On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, Hugh Ashton talks about historical fiction novel, On The Other Side Of The Sky, about members of the West Midlands Lunar Society.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Hugh Ashton about his life and career, what inspires his writing, and the work that went into his new book, On The Other Side Of The Sky.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I was born in the late 1950s, moved around the country a bit, and then ended up in Cambridge after leaving with a mediocre degree in philosophy. I played bass in bands, ran a record label, got played on John Peel, and in “real life” worked in NHS admin and then in high-tech start-ups. I moved to Japan in 1988 on a 2-year contract as a technical writer (audio and musical instruments), and returned 28 years later with my wife, Yoshiko.
In those 28 years, I’d continued to write user manuals, advertorials for an international business magazine, and interviews/articles for airline in-flight magazines and English-language journals in Japan as well as several novels and a raft of well-received Sherlock Holmes pastiches.
Since returning to England I’ve been concentrating more on my fiction, and doing some work for a computer forensics and security consultancy. I’m also a City (parish) Councillor in Lichfield.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Probably in my mid-teens. I actually wrote one. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t publishable (not that I ever tried).
When did you take a step to start writing?
I’d always written fiction for fun since then, having had an amazingly supportive teacher at school who encouraged my writing, but nothing published. Typically short stories, but I did manage a complete cosy mystery with a technical element (never published), as well as a half-finished thriller set in Japan, which went through about four iterations before it was finally unleashed on the world.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Over a year – perhaps eighteen months. My first book to be published was Beneath Gray Skies (2009), which was written in the gaps between freelance assignments . It’s an alternative history set in the 1920s in which the American Civil War was never fought, and the independent Confederacy forms an alliance with a newly National Socialist Germany. A British agent (described in one review as a “1920s James Bond”) is out to stop this unholy alliance.
I had an agent/editor trying to sell this commercially, but in the end I self-published it. It worked out OK in the end. It’s still a good story, being as objective about it as I can be.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Just over a year – but I did manage to publish four novellas (Mapp & Lucia pastiches) within that time as well.
What made you want to write On The Other Side Of The Sky?
An interest in the life and times of these people. It was a time when superstition and what I call “protoscience” was being replaced by what we now call science. There was a belief in the supernatural, but also in laws of nature.
One of my principal characters, Doctor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) is a local hero – his house is ten minutes’ walk away from where I live in Lichfield – and he was an amazing polymath. He deserves to be a hero in a book. So I wrote it.
What were your biggest challenges with writing On The Other Side Of The Sky?
Making sure that the details were correct as far as possible. It took a fair bit of research into subjects I had never previously encountered, and reading on some fairly esoteric subjects. I had help from a very unexpected quarter when it came to looking a Kabbala and Jewish traditions, both of which play a role in the book.
Another challenge was getting into the skin of the protagonist (see below). I had a lot of help from my female editor in checking that I had a truly female voice there.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Jane Machin could have been John Machin, I suppose, but I wanted a female protagonist – I felt she would be stronger as a woman. And it was fun to bring her up in age from a lisping infant to a strong mature young woman. Inspiration? Women I have known and loved. But even so, I am not female and I needed some guidance to achieve a credible and realistic picture.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Nightmares. The fear of the shadowy Other. The idea of what happens on the other side of the mirror has been a minor obsession of mine for some time (and not only mine), so I took that one stage further to what lives on the other side of the sky. He had to be glamorous in a dark scary way, and amoral, if not immoral. But he is really a nightmare from our collective unconscious (there’s quite a bit of Jung in various of my writings).
What is the inciting incident of On The Other Side Of The Sky?
I take it that you mean the incident that kicks the plot into high gear? Probably the scene where I describe the incident illustrated by Joseph Wright of Derby (a minor character in the book) in his An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Jane Machin unconsciously causes chaos at this “philosophical demonstration”. Here’s the painting (it even has its own Wikipedia entry because it’s such an important piece of work):
What is the main conflict of On The Other Side Of The Sky?
The conflict (internal and external) between the human and non-human aspects of the protagonist.
Did you plot On The Other Side Of The Sky in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I had a vague idea of what was going to happen, but not the details. Some of the plot suggested itself to me as a result of my reading on the subjects. But on the whole, I watched (in my head) my characters acting and conversing, and wrote down what I saw and heard.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did On The Other Side Of The Sky need?
I got a great deal of help from my friend and fellow-author Vicky Yardley. It’s a mutual support society. I help her with some of her plot and character problems, and she helps me with mine.
I tend to write work which is pretty much printable first time round, but in 360 pages, you’re going to make mistakes – not just typos, but in plotting and continuity. She was an enormous help in her editing and in her suggestions. The book is much better for her part in it.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Write it. Don’t think about it. Just do it.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’m researching and looking at a sequel to this. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can do it, though. I also have one or two other Mapp and Lucia pastiches on the go (I’ve been asked once again to be a guest speaker at the Annual Gathering of the Tilling Society) and I make regular contributions to Sherlock Holmes anthologies put out by MX Publishing.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, and yes. It’s the best book I’ve written to date, in terms of characterisation, scope and setting, and probably in plotting. I’m very pleased with it. Even if it sells very few copies, it’s there, it’s on paper, and I can look at it and feel I did something worthwhile.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Here’s the book:
Amazon – https://amzn.to/3tpG0eZ
Waterstones – https://bit.ly/3wo6OhD
W H Smith – https://bit.ly/3iuxqW1
eBook – https://bit.ly/3INowxQ
Kobo UK – https://bit.ly/3ilZyur
Apple Books UK – https://apple.co/36fHtMm
My site is at https://HughAshtonBooks.com most of my books are there, along with an occasional blog entry
And if you want to see me:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hugh-Ashton/e/B004E8ZIX8 (change to your local Amazon outside the UK)
I’m @hughashton on Twitter, but you will find it’s mostly politics
My book persona on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HughAshton.Author
My everyday Facebook (politics, silliness and some books): https://www.facebook.com/HughAshton31
No Instagram worth talking about and certainly no TikTok (if you’ve ever seen me dance, you’d know why).
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