Interview by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
James Hetley is a renaissance man, which is often the case with writers. He’s been an architect specializing in renovation and adaptive reuse of old buildings. Of course, he lives in a magnificent horror of a house from the 1850s, with an electrical system from Edison’s time and a furnace installed when Roosevelt was president.
He offsets all this by living in the present, learning about the past, and hypothesizing about the future. In previous incarnations he has worked as an electronics instructor, auto mechanic, trash collector, and operating engineer in a refrigeration plant. He’s a ham radio operator, has black belt rank in Kempo karate, and served in the Vietnam War. He also keeps a sharp eye on his beloved Maine woods, both the flora and fauna found there and the weather that seeps through its trees.
All these interests brought him to ask, and even answer, some curious questions about magic and the world. As James A. Burton he has written Powers, a unique twist on contemporary fantasy. As James A. Hetley he has written the contemporary fantasies The Summer Country, The Winter Oak, Dragon’s Eye, and Dragon’s Teeth. These stories are deeply rooted in the granite of Maine, where myth is born and nurtured in people tough enough to take on the supernatural and survive.
Book View Cafe is proud to release Ghost Point, Jim Hetley’s latest tale of modern and ancient magic.
1) Do you think your “voice”, the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story—or can you already see themes that reoccur in your work?
A.) Well the main theme that reoccurs is that I like the good guys to win. I don’t give my characters happy endings all the time, but I’m not big on Lovecraftian horrors destroying all that is decent in the world. And I think the good guys win because they’ve earned it, in spite of their weaknesses and failures. Sometimes because of those weaknesses and failures, like Maureen in The Summer Country.
2) In Ghost Point, we see the return of families who appear in your “Dragon” stories. For fans and future readers, where does the new book weave into the tale of the Haskells and the Morgans?
A.) Ghost Point is set in the late 1970s, a couple of decades before Dragon’s Eye and Dragon’s Teeth. The village of Stonefort and the Haskell Witch are central, but the only overlapping character is Alice Haskell, a sullen young teenager in this story.
3) When did you realize that Maine with magic was the perfect metaphor for much of what you wanted to say about life?
A.) Well, Maine is a strange place. After all, I live a couple of miles from Stephen King, and see how he turned out. Our kids went to school with his kids…
But at the bottom, I’m writing about the land I live in. I’m writing about my neighbors. The Naskeag Nation may be fictional, but Wabanaki First People live just across the street. I’ve done architectural work for families that were involved in smuggling for generations, back to Jefferson’s Embargo and before. My wife worked as a professional naturalist for years, with state biologists and wildlife rehab people.
The setting is more practical than metaphor.
4) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentional or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers?
A.) I’ve learned that I’ve met a lot of people in my sixty-plus years, and all of them are a mix of good and bad. That sometimes doing good things turns out badly, and doing bad things turns to good. That sometimes law and justice don’t travel the same road, and that concepts which work in cities don’t necessarily have the same effect when the nearest help is over an hour away—If you can call for it.
5) Do you still read for pleasure? Do you prefer fiction, non-fiction, or a mix? What are you currently reading?
A.) My most recent fiction reading was Pratchett’s Raising Steam. I’m back to non-fiction right now, trying to catch up on Scientific American and Smithsonian and all the other bits of the world and current events that run by.
6) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not graphic art, drama, etc.?
A.) Writing has always come naturally to me, as far back as high school—which was a long, long time ago. When I had free time in the architectural business, which has a boom and bust economic cycle, I started writing stories. My first published work was The Summer Country, which is the sixth full novel I completed. Remember, “The first half-million words are just practice.” But I’m stubborn. That must be one of the most important traits for an author.
7) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) Characters will tell you the story. If you have them realized and solid, they keep doing things that you haven’t asked. They even go and create new characters for you that weren’t in there at the beginning, because the story demands them.
8) Where does story begin for you? Do you start with a plot idea? A character? A theme that demands expression? Do you see first what blooms in a harsh Maine night?
A.) I start with a character and setting and with a problem. With Ghost Point, I started with Dennis Carlsson, Vietnam vet, and his old family connection to a place where strange things happen. That turned out to be just down the road from Stonefort and the Haskell Witches, and dragged in his PTSD nightmares in the form of a Vietnamese-American naturalist, Dr. Susan Tranh.
9) How did you become involved with Book View Café?
A.) I contacted Book View Café at the recommendation of Steve Miller, an old friend from down the road a bit and co-author, with Sharon Lee, of a lot of books I admire including their Liaden Universe. He put me in touch with Judith Tarr, the door-dragon of BVC, and here we are.
10) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
A.) A lot of hard work. I enjoy telling stories and working with words, but getting the story out there takes forever!