Monday, March 2, 2015

Ten Questions from Tara: Interview with Stevie Henden

The Amazing Tale of Anna Himmel and the Gold Sovereign
Tara: Welcome. You’re here to promote The Amazing Tale of Anna Himmel and the Gold Sovereign. Tell me, please, what was the inspiration behind this story? How did it come to you?

Readers, here's a blurb for you real quick:

Five stories, five people, mysteriously connected by a gold sovereign. A young soldier critically wounded at Passchendaele. A mute little girl in 2004, having to find her voice to commit a great act of bravery. A young gay man facing terrible evil in 1960’s Manchester. A homeless woman struggling to stay alive on the freezing streets of London in 1902. In the present day, Martin Griegson, a redundant banker exposed to the darker aspects of contemporary gay London.

In 1878, Anna Himmel leaves her family home in Bavaria to emigrate to New York. Through a chance meeting of the man who will later become her husband, she travels instead to London, a decision that changes her life and the lives of her descendants for generations to come. Settling in Whitechapel, she makes friends with a group of street prostitutes who will lead her towards her destiny. In 2011, Martin Griegson learns that Anna Himmel is one of his ancestors. He is intrigued to find that somehow a gold sovereign that belonged to her connects the stories of his family and friends. Employed at an LGBT outreach centre in Soho by Iris and Olga, who have their own stories to tell, following on from the events of The Lost Boy, the Doodlebug and the mysterious number 80 – Stevie Henden’s first novel – Martin embarks on a personal journey of learning, where he has to eventually confront his own demons.

Stevie: It’s the second part of a trilogy following on from ‘The Lost Boy, the Doodlebug and the mysterious number 80.’, a sort of fantasy, gay, and spiritual type of book.

The direct inspiration for ‘Anna’ was my own great- great grand mother, also called Anna, she came to London from Germany in the 1870’s. As I was researching her family history in the East End some of the basic storey of ‘Anna Himmel’ came to me. For this book and also in its pre-cursor ‘The Lost boy’ I had a number of other inspirations. Many of the characters and a lot of the incidents that happen in the narrative are directly referenced from things that have occurred in my own eclectic life as a gay man in London. On the literary front I would say my strongest influences are Doctor Who, in particular the Steven Moffat Scripts, The Book the Mist of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Dancers at the End of Time Trilogy by Michael Moorcock and lastly the wonderful Powell And Presburger 1946 Film, a matter of life and death. There are other’s but I think the ones I have named indicate the range and tone of my work.

Tara: Thank you for sharing that with us. Your grandmother must have had quite a story.

We focus a lot on heroines here on Book Babe. Tell me what makes your heroine strong. 

Stevie: I have observed, that my books seem to feature rather flakey and flawed gay male characters and very strong female ones. I’m sure my therapist would make much of this! There are a number of heroines in ‘Anna’ but I shall concentrate on two. Firstly the eponymous Anna. She is strong because she has had a tough life, losing her parents to illness at a young age, then leaving Germany to find a good life elsewhere. She ends up living in Whitechapel, and the daily grind, squalor and poverty endured in 19th Century East End is a tough and grim fight but she gets through. She is plucky, pragmatic and determined.

She has been taught from childhood to ‘try try and try and never give up’ and she never forgets this. After being widowed from her first husband she makes friends with some of the street prostitutes and in spite of the reproachment of neighbors gives them shelter and a little food in exchange for a penny or two. Later she re-marries, raises a family and lives a long life full of love but also sometimes tragedy. She is never bitter, even in her darkest hours but is practical, although prone to be somewhat impetuous. Ultimately she does something amazing (which I wont give away) and all of her up- bringing and life lessons are used to steel her will in one single incredible moment.

The other heroine I will mention is Iris. Iris first featured in ‘The Lost boy.’ She is now in her 80’s and still glamorous and capable of flirting. We never quite know what Iris is about, and to be honest I’m not sure myself, but she is able to use the power of dreams and her physic ability to help those in need. It also seems that there are different version of Iris in different worlds. In the ‘Lost Boy ‘ she felt she failed in her duties to those she love most, and in ‘Anna it is her turn for redemption. Her strength is not born out of poverty and practicality likes ‘Anna’s more from the amazing experiences that she has had, and the fact that she can call on powers that most people do not posses. In ‘Anna’ She faces a foe who is an almost a dark mirror of herself, as he too has another form which inhabits the world of dark dreams, and it is in these dreams that their final confrontation takes place.

Tara: I love the idea of a flirtatious 80 year old!

Did any particular woman in your family or life help inspire some of her traits?

Stevie: Absolutely. I tragically lost one of my closest friends, Katy, to Leukemia 5 years ago, and in my entire female ‘heroines; I feel there is much of Katy present. Katy had enormous insight into the human condition and also totally understood the nature of fully unconditional love, and I believe that something of her lives on in my writing.

Tara: That's very sad, yet very touching that you are keeping her memory alive in your books.

Was there any particular part of this story that was the hardest for you to write? Tell me why.
Stevie: I think there are two things I would mention here. Firstly the historical sections, written from the perspective of a woman, Anna. I wanted them to sound accurate, but at the same time not get too bogged down in historical detail, also for a gay man to be writing in the first person as a woman, was a challenge. Also the whole of the last part of the book ‘The sum of human potential; was hideously complex. I can’t give too much away as it will spoil the whole thing but suffice to say that I had to put my imagination into hyper- drive, but also to concentrate on the detail of the continuity to ensure that whilst the writing is most definitely fantasy, it is also believable. I must have re-written those chapters about twenty times!

Tara: What kind of research did you do when you penned this novel? Did anything surprising come up in your search? 

Stevie: Part of the story concerns Jack the Ripper, although in truth it is not really about him or his murders, However I wanted to ensure that where I refer to the killings I was correct with both names and dates, so these were meticulously researched. I think this was important to give due reverence to his victims. As I mentioned earlier, ‘Anna’ was partly inspired by my own family history, which I was researching at the same time as I was writing the book. I had no idea how much Cockney I had in me until I did this, I can trace my family back in the East End to the 1790’s. I rather hope the fact that I feel London so deeply in my blood comes through in my writing. Both books are set for much of the narrative in London; I think that in future stories I will have a lot of other family history, to call on. For example I found out one of my great Aunts, when widowed at a young age in the 1900’s (husband shot with a stage pistol who then died of gangrene), managed to keep out of the work house and feed herself by running errands for the legendary music hall star Marie Lloyd, she used to get beer and fish and chips for her. That’s definitely going to be in the next book. !

Tara: Wow! That's some cool family history and Jack the Ripper, what a choice!

What would you like readers to gain from reading your book? Is there a strong moral? Do you hope they will laugh, learn something about a particular subject/person, ponder a point?

Stevie: Now that’s a question that could generate an extremely long answer.!

I think that the people who resonate with my work best are those who are spiritual and spend time pondering these matters. So ultimately I would like to think that having read Anna my readers feel somehow inspired on their spiritual path. ‘Anna ‘, as did ‘The Lost boy’ focuses heavily on people (well at least the goodies!) trying and trying to do the right thing and never give up, even in the worst possible circumstances. All of my characters, goodies, baddies, heroines, everyone all are flawed and complex human beings as that is what we all are and I hope that in them my readers identifies something of their own human condition. I suppose the strongest ‘message’ in ‘Anna’ is ‘everything is connected’ every tiny action has an affect on events in the future and all life, human, animal, everything is linked, That is my deeply held belief. Oh yes ! and I also hope that there’s going to be a good few giggles along the way.

Tara: Your book takes place mainly in London. If I were a tourist, what would you recommend I see in this town/country?

Stevie: I think that tourists spend far to much time seeing the changing of the guard, or Trafalgar Square. This is really quite boring. For an usual unusual day out visit Crystal Palace Park in South London. Here you will find Victorian Metal dinosaurs lurking in bushes then later you can wander around the overgrown Crystal Palace site and marvel as you find a huge stone Sphinx in the undergrowth. The Crystal Palace was first built in Hyde Park for the great exhibition of 1851, later moved to Sydenham and enlarged, then sadly burned down in 1936. One of the key sections of ‘Anna’ is set in the Crystal Palace.

Tara: I'm actually planning a trip to London in the next few years. I'm making a note of that.

Moving on to personal things...if you could time travel to absolute any time and place in history, where and when would you go and what is it that draws you to this time period? What would you do whilst there?

Stevie: There could be a very long list, as I am fascinated by history and major events. ! The Titanic, the Hindenburg…Eva Peron speaking to the crowd from the Casa Rosada…. But if I had to pick one single moment it would be to be able to watch the great Nazi fire raid on the City of London on the 30th December 1940. From a tall building –at a safe distance of course. I was always fascinated by this as I remember my Mother telling me that the next day, the sky was filled with bits of charred paper, she lived in Beckenham miles from the City, but when the Nazi’s fire bombed the Paternoster area all the book shops and stores burned and filled the sky with charred embers. I am fascinated by the wartime period in London and how it changed the city and am inspired by the thought of seeing the amazing sight of St Paul’s surviving whilst huge fires leveled hundreds of Acres around it. Tragic but what an amazing spectacle. !

Tara: What’s the one thing you hope to accomplish before you die? Your main goal?

Stevie: Again so many, but I want to reach peace with the gods and the Universe, feel that I have made a positive contribution in this life, and then excitedly wait for the moment when I will blink out of existence in this world and prepare for the wonders of the next.
Tara: I’m a dog mom, so I always ask this. Do you have pets? If so, tell me about them and do provide pictures.

Stevie: I have a very lovely and handsome 14-year-old Black and White Cat called Max. He was a rescue cat and is incredibly loving, affectionate and talkative but also stubborn as hell. He is without doubt the boss in the house, and puts us to bed at night, then makes sure that we get up in the morning. He will wait while I hold the cat flap open as clearly he has correctly identified we are staff and there to run around after him .He will always carefully patrol under the house if the floor is up, and in the gap under the eaves, and I’m pretty sure he is checking the perimeters for evil spirits.

Tara: Thank you for joining us today and hello to Max!

Stevie Henden
I am a born and bred South Londoner immensely proud of my Cockney roots and very inspired by my family’s story which started in the slums of Whitechapel in the 1880's.
I now live in Dulwich with my beloved partner of 23 years, Neil and our loyal, affectionate,physic cat Max. 
I have enjoyed an exciting and eclectic adulthood, which started with a whiff of joss stick and flared jeans in the early 70’s, an era, which has greatly informed my very liberal values and open minded world view .

My writing has been inspired by both my life experiences and also,

- Doctor Who, my all time Fave TV show
-The film Random Harvest
-The film A Matter of Life and Death
- The books of Michael Moorcock-particularly 'the dancers at the end of time' trilogy
-'The Mists of Avalon' by Marion Bradley

I have a deep sense of emotion, and spirituality and this was expressed in the 80’s within a neo pagan group, and I spent some great summer solstice nights under the moon and stars on Glastonbury Tor. The amazing energy, and the Pagan world view of the beauty of humanity shape my views and values to this day. I love to ponder on the mysteries of the universe and the far beyond and hope that one day, perhaps beyond this life, I will have all the answers.’

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