Interview with L.J. Hutton

Describe your desk
I wish I could be one of those terribly organised and neat writers, but I’m not! When I’m in the middle of writing a section – especially when it’s the historical series I’m currently working on – the desk is strewn with print-outs and books. Then every so often I have to have a clear-up to avoid avalanches! I used to have quite a large desk, but because I’ve had to move into a smaller space while the old room has some repairs done to it, I’m now constrained to a desk half the size, which is not a good thing! The p.c. itself goes under the desk and the keyboard is on its own sliding shelf with the mouse, or heaven knows where I’d fit everything. My mouse-mat came from the Sutton Hoo visitors’ centre and is in the shape of the Sutton Hoo helmet – very Tolkien! I’d love a bigger monitor, but at the moment that’s not an option. However on top of it are two little fluffy bees to remind me to keep on working!

By the desk are an increasingly large ficus plant, and a spider plant whose tentacles every so often try to invade the desk. I love having plants around me so that I have something natural close by, even in the winter when I can’t get outside as much as I’d like to. In the winter I can also be found typing by candlelight sometimes, which I find therapeutic, so there are always a couple of stone tea-light holders on the desk. Also, I have a ceramic pot which came with a honey gift set. It looks like a little beehive with a bee on top, and in this I store all my memory sticks – I’m terrified of wiping something irrevocably off the computer, or having a disaster with a virus! I usually have things backed up in at least two places, even work in progress, and memory sticks work for me more than c.ds. although I do use those too. I have to use a computer of some sort to work on as I can’t write fast enough for the ideas in my head, so luckily I don’t need room to be able to write by hand on the desk, because there isn’t any!
Who are your favorite authors?
J. R. R. Tolkien has to be the most influential author in my life. It’s no overstatement to say that his books probably saved my sanity. My grandparents were killed the day after my fifteenth birthday and my mother worked her grief out on me, reducing me to complete despair. At that point I discovered Middle-earth which became my sanctuary, and since then I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read The Lord of the Rings. It was the first time I became wholly immersed in a completely new world to the extent that it became unquestionably real to me. Then latterly, I’ve come to Tolkien through academia when I went to university as a mature student, firstly to do a BA in Medieval Studies, and then an MPhil in Anglo-Saxon History - and still I find something new in these books! Ancient languages, sagas and history are all there, and you can keep peeling back the layers time after time.

I love not only Tolkien’s world – which is so grounded in his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England – but his characters too. And I stand in awe of the way he built whole languages for his people. I think reading The Lord of the Rings was what made me want to become a writer. I’ve always loved books ever since I was old enough to read picture-books, but Tolkien inspired me to want to create my own worlds, to take things further than just a storyline in the here and now. This would be my one book on a desert island without any question!

Another favourite author is Charles de Lint. I find his writing beautifully crafted, at times almost lyrical, which reflects his other talent as a musician. I love the way he works folklore and the modern world together, and makes it believable that they might interlace. Also in the fantasy sphere, Terry Goodkind is another favourite – each of his early books comes to a satisfying resolution, and only towards the end of his twelve book series do the books lead directly into one another. Oh that some other authors would be as kind to their readers with their epic, multi-book series! And Robin Hobb is a favourite for her lovely characters. Fitz and the Fool stay with you long after the books are read.

Away from fantasy I’m a great fan of C. J. Sansome. His mysteries are gripping and the historical background is beautifully realised – Elizabethan England really comes to life, and Matthew Shardlake is a wonderful sleuth whom you can truly care about. As you’re no doubt gathering, I love chunky books, and another writer who mixes genres to great effect is Diana Gabaldon. I’ve read her books several times over, and Jamie Fraser remains one of my all-time favourite literary characters! I’m a bit of a sucker for a cross-genre book as you’ll have guessed by now, so I love Barbara Erskine’s stories where - as in Diana Gabaldon’s books - the past and present intermingle, although to slightly more spooky effect.

And I couldn’t finish this without mentioning Bernard Cornwell. Boy, that man can write a good adventure story! Again, I’ve read his ‘Sharpe’ books many times, and admire the way he can keep the pace going at a great rate, while at the same time making the era come to life. (Of course having Sean Bean playing Sharpe in the TV version hasn’t detracted from the appeal!) But Mr Cornwell can also write a rattling good modern thriller, proving that as a writer you don’t have to stick unrelentingly to one genre. (And if Bernard Cornwell makes the Napoleonic Wars on land come to life, Alexander Kent did the same for the navy of that era – wonderful rip-roaring stuff!)

I could go on and on, but these are the ones who’ve had a real influence on me and on my writing.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien; Cross Stitch (Outlander in the US) Diana Gabaldon; Dune, Frank Herbert – the classic SF story; Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte - the one classic novel which really resonates with me; Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin – the superb start of the serial, hope he can eventually bring the series to a satisfying close before the end of the next decade!
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was born in Birmingham, about as close to the centre of England as it’s possible to get – so I was very much a city kid. But my primary school was attached to a very old church and right by the huge Georgian house where the bishops of Birmingham reside, and so it was very leafy and green around there. In that respect it was not so very different from parts of Birmingham which Tolkien knew half a century earlier, although Harborne (the district I grew up in) is about 6 miles as the crow flies from the famous Tolkien sites of Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog, which were so influential on him and which I only visited as an adult.

It was this old church of St Peter’s which was to fire my imagination at a very early age. Being in the church school, we would be taken across for a church service once a week during Lent; and in the year when I was 7 or 8 the vicar’s position was vacant, so the bishop himself offered to take the service for the children. Rather than weighing us down with theology, he talked animatedly to us over those weeks about the history of the church we were in and how it related to Christianity. I’m afraid I didn’t pay much attention to the faith side, but I had a real light-bulb moment with the history! At the time I was very much a fan of a dramatisation of Robin Hood which I watched on our antiquated black and white TV. (People of a certain age still remember the theme tune!) So I was beyond delighted to learn that this very church I was sitting in had existed right from Anglo-Saxon times, and was already been there when ‘good’ King Richard and ‘bad’ King John had been on the throne (c.1200AD). In that one morning history stopped being something abstract and became very personal for me.

From then on I’ve been fascinated with the past, and over the years I must have visited and scrambled over countless old castles, churches and abbeys. Some were grand places - the homes of the great and the good – while others were more modest affairs or the bastions of lordships out in the more inhospitable parts of the countryside. And there’s nothing like standing on the ruins of an old Scottish castle with the wind whistling in off the Atlantic for firing the imagination!

So when I came to creating my own world, all those visits, all those long walks, and all the books I’d read on history came into play. But none of it would have happened (or at least not in the same way) if it hadn’t been for a lovely old gentleman called Leonard Wilson, who had been the bishop of Singapore in WWII and a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and who loved children enough to talk to them in words they could understand. Sadly he died in 1970 only a year after leaving office and a couple of years after that talk, but I shall be forever grateful to him.
When did you first start writing?
I’ve always scribbled bits and pieces of stories down since I was in my teens, but while the choice of writing was between a pen and paper, and an old fashioned typewriter, I could never seem to get the words down fast enough. Fingers and head weren’t working at the same pace at all! Like most people, I have to work for my living, so any writing had to be done in the evenings while I worked full-time. However, after my 40th birthday I stepped back from my retail management job in order to go to university, so I was only working a couple of days a week and studying the other five – don’t ask what happened to the house in that time! But it was when I started my Master’s degree that the big change came about.

I knew from conversations with my tutor that I might have to create my own maps for my thesis, and I also knew that I had no idea how to do that on a computer. So the best idea I could come up with was to make a map of a totally fictional place to experiment with. This was the point when the Islands – the setting for my fantasy quartet – were born. At the same time, several characters who’d been sculling around in the back of my head for years began tapping me on the shoulder, demanding to be written about! Some of these had been waiting for a very long time; others more or less introduced themselves as the plot became more fully formed in my mind.

As for the writing itself, I felt I desperately needed to re-find my own voice for my academic writing, if nothing else – somewhere along the line in the process of doing my degrees I’d lost the flow, and my writing had become very stilted. What happened, though, was that no sooner did I start writing for fun then I found I couldn’t stop! It was as if I’d been bottling all the ideas up for years, and once I started there was no stopping the flow of words. Since then I’ve completed the quartet; have put a stand-alone novel onto Smashwords too; and written another stand-alone and the start of a historical series which reworks the Robin Hood legend. I’ve also gone through a very steep learning curve to discover how to use various software packages to help make this dream happen. And although I started with fantasy, which is a genre I love as a reader too, for me it’s closely allied with history, since the way to make alternative worlds feel viable is to ground them in reality, and I hope to continue writing both.

So although I’ve only been writing completed full-length novels for about eight years, at the moment there’s no sign of the ideas slowing down – and long may that continue! I now can’t imagine my life without the fun of writing, and I’ll carry on doing it regardless of whether or not I can make a commercial success of it.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
A close friend, who has made many a perceptive comment about my books, thought I needed to publicly establish my copyright to my characters. There aren’t that many fantasy writers who have gay characters among the central cast, and she feared that someone else might come up with an idea similar to mine, in which case, if it was a well-known author, I might be accused of merely copying them. So at first I went to one of the many companies which offer to print books for a not inconsiderable fee. This was back in 2007 and was pretty much the only option then. However, I was never fully happy with the result – especially given how much I’d had to pay for them to do quite simple things like formatting!

Yet getting noticed by the traditional publishers seemed to be a near impossible task. How to get noticed when even some of the ‘big’ names only put out 10-15 fiction titles a year, and most of them are established authors? Short of going on some dreadful game-show and gaining a certain dubious celebrity (something I’d rather chew my own leg off than do!) there seemed to be few options. And finding an agent wasn’t much better. I dutifully bought my copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, ploughed through it with my marker pen at the ready, and found ...no-one! I couldn’t afford the fees of the ones who wanted paying just to read an MS (and with no guarantee that it would find favour), the vast majority wouldn’t touch fantasy and said so very loudly, and the reputable sounding ones or ones whom I knew represented writers I admire weren’t taking on any new clients anyway, even if they would consider fantasy.

So I pretty soon came to the conclusion that quite regardless of the quality of my work, the chances of getting noticed were about the same as winning the lottery! Even Jane Austen or Charles Dickens wouldn’t stand an earthly chance with those odds stacked against them. And no wonder you hear of writers with rejection letters/slips running into double or even triple figures. But in the meantime, what to do?

Now I’m not such an egotist as to think that I’m up with the great writers, but even when my inner critic is at its worst, I can honestly say that I take a great deal of care over what I write, and those who had read my work seemed to genuinely enjoy it. One of the kindest things anyone has done for me as a writer was this same friend (Karen) taking a printed copy of my first book and putting it into a local library. She had moved nearly 500 miles away from where I live in the Midlands up to Scotland, so no-one at her new library knew me from Adam, and they certainly had no need to be polite about my work. Yet the response from these complete strangers (relayed back through the librarian and Karen) was enthusiastic enough to spur me on to keep on looking for ways to get published.

And then I heard about Amanda Hocking, and via her about Smashwords! Suddenly there was light at the end of the tunnel! What became of my books depended far more on my own hard work in making them fit to read, and not on some wildly stacked game of Russian roulette. What happens in terms of success and reader numbers remains to be seen, but at least now my books are out in the marketplace and in with a chance of being picked up.

Even better, with Smashwords, I have control over my own work. I’ve heard some absolute horror stories of writers with books written and ready to go, whose publishers have decided not to go ahead and print – usually for reasons which are all about them, and nothing to do with the writer. I realised that as an indie author I could time my releases to suit me and my readers. As a newbie fantasy writer this was incredibly important, as too many writers (even big names) have produced starts to new series and then not finished them; so many readers now won’t start a series until they know the end is either published or at least very close to being published. (This was confirmed when the sales of my quartet altered with the release of the fourth book.) I can’t imagine a scenario with a conventional publisher where all four of my books could have been release within twelve months of one another.

So at the moment I feel that there are huge benefits to being an indie author. Indeed it would now take an offer of a very good contract indeed to tempt me to sign with a regular publisher. I certainly wouldn’t jump at the first one offered just to have the cachet of saying I had a contract with one. And I would want to see a level of support matching that which you get from Smashwords – which could be a tall order!
What are you working on next?
As historical tales and fantasy are twinned for me, since in both cases I work with a medieval model, I have two projects on the go. (I stick with a basic medieval scenario because I have a good grasp on how such worlds work – I’d be utterly lost writing Steam Punk!)

Firstly, I’m writing the next in a series which retells the Robin Hood story, but from a very different perspective. I’ve never understood why both writers and TV people don’t make more of an effort with historical detail when there’ so much rich material there to be used. For instance, if you focus on the late eleventh to early twelfth centuries which is traditional for the legend, then there was never just one sheriff of Nottingham. Sheriffs changed just as we change MPs/Senators because they were bureaucrats appointed to an office, not a hereditary lord. And while we know something about some of the many sheriffs who served in this period, with far more we have only a name to go on, which is a wonderful gift to a writer!

Therefore I’m working on making the historical setting of my telling of the legend as absolutely accurate as I can, while at the same time allowing a bit of artistic license with the characters and individual plots. No way does this slow things down, though! In fact the more research I’ve done into the dreadful life people lived inside a royal forest (as Sherwood was then) the more I can see why a rebel outlaw would have such a following! I also felt I needed to have more than just another ‘romp in the woods’ story, so much of the telling is from Guy of Gisborne’s point of view, so that my readers get to see life on the inside of the sheriff’s court too. But my Guy is far from being a bumbling fool who just follows the various sheriffs’ orders, and neither is he the evil sadist. Instead he’s the outlaws’ man on the inside – the one who feeds them information and enables them to stay one step ahead of successive sheriffs’ schemes to catch them!

I’m planning on this running to seven books altogether (I’m such a glutton for punishment!) with the first one written and going through a final edit. Then the second is at the moment in the writing stage, but the remaining books have their key ‘event’ plotted on a spreadsheet – so all I need now is the time to write them!

The second project is rather more at the developmental stage. I love my Islands world I created for the quartet, but couldn’t quite find the right storyline to create a whole new adventure there. Instead, I have decided to inhabit the same world, but in a rather different location and with a wholly new set of characters, although some of them originate from the Islands. I started this during NaNoWriMo last year, and hope to have the greater part of the first book finished after this November’s stint. I find it a lot quicker writing fantasy. With history I feel compelled to keep checking the details to make sure I’ve got it right, whereas with fantasy this is my world and it runs the way I set it up to run. So there’s a wonderful freedom in sitting down to write this.

There’s a smaller central cast than in the Islands quartet, and so because my focus is tighter the stories aren’t quite so enormous. I’m zooming in on a maximum of around half a dozen main people, with peripheral characters coming and going. Again it’s an island location in part – I love this because it gives me chance to bring in sea journeys – but this time there are large continents around them, and that means all sorts of unknown threats can appear out of the dark interiors unexpectedly!

So many ideas – so little time!
Published 2013-09-07.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Menaced by Magic
By
Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 138,460. Language: British English. Published: March 21, 2014. Category: Fiction » Fantasy » Epic
The Duchy of Palma is in chaos – the duke is dead and his heir, Marcus, is lost, and with them the means to defend the duchy through the Gift. A stranger, Mark, must pose as Marcus to avert disaster, yet at every turn things go wrong. With the help of Elias and Rufus, Mark begins a desperate quest to save the people of the duchy, but he’s facing enemies of a kind he could never have dreamed of.
Unleashing The Power
By
Series: The Islands Quartet, Book 4. Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 299,860. Language: British English. Published: March 9, 2013. Category: Fiction » Fantasy » Epic
All the Islanders are uniting to fight off the DeÁine, but now they know that their old enemies have reinforcements coming. Can they defeat them when so heavily outnumbered, and can they successfully use the Island Treasures to defeat the DeÁine’s arcane weapons? If they fail they risk total annihilation, but come the final battle what will be the cost of victory?
Summoning Spectres
By
Series: The Islands Quartet, Book 3. Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 246,700. Language: British English. Published: December 19, 2012. Category: Fiction » Fantasy » Epic
The Islanders think they’ve got to grips with the DeÁine treachery, but even amongst the DeÁine there are hidden schemes. As the ancient weapons are retrieved there’s even more at stake than anyone suspects, however there is still hope, and many find allies in the most unexpected of places and from the strangest sources.Yet faced with such odds, will that be enough to save them?
The Darkening Storm
By
Series: The Islands Quartet, Book 2. Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 258,060. Language: British English. Published: December 1, 2012. Category: Fiction » Fantasy » Epic
The DeÁine know where their Treasures are hidden, and they’ll go to war to get them back! From the heart of the Islands the trusted few set out on quests. Some head into danger in DeÁine territories to save hostages or to retrieve the Island Treasures. Others find unexpected dangers horribly close to home. With winter coming can they save Brychan, or will the DeÁine make their first re-conquest?
Chasing Sorcery
By
Series: The Islands Quartet, Book 1. Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 231,770. Language: British English. Published: December 1, 2012. Category: Fiction » Fantasy » Epic
The unofficial truce between the Islands and their would-be conquerors, the DeÁine, has been broken. For the Islanders the scale of the threat only emerges as they struggle with enemies closer to home. Yet time is running short if the Islanders are to prevent the DeÁine’s plans from becoming reality. Only together will they be in with a fighting chance of winning and keeping their freedom.
The Rune House
By
Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 114,990. Language: British English. Published: October 17, 2012. Category: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Historical
In 1574 a strange house is built in the shape of an ancient rune, one of whose ambiguous meanings is an invitation - but an invitation to what? In the present day, Robbie thinks all he has to worry about is the new detective joining him on the cold case unit. Yet with a growing list of disappearances and murders, Robbie and Drake find themselves drawn to the history of the house and its secrets.