The Write Stuff – Monday, February 26 – Interview With Hilary Benford

In addition writing to sci-fi, Hilary Benford writes historical fiction. Born and raised in England, educated at London and Cambridge Universities she taught French in England and English in France. She eventually moved to California to take up a teaching post in a private school, intending to stay for a year or two and look around at the States. She says her mother told her when left, “‘Whatever you do, don’t marry an American!’ No animus against Americans, but wanted me to come home. Of course, I married an American and am still in California.”

Her first publication was the 1980 winner of the Hugo Award, Timescape, co-written with her brother-in-law, Gregory Benford. “Part of the deal with Simon and Schuster, when I agreed to take my name off Timescape, was that they agreed to buy a historical novel I’d started.  I signed a contract for two books and worked with David Hartwell, the famous editor. He requested some changes in the time sequence, which I made (reluctantly).  I was paid the advance and then Dave was fired from Simon and Schuster and the project was shelved and the rights reverted to me. But I kept the advance!

“A few years back, I came upon the old manuscript, thought I could do something with it, OCR’d it to my computer and finished writing it. This was published by WordFire Press in 2016 as Sister of the Lionheart. I had always been fascinated by Joanna Plantagenet, daughter of Henry II of England and the wonderful Eleanor of Aquitaine, favorite sister of Richard the Lionheart. Mentions of her cropped up everywhere from the murder of Thomas Becket to the 3rd Crusade and other famous moments of the 12th century.

“The first book deals with her earlier life, her family, her years in Poitiers at the Courts of Love, her marriage at age 12 (asked her father for a King, young, French-speaking, preferably handsome!) up to the moment when she talks her brother into letting her accompany him on crusade.

“The second book is about the rest of her life as a strong-willed grown woman, making her own decisions, and was also published by WordFire Press in 2017, as Joanna Crusader.

“I am currently back to science fiction and working with my brother-in-law Greg again, on a time travel novel (or novella) about Jane Austen.”

I asked her to describe Joanna Crusader, and this is her account:

Recently widowed, Joanna, sister of Richard the Lionheart, accompanies her brother to the Third Crusade. The book opens with a storm in the Mediterranean in which Joanna shows her mettle, causing the ship’s master to exclaim that she is “truly the sister of the great Lionheart!” Time and again, Richard rescues Joanna from dangerous situations, first in Cyprus (where Richard stops to marry Berengaria of Navarre) and later in Jaffa where Joanna is trapped by Saracens. The Crusaders retake Acre after a lengthy siege but Richard was never able to liberate Jerusalem. He proposes that peace might be achieved by marrying Joanna to Saphadin, the brother of the great Saracen leader Saladin. Both sides agree to this, but when Joanna hears of it, she explodes in a Plantagenet rage and refuses in no uncertain terms. At the end of the Crusade, Joanna actually visited Jerusalem (Richard never did) and met Saladin himself. True historians will be shocked that I sent someone to the Crusade who never went there in order for Joanna to have an affair with him, that never happened in real life. I explained it all in an afterword. I just could not resist the story it made.

Joanna and Berengaria return to France to find that Richard has been captured and held hostage for ransom. Along with his mother, the two women work to raise the money to free him.

Joanna, highly eligible, marries for love, at a time when that was a rarity. It is far from happily ever after though. Things go badly wrong when she finds that someone is trying to have her killed.

What do you want readers to know about your book?

Well, first, that Joanna Plantagenet had an amazingly eventful life, lived with all the principal characters of her age and participated in so many famous events, and yet no one really knows anything about her as a person. Most people have never heard of her.

Aside from the plot, is there a story behind it?

This is the story of a life, so the plot is a given. But beyond that, I see an arc: there were two basic options open to women in that age, marriage or the convent. Joanna must have been a great admirer of her mother (the first book, Sister of the Lionheart, opens with an incident which may have been Joanna’s earliest memory, of an attempt to kidnap her mother, who shows herself to be indomitable). So I have Joanna’s first ambition as a desire to become a Queen, like her mother. She achieves that and finds that she is more of an ornament to the court than a mover and shaker. Then she tries love, with first a romantic affair, then a marriage, and that turns to disaster. Finally, she turns to what had been advised her from the beginning—the Church. She can find peace only in a love that will never betray her.

Why is your writing different from other authors in this genre?

My writing may be different for several reasons. First, I am English (not sure how much difference that makes). Second, I have a degree in French language and literature, and that included medieval literature. So, especially in the first book, I was able to quote from works that were popular in Joanna’s time. She loved the Chanson de Roland and in Poitiers, she actually meets and talks to the very popular Chrétien de Troyes who wrote Arthurian epic poems, among others. Third, I have been to all the places where Joanna lived, from Fontevrault to Poitiers and Toulouse in France, to Palermo in Sicily and Acre (modern-day Akko) in the Holy Land. Fourth, well, I’m a woman, writing about a woman and I think I can enter into her feelings to some degree (though not the desire to become a nun!).

What was your path to publication?

I have to thank my brother-in-law Greg Benford for this. I have no agent and had tried submitting my manuscript to various publishers with no success. Greg suggested I try Kevin Anderson and I met with him on one of his visits to the Bay Area and he agreed to take it on. We signed a contract for both books on the spot!

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on another book (or it may end up as a novella) with Greg Benford. His concept, mostly my writing. It is a time travel theme and is set in excerpts from Jane Austen’s diary. Greg thought I could more easily capture Austen’s voice and in fact it’s great fun doing it. Basically, an American from the 2300s comes back to Jane Austen’s age to bring her futuristic medical treatments and keep from dying young. He ends up marrying her. She lives a long life and becomes the most prolific and famous of all 19th century writers, even turning to SF novels after she learns of her husband’s life in the 24th century.

Are there any awards or honors you’d like to share?

Timescape won several awards: the 1980 Nebula, 1980 Best Science Fiction Award and the 1981 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. I like to think that I brought a lot to what is generally considered Greg’s best novel.

What is your writing routine?

I don’t really have one. Some days I’ll write a whole lot, others nothing at all.

Do you create an outline before you write?

Absolutely. In detail.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

Not my problem! If anything, I suffer from logorrhea. Give me a subject and I’ll trot out half a dozen pages for you within minutes. But how and when to stop??

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

Many friends have told me that my second book is better than my first, so I hope I’ve evolved creatively.

Do you have another job outside of writing?

No other job at the present time (but lots of travel).

Describe a typical day.

Coffee and the New York Times crossword. Can’t start the day without that. Breakfast and then find anything to put off doing useful things. Eventually settle down and write but also have to practice the piano, go for a daily walk, get some exercise, cook 3 meals a day, do some gardening, plan our next trip—retirement is so busy that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

What makes you laugh?

Almost everything these days. If I didn’t laugh, I would cry.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I like Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth Peters (secret vice: Georgette Heyer) and of course Jane Austen.

Thank you ever so much for participating in The Write Stuff and for adding your delightful sense of humor. Before I provide our guests with an excerpt from Joanna Crusader, I’d like to conclude this interview with a traditional Lightning Round. Please answer the following in as few words as possible:

 My best friend would tell you I’m a: Hoot

The one thing I cannot do without is: Chocolate

The one thing I would change about my life: I would not develop diabetes 2.

My biggest peeve is: People who talk too loudly in restaurants

The person/thing I’m most satisfied with is: Has to be my husband, Jim Benford.

Finally, would you care to leave us with a parting thought? As a ghost in one of my dreams said to me: “Don’t sweat the small stuff”.


Excerpt from Joanna Crusader:

But Raymond was looking seriously at her. “Would it be presumptuous of me to say that seeing two such beautiful ladies here in this filthy place is like finding roses blooming on a dung heap?”

“Yes, indeed, sir,” she said, lifting a hand to stop him, “it is presumptuous.” Then, smiling, yielding, “But pleasing, too. Like cool water in the desert—there, there’s one for you. God knows it is as hot as the desert here. I think we shall be in need of many compliments to keep our spirits up in this dreadful place!”

“I stand ready, my lady, to express my admiration whenever you should need it, or to hold up your glass, which should serve the same purpose.”

“I fear I should not continue to believe you, day after day, as my skin grows more sunburnt and my temper more irritable.”

“My lady, I could find enough new compliments for many days to come and after that, knowing you better, I would surely know new attributes to praise.”

She laughed then. “I mistrust you already. What do you say, Berthe?”

“Why, I say that he speaks so well I hardly care whether what he says is true or not. Besides, it’s the intention that counts.”

“Ah, but what is the intention? I think I mistrust that more than the words.”

“My lady,” he protested, “no intention other than giving you pleasure and speaking my true thoughts, I swear it.”

Joanna knew she should not be encouraging him like this. The daughter, sister, widow of Kings, she should not stoop to flirt and exchange banter with a King’s vassal. But the pleasure was heady, almost irresistible, whether because she loved to hear him speak in the rich, warm langue d’oc, or because it was the kind of talk that took her back to her childhood in Poitiers, or because Raymond himself was undeniably attractive. She felt she should leave, and she wanted to stay. As a compromise, she shifted their talk to less personal matters, hearing an extra loud cheer from one of the tents.

“There is much rejoicing in the camp tonight.”

“Indeed. The siege is as good as over in the minds of most of them. But little enough rejoicing in the tents of my dear cousin the King of the Franks and his kinsmen. I wager he is biting his knuckles right now.” He laughed sardonically.

Joanna was shocked. “He is your liege lord.”

“I only say what any of us there could plainly see. And he was not the only one to show his pique. Duke Leopold of Austria was none too pleased. Nor Burgundy, I think, nor Flanders. If it comes to that, there is little love between the King your brother and myself. I speak plainly so that you can know I do not dissemble in other matters either.” He smiled teasingly at her, but she was not to be drawn in again.

She knew that Richard had taken vengeance in Toulouse for certain attacks on Poitevin merchants and pilgrims passing through there. He had in fact taken eighteen castles and the town of Cahors by the time Raymond’s father’s appeal had reached the French King.

“But now we are here, we must all put our personal differences behind us, must we not? It doesn’t matter whether we are Franks or English or Poitevins, but only that we are Christians fighting infidels. And surely if my brother’s coming will help that cause, we should all rejoice because of that. It will help. I am sure of that.”

“Yes. No doubt of that. King Richard’s reputation will put heart into the Franks and others. His reputation is deserved. I know that only too well! He is a great warrior, your brother. I have little cause to love him, as I say, but I have the greatest admiration and respect for him.”

“I was so proud when he landed today,” Joanna said, glowing.

“He looks every inch the King, certainly. No wonder my poor cousin is jealous! Yet Philip has his qualities. Less showy than King Richard’s, to be sure. But he has a good mind, he thinks, he plans.”

“Richard has clerks to do that for him. But who can win his battles for Philip?”

“You laugh at it but I have heard that among the Saracens, it is considered impolitic, rash, even foolish, for a ruler to fight in the front ranks of his men. They say that if he is killed or wounded, then all is lost, but if he directs the battle from a safe place, then it little matters how many men in the front ranks die, the battle can still be won.”

“You talk of infidels. Of course they have not our sense of honor or shame. What kind of leader would lead from the rear? That is not sense, but cowardice. But they know no better, being without the True Faith.”

“I think they do have honor. I have heard many tales that prove it. As for faith, theirs is not the True Faith, but they certainly believe it is. They are as willing to die for their God as we are for ours.”

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “What you say sounds dangerously like heresy to me. They have resisted hearing the Word. They have fought consistently against the servants of God in God’s own land. They have defiled the holy places, stolen the Wood of the Cross—would you defend these infidels?”

“Against your eloquence? Never. You have convinced me. But I think, when you stare at me like that, you could convince me of anything.”

He had lapsed back into his flirtatious manner, evidently abandoning his defense of the Saracens. He smiled at her and his eyes went over her head to Berengaria’s tent. Joanna turned to see where he was looking. In the entrance to Berengaria’s tent, the girl Beatrice stood watching them, with a sly, knowing expression on her face.

“Who is the girl?” Raymond asked.

“That is the daughter of Isaac of Cyprus, a traitor and rogue whom Richard defeated.”

“Ah yes, whom he put in silver chains.” Raymond looked amused. “And the girl is here with you?”

“With Berengaria,” Joanna said shortly. “She is a sullen, vicious girl.”

“But pretty enough, in all conscience. Yes, you are right. She looks sullen. And how she stares at us! Perhaps she is jealous of your beauty as King Philip is of your brother’s?”

“You are absurd! She hates me only because I remind her of Richard who imprisoned her father. Come, it is late. I must take my leave of you and prepare for tonight’s feast.”


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The Write Stuff – Monday, July 28 – Interview With Author C. L. Hoang

I am always looking for the unique writer, someone who intrigues the imagination, who either wins or is in the running for significant awards, and whose subject matter either inspires, or tugs at the heart. I’m sure you’ll agree this sort is not very common, so when a writer such as C. L. Hoang appears on my radar, I sit up and take notice. I hope you will too.

IFMale authors rarely write love stories. Engineers even less frequently. But when I learned this man’s debut novel was selected as the Fiction Grand Prize Winner of the 2014 annual book contest sponsored by LuckyCinda Publishing in Palm Desert, California, I decided to delve deeper. Here’s what he tells us about himself:

I was born and raised in South Vietnam during the war and came to America in the 1970s. Although an engineer by trade, I am a writer at heart and have dabbled in short stories and poetry. Once upon a Mulberry Field, a love story during the Vietnam War, is my first novel, a project from the heart that took six years to complete. So one could say that my “specialty” is a mix between historical fiction (20th Century) and multicultural fiction.

His book, published on Valentine’s Day—February 14 of this year, is classed as both Historical Fiction (20th Century) and Multicultural Fiction and its premise is as follows:

As Roger Connors, a widower with no children, ponders whether to pursue aggressive treatment for his cancer, a cryptic note arrives from a long-lost USAF buddy announcing the visit of an acquaintance from Vietnam. The startling news resurrects ghosts of fallen comrades and haunting memories of the great love he once knew.

Shocking revelations from his visitor uncover a missing part of Roger’s life he never dreamed possible. Peeling back one layer at a time, he delves into a decades-old secret in search of answers and traces of a passion unfulfilled.

From the jungles of Vietnam through the minefields of the heart, Once upon a Mulberry Field follows one man’s journey to self-discovery, fraught with disillusionment and despair but ultimately redeemed by the power of love.

Mr. Hoang, apart from its plot, is there another story behind the book?

It started out as a nostalgia project for my father, who was up in years and ailing, when I began to scour the Internet for old photographs and articles about our former hometown—Saigon in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. Before I knew it, a bygone world had reopened its door and pulled me in.

As my dad and I reminisced about that forgotten place and time we had once shared and the people, events, and stories that had defined it for us, it occurred to me that I should write down those recollections. First, as a legacy of family history for upcoming generations. And second, as my way of bearing witness to the period of upheaval that had seen our family transplanted to a new continent.

Subsequently, those initial writings went through more mutations to include some oral history and perspectives from American veterans who had served in Vietnam, material that I came across while doing my research to insure historical accuracy.

It is the marriage of those two distinct yet complementary accounts of the war—one from the native people, and the other from the participants from a distant land—that gave birth to the book we are talking about today.

That was a compelling and emotionally wrenching period for both our nations. As if that is not enough reason for someone to pick up your work, in your own words, tell us why you believe someone should buy it.

Because of that unique blend of insider’s view and American perspective, readers get a more complete picture of this most controversial war in U.S. history, as well as gain exposure to the historical and cultural background of Vietnam as a country.

But rather than being just another war or history book, Once upon a Mulberry Field is first and foremost a love story—an ode to the old and the new homelands, and a celebration of the human spirit and the redemptive power of love across the chasm of warring cultures.

Those are the things that set this book apart from all other Vietnam War novels.

Will you share with us your path to publication?

Early on, I opted for self-publishing because of the artistic freedom it would give me in every aspect concerning the book, from material contents to cover art to interior layout. I enlisted the professional help of editors, graphic designer, and page layout designer, taking all their inputs into consideration while striving to stay close to my own vision. For on-demand printing service, I chose CretateSpace because of the simplicity to set up, and also to benefit from the extensive experience of a vast and very helpful community of users there.

Aside from the Grand Prize I mentioned at the beginning of our talk, are there any other awards or honors you’d like to share?

In 2102, the first-draft manuscript of Once upon a Mulberry Field was selected as a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards in the Unpublished Novel category. It came as a wonderful surprise, and it gave me tremendous encouragement. Then in May this year, I received word that my published book had been designated a finalist in the 2014 National Indie Excellence Book Awards in the Historical Fiction category. It was a great honor for me.

All these honors indicate you may have a promising career unfolding. As you well know, these do not come about by accident, but rather by a serious marketing effort. Will you share your strategy with us?

It’s true that most writers would much rather write than do marketing. But for me, one big reason why I write is to share with other people, so I’m making every effort to introduce my book to readers out there via my own personal network (email and telephone campaigns), social media including a website and a blog, other writer friends’ platforms, and my book publicist’s professional network. Immediate results are really hard to estimate, but I believe it’s the cumulative effect over time that will make a difference.

Few, if any,  successful writers work in a vacuum. Please tell us about your writing community.

I belong to a couple of local writers/publishers organizations that hold monthly meetings to exchange ideas and/or listen to invited guest speakers discuss the latest trends in the publishing industry. Through social media, I also made connections with other readers/writers, either individually or within various groups.

Do you have another job outside of writing?

I used to write while trying to hold on to my day job as an engineer. But I ended up doing poorly at both, so I finally decided to take a sabbatical from work to devote myself to writing full time.

Since you have managed to avoid workforce tedium, I then have to ask where would you live, if you could live anywhere?

Somewhere close to the ocean where I could fall asleep to the sound of the waves.

I already suspect I know the answer to this, but I still have to ask what is your dream job?

Writing full time without the pressure of a schedule or the burden of self-promotion.

As it is for all writers I know. What is your greatest life lesson?

Don’t keep putting off what you really want to do because you may never get another chance to do it.

That is the only way to begin a career writing. Setting the serious aside for a moment, what makes you laugh?

Little children .

Not what I expected, but you’re right. They make all of us laugh. A few quick questions now:

What are your favorite authors?

W. Somerset Maugham, John Cheever, James Michener

The one thing I cannot do without is:

A word processor

What is your defining trait?


Hard copy or ebook?

Hardcopy at home, and ebook on the road.

Vice? Virtue?


Hah! Now that made me laugh. Favorite book:

Of Mice and Men

Favorite movie:

Gone with the Wind

As always, I asked C. L. Hoang for an excerpt from his book. Here it is, for your enjoyment:

Mulberry 4x6“We are close to the flower market,” Liên said, pointing ahead in the direction of the river. “It is on this same street—Nguyễn-Huệ, or Rue Charner in the old days—just on the other side of Lê-Lợi Street. It has been a Tết tradition for as long as I remember, and it only opens for a short time. From two weeks before Tết until New Year’s Eve. Come. Let us walk.”

We had barely crossed Lê-Lợi Street behind the giant Marines Statues when I beheld, out in the center of Nguyễn-Huệ Boulevard, on the sunny median island, a mirage of explosive colors—a tropical garden floating serenely amid swirling traffic. The visual effect was startling.

“Wait until we get inside the market,” Liên giggled, reading my reaction. “You will forget everything else except New Year’s celebration. When I was a kid, every year we children would get so excited when the flower market opened. It was the sign that Tết was near, which meant no school for two whole weeks, and lots of candies and lì-xì money from the grownups.” She smiled at the memory. “We knew nothing about our parents’ financial worries. It was all innocent fun to us.”

We gingerly picked our path through oncoming traffic, half running, half dodging, and laughing all the way to the oasis in the middle of the boulevard. Greeting us was a kaleidoscope of colors and motion, sounds and smells, all enhanced by the intense afternoon heat. I recognized but a few of the flowers that proliferated along the narrow walkway, some in decorative pots, the rest in fresh bouquets: mums, daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, lilies, orchids, and many exotic unknowns, in countless varieties and shades. Competing with the flowers were miniature kumquat and tangerine trees loaded with luscious fruits the size of golf balls, ornamental plants sculpted in the shapes of mythical birds or rare animals, skeletal branches of spring buds stuck in antique vases, not to mention a vast selection of bonsai in porcelain planters.

I whistled. “I’d buy them all. I wouldn’t know what to choose. Are you finding something you like?”

Liên was admiring a green shoot of daffodil in a small ceramic bowl, with half-opened white-and-yellow buds on it. “This is hoa thủy-tiên―water fairy―which grows from a bulb,” she explained. “There is an art, almost lost to us young kids, in how to prepare the bulb for planting so that it blooms exactly on the First Day of Tết, or New Year’s Day. My father practiced it for years and had amazing success. But he cannot this year, after the stroke. I will get this for him before we go.”

I followed her to the next stall, which displayed long stems of fresh-cut gladiolas. “Tết is a sacred time for us,” she continued. “The whole family gathers to remember our ancestors and pay respect to their memory. Every home sets up an altar for the ancestors during the holidays. My mother loves to use these glaїeul, the red ones especially, to decorate ours. The French brought these new plants to Việt-Nam a century ago. It’s funny that they have become very popular but we still call them by their French name only.”

She bent down to pick up a bouquet of elongated spikes of white flowers that reminded me of Mexican tuberoses. “These, Roger, are called hoa huệ. In Buddhist families like mine, we place offerings of these on Buddha’s altar. Look how pure, how lovely they are. And very nice fragrance, even sweeter at nighttime. Like lotus flowers, they symbolize spirituality.”

Dodging around long strips of red firecrackers that dangled across the stall entrance, she spoke as if making a mental note to herself. “I also need to buy a couple of these strings for my father. He always went out and got them himself in years past.” Then turning to me, “Have you ever heard firecrackers this size explode? They scare me half to death, like real gunfire.” She laughed. “They must be loud enough to chase away evil spirits. The past few years, for security reasons, we are allowed to set them off only on New Year’s Eve and on the First Day of Tết, during the cease-fire. That’s plenty for me.”

She was excited and happy, flitting like a butterfly from one stall to the next, touching and admiring everything in sight. Watching her, I imagined the wide-eyed little girl who had held her mother’s hand during annual trips to the flower market in preparation for Tết and for a lifetime of familial duties. Just like that, her turn had now come. To play grownup herself.


The following are links to his book:


Barnes & Noble:





If you would like to get to know Mr. Hoang a little better, you can connect with him through the following links: