About Nat Howler
So who am I? Who is Nathaniel Peter Howler, what makes him tick, and what gives him the inspiration to write dramatic stories such as the Six Stones Trilogy? On this page, I’ll tell my life story and explain how I came to be a fantasy author.
This is a pastel portrait of my parents, Charles and Pamela Howler, that I drew a few years ago, using an old black-and-white photograph as a reference. They were both in their early 30s at the time, having recently married, though their respective families opposed the union. My father, Charles, was from a blue-collar family in industrial northern England. Never having had much, he had to struggle his whole life, and finally managed to become a physician. My mother, Pamela, was from Northern Ireland. Hers was a staunch Roman Catholic family. She went to nursing school in Dublin and there, met my father. Her family was outraged that she could fall in love with a ‘Protestant, English enemy,’ and actually disowned her. My father’s family members, for their part, were bigoted against Irish people. It was a time of pain and alienation for my parents, but they turned the situation around for the better. They resolved never to engage in hatred or bigotry of any kind, and taught my sister and I to respect people of all backgrounds and cultures. They also sought to make a difference in the world, so, inspired by Albert Schweitzer’s example, became itinerant medical professionals, dispensing medicine, treatment, and training in Third World countries.
This village is typical of the variety in which my parents used to work. Though they started out in Upper Volta—that is modern Burkina Faso, where my sister Joyce was born—they then moved to Zambia. I was born in Lusaka in 1972. Their work took them all over Zambia and into Malawi, Mozambique, Rhodesia—what is now Zimbabwe, and occasionally, Tanzania. They tried to, but were barred from entering South Africa, because somehow, the hateful apartheid government there, got wind of my parents’ outspoken anti-racist views. Villages such as this one were the scenes of my childhood. The people were poor—often desperately so—but were almost always warm and hospitable, as well as grateful for what my parents did for them. Even to this day, when I visit African villages like this, it feels like I’m coming home.
This was my childhood home, a 1953 Spartan camper-caravan that my parents received from several charitable organizations. It served not only as our home, but also as a school for Joyce and I. In addition, it contained medicines and medical supplies. Often my parents would pitch a tent or two on its side, in order to accommodate certain patients. Five people made their home inside this vehicle—my parents, Joyce and myself, and Zetta, a young woman who fled the civil war in Mozambique. Zetta was essentially adopted by my parents, and she became, in essence, our older sister. Also living with us was a mongrel dog named Fox, who we found on the side of the road. The dust, wind, sun, and bad roads meant that our camper-caravan constantly needed repairs, replacement parts, and paint jobs, so that in the end, it looked quite different from how it started out. Fortunately, there was no shortage of local mechanics, who were willing to do the work for us, because they were grateful for everything my parents did for their families and communities. At one stage the vehicle had an appendage for catching breezes to cool the interior, a feature that closely resembled Dubai’s famous wind towers. There was also an electricity-generating unit hooked to the back, which was powered by dried animal dung, and which we used sparingly. Conditions inside our home were rather cramped, but we kids didn’t notice it. It made for a lot of fun in our childhood, and it also encouraged us to play outside a great deal. In the end, the vehicle literally fell apart and had to be sold off piecemeal for scrap. At that point, my parents took this as a sign from God that we needed to go elsewhere in the world for a while, which induced them to take positions in Bulgaria, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.
My father snapped this photograph early one morning, an hour after sunrise. Pictured is a baobab tree close to which our caravan was parked, and the range rover, provided by the Zambian government, which my father used to drive from one village to another (since he couldn’t exactly lug the huge camper-caravan around every time he needed to travel to some remote village.). In this picture, you see a troop of vervet monkeys, a small herd of impala, a warthog, and a pair of francolins. Scenes such as these were common in my childhood, and have given me a strong sense throughout my life, that mankind is obligated to live and coexist in harmony with nature. This theme is also found in my writing. Although this was the 1970s, and color cameras were available, my parents only possessed a black-and-white camera, and not a very good one at that. It was all my parents could afford, so as you will see, almost all images from that era are in black-and-white.
This is a picture of my sister, Joyce and me, playing with our ‘toys’, which consisted of rocks, sticks, and other things we found in our environment. As you can see, my face was puffed up, because I had just recovered from a bout of mumps. We didn’t have toys in the conventional sense, so we made do with what we could obtain in our environment, and used our imaginations. Our parents encouraged this, and provided us with love and support, and Zetta used to watch Joyce’s puppet shows and patiently listen to my long, rambling stories, while she worked. Much of the credit for my books must go to her, because she was the one who made me feel like I was a star storyteller.
We found Fox by the side of the road. He was a sick, stray puppy, whom my parents and Zetta nursed back to health. He was not only our family pet, but my own constant companion, especially since, unlike Joyce, I was too shy to play with the local village kids. There were times when Joyce visited friends, and my parents and Zetta were too busy with patients to spend time with me, so Fox and I had little adventures and played games together. He was the finest companion a young boy could hope for, but sadly, he became partially deaf, and one evening, he did not hear a lorry coming. That is how he lost his life. It was a devastating blow for a boy of eight, and it was the first event in my life that shattered my childhood innocence. This picture was taken at sunset, by a family friend visiting from Britain, who stayed for two weeks with us. He possessed a color camera, thus resulting in one of the few color images of me from my childhood. I’m glad Fox was in it.
I’ll never forget the time Fox and I wandered, against our parents’ and Zetta’s wishes, into a field where there was a big Ankole bull much like the one depicted in this photograph, which I took many years later. The bull charged us. I grabbed Fox and ran for both our lives, escaping narrowly through the fence. It was this experience that gave rise to a sense I had, in which the world contained danger and uncertainty, qualities that have affected my writing.
In 1980, three months after Fox’s tragic demise, my parents accepted a position in Bulgaria, doing something similar to what they did in Africa. Neither of my parents nor Zetta could speak any Bulgarian, but there were two English-speaking government officials who assisted them. For the first time in my life, my family lived in a proper house, the downstairs of which was a clinic. The officials provided my parents with a color camera, with which to take pictures. My parents established a rapport with the locals, but it was not to last. After three months, the authorities decided that we were dangerous foreigners, and expelled us. This picture was taken by my mother from the car, on the day we left Bulgaria. In it is the house we lived in, guarded by the gendarmes who supervised our departure. In the background, one can see two Roma, watching as the doctor and nurse they had come to love, were abruptly expelled, and with them, the hope for better healthcare in their community. The debacle in Bulgaria affected my parents emotionally. My father was particularly hard hit. Before this event, he viewed Communism in a favorable light. Afterward, however, he became vehemently anti-Communist.
Right after my parents left Bulgaria, they took on a position in Cambodia, which, though Communist, and had recently been liberated from the cruel Khmer Rouge regime. I think my father chose to go there, because he wanted to fight Communism in a small way, by bringing Western-style medicine to the people. Here is a picture of my family in the village where we stayed. Depicted from left to right are the following: Ms. Seng, a female village elder. She was an educated woman who survived the dark years by fleeing to Thailand. I credit her with first sparking Joyce’s interest in Buddhism. Next to her is Zetta, myself, my father, my mother, Joyce, Mr. Chey, the local handyman, and a boy Joyce made friends with, whom she called Vey, because she couldn’t pronounce his Cambodian name. There were many sick and disfigured people in Cambodia, and the sight of so many of them affected me greatly. I became very aware of the suffering in the world at this time. This, together with my parents’ frustration at what happened in Bulgaria, plus the fact that I was still mourning for Fox, made me very shy and withdrawn, and as one can see, I am hiding behind my father in this picture. It was the early start of the dark period of alienation in my life.
After a year in Cambodia, my parents’ next port of call was the Philippines. It was a poor country, and clinics were being established in many hitherto remote places. The five of us traveled around the country supervising the establishment of these clinics. Our home was a camper-caravan similar to but smaller than the one we’d had in Africa, and we were constantly on the move. We traveled from island to island the way many people in the Philippines do, by ferry. This is a picture of one such ferry. The Philippine part of our lives was quite pleasant. Not only were the people of the country friendly, but the land and sea were beautiful and there was a strong sense of freedom, in moving from place to place. After our experiences in Bulgaria and Cambodia, this was just what my family needed, and the constant moving about made me think of quests, which you find in my books. However, the good times were not to last. Famine struck in Ethiopia, and my parents went there to help. The darkest days of my life were coming.
This is a painting done by a family friend, a colleague of my father’s, depicting the famine in Ethiopia. In it, there’s a column of refugees walking through the famine-blasted, dusty landscape toward a relief camp. I think this painting portrays the depth of suffering and despair that hit the land and its people. My parents worked in the relief camps, and Zetta, Joyce, and I often assisted them. So dire were the circumstances that even our education suffered, something our parents had never before allowed to happen. Moreover, the pain and anguish all around, caused my parents and Zetta to withdraw into themselves, as a coping mechanism. Joyce steeled herself to accept them this way, but I became angry and disillusioned, which frustrated my sister, and created a rift between us. The sense of aloneness I felt in the world, as well as anger that the suffering all around me could take place, caused me to feel alienated from the world and from God. We were in Ethiopia for a year and a half, before returning to Zambia, but nothing was ever the same again.
Christians talk about the ‘dark night of the soul.’ That is what I was experiencing. Even after leaving Ethiopia, and our lives resuming as normal in Zambia, the effects lingered. Our parents decided that more time needed to be spent with us, and they did so, as well as resuming the fullness of our education, but the damage of the experience was done.
Here is a picture that my mother took of me in 1987, and I refused to look at the camera, preferring instead, to be wrapped in a blanket, which was a physical manifestation of my self-isolation. My parents really did make the effort at the time to be there for me, but I was emotionally distant. Joyce could not understand why I was acting this way, and it created friction and tension between us, which lasted for many years. Zetta, for her part, started to fret about her family that she had left behind in Mozambique, whom she had lost contact with years before.
In 1987, my father accompanied Zetta on a trip back into Mozambique to find her lost family. It was then that she learned that her parents and sister had perished during the upheavals that plagued her country in the 1980s. Zetta was never the same after that. It was as if the spark of life had gone out of her. My father tried to rekindle it by giving her more responsibilities in assisting him. He taught her how to drive the land rover, so she could help him dispense medicine. However, her mind was not always in the present. One night in 1988, my father was busy working in a remote village, and Zetta was driving the land rover, doing an errand for him, when she, probably in her grieving and distracted state, swerved to miss a truck, and the land rover ended up plunging down into a ravine. Zetta was killed instantly. This was the worst tragedy to have hit my family, and we all went into a downward spiral of anguish and mourning. My parents blamed themselves for not realizing how bad Zetta’s situation was. Joyce became a full-on Buddhist, even to the extent of shaving her head and wearing plain robes like a nun. As for me, this was the nadir of my life, and what was worse, while this tragedy brought me closer to my parents, it actually worsened relations between Joyce and myself, because we chose very different ways to mourn. We eventually all healed, each in our own ways, and when we did, we chose to honor Zetta’s memory. Depicted here is a memorial painting that Joyce and I did together many years later. It is a portrait of Zetta, done by me, and block prints that Joyce made with numerous symbols. There are symbols from Zetta’s own culture, as well as the Buddhist symbols dear to Joyce and the Jewish and Christian ones that are dear to me. I know it looks as though we went a bit overboard with all the symbols, but it shows the degree of love and affection that Joyce and I have for our adopted older ‘sister.’ It’s almost as if, by surrounding her with spiritual imagery, we are giving her protection for her soul.
In 1990, our maternal cousins the Whites from Chicago came to Malawi, where we were stationed at the time. They were well-to-do people, and they took a liking to Joyce and I, who they had never met. Soon afterward, they, along with their daughters, Stephanie and Greta, arranged for Joyce and I to meet them in Europe. They took us to a number of different countries, and we even visited Britain and Ireland—the lands of our ancestors. We got to see castles, villages, cathedrals, and ancient cities. Of particular interest to me, however, were some of the ancient trees we saw in old gardens and groves. This is a picture of me taken on that same trip with the Whites. Here, on a blisteringly cold day, we are visiting a model medieval village in rural England. The place solidified my desire for self-discovery, for it was undoubtedly in villages such as these, complete with wattle-and-daub huts, that my own ancestors lived. This is the reason why the setting for my books is in lands that are akin to Europe, not Africa, where I grew up. In writing such stories, I feel like I am engaging in a journey into my own distant past.
Joyce and I moved to the Whites’ home in Chicago, and there we went to university. They werelike second parents to us, and treated us like their own children. Their daughters too, became like siblings to us. After four years in college, I went to art school and learned to paint, while at the same time, I took on various jobs working in restaurants and art galleries. Though Joyce and I lived together with the Whites, we did not interact much, and we lived very separate lives. Chicago is an interesting and fascinating city. I became exposed to new cultures and to the urban way of life. However, at the same time, I appreciated how the city made an effort to preserve nature within its own boundaries. There are extensive preserves of long-grass prairie within the city. In this painting, done in 1997, I have taken some artistic license in showing various native flora species together, depicting what grows in these preserves. The painting also shows the Chicago skyline in the background, and the mist rolling in from Lake Michigan. At this time I was only an artist, and it did not occur to me to become a writer. It was my cousin Greta who made me see that I was, in essence, telling stories in my paintings.
Greta and I became the best of friends. In 1999, while Joyce received ordination in a Taiwanese sect as a Buddhist nun, Greta and I moved to Atlanta. She had a new position in a large law firm there, but she didn’t want to go without a family member to accompany her, so I went as well. Greta is a very special person. She’s a diminutive woman, who suffered from severe burns in an accident during her teenage years, but she never let her misfortune stop her from attaining her goals. She was an inspiration to me, because she turned negativity in her life to positive energy. She has an outgoing, bubbly personality, and saw in my artwork, the seeds of a promising career in writing. This is a photograph of me painting and, standing behind me is Greta, pointing at my artwork as if showing it off. With her is her fiancé, Franklin, whom she met at the firm. Franklin, also a dear friend of mine, has a history of life with a cult, and it was he who explained to me how cults work. My descriptions of the Drammites are in large part, thanks to him.
Due to the injuries Greta has sustained years before, it was necessary for her to have a checkup once in a while. In the summer of 2003, she went for her checkup, but her regular doctor was not there. In her place was his locum, a young woman, originally from South Africa, by the name of Phyllis. Greta and Phyllis became instant friends. Phyllis, as it turns out, was raised in apartheid South Africa, and personally suffered discrimination, because she was of mixed race heritage, her father being Italian, and her mother, from the Cape Coloured community. Nonetheless, she refused to let her background define who she was, and she became a doctor, eventually moving to the United States to specialize. It was only a matter of time before Greta introduced her new friend to me and, to cut a long story short, three months later, we were engaged. Here is a portrait I did in the same style as the portrait of my parents.
Soon after our engagement, Phyllis took me to South Africa to visit her family. Greta came with, and my parents met us as there as well. Phyllis’s family were very hospitable toward us, and were excited to have even more color joining their already colorful family. It was a unique bonding experience for all of us, as two families came together. We returned to America as a married couple.
I was now married, close to my parents, and enjoyed a good relationship with the in-laws and my cousins, the Whites. I also was writing my first book. Only one thing remained to be fixed in my life, and that was my relationship with Joyce.
One day, Phyllis took me down to Cape Point, on the very southern tip of Africa, where the two oceans come together. It was there, overlooking the sea, that I literally experienced an epiphany. I discovered in that moment, that my destiny was to write books in the fantasy genre, which involved a great deal of character development, with people overcoming the obstacles they face in life, in order to reach their full potential.
When I told Phyllis this, she said, “God is speaking to you today.” Before we went back to America, we got married, much to the delight of Phyllis’s parents and mine.
It was actually Phyllis who took the initiative. At the time, Joyce was staying temporarily in a convent in Illinois, and Phyllis went to see her. They spent a lot of time together and really bonded, and Phyllis insisted that I reconcile with my sister. We took a road trip together in 2008, and during that time, Joyce and I shared our feelings and our reflections. It was at this time that we chose to create the memorial painting of Zetta. We became, once again, brother and sister, and here in this picture, you see the three of us together in a winter field in rural Illinois, enjoying the company of one another, laughing, sharing stories, and learning to appreciate one another.
Thus have the past, present, and future become reconciled in my life, a process whose story I depict in my books.