Friday, 3 April 2015

Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books/ Ben Illis: Stefan Mohamed Q&A (Bitter Sixteen)

Thank you Ben for your input into the development of some of the questions. Thank you also to Stefan for writing the most detailed responses to the questions. Readers will certainly get a feel for the journey that you have undertaken in writing this story. I'm very much looking forward to reading a copy myself. 
Finally, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish Stefan  a HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I hope that you have a great day. 

Tell us a little bit about Bitter Sixteen.
Bitter Sixteen is the story of Stanly, a cynical and somewhat socially dysfunctional teenager living in the rural Welsh town of Tref-y-Celwyn. Apart from having a talking beagle called Daryl for a best friend, his life is pretty unremarkable – until he turns sixteen and begins developing superpowers, specifically flight and telekinesis. Unfortunately there isn’t much scope for using superpowers in tiny Welsh border towns – but there’s a much bigger, weirder and more dangerous world waiting for Stanly in London…

Give us an insight into your main character(s). What does he/she/they do that is so special?
Stanly’s a slightly troubled individual who’s never really had friends, and considers himself as being very apart from his classmates – he has no time for the politics of school and detests bullies, who tend to target him because he’s odd and different. He definitely wouldn’t consider himself a victim, though. He’d probably like to think of himself as being very enigmatic, sardonic and detached, and he is in some ways, but he’s also very passionate and has a lot of anger in him. Something I wanted to play with in the book and its sequels is the idea that an angry, cynical, socially dysfunctional teenager might not necessarily be the best candidate for superpowers – I certainly would have made a terrible superhero at that age! Lots of typical hero’s journey / chosen one-style narratives tend to feature young men who should be very emotionally immature but immediately rise to the challenge and become the best that they can be. Stanly has a bit of trouble with that, although his heart’s in the right place.

In terms of his powers, I wanted to depict their growth and his experience of them as realistically as possible. What would it actually be like, for someone living a fairly mundane day-to-day existence, to suddenly have these extraordinary abilities? How does it change his perception of himself and the world? Are flight and telekinesis actually useful in practical terms? I absolutely do not want to use the words “gritty” or “grounded”, though, because they’ve been over-used to the point of meaninglessness. Plus there’s also crazy, fun superhero action, because I like to both have and eat my cake.

Why do you think we as readers and movie-goers are so drawn to characters with extraordinary powers? Do you feel the world of the “empowered” in fiction and film is a fair reflection on the world we actually inhabit?
I think it’s very common for people to feel powerless, to feel as though they have very little control and choice over their own lives and over the massive, terrible things that happen in the world, so it’s fairly natural that we would find stories featuring superpowered individuals very appealing, seeing characters with a level of control that we could never imagine having in reality. And when you’re going through adolescence, that kind of powerlessness is compounded by a lot of extra, very potent confusion, which is why I think such narratives are especially resonant for younger readers who are just starting to work out who they are, and define themselves in relation to the rest of the world. There’s also an undeniable thrill in seeing ultra-competent people taking care of business and kicking the arse of evildoers.

In terms of reflecting the world, I think it really depends on the story – in Buffy the Vampire
Slayer, for example, superhuman powers and monsters etc are very much metaphors for the problems of growing up, symbols of empowerment and womanhood etc. Whereas in the DC comics universe, many of the superpowered types are much more like Greek gods; huge, iconic figures who ultimately aren’t very relatable. And the portrayal of such powers is different again in Marvel comics. So I think it depends – and I think the wonderful thing about fantastical universes, even relatively realistic ones like mine, is that you can tell pretty much any kind of story you want to tell, and reflect the real world as much or as little as you want.

You graduated with a first class honours degree in creative writing. How did this influence the shaping of the novel, and your writing in general?
I definitely benefited massively from the course I went on, and I would imagine that anybody who read any of my stuff before and after would have noticed a huge difference! Such courses are definitely not for everybody, but I found spending three years around other writers, both professional and fellow amateurs, honing my craft and just having the time and space to concentrate on writing helped me immeasurably.

There’s a nasty strain of snobbery among certain individuals about creative writing courses – even from writers who are perfectly happy to pick up a fee for lecturing but then go on to bad mouth their students and courses in the press, which I think is both rank hypocrisy and the height of bad manners. Can a creative writing course make you a good writer? Not necessarily, and I think there needs to be some sort of spark there in the first place. But learning about the technical aspects of writing, being exposed to writers you might not otherwise have encountered, learning to take – and give out – constructive criticism and process it properly, rather than throwing your toys out of the pram because oh my God people just don’t get what you’re trying to do – how could that not be beneficial?

Since winning the Dylan Thomas prize for unpublished young writers back in 2010, how much has the book changed?
A lot! For one thing, the original draft had Stanly travelling to a fictional city called Breezeblock (I have no idea why I chose that name – that’s one creative decision that’s been lost in the mists of time), rather than to London. This was because I needed him to go to a city, but when I was 16, although I’d been to London many times, I didn’t know the city nearly well enough to convincingly set a story there. Breezeblock was sort of a Gotham-esque hyper city, the archetypal urban superhero environment, although it certainly had a flavour of London ‘cos that was my only experience of cities. Then in subsequent conversations with my agent, editors etc we decided to change the setting to London, which I think improved the book in terms of accessibility, and made it more realistic. Also at this point I’d spent three years at uni in Kingston, so knew my way around the city better.

More generally, having had so much time to do re-writes with feedback from various people – particularly the extensive and invaluable back and forth with my agent Ben – I’ve been able to tighten the book up a lot, make the dialogue punchier, craft better prose, iron out flaws. I’ve also written several other books in the meantime, some very different from Bitter Sixteen, so that experience has helped. When I won the prize I naively thought that everything was going to immediately fall into place and the book would be published within a year, and while it didn’t end up unfolding like that I’m actually really glad, with the benefit of hindsight. Not only have we managed to find a brilliant publisher in Salt, who really support and understand what I’m trying to do, but I feel that I’ve matured a lot as a writer, as an editor, and as a person. So both the book and I are much better prepared to be going out into the world that we would have been back in 2010!

Not that I’m actually prepared. I’m absolutely terrified. But there you go.

Having written the first draft of this book when you were a sixteen-year-old yourself, how has it been returning to the same character almost a decade later? Has sixteen-year-old Stanly changed much over the years?
Stanly’s been with me on and off the whole time, as I’ve done lots of rewrites of Bitter Sixteen as well as writing two sequels, so I find slipping back into the character’s voice relatively easy. There is a temptation to make the style more fluent, to improve the writing, and finding a balance between making the book better and maintaining the rawness of the teenage voice has been challenging at times. He’s always been quite precocious though, luckily. As a character he’s pretty much the same as he’s always been – the main things I’ve needed to tweak and update have been his pop culture references, and things like that. It’s amazing how something first written in 2005, which is a relatively short time ago, can date so quickly! For example, I barely used the Internet at all when I first wrote the book, and now it’s ubiquitous, so I had to bring that aspect of the book up to date.

How much of you do you feel there is in Stanly? Is that more the sixteen-year-old you, or the twenty-six-year-old?
We’re definitely similar in lots of ways, albeit with one crucial difference – he likes baked beans. Although I don’t know if that’s revealed until book two. Spoilers.

To an extent Stanly is who I wished I was back when I first created him. I was bullied a lot when I was at school, but Stanly brushes it off and turns it around on his tormentors, and uses it as fuel to battle injustice, whereas I was much less confident, much less sure of myself, and I internalised all that stuff a lot more. So I guess there’s some slight wish fulfillment going on there (not to mention the superpowers and the talking dog). Although he’s a terrible student and I was always a very attentive student, terrified of getting into trouble!

In subsequent drafts I’ve tried to address the whole wish fulfillment thing a bit, because there’s something slightly cringeworthy about writing yourself a super duper awesome avatar – particularly as Stanly’s town and school are basically fictionalised versions of the town I grew up in and the school I went to! It’s a very tricky balance. I think writing that kind of wish fulfillment is fine when you’re writing at age sixteen, but it’s harder to justify a decade later. So Stanly’s a bit more awkward than he once was, more angry and impulsive. He has a bit of a superiority complex at school, and he doesn’t have all the answers. He’s also far from blameless in some of the bad stuff that ends up happening to him. I don’t think that protagonists necessarily have to be likeable all the time (although being likeable some of the time helps, of course), flawed characters are much more interesting.

We’re both 100-per-cent geek, though – sci-fi, fantasy etc are the lenses through which he sees the world, same as me. I just never got the job in the comics shop, sadly.

How do your interests in music and pop culture affect and influence your writing?
They play a fairly major role, although it’s something I’m increasingly aware of, and something that I try to dial back depending on what I’m writing. I could very easily have every character I write be a fast-talking pop culture junkie who knows Buffy backwards, discusses obscure musical genres and constantly quotes Star Wars, but in the wrong context you risk both alienating large swathes of your audience and creating a world and characters that simply aren’t realistic.

I think it makes sense in a contemporary-set superhero story to have characters be aware of the history and tropes of superheroes in the media – in fact that’s something I’ve had fun playing with in Bitter Sixteen and its sequels. If you suddenly had superpowers, your mind would immediately leap to superheroes, and becoming a superhero, because they’re such a huge cultural force and their narratives are so iconic. How does that translate to the real world? Does it? Is it remotely practical? I found that interesting to explore.

I’ve also written a separate, standalone novel that’s set in the world of music and is very influenced by my love of music, so in that context it makes sense for the characters to reference different musicians and styles, and to assume a certain level of knowledge – or a certain level of acceptance, at least – on the part of your readership.
But I do have to rein it in sometimes!

How much research do you do?
It depends. For Bitter Sixteen I haven’t had to do an awful lot, apart from making sure that my London geography makes enough sense that a Londoner reading it won’t get completely pulled out of the story! But even then, it’s a hyper real version of London that works for the purposes of this story, so as long as I captured a certain essence I didn’t necessarily feel that it had to be a cinéma vérité documentary version of the city. There are all sorts of issues surrounding London that I’ve become aware of – the super-rich driving other people out of the city, crazy price rises, huge cultural shifts etc – and considered addressing, but I eventually decided that they’d take up too much extra space and would affect the narrative in ways that ultimately weren’t beneficial. There may be room in the sequels, though.

I think research is definitely important – you need to have your facts straight, you need to know what you’re talking about, otherwise your reader won’t be able to suspend their disbelief, and all the punchy dialogue and exciting action in the world won’t stop your story from collapsing. But depending on the story you’re telling, it’s not necessarily the be-all and end-all. If you can effectively dramatise a trip through London’s sewers, for example, and keep the reader’s attention, then I don’t think you need to have done any research into Joseph Bazalgette (thanks Wikipedia!).

What are you working on at the minute?
At the moment I’m re-drafting the third book in the trilogy, currently titled Stanly’s Ghost, although once this draft is done I think I’m going to need to go away and work on something that’s not Stanly-related for a bit! Much as I love the world, sometimes staying in one fictional universe for a long time can feel a bit claustrophobic, creatively. Wow, that looks pretty pretentious written down. I have a couple of standalone novels that I’d like to punch into shape, and the first book in a separate trilogy that needs re-drafting. Or maybe I’ll do something completely new. I’m also writing and performing a lot of poetry, which is great fun and a very different creative outlet from prose. I can always fall back on poetry when prose gets frustrating, and vice versa!

If you could have superpowers, what would they be and why?
Flight. Without a doubt. It’s the only power I’ve ever wanted. Even now sometimes when I’m out walking I look up at the sky and feel genuinely upset that I can’t just take off. Which is totally to do with ultimate freedom and magic and recapturing childhood wonder and the poetry of human flight, rather than laziness.

Is there anything else that you would like to tell us?
Any fans of superhero comics who are not currently reading G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel must check it out at once, because Kamala Khan is an absolutely brilliant heroine and also a very important character to be headlining a high-profile comic in the current political climate.
Also, please vote on the 7th of May!

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