Sunday, August 19, 2012

Please Welcome Hugh Ashton

Thank you for joining me on my blog today, Hugh, so we can learn about you and how you got into writing, and everything or anything else you would like your readers to know about you.  Before we get started, Hugh, would you like to give us a quick list of all your books available for purchase and where we might find them?

I have three full-length novels available as self-published books:
  • Beneath Gray Skies – an alternative history in which the American Civil War was never fought, and the Confederacy survives as a pariah state into the 1920s.
  • At the Sharpe End – a techno-thriller set in 2008 Tokyo
  • Red Wheels Turning – a prequel to Beneath Gray Skies, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia

At the start of this year, I signed with Inknbeans Press. The original intention was to publish
  • Tales of Old Japanese – 5 short stories about older Japanese people

However, almost as a joke, on January 3 this year (2012), I wrote a Sherlock Holmes pastiche (this is the technical term among Sherlockians for a Holmes story written in the style of the original) – The Odessa Business – Inknbeans picked it up, and asked me to write a couple more shorts. These three became:
  • Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD  - three stories published at the end of January, then followed by:
  • More from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD – another three published a little more than a month later, and then:
  • Secrets from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD – four stories published about June

By the time this chat gets published, they will be joined by
  • The Darlington Substitution – a full-length Holmes novel  

All available from the usual suspects – and I have a Web site at and another at - you can even order signed copies from me!

Your At the Sharpe End sounds like one I might be interested as well as your Red Wheels Turning.  I say the latter because I studied Russian language for six months while in the US Navy.  When I have time from my own writing, I will have to look into your Sherlock Holmes series, they sound interesting, too.

Well, I tend to write about the past, because I live in Japan – we can talk about that a little later – and I am out of touch with the society of the UK or the US. It somehow seems easier for me to research the past than it is for me to write realistically about modern society in the West. So Red Wheels Turning and the Holmes books are naturals. I wish my Russian was better – I envy people who can speak it and read it. I can really only spell things out from the original documents. There’s a lot of material I would like to have available to me for research and background, but I can’t read it.

When did you first start writing? Or how did you get into writing; was it something you have always wanted to do?

I have written fiction for a long time, but I have made my living from writing non-fiction for over quarter of a century. Technical writing, magazine articles, reports, and the like. Writing as a craft, as opposed to an art, gives you control over the tools of your trade – words. Random streams of consciousness and “letting it all out” are not my style at all – I’m a craftsman, not an artist.

When did you publish your first book?

The first novel I published (not the first I wrote) was published in 2008 – written in 2006, if I remember rightly. It spent over a year with an agent trying to sell it – and I then decided to self-publish through Lulu. I had a lot of fun doing that, and I learned a lot from going with Lulu, which I parlayed into experience with Lightning Source. It was written as the result of a slow summer (being self-employed, you get these dry spells from time to time) and I used the time productively, I think. It was either that or surf the Web endlessly and waste my time.

Can we turn that the other way round? Yes, I make ebook versions of my writing available as well as print. I am old-fashioned, and I live in an old-fashioned country where ebooks hardly exist. I own a Kobo, but I prefer paper. It’s cheap enough now to produce a print book. You’re cutting yourself off from a potential audience if you ignore paper. It’s too easy to live in the Facebook/Twitter world and the blogosphere and imagine that the whole world is like you. Remember, even in the largest e-reader market, only about 1/3 of the population owns an e-reader. Also, I think there is a real advantage in producing a paper version – you see the work with new eyes. And no, I don’t think 99c books are a Good Thing. 99c for short stories, maybe, but not for novels.

I sell between two and three times as many ebooks as I do paper copies – don’t know what this says about my readership, but it’s a very different ratio from that of many others.

I totally agree with you about how authors are missing out if they do not put their books to print. There are still a lot of readers out there that prefer paper and can’t afford an ereader device. I sell more in print than I do ebooks and that could be because of where I set it, but don’t really know.

I think it has to do with the genre as well. Holmes readers are a pretty traditional lot, on the whole. Maybe your readers, too, though romance is typically a good market for the ebook readers, I believe. But you learn so much about your writing from the process of getting it ready for print.

How do you feel about the formatting process with print and/or ebook?  Do you do your own and if not, how do you get help for this to be accomplished?

I love typography. I do typesetting myself for my books using Adobe’s InDesign – I’m learning how InDesign works for ebooks as well. Otherwise I use Calibre or the Smashwords Meatgrinder. Microsoft Word is not a suitable tool to use for print design – it’s like knocking in screws with a hammer. Sorry, you’re getting me on one of my hobby horses. Many self-published paper books look self-published, simply because they don’t look or feel right – if a book is worth paying money for, then you as the author/publisher should be prepared to spend some time making it look “right” (whatever that means). I am lucky in that Inknbeans goes along with this philosophy, and we work together to make the books as attractive as possible. We have worked hard to make The Darlington Substitution mimic the look and feel of the original Strand Magazine stories, using slightly oddball fonts and typography (by modern standards) to achieve that goal.

I have always been curious as to how you came about to be living in Japan? That is one country I would love to visit and may have to add it to my bucket list.

I came here in 1988 to write manuals for a major electronics manufacturer at a documentation subcontractor of that company. It was a renewable 2-year contract. I stayed with the company for 6 years, went to work for Japan’s first ISP for a year, putting in UNIX hosts, and then after a couple of false starts went self–employed as a tech writer/journalist/speechwriter, etc. I choose words and put them in order for my living, in other words. Some day, I will be able to put down “author” or “fiction writer” as a profession. Right now, until a noticeable proportion of my income is derived from selling my fiction, that would be pretentious.

Oh, and I have been married to a Japanese lady, Yoshiko, for the past 19 years.

And so it seems you like Japan enough to stay. May I ask you where you moved from; where did you grow up?

I’m British. I was born in Kent, closer to France than to London, in fact, but we moved around a bit inside England (never lived in Wales or Scotland). I took my degree at Cambridge, and I stayed there after I had graduated – it was an exciting time to be around, if you were into computers. All the “home computer” makers were around at that time in “Silicon Fen”, as it was known. How much of all of that has rubbed off on me, I am not sure. I’m much more British than American, anyway, but I am bilingual in a lot of my non-fiction writing.

When I was stationed in Iceland in 1981, I got a chance to go to England. We landed first at Mildenhall Air Force Base, then took a train from Shippea Hill Train Station passing Cambridge and on into London. Seeing Cambridge was a wonderful opportunity, but wished I had more time then to have gotten off the train to take a tour of it; it is such a beautiful, awe-inspiring University. I have to tell you my father was a computer programmer, but he studied computer science in Oklahoma, not Cambridge. 

Do you have any advice for a person wanting to get their book(s) published?

I take it that by “get their book published" you mean something other than self-publishing? In order to attract a publisher, whether it is a smaller, independent publisher such as Inknbeans, or whether you are talking about a more traditional larger publisher, you should make sure that your work is as good as possible. This is not just a matter of running the file through a spell-checker, obviously. It may be that you have told such a good story that an agent or publisher will be prepared to overlook obvious mechanical difficulties such as poor grammar, spelling and so on. The odds are, however, that they will not. After all, if it takes a lot of work to turn the manuscript into a finished book, thereby eating up resources and money, it is unlikely that the manuscript will be selected for publication if there is another manuscript with a story equally as good, requiring far less work to turn it into a viable product.

It is worth reading and understanding the different rules that publishers and agents impose on authors. Some of these may seem arbitrary, and they may well be intended to reduce the height of the slush pile that sits on the desk of every agent and editor. If you have faith in your own work, though, then play by the rules. I've been on both sides of the fence, as a self-published author, as well as a writer writing to deadlines and following imposed editorial standards. You learn by doing. Having articles that you have written come back with a load of red pen scribbled all over them helps you to learn the craft of writing, as opposed to the art of imagination.

I'm not saying that self-publishing should be a last resort–there are many good reasons why you may wish to put your work out by yourself–but do make sure this is not purely an exercise in vanity. In the case of my first book, I was very reluctant to self-publish. In fact, I would never have considered self-publishing had it not been for the fact that a professional literary agent had believed in the book enough to try to sell it to major publishers. The fact that she could not sell it was regarded by both her and me as more a lack of opportunity (working out of Japan, one's options are somewhat limited) than as a fundamental flaw in the book itself. In any event, the book was professionally read by a number of readers who suggested changes and corrections. The first edition that I produced contained far too many typographical errors etc. (at least 20 in a 300 page book, which is far too many!) and I didn't carry out the proofreading stage as I should have done. I learned my lesson with the next two books that I produced.

How can your readers find you?

Simply Google my name. Seriously, I have websites all over the place, some dedicated to a particular title or series, and I have a blog of sorts. I'm a reasonably public figure, as far as the Internet is concerned, anyway.

You sound like me. I started out making websites for my genealogy research, which is still online, but sadly in need of an update. And before I did my own, I used the templates out their other websites offered and I think those earlier sites still exist so if someone googled my name they would find me there as well.

Isn’t that the thing about being a writer? There are just too many writers out there, and you have to make sure that your name turns up as often as possible. Having said that, there are things I write which don’t have my name on, for various reasons – these are news or opinion pieces for the most part.

What do you do to get your books out to readers?  Do you spend a lot of time on promotion and social media?

Far too much time on these things – I use Twitter, and I pump out messages which I like to call “creative spam”. They contain quotes from the books and reviews and links to the Web site. They get retweeted and favorited, so they obviously have some sort of impact on those who read them.

What are you working on now? Any book(s) you are working on now you’d like to tell us about and when we can expect to see it published?

The Sherlock Holmes titles have taken up a lot of my time since the beginning of this year. They have been extremely rewarding and I have enjoyed writing them a lot, but they have taken me away from the historical novel (well, actually it's alternative history) that I was writing and got interrupted by Sherlock. This book is called Gold on the Tracks, and is set in Russia in 1920, immediately following the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin has been assassinated, and Trotsky has outmaneuvered Stalin to take control of the Central Committee. There is a trainload of gold and treasure making its way along the trans-Siberian railway (this is actually real historical fact) and the Bolsheviks, the White Russians, the British, the Japanese, the Americans, and the Confederates (in this alternative universe, the Confederacy has split from the Union without a war) are all squabbling and fighting in the wastes of Siberia and Mongolia in order to get control of this treasure. There is a lot of historical fact mixed with fiction in this book, and I am having enormous fun researching it and writing it.

I would love to read this one too, just because of the Russian history and having studied maps of the country when I studied the language. I look forward to seeing this one so you must keep me posted to its publication date. If you ever need a beta reader, I’d love to volunteer my services. 

I am guessing some time early next year, the way things are going. I intend it to be a decent length – about 150k words or more – but we will see which way the story jumps. It has multiple PoVs, one of which is that of Iosif Vissionarovich Dzhugashvili – better known by a shorter name. I mix real-life and fictional characters freely – alternative history is a lot of fun to write.

What do you do to relax?           

I read and I listen to music. I play music (resonator guitars and lap steel guitars mainly). I also take photographs, but I hardly count myself on a level with many of the professional photographers but I know and work with. I find that photography it is actually good for my writing because it forces me to look at things in more detail than I would otherwise, and possibly more importantly than that, to consider objects against the background. It's quite easy to take an image of an interesting object, but the real skill in making that into a good photograph it is to choose the angle where the interesting object is thrown into relief and stands out. It's the same with writing. If the background is too “busy" and there is too much detail, then whatever you are describing will get lost against it.

I love photography as well, studied it in high school for a couple of years and even worked on the school newspaper, but sadly as life progressed, it was not something I breathed life into or further studied. Now it is more of a hobby, though I am proud to post my pictures.

That basically describes me. I sometimes manage to sell a picture or two to go with a magazine article I write, etc.

How do you handle stress or writers block?

I scream and I panic for a little–a few minutes or so–and then I return to what I was doing. Writer's block is a fairly rare phenomenon as far as I'm concerned. I can typically type one word after another without too much effort–it's not something that afflicts me too often.

Do you have a blog?

Yes I do, but it is very irregular. It's more in the nature of announcements and advertisements and occasionally my thoughts on things.

Do you have a Youtube video trailer for your books? Do you make them or do you have someone else?

I do, and I am not quite sure why. Do they help to sell books? I don't know, but they're fun to make using tools like iMovie and so on. Check out the one for my audiobook version of The Bradfield Push on or for example.

Do you have a favorite character from one of your books?

I've got increasingly fond of Dr Watson as time has gone on and I have explored his character further. He's more than just a brainless sidekick to the super-intelligent Sherlock Holmes. He has many redeeming features and wonderful characteristics of his own, which tend to get overlooked. He is brave, fantastically loyal to his friends and to his ideals. He's not without a sense of humor (though he tends to be rather disconcerted by Holmes' somewhat quirky actions) and he has a gift for telling a story, which even Holmes admits adds to the interest of the cases that he describes.

Favorite food?

I really enjoy good Indian curries. It used to be almost impossible to get real Indian food here in Japan, but now there are a lot of North Indian and Nepali restaurants, and even some South Indian places now (dosa and idli and sambar!). I also love most Japanese food, as long as it‘s dead and does not try to get off the plate under its own power. And real cheese. Again, this is something that was almost impossible to get in Japan and has recently become available, even if it is a little expensive at times.

I've noticed that food & drink often seem to play quite a significant role in my stories. Obviously food is quite important to me in a way that I don't really want to admit!

Oh, yes I love the Indian food and love curries in almost any ethnic food if not overly done with the curry. Food, for some reason, played a part in my first book—I included a recipe for my mother’s chili.

I think it’s a good thing to include. There’s a lot of food in At the Sharpe End, Japanese and Indian – Kenneth Sharpe, like me, enjoys cooking. And Holmes and Watson also enjoy their food – that’s in Arthur Conan Doyle, not just my impression. Indeed, food plays a central role in a few of my stories – the case of James Phillimore in Secrets from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD features professional chefs as protagonists.

Favorite color?

I don't know. Do I have one? Blue?

Favorite movie?

I have to say that I really like the Maltese Falcon. I tend to watch it with the book in my hand. The dialogue is chiefly copied directly from the book. Even though Humphrey Bogart looks nothing like Sam Spade, as described in the book, he manages to portray the character almost perfectly.

Favorite music?

Almost anything, but my modern musical knowledge stops at about 1990. I probably have not heard of and almost certainly not heard any musician or band that you may care to mention since then. I'm not too keen on rap, hip-hop or any related genres of music, though. I'm perfectly happy listening to Mozart followed by U2, followed by Hank Williams. Favorite music is probably Johann Sebastian Bach, but I've decided that the music I want for my funeral is Henry Purcell's “Music for the funeral of Queen Mary". Wonderfully melancholy music, and very, very English.

Yes, I have to say rap is one of the worst to have to listen to anywhere, and will probably get some people not appreciating my comment, but we all have an opinion whether it is about someone's book or a type of music or the meaning of a word.

It’s not something I enjoy, put it that way.

Do you have a favorite life saying you live by?

I suppose it's the Golden Rule. And it would be more correct to say that I try to live by it then that I actually live by it, I suppose.

Is there a funny or embarrassing moment you could or would like to share with your readers?

OK, here’s a funny moment. I was having lunch a few years back with a friend in Tokyo, and we were discussing “what do you do if you meet a famous person?” I was talking about the time I was introduced to Sir Simon Rattle (conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the time, now with the Berlin Philharmonic) and how he is a very approachable person. We walked back from lunch to the place we were both walking, and walking along the street towards us was… Sir Simon Rattle – he was with the Berlin Phil playing some concerts – I had no idea! I stopped him and said hello, of course. Now what are the odds of something like that happening? Of all the gin-joints in all the world…

Please tell us anything else you’d like for your readers to know about you, your books, or just life in general.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve read and lived through too many bubbles to believe that “this time it’s different” – whatever we are discussing.  I like to think it’s more than just being cynical, though I have to admit there is a touch of cynicism there.  But I’m actually quite a lovable person. Honestly.

Thank you so much, Hugh, for visiting and I wish you much success in your writing.

Thank you for the conversation. It’s been a lot of fun.


  1. Good interview.

    "I scream and I panic for a little–a few minutes or so–and then I return to what I was doing."
    Does it work? :D

    Of all the gin joints indeed... :)

  2. Thank you Elizabeth for stopping by. Yes, great comment, wasn't it. I feel like doing that sometimes too.

  3. Very detailed interview. I think self publishing is a great outlet for new authors. I used my self employed time productively to write and self publish five novels in 2010/2011. Good luck in the future., Hugh.