I had the pleasure of interviewing Gregory Ashe, Author of the wildly popular Hazard and Somerset series. Below are the interview questions along with Gregory’s response.
When you began writing the Hazard And Somerset Mysteries, what was your inspiration for the characters?
That’s such a good question. The inspiration for the first Hazard and Somerset book, Pretty Pretty Boys, came from a real murder (you can read about it: Here https://murderpedia.org/male.R/r/rios-steven.htm). I knew that I wanted to explore the psychological trauma of being closeted, especially in a stereotypically macho profession like the police. Emery Hazard grew out of that idea as someone who was openly gay and an excellent police officer—a kind of foil to the murderer. In the earliest version of the story, John-Henry Somerset, Hazard’s childhood bully, was actually the murderer! I had conceived of Somers as the sexually repressed police officer, the opposite of Hazard, who had been popular and seemingly happy as a young man by closeting himself completely. As I continued to work on the manuscript, though, I realized that I liked Somers way too much to let him be the murderer. That required some significant revision, but it also gave me an opportunity to continue exploring their relationship by expanding the book into a series.
When you began the series, did you think it would become as successful as it has?
Not at all! In fact, kind of the opposite. I’d been writing and self-publishing for years with very little success. I had slowly been learning more about the logistics of publishing, including choosing the right keywords and categories, and I think that helped people discover Pretty Pretty Boys. I’m also always working on my craft, so I hope that each book is better than the last, and I think Pretty Pretty Boys showed some of that improvement. When I’d finished the book, though, I hit publish and immediately started working on something completely different—an Afro-futurist cyberpunk novel (I’ve never published it; in fact, it’s one of the few books I’ve started but never completed). I actually stopped working on that cyberpunk novel because I’d started to get feedback from readers asking about the next Hazard and Somerset book, and so I decided to return to the characters and tell a little bit more of their story.
I think that we all connect to some aspect of either John-Henry Somerset and Emery Hazard’s personalities. What character are you closer to resembling or connecting to?
Oh boy. Well, if I’m totally honest, I’m probably much more like Hazard (and not necessarily in good ways). I tend to overthink things, I’ve been guilty in the past of intellectual snobbery, and I can be stubborn as a mule. Somers is much more of an aspirational character for me—I certainly wish I were more like him!
Where do you draw your inspiration from when you are writing about some of the locations in your novels? Do you take tours of abandoned warehouses and seedy apartment buildings?
Ha! What a great question. I’ve never purposefully set out to tour abandoned warehouses or seedy apartment buildings, but life has taken me to some strange places. I’ve lived on four continents, visited a fifth, and I’ve tried, as much as I can, to say ‘yes’ when opportunities come along. Often, places I’ve been are moments of inspiration for novels, so the setting might come to me before the story is fully formed. For example, in the Hollow Folk books, Vie’s apartment came out of a place I visited when I was going door to door for a charitable organization (I ruined one poor woman’s dinner by taking up too much of her time). Another time (also going door to door), I was in an apartment building that became the inspiration for the Haverford, which is an important setting for the Hazard and Somerset books. I guess that’s my long-winded way of saying that often the experience precedes the place, rather than the other way around.
If you had to spend the rest of your life as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Oh no. I guess I deserve this question for making so many of my characters so terribly unhappy at times! As I said above, I wouldn’t mind being John-Henry Somerset. He’s got his own set of problems, but it wouldn’t hurt to be charming and handsome and come from money.
With the specific book The Keeper Of Bees, you have been leading your readers up to the point where the keeper’s identity is discovered. What planning went into creating the character?
In order to create the Keeper of Bees, I had to do a lot of background research on serial killers and psychopaths. I ultimately ended up developing this killer more as a psychopath than as a full-fledged serial killer, and it was important for me to understand the traits and trends that researchers have observed in psychopathic behavior. Once I understood some of the basic traits, habits, compulsions, etc., I used that information to plan both how the Keeper would act in the first book (The Rational Faculty) and in A Union of Swords as a whole. For example, psychopaths need increasing amounts of stimulation in order to feel the same amount of ‘thrill,’ for lack of a better word. I used this idea to keep the killer on stage in each book by escalating his antagonism toward Hazard as he took increasingly risky chances to needle the detective.
What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?
The hardest part of writing this book was juggling all the suspects. I don’t want to say too much, but one of my main goals was to keep readers guessing about who the real killer might be. Unlike a standard mystery novel, which is self-contained, this book required me to sow seeds of doubt and suspicion across multiple other books, and I tried very hard to have those seeds bear fruit in this story. Beyond that, it’s always hard to end a story arc; in this case, I was bringing a five-book arc to a close, and I needed to wrap up several major issues: Hazard and Somers’s developing relationship; their respective professions; their relationships with secondary characters; and Hazard’s PTSD (I’m probably forgetting a few threads). It was a lot to juggle!
What was the highlight of writing this book?
I really loved writing the ending—both the climax with the Keeper, and the aftermath with Hazard and Somers. Again, I can’t say too much without spoiling the book, but those are some of my favorite scenes I’ve ever written. I’ve spent so much time with these characters living in my head, and I was really pleased with how the ending of the book turned out. I’m also really lucky that I have a great team of beta readers who helped me spot additional elements I should add to make the ending feel complete.
What can you tell your readers about The Keeper Of Bees that isn’t in the book description?
One thing that I learned from writing Criminal Past, which was the final book in the Hazard and Somerset Mysteries, was that most readers preferred less graphic violence on the page. For anyone who might be worried about the level of gore in The Keeper of Bees, I’m happy to say that there’s much less of it on the page than in Criminal Past. I won’t say how the Keeper mystery is resolved, but I can tell you that the book (and the arc) does have a happy-for-now ending.
Can you tell us more about yourself? Please include your bio and any information that is not in your bio that you would like your readers to know.
I always begin by telling people that I’m an educator, and that’s something I take very seriously. I’ve lived all over the place, but I call St. Louis home. I’ve mentioned in other places that I was raised Mormon; my next series, which is called The Lamb and the Lion, is set in Utah (where I’ve and draws heavily on the Mormon culture in that state. I’m a big believer in solvitur ambulando; whenever I get stuck on a plot problem, I go for a walk (if it’s nasty outside, I just pace around the house). I’m a terribly boring person, though, so I’m having trouble coming up with anything else to add!
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Well, unfortunately, between a full-time job and writing, I don’t have a lot of free time. I still love to read, and I try to do that whenever I have spare time. I enjoy walks (as I mentioned: problem-solving!), and I like to cook and bake. In the summer, when we’re out of school, I usually have some projects around the house, and if there’s time left over, I still enjoy gaming—video games or board games.
What inspired you to start writing?
Like so many writers, I’ve been writing since I was a kid. In fact, I completed several novels (of terrible quality) in middle school! My teachers were incredibly encouraging and supportive. In college, I stepped away from creative writing for a while (although I did take a semester-long course taught by Brandon Sanderson). A big turning point came for me when I was twenty-five and realized two things: a) I wasn’t getting any younger; b) writing was a skill, just like anything else, and if I wanted to be good at it, I needed to start practicing. A lot of the motivation and inspiration and practical advice that I benefitted from came from Dean Wesley Smith and John D. Brown.
How long have you been writing?
Well, I’m thirty-seven at the time of writing this, so if we pretend middle school never happened (please pretend), that’s twelve years. Pretty much six days a week for the last twelve years (barring a few vacations where I didn’t have access to electronics), I’ve written two thousand words. That’s almost seven and a half million words (I just had to do the math for my own sake). The only reason I point this out is that much of the advice out there to writers emphasize “a million bad words” that you’ll have to write and throw away before you’re writing anything of quality. Clearly I had more than a million bad words I needed to get out of my system!
How do you do research for your books?
A variety of ways! It always depends on the book. The internet is usually my starting place, especially if I’m looking up something straightforward (for example, can pigs eat bones?). For more complicated topics, or when I want a more complicated understanding of a topic, I’ll read several books on the subject. This is what I did when I was exploring psychopathy. With my next set of books, which feature a wildlife veterinarian, I reached out to an expert in the field who has been gracious enough to help me by answering my questions and providing me with resources. I think, like most writers, I try to find the right amount of research—not too much (or it takes up all your time), but enough to make the book solid.
What was your favorite part, and your least favorite part, of the publishing journey?
Ha! My least favorite part is the final revision. Even though I love my books, by that point in the process, I’m so tired of seeing the same words, hearing the same story, fixing all the tiny errors that are still in the manuscript. It’s definitely worth it once I see the book in its finished form, though!
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
Oh man. Written? I’m going to say 34, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. Many of those are not published. I feel like I’m being asked to pick a favorite child (although, full disclosure, I don’t have children, so I’m just imagining here). I think there are books that I’m really proud of and that I think work really well (Triangulation, The Rational Faculty, The Keeper of Bees), and books that meant a lot to me personally when I wrote them (the Hollow Folk books). One reason the question is so hard is that, at some point, every book was the book I loved the most—that’s why I wrote it!
What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your books?
Probably the biggest surprise in terms of plotting was Somers switching from the villain to the love interest. I’ve often been surprised by other twists in the plot and the character—as many authors will tell you, stories take a strange turn when the rubber meets the road. Perhaps the most surprising thing has been learning that other people share my hopes and fears—that the things my characters worry over and struggle with are meaningful to other people too.
Tell us about your first published book? What was the journey like?
My first published book was self-published (it’s no longer available, just so everyone knows). It was an epic fantasy, and I made maps, a magic system, religions, cultures. It really wasn’t that good of book, but I thought it was a great story, if that distinction makes any difference. I learned a lot about plot and character, but most importantly, I learned I could finish a book if I sat down and worked on it every day.
Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers about?
I’ve mentioned The Same Breath, and I’m excited to share it with readers (the book launches on September 25, 2020). The book is set in Utah, and it features a wildlife veterinarian and a con man who work together as amateur sleuths. Thematically, this book (and the others in the series) are about religion, faith, hope, despair, and existentialism. I try not to let those things dominate the story, but they’re the subterranean things that I’m thinking about and worrying about as I work on these books.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Well, I try to read widely to have a good sense of what is happening in different genres and to learn how to improve my own writing. When I come across a beautiful book, that always serves as a source of inspiration. In terms of ideas, they often come out of places I’m not suspecting—my students, for example, or a chance comment, a news article, or interactions with family and friends.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Boy, this is such a hard question. I love Stephen King’s work. I think Robert Macfarlane might be one of the best prose stylists alive. Marilynne Robinson writes some of the most thoughtful and insightful novels I’ve ever found.
What are you reading now?
I’ve got a few books going: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (a kind of social history of the Arctic combined with nature writing); A Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders (the second book in a series of very funny mysteries); and The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne (a thriller).
What books or authors have most influenced your own writing?
Stephen King, Lee Child, Ace Atkins, Adrian McKinty, Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there.
Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position. (Stephen King)
Please visit Gregory Ashe at GregoryAshe.com for updates and release dates.
You can find a list of Gregory’s published work on Amazon here
You can find his Author page on Goodreads here
You can find Gregory on Fantasticfiction here
Greg has a fan page on Facebook called The Gregorian Order click here
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