Author Confessions: Martin Stewart
We're excited to have debut YA author, Martin Stewart, take a seat in our confessional to tell us his guiltiest pleasure and favourite characters. Read on!
What's your guiltiest reading pleasure?
Re-reading, but it's only guilty in the sense that I have so many great books on my to-be-read pile. I think re-reading is a brilliant thing for a writer to do―I think those early revisits to Enid Blyton and Terry Pratchett are what planted the seed of being a writer, taking time to look around on the second and third journeys through the book, watching how it was all done and taking in the craft.
Which book has left the greatest impression on you?
Almost everything I read as a child left a big footprint in my mind, but I'm going to say Philip Pullman's The Northern Lights. I read this it a little reluctantly, because I was an adult, after all (just turned twenty-one), and this was a children's book. But when I read it I was blown away. It is a book about children, not for them, and so it's for everyone. The beauty of the language and the depth of the ideas... I realised that this was the kind of book that I wanted to write, so in that sense it really did change my life.
I think re-reading is a brilliant thing for a writer to do.
Which of your characters is your favourite?
Tillinghast! He was great fun to write, and he has a great emotional arc. I loved having his cheeky nihilism in my head, and it was wonderful to grate him against the other characters. He also represents a long-held ambition of mine, which was to create my own version of the ultimate fictional character, Frankenstein's monster.
Is writing a pain or a pleasure?
It feels like a cop out answer, but it's completely both. Even when I was writing solely as a passion in my spare time, I felt so compelled to do it that it wasn't even then entirely just for pleasure, it was the necessary fuelling of the grinding word machine in my head. Now it can feel like hard work―but even that is bound up with the pleasure of catharsis and finishing! So it's always both, like being alternately tickled and punched.
What's your most extreme research story?
This isn't really a story about extreme research undertaken by me―it's an extreme story that I researched. It concerns the Glasgow Humane Society, and a man named George Parsonage. As an officer of the Humane Society, George has spent his whole life rowing the River Clyde, tending to its ways and banks, rescuing those in trouble and recovering the bodies of the poor souls beyond rescue. I read about George years ago in a Sunday supplement, and was astonished by his story―he first recovered a corpse when he was assisting his father, aged only fourteen years old. His extraordinary life, and the nature of a lifelong, noble service, planted a seed in my mind that later became a short story, which in turn became the opening chapter of Riverkeep.
Is there a book by someone else that you wish you'd written?
Of course! Every time I read something brilliant a part of me wishes I'd written it―I used to be a terrible mimic of other writer's voices, and I still struggle to read fiction when I'm writing. But the one book I'd like to have written is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I don't know how many times I've read it, and I think it's almost perfect: short, incredibly dense, filled with ideas that have become so much part of our shared consciousness that the titular characters have become idiomatic. They're a modern myth, and in them Stevenson created something that speaks so powerfully of the human condition it will live forever. The only thing I'd change is the setting―it's clearly a novel about Edinburgh, and it should have been set there!
What's your favourite film? What's really your favourite film?
Jaws. And Jaws! Anyone who knows me will be rolling their eyes, but Jaws is a perfect film, and it was a huge influence on Riverkeep. I also love the book the film was based on and have lost so many copies pushing it on people, insisting they read it. I spoke about the novel as part of my interview for teacher training, then used the film as a media unit when I was teaching at Kyle Academy in Ayr. It's the dialogue. And the characters. And the music. And the setting. And the structure. It's the best film ever made―slightly ahead of Alien and Groundhog Day.
Jaws is the best film ever made―slightly ahead of Alien and Groundhog Day
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring authors what would it be?
Edit edit edit. No matter how good your idea is, and no matter how good a writer you are, your work will always improve the more you reflect on it. You need to be brave: be willing to lose hours of work, days―even whole manuscripts―in pursuit of the one that will work. Listen to other people's opinions and let them help you recognise your weak points. And editing bravely will help you discover the things you're really good at―so you can do more of them and develop your own, unique voice.
What is your worst writing habit?
Edit, edit, editing as I go. I always review my work obsessively, calibrating it as I move forward. And although this works in the sense that it keeps me happy and allows me to draw out the depth in the characters and the themes of the novel as they reveal themselves, it's also a bit of an impediment to getting the first chunky, editable draft on the page.
What's a successful day of writing for you?
It depends on what stage I'm at! If I'm still planning (and I gestate the idea for a long time, making notes in my phone and scribbling in notebooks) it's having successfully thought through where I'm going, having made a few points of connection in the narrative, or having uncovered one golden nugget while researching. And that's still writing, I think. But when I'm actually getting words down in the manuscript, I try to have a quick check/edit of what I've done the day before in the morning, then get at least 1,500 new words in the afternoon.
When is the last time you cried?
Oh, god, constantly. Gogglebox, 24 Hours in A&E, Supervet... in the right circumstances I'd cry over George Clarke's Amazing Spaces, moved to tears by a retired civil servant converting an old taxi into a three-bedroom caravan. But it's a healthy thing, I think, and almost always from being moved by happiness, by demonstrations of love or compassion. The pursuit of that emotion is something I use as a lodestar in my writing, chasing for my characters and readers that sense of joyful release.
And finally, I would like to nominate: Dave Ruddens, author of Knights of the Borrowed Dark!
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