M.K. Hume writer revisits Camelot


JUNE 08, 2013 4:05PM

IT’S the stuff of fantasy, this tale tumbling from the lips of Marilyn Hume, even if the scene is as ordinary as they come.

I’d hoped for a knight in chainmail at her gate, perhaps even a sword stuck in a rock on visiting the home of this most recent and unlikely custodian of the King Arthur legends, but there’s neither. Her kitchen table isn’t even round.

But here she sits, in a modest brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in an outer Brisbane suburb, relating how wildly her world has changed since being tossed onto the workforce scrapheap as she headed for 60. How the shock of it upended her world. How she tapped into a love of history and the Arthurian legends and started writing – longhand – with a speed even the prolific Bryce Courtenay would have envied.

And how, in the northern hemisphere where King Arthur is revered like Trekkies love Dr Spock, she has been embraced as an author lending some historical accuracy to a subject more teased and fiddled with than Lancelot’s “coal-black curls”.

Of course, Lancelot was not real. Like so much of the Arthur legend, the dashing knight is a creation – in this case, a fancy of a wandering French poet, Chraacétien de Troyes, from the 12th century, 700-odd years after Arthur is believed to have lived.

Even Arthur’s existence – and certainly his status in the bloody Dark Ages – is questioned by many.

But the ten-year-old Marilyn Smith growing up in Ipswich didn’t know that when she read about the black-curled Lancelot riding by the cursed Lady on his way to Camelot in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s offering The Lady of Shallot. She was simply entranced by the language, longing and sadness in the tale, sparking an enduring fascination with all things Arthurian.

It took 50 years, but that fascination – which led to two master’s degrees and a PhD from the University of Queensland, both touching on Arthurian themes, while teaching at a host of Queensland state schools – is paying dividends.

Since her first book in late 2009, a reported 250,000 Britons have bought her somewhat bloody historical fiction, filled with the battles and derring-do of her grey-eyed, towering King Arthur and gifted healer, Merlin.

The rise of M.K. Hume, as she is known on the dustcovers to hide her gender, agrà la Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling, has been fast and unexpected. When she first started touting her ideas and work around in Australia before looking overseas, she was told by one publishing house she was “too old, too white and too female”.

It was another blow after Hume’s acrimonious and elongated split from Education Queensland following her then-principal’s suggestion she had passed her “use-by-date” at age 55 and should consider retiring.

Spend a few hours with Hume, 65, though, and you’re left in no doubt – she’s not the retiring type.

From Hume’s (rectangular) kitchen table where she spends big slabs of her day writing, the view outside takes in a swimming pool area framed by bushes. In some places, the foliage is cut back, manicured, neat as a pin. Other spots are wild and unruly.

Her order-loving husband, Mike Hume, 72, didn’t get to them before his jungle-loving wife returned recently from one of her research jaunts overseas. “Now he doesn’t dare,” she says.

There is something formidable about Hume. Tall, with a helmet of silver hair dyed golden, a rich, contralto voice and a penchant for bold outfits and accessories, she is a striking woman who admits to needing to leash a “streak of fury that can come out of nowhere”.

She’s bright, too, and not one to play down her talents. I tell her at one point that some people might call her imperious. She doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m often accused of being imperious,” Hume says.

“And arrogant. Because I am at times. Not out of any wish to be unkind. I just forget that other people don’t understand the world, or think, the way I do, or think as fast as I do.”

Hume paints an Ipswich childhood of meagre means made full by learning. It seems she was quick at it: “I was walking and talking at nine months and my mum said the first sentence I ever uttered was, ‘What is there to do?’ ”

She’d read The Tale of Peter Rabbit on her own at three. Hume’s mother, Edna, was a clever woman (“She had an IQ a few points lower than Einstein”) who, because of the times and her gender, found work running the Ipswich State High School canteen while her father, Ronald, a returned serviceman who suffered a stress disorder, worked for the local council. The family – including two younger brothers, Bruce and Paul – was devout Presbyterian, which she says led to bullying at school.

She was attractive – “I had long black hair, bright blue eyes, yeah, I was good-looking” – but considered “odd”.

“I wasn’t one of the in-crowd but I wasn’t one of the geeks. I was nothing, really.” At high school, she “operated on about 67 per cent which disappointed my mother but satisfied the social requirements”. She had boyfriends, but from a young age she’d spent a lot of time in the company of books, exhausting her father’s book club selections before moving on to the local minister’s library.

Stories of adventure, loyalty, courage and honour captivated her. She ploughed through the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, a few westerns like the famed Riders of the Purple Sage, war stories such as Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses (“I fell in love with the Kapok Kid, the start of my violent proclivities, I guess”) and poems like Hiawatha, The Lady of Shallot and the classic Horatius at the Bridge, which she recalls, reciting an excerpt on cue: “Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate: / ‘To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late; / And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, / For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods’ ”

As Hume concludes, she says: “Sums me up”. There have been challenges in Hume’s life.

At 20, she was married to Mike (given first name, coincidentally, Arthur), who the young feminist met hitchhiking on her first day in Rockhampton after being posted to a state high school as an art, English and ancient history teacher. The newlyweds had to grow up fast: shortly after their marriage, Mike’s step-brother, Mervyn, then 11, was found to be caring solo for his ageing father and the young couple took on the parenting of a troubled boy heading into his teens.

After two miscarriages, Hume had their first son Damian, now 43, followed by Brendan, now 42. Brendan was two months premature and nearly died while Hume, then 22, suffered a spinal injury in childbirth that led to traction.

She rejected a fusion operation, later having surgery to sever six nerves radiating from her vertebrae.

She’s in pain on the day we meet after her back “gave out” on her return flight from a trip to Europe, where she did further research, and the US, where she did meet-and-greets with Simon & Schuster executives. The pain hasn’t stopped her love of high heels, though, with Hume interrupting our interview to show off some of her latest acquisitions, including a pair of stilettos patterned by skulls and roses. “Know my shoes, you know me,” she says.

Mike’s training as an air traffic controller and her job as a schoolteacher meant they moved a lot, and Mervyn became increasingly difficult to handle.

“Mervyn started to get violent he started on me and when your young son (Damian) is pounding at him, saying ‘Leave my mother alone’, I had to do something.” Mervyn was placed in the home for troubled youth, Boystown, which Hume says helped for a while. Relations remain strained. “It was a small domestic tragedy, but it helped me in my books. People are very kind and say I write about truth and I can capture sadness and illness – I’ve had practice.”

Damian had learning difficulties, Brendan behavioural ones and Hume continued studying part-time for a master’s in literature. She has taught in Rockhampton and Gladstone, Cairns and Townsville, as well as Bundamba near Ipswich and northside Brisbane schools such as Nashville (now Bracken Ridge), Albany Creek, Pine Rivers and Bray Park. Sometimes, she’s taught the most academically challenged students (“They called themselves vegies and I told them they weren’t, they’d just missed something. They called me Little Caesar”); at other schools she worked with the gifted and talented.

Her chance of becoming a senior mistress in the mid-’80s was missed when Mike was diagnosed with chronic airways obstructive disease and given six months to live. He’s since survived throat cancer, a quadruple bypass and, recently, blood clots in his leg. She continued her studies while teaching, getting two master’s degrees before moving to her final school, Bray Park, where she became English subject master. By 1998, she’d completed a PhD on Charles Williams, a British author, Arthurian poet and member of C.S. Lewis’s intellectual group, the Inklings.

Her promise to her mother that she’d get a PhD had been kept. She was Dr Hume and insisted on the honorific at school.

“As far as I was concerned, I had earned it with 30 years of hard work in my own time. It put a few noses out of joint.”

Still, Hume says she loved her time at the school, until 2002 when a new principal arrived and made the “passed your use-by-date” comment, in front of others. “It became a difficult situation,” she says. “I’d throw up before I got in the school gates.” She ended up on extended leave as she protested to authorities. The upshot in 2007, according to Hume: she had been wronged, she could return to teaching but not at Bray Park. (Education Queensland would not comment, citing privacy issues.) By now, though, she’d turned to her great love, King Arthur. She decided not to go back to teaching. “But I did enjoy sending (the principal, no longer at Bray Park) a thank-you card when I got my first contract for three books,” Hume says, mischievously. “I said: ‘I’d never have got this if you hadn’t forced me out of the job and, I might add, I’m being paid [a lot] more than I was’.”

Upstairs in their Albany Creek home filled with clutter and colour, just the way Hume likes it, husband Mike is typing his wife’s handwritten work into a computer. It’s not that she can’t operate one, says Hume, it’s just that “you have to do everything the computer’s way”. She prefers to sit at her kitchen table or office desk, radio on, and write “like the dickens” into a hardcover notebook.

Hume writes at least 3000 words a day, often a chapter, in a steady, clean script. Her pen-holding finger sports a large, distorting lump, testimony to her extraordinary output. Hume says she lives by the mantra “How hard can it be?” and, apart from creating her small deformity, she found that “this writing caper isn’t too hard”.

It takes an inordinately short three months for her to write – and edit – one of her 500-odd page books, after about the same time on research.

“By this stage, my characters are real, live, breathing,” Hume says. “I imagine that I’m trying to keep up with them with a video camera tuned to sound on my shoulder. Plot goes haywire, the whole lot. To hell with it. I’m keeping up with my characters.”

Then Mike, a touch-typist, puts it in, occasionally calling to his wife: “What does this shit mean?” She likes that, she says, glad to have a male to critique her rough work, given that her books are read mostly by men. She then overlays the draft with imagery, description, extra dialogue. Mike also acts as her secretary, answering emails and the phone, another bit of technology she can use but would rather stay away from. She doesn’t have a mobile phone.

It was Mike who wouldn’t rest until his wife was published. “He said: ‘This is too good to let lapse’,” says Hume. With no interest in Australia, “he took the last of our money we were prepared to touch out of my superannuation and went to England and America trying to find a publisher”. He found an agent who found a publisher, and the ride began.

The Humes would have loved to have travelled overseas together but that’s impossible – and has been for 20 years. Because upstairs, near the furiously typing Mike, is Damian, who the couple has been caring for ever since the former tank crew commander in the army reserve was struck down by diabetes in his twenties.

“He hasn’t been able to marry or have children,” Hume says. “He’s lost most of his foot and now he’s virtually blind. It’s a hard road for Damian. Hell, it’s not easy for us.” (Brendan is in IT in Tasmania and has three children from a previous marriage.) Damian is the spur that keeps Hume writing.

Her work is not highbrow; it’s more page-turner fiction for those into heroic fantasy/history, with big clumps of dialogue (“my editors tell me it’s necessary”), often florid language and lots of brutish but internally tortured men fighting to the death. But it’s selling, and for that, Hume is unapologetic.

“My son in my upstairs bedroom is what concerns me,” she says, dismissing the views of the “literati” who Hume says have often made her “feel bad”. “I have to leave enough money for him for when I’m gone that he can live on comfortably for the rest of his life. If I can satisfy my own internal longings, then that’s great, too.”

Part of that satisfaction comes in knowing that she tries to be as historically accurate as the legend of King Arthur allows. Hume is adamant that Arthur – or in her books, Artor or Artorex – did live, pointing to a small number of surviving references in ancient writings to a British “war leader” by that name (or a derivative) who kept the advancing hordes of Jutes, Saxons, Angles and Picts at bay for years. Hume has bundled up her decades of studying various elements of the story – the warring tribes, the use of symbolism, the tongue-twister names of early English cities – and brought authority to her adventurous tales.

“I did all the realistic reading, all the historicity,” Hume says. “Hunting for the real person under the garbage. He’s my Arthur, but I wanted it to be logical.”

She eschews magic in her stories, adapting the best-known parts of the legends to something that realistically could occur. When it comes to the sword Excalibur (she uses an older term, Caliburn) being buried in a rock, she puts it high up inside the unmortared stone of a watchtower.

For Merlin, Hume resurrects the Welsh name, Myrddin Emrys. Legend has it he was born of “demon seed”, so she makes his father a Roman rapist of a young Celtic royal. She refuses to make him a sorcerer – although he does have “the sight” – instead reinventing him as a skilful healer who saves soldiers on the battlefields. “I made him very intelligent I made him odd. One of those people who don’t fit in,” Hume says. “I’d had practice with that. High intellect usually does it. And curiosity. There were some elements of my childhood in there.”

And then there are the battles, mud-maps of which are often printed in her books, along with glossaries of the bamboozling number of ancient place names and people. Hume says many of her readers congratulate her on her portrayal of the fierce hand-to-hand combat of the time. “I don’t believe in war,” she says. “When you die, your bowels and bladder void, hot entrails stink, the battlefield would have reeked, screaming horses, screaming men, parts of bodies, mud would have been a bloody slurry. It wasn’t so much a case of skill as a hack and slash job. I describe it that way.

“Apparently machismo and me get along very well. Although my books aren’t just machismo, they wouldn’t last. There has to be a feeling, a message. And my message is very clear – that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.”

Such compromise, though, is largely a thing of the past for Hume. Now that the US is on board through Simon & Schuster and her Merlin trilogy is finished, she is working on another series, loosely titled Twilight of the Celts, featuring a Welsh hero, Taliessin.

Again, the legends and timeframe vary but Hume is sticking with Taliessin as the son of Merlin and the temptress Nimue, who is sometimes portrayed as the Lady of the Lake.

That’s not enough to keep her busy. In her spare time, Hume is writing another book, this one set in ancient Egypt. It’s a slight issue with her publishers. “They want me to stay in the Dark Ages forever,” she says. “I do not wish to stay in the Dark Ages forever.” So, of course, she’s steaming ahead. The life of the brilliant Imhotep, who lived about 2600BC and built the first step pyramid in Saqqara, intrigues her. For this piece of historical fiction, she will adopt another name, Katrina Ellis – her middle name and a family name on her mother’s side.

Marilyn Hume’s real name is about the only thing she is keeping camouflaged nowadays. The rest is on display. She is a clever, accomplished woman with overbearing tendencies and a love of history, legends and writing that has given her later life purpose and much-needed funds. Her books are bought by thousands of people who love them and she pays no heed to those who don’t.

In her past life as a teacher, she says, she wore conservative clothes – “oh, the perennial favourite, beige” – to fit in. Now she wears her bright clothes and oversized rings and jangly bracelets and exotic high heels and, for the most part, is happy.

“I wasn’t conservative or ordinary, ever, but I attempted to use protective colouring to fit in,” Hume says. “And now I don’t have to. Now I can be the person I always wanted to be.”