Author Interview: Max Overton, Featured Author (2014: December)
Our featured author this month is WEE’s best-selling author.
Max Overton has written a lot of books in various genres, but it is his Historical novels that have been really popular. In fact, his Ancient Egyptian series The Armanan Kings even counts real Egyptologists amongst his fans!
What genre or genres do you write?
Mainly historical fiction, from ancient Egypt to the Second World War, but I also like fiction based on real life, westerns, paranormal, serial killers and mixing genres.
I’d have to say Historical fiction, if only because most of my novels fall into that category, but I write whatever my muse tells me to. I never thought I’d write a Western, but once the plot had suggested itself to me, I couldn’t say ‘no’. Haunted Trail was the result.
How many books have you written?
19 published, another 4 in the queue, and I’m working on the 24th.
When did you start writing, and why?
I wrote a couple of poems as a young teenager and a short story in secondary school that garnered me an A+ in English class. When I worked as a tissue culture researcher, I wrote reports and had several articles published on butterflies, but I only turned to fiction at the age of 50. I had just met the lady who became my second wife (Ariana) and she had just finished her first novel (Trapdoor – recently published by Writers Exchange). She suggested I try writing a novel. I had an interest in Alexander the Great, but did not feel confident enough to write about the man himself, so I created a junior officer in his Companion cavalry and thrust him into the action. That initial book – Lion of Scythia – became the first in an award winning, best-selling trilogy. And I haven’t looked back from there.
Are you a full-time writer or do you have a day job as well?
I’d love to be a full-time writer but I need a job to pay the mortgage! So I tote that bale during the day and tap away at my keyboard in the evenings.
How long does it take you to write a book?
That depends on many factors, but once I have a book plotted out I can generally have a book finished in about 3 to 5 months. My books tend to be lengthy (about 150k words) so I have to set a target of 1000 words a day.
What would your readers be surprised to learn?
That I never learned to type. Instead, I hunt and peck. My right forefinger taps all over the keyboard, while my left forefinger operates the shift key.
Have you won any writing awards?
Yes. I enter the EPIC contest every year and have won the ‘Historical’ category 3 times – in 2005 for The Golden King, in 2006 for Funeral in Babylon, and in 2014 for We Came From Konigsberg.
Have you ever suffered from Writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
Not really. I think the secret is to not agonise over whether you are writing deathless prose but just to get on with it. Push the story forward and don’t let your engine stall. Realistically, one does not always feel like writing, but I try my hardest to reach my target every day whether or not I’m happy with what I have written. After all, I can always go back and change it.
Where do you get your ideas from?
All over the place. Sometimes I think I tap into the collective unconscious of the human race and sift through disembodied memories of past times. Some people have said that parts of my ancient Egyptian series (Scarab) reads like I’m remembering events rather than creating them.
With other books, it’s more a matter of ‘what if’? For instance, I was watching a TV program in which a man called Bruce Parry spent a month among the Adi people of north-eastern India. They are animists and believe spirits live in rocks and trees and rivers and have gods for every purpose. He was describing the effect missionaries had had on the tribe, and I got to wondering what it would be like for one of the little Adi gods having his homeland invaded by Christianity. This thought became the novel Rakshasa, in which the main character is an Indian demon living through 5000 years of Indian history, recounting his interaction with men and gods and wondering whether he has any control over what he is. I count some of the chapters in this book among my best writing.
The Scarab series started from an idea of a young woman who was descended from an Egyptian princess, but rapidly became the story of a real princess living through the turbulent final years of the 18th dynasty.
The course of other books has been dictated by real life. I lived two glorious years in Jamaica collecting butterflies. Most of my tattered specimens have a tale attached and I enjoyed writing them down.
A good friend of mine asked me to write a book about his mother as she fled the advancing Soviet army in the winter of 1945 with her 5 small sons. It was a challenge, but after several interviews of surviving family members and a lot of digging into old documents, I was able to piece the story together. We Came From Konigsberg is the story of this family and my friend, who was only two years old in 1945, read the finished book and commented ‘this is exactly how it must have been’. The book went on to win the EPIC award for Best Historical in 2014.
What is the main challenge in writing historical fiction?
Research. Whether you are writing a story about ancient Egypt where the facts consists of little more than stilted phrases on tomb and temple walls, or a story about Nazi Germany where you almost drown in a sea of documents, the important thing is to get the facts right. Readers pick up on inconsistencies, inaccuracies and anachronisms, so you need to take the time to make sure that you get it right.
What are you writing at the moment?
The third book in my ‘Fall of the House of Ramesses’ trilogy. It describes the last days of the 19th Dynasty when the Empire of Ramesses the Great collapsed.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share?
I have more Egyptian novels planned. I’d like to eventually cover 4000 years of history with my novels, but that will take me many years. I also plan to turn my novel of Nazi Germany called ‘Ascension’ into a trilogy; to finish off my 5-part Demon series (I’ve written 2 of them); write a sequel to my only Western (Haunted Trail); and try my hand at Science Fiction, murder mysteries and a ‘swords and sandals’ Fantasy.
Do you have a website?
www.maxovertonauthor.com (And of course his WEE website http://www.writers-exchange.com/Max-Overton/)
Do you read a lot? Who are your favourite authors?
I read as much as I can and I’m quite eclectic in my tastes. Favourite authors? Hmm… Mary Renault for her books on Alexander and Theseus; Mary Stewart for her Merlin trilogy; the sci-fi books of Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Roger Zelazny, Ray Bradbury and a host of others; all of Stephen King’s books; Rise & Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer; Gibbon’s Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire; Graham Greene; Robert Graves; Rudyard Kipling; Douglas Adams; Hilary Mantel; oh, the list is endless…and they’re just my favourites.
When writing, does your story just flow or is it plotted out in detail?
When I started out, my books tended to be less structured and my characters would take the story where they wanted. Now, I tend to do a lot more plotting, though I’m never unhappy if a character wants to introduce a wrinkle I had not considered. After all, it’s their story – why shouldn’t they get a say?
Who creates your beautiful book covers?
My lovely wife Julie Napier. She is a talented photographer and graphic artist. www.julienapier.com
Your bio says that you have travelled all over the world but now live in Australia. Did you travel with your family growing up, or was it as an adult? Do you have any stories from your travels that influenced your writing, and do you have any you would like to share?
My parents were married in Sri Lanka in 1944 and I came along in 1948 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was constantly on the move with them for the first 13 years of my life, living in India, England, Belgium, Germany, Jamaica and New Zealand, as well as visiting a dozen more countries.
My mother and I settled in New Zealand where I completed my education, and then some thirty years later I decided to move my family to Townsville, Australia. Ten years later I moved to the USA for 5 years, and then back to Australia.
I’m not sure if my travels have influenced my writing, except to say that perhaps I’m a bit like the cat in Kipling’s Just So Stories – ‘he walked by himself and all places were alike to him’. I have found that people are the same the world over and there is goodness to be found everywhere. It has made me an internationalist, though I must admit I back the New Zealand All Blacks against all comers!
Based on part of my travels, I have written a book about my butterfly hunting days in Jamaica (Adventures of a Small Game Hunter in Jamaica) which I hope will soon be published by Writers Exchange.
Also, if you have lived all over the world, what made you choose Australia to settle in?
My favourite place is Jamaica 1959-1961 and if I could time travel I’d return there. After 30 years in New Zealand I hankered for those days again and sought out a university in the tropics in an English speaking country. I settled on James Cook University in Townsville, Australia and enjoyed 10 wonderful years there before circumstances led me to the USA. That’s a great country too and has lovely people, but my heart was in Australia, so I came back to Townsville. The only other place I’d consider living now is New Zealand.
What started your interest in butterflies?
I have been interested in butterflies for most of my life. I remember at the age of 6, gazing in awe at a Buddleia bush in full flower in Germany and watching a literal cloud of butterflies hovering around it. There were red admirals, peacocks, painted ladies, small tortoiseshells, brimstones and cabbage whites – and I fell in love.
I collected haphazardly for the next few years, running around Germany with a butterfly net, raising silkworms at boarding school, and observing day-flying moths in England. When I went to Jamaica I found myself in butterfly heaven – 70 species on a small island. I had many wonderful butterfly adventures before I ended up in New Zealand which, because of its distance from other countries, has only a dozen common species. I collected those, and then stopped for 20 years, only rekindling my interest when I returned to University to do some research on butterfly hybridisation. The results of that are another story!
A few years later I was in Australia, and a return to butterfly heaven – 130 species just in Townsville and 400 in the whole country. Back to collecting, and university research on butterfly communities. I collected a few more when I went to the USA, but by then my interests were turning more to photographing them.
You have written a best-selling series about Ancient Egypt, have you always been interested in this time period? Can you tell us a bit about how you made your Scarab story seem so actually possible?
I’ve had a passing interest in Egypt for a lot of my life, but it wasn’t until I started research into my Scarab series that the wonders of that ancient civilisation opened up to me. I found that the known facts were few and far between and a lot of what we ‘know’ is little more than conjecture and is hotly debated by the experts. I immersed myself in the culture and found myself understanding the characters and what motivated them. I kept to the facts where I could and tried to invent plausible connections and relationships. Sometimes I almost feel as if the characters are talking to me…or perhaps I’m tapping into memories floating around in the ether.
What do you teach at University? Do you have any funny stories about your life at Uni? Will these ever be turned into a book?
I’m no longer teaching at University, being employed now in a Science Supply business, but when I was, I lectured and tutored in Zoology and Botany (I have degrees in both).
A course I enjoyed greatly was ‘Basic Science for Primary Teachers’ in which students who had avoided science all their lives had to be introduced to the basics before they could graduate as Primary School Teachers. It was great fun coordinating the disciplines of physics, chemistry, geology, biology and biochemistry into a coherent whole. It was always a joy to see a student have a ‘light bulb moment’ when something suddenly made sense, but so disappointing to see others reject a revelation and pull an old belief back over their heads like a security blanket. You can lead people to knowledge but you can’t make them learn.
One of the funniest things I experienced was in Massey University in New Zealand. We can probably all recall when a lecture was so boring we fell asleep…well, I fell asleep in a lecture I was giving. It was on butterflies and I was showing slides. I was very tired and leaning on the lectern and I must have dozed off just for a moment, but long enough for somebody to ask if I was all right.
I’m not sure about a book, but I’m writing down as much as I can remember for my family.
What other jobs have you done?
What haven’t I done? Let’s see if I can remember some of them…in no particular order. University lecturer and tutor, secondary school teacher, primary school teacher, quotes officer, insurance clerk, door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman, wool store labourer, commercial cleaner, house cleaner, possum wrangler, service station manager, tissue culture scientist, tissue culture technician, scrub cutter, delivery man, nuclear science technician, freshwater entomology technician, fisheries technician, geology technician, office manager, truck unloader, shelf stocker, Walmart Assistant Manager, and bumblebee collector.
My time at Walmart was turned into my serial killer thriller A Cry of Shadows, in which I drew on personal experiences at three different Walmart stores and at James Cook University in Townsville.
That last job on my list was one of my most enjoyable pastimes. A horticulture firm in the Netherlands wanted queen bumblebees to found colonies in their vast glasshouses where tomato crops needed to be pollinated. The bumblebee is the best way of ensuring this, but the right type of bumblebee only occurs in Europe and New Zealand (where they were introduced to pollinate clover). In the northern hemisphere they can get queens in their spring, but not in their autumn, so they asked Massey University to provide them with 5000 queens per week for 12 weeks every southern spring. So out we went with nets and plastic vials, catching all week long, bringing them back to the lab and chilling them, taking them out and feeding them daily, and every Wednesday packing them with ice in polystyrene containers and taking them to the airport. It paid very well – $2 per queen to the catchers – and I could catch 1000 in a week.
The second year, the lecturer in charge needed a break, so I took over as manager as well as catcher. On top of my $2 per bee, I got 20c for every bee that anyone caught (and we had to catch 5000 a week). It was good money, and great fun, but the season was a short one.
The lecturer in charge also had me look after his bumblebee colonies while he was away. I had to keep all the lights off and just use a dim red bulb to see what I was doing (bumblebees can’t see red). Unfortunately, several got loose and crawled up my trouser legs, stinging as they went. I had to run outside and strip off, much to the amusement of nearby classes.
One of your books is based on the real life story of a family you know personally. How was it writing about them compared to writing a story you have completely made up?
A good friend of mine was born in Konigsberg in East Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad) in 1943. In the winter of 1945, as the Russian army was closing in on the city, his mother fled on foot with her five young sons through a war-torn Poland and headed for the doubtful security of Germany.
My friend, having read some of my books, wanted me to write the story of his family’s flight. I talked to him, two of his brothers, and obtained several documents pertaining to the family from the days just after the end of the war. From these sometimes contradictory accounts I was able to piece together the story and write it, filling in gaps with fictional dialogue, and events that were happening around them.
For instance, given the known timeline, they must have been in a certain town when the Russians overran it. They crossed back through the front line a month later when they walked over a frozen river, only to have the Russians sweep over them again. Living in the Russian sector after the war, they made it into the British sector, only to face typhus and starvation, and eventual happiness.
It was a harrowing experience writing it, but the family were very happy with the result. We Came From Konigsberg won the EPIC Award in 2014 for Best Historical.
A real life story is a bit different from a normal historical. Both require good research, but there is not the same flexibility of action between known events – one has to consider the sensibilities of surviving family members. I’d very much like to write another ‘real life story’ but I need to find just the right one.
Any other little personal bits and pieces that will help readers know you better…
I have a Bachelor of Science in Zoology & Botany from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
I have a Master of Science with Honours in Plant Physiology from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
I have a Diploma of Secondary School Teaching from Epsom Teachers College, Auckland, New Zealand.
I have individual units in Computing Science, Entomology (3rd year) and Entomology (Honours) from Massey University, New Zealand.
I have individual units in Science Education, Biometrics, and Physics from James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
I am a ‘cat person’, and presently pamper two spoiled felines, but I have owned dogs in the past. One of them, a Rottweiler/cattle dog cross called ‘Baby’ had the habit of rounding up visiting children, just like you see dogs rounding up sheep. A very good-natured dog but she liked things ordered.
Check out Max’s Author page for purchasing information for all his books (both direct from the WEE site or from Amazon):
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