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Monday, November 12, 2012

Author Interview: Stewart Spaull

Today I am pleased to present to you all the thirty-first in a series of Author Interviews. Recently I sat down with the optimistic Bee Gee singing Stewart Spaull and our conversation went something like this:

Paul:  I like to start my interviews by asking if you have any writing rituals?
Stewart:  I really had to think about this one. Does having a pad of American yellow legal notepaper open on the desk, to scribble on, count? Come to think of it, I also prefer to use Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V7 pens, although V5s are acceptable at a push.

Paul:  What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?
Stewart:  Crime fiction is my favorite and I like Henning Mankell, Raymond Chandler, Ian Rankin, Peter James and – a recent discovery – Peter Robinson, who writes the Detective Chief Inspector Banks stories. My favorite author is David Peace -- I would take his Red Riding Quartet to my desert island. Peace takes real events and writes top-flight fiction based on them, and in the Red Riding Quartet, he covers the Yorkshire Ripper, the Stalker Affair and the Stefan Kiszko case. I also enjoy non-fiction immensely and read biographies, historical books and true crime (especially Gordon Burn and Joseph Wambaugh).

Paul:  If someone had the power to step into your creative mind what would they see?
Stewart:  Absolute chaos. Too many ideas floating about, many of which go missing because I can’t write them down or type them fast enough. It’s very difficult to pick things out and focus, but somehow, I just about manage.

Paul:  What is a typical day for you? 
Stewart:  I’ve just started freelancing, so I get up, get ready, then have a coffee and sit at the dining table to do some work. I break to walk the dog in the park, then get back to the laptop. I’m essentially a night owl but I’ve had it knocked out of me during several years in the conventional working world. My creativity is heightened at night, so I’ll gravitate towards the novel I’m working on, perhaps with some wine and jazz. My wife is an academic and an artist, and also works from home. It’s wonderful to be able to take breaks, relax over dinner together and make each other laugh.

Paul:  Do you have a favorite character in each of your series, aside from the lead? If so, which one and why? 
Stewart:  I’ve just written the first book in this series, which I am calling the Northern Quartet, since it centers on the Northern Quarter, an area of Manchester. I’m rather fond of Detective Constable Wetherall. Some of his vocabulary is the sort of stuff you’d find in the Viz “Profanisaurus”, as are certain things I say myself in social settings. Wetherall says these things in more polite settings, which I wish I could get away with myself. Don’t worry, though – we’re not talking Duke of Edinburgh level gaffes here. He’s basically got the mind of a fourteen year old boy!

Paul:  How do you find the time to write?
Stewart:  I couldn’t find much, until recently, when I was mentally and physically exhausted and had to take time off work. I opened my laptop and looked through the first chapters of a detective novel that I had started writing in early March -- at a slow rate. I decided to continue, and found it therapeutic. My GP was pleased I was engaging in something giving me some structure to my day, and my wife was – and is – tremendously encouraging and supportive. I now write all the time, having decided to go freelance.

Paul:  What is one thing you hope I do not tell the readers?
Stewart:  That I’m a fairly well-adjusted guy with a happy life, and I’m an optimist. It doesn’t go with the image of a crime fiction writer really, does it? Best keep it under your hat. Far better that people think I’m a morose character full of intractable demons.

Paul:  If you are self-published, what led to you going your own way?
Stewart:  Probably my intense fear of rejection letters! I wanted to put my work out there and let the reading public decide whether or not to buy it. The alternative was to submit it to publishers and probably get knock-backs because it’s not marketable or what they’re looking for at this time.  Writers don’t have to do that, these days. There’s a beautiful egalitarianism about self-publishing: it doesn’t matter who you are; if you can write something that people find engaging, you can do well out of it. Or at least have a better chance than you might through conventional publishing.

Paul:  Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Stewart:  I have to have a plot, but I don’t follow it slavishly. I tried writing novels for years during my twenties and would sit and write, just thinking and hoping it would go somewhere, but every attempt petered out after twenty-odd thousand words. I need the structure there. Once I had plotted Steps In The Shadows, I followed the structure but improvised around it. I’m planning to do a James Ellroy-style superstructure for the next novel. He referred to this in an interview for The Paris Review ( I get the feeling it will give me some comfort.

Paul:  Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Stewart:  In the early stages of the first draft, I had to fight the urge to edit too much. I found that, in the last few chapters of that draft, I was writing in a more fully formed way. When it came to the second draft, I did extensive rewriting of the first few chapters and had to add about ten chapters in the first half, just so everything would make sense. But later on, the chapters didn’t need as much editing and I inserted only one or two extra scenes.

Paul:  Do you have to do much research for your stories?
Stewart:  Even though it’s a detective novel and therefore it’s important to get things right, I probably don’t need to research as much as I do, but I have an obsessive personality. The internet makes it easy to conduct research. For example, Google Street View enables you to walk in the shoes of your characters. I know Manchester city center very well. I’ve walked along most of its streets, but when I was writing one of the chapters, I needed to check whether the route I was taking would be plausible under the circumstances. I went on Google Street View and tracked it.

Paul:  What is your most recent book? Tell us a little about it
Stewart:  Steps In The Shadows is a book about the murder of a young woman, whose body is found on a building site. The copper working the case is Detective Inspector Molyneux, and it’s his first case at this rank – he’s only been promoted recently. So he’s thrust into this case, having to find a killer while he’s only just finding his feet. He’s a decent guy with good values, dealing with some horrific stuff. He’s not entirely comfortable wearing the cloak of authority, his personal life’s a bit chaotic and he doesn’t enjoy the healthiest of relationships with his boss.

Paul:  What inspired you to write this book?
Stewart:  David Peace once said he “[didn't] really see the point of making up crimes.” ( It’s definitely true crimes that inspired me. In early 2010, the remains of a woman were found when builders were working on the new Co-op headquarters in Manchester. ( There was another case at the start of this year, when the body of a young woman was found on the Sandringham Estate. ( So I had a crime based on these that my detective character could investigate. There was a series of attacks in central Manchester’s Northern Quarter in late 2011 and early 2012 (, which inspired the quartet’s overarching theme. In addition, society inspires me -- especially how the media reports crime, particularly crimes against women. (Yes, there is a journalist character in the series!)

Paul:  Do you also write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Stewart:  I haven’t written any poetry since school. I have written a short story on my blog. I would love to write non-fiction. I plan to write about one of my favorite bands, which will take a massive amount of research but I’ll love it. I also want to write true crime. A few years ago, I started scribbling some notes about a particular case that fascinated me. I wanted to turn the notes into a book as good as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, or Gordon Burn’s “Happy Like Murderers” -- a psycho-sociological study, but in my own voice. I didn’t feel confident that I could pull off such a task, so I shelved it.

Paul:  Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Stewart:  I don’t, although I’ve not ruled out having a go. My wife bought me a subscription to Writers’ Forum magazine and their monthly fiction competition looks good. I’ve enjoyed reading some of the stories in there, and they give the winning writers a pretty thorough critique.

Paul:  How much marketing do you do for your published works or for your ‘brand’?
Stewart:  A few weeks before publication, I started tweeting, blogging about it and I even made a Facebook page. I think there are only so many tweets people can read about a certain book, or album, or product, before they get sick of the sight of it. People reading and recommending it to others is probably the best marketing – I just hope the recent “sockpuppeting” scandal will not hurt indie writers. I’m sure there must be many genuine reviews out there. With e-books, you can read sample chapters anyway, so you can see for yourself and decide whether to buy the entire thing.

Paul:  What’s your favorite / least favorite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Stewart:  I’d say probably the editing, especially when you find a massive hole in the plot – something you didn’t think through properly but is essential to the story, so you have to write a lot more to deal with it. I don’t think anything has surprised me, although I would have hoped for greater uptake of the pre-release marketing I did!

Paul:  What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you have any hobbies or party tricks?
Stewart:  When I’m not writing, I enjoy life with my immensely beautiful and talented wife and our incredibly cute dog. I love cooking and entertaining. I read voraciously and I am addicted to jazz, especially jazz fusion – I listen to jazz constantly and I co-presented a jazz radio show every two weeks for three years on a community radio station in Manchester, ALL FM. ( I also enjoy running. Party tricks? Probably funny voices, accents and impressions – a passable Alan Partridge and, in keeping with my appearance, a bit of Bee Gees style falsetto. But only after a few drinks.

Paul: Thanks Stewart. That was most entertaining. Good luck!

About Stewart Spaull: Stewart Spaull was born in Chesterfield in 1980. Following years of experience in every possible sector after his graduation, it seemed only natural to become a freelance writer and editor. He lives in Manchester with his wife and their dog. Steps In The Shadows is his first book.

Stewart's Blog: Stewart Spaull
Stewart on Twitter: @StewartSpaull
Stewart on Facebook: Stewart Spaull
Stewart's latest book: Steps In The Shadows (Amazon)

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