R D Stevens – Q&A

The Journal by R D Stevens was published by Vulpine Press on 18 August 2022.

R. D Stevens kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The Journal.

Firstly – thanks so much for inviting me on to your blog! It’s great to briefly have the opportunity to talk about my debut novel.

The Journal follows the story of Ethan Willis, a confused 18-year-old who struggles with the depth and uncertainty of life. It’s been six months since Charlotte, his free-spirited sister, disappeared in Cambodia. In a last desperate attempt to find her, he sets off to follow her trail around Southeast Asia. Ethan idolizes his sister for her spontaneity and individualism, but finds himself unprepared for the colour and complexity that greet him on his journey. Thrown into this heady world of backpacking and clashing cultures, Ethan is confronted with the fact that Charlotte is not the only one who is lost.

With only a battered journal and some new acquaintances to guide him, Ethan is taken on a meandering passage through the countryside of Cambodia, into the remotest parts of Laos, and finally to the party islands of Thailand. As this expedition unfolds, Ethan must also look inward to address unresolved questions about his past and the world around him, not only searching for Charlotte herself, but for an understanding of why she left. Ethan will stop at nothing to look for Charlotte, but is he truly ready to find her?

2. What inspired the book?

It was whilst taking some creative writing classes that I first had the idea for my debut novel The Journal. I wanted to create a thoughtful, philosophical YA story that revolved around a young protagonist asking questions and searching for meaning on the cusp of adulthood. I thought that it would be interesting to try to frame this story in the context of someone going on a literal search, and decided upon the idea of a young man who goes looking for his sister who has disappeared in another country.

When I considered the setting for the story, I wanted to set it in a part of the world in which, to add to his sense of discomfort, the protagonist would instantly feel out of place, and yet, at the same time, experience in a new way the wonder, beauty and amazement that the world can offer. This mix of emotions and sensations can spark the kinds of questions about our lives, truth and meaning that are so important as a young adult.

When in my early twenties, I travelled around the world as a backpacker on a shoestring budget and one of the areas I visited that really stayed with me was Southeast Asia. I kept my own journals during my time there and decided to go back to these to find the right setting for The Journal. Reminding myself of the backpacking scene and the challenging contrasts to be found within Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I was inspired to set the story in those countries.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?

The classic writer’s planner or pantser debate! In truth, I would say that I am a bit of both. I like to have a plan in place for the storyline as a whole, and usually when I write a scene I try to keep in mind where I am going with it and where it needs to be by the end. Many of the finer details and smaller plot points often arise organically and letting the words lead in these areas can be really rewarding. That being said, sometimes when I’m writing if I am in a good place of flow and an idea takes hold that wasn’t part of the plan then it’s always worth seeing where it takes me! There were some parts of the book – particularly the flashback scenes to Ethan and Charlotte’s childhood – where I didn’t have a clear outcome in mind, and I simply began to write with an image or feeling that I hoped to capture, and the words took me in a direction I hadn’t initially considered.

For me personally, it’s important to not be so inflexible with a writing plan that I ignore good alternative ideas if they come along during the process. But equally, having no plan at all can lead to some serious plot holes and massive rewrites that might have been avoided otherwise!

4. Is there anything about the process of publishing a book that surprised you?

I must admit, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed working with my publisher on the editing process. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect the first time I shared the document and began to work with my editor on the manuscript, and I was nervous about how it would go. This wasn’t anything to do with my editor herself – she’s a lovely person! – but my own fears around how the process would work, how laborious it would be, how much I would have to compromise and whether my artistic integrity would be challenged. But the reality was that it was really insightful to see their comments, feedback and suggestions. To have someone who is really invested in your book offer their constructive thoughts and opinions on how it could be improved was something that I partly dreaded initially, but soon began to love. It was hard work going back and making edits, rereading each sentence and picking over the words with a fine-tooth comb, but a real learning experience and I am a better writer for it.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

Writing is actually one of the things that I do to relax, although it can be very stressful too from time to time! I also play a few different instruments, enjoy reading and listening to music, catching up with friends down the pub and getting out of London into the countryside whenever possible.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

That is such a tough question! I’m not sure I could pick just one. One of the books that I have probably read the most times over the course of my life so far is ‘Catcher in the Rye’, so I guess I’ll go with that if I really have to pick one…

7. I like to end my Q&As 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?

Another tough question! I’ve been asked all sorts of questions, but I’ve never been asked what I think the point of my book is. I think that good books have a point they are trying to make – sometimes more than one – and if they really are great then they make this point with clarity and exception. The Journal is trying to raise a number of questions – about the nature of truth and beauty, the impact of travelling and ‘white saviours’, the effects of upbringing, the challenges of cultural understanding – but the overarching point it is trying to make is that the answers we want the most in life are the ones we will never get. This is discussed in part in the narrative itself, but it is also intended to be illustrated by the book as a whole. Perhaps if you read it, you can let me know if you agree!

About the Book

What do you do when you lose the only thing that you truly care for?

Ethan Willis is a confused eighteen-year-old who struggles with the depth and uncertainty of life. It’s been six months since Charlotte, his free-spirited sister, disappeared in Cambodia. In a last desperate attempt to find her, he sets off to follow her trail around Southeast Asia.

Ethan idolizes his sister for her spontaneity and individualism, but finds himself unprepared for the colour and complexity that greet him on his journey. Thrown into this heady world of backpacking and clashing cultures, Ethan is confronted with the fact that Charlotte is not the only one who is lost.

With only a battered journal and some new acquaintances to guide him, Ethan is taken on a meandering passage through the countryside of Cambodia, into the remotest parts of Laos, and finally to the party islands of Thailand. As this expedition unfolds, Ethan must also look inward to address unresolved questions about his past and the world around him, not only searching for Charlotte herself, but for an understanding of why she left. Ethan will stop at nothing to look for Charlotte, but is he truly ready to find her?

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