Therefore, without any further ado I introduce you to Sean Halford, and Stronger than Lions
Let’s start by telling us, in twenty words, or less, what your book’s about.
In senior year, a shy, grieving young man meets a handsome troublemaker. An unlikely friendship becomes an emotional rollercoaster ride.
What was it that led you to write in the genre(s) you write?
I’ve never restricted myself to any genre, though until now I’ve focused on fantasy and science fiction. “Stronger Than Lions” is both my first full-length novel and foray into romance. I’ll be honest, the book started off as a coming-of-age story. The fact that a M/M romance developed in the plot was a chance occurrence. However, I decided to take up the challenge and thoroughly enjoyed the process.
Are your books character led or plot led, or both?
Both. I like to make my characters as interesting as possible, with a healthy dose of quirks and flaws (as E.M. Forster says, “round” as opposed to “flat” characters). Their subsequent interactions have repercussions on the plot, of which I only have a general idea when I start a story. So it’s pretty much a two-way thing: the plot brings my characters into various conflicts, exposing their idiosyncrasies, and this in turn affects their decisions which then guides the action. And so things become more complex. All things being equal, I like telling a good old-fashioned story with the classic triad of conflict, climax and resolution. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a formulaic plot, especially in genre fiction, as long as the characters are compelling – you should care about the characters, even the villains.
I think the most important part about writing is to be engaging. I like narrators who are “warm” – I’ve realised readers forgive a lot of flaws if the narrative voice is approachable and disarming. I like to treat the reader as a friend – and this means avoiding pretense, giving just enough information to keep them wanting to know more, and never, ever being patronising.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
There are a few: I love seeing characters come to life with dialogue. It’s also in dialogue where I first see flaws– if the dialogue is stilted or unnatural I know I need to go back and revise my character’s traits.
Then there’s the excitement of starting a story and not quite knowing where it’s going to end up. I’m more of a “seat-of-the-pantser” in the way I write, as opposed to others who plan their plots out meticulously before writing a word. There’s merit to either process –lately I outline and plan much more than I used to– and I think it comes down to the writer’s personality, ultimately.
Finally, there’s the joy of getting under the skin of a character and starting to care about them – so that everything they do or are exposed to in the story is something you value.
What is your least favourite part of the writing process?
Reinforcing the habit of writing regularly. Telling yourself to keep going on the days when inspiration is low and you feel you have nothing to write. Then there are the doubts that come – the moments filled with the anguish of thinking you have no talent and everything you’ve written has been done before, and in a much better way, by someone else. So I was heartened to discover that John Steinbeck kept a journal when he was writing “The Grapes of Wrath”, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century – the journal details his intense worries and doubts and fears of failure. Even the greatest writers find things difficult at times.
And then there’s the long process of rewriting: when you finish a first draft, it’s only the beginning of a long journey ahead, of rereading, correcting, editing, cutting out things that you thought were amazing but really add nothing to the story. That’s really hard work. But its also an essential process that helps you grow as a writer.
Where do you get your inspiration for your characters?
They are usually a pastiche of several persons I’ve either known or have been able to observe, sufficiently altered of course. That’s the joy of writing fiction – you can pick and choose from people’s traits and flaws from real life and combine them to create a meaningful character. Of course, a lot of characterisation is autobiographical: little traits and insights from yourself and past experience can bring a spark to a character that makes it unique. It’s almost a rule that first novels are autobiographical, and I definitely lifted some of my memories and experiences of high school into “Stronger Than Lions” without even being aware of it.
Tell us a little about the characters in your book and their story. You can use more than twenty words this time.
Caleb, the narrator, is a shy and nerdy guy who’s just started his final year of high school. His mom’s recently died so he’s right in the middle of the grieving process. Life at high school is hard for him – he doesn’t fit in and he is constantly bullied by the jocks. But he’s not a weakling: despite the grief and bullying he manages to live a very rich inner life. Cal’s fascinated by a lot of things, like astronomy and physics and music. He’s also had a fairly religious upbringing which sometimes clashes with his inquiring mind.
Chris is new to Cal’s school. At first glance he’s the complete opposite of Cal: an extroverted, carefree jock who surfs and plays rugby. He’s lived a very privileged life. But he harbours complexities: there’s conflict in his family, he’s gotten himself into trouble, and he has emotional issues. He also has a sensitive and nerdy side that is not immediately apparent, but it is on this level that he and Cal bond. I would go so far to say that Chris has actually become frustrated by his jock façade: lately he uses it to shield the world from the sensitive, intelligent soul that hides inside. He wants more to life than rugby and being admired for looking good.
I particularly enjoyed writing Cal’s two best friends, Bella and Rob. Although they’re frequently played for comic effects, I didn’t want them to be simply sidekicks. I gave them their own little quirks and issues, and I like to think that they undergo a transformation during the story as much as the two main characters do, because all of them are growing up and standing on the cusp of adulthood. Rob and Bella are both fiercely loyal to Cal, being outsiders themselves, but they aren’t afraid to put him in his place either. When Chris enters their world, Bella and Rob differ in their reactions, but they both want the best for Cal.
Writing the parents was an enjoyable challenge. Cal’s father is devastated by the loss of his wife, and while he loves his son deeply, he has difficulty expressing his feelings. He’s trying to take things day by day and he’s freaked out about his son growing up; he worries if he’s going to be able to do this on his own. Then there are Chris’s parents, who, without giving away too much of the story, are complete opposites. There’s been an ugly divorce, and Chris’s mom is dealing with a lot of her own hurt and anger, trying not to take it out on her son, while things between Chris and his father are strained to say the least. Each parent has a different reaction to Cal and Chris’s relationship; I wanted this to reflect things in real life: some people will always be bigoted, while others are accepting; still others can change their views.
If you could have one wish what would it be?
That I could live long enough to read all the books I want to read.
What's your deepest fear?
Apart from losing my loved ones? Probably growing old and lonely. I hope I’m always surrounded by friends. I’m truly blessed to have so many friends in my life.
If I came to dinner what would you feed me?
Tomato gazpacho, home-made lasagne, finishing off with crème brûlée. That’s three different nationalities of cooking, but I like it, because I’m a mongrel.
Which of your characters would you like to be sharing the dinner table with us?
Caleb and Christopher, as well as Bella and Rob.
Tell us in the character’s own words, what he/she would have to say about you.
Caleb: This Halford dude is cruel, unpredictable, and I think he may be mad.
Christopher: Yes, but he did allow us to meet.
Caleb: <rolls his eyes> True. I’m not complaining about that. And he did put us in Cape Town. It’s beautiful here. So he’s proud of where he comes from, I’ll give this Halford guy that. But I’m still convinced he’s mad.
Rob: You forgot the telescope, Cal. You got a frigging telescope. This writer’s got a lot of interests, that’s for sure. Cal’s into astronomy and music for starters. Man, that telescope. Where’s mine? And Chris gets to drive a Jeep. I seem to only enjoy gaming. My car is ancient and Cal ground the gears. I’m never letting you drive it again.
Caleb: Not my fault he made me a nervous driver.
Christopher: Hey! My Jeep is ancient too.
Bella: Shut up, boys. He gave me orthodontics. Like for at least two-thirds of the story. I agree, Cal, he’s cruel. But I think he’s a romantic too, at heart. Especially all the books he makes us read. At least I get some Virginia Woolf out of the deal, or I wouldn’t worth my salt as the token feminist in this tale.
Rob: This is all getting very meta. Could you pass the crème brûlée?
What would they say (again in their own words) about themselves, and their story that will make us want to read about it?
Caleb: Well, I can’t say I’m the happiest of people at the beginning. I watched my mom die a slow and painful death, and I’m still seventeen. My poor dad is like a fish out of water. He’s numb and I don’t know how to reach out to him. Then there’s school. It’s tough when you don’t fit in. And being a teenager is complex enough. The bullying… I don’t want to talk about that right now. It hurts too much. You’re gonna find out about it anyway. I only feel safe when I’m with my friends, or involved with the two things that keep me sane: swimming and music.
And then I meet somebody who changes my life forever. A person who teaches me so many things. That life gets better. That love is the most powerful thing there is. And often frigging difficult and frustrating. I was never searching for it, you know. Maybe a part of me didn’t feel worthy of finding someone. I always knew I was wired differently to most people. I never struggled with that part… but I was always scared how people would react.
Then this person comes into my life, and I’m confused as hell, happy and sad and afraid and thrilled all at once. I’m terrified how he might react to my feelings. But I know if I don’t confront my feelings, they’ll consume me.
You can be assured that I grow a lot during my senior year. I also do some stupid things. But it’s all part of the biggest adventure I’ve ever had. And I’m not alone in the journey. By the end of it, I’m not the scared little boy I was when you meet me. Do I get my happily ever after ending? All I’m saying, it’s a very interesting ride.
Chris: I’m a bit of a rogue. I’m not a bad person, but I did some crazy shit last year. I’m hoping to start with a clean slate at this new school in a new city on the other side of the country. I’ve grown up having everything a kid could want – as far as material things go, at least. Sometimes having all this money makes me uncomfortable. And Mom’s really had Dad have it after they split up. I’m angry with my dad too, which is bad, because of all his kids I seem to be the black sheep. Or the blond sheep, as my mother jokes. Mom’s pretending to have a great time, we’ve got this big new house with a fancy address but I think she’s miserable. And it’s getting worse.
Cape Town itself is cool, at least. Fitting in will be easy: I’ve always been one of the popular kids and girls love me and I’m not complaining about that. I’m gonna keep my head down at first, make sure nobody figures out the shit I got up to, and then I’ll slowly unleash the old Hathaway charm so the year will be smooth and steady. Maybe I can even make the rugby team. I miss playing. I was one of the star players back in Durban, you know?
And then, on my first day, I bump into this dude who seems to get himself into all sorts of trouble. Yet there’s something about him. He’s just so… I don’t know… genuine. And funny. And honest. Not like all the preppy idiots I’ve been surrounded with. He’s really smart too. But he doesn’t talk down to me. I’m shocked at the way some of the guys treat him. I’d hate for him to think I have a hero complex or something, but I can’t help wanting to protect Cal. And maybe more… whoa, where did that come from?
Love’s always been easy for me. At least what I thought was love. This year, things turn out wayyyy different to what I planned. My eyes are opened to stuff I never expected. And my reaction to it all is even more surprising.
I just hope the people I love will support me. Because I’m pretty sure there’s one of them who won’t. And it might get ugly.
Which other fictional character(s) would you like to be present at the dinner party?
Caleb Trask from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, after whom Cal is named
Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye, what would he think of the problems 21st Century teenagers have, compared to what he had to go through?
Eeyore and Tigger
Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Miss Havisham from Dickens’s Great Expectations
Calvin and Hobbes
Okay he’s not a fictional character, but I’d want the author E.M. Forster to be present, and ask him what he thinks of 21st century writings.
What other authors would you say have either influenced your writing or you would like to emulate?
Gerald Durrell, for his colourful and lyrical use of language.
Douglas Adams, for his humour, comic timing and unique voice.
Virginia Woolf, for her mastery of sensory experience and detail.
John Steinbeck, for his story-telling ability. Incidentally, one of Steinbeck’s novels is a major motif in my book.
T.S. Eliot, for his masterful use of metaphor and religious imagery
E.M. Forster, for his subtlety, and gift for understated satire and comedy
Which character from literature, would you most like to have invented?
Marvin the Paranoid from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”.
What do you prefer writing? A one off novel, a series or short stories?
Definitely a novel. I enjoy the space in which one can develop things. I find short stories very challenging to write.
What kind of books do you read (if you have time to read)?
Lately I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction – mainly popular science and history. I have an intense hunger for information and part of this functions as research for stuff to put in a story.
As for fiction, I have broad tastes: I’ll go into phases where I read a lot of classics (like Austen, Henry James and Steinbeck) and then change tack and binge on easy-reading thrillers or even romances. Right now I’m reading Howards End by E.M. Forster, which was written in 1910, and it’s a very “serious” book by 21st century standards, but I’m also reading a couple of trashy yet charming romances I’ve discovered on Kindle.
Basically, I’ve found reading any genre useful. But when I read fiction, I like to allow myself time and space, to pay attention to the story and immerse myself in the world the writer has created.
Where do you see yourself personally and professionally in 5 years’ time?
Personally, possibly with a kid or two (my wife and I have to make a decision soon; the biological clock is ticking), hopefully in a bigger house (it’s straining from all the books we buy!) and having travelled a lot more. There’s so much of the world we have yet to see.
Professionally, having completed my postgraduate studies in creative writing and published my first print novel through a formal publishing house. Dividing my time equally between my day job and writing.
Do you have any other projects in the offing we should look out for?
I have a number of short stories that I’ve submitted to science fiction and mystery sites and am waiting for responses (they take AGES!). I also have two novels in progress that will hopefully see the light of day by the end of 2017. If “Stronger Than Lions” continues to be popular, I may well attempt another romance novel.
I was born in Pretoria, South Africa where I attended high school and then university where I studied English literature and medicine. I’ve been writing since I was about five years old. At first I drew my own comics but found out I was hopeless at the art. So started concentrating on the stories. I’ve written ever since.
After med school I lived in the UK for a few years on a working holiday, but returned to South Africa as I ended up very homesick. I moved to Cape Town, where I had always wanted to live. Here I got married and specialised in my current medical field of interest, qualifying as a specialist a few years ago.
But the writing bug started biting in earnest soon after – I had put it on the backburner during all the years of studying. One night after a heavy day at work I started typing out a paragraph. I wrote another. Intrigued, I kept on… it was like a drug. Two years later the novel that we’re talking about today emerged.
I still have a full-time clinical job which I enjoy very much, but am now also enrolled in a postgrad creative writing degree which I hope will help me “give birth” as it were to my first professionally published work.
Where can we find you?
You’re welcome to email me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org check out on my author page on amazon.com, and find me on Twitter as @SeanHalford.