Jan Hawke – but I have a pen name I’m using more now (Siân Glírdan)
59 in June!
Where are you from:
Born in Plymouth, Devon & back in N. Cornwall since 2003 after living in the Home Counties since I got married at the ridiculous age of 17.
A little about yourself `ie your education Family life etc:
I’m a widow, the oldest of 4 sisters. Despite being in the top stream at a Catholic grammar school, my early academic career stopped at ‘O’ Levels as I had no ambitions to go to college and just wanted to get on with my adult life and start earning some money! I blame the nuns mostly, but hormones were a big factor to be entirely truthful.
I spent most of my working life with the Ministry of Justice, mainly in the family courts, so I know a fair bit about divorce, wardship (unfortunately including child abuse), Probate and debt-related small claims law and house repossession from 1976-1997.
I always enjoyed writing and grew up surrounded by books and drawing paper as my dad was an old-fashioned sign-writer and maker. In 1990, my mental health began to suffer, and I set out to retrain for a degree in Graphic Design while continuing to work part-time at the Probate Office in London (then at Somerset House. My office was across the hallway from Samuel Pepys’ room when it was the Admiralty’s building).
After graduating I managed to land a job with the forms and leaflets unit at what became the Ministry of Justice’ executive HQ, so my creative skills came in useful and served me well for a few years. Sadly, my mental health continued to decline and, in 2005, after a devastating breakdown, I concluded that the managerial culture I was working in was no longer a good place for me to be and took the decision to resign before they fired me. Ultimately, the chronic depression, coupled with respiratory and mobility issues, became too much to bear, so I took my pension early and retired from gainful employment.
Writing became important in my clawing my way back to better health, and turned out to be a method of exorcising the demons and letting out emotions that had atrophied and decayed within me.
I’m a self-publisher, to which my experience in a publications unit has helped no end. This year I’m also taking on more commercial work, offering editorial and production skills to other indie authors.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
The editorial side of my endeavour, DreamWorlds Publishing is pretty exciting for me, as I enjoy helping other indies.
I’m also just back from a writers’ retreat in North Devon and am raring to get back into my work in progress ‘Storm Shadow’ which has been dormant since my husband’s death in 2015.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing or drawing stories even before I was of school age, but after entering the workforce at 16 and meeting my husband, story-telling fell off until I started to re-assess my lifestyle in the late 1990’s after I got my degree in graphics.
By then I’d fallen in love with sub-Saharan Africa and began to tinker around with a short story format for what became my debut novel, Milele Safari.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In about 2007 when I started the first true draft of Milele. It took me 6 years to get it finished, but I was behaving like a writer from that point. Publication in 2013 was a validation and made it ‘official’ of course.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Mostly it was my African love affair, but also to do with my own mental health and life experience. The original idea of short stories had begun to gel into wanting to do a kind of Canterbury Tales treatment with a cohesive story arc involving the many faces of African life and ambience.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I’m a bit of a butterfly really. I do like point of view characters and ‘head-hopping’ which I know not everyone enjoys, but for me, it gives deeper perspective and emotional value to the plot and story progression. Writing in first person is also an option with that of course. I’m afraid I’m rather too good at getting in touch with my inner serial killer!
Mainly I like to use words to paint pictures in the head – I like to evoke the sense of ‘being there’ viscerally as well as æsthetically
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
The working title was The Safari Tales, nodding towards Canterbury again. By the time I’d finished it, I wanted it to be more tacitly African, and so I hit upon using the Swahili word for forever, which is Milele. Milele Safari fits in with the everlasting cycling of life, love and death, the state of being human, and fits in with the ‘warts and all’ themes I’d woven into the book.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
That life can be light and dark, beautiful and ugly, happy or tragic, often all at once.
There are heavy threads dealing with genocide and war crimes and the humanitarian efforts to counter them that is so apparent in contemporary Africa. I wanted to draw on those to demonstrate that there can be a way back from the deepest horror or degradation for the human spirit. I mostly left the politics alone and concentrated on the human experience of finding your way through life.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
It’s a mixture of all those, With Afghanistan going on in the background the whole time I was writing I wanted to include PTSD and its different effects on people, even if they’re not combatants.
My last few years in employment caused a very mild form of PTSD which made the chronic and severe depression I had lived with for too long much worse. And of course, lasting depression and social dysfunction are all things that people bring away from a war zone.
I had to do some research on EMDR therapy, but already knew someone who’d been through it and I also found a practitioner living quite nearby, so research for what was involved became intense and pertinent.
My work in the family courts with child abuse cases was also useful in addressing the issues of rape and cultural gender abuse and genital mutilation, which is one of the nastier consequences in war-torn areas of Africa.
Several of the characters are based on people I’ve known or met on my travels in Africa, particularly the wildlife guides and aid workers. For others, I relied heavily on BBC archives of interviews in local communities in Rwanda, or, for the end of the Biafran war, on my own memories of it as a ten-year-old at a Catholic school and from watching the horrific footage of famine victims on television in the late sixties.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
I have to confess that I’m total fantasy geek. My fourth form junior school teacher was fond of C.S. Lewis and got me hooked on The Chronicles of Narnia, Two years later I discovered Tolkien ‘backwards’ when my bookish aunt gave me the huge new paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings when she couldn’t get on with it. I was an immediate addict, even though I hadn’t read The Hobbit first.
From there I graduated to sci-fi, admiring Isaac Asimov’s Robots and Foundation series, and later the work of Julian May (Saga of the Exiles and The Galactic Milieu trilogy). I was an early fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and he’s a big influence with his satirical philosophies and the idea of evil beginning when you start treating people like things… Along with Tolkien, he’s my literary hero, not least because of the jokes, but also because his books, whether or not on the Disc, all look at the layers of human experience and desires, even if the character’s a gargoyle or a troll.
As far as mentors go, I’m so grateful to have met Sue Bridgwater on and offline through a Tolkien fan forum we joined. She’s a great editor, but first and foremost a friend and cheerleader – and a great fantasy writer herself!
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I’m a big fan of indie author Harmony Kent. We’re both RRBC members and have met offline as we live within an hour’s drive of each other. She refuses to be bound to any one genre, and I’ve loved all of her books I’ve read so far. My favourite though is Finding Katie, about a self-harming teen, which is at once gut-wrenching and heart-warming.
Terry is still king for me though – I like my fiction and fantasy to be as believable as possible!
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Again, it’s Rave Reviews Book Club. They do much more than review your books. For indie writers and publishers, the writing is almost the easiest part of the business. It’s getting your work noticed and promoted that’s hard to get your head around. This is where belonging to a community like RRBC is so helpful to someone like me, who was brought up to think that self-promotion was vaguely distasteful, and wouldn’t go near Twitter or Facebook because it was too exposing.
In RRBC you decide how much you want to participate, and the more you do, the more you get out of it, by getting involved with things like blog tours and podcast radio interviews – all kinds of things that I’d not had a clue about doing before I joined. You also meet some of the nicest and supportive writers and readers on the planet!
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Yes. I’m retired, and on a limited income, which is partly why I’m branching out into editorial and production services as I only break even with the three books, I’ve produced so far.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
The latest one published (A Freebooter’s Fantasy Almanac) has had a little tweak recently from the critical feedback I got from another indie writer friend. He was kind enough to point out the sections where I was too caught up in the emotion and got a little wordy with things. It’s now a lot tighter for some objective insights. Memoirs, even if they’re based in a fantasy world, can swamp your style too much, so I’m grateful for honest reviews to make things less self-indulgent.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I think it all began when I was a toddler and having some beautiful picture books read to me. Some of my first attempts at drawing were of ‘Bunny-no-good’ who was a particular favourite before I could be trusted with Beatrix Potter books. I loved my picture books, and then the standard fairy tale works with gorgeous illustrations. They inspired me creatively, and I remember making my first attempt at writing my own fantasy world when I was eight, with a Hound of the Baskervilles-Narnia mash-up.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
I have a book blog with 2 shorts connected to it here http://havenlands.blogspot.co.uk/p/a-beginning.html and here http://havenlands.blogspot.co.uk/p/before-beginning.html which you’re welcome to include.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Keeping it as real as possible, even if it’s high fantasy. I rely heavily on my characters to help with this, so finding their true ‘voice’ is very important. Sometimes this gets very elusive or comes from an unexpected direction like a minor character who suddenly becomes pivotal and lights up an aspect that’s been hard to convey.
No matter how much magic your characters are wielding, if they aren’t coming across as genuine personalities they just don’t engage your readers.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I rely a lot on past travels for inspiration on locations mainly. I’m lucky enough to have a fairly extensive library of historical and geographic books to draw on. My husband was a travel agent and loved to take photos on familiarisation trips, so I have visuals for a lot of international sights and regions to draw on.
These days, with my physical limitations, I tend to shy away from air travel in particular, but for the right incentive, I will do it. Luckily, living in Cornwall, just down the road from Tintagel and Bodmin Moor is pretty useful as I’m naturally drawn to moorland and seascapes!
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
I’ve done all my covers myself so far. The Milele Safari cover was inspired by 19th century lithographs of Victoria Falls that we saw in the flea markets there. I used a photo that Pete had taken of the main falls in full spate and then tweaked it in Photoshop to give it the desired ‘antiquated’ look.
The Dreamless Roads anthology and A Freebooters Fantasy Almanac both draw heavily on fan-art I’ve produced over the years. The latter takes from one of my designs for a fantasy tarot deck for The Tower card. It just fit the freebooting aspect perfectly!
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
With AFFA, because a lot of it drew on short stories and poetry I’d written since 2005, it was getting the balance right between putting the emotion across and objectivity. Talking about tough times and using some commentary written at the time was raw and in some cases difficult to go back to. So there was a lot of catharsis going on that sometimes meant my fingers became a blind conduit for spewing out too much wordage.
That is why I’m indebted to my ex-headmaster friend for highlighting where this had happened too much, so I could go back and make it more cohesive and less effusive.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
With all of them, in part, it was a way for me to reconnect with a younger, less controlled state of mind. Honesty and being true to oneself is something that I now value highly. To write authentically, you have to channel your own sentiments and beliefs into the mix for a sense of integrity as well.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead?
For my elven bard alter-ego in AFFA – Sharleen Spiteri. Mostly because of her vocal skills, but she looks a little bit like a shorter Janowyn. She’d need hair extensions as well!
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write for yourself and what interests you. And keep at it no matter who tries to pull you back.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Life isn’t easy, but it is sweet if you embrace it and don’t hide yourself away. Don’t be a bystander – dare to be a part of the activities that enthral you, with the people you love most.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’m actually revisiting Milele Safari purely as a reader on my Kindle. I need to re-do the layouts for the e-format – they’re lovely in the print version, but haven’t translated too well for screen reading.
eBooks are a necessary ‘evil’ for indie writers, as it’s so hard to compete with all the cheap or free fiction out there. I prefer ‘proper’ books, but I’m currently awaiting cataract surgery for both eyes, so e-readers are better for me at the moment, especially for reviews for other people.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Aside from Janet and John (and Peter and Jane), the first book I read avidly all by myself was Caroline and her Friends. It was a huge paperback and lavishly illustrated. I’ve still got it somewhere in storage I think.
Maybe I’ll go and winkle if out soon as I’ve got a little niece who would probably love it!
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
It’s back to Pratchett again. He makes me laugh and cry, often at the same time. For favourites, it’s a 3-way tie between Moving Pictures, Small Gods and Nightwatch.
Fiona: Is there one person pass or present you would meet and why?
I met Terry Pratchett at one of the fan conventions, so that’s a tick off. I think I’ll go for Jane Austen. I love her low-key social satire, so it would be fun to people-watch with her I think.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
Hmm. I’m planning a cremation and scattering in a woodland burial site so a headstone might not be a possibility!
I’d really like to be remembered most for a great sense of the absurd, and for turning words into Worlds.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
I like to cook, or to have someone to cook for. I love Italian cuisine, although I have a very bad penchant for rich cheesy sauces.
Messing around with visuals – photo-manipulation is something I enjoy on the PC. I’m also getting into colouring books. That might be an area that I’ll move onto for my books one day.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I’m a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory – the screenwriting for that is so brilliant.
Game of Thrones is really more of an obsession, even when they massacre my favourite characters. I enjoy the books a lot, but the TV adaptation of some of the story threads are pretty kickass too.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
Food: primarily chocolate, but I love Saltimbocca, Beef Stroganoff and for dessert, Eton Mess.
Colours: Purple and blue-greens
Music: Big David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Queen fan, but for everyday background sound I prefer classical (or anything without lyrics) as the words distract too much.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
Erm… I always wanted to learn to scuba dive, but my respiratory problems made that dodgy. I did want to be a teacher at one stage, so I’ll settle for that. For some reason, they didn’t have History and Geography in the same academic stream at my senior school so I would have liked to teach both as complementary subjects.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
I have 2! One is Jan Hawke INKorporated which these days is mostly dedicated to author support, especially with the Rave Reviews Book Club.
The other one is Siân Glírdan – the Way of the Bard and is my main author platform, as I’m using the pen name for my fantasy genre titles in future.
Social media contacts
Twitter @SianGlirdanBard or @JanHawke
Photos are attached to the email but here are the links for you as well
Milele Safari – Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IIVXLKY
Dreamless Roads – Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/dp/0992747244
A Freebooter’s Fantasy Almanac – Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/dp/0995453616