Name: Stuart Aken
Age: 67 outside, about 23 within.
Where are you from?
My mother was warned I’d be born dead, due to her shock at my father’s death three weeks earlier. But, stubborn from the start, I landed very much alive. That was in a neighbour’s bed as we’d been evicted from the home that was tied to my father’s job. This all happened in Hull, a city port in the north east of England.
Now I’ve retired from employment, I live with my wife in a small village called Lydbrook. It hugs both sides of a steep-sided green valley in the Forest of Dean, in the south west of England, and not far from the border with Wales.
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
Following my mother’s death, two days after my 16th birthday, I left home and joined the RAF (Royal Air Force) as a photographer. Night classes and reading continued my education to ‘A’ level standard, but an ill-advised early marriage meant I never made it to university. Various forms of employment, including newspaper photographer, farm labourer, shop manager, sales rep and civil servant, kept me occupied during those years. Misplaced loyalty prevents me disclosing why my first marriage broke up after 18 years. I’ll say here only that all my friends, on learning of it, said, ‘And about bloody time!’
I met Valerie on a residential training course hosted by our mutual employer, the Unemployment Benefit Service. ‘Managing Change’ certainly changed our lives. We fell in love on sight, married as soon as our respective divorces allowed, and had our daughter. A fledgling globetrotter, Kate is currently working in the tourist industry on a Greek island. Valerie and I moved south after Kate university.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I’ve just published a book about my experience of ME/CFS. M.E. and me: Chronic Fatigue; My Recovery After 10 Years is both a memoir and a guide. It gives a very personal account of my period with the condition and provides readers with advice and resources to help sufferers and their carers.
I self-published this book, in digital and print forms, because I’m donating half the profits to a charity that helped me cope with my situation. A normal publishing deal couldn’t handle such a situation, so I’ve placed the book with Smashwords, Kindle and Createspace.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
At the age of 19 I’d just left the RAF and decided to try my hand at some illustrated features on photography. The British photographic press liked them and published a series in various different magazines.
Reading has always been a compulsion, and I’d exhausted the local children’s library by the age of 11, so I expect storytelling was in my blood. The major TV listings magazine in UK is called the Radio Times. They ran a contest for radio plays way back in the 70s and I decided to enter. My play came 3rd (the winner was Willie Russell of Educating Rita and Blood Brothers fame). My play was broadcast on national radio and, as a result, I was approached by an agent. So started my fiction writing.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I suppose the broadcast of the play was the time. It was heard by an audience of over 2 million, so I hoped I might have some further success.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I love walking. Some of Europe’s finest hiking country was on my doorstep and I was wandering around an area known as the Buttertubs (vertical caves in the Yorkshire Dales National Park). These formed deep and slightly sinister pits, and the sky that day was overcast and threatening. I was visited by an image of a woman’s body at the base of the deepest of these pits, and the usual writer’s ‘what if?’ rose to the surface. From that manifestation of imagination grew the seeds of a novel. Breaking Faith, a romantic thriller, set in that landscape and looking at the battle between innocence and corruption, became my first novel. I published it as a print book under the auspices of an organization allied to the British Arts Council.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I’m told my fiction is multi-layered, and that suits my intentions. I want to entertain my readers, but I also want to make them think without actually preaching at them. By ensuring the story always comes first, I’m able to get the ‘message’ over to those readers who wish to read below the surface.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Breaking Faith deals with hypocrisy in religion, amongst other things. It has three sisters, named Faith, Hope and Charity. Faith is the eponymous female lead protagonist who tells the story, in first person, alternating with the male lead protagonist, who gives his own view of events. If I say that he’s a glamour photographer and she’s the eldest child of a narrow-minded religious fanatic, I think you’ll see the potential for conflict when she goes to work for him.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Everything I write contains at least one message. It’s probably why I write: to bring awareness of those issues that most concern me. I’m very concerned about injustice. But I also worry about organized religions the world over and their inherent falsehoods purveyed as truths. Conflict, especially the political type also gives me cause for unease.
Breaking Faith is a love story set against a background of injustice and hypocrisy. My SciFi novella, The Methuselah Strain, is also a love story, but looks at how technology can be abused in a way that subverts the very essence of what it means to be human. And my fantasy trilogy, A Seared Sky interweaves three love stories around adventures that show how organized religion can corrupt and mislead entire populations.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
All my books are a mix of accessible reality and imaginative fantasy. That’s surely what fiction requires, isn’t it? If I wanted to deal solely with reality, I’d use journalism. But fiction gives readers and writers the ability to live vicarious lives in which events can occur that we’d never otherwise experience. The writer’s imagination can play with reality and, when crafted well, make it difficult to separate the actual from the imagined. That’s what I try to do.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
As a writer, I employ my imagination. Obviously, I’ve experienced many different events in my lengthy lifetime, either directly or second hand through the news, dramas, other novels etc. The essential element for any fiction writer is imagination, preferably disciplined and controlled by experience. We’re not murderers, but we can become such if the narrative requires that of us. The craft in writing entails the ability to both invent credible characters and to empathize with those individuals we meet along life’s path, I think.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
I’ve been reading for a very long time and have read more books than I care to count. From classics to cheap thrillers, I’ve read in great variety. Influence has stemmed from many different sources and it would be unfair to name a single source. But, that said, I can name authors who I’ve found echo my own concerns or write in styles that appeal to me. I’d name Ray Bradbury, William Golding, Graham Greene, Jane Austen, William Horwood, Richard Adams, Daphne Du Maurier, and Stephen King amongst the writers who’ve most easily found a place in my heart. I’m sad to say I’ve found no mentor, but take what I find from many sources and attempt to write in my own voice to the best of my ability.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
The answer to that question will change as soon as I write it down. I’m generally reading some book or another. And I often read fiction written by author friends. Some of that, unfortunately, isn’t worthy of a review. But I’ve made a point of reviewing all the books I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. I’ve just finished a science fiction romance written by one of my writing friends and I’m looking forward to reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
In the community, and as a writer, I come across new writers all the time. The problem now is one of selection. There are thousands and thousands of books out there. Too many to single out names without offending others simply by excluding them from the list.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
I’ve just finished the ME/CFS project. I’m currently working on a new scifi novel that I’ve had in mind for a while. And there are a couple of my early unpublished novel attempts that I think could be improved by experience, so I might revisit those. I’m generally engaged in writing short stories. I also want to improve my poetic output. Time is an issue at present, especially as I moved house at the beginning of the year and need to do work both inside and out to bring it to the state my wife and I desire.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
For many years, I belonged to a small group of professional authors. Hornsea Writers performed a valuable support in the way of positive criticism and beta reading. I miss the group now I’ve moved away but I’m gradually getting to know another promising group in my new locality.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
That was always my dream and hope. But, as a family man, I felt I had to provide for my wife and daughter first, and writing is a notoriously precarious occupation. Now I’ve retired from employment, I have more time to devote to the craft I’ve loved for so long. Perhaps I can still make a late career of writing. Who knows?
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
My latest book? Not really. It does what I intended, I think.
My other books, the works of fiction, are like all works of art: always open to improvement. Our job as authors, once the writing’s done, is to ensure that we present the work to the best of our ability and then get it to our readers. We can’t do that if we’re forever finding ways to improve it. We must let go. Making the judgment of when that’s appropriate is possibly the writer’s most difficult task.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I’ve always read. I’ve always loved telling stories. At the age of 14 I won an annual composition contest at my school. I think that planted the spark, though it was many years before I actually allowed it to ignite the current passion. I also suspect that my English teacher had some seminal influence. As an adolescent, I was definitely attracted by her figure and the way she’d lean over the desk whilst wearing low-cut blouses!
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
It’s in its infancy, and I’ve always been cagey about sharing information about my current WIP. I’ll say, however, that it’s a science fiction work set on Mars in the not too distant future.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I’m a pantster. That is, I write by the seat of my pants. I never plot. I invent and get to know my characters, devise a very loose framework of events, determine a potential ending to the story and then simply sit down and write until the story is finished. A real challenge for me would be to write to a plot. In fact, I once wrote 78,000 words of a thriller that way, by hand, on lined paper, and threw the whole thing in the rubbish bin because I considered it superficial and without merit.
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Far too many to name. I love reading work where the characters engage me. There has to be at least one individual with whom I can empathize, otherwise I really can’t get into the story. Many thrillers fall into that category and I’ve probably abandoned more than I’ve finished. I will read anything, of any genre, if it’s well written and engaging.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I’ve made a point of visiting places for research in certain circumstances. But I go back to the theme of imagination. These days, we have the advantage of the internet and television from which we can glean almost as much as we could by travelling in person. I’m as much an armchair traveller as an actual one. One aspect that concerns me is the carbon footprint, so I avoid making unnecessary trips.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
The covers of most of my self-published books I designed myself. I’ve some knowledge of typography and design that I picked up whilst working as a graphics technician at a local art college. I was also a professional photographer, so have some skill with a camera. The covers for my fantasy trilogy and scifi novella, published by Fantastic Books Publishing, were designed by Heather Murphy. And the cover for my latest book was designed by ashillerydesign through fiverr.com.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
I can generally sit and compose at the keyboard fairly fluently and fast, if not too accurately. Editing takes time and attention to detail, of course and needs to be at least augmented by professionals if possible. I generally do at least seven revisions. I actually found the formatting and preparation of the text for publication through KDP and Createspace the most onerous tasks on this occasion.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I think we’re always learning from our writing. I hope so, anyway. This particular book is a memoir, so I needed to revisit old journals and remind myself of events I’d rather have forgotten. Full disclosure and honesty meant I had to go back to some dark places. I think I was ultimately rather surprised at how well I’d coped! But in more general terms, I’ve learned a huge amount about many topics whilst doing research for my books. It’s an aspect of writing I find almost as rewarding as the creation of the story.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
That’s a minefield! The general trend from writers seems to be one of encouragement. But, I’ve said this on many occasions: before you try to write for publication, please read Dorothea Brande’s excellent book, Becoming a Writer. Do the exercises. If, at the end of this process, you’re still convinced you want to write, go ahead and dive in. If not, you’ll at least have saved a great deal of wasted time and effort, and spared the reading public.
Writing, rather like photography, has become so accessible to people that everyone now thinks they can write a book, or turn out a decent picture. It’s not true, of course. It requires skill, craftsmanship, imagination, dedication and simple hard work to make even the basic first steps toward publication. Unfortunately, there are a number of individuals who believe they were born with the skills or simply can’t be bothered to develop them. Their books flood the crowded market and give talented indie writers a bad name. Equally unfortunately, some traditional publishing seems to have forgotten about the need for good editing and there are mainstream books that should never have been foisted on the reading public. So, my message to the would-be writer is simple: ensure you have the necessary skills and imagination to present a story your readers will enjoy. And, please, recruit professional help in any area you need it.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I hope they enjoy reading my work. I welcome feedback to improve my skills. And, I ask that, if you’ve enjoyed my books, or those of any other writer, please write and post a short review. You’ll be helping both the writer and other potential readers.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
I read my first book, unaided, around 63/4 years ago. Since then, I’ve read, at a conservative estimate, around 3,500 books. I’ve no idea now what that first book was, but it may well have been either a Janet and John primer or a Ladybird book.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
I do both perhaps too easily. Sometimes even my own writing makes me do both or either. I’m open to laughter and particularly enjoy intelligent political satire. I’m moved by any number of situations: empathy is a potent factor in imagination. I can’t watch the ending of the original film of the The Railway Children without shedding a tear as Jenny Agutter’s Bobbie greets her father off the train.
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
Billions from which to choose! And it’s so tempting to apply the hope of altering history. But I’ll make do with Leonardo Da Vinci: a mind so full and enquiring must be worth exploring, don’t you think?
Fiona: What do you want written on your headstone and why?
‘Death indefinitely postponed.’ I have so much yet to do!
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
I enjoy walking and have the joy of living in a forest I can access just sixty yards from my front door. I’m dabbling with watercolour and drawing. I take photographs. My wife and I partake in ballroom and Latin dance. And, currently, I’m training to run a half marathon to raise funds for the same charity I’m supporting with the book.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
Comedy and satire. I enjoy the shows that our democracy allows us to watch, where politicians can be ripped to shreds amidst roars of laughter. The US TV show, Frasier, entertains me with its wit. If I visit the cinema, it’s usually to be entertained, so I watch comedies mostly. But I also enjoy the factual delights of many TV documentaries.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
I love food and have so far not found one I can’t eat. I love to sample local dishes when I travel. Colour is dependent on mood and place, so changes according to circumstance. But I find green relaxing. Music is a way of bringing sound to the emotions. And I enjoy it in all forms apart from military brass bands, which I loathe, and rap, which I find over-rated and mostly incomprehensible. I love Bruch’s Violin Concerto, the Duet from the Pearl Fishers and a couple of female vocal versions of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I considered architecture at one point. And thought about becoming a forester. I’ve had over fourteen different jobs, so I’ve some experience of various work requirements. But I’d definitely choose to be self-employed. My experience has been that the majority of managers are pretty useless (I worked in middle management quite a lot and found my colleagues’ attitudes to their staff largely appalling). Most of Big Business is corrupt to the core, of course, so I’d prefer not to be involved.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
I used to run a blog on blogger and it had 280,000 visits before I closed it down. I started a self-run website with WordPress a few months ago, so I’d have better control, and that’s at http://stuartaken.net/ where everyone is very welcome to come along and comment on my posts.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you, Fiona, for this opportunity to reach out to more readers and writers. Exposure is possibly the most difficult aspect of modern writing and generous offers like yours are hard to come by. Thank you.
JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/Stuart-Aken/
Vodafone text code – MESA76 to raise £5 by text to 70070 (Both to raise funds for Action For M.E.)
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