We’re approaching the end of a long string of authors whom I met at World Con in August. This week we meet Francis Hamit, a gentleman and a scholar who’s just released his novel The Shenandoah Spy. As a history buff myself, I can certainly appreciate a great story set in a meticulously researched milieu. The history of spying is a fascinating topic that goes back millennia, and the American Civil War has been underrepresented in espionage fiction, overshadowed in recent decades by the Cold War and then the War on Terrorism. His new book certainly sounds like something out of the ordinary.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
FH: I started in theatre at age 15, doing mostly technical jobs such as Stage Manager. In college I double majored in Drama and Business Administration. A course in Playwrighting my Junior year at the University of Iowa led to a class in Fiction Writing and then admission to the Undergraduate section of the Writers Workshop. Initial encouragement for the switch came from Professor Howard Stein, who pronounced my fist play horrible, added that he didn’t know if I had any talent or not, but that I should find out. I took a four year sabbatical in the US Army Security Agency, served in Vietnam and then at the Headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was, among other things, the Editor of The Frankfurter Forum, an award winning U.S. Army Newspaper. I was also working as professional photographer by that time. Returned to Iowa in 1971, where I was admitted to the Graduate Writer’s Workshop. Because of the strong anti-war sentiment in Iowa City at that time, I was denied employment as a journalist, opened a photography studio, and later became a Real Estate Broker. I believe I am the only person to have been both a member of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Iowa City Board of Realtors at the same time (and perhaps ever). After getting my MFA in 1976, I began a series of day jobs, first in Chicago and then in Los Angeles. Wrote hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines and was one of about 4,000 people hired to work on the revisions for The Encyclopaedia Britannica in the early 1980s. Much of that work was about spies and intelligence organizations and that was where I found the underlying true stories for my stage play MARLOWE: An Elizabethan Tragedy and for the Civil War Secret Service novels, of which The Shenandoah Spy is the first. Began writing screenplays and got an agent who recommended I move to Los Angeles, which in 1985 I did. I continued with the trade magazine journalism as the best way to make a living, along with some more day jobs. In 1991 I was offered a contract to write a book about the hot new topic of Virtual Reality. In 1993 the book was published: “Virtual Reality and the Exploration of Cyberspace”. This led to several steady gigs as a “Contributing Editor” at trade magazines. In 1998, after my father died and I came into a little money, I started getting out of journalism and back to fiction and drama. In 2002, I started full-time writing on what eventually became The Shenandoah Spy. In 2004 I wrote another stage play, Memorial Day which was showcased by the Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond, California, and may be done in a revised version next year in Los Angeles. In 2006, I put The Shenandoah Spy up as a 14-part serial on Amazon Shorts at Amazon.com. For the last 19 years I have been assisted in this by Leigh Strother-Vien, who is my editor, assistant, and business partner. In 2008, we published a trade paperback edition of The Shenandoah Spy by creating our own company, Brass Cannon Books.
TH: What is it about the Civil War period that draws you?
FH: Originally I was simply interested in telling Belle Boyd’s story, but there are a lot of layers in that era that haven’t been much used. Most writers of historical fiction take the safe route of writing fictitious characters in major events. Gettysburg or Shiloh. There is so much more out there and all sorts of really fascinating people whose stories haven’t really been told. By using real people and real events I bought myself a big research job and I suspect that there are some who will disagree with my creative choices. The facts are pretty much the same. What people did and why is always open to interpretation. In researching Belle’s story I found the beginnings of the feminist movement, the incredible bravery of the operators of the Underground Railroad, some really unique and unusual popular culture, and the first war where changing technologies like the railroad and the telegraph affected the outcome. I write about soldiers and spies and the like. So this mega novel, of which there are at least four more parts, is a faux history of the Confederate Secret Service, for which few records and memoirs survive. Complicating that is the distortions of later male historians and moralists who denied or distorted what was done by the women like Belle. Even though this is fiction, I’m trying to set the record straight in some degree.
TH: What is The Story of Francis? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
FH: Definitely a novel.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
FH: I have always liked to tell stories and I’m a big reader. My poor grades in English in High School discouraged me. Then I figured out a work-around for my dyslexia. I have always hired editors to correct my poor grammar and punctuation and spelling, and I concentrated on telling a story.
TH: How do you think your age affects your publishing process?
FH: I’m 63 but I’m also a liberal, a Vietnam Veteran and am not known for tact. All reasons for someone to turn down my material without reading it. I’ve noticed that younger decision makers such as agents, editors, and corporate vice presidents tend to have a bias against those older, although if you ask them they will deny it strongly. I’m not interested in their parental traumas, so I never inquire, but you can tell that whatever is going on has little or nothing to do with your material. I have friends who range in age from 16 to 89 so I don’t really understand making judgments based on such filters. Ageism is like pornography. You know it when you see it.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I’m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
FH: I have a lot of work which has not been published because it is not finished yet. Some of it is beyond salvage, but I hope to get the rest out Real Soon Now.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
FH: I would like to write for The New Yorker in the future. I hope my plays and novels receive wide circulation and that people find them both enjoyable and inspirational; the kind of thing they read or see more than once. I want to earn a living as a writer, and that I have done for several years now. I have received some very good reviews for my work and that is always gratifying.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
FH: I write about soldiers, spies and other people who put themselves in harm’s way to serve a society or a cause. Personal bravery, high ethics, integrity, are all elements in my stories. I don’t preach, however.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
FH: I love research and figuring out a great narrative thread. I think a lot before I start writing and I revise constantly. Getting done is the best part.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
FH: Right now I am on a book tour for The Shenandoah Spy. The best part of that is simply meeting people and talking to them about the book. I’ve done a lot of sales work and it is always best to sell something you really believe in.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
FH: I’m not quite there yet. It is very hard to benchmark success. I’ve been in Who’s Who in The World and Who’s Who in America for over eleven years now, but I doubt that fact sells a single book. It’s nice to know that people want to know who I am. Writing, as a career, is not for the faint of heart, nor is it a path to riches. You really have to stay involved in the process and these days that means promoting yourself simply because no one else will do it for you.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
FH: I have always treated this as a business and I have always made money as a writer. The best way to build your personal brand is to produce the best writing you can. There is a lot of bad advice out there about how to “play the game”: How to present yourself, how to pitch, which formats you should use. My advice is for writers to listen to their hearts and avoid that which is false. To maintain the integrity of your work and not chase the market or do material which is derivative or false.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
FH: The rest of the series of books about the Confederate Secret Service and the women who were its most effective agents. A science fiction novel about the difference between androids and robots. More stage plays about the US Military. And stuff from the old files as I figure out how to finish those projects.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
FH: Being admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop was a pretty big deal. Working with writers like Vance Bourjaily, Jack Legget, William Price Fox, Robert Anderson and others was extremely encouraging.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
FH: I think that the current publishing system is broken and is driving many writers like myself, especially older ones, to take the self-publishing route. There is a big prejudice against this path which will be overcome.
TH: Most writers and probably a good many Big Publishing House editors will agree that the industry is somewhat wonky at the very least and ridiculously broken at the worst. If it were possible for you to single-handedly initiate change in the publishing industry, what would you do?
FH: I think most authors long for a return to the days of editors and publishers like Maxwell Perkins. The concern was for quality and not a mindless pursuit for profits. These days Editorial is held hostage to the Marketing Department. The only way to submit, outside of a few publishers in Science Fiction and Fantasy is through recognized literary agents.
These people exist by selling and they tend to go for the easy sale (i.e. chase the market) every time. Working on commission tends to erode one’s courage and taste for innovation. I know. I’ve done it.
The sheer volume of material received is another negative factor. It takes extraordinary effort to prevail even in this system. I’ve noticed that more authors are doing it themselves not because they don’t think they are good enough, but because they don’t want the hassle. At the WorldCon, at least one self-published author said that she had never bothered to submit her work to another publisher. She didn’t want to hurdle this obstacle course of gatekeepers simply to get an audience. Modern technology offers all sorts of options if you want to roll your own. Some agents take advantage of the current situation to insert themselves into the creative process. They come at you like you’re applying for a job when the reality, under law and custom, is the other way around. They are supposed to be working for you. Selling your vision, not their own. If they want to do that, then they should stick their butts in a chair, fire up the computer and get to it.
I saw a review of a new novel in USA Today which mentioned that the author had self-published the book first and then, on the strength of those sales, gotten a two-book contract with a big advance from a major publisher. This wasn’t a big deal, either, just a footnote to the review. So maybe the new best path is to roll your own and sell enough to attract the big houses. As long as the big publishing houses are run by people with a mass marketing mentality, the only credential you really need to succeed in that world is lots of sales. This does not bode well for the future of American Literature, but sanity may ultimately prevail. Small press and self-published is a niche market. “Niche” does not mean “small”. There may be a living in it for very good writers with unique stories to tell. We live in hope.
TH: What are some of the challenges and benefits of self-publishing?
FH: Control. You have final say on your cover art and design, your interior design, your distribution, promotion, and subsidiary rights. It’s yours. You own it. With that power comes responsibility. It is incumbent upon you to produce a product that is not just equal to but better than anything produced by the big publishers. You have to sell quality rather than price and that starts with the writing and editing, but carries through to the cover and the binding. You also control the price and that means you control the break-even point and the amount of money you invest. It’s a business and you have to treat it just that way.
TH: Do you think that self-published books, rightfully or wrongfully, have credibility problems? If so, how do you overcome them?
FH: Self-published books usually don’t get reviewed by major media, which tends to prefer big publishers who sell through big retail chains. The retail chains are the most sensible about this. They don’t care who published your book as long as it sells, and they get their usual cut. There is a Gresham’s Law effect. The bad tends to drive out the good. Anyone can get a book out now, but few do the Heavy Lifting required to produce a good one. Your real job is to get the work read. Reviews are hard to come by, nowso more than ever. You can create buzz and get people interested by doing book signings and personal appearances. It may take a while, but you can create favorable conditions that help sell your book.