David Hambling is a freelance journalist and author based in South London, specialising mainly in science, technology and strange phenomena. He has also made some forays into fiction: his latest book, Shadows from Norwood, is a collection of HP Lovecraft-inspired horror stories set in and around SE19.
They say all critics want to be writers. Is that true of you – is there a novel you’d like to write or a world you’d like to write about?
Absolutely. My first dream career was actually to be a writer. I was about 9, and just finished a tale I wrote for a competition – it was much longer than any of the others, and it was cut when printed in a little book, you might remember, once I translated and posted what remained of it – and I was so proud of myself that I went up to my mom and told her I’ll be an author. After that my dream was to write a novel. I managed to do that in high school, it was a YA romance book, with music being important. It sucked. Later on I spent most of my University years completing a manuscript of a fantasy book – or maybe it could have been a trilogy. It started out as YAish, but it had more in it. I spent ten years on that, but it still needs a shitload of editing and work and at this point I don’t think I’ll ever finish it. Recently – the last 3 years – I’ve been working on a short story which is a mix of fantasy and crime fiction. I have the first draft but it also needs a lot of work. That I’m determined to finish. Not surprisingly, both of those have music playing an important part in them. I also have a few short stories from my high school years, mostly romance, because, ugh… There is one I especially liked, it was a drama. And there is another one I think I should get out and revise because it had a nice idea – it was also probably my first fantasy piece. And honestly, I really liked the novel idea I came up with for Dyrk!
Reading books in another language – and then writing about them in another language – adds an extra layer of complexity. Do you have to translate everything in your head, or can you think in English? If so, are you a different person in English?
It definitely adds complexity. My brain always offers words and phrases in the other language I actually need… I’ve been reading mangas in English for years before I made the decision to give a try to a novel in English. I think I was getting ready for my English language exam when I decided to read the first Harry Potter novel in English. I wanted something I knew well so I didn’t have to worry about not understanding every word. Later on, when I first read a book I didn’t know previously. I had to learn German in school, but listened to music in English and wanted to know what the lyrics meant so I whipped out the dictionary and sat down to work on them. It was a disaster. When I seriously started to read in English years later I made a point of not translating everything in my head as it would have slown me down and my goal was not just to learn the language but to be able to think in English. I wanted to understand it not translate it.
So, my short answer is nope, I don’t translate and I think I’ve become pretty good in thinking in English. More or less. Actually I’ve been realising that I think more in English than Hungarian now. Which is sad when you think about it, because I freaking love Hungarian which is a rich and beautiful language and I feel like it keeps slipping from me slowly, while my English isn’t nowhere as good as I’d like it to be. Being bilingual can be a pain in the ass.
I don’t think I’m really a different person, though there are certain things that doesn’t come across as well. I mean, I find it harder to be my sarcastic self in English. As much as I’d like to think in English, I have the disadvantage of not knowing phrases and come backs that is natural for the native speakers. Sometimes I could have the perfect witty banter in Hungarian but have no idea how to convey that in English. And, in reverse, some things go by me that is funny/natural for English speakers. Growing up in any given language can’t be beaten no matter how much one learns that language. It’ll never be perfect.
You seem to be as passionate about music as you are about books. What gigs have you enjoyed most and why?
In recent years we’ve been lucky to host some really good bands – well, really good for me anyway. There are 4 gigs that especially comes to mind: my first ever big gig in Wien where we saw Papa Roach and Stone Sour. Then the Breaking Benjamin concert I attended in 2017 when they came to Hungary for the first time. They are my favorite band and I’ve been dreaming about that day for more than 10 years. It was awesome. Then last year I’ve seen Shinedown, whom I liked for almost as long as Breaking Benjamin and also got to make an interview with the drummer. It was a pretty good show. And most recently, in April I saw Poets of the Fall after about 12 years of waiting.
There’s a character named after you in my next work (“War of the God Queen”, now in the edit process). If you could write yourself into a book, what would you be like – dragon-riding warrior princess, medieval pickpocket, elvish tree-hugger, bookish enchantress – or something more original?
Oh man, I can’t wait to read that! I’m also very honoured, in case I’ve never told you that. I definitely would be something original. I would have a pet panda for starters. A magical pet panda. And tattoos. Actually I would be a tattooed badass woman wearing black leather, studs, high heel boots kicking ass with a magical panda as a sidekick. I’m not really patient so I would boss people around and make them shit done. I think the urban fantasy genre would fit me the best and I would run a rock club for fantasy creatures or something. Yeah, I love that idea.
Living in a great historic city like Budapest must give you a certain awareness of the past. Should fantasy be rooted in the realities of life in olden times, or is it better to make it all up? Are there good and bad in both types?
Well, that and socialism is still something we remember (well, not particularly me, as I was born in 1988 a year before we got rid of the Soviet Union, but you know…), so that definitely gives some awareness. And lets not forget I actually have a degree in History, so I’m pretty much interested in the topic. I don’t think it’s possible not to take inspiration from real life events. Authors are influenced by the present, whether they realise or not. Which is only natural. And then there are authors who openly say that they base their story on some real historical event or another. And there are the societal issues. All kinds of societies existed at one time, so I don’t think there is much to make up there. Of course how much they mix the different elements is totally up to the authors, and they can create some really interesting ideas and worlds. Personally I think that without understanding the world, how societies work or different kind of personalities for that matter, a person can’t build up a believable fantasy world. Or lets take religions – most fantasy world religions are based on one or more religions or myths humanity came up with at one point. So, in short, everyone should do research on real life before creating a fantasy one, even if they take a totally diffrent route and create something original.
Exactly how did you come to join a panda-worshipping religious cult, and what does it involve?
It all started when I got my first stuffed panda for Christmas. I made eye contact with it and within a moment I knew I was lost. I’m pretty sure I was enchanted or something and with that I got my ticket to the cult. I can’t talk about the specifics much as I would have to kill you. But lets just say, one of the requirements is to collect as many panda related stuff as possible. I’m on a good way to ascend to a higher circle within the cult.
Now you’re taking the plunge and doing this as a job – congratulations! -- how are you finding the experience? What would your advice be to others contemplating this sort of change in their lives?
Thank you! It was definitely a scary plunge… I pretty much made a gamble, took a huge leap of faith and just waited to see what’s going to happen. I’m happy to say, that it worked out much better than I expected. Many people encouraged me to make the jump and I would never make it back. Not only people I already know contacted me but others too I didn’t have contact with before. Also people recommend me to each other and that feels incredible. I still can’t believe that I’m doing this. I’m making money doing something I love and always wanted to do. I pretty much gave up on this dream and if you told me this is going to happen a year ago, I would have locked you in an asylum.
I think what I would give as an advice is, think it over. If you are sure you want to do this, then go for it. It takes a lot of organising, and you have to know your limits. Never take on more you can handle, and make sure you leave enough time to work on a manuscript. What matters is the quality, not the quantity. Always do the best job you can do, be professional and communicate with your clients. Be open with them and tell them what they can expect from you. And you have to learn to say no. You just can’t always take on everything and that’s okay.
Everybody loves to see a bad book shredded by a smart critic (or is that just me?) “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” (Sid Ziff) “This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it." (Dorothy Parker) . But I guess it’s difficult when you know the writers…how do you balance being a reliable critic for the readers with not savaging writers? Are you ever tempted to get snarky?
Huh, good question. Where to start? In my private life I’m a pretty snarky person. Though not many know that side of me, because I only let my snarky side come out to play with certain people whom I know won’t be offended. Ask Dave from the WriteReads or Bjorn Larssen. I don’t think my reviews are snarky though. My sense of humor might shine through here and there, but I think I just take reviewing a bit too seriously to be less than professional. I mean, I always tried to be honest in my reviews but not to make it look like shredding more constructive criticism. My goal as a reviewer is not to tear a book or author apart, but to explain what worked for me or what not and why. I also think that the fact I’m bilingual and I’m not as sure in my English makes it hard to express myself the way I really want to. I depend more on things I know and I’m always conscious of people thinking I suck because English clearly isn’t my native language. And, as I said, from the time I started blogging, I tried approaching reviewing with a professional mind set. Sure, it’s a hobby and something I decided to do for fun, but I also wanted to taken seriously I think. Which probably comes from the experiences in my personal life…
As for reviewing books from people I know, I actually don’t have an issue with that. I still say whatever I think about the book in a respectful manner. It sucks sometimes, yes, but I won’t say I loved a book just because I like the author as a person. Actually my critical reviews led to be asked to get on board as beta reader for next books. The secret of this is being respectful but still being honest. It’s a balance that’s hard to find, but looks like I found it. I’ve never had an issue with a negative or critical review.
What really matters in fantasy -- is it all about intricate word-building, vivid settings, or relatable characters, or just good writing? (Does anyone care about plot?) What has stayed with you most in the books you’ve read in the last couple of years?
I think all that in a good mix. What stayed with me the most I think are emotions. Which I think leads back to relatable characters. When I get invested emotionally in a story, then I chalk it up as a good book. I also like a good mystery with twists I never saw coming. And then there are books I love for their unique settings – Benedict Patrick for instance has a great imagination and I love what he is doing with the Yarnsworld. There is a particular scene in From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court I’m never going to forget. It involves a goddess and fruits, and that’s all I’m saying. On the other hand I recently read a book which will be released in September. I haven’t read my review yet, but The Imaginary Corpse just tore my heart out and stomped all over it. And then there is A.J. Norfield’s series, the Stone War Chronicles, which has pretty much everything you can ask for in an epic fantasy series: dragons, war, a psychopat character, backstabbing, etc. The first book pretty much got me with the relationship between Raylan and Glirras. Oh and let’s not forget about that scene in the Broken Meats where Harry is being teached how to use sticks to eat by a little girl. I probably could go on…
You recently revealed that you are not a particularly capable cook - I think you mentioned the possibility of starvation. (Personally I enjoy cooking – it’s an essential skill for vegetarians…) Do you have any other surprising weaknesses or hidden talents?
As you can see, I can write a LOT. I’m usually a shy person, who hardly speaks two words in real life, but once I start writing… Pro tip: never start to exchange e-mails with me 😀
Surprising weaknesses… let’s see… I have to think about which is the right and left side. For years, I differentiated my hands by wearing gold rings on my right hand and silver on the left. Also, never ask for directions from me. I might say you have to go left and point to right and practically could mean whichever. But I probably point to the right way so never believe me when I say right or left.
And if you can help, never ask the time either. I can read a watch, which takes a few moments and might still say the wrong time. I’m known to mistake the time by an hour, lol.
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