A Conversation with Susan Hancock

A chat about Jungian psychoanalytic criticism, medieval Barnstaple, and some of Susan’s inspirations for her Anstey’s Kingdom trilogy.

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.

Shaman Machine the Mentor, by Trenlin Hubbert: A Review

I find myself contemplating the themes of, and questions raised in, Shaman Machine the Mentor well after I finished the book. They are not superficial questions, but ones that ask us to think about the meaning of ‘humanity’.

On one level a meditation on sentience and consciousness, on another a story of shaman-machineexploration and adventure on a water-world, Shaman Machine the Mentor contains some beautifully-written and insightful passages:  “A commotion of scraping chairs opened a slim gap of welcome.”; or, “I grew up in a house filled with chaos,” he replied. “I was crowded out by indifference.  There was no room for a child in there.”

Both these passages occur in the first third of the book, where the writing is noticeably stronger than the rest of the narrative.  After a promising beginning, introducing us to the robot Chance, the wandering free spirit Ziggy, and the contained city in which Ziggy tries to find some semblance of freedom, the story extends outward to encompass another group of characters, and then another, and a different world.  In this widening of the scope and themes, the story loses its centre. The core characters in the next two-thirds of the book, the troubled architect Alex and the bot Chance, are trying understand each other and their worlds. Alex uses shamanic drugs and alcohol to try to still his critical, sarcastic mind but refuses to accept a different reality when it’s presented to him.  Chance uses its programming and its capability to learn from conversation to expand and encompass the new experiences presented to it. The machine appears to be master to the man.

There’s a good novel in Shaman Machine the Mentor. The book would have benefited from a developmental editor who could have guided the author towards a tighter and more focused narrative. As it stands now, there are too many events that don’t seem to really add to the story and an almost scatter-gun approach to events which the reader then needs to tie together. Some of the technology as proposed was fascinating but not fully fleshed out: the use of sound-clips from a new world to create interwoven agglomerations of spheres as the building blocks for a new city on that world, for example, should have been more important than it was, given the world’s reaction to that city. I wanted to know why the sentient beings of this world reacted as they did to a city based on their own ambient sounds, and how (if) that technology was used as they moved forward.  And while the ending is ultimately beautiful and appropriate, it is reached as an epilogue.

But regardless of its flaws, both the structural ones I have discussed and its need for a copy-editor to weed out inappropriate commas and semi-colons, and the very occasional mis-used word, I find myself contemplating the themes of, and questions raised in, Shaman Machine the Mentor well after I finished the book.  They are not superficial questions, but ones that ask us to think about the meaning of ‘humanity’.  Overall, 3 stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Coffee, anyone?

It’s the first of the month, the day my Amazon payments show up in my bank account.

It’s the first of the month, the day my Amazon payments show up in my bank account.  T.S. Eliot wrote “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons,”….well, I measure my royalties by how many cups of coffee I can buy.  This month it’s two, as long as they’re from Tim Horton’s or McDonalds, and nowhere fancier.

I’m not complaining…. I knew I’d never make a lot of money at this, and if a few people are still buying one of the books each month, that’s good.  There are a few more dollars trickling in from paperback sales at different sources too.  This afternoon I’m heading downtown to a couple of other stores that I’ve heard are open to carrying indie author books, and to give a few copies away to the annual books-for-kids (up to 18 years, so Empire’s Daughter, as a young adult book, qualifies).  And I’ll probably stop at my favourite coffee shop….and blow my entire month’s Amazon royalties on one cup of coffee!

A Year of Reviewing: My Top Ten

I’ve reviewed 65 books in the last twelve months: these are my top ten, in alphabetical order.

I wrote my first review on this site a year ago this week. Since then, I’ve reviewed 65 books. These are my top ten, in alphabetical order. All these received 5 stars from me; coincidentally, this were the only 5-star reviews for the year, so I didn’t have to make a decision of what to include or leave out!

Citizen Magus, by Rob Steiner

Falcon Boy, by Barnaby Taylor

Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice, by Devon Michael

Magic of the Gargoyles, by Rebecca Chastain

Prophecy by Benjamin A. Sorenson

Sailor to a Siren, by Zoë Sumra

Sapphire Hunting, by J SenGupta

The Quantum Door, by Jonathan Ballagh

The World, by Robin Wildt Hansen

Tom Cat, by Amy Holden Jones

Shivers up my Spine

Got 10 minutes or so? Click on the link and listen!

You’re a writer. You write something – a short story, say; you think it’s good. Other people read it; you read it out loud at a couple of open mic nights. People like it.

But hearing it read by someone else, someone who is a really really good reader, is a whole new experience.bssh

Bob Daun at Bob’s Short Story Hour reads my short story A Spider’s Spinning so well, it sent shivers up my spine. (Which it is supposed to do – it’s a scary story – but I didn’t expect to have that reaction, given I’d written it.)

Got 10 minutes or so? Click on the link above and listen, while you’re cooking dinner or folding laundry or just sitting back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Not just to my story, but to the music and other readings on this episode. You won’t be disappointed.

Temporary Shift, by E.V. Baugh: A Review

Chick-flick sci-fi, essentially.

Temporary Shift by E.V. Baugh is a cute little sci-fi romance with appealing characters:temporary-shift
essentially, chick-flick sci-fi. Klutzy temp worker Sally is assigned to a private physics laboratory….and when she drops her phone and accidentally bumps into some controls as she bends to retrieve it, the results send her into a series of multi-universe existences, playing out different scenarios in her possible lives. The attractive physicist whose lab it was, and to whom she feels a distinct pull, is a part of all of these different lives: he’s clearly important to her, but in what way?

I’ll be clear; this isn’t technical science-fiction. The time-travel is a device to play out different scenarios in Sally’s life, and that’s all. It reminded me of the film Sliding Doors, but with more alternatives than just two parallel universes. It’s amusing and there’s just enough twist to the romantic angle to keep the ending from being completely obvious.

The writing is competent and the voice appropriate to the story. I had a few niggles with the pacing, with perhaps too much time in the first third of the book taken up by one (or two) too many different scenarios in Sally’s possible lives. Even after that, some of the story was repetitious, but perhaps with so many early scenarios, the author needed to clarify which issues were important. Characters are fairly stock for this type of book, but nicely described and realized.

Temporary Shift is a quick read, good for a lazy Sunday afternoon (alternatively, I’d find it a good commuter-train read, not so demanding of concentration you’d miss your stop) for those who enjoy a light romance. Overall, 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Faerie of Central Park, by Bruce Graw: A Review

The Faerie of Central Park is a gentle, amusing story, a romance in the old meaning of the term.

Dave is a first year student at Columbia University in New York city, unsure and adrift –faerie-central-park until the day an injured faerie lands on the windshield of his car. Thinking it is a high-quality doll he can use to impress a girl, he takes it home – only to find that it is an honest-to-goodness live faerie.

Tilly, the faerie, is the genius loci of Central Park, keeping its natural rhythms in place, taking care of the Land. She desperately needs to return – but Men are the age-old enemies of the Fey, so how can she trust Dave?

The Faerie of Central Park is a gentle, amusing story, a romance in the old meaning of the term. The story begins light-heartedly, describing Tilly’s actions in Central Park and Dave’s at university. Even after they meet, the story continues in a fairly predictable ‘human meets non-human and get to know each other’ vein, but well written and enjoyable.

The story bogged down for me in the middle, with too much description and repetition of situations that did not differ enough from each other to warrant inclusion. But it picked up again in the last third of the book as the story approached its climax and then came to an almost-satisfying conclusion.

I can’t fault the writing: author Bruce Graw constructs sentences and paragraphs with skill. The characters are as developed as one would expect in a light urban fantasy, with the characters of Tilly and Dave the most developed, as is appropriate. The e-book was extremely well edited, without the common errors that spell-check misses. Only the actual story-telling wobbled, in the too-long and too-repetitious middle section, and an ending that left me with one fairly large niggle, which I won’t describe so as to avoid spoilers.

Overall, three-and-a-half stars for a enjoyable urban fantasy, suitable for both young adults and older.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Ayahuasca, by Jonathan Huls: A Review

William S Burroughs did it better…but I can’t deny its fascination.

This actually may be the shortest review I ever write.  William S Burroughs did it better, ayahuascabut Ayahuasca is at least a linear narrative. If this makes no sense to you, go look up Burroughs and The Naked Lunch on Wikipedia. Do this before you buy the book, and consider that they share themes and actions.

I read Ayahuasca in one sitting, finding it rather horribly compelling. I didn’t like it (I didn’t like The Naked Lunch, either) but I can’t deny its fascination. Not for the easily disturbed….or maybe for the very disturbed. Four stars.

 

 

 

Community

Yesterday I saw a glimpse the other side of it, the heart and soul and sweat and generosity, of time and talent and spirit, that makes the festival.

Yesterday I read at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, in the tiny Ontario hamlet of Eden Mills. I was reading because the two pieces I had submitted to the Fringe contest, for not-yet-widely-published authors, had been chosen by the jury. Four poems in the first submission, and a short story in the second.

eden-mills-wall

I’ve been going to this festival on and off for the last twenty-five years. Eden Mills, a hamlet of many 19th century limestone and clapboard houses, spans the Eramosa River. Readings are done outdoors, mostly, in back yards running down to the river; in a sculpture garden, on the grounds of the old mill, in a re-purposed chapel. It’s been a way to spend a lovely September afternoon, listening to people read, eating ice cream, browsing the books in the publishers’ way.

Yesterday I saw a glimpse the other side of it, the heart and soul and sweat and generosity, of time and talent and spirit, that makes the festival. The Fringe readers were treated no differently from anyone else reading: we were invited to the authors’ lounge, (which had taken over the ground floor of a resident’s house) where there was coffee and breakfast pastries available when we got there, then lunch, and later wine and nibbles. Conversations were open and welcoming; I talked to Steven Burrows, another birder and author of birding mysteries (we talked about birding, not writing), and then I talked to the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, George Elliott Clarke, about the surreality of beginning a writing career in my fifties. (His take on it? It’s a good time; fewer distractions).

I read in a natural half-ampitheatre with the river behind me and people ranged in lawn chairs, on blankets, on the grass, on the hill in front of me. My readings both went well – I was sure I was going to stumble over the line “No survey stake or draughtsmen’s pen rules here” (try saying that!) in one of my poems, but I didn’t.

In between the readings, I mostly worked the table of Vocamus Press, the Guelph-based small press that also promotes and publicizes the work of other Guelph writers. This too is hard work, lots of chatting to people (many aspiring writers), selling a few books, handing out cards for the book promotion Vocamus is doing in October. I was a poor backup for Luke, the founder, whose natural salesmanship is far better than mine.

At the end of the day, in the middle of a conversation about literary theory and criticism with a young poet, after a glass of well-earned wine at the lounge, we took ourselves to the village hall for the dinner for all the authors and publishers. Salads, rolls, butter chicken and rice for the first course – and wine on the table, replenished when we’d emptied a bottle – but it was the desserts that were the crowning touch. Because residents of Eden Mills take it on to bake pies – goodness knows how many – for this annual event. How many pies do you need to feed more than fifty hungry writers, plus publishers, volunteers, and organizers? However many it is, they did it. And they were goooood.

There are two – or maybe three – intertwined communities here: the community of Eden Mills, which welcomes, organizes, hosts, bakes, provides food, opens homes, washes dishes (and puts up with writers taking over the village once a year): the supportive, involved people who don’t live, perhaps, in the village, but who are nonetheless integral parts of the Festival, whether it’s organizing the Fringe, arranging the buses, selling books on the Publishers’ Way, and doing a thousand other things I’m not aware of. And then there are the writers themselves, who were again most welcoming, generous, and open, with their time and their thoughts. I was proud to be, in a small way, part of these communities on Sunday.

Thank you, Eden Mills Writers’ Festival!

The Tom Cat, by Amy Holden Jones: A Review

The Tom Cat is a delightful romp of a story, without a missed beat or loose end.

Tom Knightly is a rich man-about-town who can’t commit; he breaks the heart of his tom-catfiancee by running out on her only a few days before the wedding. Ashamed of himself, he ends up in a bar called The Black Cat, where he meets a graceful, beautiful older woman apparently on the prowl, a cougar. They drink together, and the next morning, Tom wakes up….as a cat.

As a cat, Tom survives a few escapades before making it back to the apartment of his fiancee, Kaylie. The fat old labrador, Henry, who serves as a guard dog, welcomes him, and begins to teach him a few life lessons. Tom will need to learn what true love and sacrifice is before he can become human again, and win his Kaylie back.

The Tom Cat is a delightful romp of a story, without a missed beat or loose end. Sure, the characters are a bit two-dimensional, and there’s no real doubt it’s going to end happily, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Author Amy Holden Jones has a number of screenwriting credits to her name, and the professionalism is apparent. In fact, The Tom Cat itself would make a good summer movie. (Twenty years ago, I would have cast Hugh Grant in the title role.)

This isn’t great literature, but I couldn’t fault it. Five stars to this light, offbeat romance.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.