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Interview With Author S.J. Butler

Today, I bring you a wonderful interview with author S.J. Butler. The author's debut novel is titled A Very British Disaster. A historical fiction based on a true story during the very first Anglo-Afghan war in 1838. Let's find out more.

Tell me about yourself

I was born in London and grew up near Chelmsford, Essex. I have always loved writing. By age ten I was turning out science fiction stories with a readership of one – me; and around age 15 I found I had a talent for writing angst-filled poetry in dark places on a cheap blue typewriter. After leaving school I turned down a place at uni and instead bought a ticket to Australia for £75, courtesy of the Australian Government. I planned to hang out in Australia for two years, then go back to England and uni.

I met and married my husband shortly after arriving in Australia and the return trip didn’t eventuate. After raising three children, working in the fields of education and human resources management, and sitting in more cold basketball stadiums than I care to remember, I graduated from uni in my fifties but my dream was always to become a published author. A Very British Disaster is a realisation of that dream. I live with my husband and our couch-buddy, Rusty, near Canberra, Australia

When did you first call yourself a writer?

Perhaps while I was writing the novel, but I felt more validated after it was published. I had some poetry published as a teenager but I’ve always felt that didn’t count.

What do you like to read?

Mostly non-fiction these days although I used to enjoy historical fiction, in particular Dickens and Austen. I’m currently reading ‘How to be a Victorian’ by Ruth Goodman and I’m about to start ‘Enlightenment Now’ by Steven Pinker.

Tell me about ‘A Very British Disaster’

It’s not difficult to imagine a war beginning for no wise purpose. But it’s hard to fathom how the First Anglo-Afghan War, starting in 1839, came to be defined as the worst military humiliation ever suffered by a British army. In A Very British Disaster, I have attempted to bring to life the bumbling leaders of Britain’s first invasion of Afghanistan and its deadly ending three years later. From the book’s beginnings in British India, we witness the combative goings-on between the waspish and sharp-witted Emily Eden, her silly sister, Hetty, and their exalted brother Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India and the instigator of the catastrophe.

Lord Auckland believed the Russians were trying to talk the warrior king of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed Khan, into allowing them passage through Afghanistan to India, and so Auckland decided to send an army to dethrone Dost Mohammed and replace him with a puppet king, Shah Shujah. It was a decision that resulted in the deaths of thousands, until by the war’s end there were just a handful of British people left alive - A Very British Disaster is their story of survival. Courageous hostages of the Afghan hero, Akbar Khan, were forced to endure the hostile conditions the country is still known for today. Unforgiving deserts, mountainous terrain and brutal winters coupled with the grinding misery of real hunger and the knowledge they could all be slain at any time.

Along with the pragmatic, self-deprecating Captain Mackenzie, a blue-eyed blond widower considered ‘quite the catch’ back in Bombay, the hostages included the stoic and forthright Lady Florentia Sale, and the well-meaning but dithering General Elphinstone, Commander-in-Chief of the Kabul force.

Afghanistan is a country that has long been considered almost impossible to conquer, and that first futile war was as costly and catastrophic as the invasions that have followed.

But amongst the accounts of great loss, I have tried to weave in in unexpected humour in the shape of Miss H. and her incontinent pug, the pompous and deluded Envoy, Sir William Macnaghten, and the clownish exploits of the brave but injury-prone Fighting Bob Sale. As a result, I hope to have created an enthralling narrative of ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation.

What inspired you to write it?

I always wanted to write a novel but was daunted by the thought of developing a plot or thinking up characters. Many years ago I read George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman, in which the fictional Harry Flashman was appointed to General Elphinstone’s staff in Afghanistan and I was fascinated by the story. I can’t recall what made me think I could do it, but I started reading and researching the actual events and people involved and went from there.

What do you like about writing historical fiction?

I enjoy the genre, in particular the Victorian era and the industrial revolution. Although the novel pre-dates the industrial revolution and took place nearly 200 years ago, we can still see ourselves in the characters’ actions and feelings. It’s the fact that human emotions transcend time and place that fascinates me.

What do you find challenging as a writer?

At the moment, mustering the enthusiasm to begin writing another book!

How did you approach the research required to write the book?

I started my writing journey in my sixties, much later than most authors. I think it was about the time I became an empty nester when I decided I wanted to write a novel. At that stage I had no idea what to write about – crime, fantasy, romance – only that I wanted to see a book through to publication. So when I read George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and an idea for a novel began to emerge, I seized on it.

For those not familiar with George Macdonald Fraser’s work: Harry Flashman, a character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays written by Thomas Hughes in 1857, was expelled from Rugby school for drunkenness. In Flashman, GMF picks up where Hughes left off, and at age 19 Flashman is banished to British India where he joins the staff of General Elphinstone, who is about to take charge of the British army camped near Kabul. In my copy of Flashman, GMF refers readers to one or two accounts of the First Afghan War, but in particular to ‘Patrick Macrory’s admirably clear account, Signal Catastrophe’. Macrory, in turn, refers his readers to other sources, including Helen Douglas Mackenzie’s Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life, and Lady Sale’s Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan.

One source led to another and another and so on. I had managed to buy copies of Signal Catastrophe and Lady Sale’s Journal but the other sources were too costly, so I turned to the National Library of Australia or accessed them through the Internet Archive at It’s not an exaggeration to say that I spent a couple of years reading and making notes, and writing draft after draft, before the novel began to resemble what it is today.

What character can you most relate to and why?

I can relate to both Lady Sale and Emily Eden, but I have a soft spot for Sir Robert Sale. In the book he wears his heart on his sleeve and his reactions and responses are very genuine, he’s also a little naïve – unlike the ‘politicals’, Sir William and Sir Alexander Burnes.

What advice would you give a new author?

To be better prepared to begin writing than I was. It wasn’t until after I had completed the novel that I realised I should have learned something about the craft of creative writing first.

Are you working on anything new?

Yes, but see above. Motivation is a problem….

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

Pretty ordinary stuff. Read, go for walks, gardening, spending time with family.

Thank you to S.J. Butler for sharing the journey to publication with us. If you would like to check out the author's work, click on the links below.

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