An hour-long conversation with Matthew Hughes, award-winning (and multiply nominated) author of more than twenty novels of fantasy, space opera, and crime fiction and numerous short stories, focusing on What the Wind Brings, his latest, a magical-realism historical novel from Pulp Literature Press.
Matthew Hughes writes fantasy, space opera, and crime fiction, and has sold 22 novels to publishers large and small in the UK, US, and Canada, as well as 90 works of short fiction to professional markets. His latest are Ghost Dreams (PS Publishing), and What the Wind Brings, a magical-realism historical novel from Pulp Literature Press. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, Postscripts, Lightspeed, Amazing Stories, Pulp Literature, and Interzone, and he’s in a number of invitation-only anthologies as well, including Songs of the Dying Earth, Rogues, Old Mars, Old Venus, The Book of Swords, and The Book of Magic, all edited by George R.R. Martin and/or Gardner Dozois. He’s won the Arthur Ellis Award, and been shortlisted for the Aurora, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Endeavour (twice), A.E. Van Vogt, and Derringer Awards. He’s been nominated for induction into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Hall of Fame.
Matthew spent more than 30 years as one of Canada’s leading speechwriters for political leaders and corporate executives. Since 2007, he’s been traveling the world as an itinerant house sitter: he has lived in 12 countries and has no fixed address.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Matt.
Thank you. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? When you hear it like that? Yeah.
I guess I have no idea where you actually are, right now, now that I think about it. Somewhere in B.C., I think?
I’m on Salt Spring Island, right on the sea, in a very comfortable and beautiful house that belongs to some wealthy people who are traveling in Argentina right now.
Oh, very nice. Now, we’ve been acquainted for a long time through Canadian science-fiction circles, and you have an unusual connection to me: you’re the first person I’ve interviewed for the podcast who has actually been one of my editors as well, because you edited my young adult fantasy series, The Shards of Excalibur, for Coteau Books.
I did, yes. Yeah.
So, I always try to establish those sorts of connections off the top. And I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest that I’m interviewing one of my editors. because it was a freelance thing.
Yeah. And also that’s done and finished and it’s all over.
Some time ago now, yeah. Well, we’ll start where I always start, which is asking you to go back into the mists of time. And, first a little bit about your background and biography and how the writing started. Did you start as a reader and that’s where it came from, or how did that all work for you? And I know you have a colorful background.
Well, we’re reaching way back. I decided I would be a writer when I was a teenager when I was about 16. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a living at it because I didn’t know very much. I was from the working poor. I had no real understanding of the middle-class universe that surrounded me. But the first thing I heard of that writers did and got paid for was advertising copywriting. And I thought, “Oh, that sounds easy,” you know, very short text, you put them in magazines, you get highly paid. So, I even went downtown in Vancouver to the biggest local ad firm and arranged a meeting with one of the partners, whose name I can’t remember anymore, and he told me all about it. And I thought about it, and then I decided, “No, I don’t think so.”
For a while, I decided that I would be a teacher, but that while was only about a week or so because I got into student teaching and, thank goodness, Simon Fraser University, when you signed up for them to be a student teacher, they didn’t give you six months of theory and then put you in a classroom, they put you in a classroom on the second day. And I very quickly realized I did not want to spend my life in a classroom with children, some of whom were not all that bright, you know? It was frustrating.
So, that led to journalism. And in those days, we’re talking the early 1970s, in fact, actually in 1970, you could become a journalist just by being able to write, which is what I did. I wrote some features and book reviews and movie reviews for the student newspaper at SFU, The Peak, until I had a book of clippings with my name on them, and I then took them down to the Vancouver Province, where a guy I knew had been doing what they called stringer work for them—that was going out on Monday evenings to cover municipal council meetings. He’d been doing it and he was quitting to go somewhere else, so I went down, saw the reporter, and showed him my clippings, and he hired me. And that was my first professional gig. Then I did that for month after month. And then they had me write feature articles and eventually made me the SFU-based reporter. Anything that happened at SFU, I covered it, which, you know, is sports kind of stuff, and even…they had a multi-day conference up there once about why we don’t have freeways running through Vancouver, and I covered that every day. Wrote lots of copy.
They had summer staff, which…it was about two months I was on summer staff, and sometimes I was the only reporter there for the, you know, skeleton shift, when there was not going to be a paper the next day. So, Saturday I was in there, all on my own…and that’s when I screwed up, remarkably.
We had the first Canadian trade mission of businesspeople to China, because China was just opening up then. This would have been ’72. So, I got a list of the people who were at that, and they were coming back. I went to the airport, I collared some of them, interviewed them there, then went back to the newsroom and phoned them at the various hotels that I was given, at, you know, the contact places. And I just went down the list, and those I got, you know, I wrote down what they said. The problem was, I called up the president of Sooke Forest Products, and didn’t get him. So, I then went to the sales manager of a little electronics firm and interviewed him, but I put his remarks under those of the president of Sooke Forest Products, who, it turned out had not actually gone to China at all.
Oh, dear. And so, what happened was the paper came out on Monday and caused a little flutter in the stock market for Sooke Forest Products, because what sounded perfectly fine coming from the sales manager of an electronics firm didn’t sound good coming from the president of the forest company. So, the publisher had to personally apologize, and there was a retraction on the front page, and I was summarily fired. But, you know…
As a former newspaper reporter. I commiserate.
Yeah, well, every reporter gets fired eventually, I suppose.
I quit. I didn’t get fired.
Oh, well, there you go, okay, yeah. And from there, I went into weeklies. I was news editor, which actually meant editor, of a bi-weekly in Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam and Port Moody, a paper called the Enterprise, and did that for 10 months, I think. Yeah. And then, a guy bought a piece of the paper and he wanted to do my job, so they let me go from there. So I had UIC, unemployment insurance, as it was called in those days, and I had a typewriter, so I wrote a fantasy novel and then went looking for work again. It was a bad fantasy novel, but I learned an awful lot about writing from doing that.
But if I take that back just a little bit further, you actually started writing in high school, didn’t you? Is that when you actually started first trying to put fiction together?
Yeah. I…in those days I really liked the historical novels of L. Sprague de Camp, who also wrote fantasy, but I loved his historicals, and I decided I was going to write one of those. And I came up with a good premise. In fact, I may even sit down one of these days and research and write this book. There is a mention here and there that after Alexander the Great had conquered everything and came back to Babylon, he sent a ship to go down and circumnavigate Africa. And then, of course, he died soon after that—he died of malaria, I think—and nobody knows what happened to that ship, whether it went, whether it went and didn’t come back or went and did come back or where it went. There’s a pretty good consensus that it was sent, but nobody knows what happened to that. So, I thought that was a great premise…
…so I wrote the first chapter of it in the summer holidays in…it would have been ’65…and then I realized writing a book with a pencil in an exercise notebook was a pretty hefty job. I was going to have to wait until I was, you know, better equipped, mentally and physically, with, you know, the writing implements to do this. But I did show up one day in Grade 12 for English class and was told we were supposed to have written the first chapter of a novel. I hadn’t been there for a while, I sometimes didn’t go to school. I didn’t like it. So I whipped this thing out and it actually was…
I’m glad you brought this up because it was a turning point. It was probably the time when I really decided I was going to be a writer, because the teacher we had…her name was Ruth Eldridge. and she was a tough woman, a former colonel in the American army, who was teaching English very hard…a stern, tough kind of woman, she was…and she had told us at the beginning of the year that nothing we wrote was going to get a 10 out of 10 from her because it wouldn’t be good enough, because we were kids. But I turned in my little few hundred words in my first chapter and she gave me 10 out of 10, and I took that as encouraging.
Well, that’s who…one of the people you dedicated What the Wind Brings to, isn’t it?
That’s right. Yes.
I noticed that when I was looking at it that she was on the first, you know, the dedication page.
Yeah. She and my mother. Both of them encouraged me to be a writer.
Were there other things you read? You mentioned L. Sprague de Camp. Were there other books that were inspirational to you as a young reader and then writer?
Yes. I…as I say, we were poor. And when I was still back in Ontario, before we fled to BC in ’63, we were living a couple of years in a quite remote farmhouse up a country road between Kitchener and Guelph, if anybody knows that part of the world. There was no library, there was no bookmobile. We did not have many books in the house. My eldest brother used to leave science fiction books around, until he finally got fed up of living at home and left, and I would read those. And also. there was a book that was on the Grade 9 English curriculum that both my elder brother and sister and eldest brother, I think, had all had. It was a juvenile historical set in the time of Shakespeare in England, called Cue for Treason.
That sounds familiar.
I think a lot of people in Ontario read that book because everybody was given it. And I read that and I was quite taken with the whole idea of historical novels, which I hadn’t run into by then. So, came September of 1962, they started putting us on a school bus to go to Grade 9 in the city, at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute, which everybody called KCI. And they had a really good, substantial school library, just chockful of science fiction, fantasy…wasn’t much fantasy in those days, mostly science fiction…and historicals, and I just started reading everything I could get. I would read two, three, four books a week, starting then. And then, by April, I’d read most of what they had that I was interested in, and my father had a shoestring construction business and he got into some trouble with loan sharks, and we packed up everything with no warning, U-Haul trailers, and headed for Vancouver to hide out. But we ended up in Burnaby, only a mile from a very good public library, and I started reading there and read everything I could for years and years. I used to actually spend a lot of time in the library because it was a warm and quiet place, whereas my family home was not a quiet place at all, it was fair amounts of stress and sturm und drang and so on. So yeah, as I sat and read for years.
And…you mentioned that the first thing that you wrote in Grade 12 was basically a historical novel…
Yeah, that was my that was my predilection to begin with. Later on I thought, “Maybe I’ll be a science fiction author,” but I wasn’t very good at science, so that kind of troubled me. But, you know, I could write space opera, I assumed. And then when fantasy hit, in ’65, I read The Lord of the Rings in that Ballentine edition that first came out and thought, “Now, here’s something I could do.” Which is why the first novel I wrote was actually a fantasy,
But a bad fantasy, you said.
Well, it was a good idea, but my writing was a bit clumsy, and the fact is, if you wanted to sell a fantasy novel to Betty Ballantine or somebody like that, writing a tragedy was not a good idea. But there you go.
So how did things did things proceed from that first attempt? Because obviously, you got to the point where you were writing much better things.
Yes. Well, from the newspaper business…my last newspaper job was editing a little tabloid weekly in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, and I was quitting that because it was pretty much a scam anyway as a newspaper…
I’ll divert here for a moment to explain that. In those days, Conrad Black and his partner, Radler, were going around with a suitcase full of money buying newspapers, small-town dailies especially. And we had one of those in Port Alberni, it was called the Alberni Valley Times, and Rattler was phoning up the owner of that, a guy called Rollie Rose, every week and saying, “We want to buy your paper. We’ll give you X amount.” And Rollie would say, “No, I don’t want to sell my paper. I like it.” And then they would phone back the next week and say, “We’ll give you X plus Y.” “No, I don’t want to.” This went on for quite a while. And a couple of local hustlers, one of whom worked at that newspaper, they got to know about this, and so they borrowed some money and they bought an advertiser. You know, one of those things that come around every week and tell you about shopping and bargains and so on? They bought that. They rented some Compugraphic equipment, hired a couple of people, including me, and it became a community newspaper, which it really wasn’t, because there was only so much copy that I could generate every week, so we filled it with Copley news clips, you know, horoscopes and cartoons and feature articles of all kinds.
What they were doing, the two hustlers, was undercutting the AV Times on advertising, which meant the paper was jam-packed with ads, page after page, which is why there was so much copy we had to write and fill. The idea was that when Rollie Rose eventually said to Conrad Black, “OK, I’ll take the money,” that Conrad would also buy up this paper just to shut it down, because it was cutting into all the ad revenue. And I believe that’s what eventually happened. But, by the time I figured out this was not a real job anymore—you know, after the second time that my paycheck bounced—I thought, “OK.” I was going to do some freelancing for the AV Times, and I had a suit, so I could be a supply teacher (that was the qualification necessary in Port Alberni) and I was working out my two weeks’ notice, when a guy came into the newsroom, and he was the campaign manager for the Liberal candidate, a local insurance guy who had just won the election in ‘74 and was going to Ottawa, and said, “Would you like to go to Ottawa and ghostwrite his newspaper column for the riding press?” And I said, “Yeah, okay.” (It took me a week to get to, “Yeah, okay,” but I eventually did.) And off I went to Ottawa and was quite happy, about six weeks of ghostwriting the column and helping people with their passports and UIC and citizenship problems.
And then the MP comes into the office one day and says, “You have to write me a speech, because I’m seconding debate on the Speech from the Throne.” Which is a big deal. That’s…for those who are listening who don’t know the Speech from the Throne, that’s when the government, at the beginning of a parliament, sets out its entire agenda, what it’s going to do, the bills they’re going to bring in, the things they’re going to concentrate on, and it was traditional—with the Liberals, at least, this was a Liberal government, of Pierre Trudeau—traditional that the debate on that speech, after the speech is given by the governor-general, the debate starts with a maiden MP from the east and a maiden MP from the west moving and seconding the debate.
So I said, “OK,” and I went down to the speaker’s office. They showed me some samples of this kind of speech, and I read them and looked at them, and thought, “OK, not hard. You do half about the Speech from the Throne, the government’s agenda, and half about the riding you come from.” So, I went back to the office and I had my IBM Selectric typewriter and I wrote him a 20-minute speech, one draft, and he loved it, and he went out and gave it, and it was a big hit. John Turner, who was the light that failed in the Liberal Party in those days, came over and put his arm around him and said, “You’re our boy,” and they made him chair of the caucus of the British Columbia Liberal MPs ,and he was on his way up.
And, of course, he started to get requests from riding associations all across the country and chambers of commerce, Rotary and, you know, “Come and give us a speech.” So, suddenly, my major occupation in his office was writing speeches, which were well-received. And he then had this reputation as this great speaker, which he wasn’t all that good at, but I could write so it sounded just like him, that was the trick. But I got a reputation as this hot new speechwriter that nobody had ever heard of. And minister’s offices started coming around saying, “Would you like to come and work for our minister as a communications aide and speechwriter?” And after a certain amount of time, I said, “Yeah, okay,” and ended up writing speeches for Ron Basford, the minister of justice, and then after about a year and a half with him, I went to work for Len Marchand, who was first minister of small business and then minister of the environment.
So, all together, I was four years in Ottawa, pretty much writing speeches full-time. Turned out I had a knack for it. I had no training at all, but I could hear somebody’s voice in my head and right in that voice, so it sounded like whoever it was. And I had a knack for drawing word pictures, which is what speechwriting is mostly about, you put pictures in people’s heads, and they like it, and your good.
Both of those sound like useful skills for a novelist as well.
Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you how I first developed that knack as when I was working for that paper in Coquitlam, the Enterprise. I had…it was owned by a very right-wing fellow and I had to write very right-wing editorials. And I had trouble with that until I started writing them in Richard Nixon’s voice. It came out perfect and the boss was very happy with them. I would think,”Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh,” type type type. But, yeah, that is the speechwriter’s trick. It is the ability to get somebody’s work, world view and voice in your head. Hang on a sec…we’re house-sitting a somewhat nervous dog. Yeah, there she goes.
You’d be surprised how often there are animal noises in the back of these interviews.
Well, this one, if I raise my voice at all, she gets anxious and starts to bark. And then, if you put her outside, she immediately starts barking even though there’s nothing there. She’s the runt of the litter. And she’s kind of strange. But she’s a nice dog. I like her.
It was your Nixon voice that set her off.
That was it. “Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh.” Anyway, so, okay, continuing the saga, I did four years in Ottawa, and then I came back to Vancouver to be a freelance speechwriter, because I’d known guys…I was thinking of the one guy I knew in Ottawa who wrote speeches for the department of the environment, which were then brought up to the minister’s office for the minister to give, and then I would have to rewrite them because they were dull and pedestrian and full of bureaucratic language, you now? They were like a big, long memo.
Passive voice, and blah, blah, blah. And this guy was making then…and this was 1978…he was making 70 grand a year doing this. I thought, well, I’m gonna go back to Vancouver and I’m going to do this and I’m gonna get a lot of money because I’m good at it and he’s not.
So, anyway, I came back to Vancouver and discovered, after…I did a stint as a civil servant for a while until I became politically toxic and was fired by the incoming Joe Clark government…I discovered that nobody had ever been a full-time specialist speechwriter in Vancouver, and the work was not there. I had to spend two years building the practice before I could actually make any money at it. People used to say, “How can you write a speech for our CEO if you’re not an expert in the forestry or mining or whatever industry?” And I would say, “Well, how can you send your boss out to make a speech that hasn’t been written by an expert speechwriter?” So, we would agree to disagree. But I always used to say at the end of the pitch, “The day will come when somebody has screwed up and the CEO or the chairman needs a speech and it hasn’t been written, and you need someone to write it very quickly, and then you call me and I will come in and I will do it for you, and it will be magic.”
And that happened two or three times, and suddenly my reputation began to spread and I got lots of work, and it got to the point where other people tried setting up as speechwriters and they got told, “Well, we’ve got Hughes, so, no,” you know? And I kept raising my rates and nobody complained. I started out at, I think, $75 an hour, and I ended up effectively at about $200 because I would just charge a flat rate. Didn’t matter how many draft drafts or anything, it would be that amount of money. You know, $1,500, $2,000, because I discovered early on that I was writing one draft for, you know, $100 an hour and getting $600-700 for it. Other people were writing four or five drafts because they weren’t very good and they were actually getting more money than I was for an inferior product.
So yeah, being a fast, good writer, if you charge by the hour, you actually hurt yourself. I’ve encountered that myself. So, you’re clearly writing millions and millions of words over all this time. Where was the fiction by now?
Well, the funny thing I discovered…I’m like a factory that is tooled up to produce a certain thing, product, and if you’re going to change the product, you’ve got to shut the factory down for a while and retool, and then make that new product. I could not spend my working day writing speeches or even newspaper material and then write fiction in the evening. It just wouldn’t come. If I took two weeks off, three weeks, then I could write something. But I couldn’t…somehow could not do both at the same time. So, I put aside writing fiction essentially in about ’74, and just almost never did anything until we got right up into the ’80s. And then I wrote over a period of a number of years, in dead time, I wrote my first real novel, the one I sold, Fools Errant.
And, later on, I wrote a couple of crime novels and got a New York agent to represent them, which was good, except that then she had a family crisis and couldn’t do anything for months. And those two sort of died on the vine, because once an agent has taken a book out and not sold it, it doesn’t matter what the reasons are, no other agent is interested in that book. So, my attempt in those days to be a crime writer…I was selling short stories, I’d sold a novel to Doubleday, won the Arthur Ellis Award, which was nice…got kind of got short-circuited because I had two novels I couldn’t sell. I didn’t want to write another one and, you know, wait all that time, I didn’t have the money to be able to set aside the time. On the other hand, people were offering me checks and publication if I wrote science fiction and fantasy by then. And so, I started doing that and have kept on ever since, really. Although, I do tend to write crime fiction in science fiction and fantasy settings, so I’m kind of melding the two together. I don’t write about heroes. I write about thieves and con men and wizard’s henchmen, that kind of thing.
Well, let’s talk about What the Wind Brings, which you have called your magnum opus, and, first of all, where did it come from and how does that compare to the way that most of your story ideas come to you? What generates story ideas for you?
Ok, I’ll do the “what generates” and then I’ll do What the Wind Brings, because they’re different really.
What generates a story for me is a character in a normal situation of some kind, and then something happens and the character has to respond to that situation, that conflict, and that makes things roll forward and other characters get involved, and before I know it, there’s a story. I had one out (A God in Chains), a novel set in the Dying Earth, a fantasy novel set in…it’s sort of my extrapolation of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. And I started out with a man walking on a road on a big open prairie, and he figures out, looking at what’s in front of him—there’s wheel tracks and animal dung and footprints—and he figures, “I must be following a caravan.” The thing is, he has no memory. He has complete amnesia, doesn’t know who he is, how he got there, what his backstory is, none of that. And when I started writing that, neither did I. I didn’t know who he was. I just started with the character in the situation, and then on we went.
By the time I…I actually thought I was writing a novella to send to Fantasy & Science Fiction or Lightspeed, and instead it turned out I was writing a novel, because other characters got involved and their stories meshed and conflicted with the main character’s. And after about three months, I had a novel of 80,000 words, and I sold it to Edge Publishing, Brian Hades in Calgary—I’d always wanted to do a deal with Brian. I used to edit books for him—and actually, it’s done quite well. It came out in July and it’s got about 28, 29 five-star reviews on Amazon now. For people who like Jack Vance, it’s exactly what they’re looking for. And there are still people around like that.
So that’s my process. I have no idea what I’m doing when I begin. At some point, maybe a third to half the way through, I understand the shape of the story and how it’s going to have to end. And then I start writing towards that.
So, you don’t typically, like, outline ahead of time? You’re more of a…
I can’t. I can’t. I’ve tried that. I tried that years ago. Nothing really comes off. I’m just sitting down trying to make up a story. I have to do it scene by scene and even line by line, sometimes. You know, I’ll be writing a scene and a line of dialogue will come out of the back of my head. It’s the same way I used to write speeches. There’s a guy in the back of my head who does this, and then I type and edit a bit. But a line of dialogue will occur to me and that will take the thing off in a whole different direction. And I follow that. That’s what I do. Normally I write one draft and then a second draft to tighten and add some bits and shore up things I thought at later—you know, I put them in Chapter 2 because in Chapter 8, something has happened—and then I polish and that’s it. That’s my normal process.
But you said What the Wind Brings was a bit different. Oh, and also, before we talk about that, maybe you should explain what the story is about, without giving away anything that you don’t want to give away.
I’m happy to talk about that one. It’s about African slaves who were shipwrecked on the jungle coast of Ecuador in the middle of the 1500s, who melded with the local indigenous people who had been ravaged by disease, and also by the fact that the conquistadors and the Pizarro had come through their territory, going up to the highlands to crush the Inca Empire. So, they were demoralized and scattered and in rather a bad way, had lost a lot of people. But the Africans and the indigenous folk, they were a people called the Nigua, they got together and they formed a mixed society, which became a place for people who were running away, like slaves and so on, escaped, came to them and augmented them. And they also made alliances and connections with other indigenous groups around them.
The Spanish…they tried several expeditions to reduce these people to servitude again. And the mixed people…they’re now called Zambos, which was the term for indigenous and African mixed people…they outfought them and they out-thought them, time and again, until finally the Spanish said, “OK, we’ll leave you alone, we’ll make a deal with you because we really want a port at the mouth of that river that you control. That’s going to cut our transportation costs enormously.” And so they did that. They made a deal. And these people remained a “distinct society,” as we would say in Canada, forever. And then eventually they negotiated their way into Ecuador when Ecuador became a republic in the Bolívar period.
And I had a friend, a client, who in 1970 went up the little back creeks in that area. He was doing a Forest Service survey, I think, for CUPE…not CUPE, CUSO. The Canadian University Service Overseas.
I wondered why CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) would be doing it.
But he went in dugout canoes, paddling up backwaters and then little creeks that led to the backwaters. And he found, essentially, Africa. Everybody was black. And he even had the experience…he landed at this little village, got out of his canoe and walked into the midst of the huts, and an old woman came up to him and took her finger and wiped it down his cheek and then looked to see if the white came off. Here was an old woman who had never seen the white man. And that’s the story.
Now, the “how it came to be”…I was still thinking of myself as a potential historical novelist from time to time, and back in 1971, I came across a footnote in a textbook in university and thought, “Gee, that would be a good idea,” because it said…the chapter I was reading was about how most castaways who show up on a foreign shore, you know, like Japanese fishermen who might have landed at Nootka Sound 500 years ago, been blown off course and so on, they didn’t thrive. They didn’t last very long. Mostly that’s what happens. But here was this one case where these Africans came ashore and survived and prospered. And I thought that could make a good story.
The problem was, back then, that I couldn’t research it, really. Virtually all the scholarship was in South American journals in Spanish, and my Spanish was, you know, good enough to ask where the hotel is or, you know, (Spanish phrase) kind of stuff, but not good enough to read academic journals from Chile and Ecuador and so on. So, I always kept it in the back of my mind that this is a story I would like to write. And the more I thought about it, even without the proper background, the idea of two societies melding together in the face of opposition—and really desperate opposition, from people who would kill and enslave them—It had a real appeal to me, and I used to think about who the characters might be. And early on, I decided one of them was going to be a shaman, one of the indigenous people. And at some point I thought, “Not just a shaman, but a hermaphroditic shaman. Now there’s a character you can build a story around!”
And then came this century. I discovered …I used to look into it from time to time, see what I could find out…I discovered that North American scholars were beginning to write about this in English, quite a bit, about the Zambos. So, I began collecting material and sketched out what my idea for the story was, three characters, three points of view, and I went to the Canada Council, and they gave me 25,000 bucks to write this.
Which was…yeah, it was very helpful. And it was also a vote of confidence, I thought. So I wrote it. And, unlike most of my stuff, I did actually four drafts on this because I wanted it to be perfect.
Did you outline this one, or did you approach it the same way in the writing process?
Well, I knew things that had to happen. You know, about the entradas, as they called the invasions that the Spanish made. And I knew about who characters would have to be, like a merchant up in Quito—and I used a real historical figure who is very important and was trying to build up the wool trade in Ecuador at that time. So, I took real historical people I knew about and things that they had done and I fitted them into the framework. But, there was no real history of what had happened on the ground among those people, the Africans and the Negua, when they got together, because nobody was there taking notes. So, I had to imagine that. And nobody knows what Negua culture was like, because they are extinct and have been for centuries.
So, a lot of room to play.
Yeah, as long as…I was happy with that, but also thought, “As long as I use actual aboriginal cultures as templates.” So I made the Negua, I made them quite matriarchal, and the Africans are quite patriarchal, although the Africans came from different cultures, too. And I happened to know a fair amount about West Africa in that period and before, because I’d once been interested in writing a historical novel set in the empire of Mali in the 1200s. So, I can apply that knowledge and the basic aboriginal knowledge, and out of it came people, and the people had their hopes and dreams and desires and fears, and that’s what you make stories out of, so…
Basically, it’s a political novel. It’s about the politics among people and between the Spanish and the Zambos, the politics. And also, the Inquisition is involved in there, too, because one of the real-life characters was a man named Espinosa, who was a Trinitarian monk from Spain. He was the only Trinitarian monk in Ecuador at the time. His order did not have any functions there at all. And the implication was that he was fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, because he was a what they call a converso, someone whose parents or grandparents had converted from Islam or Judaism, under threat of death, to become Christians. And by the time, the period we’re talking about, the Inquisition was running very well, and what they were doing was they were finding rich conversos and simply stripping them of their assets with fear of imprisonment or being burned at the stake. So, this guy had fled to the new world because the Inquisition did not exist in Ecuador at that time. So, he was fun. He was my good-hearted, innocent character who simply did what he thought was right and the hell with everybody else.
So, I guess what slips this out of being pure historical fiction into maybe a bit of magic realism or fantasy is that the shaman, Expectation, actually has power.
Yes. Yes. I thought that was appropriate, to use magical realism in a story set in South America, where magical realism comes from. And also, it was a way of, I suppose, conferring dignity upon the character and the culture, that these things that others might have pooh-poohed and said, oh, you know, “bunch of nonsense,” actually, she could go into the underworld and the overworld and deal with spirits and heal people that way. That was her main job, was to heal people. And not just heal physically, but to heal psychologically, because in her culture, if you were very depressed or whatever, had a mental problem, chances were that your animal spirit had departed you, and she would go into the underworld and find where it was and bring it back and put it into you, and then you’d be happy again. Also, I knew that in South America there was a lot of trepanning done. People would…you find skulls with holes in them that had been carefully cut and then repaired, because they would put holes in people’s skulls to relieve pressure and so on, I suppose from concussions and whatnot. So, I gave her that power too. That was fun.
So, it’s very long novel, right? It’s like 150,000 words or something like that?
Yeah. Thereabouts, yeah.
And the publisher is…well, basically a new publisher, isn’t it?
Yes. The publisher is Pulp Literature Press which began as two…well, three…women in BC who were putting out a quarterly magazine called Pulp Literature. And they did that for, I think, five or six years, and it developed a following and became a successful small magazine. And then they thought, “Well, let’s do books.” I was having trouble placing What the Wind Brings because 150,000 words of historical novel, with or without magical realism, is not an easy sell these days. I mean, one of my most favorite historical novelists of all time is Cecilia Holland, whom I’ve been reading since the late ’60s, but in the past 10 or 15 years or so, she’s had to make historical novels with a certain amount of magic in them or characters who have second sight and so on, and then get them published by Tor as essentially fantasy historicals. Historicals are just a hard sell.
So, I’d been selling stories to this magazine, and I got to know the people, and I liked them, and they were certainly serious publishers. They weren’t just fooling around and they weren’t fooling themselves as many small-press people can be. So, I offered them the book and they read it and said, “Holy mackerel, this is a really good book.” So, they took it, and we’ve been working our way through the process. There was a limited-edition hardcover, which has sold mostly pretty well. There are people who collect me, so they wanted this book. And now last month (December 2019) we came out with the paperback and the e-book on Amazon and also distributed by Ingram, so booksellers can get it. And I’ve been doing whatever I can to promote it, which I’ve had some success with. Right now, there’s a science fiction and fantasy group on Facebook, which is run by Damien Walter, who used to do science fiction and fantasy reviews for The Guardian newspaper in England, and he picked it as the one book that he was going to promote, starting a week ago, and to promote it for a month. And that’s had quite a good effect. We have sold quite a few through Amazon, especially the e-book.
So…and I’m pushing it. I had a…in John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, I did a piece, his Big Idea feature. There’s a big idea behind his book, which is “diversity makes strength,” a very Canadian point of view, somewhat controversial in some parts of America these days, but that helped, too. That drew some eyes to it.
What was the editing process like for this book? And what is typical when you’re edited? What sorts of things do you find yourself working on after the editor has a look at it.
I have always been quite lightly edited. When I did my book for Tor, when David Hartwell was my editor, I got literally a few lines on a piece of paper telling me not to kill the character that I’d killed and change the ending to make it more upbeat. I’d made a sacrificial hero out of the hero, but I simply changed that so he didn’t die. But with What the Wind Brings, it got a pretty thorough polishing from Jennifer Landels, who’s the managing editor of Pulp Literature. She made some suggestions. I took most of them because I thought they improved the book and I really wanted this book to be polished like a gem.
You know, most of everything I’ve written has been entertainments. There’s some philosophy in them, there’s some maybe quirky points of view, some original ideas that are, you know, little small ideas of how the future might be and so on. But this one, I wanted to be just absolutely the best it could be. And so, I had more engagement with editing than I normally do—but again, it was fairly lightly edited. I mean, structurally, there was one small change. I took a piece out of the beginning and at her suggestion, I moved it further back so that we would get to the action sooner, which was a perfectly valid strategy. Otherwise, it was, you know, a few words here, and a few words there. I’d thrown in some sword fighting using rapiers, and in fact, Jennifer is in aficionado of the rapier, so she corrected me on a few things that I didn’t know.
I thought so. Yeah. We don’t want the rapier fans to be, you know, thrown out of the book by whether I go over somebody’s guard or under it.
I once was on a panel about writing fighting scenes, and the general consensus was that if you couldn’t be accurate, be vague, which is probably not a bad…if you can’t be absolutely certain that what you’re saying is correct, then don’t try to be too specific. So, if you have somebody who can actually help with that, that’s great.
Yeah. I had a sword-fighting duel in one book, in the far future, and they used a peculiar kind of weapon which was like a rapier, except the blade was only six inches long at the tip, the rest of it was just round. And so, I invented things, moves and so on, just gave them names, you know, and said that they did this and they did that and responded with a quatrefoil and whatever, you know. No idea what they were, but it sounded good.
So, we’re getting close to the end here. So I do want to ask…I’ll get to what you’re working on next in a minute, but first, I want to ask the big philosophical question, which is why do you do this? Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write? What is this impulse to tell stories? Where does it come from in you, and where do you think it comes from in all of us?
Well, I can’t really speak for other people. I think the urge to tell stories comes from very far back in our evolutionary past, when we developed language. And I don’t believe we develop language in order to make hunting signals, I think we developed language so we could gossip about each other, which is what every culture does. And I think, in a reasonably accurate sense, the idea of story-making is just a form of gossip. We tell each other about people and events and things, because we’re just programmed to like gossip. Everybody does.
For me, as I figured out when I was 16, this is the only thing I can do, writing, that I can do superbly with minimum strain and stress. I was naturally good at this from the very beginning, and so it was natural for me to be doing this.
I must have written 2,000 speeches over my career. Some of them I quite enjoyed, some of them I really didn’t enjoy. A lot of them I just didn’t care about: I was doing a job and doing it to the best of my ability and that was how I made my living. Writing stories, though…
I know I have a kind of fragmented psyche. There are different personas inside me, not full-blown multiple personality, but what a Jungian would call a complex. And when I’m writing fiction, and even when I was writing speeches, very often, those pieces come together and make me more whole or make me more who I am than normally I would be, you know, when I’m doing other things, because other aspects of me do other things as required. So, yeah, it integrates me and that feels good, basically. That’s why I do it. Also, at the level of when I write something and it really works, I enjoy that. I say, “Oh, got that one. Good.” Yeah.
And what do you hope your readers get out of your work?
I guess…I want them to enjoy it. I want them to be transported to someplace else and maybe moved a little. That one I was talking about, the one that started off with amnesia, it’s called A God in Chains, and the ending of it…I knew my central character, who’d been awful and terrible and been part of a massacre of innocents back in his career, he had to be renewed, he had to be reborn in some way, and as I got to the last scene or two, it suddenly occurred to me how that would work within the context of what I’d created for the book. So, I had him do this thing, and people have been saying in reviews on Amazon and so on that it brought a tear to their eyes and it totally unexpected, that that’s how it was going to end. And I thought, “That’s…yeah, that’s nice, when you can do that.”
Now, though, you’ve got a new project that you’re excited about that draws on your love of Jack Vance. So, tell us about that.
Well, I’ve always been strongly influenced by Jack Vance and Booklist, years ago, even called me his heir apparent. And anybody who reads Vance and reads me will see, yeah, there are shadings here that…I’m standing on his shoulders. I’m not doing pastiche, but I’m certainly influenced by him.
So, one of his iconic works is a five-volume novel called The Demon Princes, or five short novels that make one great story, about these space-opera villains. Five master criminals and monsters, and a guy, one by one, tracks them down and kills them because they did terrible things to his community, basically a slave raid that took everybody away and they were never seen again.
Well, I was talking to John Vance, who is Jack Vance’s son, about this, and we made an agreement that I’m going to write a sequel, a kind of sixth Demon Princes novel, although all five demon princes are dead, so they won’t be in it. But I’ve come up with a rough idea for how I want it to go. And I’ve started. I’ve written, like, the first 1,400 words or so just yesterday. And that’s what I’m going to be working on for the next couple or three months. And I want to make it, not a fake Jack Vance novel, but a kind of homage to him and to the universe that he created, the space-opera universe that he wrote so much in. And I’m hoping it’ll go well and maybe I’ll do more.
Is there a projected release date for that? And who will publish it?
Well, that’s an open question. John Vance has his own press now, called Spatterlight Press. Well worth looking at, because he’s been publishing in e-book and trade paperback all of his father’s works, and using the texts that were developed as part of what was called the Vance Integral Edition, where they took the old manuscripts and they put back in the things that editors had cut out because it had to fit a certain space in a magazine or…an Ace Double was only going to be 40,000 words long, so they had to be cut. They put all of that back and they made a complete definitive edition of all his works. And he’s using those texts and putting them out. I’ve written some blurbs for them and introductions and so on, and that’s doing well.
So, I get this thing done and it’s a good book, then it will neither be published by John’s Spatterlight Press or I’ll look at ta third publisher taking the rights. And the idea is, John and I split the proceeds either way. I did have something like this in the works several years ago before Jack died, but when he died, it kind of died with it. And in those days, David Hartwell, who is now gone also, was very interested in getting it for Tor, and we might do something like that.
And is there anything else in the works right now?
I was 22,000 words into a crime novel, which is a sequel to one that’s coming out later this year from Pulp Literature, but I put that aside to work on the Vance thing. So when I’ve done the Vance job, then I will go back to…the book is called The Do-Gooder, and I’ll get that finished, too.
So the question you asked, when would that come out, if it’s coming out from Spatterlight, it would be later this year. And if it’s from a third party, Tor or somebody, probably not ’til late next year.
Okay. Well, that’s about the time. So, where can people find you online?
MatthewHughes.org is where I am, and I have a Facebook page of Matthew Hughes Author, and if you go to Facebook and put down Hapthorn, the name of one of my characters, it’ll take you to my Facebook page. Oh, yeah, and I should always say this, I have a Patreon account. If people would like to be my patrons, they can go to Patreon and look me up there as Matthew Hughes, and they’ll say Click Here and you’ll be a patron.
And you’re on Twitter, too, are you not?
Oh, I’m on Twitter, yeah. Again, that’s @hpathorn. If you go to my web page, you can link from there to all the Facebook and Twitter and everything, and Patreon. You can sign up for my newsletter, which I do every month, now. I just completed three years of a monthly newsletter about what I’m doing, what I’m trying to do.
Sounds like a great way to stay on top of it.
Okay. Well, thank you so much, Matt, for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
I did indeed. Thank you for having me.
Thank you. Bye for now.
Okay, take care.