Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Stewart Ross

Stewart Ross

After teaching at various institutions in Britain, the United States, the Middle East and Sri Lanka, Stewart Ross became a full-time writer some 23 years ago. With over 250 published titles to his credit, he is now one of Britain's most popular and versatile authors. As well as prize-winning books for children, both fiction and non-fiction, he has written two novels for adults, several plays and many widely-acclaimed works on history and sport.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Mmmm … Much misunderstood and misused word. I’m not sure that Shakespeare fed off some sort of magic inspiration that flew in through the window. Essentially, he was asked to write a play about Scotland, did some research, sat down with his quill, scratched his head … and out came Macbeth. The inspiration, as we call it, was talent within him. Of course, there was a flash - a realisation - when he came across the Duncan episode that it might make a great play, but what made it special - the inspiration or whatever you call it - lay within his soul. Whatever that may be.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

Varies from book to book. Almost certainly not plot. Normally an idea or situation, then the characters appear …

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

Writers block is a romantic and over-fastidious Victorian notion born of too much money and time. Professional writers can always write something. It may be rubbish but at least it’s on the page and can be altered and, with luck, improved later.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read. And when you’ve finished, read some more.

Do you have favourite authors or books yourself? Who are they?

Shakespeare - in the lead by 1,000 miles and always will be. I put Dickens next for his humanity and humour. Of living authors, I esteem Margaret Attwood above all others. No modern children’s writers gets anywhere near the greats: Graham and Milne. Tolkien and Lewis don’t write well but spin good yarns, like Rowling; which of the modern lot leaves Murpurgo and possibly Pullman.

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

When was I a child? Childhood extended from Peter Rabbit, via Wind in the Willows (read to me) and Struwwelpeter to Treasure Island, the first book I remember buying with my own money. Or maybe it was the Observer Book of Birds or the Wonder Book of Farming? All the gems of childhood have been memory-merged.

How much does your editor change what you write? What relationship do you have with your editor?

Much depends on the editor and the genre. Fiction editors change much less than non-fiction editors. The latter are design-led, so invariably hack and mangle the author’s words to fit the page / spread / chapter. Even when this is not done, non-fiction editors tend to be a brutal breed, wanting fact and text that accords with their own view of the subject. The sad result is that many non-fiction books are unreadable, and the genre, in paper form, is in terminal decline. Fiction editors, on the other hand, tend to be a much more sensitive crew and prepared to go over ideas with authors several times in search of a felicitous and apt phrase.

Do you feel a tension between writing what you know will sell and writing what you would like to write?

All the time.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

Notes by hand - and all the rest on a computer. After all, it’s just a fancy typewriter, which in turn is just a fancy pen. I believe that pen-pencil writers are just a teeny bit pretentious or precious. Or both.

 What control do you have over your book cover (and your illustrations)?

Again, much depends on the book and the publisher. Actually, if I’m honest, it’s usually best if I don’t get involved in these things because publishers have better taste then I have. That said, most reputable publishers consult me over illustrators and covers - in fact, several books have been specific link ups with a particular illustrator: Steve Biesty.

Do you write with a particular age group in mind? How does the target age group affect your writing?

I write for everyone 3-103. Of course one’s style and approach changes according to who one is writing for. An adult novel, for example, will have saucy bits that a children’s editor would censor ferociously. Interestingly, there’s as much variation in content and style between markets as between age groups: a book for the mass ‘family’ market will not be very different from a book for the 8-12 age range.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

A blacksmith.

At what stage did you know you wanted to become an author?

As soon as I started to think about what I’d do when I was in control of my own life. (Still waiting … )

Do you think that paper books will soon become extinct?

Not totally. Within 20-30 years our everyday reading will be on some form of electronic device, like the brilliant Kindle, but when we find a book we adore, we’ll buy a lovely paper version to treasure for ever more. Paper books will be crafted works of art reserved for special occasions and presents - rather like hand-written works today. I find this new world rather appealing. Why kill trees to read Dan Brown or J K Rowling?

The English Association is running a competition about Dickens for primary age children throughout 2011. If you had any memories of Dickens from your childhood or if Dickens is special to you in any way, feel free to add any comments about him.

Dickens is my number one novelist. The moment I met him, around the age of fifteen, I fell in love with the vigour, the humour, the volcanic passion, the deep caring for humanity, the overwhelming love of language and the sheer elemental, uninstitutionalised exuberance of the man. He is an organic, natural force that for me represents the final glorious blossoming of our literature before it became trammelled, first, by its adoption as a degree subject and, second, by the emergence of university creative writing courses. In others words, Dickens, like Shakespeare, is the voice of pre-academic literature written to appeal - like the Simpsons - to everyone.

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