About The Author
Stewart Foster is the author of one novel for adults, We Used to be Kings and was one of the Observer's New Faces of Fiction for 2014. He lives in Bath. His first novel for children, The Bubble Boy, is about eleven-year-old Joe, whose medical condition means that he has to live permanently inside hospital in a germ-free 'bubble'. But then someone new enters his world and Joe is given opportunities he had previously only dreamt of - but are they worth the risk?
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Stewart talks about how writing for children compares to writing for adults, and then answers questions put to him by our junior interviewer, Elaine about how a stranger he met in Soho Square provided the inspiration for one of his main characters, what makes a superhero and what he would like readers to take away from his novel.
Stewart's second novel for children, All the Things That Could Go Wrong, was published in June 2017. You can read an exclusive piece by him here about what can ensue when enemies are thrown together....
Author photo © Tallulah Foster
The Author At Foyles
'Writing for younger people is like being in a huge toy shop with my kids and letting them choose anything they wanted, without thinking of practicality or how much it cost.' Stewart Foster introduces his new novel, The Bubble Boy
When I was in junior school, I read books so quickly it was as if I was scared they would go out of print. And whenever the monthly book magazine came out, there was a kind of competition at school. Who could read the book with the most pages? Who could read a book from the 12-15 age group when they were only 10? It was a quest to grow up early, and I wish I hadn’t bothered. (And young readers shouldn’t bother. Stay young; it’s far more fun.) That’s why I love writing for young readers. It’s fun. But it wasn’t the plan.
When I sat down to write The Bubble Boy there was no thought of writing a story for young readers. I just had a story in my head, a snippet of an idea, a very ill young boy with a story he was itching to tell. And once he started talking there was no stopping him. The language he used and the methods he used to tell it were all his. I was just a vessel who let his words pass from my brain through my body and out through my hands. I’m making it sound like I had no part in it, and in some ways in the first draft I felt like I didn’t. There are scenes I can’t remember writing, paragraphs are blurred, lines that Amir says that make me laugh like I'm seeing them for the first time.
I wrote very quickly. I guess I was riding a wave and never looked behind. I just let my imagination go, and I think that’s the most liberating thing about writing for a younger audience. They don’t question dreams; they only want to make them happen, so that’s what I did. I made Joe’s dreams happen and that meant if I wanted rats crawling out of bins, I could let them crawl. If he wanted to be a superhero I wouldn’t say no, I’d say, ‘great idea, Joe! Which one?’ Writing for younger people is like being in a huge toy shop with my kids and letting them choose anything they wanted, without thinking of practicality or how much it cost.
It was on the second draft that I became more aware of the differences. The fun of letting my imagination run riot was restrained by making sure I was telling the right story in the right way. And at some points that meant having to make things clearer. In We Used to Be Kings, many things were left unexplained. It wasn’t me being lazy or trying to be clever, it was me writing a mentally unbalanced kid, and that’s the way it came out. At first I thought having to make things clearer was a bad thing, like in a bad film where an actor recaps everything that’s happened just in case you missed it. But I soon realised that making things clearer was more to do with the emotions of the characters than the plot line. If Joe cried I told you why. If Henry laughed I told you what at. If Amir decided to talk about aliens, I told you . . . no, I didn’t tell you anything about Amir, actually. He wrote his own rules.
Amir is the character I had the most fun with. In an adult book I probably would have explained his behaviours – mentally unstable, possibly bipolar – but Joe wouldn’t have known those terms. All he knew was that Amir was whacky, maybe a bit crazy, and he made his life great because they shared their dreams. There was a time when I was thinking Amir could go totally of the rails, but once I’d written the end and discovered his motive I knew that could never have happened. I also didn’t want things to become too fantastical. Much as I loved letting my imagination flow, I wanted everything that happened to actually be possible. Maybe that’s the point that my adult writing head kicked in and said, ‘you’re not a fantasy writer, you’re a writer who writes about real situations, in real towns with real buses and taxis.’ The characters are superheroes, but like Spider-Man, Superman and Iron Man, they’re all real people underneath.
As I got further into the second draft, I found myself needing a little help with the younger voices. My own kids are now grown up and they’ve lost touch with some of the kid-speak. I’d listen a little more closely to students when I visited schools. But soon the problem ceased to be a problem at all, because whilst both Joe and Henry were young, they were actually surrounded by adults. Their illness and the constant treatment and setbacks meant that in some ways they had grown up too soon. That’s why I loved it when they could close that part of their lives off and become kids again on Skype.
Now that The Bubble Boy is on the shelves, I wonder how I actually wrote it. How it got to an end from an idea I had about a sick kid as I walked around a supermarket with a friend. If someone had said at that point that The Bubble Boy would be a book for young readers, I’m not sure I would have continued. I’d have been scared of having to write a book for a specific audience, so unlike myself. As it was, I just started writing and I had faith in the story, but most of all I had faith in Joe’s character and his ability to tell it right.
Questions & Answers
Are there actually children like Joe, who are not ever allowed outside for fear of catching life-threatening germs?
Yes, there really are children just like Joe who have Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) a condition where kids don’t have an immune system to fight disease. Recently I met a nurse who used to care for two children with the condition at Great Ormond Street Hospital and she couldn’t wait to read The Bubble Boy to compare the experience. In most cases, SCID can be treated by having a bone-marrow transplant from a close relative. This didn’t work in Joe’s case, because he has ‘Super SCID’, so has to remain in his room while his doctors search for a cure.
What made you want to write about this subject?
There was no set plan to write about SCID but I am so glad that I did, because it led me to explore important subjects like feeling isolated and lonely – in a bubble. You don’t have to have SCID to feel like that. I started with the idea of there being a young boy in a hospital who’d never been outside. I gave him a nice room, with all his beeping monitors, a laptop and a TV, and I gave him a sister, too. I then had to find a reason for his confinement and discovered SCID. I used to think that too much research would stifle my writing, but in many ways it added to my own excitement for the project, because I was learning new things at every turn. I think that’s what keeps the story moving along.
Are any of the characters based on people you know?
My daughter recently bought me a sign that hangs from my writing room door ‘Don’t talk to me or you’ll end up in my novel.’ It’s not true, of course but I think, as with many writers, that there’s a kind of subliminal osmosis going on a lot of the time.
Joe is very much his own character with his own voice, but as I was writing I realised that both his interest in superheroes and his isolation came from a friend of mine who’s mad about Spider-Man and has OCD so badly that sometimes he finds it difficult to go outside. Greg is very loosely based on another friend, in that they are both really nice guys and say ‘mate’ all the time!
Amir comes from a very different source. About eighteen months ago, a stranger came up to me in Soho Square while I was eating my lunch. He stopped and told me he was the pilot of a plane that had crashed over Russia. He was very agitated and anxious, and I felt very sorry for him. He sat down and I chatted with him for half an hour, then I went back to work hoping that I’d helped him in some way. His obvious distress affected me a lot and I guess he never really got out of my head, because nine months later I was writing The Bubble Boy and a new nurse arrived to look after Joe. Amir didn’t speak for ages, becoming more and more mysterious, and then one morning I sat down at my desk, typed Amir’s first meaningful line: ‘Do you believe in aliens?’ and I realised the voice, but not the character, was the guy I met all those months before.
What makes Joe a superhero in your eyes, and does he realise he is one?
Joe’s a superhero for coping with all the setbacks that have been thrown at him. But it’s more than that, too. He doesn’t just cope, he pushes the setbacks aside and wants to explore the world outside his window, even though he knows the risk are extraordinarily high. He’s brave enough to follow his dream and that makes him a superhero in my eyes. He knows he’s a superhero, in his heart, and he doesn’t have to wear a cape or a suit to prove it.
Is Beth annoyed at Amir because she feels jealous of his relationship with Joe?
No, definitely not. Her number one concern is Joe’s safety and wellbeing, and in her mind, Amir threatened that. I guess maybe there is a part of her that wishes she could have shared the experience with Joe but she knows she’d have been too fearful to have enjoyed it and would have ruined it for him. Beth doesn’t ever have to worry about her relationship with Joe. For all the wonderful people that are in The Bubble Boy, from the conversations they have she and Joe both know they are each other’s number one.
What would you like readers to take away from the novel?
Never give up, no matter how bad your situation may seem. And never be too frightened, proud, or embarrassed to follow your dreams.
Do you have any ideas for your next book?
I’ve just completed the first draft of a story about bullying in schools. It’s been quite hard to write, not in story terms, but emotionally. It wasn’t until I researched the subject, created characters and made them do bad things, that I truly realised what a horrible thing bullying is.
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