As you know, I’ve started a new feature on this blog where I pick the best Indie book I read that month, share it with you and then interview the author. The best book I read in January 2018 was The Minotaur Hunt by the award-winning Miriam Hastings as highlighed in this post. Miriam kindly agreed to an interview and here it is! You can find Miriam’s bio and links at the end of this post.
1. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Why do you write?
I never made a conscious decision to be a writer, I need to write and always have. I have been making up stories ever since I can remember and writing them down from the moment I learned to write.
I have always had a vivid imagination and when I was a child I spent a lot of time in fantasy worlds that I created. I think I write fiction as an adult to meet the same needs I had then. This is partly a need to escape from reality when it’s too unbearable, but also a need to address the problems life poses by approaching them from a more creative angle. Writing is a way of taking control of reality because you can shape it and reshape it through words, expressing your own experience and vision of the world and, through doing that, you can transform reality into something greater.
2. Can you tell us about The Minotaur Hunt – what inspired you to write this particular book?
I wrote The Minotaur Hunt in my late 20s (it was first published when I was 31). I suffered from an extreme anxiety disorder as an adolescent, caused by childhood trauma, and was admitted to an adult acute ward when I was 14 and kept there for three and a half months. I was admitted to hospital again when I was 23.
Later, after I was 26, while I was writing the novel, I worked with people who had been moved out of the big asylums like Bradley. First I was working in a MIND day centre and then in a group home.
I was also studying for a part-time BA degree and designing and hand painting ceramic tiles, so it was an extremely busy period in my life! I used to write for half an hour every evening – I doubt The Minotaur Hunt would have been written if I hadn’t done that! But it was as if I had no choice – I felt driven to write the novel no matter what else I was doing at the time.
Throughout my 30s and 40s, I continued working part-time in the field of mental health, both doing therapeutic work with service users and also teaching on courses for mental health professionals, e.g. training courses for psychiatric nurses, social workers, psychologists, etc.
I wrote The Minotaur Hunt because I wanted to help people understand what it feels like to suffer from mental distress and to be labelled as “mad” or “mentally ill”, and the way it renders you totally illegitimate within society, so that your feelings and experiences are dismissed and pathologised, your experience of past trauma is disbelieved, and the social and family problems causing your distress are ignored and never addressed.
I also wanted to help bring about change within the psychiatric system because I had both experienced and witnessed so much abuse.
Looking back on it, I’m amazed at my own naiveté and arrogance – that I imagined my novel could change such a vast and impervious system! Sadly, I don’t think the closing of the big Victorian asylums has changed attitudes or brought about improvements in the way service users are treated, as I once hoped.
3. What is your writing process? How does it all come together?
In the years when I was studying and teaching it was often hard to find the time to write regularly. Now I like to write for at least an hour or two every day, but I am disabled with a progressive degenerative illness and these days my major problem is living in chronic pain and suffering from stiffness and weakness in my hands and wrists which make the physical act of writing difficult. I have to rely largely on voice recognition. I have a dictaphone that I use for making notes and for capturing ideas. I can download my notes to the computer from my dictaphone, although this involves a lot of correction and editing so it isn’t always useful.
When I first begin a novel, sometimes I have to be disciplined and make myself work on it every day but once I’ve become really involved in the story and the characters, I can’t wait to start writing each morning.
When I begin a novel I rarely start at the beginning – I don’t usually know where the beginning will be! I think writing a novel is like doing a large complicated jigsaw puzzle. I know what I’m aiming for but I don’t tackle the whole picture at once, just a small area at a time, as I might concentrate on the sky when doing a jigsaw. I recognize and build up connections gradually. Once I am about halfway through, it becomes much easier – sections begin to fit together and I see the whole work taking shape. I find the important thing is to keep writing; I don’t let myself get stuck over Chapter 2 if I could easily write Chapter 6. I know Chapter 2 will become clearer later, a novel is a long piece of work, I think if you don’t keep writing, it will never come into existence at all so it’s important to be disciplined. Occasionally I know how I want to begin but often the beginning and the end don’t become clear in my mind until I’ve written the rest of the book.
This sometimes applies to short stories as well, but I tend to write short stories in a more straightforward chronological manner from beginning to end; however the first and last paragraphs are the last things I work on because it’s vitally important to get them right in a short story – even more than in a novel.
Writing a novel is very different to writing a short story and to some extent it takes different skills. When I am writing a novel I need to know as much as possible about the characters and their lives, whether I’m going to use that information in the novel or not. However, when I’m writing a short story I don’t necessarily know everything about the character or their life.
4. What is more important to you, the characters or the plot?
I think my writing is more character-driven than plot-driven. The characters, their psychological make-up, their relationships, the life experiences that have made them who they are, interest me most. The plot is vitally important, of course, but mainly in relation to the characters and the way it affects them.
6. Do you have a day job, and if so, does it help your writing in any way?
For several years, as well as running therapeutic groups, I was a part-time lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, teaching post-colonial and cross-cultural women’s literature, and creative writing for personal development.
I think working with people has always fed into my writing because people fascinate me. I can’t imagine how I would create my characters if I didn’t know how people think and feel, and something of the richness of their lives.
After I became too disabled to work for a college or other institutions, I began teaching from home and running writing groups; also leading guided creative writing for personal development both in groups and for individuals.
Sadly, I’m able to do very little work now – less and less each year as my health problems increase – but I still run some writing workshops at home.
7. Do you write with a theme or a message in mind, and if so, what might it be?
I have always seen writing as a political act, however, I don’t necessarily set out to express a particular message. I don’t consciously write stories to give a message so much as to express a vision. On the other hand, the outsider is a constant theme in my work, and in all my writing the main protagonist is in some way an outsider.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished a novel, The Dowager’s Dream, set on the north coast of Scotland during the brutal clearances in the region. The story was partly inspired by the lives of my great, great-grandmothers, Margaret MacKenzie and Christine Patterson, also by an extraordinary account written in 1809 by the Minister’s daughter of Reay, describing a mermaid she saw in Sandside Bay, Caithness – but the mermaid in The Dowager’s Dream is not pretty, being a dark symbol of both sexual and cultural repression. For several years I was researching the Highland clearances and themes of dispossession and ethnic cleansing are central to the novel.
Now I have several ideas for novels which I’m working on until it becomes clear which one I want to concentrate upon! There is a thriller (my first!) set in Cornwall; a novel about a group of young people living in short-life housing; and finally, a novel about three young sisters, which is exploring the secrets and taboos that all families hide.
I’m also working on a short story about Emily Bronte which I’ve been struggling with for quite some time.
9.Can you tell us about your publishing experiences so far?
I was very fortunate with The Minotaur Hunt because the first publisher I approached, the Harvester Press, accepted it straightaway, and then it won the Mind Book of the Year Award which helped promote it. The Harvester press were a small independent publishers who mostly published literary criticism for universities but also some literary fiction. Unfortunately, they were taken over by a big multinational corporation, Simon & Schuster, soon after The Minotaur Hunt was published who closed down Harvester’s fiction list leaving me without a publisher. It was about the time that publishing changed a lot, following the ending of the net book agreement, most independent publishing houses were gradually taken over by a few huge multinationals that were totally profit centred. Mostly because of winning the award, The Minotaur Hunt sold out in hardback, although small numbers have usually been available through eBay, but I couldn’t find any other publisher to take it on. A few years ago I decided to write a new epilogue as it was 20 years since it was first published. I was inspired by Angela Carter’s “afterword” to her early novel, Love, written years after it was published. In my Afterword I revisit all the characters to see what has happened to them in the years since the novel finished. First of all I published this revised edition of the novel on Kindle and Kobo, and then in September I published it as a paperback.
I have written five novels since The Minotaur Hunt but sadly none of them have been published. I have published several short stories and poems in anthologies and literary magazines. I had a collection of short stories, Demon Lovers, shortlisted for the Scott Award in 2010 and I’m planning to self publish that as it so difficult to get short stories published. I have already published three short stories on Kindle and Kobo, The Doll and Other Stories: Strange Tales. I think it’s really sad that so few publishers, including small independent presses, publish short stories. I love reading short stories myself and I know lots of other people do too.
10.Do you find it hard to say goodbye to your characters? If so, which character from The Minotaur Hunt would you revisit if you could?
I love all my characters, even the minor ones and the unattractive ones, and I never forget them. As I said above, I have already revisited the characters from The Minotaur Hunt in the new epilogue I’ve written.
11. Tell us what inspires your writing
Anything that stimulates my imagination! Inspiration comes from all manner of things; I am always getting ideas for short stories and novels – some of which I will discard later but many I keep and return to; sometimes after several years.
I always begin with an idea, sometimes with a story I have heard or read, often this might be taken from history or from myth or legend. I’m a highly political person (with a small p!) and I’m always gripped by stories of injustice, abuse, alienation or persecution – these are the kind of stories I always want to tell (as with the Highland Clearances).
12.What is your approach to marketing and self-promotion?
This is the part of writing that have always found most difficult. I hate it! And I am really bad at it. When I first wrote The Minotaur Hunt I went about practically apologising for having had the temerity to write a novel!
I am getting better at it, partly because I’ve realised I must, given the extreme commercialisation of the publishing world today. I do have a website and a Facebook author page.
At the moment I’m approaching literary agents with my latest novel, The Dowager’s Dream, but so far I’ve had no luck. One of them was very enthusiastic at first but decided in the end that it wasn’t for him.
If none of them are interested, I will try some small presses before publishing it independently.
For several years I worked in the field of mental health in a variety of roles. I ran therapeutic workshops for survivors of childhood trauma. I taught on community links courses and ran consultancy and personal development courses for mental health service clients, and training courses and workshops for mental health professionals.
I also worked part-time for the Faculty of Continuing Education at Birkbeck College, University of London, teaching a course for women in creative writing for personal development, and also teaching modern literature, cross-cultural and postcolonial literature.
I’m disabled by a progressive degenerative disease so now I work from home as a freelance tutor in literature and creative writing. I still run therapeutic creative writing workshops and offer individual sessions in writing for personal development and self-exploration.
I have had work published, including fiction, literary reviews and mental health articles. My first novel, The Minotaur Hunt, was published by the Harvester Press and won the MIND Book of the Year Award, a revised edition is now available as a paperback and on Kindle and Kobo. In 2010, I had a collection of short stories, Demon Lovers, shortlisted for the Scott Award (Salt publishing), three of these stories are published on Kindle and Kobo as The Doll and other stories: Strange Tales.
Connect with Miriam;