmes in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a successor to “Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD” – the first three stories in that genre that I published. Both are published by Inknbeans Press of Los Angeles. “More…” is substantially longer than “Tales…”, with each story being between 16,000 and 19,000 words long.
We’ve seen the success of those two books, Hugh, and having read them myself, I couldn’t be happier for you! How many books have you written so far?
More than I have published! But the published ones include an alternate history, “Beneath Gray Skies”, a tale of a past that never happened, where the American Civil War was never fought. A prequel to it, set in 1916 Russia, “Red Wheels Turning”. There’s also a thriller, “At the Sharpe End”, describing a technology consultant in Tokyo, at the time of the 2008 Wall Street Crash.
Tell us about your next book & when is it being published?
I think the next book to be published will be a series of short stories about older people in Japan, to be entitled “Tales of Old Japanese”. It started with a story, “Keiko’s House”, about the house where my wife Yoshiko and I are living now. It was built by my late father-in-law before the Pacific War (that’s World War Two if you live outside Japan). Japanese old people are fantastic – they’re so lively and genki (healthy/energetic/full of life) – they are much more interesting than the young Japanese, in my opinion. So these stories are based on people I know – maybe they’re slight caricatures, at times, but they’re all based on real incidents or quirks, and the stories all take off from these.
When did you start writing & why?
I have always written, I think, since I started writing bad adolescent poetry at the age of about 13. I had written some other things before then, of course. But serious “I think I can get this published” writing? Probably only in the past 5-6 years. “Beneath Gray Skies” came out of a dry spell with little client work coming in. It was either sit on my butt and surf the Internet indefinitely, or it was write something. I started off with a fence stretching off into the distance across the prairies. I put the Confederate States of America on one side of the fence, and the United States of America on the other. And the whole thing took off from there. About 300 pages later I had a novel.
I read that one. It has a very interesting premise. As a northerner now living in the south, I won’t comment on that premise! (Smiling, here!) Are you an avid reader & when you do read someone else’s writing, what is your favorite genre?
I always have at least two or three books on the go at once. Just for example, my “now” reading is Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”(my third reading, I think – great for telling me that everything I learned about science when I was younger is now out of date – Edgar Wallace’s “The Secret House” (1917) – really good for the Holmes stories, and Jules Verne’s “Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers” – to keep my French up to date, and to give me a sense of period once again. Just finished Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, which I enjoyed, but thought it was too close to William Gibson and Ian McDonald for comfort. I like good science writing, and good history. Fiction – I’ll try almost anything. Not at all interested in zombies or vampires, though (unless we’re talking 19th century Gothic horror).
We have a very well-read writer here, folks! Who is your favorite author & why?
For non-fiction, Michael Lewis – at his best, he is magnificent – “Moneyball” (don’t want to see the movie, thank you very much) is excellent. His informed fly-on-the-wall style is one I would love to emulate myself. Fiction – I love le Carré and Elmore Leonard for their dialog, Len Deighton for his attention to historical detail, Salman Rushdie for his love of language, Arthur Conan Doyle for his Holmes and Watson characters… The list goes on.
What is it that makes your writing different from all the others in your genre?
For Holmes, I think it’s the fact that I have gotten into the skin of Arthur Conan Doyle, and can imitate his voice pretty well. I also get into the time period of the Holmes stories – how people spoke, how they thought and how they regarded the world. People, including you, have been very complimentary about the way I have made Holmes come to life again. Someone showed me another Holmes pastiche the other day. It was appallingly written – had nothing in common with the originals except the names of the characters – like the Downey/Law movies, in fact.
Well, your Holmes voice is excellent! In general, how long do you spend writing a book?
How long is a piece of string? “Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD” was written inside a week and was on sale as a paperback within a month. “Beneath Gray Skies” first draft was written in under three months. “Red Wheels Turning” (the foundation of it, anyway) was written inside a month as part of National Novel Writing Month. A “book” for me, anyway, is something over 25,000 words – and preferably over 50,000. I still think in paper terms, so if it can’t be typeset and bound with a title on the spine, it’s not a “book”.
Where do you do your writing & what is your process like?
I sit at my desk, I press the keys on the keyboard, and it appears on the screen! Seriously, as a professional writer, I have no magic creative process. I sit and I write. That’s it. I use Scrivener to keep notes, etc. together, and to allow me to organize stories, but basically, it’s a very boring process. I have rough ideas of what things are going to be about to start with, but they often fall by the wayside as the story develops and the characters take on life.
They (our characters) do tend to lead us by the nose, don’t they? How do you get ideas for your stories and characters?
I am blessed with empathy and a cinematic imagination. I can get into the skin of my characters, think like them and move like them. Some characters are easier than others. Watson, for example, is easy – I have something of Watson about me, I think – and I found it surprisingly easy to slip into the skin of David Slater, the teenage protagonist of “Beneath Gray Skies”. Kenneth Sharpe was easy – he’s a little like me (but he’s not me!). I like Brian Finch-Malloy – someone described him as a “1920s James Bond” – maybe I wish I was him!
What is your editing process like and who does it?
I did it all myself for “Beneath Gray Skies” – though friends read it and commented – it was a big mistake. The first edition was pretty bad – about 20 or more typos. I did a sort of Tom Sawyer “help me paint my fence” thing with friends for “At the Sharpe End” and “Beneath Gray Skies”, and these people really pulled up the standards – not just typos, but plot catches and that sort of thing. I self-edit as I write, though – editors typically like my stuff, because there isn’t an awful lot for them to do.
What’s the best/worst experience you’ve ever had as a writer?
Best: Jo Bean from Inknbeans wanting to take on “Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD” – on my birthday! My first fiction sold commercially (as opposed to self-published). Mind you, seeing my name over about a dozen pages worth of advertorials in a copy of Businessweek that I picked up at London’s Heathrow Airport was a pretty amazing experience!
Worst: Having stories spiked. I can live with 1-star reviews on Amazon – but working on a story and having it not published because of client/subject worries about their image, etc., hurts. One of the most painful (though I wouldn’t call it worst) experiences was writing a pretty good advertorial piece for the Japanese government on investing in Japan. It was due to appear in a mid-March 2011 issue. And of course, on March 11, 2011, we had the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. I got paid, but it was still so sad that we had worked together to produce such an attractive piece, and Nature made it all irrelevant.
The whole situation must have been a heart-breaker, Hugh. What is the best/worst advice you have ever got about writing?
Best: Print it out and read it on paper.
Worst: Read books on creative writing.
What advice would you give a new author?
Everyone is different – writers and readers alike. Just because you’re not like any other writer you can think of doesn’t make you a bad writer. Nor does every criticism.
Couldn’t agree more! If you hadn’t become an author, how else might you be exercising your right brain now?
Music – playing, recording, producing, or perhaps photography.
How did I know he was going to say that? Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like to share?
Yes – In my opinion, there is far too much focus among indie authors on Amazon. They’re the 800-pound gorilla of the book industry, but I feel that they are ultimately destructive. You’re going to disagree with me on some of this, but I feel that their cheap $0.99 pricing – attractive as it may seem, actually devalues the idea of a book in readers’ minds, and makes them less willing to accept what I would regard as fair pricing (by which I don’t mean $25 or so!) for e-books. Nor should indie authors regard a short story upload as a “book”. If you take your work seriously, get it out in print. It will force you – and your readers – to look at it as a “real book”, and I can almost guarantee that you will see more results in terms of sales. It may cost money to do this – formatting, cover, setup charges, proofs, etc. If you have faith in yourself and your work, you should be prepared to spend that money. It’s not expensive.
Also, once you’re published, I believe that should be it. It’s not “work in progress” – publication is signing off on your work (other than minor corrections to typos or minor style changes). Maybe this attitude comes from my writing magazine and news articles for print where there is no second chance. Quod scripsi, scripsi. (John 19:22, if you’re interested).
And nor should you see Amazon as the only sales outlet – if you’ve put all your eggs into the Amazon basket, and Amazon crashes (not saying it will, but stranger things have happened in business) – where does that leave you? The USA is not the only market, either. I know this is all contrarian stuff, but I’m not saying it simply because it is contrarian. I’m no Luddite, but I have lived through several tech bubbles, and I am cynical about these things.
You and I have had some interesting conversations and disagreements on this, but you’re appreciated anyway! (A little humor here.) Where on-line can people find more information about you and your books?
http://BeneathGraySki.es is my blog and naturally it promotes Beneath Gray Skies and my other books. It has links to my other books, and
http://www.facebook.com/HughAshton.Author tells you about my musings on writing.
Where are your books available in print and/or digital?
Anywhere where fine books are sold!
Seriously, all the usual suspects. Just Google my name and you’ll find the places – Smashwords, B&N, Amazon.