Joining me in the reading room tonight is H.A. Callum, the very talented author of Whispers in the Alders, a candidate for my favourite book of 2017. We’ve got a pot of strong coffee to hand and a couple of hours to talk about whatever comes to mind.
Drew: OK, so before we get going; you did mention you were planning a giveaway to coincide with this interview. What would you like to tell people about it?
H.A.: Let’s let this one roll for the Twitter crowd. I’ll be giving away 10 Kindle copies of Whispers in the Alders. The entry into the giveaway is to tweet the link to this interview and throw in a favorite line from tonight’s interview as part of the tweet. Remember to tag us, too! The first 10 to do it are in. There may be a second prize for the ten winners of the Kindle edition, too. Just saying…
Drew: That’s very generous, and mysterious, of you.
H.A.: My pleasure! Gets the word out and is a win for your readers. ￼
Drew: Well, thank you for that. Now, Whispers in the Alders has been very well received so far. That must be very gratifying for your debut.
H.A.: Thanks, Drew. You’re right – it has been very well received. When we write it’s what we hope for, making that connection with the reader. I felt the emotion in the book as I was writing it, and was wondering if it would impact readers in the same way. All the effort that went into writing and editing – it all paid off in ways that can’t be quantified: capturing the emotions of the reader. It’s been overwhelming (in a good way) to see this reaction from readers and reviewers.
Drew: Talking of feeling the emotion, and forgive if I’m over-stepping my bounds here, but I did recall a post you put out indicating that there were some fairly strong autobiographical elements to the story, is that right?
H.A.: You’re not overstepping at all! Whispers in the Alders isn’t autobiographical in any way, but I’ve received that question many, many times. I think to some degree it’s a question all writers face. For creatives, like writers, the imagination is very powerful. At times it can be shocking to some that we as writers “invent” the stories that we do. It’s probably easier for some to ascribe a work of fiction to autobiographical elements rather than chalk it up to the mind’s eye. But, since I did receive so many questions about this, I did decide to write a blog post that was very candid and recalled some instances of abuse from my childhood. Part of the reasoning was personal for me. In that post, I talked about Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which has some very graphic scenes involving children. It was a reminder to me that what I was writing didn’t cross any unwritten boundary. I also wrote that post to give some depth to my writing. While I was writing from experience in a way that allowed me to feel what Tommy and Aubrey felt to some degree, I didn’t experience the same types of abuse they suffered.
Drew: In a way, it could almost be construed as a compliment, that they found your writing so authentic that “it had to have happened”.
H.A.: True, and that could be said to be the ultimate compliment. To reach out to a reader, and pull them into your world like that – it’s the end goal of why we write. Part of the joy with Whispers in the Alders has been seeing readers connect with the characters in all their flaws and human qualities. As a writer, it is simply amazing to sit back and watch a reader’s face as they explain the story to you. But I do think that the story has so many elements that are plausible in our daily lives, and when all the “what-ifs” are figured in, it does seem like “it had to have happened.”
Drew: Have you had the chance to meet and/or talk with many of your readers?
H.A.: Yes! As a matter of fact, I met with four members of a book club last week through a Facebook video chat. It was amazing and I plan on doing many more book club meetings. The members of the book club were so welcoming, it was an honor that they not only spent several hours reading Whispers in the Alders but then spent another hour together chatting about the story and writing. As a writer, I learn something about my writing from the different perspectives of my readers. I think meeting with readers is the ultimate way to thank them for supporting our work. We wouldn’t be here without them. I look forward to many more book club meetings, both online and in-person for readers in the Philadelphia region.
Drew: That’s pretty amazing. And speaking of supportive people, you mention two ladies who have also been very kind to me in your acknowledgements; Jaylene Jacobus and C.M. Turner. How important were they on the road to releasing Whispers in the Alders?
H.A.: Jaylene was one of my first supporters on Twitter, and C.M. wasn’t very far behind. They were both very supportive and really helped me to build my base of followers on Twitter, which has grown faster than I could have imagined. Writing is such a solitary pursuit at times, and it’s great to take a quick break here and there and see what everyone is up to and get a little encouragement. They’ve both been in my corner from the beginning and I couldn’t have imagined an acknowledgement page that didn’t mention them. But the entire writing community on Twitter and Facebook have been so supportive – and you’re part of that circle, Drew. Writing isn’t easy. Sure, it does come naturally to some extent, but it’s still work. The amazing thing about writers is how vested each of us are in seeing the other succeed. Jaylene and C.M. are representative of this nature in writers, and they’ve helped many along the writer’s path.
Drew: They’re good people, no doubt about that. And very good writers themselves. Did you read their books?
H.A.: I did. They are very gifted authors in their own right, and I’m looking forward to what they will release next. It’s not easy, but I do my best to read all books released by my closest friends and supporters. Writers have to read, so why not read a fellow writer’s work and give them a good critique? Pay it forward.
Drew: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more on that one. Coming back to some comments you made earlier, about writing not being easy and being a solitary occupation. Do you have any particular habits or processes you feel help you there?
H.A.: Lots of coffee. There’s a trope! We can get more into the mechanics if you like, but the first thing I do is sit myself down and turn off the phone, internet, wifi, whatever. If I need to do research online, I take care of that first and get to writing. I always have a couple dictionaries and thesauruses on my desk for reference. Yes, they exist in print form. Distractions kill creativity and create excuses. Do you do that at your day job? Then don’t do it to yourself and kill the opportunity you are trying to create. The second is time. I try to make sure that I have uninterrupted time. For those of us with families, that is a challenge. For me, writing usually begins after 10 p.m., and extends far later than I care to admit. Add caffeine and all is well! If it’s something worth pursuing, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Which leads me to one other point: arbitrary limits. Word counts, page counts, etc. – none of that matters. If you can only find one hour a day to write, then commit to that and you will finish each project when it’s meant to be done. Don’t listen to everyone throwing out word counts. Those drafts will probably be edited down to a third or less of the original word count when all is said and done. For anyone starting to write it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s challenging work to be creative and productive. Don’t let all the chatter keep you from moving forward. I’m also a huge fan of writers groups. I have two that I attend here in my hometown, and that is the social aspect of writing that lets me say, “Hey, I’m not the only one doing this to myself!” or, “You have that issue, too?” It’s networking and socializing, and the best way to get honest criticism of your work. There’s nothing like hearing your words read aloud for the first time. My absences from social media, by the way, are typically a very accurate indicator of when I’m writing. So if I’m quiet on Twitter or Facebook, don’t worry, I’ll be back!
Drew: Speaking as someone who’s been the recipient of your support online, we all appreciate that.
H.A.: Thanks, Drew! I believe in supporting my fellow writers, and it means a lot to be recognized for that.
Drew: You’re also a poet. Do you find that adds something to your prose? It certainly seemed to me like many of the descriptions in Whispers in the Alders were poetic or lyrical.
H.A.: I’ve heard that quite a bit, and I’d have to say, yes. One thing poetry does, in my opinion, is test the writer’s grasp of grammar, diction, and breadth of vocabulary. In poetry, rules are bent. But to bend them, you have to know them. I find that writing poetry strengthens my prose by enhancing my understanding of grammar and developing my vocabulary as I look to find words with the correct meaning, rhyme, and meter. Writing good poetry is hard. I do believe that my inner poet has added a touch of lyricism to my prose. We paint with words when we write, and I can think of no better way to turn that brush than with a twist of the pen that pleases both the eye and the ear.
Drew: And I think you just proved my point there. Can we expect a poetry book from you in the future?
H.A.: I’m considering a poetry collection, but haven’t decided on a theme for an entire collection. I have several poems out on submission now, and after they’re published, I’ll most likely consider a chapbook to start. It will happen, but the when is still up in the air.
Drew: Do you have any other projects you’d like to let us about?
H.A.: Sure, I’m always juggling a few at once. I have one novel outlined and in the process of being drafted, another in the outlining stage, several more poems in the works, and a few short stories in progress. I hope to have the short stories and remaining poems out on submission by fall. As for the novels, those will be a bit more time! I’m hoping to have the first drafted fully within the next six months.
Drew: Well, I’m sure there will be several eagerly waiting to read your next after the success of Whispers in the Alders. Does that give you any kind of pause about following up such a well-received first offering?
H.A.: Many thanks, Drew. Yes and no. What it means is that I have to remain committed to writing, to my style of prose, and growing as a writer. I have to remember what brought me here, and that simply is my writing. I’ve always said and will continue to stand by this: I will forever be a student of the art and craft of writing. So long as I keep that thought, my writing and understanding of craft will continue to evolve.
Drew: That’s a very powerful sentiment. And speaking of that, is there a particular work or author that you feel has influenced your progress?
H.A.: This is always the hardest question to answer! I will say that Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” has had a very profound impact on me. It is the one book that I’ve delved into deepest: I’ve studied the book, viewed the film, and was cast as Atticus Finch in a local production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Getting into character allowed me to understand the story much better, I even wrote a blog about it titled “Rebooting Atticus.” After assuming the role of Atticus I came to understand his failings alongside his positive characteristics that are touted about. He was flawed like the rest of us. My experience with the book and being cast as Atticus gave me a great appreciation for Lee’s writing and a better understanding of the complexities in American culture – long before the flawed Atticus portrayed in “Go Set A Watchman” was made public. Lee wrote a masterpiece of American Literature. It’s a testament to how great literature can challenge our notions and profoundly impact the world we live in.
Drew: Unfortunately, time is getting away from us so I think it’s time to move into the random question section of the interview. What is the most stereotypically writer-ly thing you do?
H.A.: I own two cats. Actually they own me but don’t tell them that…
Drew: I will make no reports to your feline overlords. What’s the first book you remember reading?
H.A.: Oddly, I found an old volume of The Tales of the Brothers Grimm – something no six year old should read. From that point on I never understood why Hansel and Gretel was considered a fairy tale. True story.
Drew: What would you choose as your totem animal?
H.A.: The American Mountain Lion.
Drew: Do you hand write or type?
H.A.: Poetry always by hand, prose it’s about fifty-fifty.
Drew: What is your definition of what it means to be a writer?
H.A.: Accepting the fear of criticism. Actually – One who accepts the fear of criticism.
Drew: Who’s your favourite Muppet?
H.A.: Any Muppet singing with John Denver.
Drew: I’ll have to Google that, see if I can find a clip or something. (Which I did. You’re welcome.) And finally, tell us two truths and a lie, but don’t say which is which.
H.A.: I speak three languages, write in one, and am master of none.
Drew: Thank you very much, H.A. Callum.
H.A.: Thank you so much, Drew, for our discussion tonight! It was a pleasure being here, and I look forward to catching up more with you and your readers! Have a great night!