Today I have the pleasure of welcoming R. D. Stevens to Chat About Books.
R. D. Stevens grew up in Kent in the 1980s and, after studying for his Philosophy degree, travelled the world for two years. Upon his return to the UK, Stevens worked in the charity sector briefly before training as a teacher and completing his MA in Religious Education. He currently lives in London with his wife, young son and dog, as works as a Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics at a nearby secondary school.
Many thanks to Alexa Davies for arranging the following interview…..
For those who don’t know already, could you tell us about yourself and your book(s) please?
I grew up in an unremarkable village in Kent, England and, after finishing school and studying for a Philosophy degree, I escaped and travelled/worked my way around the world for two years. After returning to the UK, I worked in the charity sector briefly before training as a teacher and completing my MA in Religious Education. I currently live in South East London with my wife, young son and dog, and work as a Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics at a nearby secondary school.
The Journal is a work of contemporary fiction that explores themes of meaning, family and truth. The novel poses the question: What do you do when you lose the only thing that you truly care for? It is a coming of age story about Ethan Willis, a young man on the cusp of adulthood, who is compelled to discover what happened to his sister, Charlotte, a wild adventurer who was last heard from in the depths of Southeast Asia. Ethan sets out to follow in her footsteps and embarks on a journey without a clear goal in sight, unaware that his life is about to change rapidly and irrevocably. The closer he gets to discovering the truth about his sister, the more he begins to understand himself, as well as his place in the world.
Where did/do you get your ideas from?
I try to take ideas from anywhere I can. It might be conversations that I overhear on the train, dreams I record from my previous night’s sleep or simply experiences that I reflect upon from my day to day life. At work, I teach philosophy and I try to take ideas from the themes, philosophers and discussions that I am lucky enough to be exposed to everyday. I also love to travel whenever possible and whilst abroad I keep journals and try to use those first-hand experiences of beautiful, complex or stark settings as part of the research for my next book.
In beginning The Journal, I wanted to use my notes from my time backpacking so that I could authentically represent the time and place in which Ethan Willis finds himself. On my travels, I spent over six months in South East Asia and visited Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia and The Philippines. I instinctively felt that South East Asia would be the perfect setting for the story I had in mind. There is such a rich depth of variety, colours, tastes, sounds and experiences in South East Asia that I felt it would be the ideal place to throw my protagonist in at the deep end.
Are any of your characters based (however loosely) on anyone you know?
Whenever anyone writes they must draw from somewhere, so all of the characters in my novel are influenced by people that I have met or observed on some level. However, they are amalgamations, collections, developments or abstractions of these various encounters, there isn’t a particular individual on whom anyone in the book is based. Whilst backpacking, I met many different people who have influenced the characters in The Journal. In South East Asia, there were people traveling for different reasons and undergoing very different experiences and I wanted to try to represent them in the characters that Ethan meets along the way.
How do you pick your characters names?
Concerning the two lead characters, I found this process to be quite difficult. Ethan’s sister went through a number of different names before I finally settled on Charlotte. I think once you have set out the basic back story of your character and know that certain names would not be appropriate, it seems to come down to a certain feeling about what name best captures the character. Many of the names of the various backpackers in the novel are names of people that I had met whilst travelling and stuck in my head, such as Sven and Malin from Sweden.
Can you share your writing process with us, in a nutshell?
I try to record any ideas that I have for a short story or novel in a notebook or on my phone whenever I’m out and about. I then try to set aside time in the evenings in which I can shift my frame of mind from whatever has been happening that day into something different. When I sit down at the laptop and stare at the pixelated page, I enjoy the feeling of escape and the freedom of retreating into the world of my imagination for a few hours.
I try not to force my writing too much in any particular direction and to run with an idea if it starts leading me somewhere. Even if I look at that piece of writing another day and decide to scrap it, it is better than having nothing.
Once I feel I have reached a point where I can begin the editing process, my most important question is: Is there any chance that a sentence/paragraph would still work without a particular word/sentence? If there is, then I remove it. I also try to remind myself as often as possible that just because I’ve written something that I might think is clever, does not mean that it is…!
Who are your top 5 favourite authors?
This is a very difficult question to answer! But given that I’ve got to pick five, here goes: Chuck Palahniuk, Zadie Smith, J. D. Salinger, Ali Smith and Cormac McCarthy.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes, I think that was when my love of a good story first developed. My parents would buy me books as prizes if I ever did well at school and I think that the feeling of reward when getting a new book has stuck with me. I still love the feel of a brand new book in my hands.
When did you start to write?
I have been writing on and off for about ten years now. I write mainly in the time that I try to find during my evenings and weekends. What began as writing songs for a number of decidedly mediocre bands, turned into something more substantial when I signed up for a series of creative writing classes. During the classes, I really enjoyed setting aside the time to write and free up my mind to think about something completely different.
If you could re-write the ending to any book what would it be and what would you change?
I recently read a novel called The Tall Tale of Maxwell Anderson by Steve Joyce, which is worth a look if you haven’t come across it before. I don’t want to give away the ending, but a main character dies at the end of the book in a particular way and, whilst I think I would also have killed off that character, I would have done it quite differently…
Is there a book you wish you had written?
So many! Most books that I enjoy reading I wish I had written, to be honest. I am always amazed at the way that a great book can affect a person. To be able to write a book that had that affect, even on one person, would be wonderful.
If you wrote an autobiography, what would your title be?
What on earth was that all about?
If you could invite any fictional character for coffee who would it be and where would you take them?
I would love to have taken Holden Caulfield for coffee. I’d take him into an over-expensive, pretentious London café and we would people-watch and talk about how they are all phonies…
Tell us a random fact about yourself.
I was the secretary of the University of Sheffield Skydiving Society.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently in the process of writing my second novel. This story is very different from the first and is set in a world that is similar to ours but with one or two crucial differences. The inspiration for this came from Sidney Shoemaker’s thought experiment concerning the possibility of a world in which there is time without change. The style is very different to The Journal, but there are some familiar themes present concerning existentialism and the quest for meaning.
What do you generally do to celebrate on publication day?
Well, so far I have only had one publication day and on that actual day I had a lowkey celebration at home. A week later I held a book launch in a gallery space above a local pub which was much more of a celebratory affair.
How can readers keep in touch with you?
I am on Twitter and can be followed with the handle @RDStevensAuthor. I also have a website https://rdstevensauthor.wixsite.com/thejournal
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
The Journal is designed to make you think and take you somewhere new, so if you would like to take some time out from everyday life (and secretly wish that you too could escape to a beach in Thailand), then my novel might be for you…!
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! 🙂
What do you do when you lose the only thing that you truly care for?
Ethan Willis is a confused 18 year old who struggles with the uncertainties of life and has just embarked on a quest to find his elder sister, Charlotte, who disappeared whilst travelling in South East Asia. Ethan admires and idolises his sister for her spontaneity, individualism and worldly understanding. His quest to locate her throws him into the backpacking world and, following what could be his sister’s ghost, he is taken on a journey through the countryside of Cambodia, into the remotest parts of Laos and finally to the party islands of Thailand.
When Ethan finds his sister’s journal by chance, he traces her footsteps. The travel journal, along with flashbacks to their childhood, reveals Charlotte’s nature and her relationship with Ethan, taking the young man on an existential journey as he is led to address many of his questions about meaning, truth and beauty.
With the help of a Elodie, a fragile and complex girl with whom he has developed a meaningful relationship, and his own growing sense of self-esteem, Ethan begins to question his relationship with his sister and why she disappeared. When he finally learns of a place in which he might be able to locate his sister, will he be ready to find her?