M.K. Hume, BookGeeks Interview

M. K. Hume is a retired academic, who is married with two grown-up sons and lives in Queensland, Australia. Having completed an MA and Phd in Arthurian Literature many years ago, M. K. Hume has fulfilled a lifelong dream to walk in the footprints of the past by retelling the epic tale of Merlin in a magnificent trilogy, which starts with Prophecy: Clash of Kings.

We beamed our questions to Australia for her kind consideration…

Are you a book geek?
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Most definitely! I started reading at three, spontaneously, after being read to for the first three years of my life. That was it for me! My head has been stuck in books ever since, except to eat, work, socialise and sleep. I adore books of all types – old, new, crime, SF, history, biographical, it doesn’t matter which, as long as there are words on the page. Like the old jokes say, I’ll read a food packet or a label on a jam tin if there’s nothing else available. I can’t imagine a life without the pleasure of books and, if I went blind, I’d just have to learn Braille.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given? Do you follow it?
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I was told by a very accomplished author very early in the piece that writing is a job, a profession, and isn’t a mystical process at all. I have always remembered his words. Since I first heard this advice, I have spoken to many people in our industry and I’ve been amused by the idea that writers are sometimes a race apart, blessed by intuition or talent that strikes like lightning.

From my perspective, writing is a fundamental part of my life and is a natural progression from thinking. But for all that, I think it’s organic. I now accept that fiction writing is, in fact, a job and one must take a professional approach to his or her work. I work at my writing, in set hours, in a set place and with as much efficiency and dedication as I possess. I write at other times, of course, but I stick to timetables and write regardless of how I feel. If I’m feeling really lousy, I do research or do the mechanical parts of the job that aren’t glamorous, such as the constant editing, checking and re-checking.

I need this process because sometimes my mind boils with ideas and I’d literally get nothing finished if I didn’t apply rigid self-discipline.

The advice that gets under my skin is when I’m told that I’m ‘lucky’. I ascribe to the old saying that sits on a plaque above my husband’s desk: “The harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
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This list is always changing but I’ve picked the ones that don’t change.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. John Connolly
  3. Leo Tolstoy
  4. Carol O’Connell
  5. Homer
  6. The poets: Tennyson, Yeats, Auden, Wright, Owen Sassoon, etc.
  7. Rose (Twelve Angry Men)
  8. Mary Stewart
  9. Ursula Le Guin
  10. Both of the Kellermans
  11. Peter Straub
  12. Con Iggulden

That’s the first dozen, give or take a few, and it might change at any moment except for the first six. Incidentally, of all my reading, the Bible is probably the most fascinating collection of stories of them all. That could also be said of all the world’s great religions. I’ve read all the major books (Koran, Torah, etcetera), and religions generally, old and new, are fertile fields of ideas and/ or sources of empathy.

Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
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I try to write entirely for myself and my own enjoyment of the genre I am working in, I suppose. I do know that I always aim at expanding the scope of the Arthurian legends and filling the gaps that still remain even after the passing of 1,500 years. The problem is that after years of teaching, the story-telling pattern is ingrained in me and I can’t tell where my own desires end and the habits of catering to a student audience and meeting the demands of the education curriculum begin and end.
Where do you write, and why?
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I write in two places for the most part.
(a) I have a study that is set up with all my references, dictionaries, thesaurus, books of quotations, atlases, etcetera, within easy reach. There’s a TV for background noise with rubbish like CSI, Oprah, old movies, CNN, et al, belting away 24/7, but it is rarely heard. I like working in my study because everything is to hand and I have no real distractions except for those objects, eye candy, on hand to focus my concentration when I am stuck on something that is really difficult. It does happen!

(b) The second work place is the kitchen table overlooking the pool. It’s cool in summer, and the sound and appearance of water is soothing. It’s also the place where I’m in close proximity to the coffee.

(c) When I’m overseas or on holidays, I spend my entire mornings in the restaurants or cafes and have a six-hour spell consisting of breakfast, followed by numerous cups of coffee. Morning is my time to work, just as I like using black pens and ruled exercise books. It’s a ritual.

Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
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I’m rather caught between The Lord of the Rings for its great beauty and the astonishing use of language in The Dark Angel by John Connolly. (The White Road, by Connolly is a close runner-up.)

PS. I absolutely loved HMS Ullysses but I hated the rest of McLean’s work. He went off the rails “big time” after Ullysses, and I was truly disappointed for I was only 10 at the time. For the first time, I became an intense critic of the writing standards delivered by the authors I read.

Many authors say that their first complete work was a “learning exercise” and will never see the light of day. Is this the case with yourself or was Dragon’s Child your first attempt at full prose?
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No. Much to my amusement, I came second in a Random House/Women’s Day Romantic Novel Writing Competition some years ago. It was Australia wide, so it was something of a coup to come second out of the 2,000 entrants. Especially as I’d never even read a modern romantic novel.

What I found amazing was that so many “good authors” entered the competition. I would have thought it beneath the dignity of top-flight authors that are household names to enter a competition like this, but enter they did.
I glance at it occasionally and I find it incredible to recognise the mistakes I made. But I am pleased that I wrote it and that it was later self-published (to very little purpose). Of its type, it’s Okay, but I’m not remotely romantic or sentimental in my viewpoints, and I didn’t fit the genre. Also, big surprise, it was a little too historical and violent for the genre. Still, the 3,000 people who bought and read it seemed to like it, so I’ll not deride The Captain’s Daughter. Everybody has to start somewhere and the experience convinced me that I could write a full length novel.

Given your obvious love for the Celto-British world you are writing in, have you considered expanding into writing in other historical periods?
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Absolutely. I’m actively working, even as we speak, on a new series of works involving later Kings of Britain as an entirely new series. This series has incredible potential and I have been given access to an unbelievable amount of research material that has never seen the light of day. I’m also fascinated by the thought of a one-off novel about the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey. This is just a prospective task at present but could become reality at fairly short notice. My other challenge is a novel on the life of the first great architect who built the Step Pyramid of Saqqara in Egypt. There are lots of projects that can be attacked but, unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day and months in the year. Still, my ambitions remain at writing two full-sized, wholly researched and perfectly produced novels every year for the foreseeable future. It’s a big ask, but why not reach for the stars.
Where do you draw your interest in Arthurian Literature and History from?
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Arthurian Literature has always been the Matter of Britain, just as Homer’s stories have been the Matter of the Mediterranean World. The Arthurian legends have been fundamental to the development of English literature, and many western writers such as Malory, Tennyson, T.H. White, and Tolkien wrote their own versions. How wonderful it is to be part of such a tradition and walk in the footsteps of these great men.

And then the history of the Dark Ages is fascinating because so little is known of it, and it is overlooked, considering that it is so vital to the history of Europe, and hence to the Western World. And, with this in mind, the legend fulfilled two important needs for me: I love stories of courage, enormous peril and stirring emotional commitment by the participants. One of the first books I fell in love with was HMS Ulysses which I read when I was still at Primary school. My conversion to Arthurian literature was a simple progression.

History fascinates me because our leaders and politicians keep making the same stupid mistakes and the viewer can track the whole gamut of human good and evil through the progression of historical episodes.

Finally, and probably more pertinent, I loved the poem and stories of Arthur as a child. I was really young, no more than 9 years of age, when the heroic qualities of Arthur bit into me. Then I married an Arthur, whom I thought was a Michael, except that he’d reversed his given names. I even lived in a suburb with street names that had been taken from the legends. Fancifully, I wondered sometimes if Arthur wanted me to humanise him so that his sacrifices were more understandable. At any rate, the Arthurian genre is my first choice, for better or for worse.

Does your home audience in Australia show the same significant interest in your novels as the UK readership?
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They seem to. The Arthurian legends revolve around Western Themes and Western Concepts so their historicity can’t belong to any single country. My novels are translated into a number of other languages, including Spanish, Portuguese and the South American countries. While I have no sales figures at this stage to make an accurate assessment, my publishers in these countries seem to smile when we speak on the phone so I can only assume the numbers stack up okay.

If I had to make a judgement, I would say that the power of the legend and its humanity speak to all people whose laws, culture and core beliefs are similar. Australians share these belief systems with the British, as do the North Americans and Canadians.

During your research into the period, would you recommend any given UK locations for readers interested in visiting somewhere that reflects Roman and Celtic Britain?
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Most assuredly. The first place would be Glastonbury in Somerset which is steeped in Arthurian tradition. The Church of St Michael overlooks the countryside from the top of the tor that dominates the town. Its history includes the only site in Britain where the Thorn Tree of Joseph of Arimathea still grows in profusion. A grave in the churchyard at Glastonbury Cathedral is believed to have once contained the remains of Arthur and Guinevere. The buildings themselves are steeped in tradition.

Cadbury Tor, a short distance away, is almost certainly the site of Arthur’s Camelot. Archaeological digs in recent years have proved that the settlement at the top of the tor was the site of a major military and administrative headquarters for over 50 years. Portions of artifacts that have been recovered show that the site contained relics that would only have been available to a major ruler of the British tribes.

Tintagel. This was the ancestral home of King Gorlois, the Boar of Cornwall, who was killed on the orders of Uther Pendragon, the High King of the Britons. Gorlois’s wife, Ygerne was raped at the instigation of Merlin. The offspring of this liaison became King Arthur, High King of the Britons, and successor to Uther.

Chester was called Deva in Roman times. This city is significant in that it was central to all of the tribes of Britain and meant that all the tribal kings could easily access the site. During the past year, excavations at an archaeological site have revealed the remains of what is now believed to be King Arthur’s Round Table. The location and description of the amphitheatre fit all the descriptions of the table in bygone years. Many walls and remnants of Roman constructions are still in evidence.

Bath (Aquae Sulis in Roman times) is also the location of many Arthurian and Roman remnants. York is also worthy of a visit. Finally, if you truly want to be impressed, see the traces of the Roman roads that criss-cross Britain. Everywhere you go in Britain there are memories of Roman efficiency where the towns are sited, usually close to Roman fortresses.

The main protagonists in both your series are complex and often haunted figures. Do you draw on characterisations of people you know to help “sketch out” the character concepts in the outset?
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Any writer who says they don’t use these characterisations is speaking with a forked tongue. I use fragments of people, and I draw on how people react in certain situations. Even in our “little lives”, we are confronted by the same issues as Arthur and the members of his court. There are no real distinctions between larger than life persons and the rest of us mere mortals. Our own experiences also become grist for the mills. We all experience tragedies. After all, we’re the heroes of our own epic lives and the villains are there as well. I build up my characters, give them life, a background and a set of beliefs, and then let them run. But they sometimes take me into rather murky waters, like Caius.

I once met a Vietnam War Veteran who said that he only felt alive when he was in battle, and the intervening years had left him feeling dead and forgotten. So I asked myself how a sadist with a brain would survive after decades of satisfaction through his involvement in constant warfare. The original Vietnam veteran was troubled, but I never felt he was psychopathic.

I maintain that the writer’s task is to look deeply into people, themes, situations and conflicts. We look into the abyss as well as gazing at Nirvana, so we should show both sides of life in what we write. Otherwise we don’t show the highs and lows of human existence with even a trace of accuracy.