Phil Halton, Creative Writing, 2018, is a writer who has worked in conflict zones around the world as a security consultant and a Canadian Army officer. He is the author of two novels, This Shall be a House of Peace (Dundurn Press, 2019) and Every Arm Outstretched (Double Dagger Press, 2020), as well as a history, Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan’s Hundred-Year War (Dundurn Press, 2021). He also holds a Master’s Degree in Defence Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada.
Learn more at philhalton.com
Before becoming a writer, you served in the military and worked around the world as a security consultant. How did you find yourself in those lines of work?
I joined the Army right out of high school and graduated with a BA from the Royal Military College of Canada. I had always wanted to be in the military, as the idea of moving around the country and also seeing the world was appealing. When I left the Regular Force, it was natural to transition into security work in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Over time, though, I found that I wanted to spend more time at home, especially as I started a family.
What made you want to become an author and attend Humber’s Creative Writing program?
I’ve always been a storyteller, though until I started writing, I didn’t have a formal output for those stories. My exposure to conflict zones and other far-flung places fueled a lot of my stories, and over time I think I built up so many of them that I felt like a dam that was going to break. What struck me most profoundly about all of these places I visited were the people and how they found ways to understand their circumstances and survive or even thrive in the most difficult situations imaginable. When I started writing seriously in my forties, I was drawn to tell stories that were either rooted in or inspired by my experiences in conflict zones.
When I applied for Humber's program, I had written a screenplay for a feature film and a novel but hadn’t had any success with either of them. I saw the Creative Writing program as a way to either make it or break it as a writer. But then, about a week before the program started, I sold both projects. And even though my initial reasoning for seeking education as a writer had changed, I realized that investing in myself to keep growing still made sense.
What was the most significant impact Humber had on your writing?
The opportunity to work directly with a knowledgeable mentor had a huge impact on me. Besides being there to answer specific questions and guide me in the areas where I needed it most, I realized later through the process that I learned how to collaborate more broadly with others on a piece of work. Writing feels very solitary before a piece gets published, but then suddenly, you’re dealing with an agent, multiple editors, marketers, and publicists. You have to be able to engage with others on the details of your work, and the first opportunity I had to practice that was with my mentor.
You’ve served in various roles within the Canadian Armed Forces for nearly three decades. Can you describe how it has influenced your writing?
I think that the biggest impact my military service has had on my writing, and in my life in general, has been to give me a strong sense of self-discipline. Writing a novel takes me roughly six months of concerted effort, five days a week. As much as I love writing, it can still feel like a grind, and it is very easy to get distracted and not put in the work that’s necessary to actually produce the work. For the most part, I don’t have that problem. Sometimes I call self-discipline my writing superpower. You can be the best writer in the world, but if you don’t show up each day and do the work, no one will ever know.
You’re now on your third book, “Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan’s Hundred-Year War.” Give a brief synopsis of the book.
My first book was a novel called “This Shall Be a House of Peace.” It’s set in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and traces the origins of the Taliban movement through the eyes of two young boys growing up in a madrassa. It’s not a sympathetic view of the Taliban exactly, but it's sympathetic to the idea that people in difficult circumstances can slide down a slippery moral slope.
“Blood Washing Blood” covers much of the history that underpins that novel, while also offering an alternative point of view on the origins of the war in Afghanistan. Rather than a military conflict, I argue that it is a social conflict, with roots in an attempt at modernization undertaken in 1919. This hundred-year-long social conflict is not about the things that have become synonymous with Afghanistan—global jihad, rampant tribalism and the narcotics trade—and instead is about questions of secularism, modernity and centralized power.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone pursuing a career as a writer?
That the key to being a writer is simple: you have to write. Even if you are busy with other things, be that school or family or a job, building a sustainable writing practice is key to being a successful writer. A novel can be written by committing to writing 200 words a day, if that is what works for you. Experimenting with writing at different times of day, in different places, and writing in different ways is good for finding what makes you most productive with the time and energy you have available. In the beginning, at least, being a writer doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Give it what you can, but be disciplined and consistent, and you’ll see it grow.
Do you have a story to tell about your career since graduating from Humber?