A Conversation with Susan Hancock

Dr. Susan Hancock is a retired university lecturer, now writing a unique science fiction series. Set in Elizabethan England, Anstey’s Kingdom involves travel in time and space and the conflicts between love, safety, and freedom in a dangerous world. I’m waiting to finish the first trilogy before reviewing the books, but the premise was so intriguing I asked Susan to chat with me about her books.

Tell a new reader a bit about your books: setting, concept, main characters.

The setting for my Anstey’s Kingdom trilogy is split between sixteenth-century Devon, England and a planet in the Auriga Constellation. Since the latter is the home world of my protagonists, I have named the planet Domum-Orbis. There is a rationale behind the Latinate oddments, but I can’t reveal it without giving a massive spoiler relating to Anstey’s Legacy: No Greater Love (the third book.)

The books began with a series of ‘what if’ questions. What would it feel like to suddenly discover that you weren’t human? What would it be like, as a refugee fleeing from war on a far planet, to find yourself in the power of the man who had appeared to offer you freedom…at a price? How would you cope with being so very different in a time and place where such difference could endanger your life?

Kat (Kathryn Wrenn) is my female lead. She has been brought up in a comfortable household in Elizabethan England and has no idea at all that, while she has a human father, her mother is from Auriga and not human at all.

Thomas Alban escaped to Earth with his parents when he was just 5 years of age. He knows his origins, but is contracted to work for the eponymous Anstey for the rest of his life, as one of the technicians running the underground complex in which the exiles hide.

Do you have a favourite character? If so, why?

Oh yes, Thomas is such a lovely, mixed-up man. Book two, Anstey’s Revenge: Will Love be Enough? Is really his book, as he struggles to come to terms with extreme depression and thoughts of self-harm. I suppose, in a bizarre way, I feel guilty about everything I’ve put him through. I’ve certainly cried at my laptop over his struggles.

Given the time period and setting, it’s possible to read your books as an allegory for religious persecution in Tudor times. Is there any basis for that, or is that just the Tudor history geek in me reading too much in?

I can see how you might read it in that way, but it’s more of a distanced comment on the endless persecution of the vulnerable, for whatever reason, and the ways in which refugees can be exploited. I’m thinking, in particular, of people smugglers and sex-traffickers here. I’m not underplaying the extreme dangers of existing in the Tudor times, but it is perhaps telling that James, whose relationship with human Robert would mean death if they were caught, prefers to take his chances in the outside world rather than endlessly labour, unpaid, in Anstey’s Kingdom. A freedom/safety conundrum. The violence of the times is more than matched by the violence perpetrated by Anstey, and his resident thugs, on anyone who defies him.

How did you research the period, specifically regarding the setting and the real places mentioned?

I spent a lot of time working in the North Devon Records Office in Barnstaple, Devon. Everyone there was very helpful and it was fascinating to read so many books relating to the history of the area, together with maps and reproductions of wood-cuts, all giving a real ‘feel’ for the period. Of prime interest—details of the pirates who occupied Lundy Island at that time (I later visited Lundy) and information on the floods which swept down the Bristol Channel during the period covered in book 2. I had to shift the date of the floods slightly, but was able to make reference to specifics of a scene which is the subject of a woodcut from 1607.  

Staying at the Royal and Fortescue Hotel in Barnstaple, which was once the Fortescue Arms where Kat and Thomas also stayed, gave me a really shivery feeling, particularly looking at the ceiling in their bistro which dates from 1620. [Forgive the tendency to refer to my protagonists as if they are real people—they have come to feel as if they are to me.]

I also researched on-line and made good use of books such as Ian Mortimer’s invaluable The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Your academic specialty, if I’ve done my research correctly, is children’s literature, especially the concept of the child within literature. So, two questions arising from this: Do you have a favourite children’s book – and if you do, why that book? Second question: what drew you to write adult books?

My instinctive reaction to your first question is to say Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. However, I’m conscious that this is the choice of the adult reader in me (perhaps evidenced by the fact that Tehanu, the perhaps-adult fourth book, is my favourite of these.) Going back to my own childhood, I was totally enthralled by the books of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece. As a rather solitary child, I used to creep about the house and garden in my favourite emerald green dress, pretending to be one or other of the Celtic or Ancient British characters from fiction (only occasionally a Roman.)

I’m sure, however, that I’ve missed out loads of other significant books and will immediately think of them once this interview is concluded!

There is a fairly lengthy hiatus between my non-fiction writing on children’s literature and my embarking on writing adult books. For a relatively long period I was wrestling internal demons and had no desire to write anything (in fact I did a lot of very inexpert painting and was convinced I would never write again.) I can’t really explain why I suddenly became obsessed with a story and a ‘people’ taking shape in my mind (answering the ‘what if’ questions I outlined earlier.) All I know is that the words fairly poured out of me, and the characters took a firm grip on my psyche, demanding that their stories be told. I think of myself more as a story-teller than a writer, and perhaps that is a legacy of my children’s literature studies. So many incredible plots and happenings people that world. That said, my books are, I confess, very violent and sexually explicit.

I have only a superficial knowledge of Jungian thought, but I believe you have quite a bit more. How has this influenced your writing? Are there aspects of your book that should be viewed through Jungian concepts?

My interest in Jungian psychoanalytic criticism arose from my research into the ways in which child-characters are formed in literature for children and in myth, legend and folk tale. A part of that involved looking at miniature characters, giants (the ultimate hyperbolic child), and what such constructions—from Tom Thumb to Tommelise to Nils Holgersson to Issun-Boshi—reveal of the societies in which they come to life. So, the short answer to your question is “no” I don’t think it has influenced me (consciously at least!) A psychoanalytic critic might well have a field day analysing my books, but that critic is no longer me.

Did you read science fiction prior to writing your series? If so, what are your favourite books? And if not, what drew you to this genre?

I enjoy an eclectic mix of books, with my science fiction reading coming from books such as Anne McCaffrey’s early dragon books, concerning colonists from Earth who settle on the fictional planet of Pern, and the Crystal series. My late uncle, who had a PhD in nuclear physics from Cambridge and was at one time President of the British Interplanetary Society, loved her more space-oriented books, in particular the ‘Brain and Brawn Ship’ series, and introduced me to some of them.

Do you listen to music for inspiration? Did any songs (or poems or other books or movies/tv) inspire or shape your concepts or characters in your series?

Words from poems and plays do float through my head while I’m writing. Certain lines suggest themselves as analogous with certain characters and actions. For example, my WIP currently involves my character feeling the compulsion to share her story, no matter who it is with—in this case her sleeping baby daughter. It made me think, inescapably, of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I enjoy listening to music, but my choices are more about mood than any influence on my writing. Although, thinking of it, perhaps love songs for some of my scenes.

Who are your greatest support people for your writing?

My husband Peter, who loves to read my work and is quick to point out plot holes and bits that don’t work, is my main person. My neighbour, Yvonne, is also very supportive and encouraging as a rough draft reader. Latterly my granddaughter (who has an MA in publishing) did some excellent editing work (pointing out problem areas rather than a line-by-line edit) but refused, point-blank, to look at any ‘sex’ scenes written by me.   

And is there a four-legged furry friend (or two) who helps out?

Sadly, my furry friends did not survive to see the publication of my books. I’m sure they would have enjoyed sitting on them. Jasper and Rosie (ginger tom and sister tabby) were our much-loved feline friends and dear Lucy, a rescue cross between a Jack Russell terrier and a German shepherd (I know, the mind boggles) was our canine companion. They were a great age when they finally succumbed (18, 17 and 16 respectively) and we haven’t had the heart to replace them.

What’s next?

I have just completed a sequel to the ‘Anstey’ books, which concerns Kat’s and Thomas’s three children. This is currently away for editing, cover design etc. and should be out in September. Work is also in progress with a prequel, which is currently giving me problems—the form of the solo narrator’s voice and single POV are not my usual mode of working…we shall see.  

This last question is very personal. As one cancer survivor to another, there is a theme of anger, of violation and PTSD among your characters. Do you think this is a reflection of what we go through in diagnosis and treatment, expressed in your books? If so, was this conscious – a form of therapy?

Yes, the writing was definitely cathartic: there is also a lot of me written out in Thomas, plus the books gave me a way of regaining a feeling of purpose in my life. A couple of things about the cancer affected me badly: the first was developing a sense of guilt that I was still alive when so many weren’t. I became very numb, depressed and uncertain why I should be living. What was the point of my survival? How many better and more purposeful lives could have been saved in my place? Also affecting me was a certain anger at the complete loss of agency in my life. I had difficulty in coming to terms with damage to the nerves in my spine (a mix of the effects of radiotherapy and the activity of the original tumours themselves.) It took a while to get used to not being able to walk about, to being stuck in the house, totally dependent on help to go out. Starting writing was a little like a dam bursting. A point to my life and something I didn’t need to be able to walk to do.

I appreciate being given the opportunity to talk about it.

Thank you, Susan. Your answers will make your second and third books (still on my TBR list) all the more intriguing!

An image posted by the author.

You can find more information about Susan on her website, or connect with her on Twitter.

Featured Image: Eighteenth century view of Barnstaple, Museum Of Barnstaple And NorthDevon. Public Domain.

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