Article published on April 27, 2015.
Following on from our first such e-conversation here’s what transpired when Stewart, author of We Used to Be Kings, and Jade ‘met’. However, unlike the leisurely few days that Jamie Mollart and Rebecca Kershaw took to distill their thoughts, Jade tells me what follows took place in a whirlwind two and a half hours. The keyboards must have been scorching!
Interestingly, this event came together because Stewart tweeted his appreciation of Jade’s review so it seemed a natural to bring them together.
JC: Okay so I understand you worked in finance before turning your hand to writing, it’s a bit of a leap isn’t it, what made you take the plunge?
SF: Ha. I was bored and it was a bit stressed. But mostly I knew I had to write. I always knew I could write, but sometimes it would be too obtuse to make sense. Stuff in my head was jumbled. I just had to unjumble it so people could read a story and understand it.
Mind you, I think writing – the self-imposed stress – is harder.
JC: What was the reaction from friends/family when you told them you were going to be a writer?
SF: To be honest I kept it to myself but those I told know that I would make a go of it.
I’m very competitive. That helps!
JC: When you ask writers they usually say they’ve been writing since childhood, and although you say you always knew you could write, has writing always been a part of your life or something you just picked up on later?
SF: I wrote stacks when I was little, up til the age of 15, but then school and studying lit takes over… I didn’t enjoy that, but then, as now, there is very little scope to be creative at school once you’re into GCSEs etc. That’s a shame. I used to write stories and poems about my mates… they used to love it…then I got caught a few times, when they were laughing and reading in class. Once my audience was gone I started to write lyrics, for myself, got a bit introspective…then when I was 45 I saw a Waterstones story competition… I entered it, didn’t win, but it started me writing again.
JC: Did you have the story before you decided to make a go of it or did that come later?
SF: No, I didn’t have a story. I started with an OU course and the idea sprung from that. It came out of the air really. I was sat in a lecture, a little bored, and I was doodling, as you do. I wrote the line ‘the sun was so hot it turned our hair blonde’… and then these two kids started to talk on the page. And I thought they were funny, and I could spend more time with these two. So I did!
JC: Ah, so were there other storylines you were playing around with before, and if so was it a sort of eureka moment when you hit on the idea for We Used to Be Kings?
SF: Yeah, I was writing something totally different. Then as part of the uni course I had to write a short story… so I took these two kids and I wrote a story that was 2500 words long. It was my workshop editor’s favourite story… I actually left my MA group to work with him… they just didn’t get it.
JC: It sounds a bit as if even at uni there were limitations or perhaps expectations on how you were allowed to be creative or what others perceived as the right way of being creative with your novel?
SF: Yeah, uni could be frustrating…the students loved what I wrote, but it didn’t always grab the tutors, but then… my punctuation was awful!…but it’s a shame…a perfectly punctuated story about a holiday in Spain would get a better mark than a really creative piece littered with mistakes…but I knew which one I would read.
JC: Did any of their scepticism ever rub off on you though? Did you began to doubt your own instincts and worry about being too original stylistically? Or did you just think this is what I want to write and what I, as a reader, would enjoy so this is what I’m going to do?
SF: Sometimes, it was frustrating, but I think fellow students were more reflective of target audience, than the tutors…so if they liked it, I went for it. A lot of them were writing good stuff too, stuff I wouldn’t normally read, family and friends drama, sci-fi, it was quite eclectic. University was good for that. I think some of us were a little wary that what we were writing had been done before, and of course most things have, but you can’t just stop. Imagine if someone said to Matt Haig….don’t bother to write a book about an alien mate, it’s all been done……We’d never have got The Humans.
Ok, so there’s limits to arc and story, but god there’s so many different ways to tell it. Don’t get me wrong, a couple were on board, especially a guy called Richard Francis (the old spring)…but yes, on the BA I just thought, go for it, believe in what you’re doing, but I did listen to one guy…Jonathan Bentley Smith, he helped me stacks on Kings. He’s a young lad…24…he’s not scared to write red ink all over my work…he totally gets what I want to do. The only time I doubted my own instincts was when I couldn’t find another book like it, so I thought maybe it was a mistake…but Jon kept me going whenever that happened. A trusted workshop guy is the most important thing. Friends that just say you’re great are doing you no favours… being told things aren’t right is the only way to get better.
JC: And how did it feel to have your work back with red ink all over, did you trust in his comments immediately?
SF: Getting my work back from Jon………it’s the best part of my writing process. I love the red ink. He’s brilliant. Did I trust him straight away?…Well he was 19 when he first did it… and was maybe a little more cautious than he is now…at first I took on board maybe 30 percent of comments…now it’s about 80. I still make the final call. He’ll help me out on plot, I’ll tell him what I’m thinking and we’ll discuss it for a while until it’s right, and he’ll jump on me if a character’s voice slips.
The only thing now is that at first Jon would tell me the bits he loved, FOF, (foster on form)…now he doesn’t tell me it’s good, I just get the red ink without praise…but he wouldn’t work with me if he didn’t like it.
JC: Did you have similar struggles with agents and publishers or did they see the book’s potential straight away?
SF: My experience with agents was better…I did make the mistake of sending the book in too early… it wasn’t ready. So I rewrote it for another three months…then it was ready.
I should say, Nicola Barr at Green and Heaton, totally gets what I do…she keeps me on the rails too. Sometimes it goes to whacky for my own good. Being alternative is great, but people still have to be able to follow the story.
JC: Are you overwhelmed by the book’s success?
SF: So far it’s got more media attention than anything…the sales? I don’t look to be honest. But no, it’s not overwhelming, I just want to write something better.
JC: Better how?
SF: Better?…maybe it’s not the right word. Maybe different but with the same feeling of soul. I’d hate to think that was the best I could do. It’s not…I love what I’ve just finished writing…and another that I wrote last year…that was very different, so different it has to wait a while before it can be published.
JC: With Kings, did you set out to write a novel about mental health from the get-go?
SF: I was asked if I researched the novel… of course I did to an extent, but a year after finishing it, I was diagnosed with Cyclothymia… it’s mild bi polar…kind of up and down all day…I had no idea, but it was that that seems to come out in the novel. It’s why it’s so quick… I have an awful boredom threshold. It’s not like, massively serious, but like a lot of creative people, if you took away those emotional extremes it takes soul away from your writing. So no I didn’t start out with the mental health aim…I didn’t even finish with that aim. It just came out and what came out was what was inside of me at the time.
JC: Okay so turning a bit technical, were there any difficulties in writing in the first person plural ‘we’ or was it quite natural? And was the writing as spontaneous as it looks or did it actually take a lot of planning?
SF: The plural was easy…but it wasn’t planned…it just came out. All I had to do then was establish some rules and keep to them…for example…Jack is always the one to speak first…it was hard to keep track on the rewrite…but no, the words did come out that fast…the dialogue bits anyway…there were lots more…they got cut in the edit. What was really hard was writing in single person narrative on the next book. It seemed so boring! But I soon got used to it. My main problem with Kings was getting Jack to shut up. That was the hardest bit!
JC: I didn’t want Jack to shut up at all!
SF: He annoys the hell out of some. I love him. That end scene…I wrote it really late at night and I was thinking…I know what I need to happen, I know what I need to happen…and Jack kept talking and wouldn’t take his last breath… I cried when I was doing that scene…but it was exhilarating at the same time though.
JC: Me too, but I guess in a sense there could not have been another ending could there? Would there be a Tom without a Jack?
SF: Tom without Jack is a brother without his soul.
There was a thought of another ending…but it would have been Hollywood and not me.
JC: Do you think you’d use the plural form again, or is it suited only to specific instances/subject matters?
SF: Ouch, there’s a question…God, I would love to think of an instance where I could…maybe close friends.…but then the ‘we’ couldn’t be used in their thoughts…This was kind of unique in that the brothers always knew what the other was thinking.
JC: Bit of a quirky question but your novel got me thinking, for Tom, Jack’s voice is somewhat reassuring and cathartic, and I started to wonder if I could have someone’s voice in my head who would I want it to be, any thoughts on who’d you want?!
SF: Another voice in my head? I’d have Jack every time…I would love Kerouac in there from time to time…two Jacks, ha, that would work. But you’re right, it is cathartic…Jack is anxiety personified, Tom is the antidote.
JC: Although there’s a sense of what the illnesses in the book are, you never label them, was this a conscious decision and do you think the novel and what happens to Tom would have been different had it been set in 2010s where there’s perhaps a greater understanding of such things?
SF: Yeah, it was deliberate not to label them…the close, narrow narrative made that possible… there’s a hint from the doctors…and there’s a line they read from the file that gives a clue…but I stop it really early…even Jon didn’t spot the clue. It’s not deceitful, misleading…I’m just telling you all that Tom and Jack know.
I think maybe if it was set in 2010 some of the naivety couldn’t have been present…internet research and stuff, maybe that would have taken that away…they could have just looked up their dad’s behaviours for example… it would have been a different book.
JC: By getting inside Tom’s head you offer a very different perspective on mental health, how do you hope readers feel about Tom?
SF: Do you ever do that thing where you say…. if I had a dinner party what celeb would you invite? Well, Tom wouldn’t be there of course, so let’s have him at a barbecue in your back garden…and I reckon he’d look quite cool because he’s a good-looking kid. The girls would love him, he’d be quiet, thoughtful… that’s Tom on his own. Then all of a sudden he takes a drink and Jack comes into his head and says something funny and if they were separate, people would think Tom serious and Jack funny, and when they are together…it makes him weird. I think that’s a shame…can’t we be both at times? One day when I was writing Kings, I was in Bath and I saw a young kid walking towards me muttering to himself… I thought maybe he was on his phone or listening to music… he wasn’t. God I felt sorry for him, but maybe a few years ago I would have smiled, thought it odd, maybe funny. I’d love it if readers now looked at people like Tom, and gave them more time, more consideration. It would be nice if the book did that.
JC: I love the bit when Tom meets the lady on the bench and you see the interaction entirely from his perspective, the way she keeps inching away and then is scared by him but he doesn’t cotton on and you think God, is that what I would do, and it just makes you see it in a completely different way. I found myself forgetting Tom had an illness, did you?
SF: I think there were times I did forget, but it’s because I’m not sure he sees it as an illness…he’s just got his brother in his head and he loves him and doesn’t want him to go, but then he doesn’t want him to go… I think he just wants to maybe ‘park’ him for a while, but he can’t.
JC: Aside from the ending, I loved the small details like the game of We Spy and the magnets on the cutlery, do you have a particular scene or moment that you love?
SF: My favourite line is when Jack says about Frost, ‘I didn’t know he was sleeping upside down.’ I’m sorry but I laughed out loud when I wrote that…I loved the ‘we spy’ too…aaargh! Hard to point to a scene…I enjoyed him sat on the toilet, with the newspaper… but if you pushed me, I think maybe the beach scene when the sun goes down in his dad’s visor.
JC: In terms of plot, you tell the reader pretty much straight away that Jack’s dead, did you ever consider holding off on that too?
SF: My French publisher said ‘when I read it I thought, hang on, how come I know he’s dead on the first page, how can this work?’ No, I never thought of holding it back. I didn’t want it to be the Sixth Sense!
JC: Very nicely linked to another question I had in mind about the whole being published abroad. I know you’ve recently been published in France, are there plans for worldwide domination, if so what other countries are on the agenda?
SF: Apart from France, it’s quiet at the moment, but who knows, things may change.
JC: The book’s also been publicised more for an adult audience, although its protagonists are younger, how would you class it in terms of genre/audience and do you think these can be somewhat restrictive? I could see the novel working pretty well for an older teen audience.
SF: I agree, I think it should be. I wrote it without genre in mind. The next one is YA, I think maybe when that comes out they may rethink Kings’ market. Mind you, if I had written it with YA in mind it would have been a different story…I would have been more aware of the audience and modified it.
JC: Did you consciously choose to go the YA route with this next book then? And you mentioned that if We Used to be Kings had been YA you would have been more conscious of what you were doing, so how has writing this one been different/better/worse?
SF: No, I just wrote it again…but when I got about 20,000 words in I suddenly thought, this is YA. I actually stopped at that point… I’ve never read YA, or very little…I spoke to my agent…she just said keep writing, so I did. I’m hoping to write YA and adult….that would keep me busy.
JC: Did you feel any pressure with the second novel?
SF: No, none at all. This is actually the second I’ve written since Kings…the other one…is more serious and well, I need to talk to a publisher on that one. It’s my favourite book but it’s adult and very different, not so funny, pretty black. It’s set in America…everyone thinks it’s better than Kings, but I need to find the market.
JC: What’s been the best thing about being an author?
SF: Being a writer. Being a writer is great when you’re writing, great when you’re talking about writing, but when you stop doing either I feel as guilty as hell. One book doesn’t make it…and I’m happiest when I’m writing…so that’s what I do. I used to say to Jon that all I wanted was to get my thoughts to the page without a filter. Without trying too hard or being clever.
JC: So finally, being an author is a very strange career in many ways, not least the fact that your work is judged, scrutinised and criticised so publicly, how easy has it been to get used to this? Any thoughts of going back to finance? 🙂
SF: Zero thoughts on going back to finance… I might try some teaching. The criticism and the process is horrible… one bad review hurts more than ten good ones…but I love the stuff from readers telling me how they loved it, like your review. Ha. We’re all rabbits sat in dark rooms, it’s a bit unfair if you get shot as soon as you venture out.
Huge thanks to Stewart Foster for giving me his time and for being such a great interviewee.
We Used to Be Kings by Stewart Foster, published by Vintage on 8th January, 2015 at £8.99
Photo taken by Tallulah Foster
Guy Pringle, April 2015