Thursday, June 05, 2008

Interview with Simon Haynes, author of the Hal Spacejock series

My guest today is Simon Haynes, the British/Australian author of the bestselling, award-winning Hal Spacejock series, featuring an over-confident but woefully under-skilled freighter pilot and his wise but obsolete robot, Clunk.

Check out the end of the interview for an exciting announcement that means a free book for YOU! But read the interview first to find out why that's a good thing.

If you enjoy TV shows like the Young Ones, Blackadder, Red Dwarf and Dr Who, or books by Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt or Jasper Fforde, then the Hal Spacejock series was written for you.

If you’ve never heard of the Hal Spacejock series … surprise! It’s only available in Australia.

However, to coincide with the launch of Hal Spacejock 4: No Free Lunch, the full text of Hal Spacejock Book One has been made available as a free download. To grab a copy in text, rtf or html format, visit (Yes, you’re welcome to share the download link. Encouraged to, as a matter of fact.)

Simon, what was your inspiration for writing Hal Spacejock No Free Lunch?

My publisher phoned me and said 'can we have another one?', and I find that sort of thing very motivating. Fortunately, I'd already completed two drafts. Unfortunately, the book I handed in didn't result from either of them.

My other motivators are Hal and Clunk themselves. These characters are very dear to me, and I love putting them in life threatening situations, sending them broke, taking away everything they care about and generally giving them a really hard time.

Hey, I'm a parent. It's in my nature.

Who are your favourite authors and books now and when you were growing up?

When I was growing up I read all the usual suspects for a British kid in the 70’s: Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Agatha Christie, Jerome K Jerome, Tolkien, Showell Styles, Frank Richards, Richmal Crompton, Michael Bond, WE Johns, Isaac Asimov, William F Temple ... and about a hundred others.

We moved to Spain in 1976 and English books were suddenly very hard to come by, so I read anything I could get my hands on. Westerns, thrillers, SF and so on. Mostly the sort of holiday books people abandon when they go home again.

Nowadays I enjoy humour, satire and SF, plus the occasional horror novel or murder mystery. I studied eng lit for my BA, which was enough to put me off the classics for many years, but I'm slowly coming round in my old(er) age.

What is it about fantasy/science fiction that attracts you?

Every novel begins with a blank slate, and the possibilities are endless. Whether you’re reading the things or writing them, or both, it’s a journey into the unknown and the unexplored.

Also, speaking of my own stuff, I just love the idea of self-aware robots. Despite their supposed loyalty to humans, the robots in my books often have their own agendas and desires, and rather creative methods of getting what they want. If you’ve ever struggled with a wayward computer program you’ll know the feeling.

Why did you decide to make Hal a space courier?

I needed someone with a valid reason to travel the galaxy. Also, Hal's a careless type and there's a lot of humour to be found in his clumsy destruction of valuable cargo. His chosen occupation puts him in competition with customers, other pilots and all manner of officialdom, and we all know conflict drives novels.

It’s not just freight disasters giving Hal problems … there’s a spare cabin aboard his ship, which means I can throw in the occasional passenger. They’re inevitably bad news for Hal, and that’s fun to write.

A few people have asked whether I modeled Hal on Han Solo, from the Star Wars series, and the answer is no. Hal Spacejock is a terrible pilot, is law-abiding and is fearfully over-confident while being woefully under-skilled. I’m not even a big SW fan, have never read any of the books associated with the series, and am still trying to expunge Episode I from my memory. Anyway, my influences are mostly British and Australian.

As for Hal’s name … I began writing book one in 1994, and when I reached for “brash, over-confident, loud, unintentionally funny, unaware of his failings, secretly insecure”, the name ‘Hal Spacejock’ instantly popped into my head. Anyone proudly calling themselves ‘Spacejock’ has a lot of complex issues for me to uncover.

What do you do for fun?

I love DVDs, particularly watching them on my laptop with headphones. It’s more personal and involving than watching on a big screen. I rarely watch live TV, thanks to the ads, watermarks and scrolly banner things, so boxed sets are a great escape.

Apart from my DVD-watching hobby I also count golf and archery amongst my favourite activities. In truth, it's four or five years since I swung a golf club in anger, but I just rekindled my interest in archery and am looking forward to nailing a few targets.

Finally, I write a lot of software, particularly for readers and writers. I make it all available free via the website.

What sort of research did you do to write this book? What kind of preparation do you do when you are writing?

I don't do any research. I just outline the thing to death, send a two-page doc to my editor and await her go-ahead. The writing always diverges from the plot outline, but I rarely force it back again. An outline is just a map, and writing the novel is the journey.

Preparation … I stock up on coffee, chocolate, biscuits and spare batteries for the exercise bike. (I built a shelf on the handlebars for my laptop, and only allow myself to watch DVDs when I’m peddling.)

Hal Spacejock loves his food, and particularly coffee. Is that your favourite too?

Yep – instant coffee by the bucket. These days I limit myself to three cups a day, but I try and get them all in before 10am. Then I switch to t-tea and t-try not to l-let the j-jitters get to m-me.

I rarely eat out, and can’t be bothered with fancy restaurants. Give me Thai or Indian and I’m happy.

I enjoy cooking, and have a page on my website with my favourite recipes. Nothing flash – I like healthy, filling food which tastes good. I’m not in bad shape for a writer – 1.92m and 90kg (6’3” and 200lb) – but I can see that balancing health, fitness and writing long-term is going to be a struggle. In case I’ve given you the impression I’m a health nut, I’ve not seen the inside of a gym since 1985. I just try to burn more calories than I consume.

You say Hal Spacejock is law-abiding, so how come he gets into so much trouble?

Because his author is a right bastard. If I wanted all-round nice guys and do-gooders in my books I’d go write picture books with an eye to the lucrative education market. As it is, my books are popping up in school libraries all over Australia, so I’ll accept some of the blame for the parlous state of modern youth.

The thing is, I’m a firm believer in actions and consequences. If Hal is forced to ‘borrow’ a truck in one chapter, you can bet your booties he’ll regret it later. There is NO easy way out for any of my characters, EVER. Just like real life.

What are you writing now?

I’ve just dashed off yet another plot outline for Hal Spacejock 5. Every time I come up with a new plot I know THIS is the one… until I come up with the next one. I like the other plots, but they can always form the basis of book 6, or 7, or 14 …

Did you always want to write? Or did you stumble into it? How did you get where you are now?

I majored in Creative Writing at university, but despite that handicap I still maintained an interest in fiction. The problem at uni was that there were so many Serious Writers pouring their hearts and souls into passages of deep, moving prose. Handing out copies of my work for class discussion was like chucking hand grenades into a chook pen.

As for where I am now, that’s a long story. (The grotty details are on the Spacejock website, but in brief I self-published three books using my own imprint, and was literally plucked from the shelves of a local bookstore by a proper, real, honest-to-goodness publisher. The old ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ .. and it worked!)

What does a typical writing day look like for you? How long do you write, that sort of thing?

I see the kids off to school, mess around with email & internet until two hours before they’re due home again, then do two thousand words in a right old hurry.

Where do you write?

Propped up in bed. I kill the wireless network and get on with my daily word count, safely tucked away in a quiet corner of the house. It’s relaxing, and I enjoy the familiar surroundings. Also, nobody can sneak up behind me and read the early first draft rubbish over my shoulder – it’s strictly backs-to-the-wall stuff.

What is easiest/hardest for you as a writer?

Hardest? Hitting 3000 words with 92,000 to go. I have no idea where it’s going at that stage. How many months will it take me to finish? Will the deadlines trample my grave? Will I disappoint my fans?

Easiest? Hitting 3000 words with 92,000 to go. I have no idea where it’s going, and I love it! It’s going to be the best Hal book yet, I have months to work on it, and I gesture rudely at impudent deadlines.

This isn't your first book. Tell us a little bit about what else is out there?

This is the fourth book in the Hal Spacejock series, so there are three more of those for starters. In each title Hal finds new and exciting ways to destroy his business, his cargo and his reputation. Funny, too.

The books are available in stores across Australia and New Zealand, so those living elsewhere have to make do with (expensive) imports. My publisher and my agent are on the lookout for overseas rights deals, but are facing two problems:

One, US publishers aren’t sure how the UK-style humour will translate to their market. (To which I say, bugger the translation. Just print the books as-is and trust your audience. I’ve tested the books on US bloggers and readers, and none have dismissed the weird limey humour as incomprehensible.)

Two, UK publishers regard Australia as their home turf. When they publish a book in Britain, up to a third of the print run sells to Australia, so books which are already published here are far less attractive than home-grown ones.

On top of that, several US publishers indicated they’d be interested in the series if it did well in the UK first. To which I say Aaaaaarrggh! Sometimes I swear I’m living in a Monty Python sketch.

Anyway, I console myself with the thought that each Hal book, each positive review, each appearance in a bestseller list, and each additional printing of the books is jacking up the price these publishers are eventually going to pay. I’m in no hurry, but I’m not happy when I have to reply to emails from UK and US residents asking me why they can’t get Hal in their local store.

In light of this, my publisher recently agreed to release the first Hal Spacejock novel as a free ebook:

The press release with the reasoning behind the choice of a drm-free, publicly available ebook is here:

What is the purpose of fantasy/science fiction, if any?

It exists to counteract the Serious Writers with their Ponderous Tomes of Gloom. Unfortunately, some writers have resorted to writing Serious SF in Ponderous Tones, just to get establishment approval (and arts grants, recognition, reviews in major media outlets, lucrative awards and other petty trappings of the literary world). SF writers who still remember to entertain first and pontificate second are my heroes. Motto: We don’t need no stinking arts grants .. we live or die on the sales of our books!

Ordering links for the Hal Spacejock books

The bad news is that Hal Spacejock is only widely available in Australia and New Zealand. You can order the books from Amazon and Powell’s, but they’re imports and the cost of postage is high.

Because of this, Fremantle Press has put together a bundle of all four Hal Spacejock novels including worldwide postage for just A$79.80* (That’s the same price Australians pay in bookstores.)

* Subject to change – follow the link for details.

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This series looks like fantastic fun. I read the first few pages of the ebook and Douglas Addams sprang to mind. I can't wait to read the rest!

Posted by: Blogger Ann Aguirre at 6/05/2008 10:40 PM

I'll have to plug in my lappie tomorrow to download the ebook.

Y'know, I love British humor. So do all my closest friends. Considering I've never left the US, they're all American. *sigh*

Some of my favorite authors are from Australia/NZ, but I can luckily get their novels in the US (if not as soon as their lucky countrypeople).

I missed the note on what you were listening too at the bottom of your last post. Arco Arena is one of my absolute favorite songs - it has the most plays on my comp by a ridiculous amount.

Posted by: Blogger Liviania at 6/07/2008 11:45 PM

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