Paying for Our Passion – Lucy Sussex interviews Fergus Hume

In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.

This week’s post is a very special one. If Australia had a spec fic Hall of Fame, Lucy Sussex would be one of the first names listed (though she is another New Zealander we have appropriated for ourselves). Lucy has a glittering bibliography and a reputation as one of the best in the business. Added to that, it seems Lucy has another talent hitherto unrevealed–as a medium. Below you will find an interview with spirit of 19th Century author, Fergus Hume (the subject of Lucy’s latest book: Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab) where he tells us about his own struggles to get his work published and his foray in self publishing. It seems that paying for our passion is not a problem limited to the modern era!

How do you find a ghost? Well, take a punt on one of his haunts, which a man, in the afterlife, might find pleasing. So I find him, on a fine autumn day, lazing on a bench in the Fitzroy gardens. The shade of Fergus Hume is at first unremarkable, as he was in life: a small dark man in well-tailored tweeds, only the fruity moustache and the bowler hat in his hand indicating his nineteenth-century origins. Who would think he wrote the best-selling detective novel of the 1800s?

“Mr Hume, I presume?” Damn, it sounds like a musical hall routine, of the sort he wrote. All he wanted to be was a successful dramatist and he ended up a crime writer.

A courteous inclination of the head, and I sit down beside him, with my copy of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. “I would ask you to sign, but…”

“My apologies. I do not go in for automatic writing. Conan Doyle is the spiritualist, you might try him.”

“Can I at least request a short interview with you?”

Again that inclination. He does not mind.

“It will appear in a series, Paying for Your Passion, with various writers.”

“Ah yes, you can say I did that.”  His voice was described as being like corduroy–soft, warm, and raspy from smoking.

“Did your father really insist you complete a law degree before taking up writing?”

A faint sigh behind the moustache. “He was a practical Scot, and a hard man. It made a successful Madhouse keeper, but was difficult in a parent.”

“It was said you had no enthusiasm for the law.”

“Not at all, but I worked diligently at it. I was ever a hard worker.”

“You never practiced the law?”

“Being a law clerk allowed me more time to write: poetry, light operas, plays. And to attend the theatre and make useful friends.”

“Networking, we call it.”

“An interesting neologism, suggestive of crochet.”

At this point an autumn leaf falls right through him.

“But you couldn’t get the theatre managers in Melbourne to put on your plays.”

“They said colonial brains didn’t pay.”

“We call it the cultural cringe.”

“Apt, that.”

“So you wrote a novel.”

A smile. “I asked the bookshops what was selling: detective novels by Gaboriau. So I bought a passel of them, read them all, and wrote The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. I plotted it first, over weeks, then sat down and wrote.  Then, the villain being insufficiently concealed, I rewrote.”


“Then you couldn’t get the publishers to take it either.”

This time he grimaces.

“So you self-published. An edition of 5000–huge for the time. Is it true you got the money by playing the stockmarket?”

“It makes for a good story.” Neither confirming nor denying.

“And you delivered the books to shops in a hansom cab and then drove around the suburbs as an advertisment?”

“The things we do for our art!” But the memory is clearly pleasant.

“And then it sold out, and you had to hastily reprint.”

“All I wanted was to draw attention to myself as a writer!”

“It worked.”

“Beyond my wildest dreams.” Drily.

“Famously you sold the copyright to the English edition, because you didn’t believe a colonial book would succeed overseas.”

“I got fifty pounds for it, a good price. But had I known…”


“And you never had such a success again.”

“But I could write, which I loved, and made a living from it, and never had to return to the law, which frankly I hated.”

“140 novels. And you never made it as a playwright.”

“It was Karma.”

“In a previous life, you said, you were a French aristocrat, guillotined in the Revolution.”

A shudder. “I can recall the feel of the blade still. What we do in one life, affects the others, through birth after birth.”

“You paid for your passion.”

“Assuredly. But to be Fergus Hume was not such a bad life.”

“So in your later lives, were you reincarnated as a successful playwright? Or movie scriptwriter?”

That smile again, but wide. “Now that would  be telling. I think you have had entirely enough of my time. And I have a film to attend.”

“One of your own, that you wrote in your future life?'”

A very knowing laugh, before he dematerialises, leaving me alone on the park bench, and the sun darting behind a cloud.

I can only conclude I guessed right. Damn, who is he now?


Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand. She has abiding interests in women’s lives, Australiana, and crime fiction. She has also edited four anthologies, including She’s Fantastical (1995), shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. Her award-winning fiction includes the novel, The Scarlet Rider (1996, reprint Ticonderoga 2015).  She has five short story collections; and has edited the work of Ellen Davitt and Mary Fortune. Her Women Writers and Detectives in the Nineteenth Century (2012) examines the mothers of the mystery genre. Her latest project is Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Text).

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