Excalibur Author Interview: Hugh Ashton – “Some of us have learned to be better …”

Excalibur Books is delighted to feature an interview with best-selling and multi-talented author, Hugh Ashton. 

Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Born in the UK, and graduated from Cambridge University (a mediocre Philosophy degree, if you’re interested). Stayed around for about ten years after graduation, marrying, separating, playing music (including recording a single that got played by John Peel on Radio 1), working with tech firms in what was then called “Silicon Fen”. In fact, the first small computer I ever used was Clive Sinclair’s personal TRS-80. Moved to Japan in 1988 to write manuals for pro audio and instrument makers, and also doing some tech work, like migrating Japan’s first Internet provider from a VMS PDP-11/780 to UNIX. Married Yoshiko along the way, and we returned to the UK in 2016 for family reasons (helping to look after my mother) – a few days after the Brexit vote. Since then, we’ve lived in Lichfield, and I’ve been elected as a City Councillor, and written quite a few books.

Could you tell us more about the Tales from the Deed Box of John Watson M. D. series and Mapp & Lucia pastiches?

I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes – not just the characters and plots, but also the language. It appears that I have a gift for being able to imitate styles, and my Holmes stories seem to hit the mark for Sherlockians. It may help that I have a criminal mind – I can think like a criminal – but happily, I lack criminal tendencies, otherwise I think Professor Moriarty would have competition! Of course, this also means that I can think like a detective – there are similarities in the mindsets.

Mapp and Lucia – I’ve loved the books ever since my college days, and they were my specialist subject in the first round of BBC Mastermind 2019-20 (I won, but lost by one point in the semi-finals). And the group on Facebook that’s dedicated to these books encouraged me enormously. I managed to churn out four novellas/novelettes in 12 months of lockdown. Surprisingly easy to write, once you have got the situation and characters firmly fixed in your mind.

You’ve written books in a large number of genres including Alternative History Science Fiction, contemporary thrillers, and literary fiction set in Japan, whereas some authors like to stick to one genre. What drives you to diversify?

Boredom. Who wants to write the same thing time and time again? Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t, E.F.Benson (Mapp and Lucia) didn’t, why should I? I write about the things that interest me, and the settings that come from my imagination. It may only be a scene or a phrase of a few words that sets me off, and a few thousand words later, I know whether there’s something worth continuing.

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any future projects you’d like to talk about? 

Current WIP (this is in addition to any non-fiction writing I’m doing for clients); another Mapp and Lucia pastiche, and a longer novel which is set in the 18th century, featuring a girl who’s not wholly human. It interweaves real historical figures and the paranormal in a way that the forthcoming Red Branch series from Excalibur Books does, as does Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Some (and I hope only some) of the world owes a little to Strange & Norrell – most is my invention. It’s needed quite a bit of research (see below) to make it credible.

Which writers inspire you?

A surprising number, from John le Carré through Umberto Eco to Dan Brown inspires me – if only because I know I can write better than he does. I pick up little ideas and inspiration from lots of different sources.

Do you have a special time to write? How is your day structured?

There’s no real structure. I tend to write more in the afternoon – the morning tends to be taking care of things that have happened overnight (friends and clients in both Japan and the USA, so I live in a number of timezones simultaneously). Evenings are often meetings of local associations, etc. I try to keep to a relatively constant and reasonable workday, anyway. My eyes are getting older and too much screen time is not a great idea.

Do you work to a plot outline, or do you prefer to just start writing and just see where an idea takes you?

What is this “plot outline” of which you speak? I start writing, with a scene in my head, and then go on where the characters lead me.

What does your research process look like? 

Reading around the subject, online or on paper. When it comes to writing pastiches, having the original canon on an e-reader is wonderful. You can use the search function to find parts of the original to which you want to refer.

With my current work, I need to know a lot more about alchemy and Rosucricians and the like than my local library (re-opened after COVID) can provide. Project Gutenberg ebooks are a fantastic resource. And there’s something rather nice about reading a 16th-century alchemical treatise on a 21st century piece of technology.

Which book or books are you reading at the moment?

Hmmm… A history of Henry II, Middlemarch (first time, and I’m enjoying it much more than I thought I would), and a Ruth Rendell. Just finished Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. A great read as far as I was concerned. Devoured it in one sitting.

What book would you like to see turned into a movie, and who should play the leading roles? 

What book of mine? Or what book? I’d love to see my first published book, Beneath Gray Skies, as a TV miniseries. Also Leo’s Luck would make a great 90 minutes to 120 minutes, in my opinion. As for casting, I have no idea who any film stars are, really (I had to look up one the other day in Wikipedia, as I had no idea who she was, and found she’d won a couple of Oscars – that’s how ignorant I am on these matters).

When you aren’t writing, what can you typically be found doing?

I took up building plastic kits again during lockdown. My eyes and hands aren’t up to the 1/72 scale I used to build in, so I am now building at 1/48. I love planes – and this is a way of getting close to them, in a way. Sourdough (and other) bread. I also play various musical instruments. And then there’s politics, but we won’t go there just now.

Tell us about something in your life that brings you happiness. What is it, and why?

It’s very rewarding to know you’ve made other people’s lives better. It’s a cliché, but it happens to be true. Over the pandemic, I have been helping as a marshal/steward in the vaccination centre set up in the cathedral, and I’ve taken up helping with Places of Welcome again, though a different group to the one I was helping with pre-pandemic. It’s good to see other people feeling better as the result of something you’ve said or done. It applies to creative things as well – writing, music, even these model planes.

You wrote an incisive column for “The Phantom Games”, examining the global situation and the general feeling of “loss” in 2020. One year on from that article, what are your thoughts now?

Still loss, I’m afraid. The loss of a year or more from my life. As I get older, I am conscious that I have fewer years remaining. It’s been a non-year in so many ways, and there’s been a growing feeling of helplessness as the terrible government we have in the UK right now seems to be taking advantage of the situation to implement an agenda that is frighteningly close to fascism in many cases. And of course, we have the train wreck that is Brexit, which has been implemented in the worst possible way. Yes, some of us have learned to be better people and more caring. Many of us, sadly, have not, it would appear. And I know I’ve become very angry and frustrated at the state of things – to the point where I seriously believe I could do a better job than those who are nominally in charge of things.

Where is the first place you want to go to after the COVID-19 travel restrictions are fully lifted?

Japan – while it’s still possible for us to visit friends and family.

What tasty dish have you cooked recently?

I have a recipe which involves mashed parsnips, cavalo nero kale, parsnip crisps, and smoked cod. It’s simple enough for everyday, but has enough sophistication to serve to guests.

Tell us a strange, random fact. 

I was once the star subject in a series of parapsychology experiments designed to detect the existence of telepathy.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

Find me on Twitter at @hughashton, look for me on Facebook, and see my site at https://HughAshtonBooks.com  – to find out even more about my work… just buy my books!

Excalibur Books would like to express its gratitude to Hugh Ashton for taking the time for this interview. You can read his column here, exclusively in “The Phantom Games”!

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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