Hello, Richard – please tell us a little about yourself …
Well, I live in north London, married with two adult children who are busily establishing their own lives in different situations. London life is still quite new, but at the moment is working well for us after a lot of years of living in Dorset and Hampshire.
My writing history has only recently stepped up a gear into publishing. I have had various failed experiments over the years that were left unfinished, plus some academic writing that has had a very limited audience. Almost a year ago I completed a PhD thesis entitled “Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian”, which basically argues that the earliest pieces of writing in the Hebrew Bible show evidence of borrowing from New Kingdom Egyptian styles, and the most likely explanation is that there was cross-cultural contact at an early stage.
My debut novel is an exploration of the human dimension of this – how might Egyptian, Canaanite and Israelite ideas and writing styles have all blended together via the lives of individual people, into the book we now call the Bible? Although academic research has undergirded the book, it is written in a very different mode, and has allowed me to look at all kinds of powerful and painful life-issues such as love, conflict, revenge, reconciliation, and sibling relationships, all in the context of hill country village life. I deliberately wanted to get away from the grand stage of pharaohs and armies, and to write instead about what life might have been like for ordinary men and women. If people can look at a map, or a holiday destination, or contemporary news articles, and think ‘Damariel went there’ then the attempt will have been a success!
I am very enthusiastic about directly incorporating poetry and verse into narrative – in the way that some ancient texts do – and so ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ foregrounds a variety of pieces of poetry. These have either been translated (with slight adaptations) from ancient world originals, or else written specifically for the purpose using the style and manner of such originals. My hope is that the blend of the two forms will help readers to catch some of the mood and passion of the age.
What inspired you to write?
I have wanted to write since childhood, but had lots of false starts of things that never got far, or else were abandoned part-way because I no longer found them either interesting or credible.
How many books have you written?
Just the one novel so far, though a follow-up is well under way and I hope to finish it before the end of the year. Also some book-length academic material in both physics and ancient world history and languages, which I am personally pleased with but don’t expect to be of huge interest to many others.
Briefly, give us the lowdown on what they’re about, including genre and titles.
‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ is a historical novel set in the hill country of Canaan around 1200BC, the region that nowadays straddles Israel and Palestine, with a brief foray over to Gaza. It follows the personal life, loves and travails of a village priest called Damariel, who is put in a difficult position by the local chieftain, but wonders if the solution he has found will end up better or worse in the end. The subject matter does not follow the acts of historically important figures, but the day-to-day lives of people in the hill country whose names are no longer known. There’s a lot of exploration of personal themes such as loss, love, conflict, and brother-sister relationships.
Where can we find your book/s?
but am sure I have missed some out. As for real space rather than virtual, a great little place called Joseph’s Bookstore in Tempe Fortune near where I live here in London has agreed to take copies.
What or who is the driving force behind your creativity?
Definitely, and centrally, my wife, of over thirty years now. More generally, other family members.
What was your first reading experience that ignited your imagination?
Reading Andre Norton as a child, borrowed from the town library in Godalming where I grew up. She was rapidly followed by a lot of other authors, mainly science fiction. My test of a really good book since those days is whether the experience of reading makes me want to write something myself.
How do you feel about e-publishing compared to traditional publishing?
Definitely an idea that is here to stay. I do like “real” books, and the current state of technology mean that some kinds of book don’t yet work well in e-format – especially technical literature where you usually need several places open at the same time to cross-refer, or else are heavy on diagrams or pictures with important detail. We have quite a way to go yet before the e-book catches up with some of the versatility of the real thing. But that is mainly a user-interface problem and so solvable with time and creativity. I’m very enthusiastic about e-publishing and think it will only grow – the current problems will probably be overcome in a decade, maybe less.
What’s your favourite movie?
Wow, that’s hard to choose. Perhaps ‘A Beautiful Mind’ for depth and intricacy. But if I want to relax and have fun then ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ takes a lot of beating.
What’s your all-time favourite read?
Russell Hoban ‘The Mouse and His Child’. I first discovered this when reading to our children when they were very young, and now, quite a few years later, it continues to exert its superb magic.
Who is your favourite author?
Ursula LeGuin, in all the different modes of her writing. ‘The Dispossessed’ has to be my single favourite book of hers, but it’s hard to choose between some of them.
Do you draw from personal experience when writing, such as situations and settings?
Yes, but in a generalised rather than explicit way. So the religious content I have pictured in ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ for a small community in the Canaanite hill country is rather like what I have known of independent non-conformist Christian church life – though obviously with a rather different focus of faith than Christianity. I reckon that I can see the good and bad points of an institution or life-setting I know much better than one I don’t know very well.
Are the characters in your books based on real-world people (you don’t need to name names!)?
So far as I am aware, no. For some individual character traits or specific reactions to events, then yes, but these are typically from people I do not know well. It would be something that struck me in passing about them and remained in my memory. One character’s actions definitely owe a lot to a person I knew in a rather unhappy job quite a few years ago. But whole characters – no.
How many books have you read in your life so far?
That would have to be in the hundreds. In my teens and at university I devoured books on a large scale, and my consumption rate – although less now than in those heady days – has not stopped ever since. Of course, there are a lot of geeky technical books of various kinds in amongst that list, not just fiction. The geeky kind would include maths texts in my earlier days, and ancient history / languages more recently. The fictional kind includes a lot of science fiction / fantasy, and a fair amount of historical fiction.
If you could morph into any animal, what would it be, and why?
That would have to be a frog. I have always held a great fondness for ranids, with their quirky mix of alternately looking wisely patient and then being completely frivolous. But something with wings also appeals. A flying frog would be best of all.
Have you attended any writing classes or workshops? If so, which ones?
What’s your overall impression of self-publishing?
Like a lot of other people, I am realising that considerable energy and effort is needed to market the finished product once complete. I had not really clicked onto this beforehand, and had rather naively thought that finishing writing and editing was the end of the story. But at the same time there is an excitement in knowing that I can do a lot myself to get information out into the world.
Where’s your favourite place in the world, and why?
The English Lake District, specifically the northern area around Derwent Water. I like living in London, but going up to the Keswick area, which I try to do several times a year, is definitely like returning from exile. My melancholy streak says I will never actually live there, but visiting regularly makes up for some of that. The mix of accessible beauty, wildness, hugely diverse changes of weather, and excellent teashops always close at hand is wonderful.
Technophobe or technophile?
Technophile definitely. I work in IT development and quality assurance, write mobile/tablet apps with a focus on the ancient world for iPhone and Android devices under the DataScenes Development Ltd banner, and am quite happy to put together my own web sites. I’m not an early adopter of the latest technology, but keep an eye on it and try to get into the field before it’s too mainstream.
How do you handle feedback from readers, both negative and positive?
It’s too early to tell yet with my writing. But in most areas I would say that I react badly to negative feedback the first day and think of all kinds of reasons why the critic is wrong, then decide either to do something about it or just ignore it. I like positive feedback, though tend to get embarrassed by it.
If you could sit down with any author and have a chat, who would it be, and why?
The (unknown) author of the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe. Was the protagonist real or fictional? The events described? Where did the author draw inspiration from? When nowadays we tease apart elements of the literary style, were these consciously in the writer’s mind or not? This work stands out as remarkable in so many ways I would love to have access to the mind and world of the writer.
World peace or a piece of the world?
World peace. So long as I can keep being able to access the parts of the world that I love, I have no great desire to be in control of it.
Do you use social networking such as Facebook and/or Twitter, and if so, how do you find it and can we have your details?
Yes – before the book release I used them occasionally but kept a low profile. Now I am very actively trying to build connections. The trouble I find with both is the risk of overload of information, and the consequent risk of missing something really interesting.
My Twitter handle is @MilkHoneyedLand
I am also very keen on Google+ which I use both as a way to keep in touch and as a blogging platform – in the past I have found it a better connecting tool than Facebook but am always ready to change my opinion on their relative merits. The ability to filter the flood of posts and updates by circles is tremendously useful and means I run less risk of missing cool stuff by people I am especially interested in.
How do you market yourself and your book/s?
I’m just learning how to do that. Not at all sure I have it cracked yet.
If you owned your own planet and the laws of physics didn’t apply, how would you have it?
The ability to look at the same event/person/etc from multiple perspectives all at the same time.
If you could sum yourself up in one word, what would it be?
If others could sum you up in one word, what would that be?
“Loyal”, I think.
What does the future hold for you and your writing?
Well, novel #2 is well on the way, with a working title of “Out from Under the Mountain of Copper” and hopefully will be largely done by the end of the year. In many ways it is a follow-on, but set several years later and, at least at the start, rather more Egypt-centred. I’ve had some good feedback for the Gaza chapter of ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and wanted to go further in my description of Egyptian life. Human relationships again take centre stage, this time those between parent and child rather than siblings. Dream life is important too. One of the central characters is a scribe rather than village priest, and the human experiences it draws on circles around the world of professional IT contractors… but projected back into the ancient world.
As yet I don’t have specific ideas for further novels, but I am reasonably sure they will focus once again on the Late Bronze Age in the ancient middle east. It’s a place and time I love to explore.
Lennon or McCartney or neither, and why?
I think Lennon, but mainly for negative reasons relating to my dislike of the song “Mull of Kintyre”. Though in truth neither seems very appealing to me.
If you were stranded on a desert island, and needed to burn books for kindling in order to survive, which of these would go into the flames first – The Bible, Catcher in the Rye, the Complete Shakespeare or War and Peace?
Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never had a desire to read it. But… if I were to keep the Bible then it would have to be a good translation, by which I mean one that preserves the literary style and devices of the original. If Robert Alter has finished his splendid translation of the Hebrew Bible by the time of my shipwreck then that would definitely be saved from the fire until last. On the other hand, there are some bible translations that I would not miss if they went for kindling first. If I was able to negotiate the booklist, the preferred choice would be to keep the Hebrew Bible in the original language, plus a good language help, and never mind the rest!
Thank you, Richard, for your your Interview responses!
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