Hugh Ashton is a fulltime technical-writer/journalist working out of Kamakura, Japan, but he also moonlights as a part-time lecturer in computer-based presentation and hypermedia techniques at Sophia University, Tokyo. Hugh’s first outing into fiction came this year (2009) with the release of Beneath Gray Skies, which is currently attracting much attention. Set in a world in which the American Civil War did not occur, Beneath Gray Skies is a tale of an alliance being brokered between Nazi Germany and the fictional Confederate States of America, with potentially catastrophic results for the free world. Hugh kindly agree to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Links to my review of Beneath Gray Skies and to Hugh’s website are available at the end of the interview.
Q: What first gave you the idea for Beneath Gray Skies?
I’ve always liked the “what if” questions of alternate history, but Beneath Gray Skies started as a “why” book. As I say in the preface, the G.W. Bush years provided me with a lot of food for thought. I have many American friends, but the country was turning into something with which I could never be friends. Why? Where did all this aggression and intolerance come from?
When you look at the question a little more closely, you find that a lot of the less desirable characteristics of the USA are rooted in traditional Southern US culture. I have Southern friends, but as a Briton, I find a lot of Southern thought patterns to be most disturbing. I think it was Tom Wolfe in A Man in Full who claimed that air-conditioning has moved US capital and businesses to the South—can you imagine CNN in a non-air-conditioned Atlanta, for example?—and thereby spread Southern values more widely throughout the USA. I may be wrong about that source, but the basic idea makes sense to me.
So what would have happened if the South had survived as a separate entity, facing the world? And how would it survive? Despite Kevin Willmott’s movie C.S.A., I cannot imagine that the South would have been able to impose its values on the North and hang onto power had it won the Civil War – and that last is a big “if” as well, given the Confederacy’s lack of an industrial base.
But the main thing is that I wanted to tell a story that people would enjoy.
And judging by readers’ reactions so far, I’ve done it. The reviews I’ve had very often include the word “enjoy” or something similar. And that gives me much more pleasure than reading words like “sophisticated” (read “boring”) or “advanced” (read “incomprehensible”) or “meaningful” (read “didactic”).
Yes, there are some messages in Beneath Gray Skies, but I do hope that they don’t hit you over the head in their lack of subtlety and that the story stands up on its own as a tale to be enjoyed. To quote E.M.Forster, “yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story”.
Q: How much research did the book require?
Maybe not as much as you might imagine. Yes, I had to look up a few details about the airship, but I knew much of it already from my reading a long time back, and it was in my head already, just requiring a nudge to come out. One thing I didn’t know before, and which really helped to shape the second half of the book when I found out, was where helium comes from. The fact that so much of the world’s helium at that time (the 1920s) came from the area I had delineated as the Confederacy was an immensely significant fact as far as the plot was concerned.
Now, the Nazi side of things was another matter. If you want an example of a meticulous researcher, look at Len Deighton. His knowledge of the Nazi bureaucracy and thought patterns (not to mention military technology) is better than that of many academic historians, and that’s true whether he’s writing fiction, such as Bomber or Winter, or non-fiction, such as Fighter or Blitzkrieg. I was nowhere near as painstaking in my characterizations of the named Nazis, which are basically the received stereotypes that we know from history—with the possible exception of Hitler, whom I made somewhat more sympathetic than he probably was in real life. Not because I have any liking or sympathy whatsoever for him and the Nazis, but because it’s hard to make his personal and political success credible if you portray him as a complete foaming-at-the-mouth carpet-chewing bastard all the time.
I am not now, and never have been, a member of any Intelligence service. The British and American Intelligence services I describe are about as real as Ian Fleming’s 007 environment, i.e. they’re fictional—hopefully rational and logical, but bearing little resemblance to the real thing.
Q: What part of the writing process was the most difficult?
Revision. No doubt about it. I usually find revision to be the hardest part of writing, and with a story like Gray Skies, you have to make sure that a change to one part doesn’t produce unnoticed knock-on effects elsewhere. Especially with so many characters, and so many different points of view, you must make sure that the continuity holds up.
Just for fun, I’ve just gone through the book and counted, and I find I’ve included 75 or so speaking characters. Not every one of them is a fully rounded personality, but they all have a part to play, and I think they come over reasonably well.
Funnily enough, keeping track of the different points of view in the initial draft wasn’t difficult at all. It was almost as if I was writing a number of different novels on the same subject, and I was thinking myself into the parts—the characters—as I wrote them. That’s why (with all due modesty) the dialog works as well as it does. Stanislavski fiction?
Q: Is dialog important to your writing?
Vital. It’s how we communicate with each other as human beings. If you just describe how people feel inside, with lots of italics to represent thought, you run the risk of ending up with a very mushy stream-of-consciousness type of writing. If you simply describe actions, there’s no depth. But even a simple piece of dialog, like “Look, Jane, look. See Spot run,” implies that here is something (Spot running) that interests Dick, the speaker, enough to tell someone else (Jane) that it’s worthy of her attention. And with these six words, we know quite a lot about Dick, about his relationship to Jane, and to the world he sees.
But it’s important to do it right. I really admire the way that John le Carré can place a speaker instantly in the complex British class system with a few words. Elmore Leonard does the same, and he’s smart. He has a rule that the only tag should be “said” – no “exclaimed” or “cried” or “interrupted”. And no adverbs, either (one of his characters in Freaky Deaky claims to have written bad historical novels “full of rape and adverbs”).
The spoken words should stand on their own without these crutches. Leonard also says you should avoid dialect. I didn’t follow all these rules in Beneath Gray Skies, especially the one about dialect, but I hope that I have learned something from his prescriptions.
Q: With the benefit of hindsight, is there any part of the book that you would change or anything you would add if you could start over tomorrow?
I’m not sure about whether I’d include the romance between Christopher Pole and Virginia Wasserstein. It adds another dimension to the plot, but is it a necessary dimension? I’m not so sure. I like both the characters, and I liked the idea of the romance at the time. There’s no sex in Beneath Gray Skies — it’s not that sort of book — and maybe I felt that some sort of emotional bonding was needed, but in retrospect, did it get in the way?
I wouldn’t change the multiple points of view. As I said, I enjoyed writing the book that way, if only as a technical exercise, and I think the book is richer for it. If there is a main protagonist, it’s David Slater, but he certainly doesn’t appear in every scene, and he’s more of a connecting thread than he is a protagonist.
Q: Will your next project be a sequel to Beneath Gray Skies, or would you like to attempt something new? And, when can we expect to see your next work?
My next novel will be set in Tokyo—I say “my next” because it’s the one I’m working on and almost certainly it will be the one to appear early next year. I’ve just rewritten the end to take account of real-life events (Lehman, Bear Stearns, etc.) and remove a fictional plot device (Tokyo earthquake). It’s set in Tokyo in 2008, and it features high finance, technology, sex and violence. I know a fair amount about some of these things. The protagonist is not me, though we share a number of things in common, and it’s certainly no roman à clef, despite being based on some of my experiences here in Japan.
But I definitely want to come up with a sequel to Gray Skies, or at least a novel set in the same timeline. I am currently exploring the possibility of V.I.Lenin’s surviving his second stroke, leaving the Bolshevik leadership battle more open that it was. Maybe Trotsky could have pushed Stalin to the back seat of history, given a slightly different set of circumstances. And what would a Trotskyist Russia and surrounding countries have looked like?
Would it be a USSR, or more like a Warsaw Pact alliance of Bolshevik-led republics? Maybe the Japanese would have moved faster into Manchuria and points north. I’m going to have to look into this. I’m relatively knowledgeable about the USSR, especially the Stalinist period, and I think I’ll be able to capture the dynamics of a non-Stalinist Bolshevik state.
Someone compared Beneath Gray Skies to Clive Cussler’s work, which is a compliment, as long as you haven’t read too much Cussler. He has one or two really good ideas, but the books turned into a sort of sausage machine after a while. But one thing where there is a point of contact is in the technology—Gray Skies features a Zeppelin—my next alternate history book will feature some sort of steampunk or dieselpunk type technology—large, dramatic and helping to drive the plot along. I have some ideas in my head, but I’ll keep them quiet for now.
Q: In what direction are you intending to move your writing career from now on?
I wish someone would pay me to be a full-time novelist! I love doing it, and it would be great if someone would buy the film rights to Beneath Gray Skies for an enormous sum of money and set me free to write the stories in my head.
Failing that, something that I have never done and I would like to do is ghostwrite a celebrity’s autobiography. You know, “My Life, by A. Celeb, as told to Hugh Ashton”. Basically, live in that person’s pocket for a few months. Hang out with them. Get drunk with them. Listen to their stories. I enjoy interviewing for magazine articles, and getting to the heart of what makes people tick. I also really enjoy talking to people who are experts in their field, even if I know nothing about the topic where they are expert.
One of my most satisfactory interviews was with an older Japanese man who makes the whistles used in the FIFA World Cup matches. I knew nothing about whistle making, but the man’s enthusiasm was really infectious. So if you’re a celebrity and you think your career needs an autobiography, or you are a publisher who needs a ghostwriter for a project like this, I’m available and willing.
Review of Beneath Gray Skies: http://www.chrisbelton.com/blog/?p=34
Hugh Ashton Website: http://beneathgrayskies.com/