Welcome to our weekly feature,
Our guest this week is author Hugh Ashton and we’re so excited to let him talk to you about his books and his writing! Hugh has established a sub-genre that, quite frankly, we’re jealous we didn’t think of first! 🙂 So, grab a cup of coffee or pour yourself a cold brew — beverages are always on the house — pull up a chair, and enjoy!
Hugh, at what age did you first realize you wanted to write books and how/when did you first share this ambition with “the world”? Probably at the age of about 18 or so when I went to college. I thought it would be rather cool to be an author. I’d written stories of novella length before then, and I had far too many pages in the school literary magazines filled with my adolescent poetry. But the first thing I wrote which I really felt was worth unleashing on the world was about 30 years later.
Who in your life and what authors you read had the most influence over your decision to write? Who has influenced my decision to write? I’d have to give a nod to a school teacher, Richard Kingdon, who encouraged me to write the aforementioned poetry, and gave me a lot of useful criticism. Recently, I have several friends who have been complementary about my writing and have encouraged me. And a special thank you to Cindy Mullins here in Japan, who attempted to find a market for Beneath Gray Skies. The fact that she couldn’t do so is no reflection on her or her abilities, but she believed in it enough to persuade me that it was worth releasing as an independently published novel.
What influence has your career choice had on your choice of writing subjects? My career is basically a writer – technical writer, journalist, copywriter. So At the Sharpe End was mainly about the things I know something about: banking, technology, and Japan. Otherwise, I would say that my career is not really relevant to the subject matter, though it may be relevant to the way in which I approach writing fiction, which is more that of a craftsman than that of an artist. I revise as I go along, because for a magazine article or a piece of writing like that, there may be no second chance – if you make a mess of the first draft, that editor isn’t going to use you again.
What about living in Japan – how has that changed you and your writing, or has it? Definitely. I am living in a country whose first language isn’t English. I have many friends from other English-speaking countries: the US, Canada, India, Australia, and so on, each with their own unique dialect. My writing tends to borrow a little in places from all of these. I also often have to write for non-native speakers of English, and that tends to add a certain clarity to my writing.
At the same time, I am out of touch with modern slang and contemporary culture in the US and the UK. Name ten popular TV shows over the past 20 years, and the odds are that I will never have seen any of them, or perhaps one episode at the most. The same goes for films and popular music, etc. Slang and that sort of thing passes me by. I left the UK before there was a public Internet, when there were no mobile phones or laptop computers, and Margaret Thatcher was still in power. I have no idea how young people in the UK, for example, use mobile phones, at what age they get their own phone, how they do their homework (on a computer), etc. There is no way I can write a contemporary novel set in the US or the UK.
You’ve established a unique genre niche with your alternative history stand-alone titles (Beneath Gray Skies, Red Wheels Turning, At the Sharpe End) as well as with your Untold Tales of Sherlock Holmes series From the Deed Box of John H. Watson, M.D., as Discovered by Hugh Ashton. Can you share with us the genesis for your world of alternative history? Alternative history is fun, for a start. I think it’s fair to say that if I knew then what I know now, I would be an academic historian. I was taught badly at school, though and hated history, until after college I started to go out with a history teacher, and she taught me that history is about “why”, not “what”. And I think that many historians explore “what if” scenarios to understand “why”. So you look for the “butterfly effect”, you know, a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and it starts a chain of events that causes a hurricane in the Caribbean. In Beneath Gray Skies, it was Lincoln falling ill with fever, and Seward and Chase allowing the South to secede.
And then what happens if the Confederacy doesn’t come crawling back? That was the start of Beneath Gray Skies. A Confederacy that survived into the 1920s, and made an alliance with an unsavoury German political party led by a young ambitious Austrian politician. I moved the Beer Hall Putsch from Munich to Berlin, added the assistance of the Army of the Confederacy, and there we are. Red Wheels Turning is set in the same universe, but there’s less alternative history there.
What other books do you have underway and what can you tell us about them? Can you give us a few hints? Well, the Deed Box has taken a fair bit of excavating. I’m taking time out from writing the final story of the third volume, Secrets from the Deed Box of John H Watson MD to do this interview. Out soon.
There’s also another story in the alternative universe of Beneath Gray Skies – a prequel, set in Russia at the time of the Civil War. Fanny Kaplan’s assassination attempt against Lenin succeeds, and Trotsky out-manoeuvres Stalin in the battle for the Bolshevik leadership. In Siberia, the Czech Legion is running rampant, and there are warlords fighting for control of hundreds of tons of gold. Much of this is based on historical fact, and some is “what if”. I have the same character, Brian Finch-Malloy, as a central protagonist, but I also write quite a lot from Stalin’s point of view. That’s interesting to do, I can tell you! Gold on the Tracks may get finished this year.
Do you find it challenging to write in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle and has the challenge become less so with each additional Deed Box tale published? Not much of a challenge. Being somewhat isolated from contemporary English helps a lot. But yes, it gets easier, because I get to know the characters much better.
What other authors’ styles have you thought about emulating and can we expect to see any in the near future? I’d love to do le Carré, but I’m not good enough. You’re not going to see any of those. I really want to develop my own style, as I’m too much of a chameleon, really. For non-fiction, I would like to be able to write like Michael Lewis.
Which of your characters is your favorite and why? I’m very fond of my Watson, whom I think is a little more sharply delineated than Doyle’s. Not that the canonical Watson is a cardboard cut-out – he’s a human being with foibles and a temper, among other things – but I think I’ve put a little more flesh on the bones. In my short stories about Japanese people, I rather like Mrs Sakamoto – she’s quite close in her character to several people I know.
Is there another genre you’d like to try and what attracts you about that genre? Another genre? Science fiction, perhaps.
If you could pick another author’s character – aside from the Sherlock Holmes characters — and use him or her as a character in a novel, who would that be and in what type of setting would you write about him or her? George Smiley – there’s a lot I’d like to see written about him. I’d place him in a Cold War situation – about the time of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
You poll your readers and ask them to list five words that best describe your writing. What top five words do they list? I’m going to cheat here, and pick my five words from my Amazon reviews: Well-written (this turns up a lot); Exciting; Intriguing; Wonderful (and yes, that word does turn up a bit); Absorbing
You’re not going to find “literary” or “poetic” describing most of my work, though Tales of Old Japanese verges on the literary.
Are you a dog person or cat person and what kind of canine or feline assistance with your writing do you receive, if any? Cat, but we keep no pets.
You’re admitted to heaven and you decide to throw a dinner party to celebrate your arrival. What five people, living or dead, are on your guest list? Christopher Marlowe – I think he’d be pretty entertaining; Cleopatra – there must have been something about her that made her so popular; Lady Gaga – she’d be company for Cleopatra and she could entertain us afterwards; Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili – there are quite a few questions I’d like answered – not sure that he’d be welcome in Heaven, though; Eddie Izzard – he’d keep the conversation rolling, and I think he and Kit Marlowe would find a few things in common
Where can you and your books be found – please give us your links? I ramble on at http://BeneathGraySki.es and I have other book sites. http://hughashtonbooks.info provides a list of places you can buy or order my books. Amazon, B&N, etc. Maybe even from a bricks and mortar bookstore (I’m a great believer in paper books as “proper” books.
Facebook author page is https://www.facebook.com/HughAshton.Author
Twitter is @hughashton
Author Biography, Hugh Ashton: OK, here’s the “official” bio: Hugh Ashton was born in the UK in 1956. After graduating from the University of Cambridge, he worked in a variety of jobs, including security guard, publisher’s assistant, and running an independent record label, before coming to rest in the field of information technology, where he assisted perplexed users of computers and wrote explanations to guide them through the problems they encountered.
A long-standing interest in Japan led him to emigrate to that country in 1988, where he has remained ever since; writing instruction manuals for a variety of consumer products, assisting with IT-related projects at banks and financial institutions, and researching and writing industry reports on the Japanese and Asian financial industries. Some of the knowledge he has gained in these fields forms the background for At the Sharpe End, his second novel.
He has recently published two volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories with Inknbeans Press of Los Angeles: Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD, and More from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD, each containing three stories in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a collection of five stories of the older generation of Japan, entitled Tales of Old Japanese.
His first published novel, Beneath Gray Skies, is an alternative history set in a “past that never happened”, where the Civil War was never fought.
His second novel, At the Sharpe End, features an expatriate consultant living in Tokyo, Kenneth Sharpe, who finds himself thrust into a world of violence and high finance that takes him by surprise.
The third novel, Red Wheels Turning, takes some of the characters of Beneath Gray Skies, and sets them in the background of Tsarist Russia, where a battle of wits takes place to control the secret Russian wonder weapons that could win the war for the Allies.
The E-Pub PUB wishes to point out that Hugh left out one fact from his bio: He’s skilled in writing in the 2nd person point of view 🙂 We also wish to thank him for taking time out from his busy writing schedule for this interview and to wish him much success with his upcoming releases!