A.W.Stewart interview

20 March 11 words: Pete Lamb
"Knowledge of the natural world is vital for children; we all need to feel part of a wider world which is not ruled by materialism"
A W Stewart, author of  Rooktime

A.W. Stewart is a local children’s author who last year published Rooktime, a tale of a group of children who find themselves trapped in a fantastical forest by the terrifying Birdmen. Her book was longlisted for the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition and three further books are planned in the series.

This is your first published book, can you explain a bit about how it came about?
I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember: I sent my first book to a publisher when I was nine years old (just after WW2) and was, apparently, very put out when it was declined! I had chosen the publishers Frederick Warne & Sons as they had published the books of Beatrix Potter, who has always been my heroine as she was not only a writer but also a farmer in her later years. When I was very small my mother read all her books to me and later I reread them many times for myself, my favourites being The Tailor of Gloucester and Mrs Tiggywinkle.

What was it that drew you to writing for children?
When my daughters were young, I started several novels for adults but was never happy with them. One day the title Rooktime popped into my head, but I had no idea what it signified and it floated there for years. It wasn’t until after I retired that I suddenly found my voice. I had to write a couple of paragraphs as the opening of a story for a writers’ workshop. Afterwards, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought: ‘I know what this is – it’s Rooktime!’ I started writing that day and was swept along by the story for nine months.

What books did you read (or have read to you) as a child and which did you find an inspiration?
I loved A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and Alison Uttley’s books, most particularly the Little Grey Rabbit stories – I can still see the front covers in my mind. Another great favourite from a very young age was Kipling, not just The Jungle Book but also his short stories, especially Riki Tiki Tavi. When I became a pony addict I discovered a wonderful writer called Monica Edwards. One of her titles, Punchbowl Farm, is still evocative. I realise now that all these favourite books centre upon animals and the countryside: recalling them enables me to see that they have influenced my choice of setting for my own book.

However, it is principally novels that I have taught over my years as an English teacher that have influenced my approach to writing. William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is never far from my mind: throughout his novel we are made aware of the immensity of the heavens rolling above the boys’ heads and the seas stretching to infinity. I find this sense of the ant-like nature of human beings in relation to the universe very powerful – at some points in my own story we see the characters set against the vastness of the skies above and beyond the forests of Rookland.

A lot of children's author's create their own fantasy worlds; do you think children prefer the escapism of this to real world settings?
As an adult I enjoy a wide range of books from grim Nordic thrillers or Dick Francis’s racing crime stories, to the great novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Similarly, I think that children can be equally eclectic: sometimes they like to lose themselves in fantasy worlds and at other times real world settings appeal. It depends upon their mood and upon the availability of strong writing and convincing stories. In my own book what interested me was establishing a very real, believable life for my characters: the only element of magic in the story is the hedges through which the children unwittingly enter Rookland. Apart from that my characters have to survive in an actual forest without recourse to any kind of magical intervention.

Rookworld and the children's experiences in the book are closely linked to nature, particularly the forest. Do you think it's important for children to explore the countryside and nature?
I think that knowledge of the natural world is vital for children; we all need to feel part of a wider world which is not ruled by materialism. Small children, given the opportunity, are fascinated by the nature and this needs to be encouraged and perpetuated as they grow older if we are to understand ourselves as human beings and our part in the whole. 

Did you face any obstacles breaking into the literary world?
I eventually worked with Hilary Johnson’s Authors’ Advisory Service and managed to cut the text from 128,000 words to a much more acceptable 77,400. What a marathon! It was suggested that I should enter the first Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition but I didn’t feel brave enough. I did, however, enter in 2008/9, after doing some further redrafting, and in January 2009 I was told that my book was one of 14 on the long list, out of nearly 2000 entries.

I hoped, on the back of this result, to find an agent and set myself a deadline of 20 rejections. When I reached 13 slips, my eldest daughter offered to finance the publication of Rooktime via a ‘print on demand’ company: AuthorHouse. At first I was rather reluctant to accept her generosity but on reflection decided that what I really wanted was to make my story available to children and we went ahead, using a brilliant cover designed by my artist son-in-law, Julian Bray. It has all been very exciting: I had a brilliant Book Launch at The Bookcase in Lowdham; have a series of speaking engagements set up for this year and I have been invited to give two talks at the prestigious Aye Write Book Festival in Glasgow on March 7th.

Finally, what advice would you give to budding writers?
My advice to other budding writers is - never give up! If I can do it at my age, so can you!
Rooktime is published by AuthorHouse and available now from The Bookcase in Lowdham and other good book stores.


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