Today on Author Chats, I’m delighted to welcome Keith Stuart. It warms my heart to talk with “mature” authors (like me!) who realize their dreams of publishing a novel after other careers. Do enjoy Keith’s chat about his road to being an author. Firstly, a little about his debut historical fiction novel, Pied Piper:
In September 1939 the British Government launched Operation Pied Piper. To protect them from the perils of German bombing raids, in three days millions of city children were evacuated – separated from their parents.
This story tells of two families: one whose children leave London and the other which takes them in. We share the ups and downs of their lives, their dramas and tragedies, their stoicism and their optimism. But. unlike many other stories and images about this time, this one unfolds mainly through the eyes of Tom, the father whose children set off, to who knew where, with just a small case and gas mask to see them on their way
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Keith, great to have you here. Tell us more about your author world. Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
Writing can be thrilling, uplifting, frustrating, annoying, cathartic, unnerving. It can be time-filling, time-demanding and time-consuming. I have been lucky to have written Pied Piper for no other reason than I wanted to. There were no schedules or deadlines to meet: I had no expectations of it being published – I was writing it because I always said I ‘had a book in me’. Who doesn’t! Both say it, and have one!
I hide away in the spare room and bash away on the laptop, usually (though surprisingly given how much I listen to music at other times) in silence. Often, I’ll ‘fly without a parachute’ for a while before stopping and re-reading, editing and filtering. Where did I get such ‘technical terms’? From the Creative Writing class I’ve been attending for a couple of years at the Letchworth Settlement.
If you could go anywhere for a year to be inspired for your next book, what setting would you choose and what would you write?
I feel comfortable enough at my simple writing station, despite there being no fancy office chair or multi-screen PC unit, just a laptop, one of the kitchen chairs, a desk lamp, the spare bed to my right (not used yet to alleviate fatigue or lie on to seek inspiration), and a sky-filled window to my left. If it could be elsewhere – perhaps the kitchen table in the house we used to own in County Cork or on the patio of a cottage on a Greek island would be good. Either way, somewhere by the sea. I’m not sure it would find itself in any narrative but I do find being near the sea both relaxing and inspiring. Perhaps it would be good for writing.
I think I could probably write anywhere, as long as access to the internet is reliable. I need to check things out, details, names, dates, as I go and the thought of having to make lists of things to check later, rather than getting the answers immediately, doesn’t appeal.
What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
When I wrote Pied Piper, my debut novel, I wrote when I wanted to: no schedules, no discipline you might say. I was writing simply because I wanted to, with no expectations other than my own (and they were only to complete a novel of some sort). Often the keyboard had control: the words just flowed, the story blossomed like a flower and it had a life of its own. Sometimes it took me down routes and created problems I had to work at far more consciously to sort out. I don’t think I ever had to take anything out but I did add a character late on, whom I then had to retrospectively reference at several points through the story.
What does literary success look like to you?
But finally, it was done. To my amazement it was published and the feeling of holding the book I had written is difficult to describe. I have always asked my colleagues in the Creative Writing class to be honest with any of their critiques of anything I’ve written. I don’t want my ego massaged; I want to be better. So, I look forward to reading reviews from people I don’t know, people who feel no obligation to be complimentary. Why? Because I am pleased with how Pied Piper evolved, and I want people to get it: get that it isn’t a book about the evacuation but a story about how a young man copes with his children being taken away and offered a life elsewhere with people he doesn’t know.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favourite? Why?
The story is poignant – dare I confess to having dewy eyes at times, even as I wrote? I know that I find sad things most affecting when they are juxtaposed with moments of laughter. My favourite comedy television series of all time was Ronnie Barker’s Porridge and more recently Gavin and Stacey captured that same blend of tears and laughter. It works. It’s life. So, I wanted scenes in the book which were light and filled with laughter so I loved writing an early scene which has the family at the tea table the night before the children go away and the silliest thing causes fits of giggles. We laugh till we cry, we cry till we laugh, we shout our anger till we cry and we laugh again when it subsides. It’s the very edges of the emotions and I wanted to go there. In the same way, I enjoyed trying to capture the warmth, safe, innocent fun of the families at Christmas, just two days before the parents had to return to London, leaving their children behind.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Though much of the narrative is from the point of view of the children’s father, the female characters in the story are very important. There are two girls who hardly feature, but also two women who are portrayed as very strong characters. Because of the historical setting these women’s roles are different to how we would see them in the 21st Century: they cook, they clean, they manage the domestic chores. But they are both vital supports to their husbands, good decision-makers, proactive, resolute and immensely hard working. It was easy to draw on my wife and daughters-in-law for strong, successful women but my own mother, also provided a model of independence and strength. I was anxious to ensure that, though the story was very much from the male viewpoint, the women were important and even primary in resolving problems. I hope they are convincing – I didn’t find them hard to draw but I did so deliberately and carefully.
Were there days you had to “kick-start” yourself to write? How did you overcome the dreaded “blank screen?” Give a shout out to a writing buddy or fellow author; how did they help you with this book?
I spoke of finding myself taken down routes which needed resolving and one of those was a real cul de sac: it blocked the process for some time. During a relaxation of COVID lockdown in October 2020, I organised a writing retreat for members of the several Creative Writing classes at The Settlement (to which I referred and all tutored by Elizabeth Barber). It was a weekend away at a conference centre/hotel to write and critique each other’s work.
It coincided with my being stuck in my stuck! During some minutes before the group convened one morning, I was chatting with a former member of the class who had joined us for the weekend and he kindly asked where I was with the book that he knew I was trying to write. I explained my problem and, as we chatted and he quizzed me, the resolution began to appear. The block was freed and within a few weeks the book was completed. I have expressed my appreciation to him but the encouragement I have had from my colleagues in my writing class is hard to quantify.
Keith Stuart (Wadsworth) taught English for 36 years in Hertfordshire schools, the county in which he was born and has lived most of his life. Married with two sons, sport, music and, especially when he retired after sixteen years as a headteacher, travel, have been his passions. Apart from his own reading, reading and guiding students in their writing; composing assemblies; writing reports, discussion and analysis papers, left him with a declared intention to write a book. Pied Piper is ‘it’. Starting life as a warm-up exercise at the Creative Writing Class he joined in Letchworth, it grew into this debut novel.
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