Interview with Stephen May

Your first novel, Tag, won the Media Wales Prize whilst your second, Life! Death! Prizes! was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa. The popular belief is that novelists toil in obscurity for years before being noticed, so what’s the secret to your success?

I began writing seriously in about 1998. And my first novel came out in 2008, so that is ten years of false starts, blind alleys and writing things that no one wanted to read. And in fact my first book came out in quite a small way - tiny print run - and remained pretty hard to get hold of even after winning that Welsh prize. It's only been the last couple of years that I have begun to find a readership. You just have to keep writing about what interests you, to tell the stories only you can tell, and hope it interests other people too. I try to be fearless in writing and I think my books aren't like those of anyone else. I like to write about ordinary people trying to show grace in difficult or strange situations. Under-achievers, daydreamers, people whistling in the dark - these are the people I know about and hopefully their stories resonate with lots of readers. Also, I still feel pretty obscure.

Was there specific pressure on you when writing your second novel given that Tag was a prize-winner?

No pressure. I wrote Tag assuming that no one would like it. And approached Life! Death! Prizes! the same way. If you start to worry about prizes, the market, or what people like - then you'll drive yourself mad. I just wanted to write a realistic - but hopeful - book about young men in small town England now. They are a much maligned group. And I felt I had the right story to tell and it wouldn't really let me go till I'd got it out. I felt more pressure with the third because I less time and more difficult subjects. (money, friendship, how to be happy, murder...)

You are fond of giving public readings and inter-acting with the audience. Is it crucial, these days, for an author to be visible and make public appearances rather than being a fashionable recluse like Salinger et al?

I'm a former drama teacher. And, therefore, a show-off. I'm also a good reader and a lot of novelists aren't (poets tend to be better) But I'm also semi-crippled by shyness, so there's always a tension in my live readings. I like conversations with audiences, they always know so much. I don't think it's essential to do it. I'm actually trying to develop more of an interactive show to go along with my latest book, rather than just do readings.

What about social media? You are active on Twitter so is this a good source for both communicating with readers but also in acquiring new readers?

I don't think a tweet has sold so much as a single book. In fact, I don't think even 1000 tweets sell even one book. I think people with 100 followers can sell as many books as those with 100, 000. I spend about twenty minutes a day on Twitter, seeing what people think about stuff, sharing that which seems more than usually interesting. Occasionally I join in with the conversation, though it can feel like shouting next to a waterfall. I think that Twitter, like Facebook, is probably past its peak. One day we will all look back and nudge each other and say 'hey, do you remember when we all used to tweet?' and there'll be an embarrassed sniggering. It'll go the way of Bebo, and ra-ra skirts... Facebook too is probably going - it won't disappear entirely any more than shop window advertisements in the local newsagents have, but in the end it'll begin to seem similarly quaint.

You also teach creative writing, but many say that it is an art which cannot be taught. What do you say to that? Did you attend any such classes before you were published?

It seems to me that there is 'creative writing' which is something that happens in colleges and other institutions, and then there is writing, which is what writers do. Sometimes they over-lap. I think you can save time by attending a course. I went on an Arvon course and that helped. I did an MA which didn't so much. What the MA gave me was a supportive gang and there was between us all an unspoken desire to impress and surprise one another and that helps too. Otherwise you simply have to read a lot. You also have to ask yourself constantly 'why should anyone read MY book, when there are so many brilliant others out there?' My classes are mostly about getting people to pay close attention to other books, and to the world around them. And then about giving opportunities to practice writing in ways they perhaps haven't thought about.

Finally, are you working on a new novel at the moment?

My third novel - Wake Up Happy Every Day - is published by Bloomsbury on March 13. It's a departure and a step forward for me. I think (hope) it demands more of a reader maybe. And I have just finished a rough draft of my fourth - and I'd actually like someone to come along and ask me to write another play. I'm busy now. (I also have a full-time job). I spent the first fifteen years of my adult life face down in my dinner or dazedly wondering where my shoes were - generally off my face in other words - or chasing girls, or haphazardly trying to help raise children. Quite a few of valuable years went by before I got down to any proper writing. I'm trying to make up for a lot of lost time... (though of course it turns out to have been material too...)


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