Tuesday 23 October 2018

A Chat with Martin Stewart by Steve Gladwin

I'm very happy this month to be able to talk to Martin Stewart about his two very different books, Riverkeep and The Sacrifice Box. I like to see it as a wide-ranging chat, rather than just an interview, in which we discuss things like the mundane nature of horror, our influences and a great deal more besides. I hope you enjoy the chat with Martin as much as I did. 

Never Come To the Box Alone

Steve. First Martin, thanks for agreeing to chat and tell myself and readers of this blog something about you and your books.

Martin. Steve, it's a pleasure. 
Steve. So, Marty, this all started when I picked up your book in the YA section of my local library. It was the cover and title that got me first, then after that the Stephen King quote and the premise. I hadn’t been doing much YA reading until recently, so you sort of started something.

Martin I’m glad that the cover hooked you in. That’s the big hope. It’s always good discovering things for yourself.

My main influences. It always comes back to Pullman. I read Northern Lights when I was twenty one, which made a huge impression, and I notice that you picked up on that.

Steve. Interestingly enough, although I saw that on your website, when I read Riverkeep it was La Belle Sauvage which I thought of more – I suppose it was the whole river quest and the age of the characters and the idea that the river can lead anywhere – into danger or salvation, but always in the direction of some new goal or adventure. It’s immediately a very adult book.

Martin. La Belle Sauvage was released a couple of years after Riverkeep, so its interesting how elements of my story, so influenced by the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, are echoed in La Belle Sauvage. But like those books,
Riverkeep was never a book just for children. If it has an ideal target audience I would say that it would be me at the age of eleven. A strong eleven year old reader, but that wouldn’t exclude adults.

Steve. You also mentioned to me that Terry Pratchett was a great influence and the Discworld books in particular.

Martin. I read a great many when I was younger and still love them. If I had expected to write any kind of book, it would have been something like Discworld. That would have been a natural kind of fit for me. Those books have a kind of agelessness.

Steve. And of course appeal equally to both adults and children.

Martin. Certainly. I suppose apart from Pullman and Pratchett, my other influences are more Gothic than actual horror; things like Dracula, Frankenstein and especially Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is one of my favourites. Edgar Allen Poe too – that sort of creepy, dark other.

Steve. I was hugely influenced by Poe in my twenties. I wrote two plays based on his tales, but I guess it’s a phase you want to come out of eventually. You also have that quote from Stephen King’s ‘The Body’ at the beginning of The Sacrifice Box. We’ll come back to that, but he’s another influence, clearly.

Martin. I read quite a lot of his early stuff and Salem’s Lot in particular where there were a lot of pictures and insights into everyone’s life.

Steve. I remember that well. I liked that about it. I think that’s one of Stephen King’s strengths, especially in those early books. We gradually get to know so much about so many people. I remember thinking that in those books every character has a part to play.

Martin. And I consciously tried to tap into that energy in The Sacrifice Box in the chapter which concerns the old lady called Christine the Psychic. That chance to actually peer through someone’s window and see their domestic situation felt very Salem’s Lot. Little snapshots of – often vividly drawn - characters

Steve. Which brings us to your next influence, The League of Gentlemen. Now I actually went to Bretton Hall College several years ahead of them and I’ve already spoken about my own Poe phase. Perhaps there was something in the water.

Martin. It was a huge influence. Recently some pals and I made a sort of pilgrimage to Glasgow to see them live, because they’d been such a part of our growing up. I think it’s the fact that the Horror and the Comedy are so cheek by jowl. Grotesque and Funny.

Steve. Fierce as well. And terrifying. How do people do that, do you think? Evoke terror? I suppose it can be done very effectively through placing it within that whole small town feel, going back to Stephen King, or at least the enclosed community, where it works just as well.

Martin. Fact, Jaws is the best film ever made. The second best one is Alien.

Steve. I remember them both making an impact on me at the pictures when they came out. But they were a different sort of terror. In Jaws it was really obvious and the ‘behind you’ factor was very clear and present, even if Bruce the prosthetic shark was a tad unconvincing. But Alien, well that was something else. A sort of creeping dread that you felt like you were also experiencing, I saw it in a nearly empty cinema.

Martin. That’s right, and in both that agent of chaos comes inside a very small and tight environment, Amity Island in Jaws and the spaceship Nostromo in Alien, which is a de-facto island. It was something I consciously tried to follow in The Sacrifice Box, where the chaos happens in a very contained space.

Never Come After Dark

Steve. And we’re going to come back to The Sacrifice Box, Marty, but as it’s your second book, let’s go all sequential with your first. Meanwhile I think it’s been really useful to spend time on your influences. After all they’re going to thread right through our chat on the rest. But to begin with Riverkeep. It has a bit of a strange genesis and more than a bit of luck for a first time writer.

Martin. Yes, it was originally a short story with no intention of developing it into anything further. The first chapter is almost the short story untouched before Penguin bought it.

Steve. So let’s just clarify this remarkable and life changing piece of good fortune. Before we get to that stage, the actual idea does have a specific origin.

Martin. I’d written it for someone’s blog. It was actually written after reading in a Sunday newspaper about the Glasgow Humane Society. Although I’m Glasgow born and bred, (I live in on the coast now), I’d never heard of it. But part of that two hundred year old institution is that an officer has to go out in a rowing boat and look after the river Clyde, clearing away the weeds and rescuing people who have got into trouble. And the big thing is that he also has to recover the bodies of those who have drowned or fallen in, or are victims of murder, which, it being Glasgow, there have been quite a few of. I went to meet the guy who’s still there. His name’s George Parsonage and he’s in his mid-seventies now. He’s rescued 1,000 people and recovered 1500, since he’s been doing it since he was fourteen.
That was the thing that struck me when I wrote the short story five years ago while I was off work recovering from a fairly serious knee op.

Steve. And of course it’s a job very much like this one - but maybe on a much harsher river environment - that your main character in Riverkeep, Wull, is abut to inherit from his own father.

Of course, Marty, one of the reasons I asked you to do this was that by the time this blog goes out we’re just a week from Halloween. You actually wrote the short story for that, didn’t you?

Martin. Yes, and after the whole coming of age thing, the horror element comes from Wull’s dad coming back from the river and in some way being changed. So that was the creepy, surprise element I was looking for.

Steve. Almost as much of a surprise as the Penguin deal. I can’t imagine the Stewart household that day.

Martin. Right. It was great to get the book deal, but it made for a lot of pressure, as it was never meant to be a trailer for something much bigger.

Steve. So you had to build from the bottom up, the bottom being the short story!

Martin. Yes. And what I wanted to do was to get then out of the house and on to the river as soon as I could.

Steve. I love the intense and enclosed feel of the beginning of the book, but there’s a point, coinciding with when Wull loses what little he has and picks up the first of his unwanted travel companions, when it just takes off and the reader goes with it. 

. Then of course in the background it’s got it’s own Big Bad with some fearsome jaws of its own. The Mormorach. What in Gaelic literally means ‘the big “Big”. It’s that great something that has always existed, a classic scary beast, in a tribute to Jaws. All of it connected by water.

Steve. There’s the courage of young people in general, which you’ve already mentioned, but there’s also a specific element with Wull and his dad, who has been infected by the bodan, the creature which has more or less consumed his self.

Martin. Yes, after what happens to his father, Wull is also a young carer by any other name and I really wanted to explore the strength of character which these young people have. There’s a silent army of kids doing this that no-one knows about.

 And as in all the best road or river, road or disaster movies, every character has their flaw. In the case of my favourite character Tillinghast, his are mostly those of others.

Martin. Yes I deliberately brought in the classic Frankenstein theme with Tillinghast, who is made up of the meat of countless hanged men, so that he literally carries their memories as part of their skin and in their muscle. What must that do to people? My grandmother has Alzheimer’s, so I’m fascinated by that and Dementia and the cruel unique way you lose loved ones to it bit by bit.

Steve And something which of course Terry Pratchett did more to help people understand through his brave ‘out there’ approach to his own illness. But before we move to the eighties, is there to be a sequel.

Martin. Well that actually links to with The Sacrifice Box because I offered one to Penguin and gave them some ideas for it, but they said how abut something different.

Steve. And boy is it different. We’ve already referenced the eighties, so that’s a big clue. here’s an even bigger one in the wonderful tag line you have to describe it.

Never Take Back Your Sacrifice!

Martin. Yes, the pitch became ‘imagine if The Breakfast Club had reunited five years later to fight The Gremlins’. It taps into all those coming of age films like The Goonies. The Lost Boys and Stand by Me and often rather casual parenting that often seems to go on.

Steve. That brings us back to Stephen King and the original short story ‘The Body’ from his quartet of stories. ‘Different Seasons’, also containing ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ which also did rather well as a movie. But the quote from that which you use at the beginning is all about the idea that the friendships you make at the age of twelve are the ones you never forget - and that’s the age group you’re at with The Sacrifice Box. For the eleven year old strong reader, with characters a few years older.

Martin. That’s right. What fascinated me as an idea were those little intense pockets of friendship you sometimes get in the holidays when you’re thrown together with kids you don’t really know. Maybe your normal friends are away at camp and there’s just you and the local kids. It’s an intense bubble which exists for a while and then pops.

Steve. Where did the idea of the actual Sacrifice Box come from?

Martin. Well I was aware that no way were a group of fifteen year old going to make a pledge by putting things in a box, but I’m a YA writer and that’s a middle grade premise. The solution was to use two time zones, with the consequences of what the younger kids had done coming back to haunt the teens.

Steve. Only this time of course, the older generation are also being haunted by the same thing, unknown to the kids.

Martin. Yes, there was that thing you said about the books being inter-generational, which struck a chord. A lot of that comes from my work as a teacher. Kids who you have a great relationship with in class, when you see them in the supermarket – they’re mortified.

Steve. Somewhat different for me in my years of FE teaching, where they often seem genuinely delighted to see you but also a little confused. Almost as if you’re not supposed to have a life outside of college.

Martin. Exactly. Teachers and the older generation in general can’t possibly have had the same kind of experiences. To represent that I wanted to have one typical sour old woman teacher like Mrs Maguire. But even she understands far more than any of the kids would guess. And she’s genuinely fond of Sep, the main character.

Steve. It’s a very dark book. Literally at times.

Martin. Well it’s all about darkness and atmosphere to me. I don’t read and certainly don’t watch huge amounts of horror because all that stuff freaks me out.  I prefer Gothic and the macabre, so that at the same time you can keep love and light in the sky. You can go down as far as you want into the pit, as long as there ends up being light at the end of the tunnel.

Steve. There’s also a lot of love in both books.

Martin. I hope so. More important to me than any fight or death scene. Balance was the watchword for me all the way through the writing of The Sacrifice Box. But yes certainly love. In fact it’s so important to me to redress this kind of thing that I’ve vowed that in each of my books there will be a part where one male character tells another that he loves him. It already happens with Wull and his dad in Riverkeep and Sep and his pseudo dad Mario in The Sacrifice Box.

Steve. That’s obviously important to you and it comes over. But we can’t leave this interview without a mention of the eighties. The music was what helped inspire you.

Martin.Yes when I was writing The Sacrifice Box I did so to a background of eighties music, beginning with Hall and Oates to start the day. It worked for me.

Steve. I know you’ve put the playlist on your website. Can you let us know a few of them, or maybe how to get to it.

Martin. Absolutely! This link www.martinstewartwriter.com/the-sacrifice box-detail will take you to the book’s page on my website; there’s information there about each track and its place in the world of the novel, and a link to the playlist on Spotify.

Steve. Cheers then, Martin. And best of luck with whatever comes next.

Martin. Thanks, Steve. I really enjoyed our chat.

Steve Gladwin
'Tales From The Realm' - Story and Screen Dream
Connecting Myth, Faerie and Magic
Author of 'The Seven' - Shortlisted for Welsh Books Prize, 2014

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