Friday, November 6, 2009

Meet Francis Hamit!

Meet Francis Hamit, the inspiring author of the historical fiction novel "The Shenandoah Spy" about Belle Boyd, the first woman to be formally commissioned an army officer.

Heather: To start off, tell us a little bit about your background:

Francis: I started out in Theatre (as in the art, not the real estate) in high school, where I was mostly a technician. I continued there for about six years and in college I was a double major in Business and Dramatic Art. Then I took a course in Playwriting to satisfy the Drama Theory requirement and that changed everything. I wrote a very bad play which my professor, Howard Stein, ripped apart. He then said he couldn't tell if I had any talent or not, but that I should take a course in Fiction Writing that summer to find out. I did and the following Fall was in the undergraduate section of the Iowa Writers Workshop. So that was a life-changing event, which was followed by another, my service in the U.S. Army Security Agency which included a tour in Vietnam followed by one in Frankfurt, Germany where, because I had a camera and a side career as a professional photographer, I joined the staff of the unit newspaper, The Frankfurter Forum. My last year there I was the Editor and also the NCOIC of the Public Information Division for ASA Europe. That was a very "above my pay grade" job that gave me a lot of experience as a journalist very quickly. I had lousy grades in high school English, but it seemed that the mechanical stuff didn't have that much to do with writing style or being able to tell a story. I returned to Iowa City, finished my Bachelors and eventually got my MFA from the Writers Workshop. To make a living, I started freelancing articles while working a long series of "day jobs".

Heather: How long have you been writing?

Francis: It's about 44 years now.

Heather: What started you writing for publication?

Francis: I needed the money.

Heather: Do you have a set time when you write, or just whenever you get the urge?

Francis: I usually think deeply about a story before I start and, if research is needed, I do a lot of that before I write a word. I envision the story from beginning to end in my head first. Then I do more research and revise and revise and revise.

Heather: Who is your favorite author?

Francis: Really there are too many to list and I am always finding new ones. I'm going to decline to state a prefererence here because I have former classmates and friends who would not make that list and others whose every work I try to read.

Heather: Have you ever had writer's block, and if so how do you get rid of it?

Francis: Nope. Writers block is simply fear of failure. You fear that what you are writing will not be accepted or will piss someone off that you care about (friends and relatives of writers tend to get delusions of reference and are not reassured when you tell them that not everything you do is about them.) Or you fear bad reviews or that it won't be as good as the last thing you published.
I have two things going for me against those fears: Writing is something I do really well, and I am very careful about craft. I employ my own editor for the mechanical stuff like punctuation and grammar. When it comes to story I recruit readers to go over early drafts and give me feedback about where a story works and where it fails. You have to consult multiple sources because not everyone has a feel for what makes a good story and a lot of people get hung up on the mechanicals. I also try to write something everyday,, even if it's just a blog entry, to keep my skills fresh, and reading every word aloud of the final draft is another way to catch awkward phrases and repetitions. On some parts of my last book we went through 15 drafts. I think of this process as "product development" because we are in a marketplace and selling the work to strangers is the ultimate goal. I also use that Japanese management word "Kaisan" as a mantra. It means "Continuous Improvement".
Opposed to that it the motto of old Soviet space program "The Perfect is the enemy of the Good". There comes a time when you have to let something go and prove itself in the market, not just as a product but as an intellectual construct. When you do articles for other editors then you have deadlines to meet, so you learn to accept imperfections and how little other people notice or care as long as you spell the names right. With a long work like a book or a play, your deadlines are self-imposed and therefore flexible. You take the time to get it right, if not perfect, accept that you've done your best and move on.

Heather: What do you recommend to aspiring authors?

Francis: Write something everyday. Read widely and don't confine yourself to a single genre. That's a form of self-imposed illiteracy. It will come back to bite you because you will be revealed as ignorant of things that are part of the general culture.

Heather: How do you invent your characters?

Francis: In my current book almost all the characters are based upon real people of the period, so I simply use contemporary descriptions of them and their behavior. It's hard to argue with facts. When I'm inventing one from whole cloth, I simply envision someone attractive and interesting. No one is totally good and no one is totally evil and everyone acts with some form of self-justification, which is what makes them interesting to the reader. I try not to model them on people I know because that can bring legal problems. Even a purported fictional representation of someone can be seen as defamation. It's one reason to do Historical Fiction. You can't defame the dead and they have no privacy. In other fiction, the characters have to act within character. As Jean Paul Sartre said "Every man has his reasons". That applies to Saints as well as Sinners.

Heather: I know a few authors who keep records (almost like police records) of height, weight, background, etc. of their characters, do you keep tabs on your characters, and if so, what do you usually make note of?

Francis: I'm able to keep all that material in my head and, when in doubt, I re-read. My editor will usually catch any other inconsistancies.

Heather: Some authors say that they feel as though his or her characters are real, do you feel this way, and what do you think about this?

Francis: My characters talk to me. I hear them in my mind. I visualize their actions as in a play. I have an ear for dialog because I started as a playwright and still write plays and think about them, as a collaborative art where the writer cedes control to others. Sometimes they surprise me with untoward confessions or actions and I have to work out where that came from and how it happened at that point in the story. I always try to keep to a clear narrative line with a beginning, middle and end, and I prune a lot of stuff that may be interesting on its own but ulitmatelly irrelevant and distracting for the casual reader.

Heather: Do you have anything in the works?

Francis: I have lots of things in the works, always, but when and where they will appear, I can't say. The next Civil War spy novel will be about Rose Greenhow and her ring of society lady spies in Washington in 1861-62. I am doing more research right now, because it seems that she may have spied for others as early as the Mexican War, when her husband was the Librarian for the U.S. Department of State. That sounds like a minor job, but it wasn't. He had access to every document and translated most of the foreign ones. That rather changes the texture of the novel , if it is true,because it means that she was no amateur, but a long time "agent in place" for a foreign power...and he was , too.

Heather: What was your favorite part about writing your book?

Francis: Figuring out the relationships that controlled what the characters did.
Heather: Has music ever inspired your writing?

Francis: Directly? No. I used the music of the period as another cultural reference. It was part of the research.

Heather: Do you like to write in complete silence or does it have to be noisy?

Francis: I prefer silence, but sometimes like to have background noise from music or television to ease a sense of isolation.

Heather: What made you put your characters in the setting that you did?

Francis: Historical facts.

Heather: Keyboard or pen?

Francis: Keyboard for most things. First drafts of plays, on the other hand, are written by hand, very slowly because I am listening to my characters speak.

Heather: What do you think is the hardest part about being an author?

Francis: That other people think it is so easy when it is anything but that.

Heather: What were the circumstances surrounding your decisions to become an author?

Francis: Once I got a taste for it, I didn't really want to do anything else. Everything else I've done since has been in support of my writing career, to make money to support it.

Heather: Some people say that you need to live life before you write a book, do you think that it’s experience that writes a book or imagination?

Francis: Real world experience informs your writing. I have a novella , on Amazon Shorts, called "Sunday in the Park with George" which is based upon my experience as a security guard Captain. It's 24,000 words and takes place on a single day and seems very mundane until tragedy strikes. I have a series of stories about a former child star turned private detective which uses some information I acquired when I worked for one myself as an investigator, but is otherwise completely made up. You can find all of these online at very low prices. And they sell every month, so I'll do more as I think of them. You can take your own experiences, add fictional elements and come up with a very convincing narrative. Fiction writers lie for a living. Lies are more convincing when they are mostly true.

Here's one of the many 5 star reviews that Francis Hamit has obtained for "The Shenandoah Spy".

5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Account ..., July 10, 2008
Carol A. Buchanan (Montana, United States) - See all my reviews(REAL NAME) ...of a fascinating woman. Belle Boyd was an active spy for the Confederates during the Civil War. Motivated by love for her homeland and a fierce indignation at, not to say hatred of, the invaders (the Union Army), Belle at 17 became a spy and devoted herself to driving the invaders from the South. Most young women of her day and age devoted themselves to enhancing their looks in order to catch husbands, even with the War on. Most young women of that era practiced the alluring arts they learned at finishing schools to attract men. Belle did, too, but in a greater cause -- freedom as she saw it. In creating this character, author Francis Hamit has broken relatively new ground. First he has written about a nineteenth-century Southern woman, whom most writers dismiss as confined to the parlor and the bedchamber. Second, he has dared to present the Confederate side of the Civil War, when most writers dismiss the Confederacy as an evil conspiracy to prolong slavery. It may have been determined to prolong slavery, but many Southerners also viewed the Union Army as an illegal invader of their territory. In presenting Belle's opinions and feelings sympathetically, Hamit has shown the courage of a committed writer. "Shenandoah Spy" is a book worth reading.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Francis, I'm a huge fan of historical fiction, and your book certainly sounds like an interesting one! I look forward to hearing more about you in the future!