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A Conversation With James Hetley
An interview with Alisa McCune
November 2004

© James A. Hetley
James Hetley
James A. Hetley
James A. Hetley is an architect and retired Kempo karate instructor who lives in Maine. He also served three years in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam war, and has worked such diverse jobs as electronics instructor, trash collector, and operating engineer in a refrigeration plant.

James A. Hetley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Winter Oak
SF Site Review: The Summer Country
SF Site Review: The Summer Country

Art: Lori Early
The Winter Oak

Lori Earley
The Summer Country

James Hetley is truly a jack-of-all-trades. An architect, Kempo karate instructor, Vietnam Vet, and successful writer. The Summer Country and The Winter Oak are his first two published works and they set him apart as a writer to watcher. They are wonderful additions to the urban fantasy genre.

The series focuses on Maureen and Jo -- sisters and witches. The sisters are of a world known as the Summer Country -- the world of Merlin, Arthur, and all different kinds of beasts and powers. This world is not very hospitable and the sisters are targets for those who wish to use them for their powers.

James Hetley has kindly submitted to my questions from his home in the wilds of Maine.

What is your background?  How does it impact on your writing?

I've lived fairly long times in a number of different places -- Illinois and Georgia and Michigan and New Jersey and now Maine. Moving around and then staying for a while has made me learn new people and places. Even now, after thirty years in Maine, I still am something of an observer and outsider. I think that you see things differently that way, that people and settings become more vivid to an outsider than to someone who is so immersed in a place and a culture that he doesn't notice it.

On your website you have an impressive list of attributes; architect, Kempo karate instructor, Vietnam vet, electronics instructor, trash collector, and operating engineer in a refrigeration plant. How did these come to pass? Are you currently engaged in any of these vocations?
Well, the "vet" part and the "electronics instructor" part coincided, and I was drafted. To be precise, I am a "Vietnam Era Vet." I never served in Vietnam, just was in the army during the war. A couple of the other items on the list were summer jobs. I still work as an architect, self-employed. Karate served as exercise and meditation, until I got tired of sparring with testosterone-hyped boys younger than my own sons.

Please give more detail about your architecture career.
My architecture career rates as undistinguished, deliberately so. I prefer to work on small projects in small offices, allowing me to stick my fingers into every phase of a design and construction job. A lot of my current work involves renovation of older buildings, 1850s to 1940s, complex problem-solving that sometimes becomes almost as much archaeology as architecture. I work a lot with non-profit clients, mainly social service agencies.

How have all your various jobs affected your writing?
They have given me broad experience, meeting a lot of different kinds of people in a lot of different situations. I think some writers make a mistake in trying to tell stories before they have lived long enough to have stories to tell.

What drove you to become a writer?
I enjoy reading stories, telling stories, making up people and situations. And I've always found that words come easily.

What are you currently working on? 
I'm about a quarter to a third into the first draft of Ghost Point, another semi-contemporary fantasy (70s) that I describe as "Beowulf meets The Taming of the Shrew." It also uses a Maine coastal setting.

Please tell us more about Dragon's Eye to be published in the fall of 2005.
Dragon's Eye and Dragon's Teeth run parallel to The Summer Country and The Winter Oak, with a different location and cast of characters but set in the same fictional Maine at about the same time. Think of the second two books as the result of alternate history, with Welsh refugees landing on the Maine coast in the era of Edward I and forming an alliance with the local tribes. Then toss in a line of matriarch witches and a town run by generations of pirates and bring the whole mix down to current times.

Will there be any more books in the series after The Winter Oak?
Not immediately. I have the rough form of Pendragon Autumn in my head, which will be Brian's story and sorting out the mess he has found in the Pendragons, and the "spring" story will resolve the problem of Khe'sha and the dragon hatchlings. Both of these wait several years down the road.

One of the themes of the series I enjoyed is that there is no fairy tale ending. All the characters must face their demons and fears. Can we ever expect a happy ending for Maureen, Brian, Jo, and David?
In spite of the obvious fantasy elements, I try to write "realistic" stories. Life doesn't provide happy endings. Happy points, yes, even long happy stretches of time. That's probably the most you can expect for any of my characters. You have to remember that for a writer, "happy" often equals "dull." Stories need conflict.

Did something specific inspire the series?
Not really. Maureen walked up to me and told me I was going to write her story.  

What kind of research did you do for the series? 
Very little actual research. A lot of the background represents settings, people, and events I've seen around me. I read up on Celtic myth, but even there a lot of it comes from osmosis -- one of the few benefits of middle age is that I've encountered a lot of people, places, and things in over fifty years, and read a lot of books. I had to look up the various bits of Gaelic and Irish that I've used, as well as specifics on Ogham runes and similar esoterica.

The Winter Oak is written primarily from Jo and Maureen's perspective -- both female and in their 20s. Jo and Maureen battle alcoholism and abuse. Was it hard to find their voice in the series since it must differ greatly from your own life experiences?
This will sound faintly psychotic, but the characters took care of that. I just had to listen to them.

I found your descriptions of alcoholism, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse to be extremely accurate. How did you gain such an in-depth perspective on these very painful experiences?
Through the years, I have known or read about a lot of people in those situations. I've seen the way they react to the world. From there, moving to "why" is fairly easy. I'm afraid that real-life horror stories are common.

The Maine you describe in your books is a very inhospitable place in the winter and spring. Are your descriptions accurate since you currently live in Maine?
Winter and spring can be beautiful around here, but they can be deadly as well. Even this early in the autumn, we have already had several "exposure" deaths in the woods, elderly people who became lost and died before the search teams found them.

Did you use any of your friends and family in your books?
No! All the characters are composites, and I don't want to be sued!  

Was it difficult for you to get The Summer Country published?
The Summer Country was my sixth completed novel manuscript. Obviously, that takes a lot of time and sweat, and involves receiving a lot of rejection notices. Even The Summer Country was rejected once, although my first submission was to a contest.

What are you currently reading and why? 
Right now, I'm reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss -- not because I'm worried about semi-colons and a zero-tolerance approach to the apostrophe, but because it is fun. Just finished Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, also fun. If a book doesn't entertain me or give me characters I care about, I usually put it down.  

What inspires you to write? 
Finding out what happens next. When I start one of these stories, I don't know how it will come out.

Do you attend any writing groups?  If so, how did your participation enhance your writing?
I'm a member of an email writing group. We exchange short stories and sections of novel-length work, offering critiques that range from detailed line-edits to more general "Why'd she do this?" questions. I also read a number of the authors' newsgroups at to make connections and talk about writerly stuff.

What made you a science fiction, fantasy, and horror fan?  What are your favorites and why?
I've read the genre since I was maybe seven or eight or nine, grade school anyway, a long time ago in a far-away land. I like the imagination, and particularly the "what-ifs." Favorites have always been the ones with intriguing characters, Robert A. Heinlein and Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny and Spider Robinson.

Are you planning on attending any Cons in the near future?
I've never been to a Con. I may ease into them, gently, starting small, but I'm not terribly comfortable in crowds and meeting strangers.

What do you enjoy doing when not writing? 
I read, I like to bicycle in warm weather or ski cross-country in the winter if the snow obliges, I listen to music. I spend too much time playing computer games. I haven't given up the day job yet.

Any movies you particularly enjoyed?
I don't watch many movies. They tend to be predictable.

Will we see The Summer Country or The Winter Oak in any other forms of media?
I don't know of any offers for movie rights or audio books. The Science Fiction Book Club brought out an edition of The Summer Country and has purchased rights for The Winter Oak. The Summer Country is also available in electronic form, so probably The Winter Oak will follow. There's a French-language edition of The Summer Country due out in mid-November; the publisher is Editions Mnemos of Paris.

Copyright © 2004 Alisa McCune

Alisa discovered science fiction at the tender age of eight. She devoured The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and never looked back. She lives in Chicago with her husband, cat, and 5000 books. For more information please visit her web site at

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