STUART AKEN: A SEARED SKY IS ABOUT HYPOCRISY, LOYALTY AND LOVE
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Stuart Aken is one of the most interesting multi genres writers. He is capable to switch between fantasy, horror, thriller and erotica. We will present his trilogy A Seared Sky in the next lines. It’s a real pleasure to welcome our next guest.
– Stuart, what is your last fantasy trilogy A Seared Sky about?
– My original title for the series was ‘Skyfire’, but I discovered a number of other books had this as part of their title, so I opted for ‘A Seared Sky‘, which essentially says the same thing. The ‘Skyfire’ in the tale is a returning comet, linked as an omen to the major religion of the main characters on their quest to fulfil a sacred mission. Written from the points of view of 8 of the top players, the tale follows the progress of three couples as they face new ideas, physical dangers, strange customs and traditions, and the invisible but ubiquitous influence of the Mindtalkers, a group with a talent for telepathy.
The story deals with the themes of hypocrisy, loyalty and love, amongst others, but it’s told as an adventure quest involving travel over wild seas and distant lands. The protagonists encounter pirates, wild beasts, strange tribes, cheating traders, and natural events such as storms, volcanic eruptions and snow in the high mountains, as well as the rivalry and hostility of different cultures and alternative religions. A romantic thread runs through the tale as three of the male protagonists find their women in danger under varied circumstances. Strong women also find they must face real hazards in order to keep their beliefs intact.
– How did you decide to write the story?
– Many years ago, whilst I was seeking a way to express some ideas about organised religion, coincidence introduced me to epic fantasy. The genre seemed suited to the themes I wanted to explore, so I started my project by developing a map of the imagined land I wished to use as a setting for my story. That map, drawn in ink on an A1 size sheet of white sugar paper, I allowed to deteriorate under the influence of sun and atmosphere whilst I created background details of the history, philosophy, social structure, myths and legends, and traditions of the main groups of characters. I went on to draw up character sketches for my main protagonists and antagonists so that I could get to know them well. When I was finally ready to write the actual books, the map had taken on the look of ancient parchment, as I’d hoped. I folded and stained it until it appeared like a real, used map of the time and place of my story, and this geographical guide provided me with further inspiration during the writing. It was also used in the illustrations by the designer of the book covers.
– What was the biggest challenge during the write up process?
– Whilst writing the story, I developed a cast of over a hundred named characters. Not all at once, of course; but characters kept popping out of the woodwork and insisting they had a role in the events that were unfolding. The tale takes place over a period of around 3 years. Keeping track of where everyone was at any given time was a real task. I devised a spreadsheet with the character names down the side and the dates across the top, along with moon phases and the dates of the appearance of the Skyfire. In each cell, I made a brief note of what each individual was doing on that date. I also used hyperlinks to associate the listed names with their individual character sketches so that I could ensure I always had a way to check up on physical and personality details of each person.
– Tell us something more about your main character? Is it close to someone from your real life?
– There are really eight main characters who carry the story and whose parts in the story are vital to the tale. As with all cast members, I suspect each of them carries some aspect of the author, me, in their biography. None of them is based on any single person I know, but all are based on combinations of people I’ve known personally, found in other works, or seen in films and theatre. I think we generally develop our characters from a rich mix of humanity and this is what allows writers to make the people who inhabit their works into interesting and empathetic individuals.
– How much time did you need to finish the story and to publish it?
I started, as I mentioned, with the map. I drew that more than 30 years ago. The research and preparation probably took another 5 years on and off. I began writing the books around 25 years ago, but life events, divorce and remarriage, a lengthy period of illness and the birth of a daughter all intervened. I was also writing other books at the same time. But I finally started to concentrate on the trilogy about 5 or 6 years prior to publication. The work contains over 600,000 words and I wrote another 300,000 as background research material. I had all three books in draft form before I approached a publisher and already had the first book at the final editing stage when I placed it with Fantastic Books Publishing. Dan Grubb, the owner, loved it at once and took it, his team of editors began work and the rest is history.
– What are your other published literary works?
– I started writing fiction with a play, ‘Hitchhiker’, which was a contest winner broadcast by the BBC on Radio 4 nationally in Britain. But my first published novel was ‘Breaking Faith‘, a romantic thriller set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the Yorkshire Dales in England, during the year of a heat-wave, 1976. It tells the story of a young innocent girl and the conflicts that arise when she becomes involved with a local glamour photographer and his misogynist assistant.
‘Ten Tales for Tomorrow‘ is an anthology of speculative, mostly dark, fiction. Though there is black humour as well.
‘But, Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is a short seasonal tale of mild lust and gentle humour, which I wrote as a free gift for my readers. It’s still free.
‘Ten Love Tales’ contains gentle love stories, generally with the romantic genre requirement of the happy ending.
‘Sensuous Touches’ is my effort at erotica in anthology form. These are mostly romantic erotic encounters.
‘Heir to Deaths Folly’ is a gothic horror short intended to give readers the shivers.
‘The Methuselah Strain’ I published initially as a science fiction novella in digital form. It concerns the search by an IT expert for her ideal man in a world populated by androids more perfect than the long-lived humans who rely on them. My publisher loved the book and recently republished it with an additional section I wrote at his request. Currently an ebook, there’s an intention to make this available as a printed book at some stage in the future.
I’ve also contributed to a number of other anthologies, and designed, edited and contributed to a collection of fiction by my writing group, Hornsea Writers; a volume called ‘A Sackful of Shorts’.
My latest title, ‘M.E. and me; Chronic Fatigue: My Recovery After 10 Years’, is now out as an ebook and in print. It gives a personal account of the condition and its affects on my life and those around me. It’s also a guide for those involved in this much misunderstood ailment. 50% of the proceeds are going to a charity that helped me: Action For ME.
– Who are you?
– Do any of us know who we really are, I wonder?
Born against the odds to a widowed mother in a neighbour’s bed and raised in an old railway wagon perched on its wheels on a crumbling cliff top, I had what I recall as a magical childhood: probably not the optimum background for a writer. Brought up by a gifted mother who painted for pleasure and knew what love meant and a stepfather who lacked imagination but loved and educated me in things natural and worldly, I feel I was privileged in spite of the relative material poverty of my early years. I’ve had my share of tragedy, loss, love, illness, adventure, luck of both types, and hard experiences to provide a life that informs my writing with what I hope is reality. I class myself as a writer who refuses to be handcuffed to any one genre, allowing the story to choose the slot it will occupy. Stuart Aken is a pen name, fashioned partly to honour the father I never knew: his name was Ken. I love to use imagination in the construction of stories. My fiction is the only place I bend the truth and, after love, remains my raison d’être. A husband, father, novelist, playwright, short story writer, blogger, word wrangler, and romantic open-minded optimistic radical liberal, I’ve been described by some as dangerous to know. I take a professional approach to authorship but won’t allow that discipline to erode the very real pleasure I gain from creating stories and having readers respond with positive enjoyment.
– What are your writing habits?
– In general, I rise relatively early and write before I do anything else. That habit was recently interrupted by a house move and all that went with such disruption, but I’ve returned to it now and feel happier as a result. I write as a pantster. For those unfamiliar with the term, that means I don’t write to a plot. I form a very loose framework, devise and engage with my characters, and then allow them to populate the setting I imagine as I set traps, barriers and problems for them to overcome. I never edit during the creative phase and only return to the beginning of the story when I’ve written the entire work. This means I then do an extensive edit, often re-writing large sections of the story to incorporate elements that have come to mind as I’m writing. It involves a lot of editing, but I prefer to work this way and believe it creates stories that are character driven, rather than the rather formulaic type of writing that can emerge from plot-driven stories.
– Are you satisfied by the sales of your books?
– I’m not JK Rowling or Stephen King, so no. It’s a commonly held belief that writing is a way to earn good money. Most of us who write understand this is pure fiction. In the UK, the average income for a writer is about half the minimum wage. We do it because we love it and, to some extent, because we’re compelled to write by some inner need that has control over our lives!
– What are you doing to promote your book by the best possible way?
– I loathe promotional activity. I hate marketing. But I want people to read my books. So, I have a ‘platform’ from which I tell the reading world about my books, my website at http://www.stuartaken.net. I indulge in Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and have a presence on Pinterest, Google+, and Goodreads, which I believe is the best place for a writer to meet readers. My books are generally available through retailers both on the high street and online. Really, I’d rather be writing than travelling to sell my books. However, I’ll be at the Fantasticon 2015 event in Hull in late October, where I’ll sell signed editions and do a reading to visitors. And I recently wrote a personal memoir around my period of ME/CFS to help raise both awareness of the condition and money for, Action For M.E., a charity that helped support me. I’m also taking part in the Great North Run to raise funds for the same charity. That happens in the north of England on 13th September. (If anyone would like to make a donation, you’ll find details on my blog. Thank you.)
– When will we see your next novel?
– I’m currently working on a new science fiction romance story set on Mars in the near future. I’m just 30,000 words into the novel at present, so I expect that to be complete and ready for the market some time before the end of the year.
– Is it easy to switch between different genres as you write fantasy, romance, horror, erotica, thriller?
– One of the reasons I avoided traditional publishing initially was my dislike of the way that such houses try to force their writers into pigeonholes. My interests and ideas cover a wide range of styles of story and I don’t want to be made to conform to some editor’s idea of what I should write. For me, the story chooses the genre. I write the work and only then consider which of the many groups it will fit into. I was very fortunate to be taken on by Fantastic Books Publishing, as Dan Grubb is a great respecter of the talent of his authors and gives them the opportunity to write what they feel is their best work. He works by forming a partnership with his authors, sharing the royalties equally between his publishing company and the author, with 10% of profits going to a charity nominated by the author. It’s a fine deal and one that suits me well.
– When was the first time you understood that writing is in your blood?
– At the age of 14 I took part in a contest at my school and won the first prize, a cup given annually for the best story. And I used to make up stories for my brother who is 9 years my junior. But my first writing, done when I was 19, was illustrated features for the British photographic press. It wasn’t until I entered a national competition and won 3rd prize and the broadcast of my play that I considered actually writing fiction.
– What or who have been the major influences in your fiction writing?
– I’ve always been a reader. I’d exhausted the children’s section of our local library at age 11 and asked the librarian, a rather fearsome lady, if I could use the adult library (generally open only to those over 14 years old). She agreed, as I was a regular book borrower, but with the caveat that I must pass any book in front of her before taking it out. It says something about her liberal mindedness that my first book was Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and that she allowed me to borrow this classic unopposed. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the book is a fictional account of the First World War, written from the German point of view, and contains graphic violence, expletives and explicit references to prostitution amongst other things.
During my long life I’ve read thousands of books, of course. And many of the authors have influenced me. I’ve been deeply moved, amused, distressed, entertained, terrified, and put through any emotion you can imagine by those good writers. I’ve learned a good deal from books, educating myself through reading after I left school at the age of 16 on the untimely death of my mother. It’s impossible to name a single author who’s been an influencer, but I think I can probably cite a few who’ve been more influential than others: William Horwood, Graham Greene, Stephen King, Jane Austen, William Golding and Iris Murdoch. But so many others have given me pleasure with their words; too many to list here.
Other influences on my writing have been life events such as divorce, redundancy, illness, loss of parents and siblings, parenthood and meeting the love of my life second time around.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you, Ognian, for this chance to put my ideas and work in front of a wider audience. Exposure is vital to all modern authors and is so often a way of meeting new readers. So, thank you very much.