Monday, December 23, 2013

Interview with Samuel Hawley

Today I'd like to welcome Samuel Hawley to Pure Jonel.
Let's get to know him a bit better.

Q ~ Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Well, I was born and grew up in Korea, where my parents were missionaries. I earned BA and MA degrees in history from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, then spent eighteen years back in East Asia, teaching English and doing a lot of travelling. My wife and I backpacked through most of Asia (two adventurous visits to India, trekking in Nepal, island hopping through the Philippines, trips to Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, etc.) We finally packed it in and returned to Canada in 2007. Our parents were getting old by then and we didn’t want to be so far away. I’ve been a full-time writer ever since. My books include The Imjin War (2005); America’s Man in Korea (2007); Inside the Hermit Kingston (2007); Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties (2010); I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human (2011); and Bad Elephant Far Stream (2013)

Q ~ What’s your all-time favourite pastime?

In addition to travelling, I love movies—watching them, reading about them, studying their history. In fact, that’s where Bad Elephant Far Stream came from. I was doing research into the early history of cinema, looking for possible story ideas, when I stumbled on the 1903 Thomas Edison film, “Electrocuting an Elephant,” which showed the real elephant Topsy’s execution. Cinema also influences the way that I write. My nonfiction books have been called “cinematic” and “like a movie,” which is gratifying because that’s what I intended.

Q ~ What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?

That would definitely be my first book, The Imjin War. It was a huge undertaking that consumed four years of my life to research and write and another two years to publish—so much time and effort that I would never have begun had I known what would be required. It was a big, sprawling story, never much written about before in English, about Japan’s late 16th century invasion of Korea and attempted conquest of China, a cataclysmic event which engulfed the whole of East Asia and resulted in the death of perhaps a sixth of Korea’s population. The finished book ended up at nearly 700 pages.

And that was only the start. Getting The Imjin War published was just as big a challenge. In the end, I had to make it happen myself. First, I got a publishing grant from the CEO of a Korean corporation whose ancestor had been the prime minister of Korea during the Imjin War. I then approached the Royal Asiatic Society of Korea with a proposal to publish The Imjin War at no cost to themselves. They agreed. I then approached the Institute of East Asian Studies Press at UC Berkeley with a proposal to co-publish the book with the RAS at no cost to themselves. They agreed. I then went ahead and published the book, adding my own money to the publishing grant to cover the cost of the first print run of 2,000 hardback copies. And so the book finally came out, and to my immense satisfaction it found an enthusiastic following and is still sought after. And here’s the interesting end to the story: I ended up earning quite a bit more from The Imjin War than from any subsequent book I’ve written. It worked out this way because I wrote the publishing contract myself, retaining all rights to the book and giving me the lion’s share of the profits, which seemed only fair.

Q ~ What is your favourite genre to read?

I guess history and biography would be at the top of the list. To me, reading about how other people have lived their lives is interesting and instructive—and important. I mean, what is more important to us as individuals than how we live our lives, how we spend our years? And what better way to acquire insights into this than to read about what others who have gone before have done?

Q ~ So why did you turn to fiction with “Bad Elephant Far Stream”?

Actually, it wasn’t my initial intention to write a novel. I set out to write a biography of the elephant Topsy. I found, however, that to “get into” this elephant like into a human subject, I had to resort to fiction. I mean, elephant’s don’t leave behind letters and diaries and the like for historians to use. If I had stuck to nonfiction, I would have ended up telling the stories of all the humans around Topsy and not of Topsy herself. And telling her story was what I wanted to do.

This need to “get inside” Topsy to write her life story coincided with a longstanding desire of mine to write a novel. With this story, for the first time, I needed the flexibility of fiction, so that’s what I wrote. It kind of pushed me into doing what I’d been wanting to do all along. And now that I’ve done it, I want to do more.

Q ~ How did you begin writing professionally?

It was back in 1990, when I was working as an English teacher in Tokyo. I started writing for magazines and newspapers there, travel and cultural pieces, and I really enjoyed it. I loved to go roving in Tokyo, researching and taking photos for an article on some obscure aspect of Japanese culture. I did pieces on things like sumo heya, the stables where sumo wrestlers live and train, andyakatabune, the traditional party boats that cruise up and down Tokyo’s rivers, and daimyo clocks, a Japanese adaptation of the mechanical clock which told time in the traditional manner, with hours varying in length with the seasons. And travel articles like “Snoring to Glory on the Mahalmaxi Express,” “Sri Lanka’s Bit of Britain,” and “The Red-Lipped Man of Varanasi.” By 1994, when me wife and I left Japan for Korea, I was making a nice little income on the side from this (airline magazines paid well back then) and having a great time.

Q ~ When you write, do you lay out a solid outline before beginning, or start writing and iron out the kinks later?
I like to have a solid outline before I begin actual writing. For me, that means perhaps five single-spaced pages giving a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story. All my books have been nonfiction (or, in the case of Bad Elephant Far Stream, based on a true story) so I’ve need to do a lot of preliminary research before ever putting figurative pen to paper. This gives me a lot of time to think about how the story will unfold, so preparing an outline comes pretty naturally. Of course, things can change once I start writing and there are always kinks to iron out. But I definitely need to have that outline before I start.

Q ~ What prompted or inspired you to write your stories? Are any of them rooted in some sort of truth?

I’m interested in exploring life journeys. It’s what we’re all on, a journey through life in a world that is imperfect and at times cruel. The journey goes well for some, with good choices and/or good fortune leading to happiness and contentment. And it goes badly for others, with bad choices and/or bad luck leading to sadness and pain. All we can do is make the best of it and struggle through. In terms of a basic truth, I guess you could say that, being a Westerner who has spent much of my life in Asia, my beliefs are a combination of Christianity and Buddhism: I believe in God and in life after death, but I also see things as a great wheel, a cycle of existence.

Both of these things inform how I wrote Bad Elephant Far Stream. It’s the story of a life journey—but of an animal. There is nothing cute or cuddling about it. I wanted to tell the life story of an animal with the same seriousness that I would the life story of a human.

Q ~ How is “Bad Elephant Far Stream” different from other animal stories?

Stories about animals often aren’t really about animals. They’re about the animal’s owner or keeper or friend, with the animal serving as a prop. The story is really about a human character’s journey or quest for redemption or whatever. Or perhaps the author really does present the animal’s journey, but in a way that is overly human-centric. A major and widespread conceit, for example, is that animals need us humans; that our companionship is important to them. While this may well be true for pets, in a larger sense it seems false; a mere reflection of our own human need to feel close to animals, and our paternalistic compulsion to feel that they need us and want us to stroke them. In Bad Elephant Far Stream I tried to break free from these constraints.

Q ~ What are you working on now?

I’m writing a drama/thriller novel entitled Homeowner With a Gun. It’s about an average American guy who guns down two gang members who break into his house, thereby setting off a chain of events that threatens to destroy him and tear his family apart. I got the idea for it from a newspaper item I stumbled on about just such an incident that occurred in New York State. The police speculated that maybe the intruders, who were gang members, had simply gone to the wrong address. “It happens a lot more often than you’d think,” said one of the cops. I thought that would be a great premise for a story.

By the way, I’m going to need beta readers for this book when it’s done, so if any readers out there are interested, drop me a line.

Find out more about Samuel on his blog.

A bit about Bad Elephant Far Stream:

Bad Elephant Far Stream is an animal story for grown-ups, a novel about the odyssey of a circus elephant, told from her own perspective, through her own eyes. Inspired by the true story of the circus elephant Topsy, the subject of the 1903 Thomas Edison film "Electrocution of an Elephant," it begins in the forests of Ceylon in the late 1860s with the capture of a baby elephant known to her own kind as Far Stream. She is taken to America chained in a ship, a journey of several months, and sent to the Adam Forepaugh Circus in Philadelphia. There, Far Stream embarks on a new life under the big top, appearing first as "Baby Annie," then, when she grows bigger, as "Topsy," part of Forepaugh’s famed elephant dancing quadrille. She crisscrosses North America for thirty years with the circus, experiencing hardships, kidnapping, escapes and adventure. But when she comes to outweigh her keepers by a factor of forty--it's hard not to hurt somebody. It's hard not to be "bad."

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