Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Louise E. Rule Interviews Richard Abbott for The Review's Author Interview

Louise E. Rule Interviews Richard Abbott for The Review's Author Interview

Richard Abbott is the author of Scenes From A Life, which was reviewed by Margaret Skea in March here at The Review Group. If you would like to read Margaret's review, please click the above link.

The product description on amazon.co.uk tells the reader that:

[M]akty-Rasut is a scribe in New Kingdom Egypt, fashioning tombs for the elite. He lives a comfortable but restless life, moving every few years further upstream along the river Nile. He is content to exercise his talent without examining his origins.

Then a series of vivid dreams, interpreted with the help of a senior priest, disrupts this pattern. To solve the riddle, he must go on a journey that will take him outside the Beloved Land and away from the life that he knows. His travels take him into the neighbouring province of Canaan, to a hill-country village called Kephrath, and to a way of life he has never considere[d.]

About Richard Abbott (from amazon.co.uk)

Richard Abbott
Richard Abbott lives in London, England. He writes about the ancient Middle East - Egypt, Canaan and Israel - and has also contributed to the lively academic debate about these times. His first book, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It follows the life, loves, and struggles of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath. A second novel, Scenes from a Life, follows on from and is set around twenty years later than In a Milk and Honeyed Land. The short story "The Man in the Cistern" is set in the same location in the years between the two novels. The short story "The Lady of the Lions" is set in the same location but around one hundred and fifty years earlier. Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian is the ebook version of his PhD thesis which, for those who want the technical details, supplies academic underpinning for some of the ideas and plot themes followed up in fiction. When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District. He works professionally in IT quality assurance, and also develops mobile and tablet apps with a focus on the ancient world.

Hello, Richard, welcome to The Review's Author Interview, thank you for taking time out to answer some questions.

Thanks, Louise, for the invitation!

You have an obvious passion for the ancient Middle East. Could you tell our readers what drew you to that time, what was it that captivated you?

Originally I got intrigued by the chronology of the ancient world, and looked into both mainstream views and some of the more alternative ones. But as I started to read actual ancient sources, initially in translation and then more directly, I abandoned chronology in favour of literature, especially poetry and its various forms. It is so much more fascinating! Plus, of course, it gives much more direct insight into the minds of people in the ancient world, rather than just modern ideas of how best to create an exact timeline.

Once hooked by the language and literature, I narrowed in on the particular period in question since it was a time of flux. The Late Bronze Age had been a long period of stability, and in a very short span of time, perhaps fifty years or so, it completely collapsed. Religious freedom, international trade, and cultural interchange gave way to a narrow parochialism. the role of women shrank from a position of importance and respect to one which, in many places, amounted to simple ownership. Many reasons for this have been proposed, and none is entirely convincing, so it is an open field for the writer. My characters live in their world with customs and habits of thought built up in one age, having to adapt to a very different one. 

In your first book, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, published in June 2012, you explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. Even though it is a time that you have already researched, and on which you had written a PhD thesis, did you have to do a different type of research for your novel, for example, your characters, and their lives?

Yes indeed. The PhD focused mostly on the language and poetry of the time, so I was pretty comfortable with that. However, for the novels I needed to have a sense of what regular life was like - housing, food, journey times, vegetation, clothing and so on. I put a lot of thought into what village religion would be like - no large temple or priestly hierarchy, for example, and existing mainly to serve the daily struggles and delights of village life. I had a lot of fun thinking how the society might signal things like social or marital status through designs on the headscarves worn (I call these "kefs", which is an adaptation of modern Hebrew and Arabic words) - no gold wedding rings here! We do have a very modest amount of pictorial evidence for headscarves, but nothing to help us interpret the visual differences.

The novels also gave me the chance to speculate on things that are credible but unprovable. For example the society I write about in Kephrath is based around the idea that property passes from mother to daughter rather than father to son. A man moves into his wife's family home rather than the reverse. This did happen occasionally back then, but we don't know if it actually did in that particular place and time.

Your character Damariel, in In a Milk and Honeyed Land, has been apprenticed to a village priest. How did you work on the creation of your Damariel character? Did you already have an idea, for example, of how he looked or spoke, or is he a character that just evolved?

Some aspects of his character and background were very clear to me right from the start, others came along as I started to write about him. So the very first bits of the story that I wrote, which were some episodes scattered through the middle third of the book, stayed pretty much as written all through. His basic character was established right back then. But as I filled in detail around that, I had to sort out in my mind how he would react, and started to create a much more extensive picture of his personal and family life: his soul, if you like, and the various ways in which it is hurt or healed.

Storylines have always fascinated me. I'm sure that you have a storyline already worked out before you start writing, but do you find that you keep to it, or do you deviate along the way? For example, with some authors their characters surprise them with the directions that they take; do you find this too?

The overall structure of the book is pretty important to me, so by and large I plan out the big-picture storyline and then stick to it. But as with the character development, there are places where I stop and reconsider whether the original idea makes sense. Like most of us, I guess, I end up having to be quite careful about getting the things I describe lining up correctly with each other, and also with historical events we know about already. I have just been creating a large spreadsheet for my current WIP so as to get things organised properly.

One question that I like to ask authors is this: do you have a special place where you prefer to write, and a special time of day? Or do you find that you can write anywhere, anytime?

I love the Northern Line! For those unfamiliar with it, this is an underground railway in London. My daily commute is long enough that I can do some writing, editing or reading, and really make use of the time. Outside that, I prefer to use evenings rather than mornings, largely because my day job starts pretty early and before long I'm on the phone to my colleagues in India. Generally I prefer long blocks of time rather than bits and pieces, but I'll take whatever I can.

Many authors like to write in longhand, and then put it onto the computer. Richard, which do you prefer, and why?

I used to do longhand but then flipped to direct input. Longhand did not add anything useful for me, and I am quite disciplined about re-reading multiple times to make sure things make sense. My changeover happened at the time I got a smart phone which was easy to use for typing. All of a sudden it was so much quicker to type away and just use copy/paste, rather than write it out once and then type it all in again. Since then I have never been tempted to go back to longhand.

Please could you tell our readers which one you wrote first, Richard, your PhD thesis, or your first novel, and did the writing of the one help the writing of the other?

That's interesting! I started the novel well before finishing the thesis, during the information gathering stage. The core of the book sorted itself out in my head then. But when it came to writing up and then preparing for the interview stage of the thesis, I found I simply could not swap writing modes. So the novel went on hold for a considerable time during which I did not think about it.

It wasn't so much the material being different; it was the difficulty of making the changeover from formal to fiction or vice versa. I am so glad I did the thesis first, since it gave me an enormous love for ancient writing. I try to incorporate some older structures, patterns and language forms into my own writing in various ways: some people like this and some do not. For me it is an important part of recognising a debt we owe to writers of that era who have remained almost entirely anonymous. It is a little frustrating when people (including one recent publisher's reviewer) assume some language uses are modern insertions when I know they are authentically ancient, but that cannot be helped.

Did you use the same discipline that you used in writing your PhD as in the writing of your novel?

Not really. The thesis had to be built on evidence, used creatively to be sure in order to bridge the many gaps in our knowledge, but always with a view to defending any claims or deductions. And of course there was a huge number of references needing to be carefully cited, these being a mixture of ancient documents and modern critical thought.

With the novels I can be much more open to speculation and exploration - as for example with the matrilocal society. There's very little in my writing which doesn't have some kind of basis in reality, but I happily admit that in some places the link is tenuous. I suppose my adherence to overall structure, and the places where I deliberately incorporate poetry into prose, are the points at which the two areas of writing draw closest.

Finally, Richard, how do you deal with your editing process? Do you edit as you go, or do you find doing a major edit right at the end works better for you?

Both, really. I edit in a kind of continuous process once a long enough chunk is down that this makes sense. That (usually) catches a lot of problems. But I do then go over things in a more major way towards the end, and when I'm satisfied get in some external help. A few things still slip through the net but the combination works pretty well. My current WIP involves a number of separate strands which combine in the end, and I am acutely aware of the risks of things not quite making sense when they are interleaved with each other.

I would like to thank you very much for talking with me today, Richard; it has been extremely interesting and insightful.

My pleasure, Louise, thanks for the invite.

Richard Abbott can be found on
Facebook and on Twitter.
Richard's website can be found here.

Louise E. Rule is author of
Future Confronted.
Louise can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.

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