Today I’m pleased to welcome Stephen May to the blog. Stephen is the author of Tag and Life! Death! Prizes! and his latest novel Stronger Than Skin was published by Sandstone Press on 16 March 2017
Stephen kindly answered some of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Stronger Than Skin.
A man – a contented man, a family man, 2 children another on the way, beautiful wife, beautiful house, responsible job – is cycling home when he sees the police calling at his house. He knows why they are there and he cycles on. What follows is his attempt to resolve the things in his past which have returned to haunt him. We see the unfolding of his 1990 University affair with a professor’s wife and the appalling consequences of this, and we also follow him as he tries to stay one step ahead of the pursuing police. We also get glimpses into the effect of the revelations of his past on his wife and children. And we meet some eccentric characters along the way.
2. What inspired the book?
The germ of the idea came from a newspaper story where a Belfast dentist walked into a police station and confessed to a murder committed twenty years previously which the police had thought was a suicide. I was interested in what would make somebody fess up to something they’d got away with and interested in the ramifications that confession might have on those around them. I was also interested in ideas about how far people are allowed to change and whether changing for the better can mitigate terrible things done earlier. I was actually thinking about concentration camp guards. Does a blameless life after the war make up for the horrors they participated in, or colluded in, or even just turned a blind eye to? (No, not really is my answer I think) And I wanted to write about both the passions of adolescence and the reflections of middle age and how far that passionate teenager within us can be silenced by advancing years and the gathering of responsibilities. Doesn’t that teenager remain inside us, awaiting their right moment to come back out?
3. Your debut novel Tag, was longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year and won the Media Wales Readers Prize and your second novel, Life! Death! Prizes! Was shortlisted for both the 2012 Costa Novel of the Year and for The Guardian’s Not the Booker. What do these sorts of accolades mean to you as a writer?
I’d like to say I don’t care about them. But that would be a lie. I do recognize that the hoo-hah around prizes is all nonsense. A lottery. A dog-and-pony show. But it helps find readers and I don’t care (honestly!) about wealth or fame, but I do want my books to be read. Also the rare days when something you’ve done gets recognized are more than counter-balanced by the days when your books get ignored, rejected or otherwise dissed so you might as well enjoy the nonsense and the tinsel when it arrives.
4. Is there anything about the process of creating a novel that still surprises you?
How long it can take. The mistakes I can make in plotting in characterisation and even in the sentence-to-sentence writing it. And, also, sometimes, how writing a novel can call up insights and phrases – even a kind of poetry – that you didn’t know you were capable of.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I am very boring. (as Flaubert said ‘be orderly in your life so you can be an Anarchist in your art.’) I read (not just novels – history and biography and magazines about science and economics) and I tinker about on a guitar I can’t really play. I listen to music. I cook. I like to natter with my mates. I also have a job. I promote literature for the Arts Council and that takes up quite a bit of time.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
Blimey. It should be something really difficult. The major works of philosophy or religion. The Bible, the Koran, or something by Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Actually I think the collected Greek myths would be good, they seem to be the best metaphors for every aspect of the human condition and we all only half-know the most obvious ones. It would be nice to know them properly. If you’re asking me about contemporary novels then Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro and Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel have created worlds that are so believable that I could easily wander about in them for a few decades and still find new things. They’re books that make fictional worlds so real that you almost believe you could visit them.
7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
The question? Is it true you were once a model? And the answer is… yes!
About the book:
Mark Chadwick is cycling home from work, eager to get back to his pregnant wife Katy and two children, when he sees the police calling at his house. He knows exactly why they are there and he knows that the world he has carefully constructed over twenty deliberately uneventful years is about to fall apart. He could lose everything.
A story of a toxic love gone wrong, with a setting that moves easily between present day London and 1990s Cambridge, Stronger Than Skin is compulsively readable, combining a gripping narrative with a keen eye for the absurdities of the way we live now.