CHAT WITH E.H. HACKNEY

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E. H. Hackney is a retired engineer, now writer and novelist. When not writing he’s riding a bike, hiking or playing jazz guitar on the east slope of the Sandia mountains in New Mexico, where he lives with his wife and two opinionated cats.

What is your latest book?

I self-published my first book, By The Blood, Book One, Revelation, a fantasy, in September of last year under the pen name Geoffrey Ganges. It’s the story of Quint, a dwarf wizard and healer, abandoned by his mother as an infant and tortured by his stunted, distorted body. On a quest for a long forgotten enemy of his people and his own history, he is threatened by his companions, outlaws, giant wolves and ancient foes. As the wizard confronts his origins, his world is shaken. Of all the dangers he faces, his own kinships may be the most deadly.

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Why did you choose a pen name?

There are two reasons I write under a pseudonym. First, my given name is Ewing Haywood Hackney. I couldn’t think of any name I could derive from that which would be a good name for a fiction writer, especially a fantasy author. I have gone by the nickname Hack for decades, which is no help. Second, I have started works in other genres. I believe readers associate an author with a certain kind of book. If I published a fantasy under one name, then wanted to publish in another genre, I would need a different name anyhow.

What else have you written?

I’ve had a number of humorous and non-fiction pieces published in local newspapers and magazines, but wanted to write fiction. I have written but not published a modern morality tale, and have good starts on a young adult book and two action adventures. But once drawn into By The Blood I knew it was the story I most wanted to tell.

How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?

This has been a revelation to me. I was an engineer in a previous life and trusted planning and organization. I had heard other authors say that their characters took over their stories, and didn’t believe them. I do now. Many of the events and elements in my book surprised me. I have discovered that writing fiction is not a process of invention but a venture of discovery.

What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?

Writing is fun! Editing is work. Promotion is torture. (Couldn’t agree more!)

Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?

I begin with a detailed outline developed down to the scene level. I tend to follow the outline and write scenes in order, but sometimes jump around, especially if I’m stuck and another scene looks like it will be easier to write or I have a clearer vision of it. Often writing the new scene will help me work around the problems with the difficult one.

Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?

I edit a little as I go, but for the most part I want to get the story down. Then I revise and edit several times. I do later edits in hard copy. When I believe the book is in relatively good shape I make copies and send it to my first readers. My first readers’ feedback reveals a number of problems and I go back to revising and editing. When I take commas out on one pass then put them back on the next, and can’t stand to look at the damn thing anymore I decide I’m finished. I confess to being a poor editor—especially of my own work. Even reading aloud I will miss the same mistake time and again. A trick that works for me in the later edits is to have the computer read the book to me. I will hear incorrect words, missing commas and even missing periods that I did not find on my edits.

After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?

I never feel that I can be objective about my own work. So far I have written what pleases me—what I would like to read, and I don’t know how in tune I am with a modern reader. I rely on my first readers for that. In fact, in my instructions to first readers I ask them to tell me if they gave up on the book before the end and to let me know where and why. It was a relief when none of them did.

What do you like best about the books you read? What do you like least?

I like books to take me to places I could never go or through experiences I would never have, teach me new things and at the same time be believable and reveal a kind of truth. That’s a lot to ask, I know. The best fiction reads like the telling of something that actually happened, even if the characters are fictional, the world has never existed and all the events are made up. Many books today, movies and TV shows, too, feel fabricated to me. If you can see the wires allowing the hero to fly or part of the rabbits ear is sticking out of the hat, the magic is gone. I don’t like books that are too hyped. If your novel starts with the broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped hero, with three percent body fat, uncoiling his six foot six frame from a Bugatti Veyron, I probably won’t get to page two. I might add that I have read enough dystopian, post-apocalyptic thrillers to last me this life.

How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

I did a moderate amount of research for this book, and most of it was somewhat practical and mundane. I wanted to write a believable story about genuine characters in a real place, with its own history and culture. I used leagues rather than miles, and chose another way of measuring time rather than hours and tried to use older words for some common things. My main character is a wizard and healer; I invented names for some of his remedies. So a lot of my research had to do with what was a league, how big do horses get, what’s a hand and a stone, how far can a horse and wagon , or a sailing ship, travel in a day. Book one takes place over several months, so I studied what plants were in what stages of growth in different parts of a year. I did a lot of this research after the first several drafts, sometimes when I had found lapses and disconnects. I do all my research on line. I even use an online dictionary. My battered paperback Webster’s is missing too many good words.

This leads me to what I think is an interesting topic. My story take place in a fictional land—not on earth as we know it. The people would have their own language, lengths of days, plants, seasons, moon cycle (or not), and units of measure. I needed to invent some things to give the flavor of this new and different place,  but if there are no similarities with things we know, the reader will be confused, and I didn’t want to spend pages of explanation about language and seasons and what kind of plants grow there. I don’t have a simple answer for this, but I hope in my book I found a compromise that is interesting but not confusing.

Do you have any advice to a new author if they asked you whether to pursue the traditional route to publishing or to start out as an independent writer?

I am hesitant to give advice. Maybe I will be less so when I feel I am a successful author. I will say that, were I younger, I would have tried the traditional approach before self-publishing. But I’m in my seventies. Given the warnings that it can take a year of more to find an agent, if you find an agent, and a year or more for the agent to find a publisher, if they find one, and a year or so for the book to be published, I didn’t  want to take the time.

Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?

I write best early in the morning up until noon or so. I get up around six but need a mug or two of coffee to get my brain working. Everything else is optional. Music is an interesting idea. I love jazz. If I have music I like playing, I get into the music and it distracts me from writing. If it’s music I find annoying, it distracts me from writing. A lot of music wouldn’t distract me, but also wouldn’t help. I have an opinion, though. I am a writer after all. I think the best music for writing would not be that which makes you comfortable, but music that would support the writing you are doing. If you are writing a bar-fight scene, for example, I think driving blues or a quick country two-step would support your writing more than say classical string quartets. I have not tried this.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?

I suffer from getting stuck. I don’t like to call it writer’s block because once it is labeled it can become like an affliction and then an excuse. Sometimes giving my mind a few days to mull over the problem can work. Any more than that, I’m just loafing. I’m good at that. Often when I am stuck I think it’s because I’m trying to work the wrong problem—trying to force the plot or characters in the wrong direction.

Have you ever started out to write one book and ended up with something completely different?

The first scene of my book started as a short story I had intended to enter into a contest. I realized it was not appropriate for the contest, but there was much more to tell. I was well into By The Blood when I realized there was too much for one book unless I made it a thousand-page doorstop. That’s too big a book for a first writer, so I decided to make it a trilogy. I’m working on book two now. I did detailed planning for the first book, but by the end of the first draft, the book was totally different. I guess I could have simply said yes.

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

My wife and I live in ponderosa, pinon and juniper on the eastern slopes of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico. I can step over three strands of sagging barbed wire at the boundary of our yard and be in a National Forest. We are regularly visited by raccoon, fox, coyote, bobcat, deer, wild turkey, bear and an assortment of  birds and hummingbirds in their seasons. We have talked about moving somewhere near water—Portland, Ft. Bragg in Northern California, Port Townsend in the rain shadow of the Olympics in Washington state, but it would be hard to leave this place.

What was your favorite year of school? Why?

I enjoyed the last three years of college more than any time before. I was not very social in high school; I was a nerd before it was cool. In fact my best memories of my high school years are the people I met on my first part-time jobs and playing jazz guitar gigs on the weekend. I don’t consider myself antisocial, but have always been more comfortable engaged in things and talking about ideas, than in socializing.

 What simple pleasure makes you smile?

Reading the Sunday paper in front of our woodstove in the winter is a treat. It’s hard to beat the first mug of coffee in the morning. My wife makes me laugh two or three times a day. I don’t think I have ever taken a bad hike. Walking a trail through rocks and trees always rejuvenates me, and it often helps me work around writing problems. I haven’t had a gig in years, but I still like playing jazz guitar.

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Comments

CHAT WITH E.H. HACKNEY — 2 Comments

  1. I like this guy. I would very much like to meet him. He may have been a nerd at one time, but I think writing has gotten rid of his “nerdishness.” Maybe retiring from engineering also helped put him on a different path.

    I love this remark he made about writing. “writing fiction is not a process of invention, but a venture in discovery.”

    I also like the fact that he loves nature in all it’s forms. I’ve been to New Mexico, and it is a wonderfully magic place. “Land of Enchantment” suits it perfectly. I wonder how much where Hack lives influences his writing?

    You’ve got a dry sense of humor, Hack. Thank you for your very enlightening, humorous, and fun interview. And thank you, Lisette for interviewing Hack. I hope that you don’t mind if I called you, Hack. :o)

  2. Great interview. The first book in this series is very unusual, with a most unusual hero. All of the characters are well-drawn. I highly recommend it.

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