About The Author
Martin Stewart has previously worked as a recycling technician, university lecturer, barman, golf caddy and English teacher. Having written his first book on Post-Its as an eight year-old, it was his time back in the classroom that made him understand the unique joy of writing for younger readers. A native of Glasgow, where he still lives, he enjoys buying books to feed his to-be-read pile, and combining the city's urban splendour with walks on the beaches of Scotland's west coast.
Riverkeep is his first novel, a stunning YA adventure in which fifteen-year-old Wulliam is dreading taking up his family's mantle of Riverkeep, tending the river and fishing corpses from its treacherous waters. But then everything changes. One night his father is possessed by a dark spirit, and Wull hears that a cure lurks deep within the great sea-beast known as the mormorach. He realises he must go on an epic journey downriver to find it - or lose Pappa forever.
Vibrant, warm, fantastical, with a big heart and a gripping plot, Stewart's debut has 'instant classic' written all over it. He conjures up a rich and engrossing world with characters and twists aplenty, as Wull embarks on the journey of a lifetime.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler chatted to Martin about the real-life inspiration for his novel, how he set about creating his parallel world and why he relishes the editing process.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @martinjstewart.
Questions & Answers
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The idea for the role of a riverkeep was sparked by the real-life river-man of Glasgow, George Parsonage. George is the serving officer of the Glasgow Humane Society, an institution that was founded in 1790 to rescue and recover victims of the Clyde. I read an article about his life and was astonished and inspired: he first carried out his duties aged just fourteen. As a writer of YA fiction, that set my mind fizzing!
It’s hugely accomplished for a first novel. It started life as a short story didn’t it? But how did you go about turning that into a novel, and when did you know it had (sea)legs?
Thank you! I wrote about Wulliam and his father in a short story as a favour for another writer’s blog. Eventually that short story found its way to Penguin, and that was really when Wull set off on his journey, because I had to take that short glimpse of his life and turn it into a full-length novel. I knew it had (sea)legs pretty quickly: the nature of my unusual path to publication meant I was writing my first book already knowing it would be published, effectively starting off with ‘second novel syndrome. So I thought very carefully about the kind of story Wull could have in his circumstances and what narrative shape could be made to work. I knew he couldn’t stay at the boathouse for the whole time―he had to be taken away from his little corner and thrown into the world proper―so it was a matter of thinking about where he could go, and what would propel him to do so. After that, I had years of writing and scraps of stories cluttering my mind, so his world filled up very quickly.
Each chapter opens with an extract from a fictional ledger of earlier ‘riverkeeps’. Did this have any kind of real counterpart?
Each chapter begins with an extract from a book from the riverkeep’s world. A couple of them are taken from the ledgers, for which there is no real-life counterpart (as far as I know!), but mainly they’re from that world’s encyclopaedia, biographies and travel writing. These were such fun to write ― I have a whole bunch that didn’t make the final draft ― and trying on different voices to flesh out the society and the setting was a great bit of mental exercise. I wanted to be able to embed the world building in an entertaining, parallel sort of way (as a reader I get annoyed by wedged-in exposition) and I really hope readers enjoy these as much as I do!
There are some parallels with, among other stories, The Wizard of Oz. Were you conscious of these when you were writing or do you feel that many of literature’s journeys will inevitably share points of reference, just as novels with large fish might?
I was very conscious of them; absolutely ― playing with the great stories is the best part of writing. Wull goes on a very classic odyssey, and his journey has a strongly defined shape that hopefully gives it a sense of momentum. I was very aware of the great writers who’d gone before me, so I studied the stars of Moby Dick and Jaws and Cannery Row among other classics, and tried to let their light fall on my page.
Which parts did you enjoy writing the most – and least?
I was very happy once I’d got everyone in the bäta together ― the exchanges between Tillinghast, Wull and Mix were great fun, and I loved writing Murdagh’s sinister monologues. Least favourite … I’m not sure. It’s not a specific section, or even a category of text ― it’s just sometimes when I’m particularly excited about a bit that’s looming on the horizon whatever’s in the way can seem like a bit of a drag. So I often open a new word document, write the bit I’m looking forward to, then go back to the narrative, knowing that in a day or so I can stitch the other piece in and feel really good about my word count.
Do you agree with Tillinghast that it’s not compassion that makes us human, but memories?
Tentatively, yes … but Tillinghast is speaking from an existentialist point of view ― for him the nature and source of memory is key to whether or not he exists at all, so he has this very stark way of looking at humankind. Memory makes the individual, but to be really human, to love and to be loved, we must be compassionate, or we’d be a cold facsimile of our truest selves. And reading ― when you wear another’s skin and feel with their senses ― is the best way of developing our compassion and empathy.
There are so many memorable characters in the book, villainous and otherwise. Did you work out all their back stories – and maybe even their futures – even though they don’t necessarily all appear in the book?
Yes, absolutely. Knowing everything already means that I can cut details for the benefit of the narrative, knowing that they will have influenced the development of the character and the novel even if they never appear. I know where all the characters came from and where they’re going ― if indeed they’re going anywhere!
You’ve described the editing process as ‘thrilling’ even when it means swathes of re-writing. Can you say more about that?
Oh, it’s the best: I’d always rather face a block of edit-hungry words than a blank page. Every little change is another turn of the screw, another speck of glitter on the disco ball. The major changes (I cut three full chapters and four characters from the first draft of Riverkeep) bring the novel’s central concerns into sharper focus and help the reader access your world more directly. Then it gets smaller ― a word here, a comma there ― and the book gets better every single time. Editing is where the real writing is done, I think. The first draft is just heavy lifting―lugging all the bricks up a hill so you can start building a house.
Who are the writers that have most affected you and why?
Terry Pratchett, for the richness of his world and his voice’s distinctive wit, Neil Gaiman for his range and clean prose, J.K. Rowling, for creating the most expansive, glorious world and Philip Pullman, for writing Northern Lights ― the book that made me realise what sort of writer I wanted to be. Mary Shelley, for the single greatest competition entry in history, Frankenstein, Mike Mignola, for all the chewy genre fun that is Hellboy, Tove Jansson for her beautiful eye for the detail of nature, John Steinbeck, for his rhythms and his elegant clarity, Patrick Ness, for his energy and his belief in the brilliance of young people. And so many others …