Interview with Hazel Butler, Author of Chasing Azrael.
As promised, I have managed to procure (if that is the right word in these circumstances) an interview with Hazel Butler, the author of Chasing Azrael (see review in previous post) which is to be published on 26th April, and is available to pre-order at Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers now. As many of you will already know, I am rubbish and thinking up questions (one of many very good reasons that I am not a journalist), so my first order of business, apart from thanking Hazel, must be to say a huge THANK YOU to the wonderful people who helped me to come up with some good interview questions! You know who you are! I would also like to take a moment to direct you to Melanie's Blog, don't worry, it should open in another tab/window, so you can go to it in a little while, after you have read Hazel's interview...
Firstly, although Chasing Azrael is your first novel, you have other published works. Could you tell me a bit about them?
I have quite a bit of non-fictional archaeology work published, including two papers in international journals and several site reports. My first fictional piece, ‘Grave’, was published in November last year, that’s a short story in an anthology of dark fantasy fairytales in a volume called Willow, Weep No More. I have quite a few other things in the works at the moment, at various stages of completion.
What inspired you to write Chasing Azrael?
The short answer to that is that I needed to write it. I had been working on a Fantasy series (something I’m hoping to go back to and finish at some stage), when I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2010. I’d been struggling for years and had never known why, I’d been told several times I had depression and been put on anti-depressants which only made it worse and, on two occasions, led to me attempting suicide. When I finally got the diagnosis is was in some ways a huge relief as I finally had an answer, but in other ways it left me with an awful lot to sort through, both in terms of understanding my condition, and understanding the effect it had on my life. I was in a very unhealthy relationship at the time, and had been in numerous unhealthy relationships in the past. So suicide, mental health, and relationships were all kind of jumbled up together in my mind. I needed a way of sorting them all out and making sense of everything. I started writing Chasing Azrael as a means of doing that, and it did prove to be very cathartic.
Did you plan how the novel would end before you wrote it?
No not at all. I had no plan what so ever with this one, which is unusual for me because I’m usually an obsessive planner. I wrote scenes as and when they came to me, and once I had something resembling a narrative I sat down and tried to figure out the plot. The original ending to the book was very different to the final ending, and it changed several times. This was, for the most part, because I was still trying to figure out what was best for the characters in the novel—and by some extension myself, as Andee, the main character, does bear a vague resemblance to me.
The book involves quite a lot of Russian mythology/superstition, how did you go about researching these?
The same way I research anything—I’m an archaeologist and currently in the final year of my PhD. Research is not new to me I’m very used to doing it. I utilised my books, and a lot of online resources, found some really good texts concerning Russian myths and used those as a basis. At one stage I was working with a literary agent from London on the novel as she was interested in representing it. She introduced me to the novel The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey and suggested we incorporate some of the myth that particular book was based on (the Snow Maiden) into the story. That worked well, I felt.
Did all of your research make the final edit?
No, not even remotely. There is a wealth of information on Russian mythology and most of it was irrelevant to the plot. Even the points I found that were relevant, there is a limit to how much you can work into a narrative before it gets annoying. I have Lily, Andee’s best friend, providing the research within the narrative as she’s a lecturer, like Andee, but her specialty is Russian myth. That to me was a reasonably natural way to incorporate so much research into the story without it coming across as a huge information dump. Even so, I was conscious of including too much of my own research; I’m so used to writing in an academic style, it’s very easy to slip back into that while writing fiction, which results in very stiff prose.
Can you tell us something from your research that didn’t make the book?
I had a lot of research on the Tsar (essentially mermaids), and the various bets and wagers they’re purported to have made with men. I love these stories, and I have a bit of an obsession with mermaids and sea creatures (which is very odd, as I actually have a really bad phobia of sharks and consequently don’t like going in the sea). I would have loved to incorporate this in the story somehow, but it just didn’t fit at all. Maybe in another book…
I also became quite enamoured with stories of Baba Yaga, a very famous witch in Russian mythology I first became aware of as a child when I read Sarah Zettell’s Isavalta trilogy (also based on Russian myth). This ended up forming the foundation for ‘Grave’.
Did the plot work as you had planned, or did it change as you wrote the book?
They definitely changed as I wrote. I don’t think there are many aspects that didn’t change as I wrote, the whole book evolved over the course of the time I was working on it—nearly four years. I was going through an immense amount of personal change, for various reasons, and my perspective on things changed greatly over the course of that time. As a result, the novel changed, the characters changed, and in particular the plot changed.
How much of your first draft is still there in the published novel?
The first draft was quite lacking in plot, it had the main events there but nothing truly linking them together. There were a lot of scenes that I wrote because they were important to me—in particular scenes concerning Andee’s relationship with her husband, James—but I wasn’t really sure how to connect that to the plot beyond the obvious fact she was dealing with it. The original draft, the very first one, only had one ghost in it (James), Natalya’s motivations were very different and the ending was completely different. It was also much shorter. There are quite a few elements that are still present from the original though, certain things that no matter how many times I redrafted, they never went away.
Did you form a background ‘life’ for each character before you wrote the novel?
For the main characters, yes. This was especially important as I was planning on writing more than one book in this series. I had basic information on all the characters but the main ones—Andee, James, Josh, Lily and Robert, I had detailed biographies for them, as well as for a few characters I knew would appear in later novels (in particular Evelynn, the protagonist in the second book), right from the start.
Are any of the characters based on real people?
Andee and Evelynn both have some parts of me in them, although I would say that has more to do with the situations they find themselves in than their actual characters. Evelynn in particular, due to her bipolar, is perhaps quite a bit like me. Lily was, to some extent, based on one of my best friends, but only in the sense of the closeness between them and the importance of the relationship to Andee. Other than that, no.
How much did your life experience affect the novel?
A lot. Far more than I realised at first or would admit to for quite a long time. Andee has a lot of personal issues, as well as the supernatural issues that crop up in the book. Since writing the book was kind of my therapy I suppose it was inevitable that my issues became her issues. I don’t think I fully realised that though, until I found my editor reigning me in at certain points and pointing it out.
Chasing Azrael is the first in a series, can you give us any clues as to where the series will go next?
The series is designed so that each book is a standalone novel, however the overall plot and characters will obviously develop from one book to the next, so if you read them in order you will get a lot more from them. The next in the series, Death Becomes Me, is all about Evelynn, a girl who actually popped up (very briefly) in Chasing Azrael, so the discerning reader can make of that what they will. There is also some crossover in all the books, and one of Chasing Azrael’s main characters will make an appearance as a minor character in DBM. The rest of the series will follow a similar pattern, each book will have its own core story and cast of characters, but there will be some crossover in each. Andee and Evelynn are the focal characters of the series however, and you will find that the main events revolve around them.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on Death Becomes Me, the second in the series. I’m trying to nail the plot down before starting properly this time though, unlike the way I approached writing Chasing Azrael, so although I have a few scenes written, I haven’t started writing fully yet.
What made you want to become an author?
Books. Books made me want to become an author. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a child, often reading things other people thought very odd for a person of my age (because they were adult books). I never progressed from Children’s books, to Young Adult, etc. as soon as I was able to read I read whatever I could get my hands on, and my father used to take me to the library once a week, every week, for a new haul. I did read Children’s and Young Adult, but I read a lot of other things too. I’ve always had stories in my head, characters clamouring to get out. For years I thought ‘one day I’d like to be an author’, and then at some point I stopped thinking ‘one day’ and just started writing.
Which books and authors have most inspired/influenced you?
I’d read the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carol, and Edgar Alan Poe by the time I was about ten, I think. I loved them all. I’ve had an abiding love of Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter for years. When I was sixteen I read my first Robin Hobb book and I’ve never found another author I enjoy as much since. Those are the ones I would say inspired me, there are a host of others who have influenced me though, most notably Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Kelley Armstrong.
Which book by someone else do you most wish that you had written, and why?
Definitely Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy. I have always wanted to be able to craft a fantasy world and characters like she does, they are simply exquisite.
What, in your view, makes a good protagonist/antagonist?
Depth, faults, and damage. I realise that not all people in real life have these things, a lot of people are painfully shallow, many go through life without experiencing anything truly damaging, but I find that if a character I going to successfully carry me to the end of a story, they have to do so my dint of their personality and charisma. A plot can be excellent, but if you don’t have a strong protagonist I will quickly loose interest in it no matter how good it is. I have little patience for characters who are two dimensional and lack any real flavour. I also struggle to relate to characters who have never had anything bad happen to them, who have not got quirks of personality as a result of the bad things that have happened to them. I also find it impossible to relate to characters without flaws, because nobody is perfect. Where an antagonist is concerned, the same is true, but I also need a really good motive. I come across so many who are antagonistic simply for the sake of it, or have a banner of ‘insane’ hung around their neck as if that fully explains their actions.
Who was your favourite author growing up? And who is your favourite author now?
I think C.S. Lewis was probably my favourite author as a child, just because I always found the Narnia books so enchanting, no matter how many times I read them (I read them a lot). Once I hit my teens that changed, Robin Hobb and Kelley Armstrong became my firm favourites, the former for her utterly flawless fantasy worlds and completely flawed characters (in particular Fitz), the latter for her wonderful books on the supernatural. I had read a lot of paranormal/supernatural books by the time I found Kelley Armstrong, but she was the first author I discovered who actually wrote good characters with strong plot lines, rather than empty characters and plots that hinged on unbelievable romances. This is not to say there isn’t romance in Kelley Armstrong’s books, only that it is believable, and quite squarely in the realms of sub-plots, rather than the main plot of each novel.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Well I’m an archaeologist, and currently work as a freelance copywriter, editor, proofreader and illustrator so, take your pick!
Tell us something about you that most people don’t know?
I cry a lot over TV and films… honestly it’s really quite ridiculous. The slightest thing, happy or sad, I cry.
And finally; just for fun can you tell us;
Your favourite colour
Either purple or red. Sometimes pink.
Your favourite food
The last song you listened to?
Where Does The Good Go? By Tegan and Sara.
The last thing you watched on telly?
Criminal Minds (and yes, I cried).
The book you are currently reading (for enjoyment)?
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.
And the last thing that you bought in a shop/online?
Actually it was lingerie (shhhh, don’t tell the boys), but the boring kind as I’m currently poor.