Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of Riverkeep
Martin Stewart’s debut Riverkeep was edited by Shannon Cullen in the UK, and her colleague Sharyn November in the US. The judges praised it for its ‘wonderful use of vocabulary, neologism and dialect, and the sense of a realised world’; adding ‘there’s so much going on but many really touching moments’.
Tell us about the inspiration for Riverkeep?
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 founded in 1790 to rescue and recover victims of the Clyde. The article I read about him contained the astonishing fact that he’d first carried out his grisly duties aged just fourteen. That set my mind fizzing, and it seemed like the perfect situation for a YA protagonist. In terms of the setting, I was really interested in exploring the idea of a ‘Scottish’ novel. I’m fascinated by identity in writing, and wanted to write about Glasgow and the west of Scotland not by setting the novel there, but by creating a landscape and character that would be recognisable without being exclusionary or insular. Fantasy was the perfect means to do this, and playing with the voices and dialects was brilliant fun!
Which authors do you most admire? How have they influenced your writing?
Terry Pratchett, for the richness of his world and the reassurance of his voice―that feeling of being taken in hand by a storyteller with whom your hopes are safe. Neil Gaiman, for his incredible range, and his clean prose. J.K. Rowling, for creating the most expansive, glorious world that’s brought me so much joy. 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, and that magical thing―a creation that lives another life in the national consciousness that’s quite separate to the original. 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 belief in the brilliance of young people. And so many others…
Is it true that Riverkeep began as a short story? How did it become the novel it is?
It is! I wrote about Wulliam and his pappa in a short story for another writer’s Hallowe’en blog. When Penguin bought the story, I had absolutely no idea what it would or could become: it was never intended as a trailer for a larger piece. I didn’t know what happened to Wull after the end of those four pages―which are now the opening chapter of Riverkeep. So, when I was presented with this glorious opportunity, I thought very carefully about the kind of adventure Wull could have in his circumstances, and what narrative shape could be made to work. I knew he couldn’t stay in 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.·Tillinghast was the first mate on a kind of occult puffer ship I had written about a few years before, and his voice had stayed with me. The mormorach was the star of another short I had written and left on my desktop (a loving tribute to Jaws, which is the greatest film adaptation of all time!) Mix and her secretive powers had been a voice in the back of my mind for a while, and Remedie’s wooden baby was featured in a scrap of text I’d written when I was about 20. It seemed like fate, then, when I realised how well they’d interact, and how the mormorach’s presence could drive the narrative. This kind of alchemy is the most potently addictive part of writing, and I love it. As well as a desire to create adventure, comedy, and horror, the story was fueled by a desire to explore the experience of my grandfather’s dementia; and to honour the young carers I’d known in my career as a teacher. Wull has to undertake his quest while caring for his rapidly degenerating father, and that dual challenge―of negotiating real life while caring for a loved one―is faced by thousands of young people every day in the UK.
The Branford Boase judges describe Riverkeep as ‘a gripping original, brave and ambitious’ For you, what was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
Well, that’s just wonderful to hear! I think the hardest thing was shaping the narrative, and reining in the cascade of ideas that cluttered my mind after so long trying to get published. Because while there were some wonderfully useful characters lurking in the crypt of my hard drive, there was a lot of distractingly unhelpful stuff too! Focussing on the creatures and the places and the incidents that would best develop my thematic intentions, and take the reader on Wull’s journey, while being firm enough to cut the ones that didn’t serve that purpose took real discipline, and that process of decision-making was, of course, supported wonderfully by my brilliant editors…
Describe the process of working with Shannon and Sharyn on the book? What did you most enjoy about the experience?
…who were great! I enjoyed everything about working with them. This sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s really true. I love to edit, and having two editors of such skill and vision giving me help and advice after more than ten years scribbling away in the corners of my secret life was an absolute dream come true. Shannon and Sharyn never put words in my mouth, or dictated content and form―they helped me say what it was I wanted to say more clearly, more directly, and more elegantly. The whole exhaustive process of editing was an absolute joy, and I learned so much from them that I voluntarily cut 40,000 words from the working draft of my next book, because I could hear their voices in my head, and knew exactly what they’d have to say about the manuscript!
What piece of advice would you give a debut author?
Apart from just to enjoy the long worked-for experience, I'd suggest working with schools and libraries as often as you can. Being a writer of children’s and YA fiction is such a gift, because you have so many opportunities for direct interaction with the young people for whom you’re writing―and the experience is the most exciting, rewarding part of the whole process. A good day of writing is a wonderful thing, but a good school visit fills me with happiness.
You acquired Riverkeep on the basis of one chapter. What was it about Martin’s writing that gave you the confidence to take it on?
Shannon: It was our editorial director at the time, Amy Alward, who first read Martin's chapter. A matter of minutes after it was submitted she shared it with me. I read it, got up from my desk and went over and said: 'We have to acquire this.' His writing is completely captivating and atmospheric, and all of that was clear in what became the first chapter of Riverkeep. Amy left shortly afterwards to become a full-time author and I was fortunate enough to then edit the manuscript when it came in.·
Sharyn: Martin’s agent, Molly Ker Hawn, gave me the chapter – four pages! – at the same time. It was exactly as Shannon says. I was instantly in the world, and wanted to know what came next. The speed of Amy’s commitment was impressive, to say the least. I spoke with her as she was acquiring it, and we (meaning Viking) signed on after the second draft was completed.
What aspects of the story did you work most closely with him on during the editing?
Shannon: On the first draft we concentrated on refining the cast of characters and ensuring teen readers would engage with Wull's adventure. Martin's imagination is wild - he is the most inventive author I've worked with when it comes to characters. Each one is a treat. After the second draft Sharyn November and I then worked together through to the final draft, which was great fun for the three of us. We challenged Martin on the logic of the world and the magic of the mormorach. And much to Martin's disgust we asked him to take out all the swearing, ha.·
Sharyn: He hated having to take out the swearing! But he welcomed the challenge of revision – in fact, he loved it, and often said as much. He made charts! Best of all, it was seamless. Shannon and I were completely in accord about what he needed to address, as well as how he then chose to address it. We were one editor with two voices.
The arc of the story didn’t change at all. As Shannon says, it was all about the characters (foregrounding and background, keeping the focus steady), and the logic (both physical and magical) of the world Martin had created. He had it all inside his head, but more of it needed to be on the page. The trick here, of course, was that it had to be invisible—making sure the reader knew enough in the moment to stay immersed in the narrative. No one wants an infodump, especially in a story as transportive as this one.
Were there particular challenges in working on a book with such original and special dialect?
Shannon: As it was a bit of a hybrid invention from Martin I mostly left him in charge of it. I used to read it aloud to get a feel for the sound and flow of it, and to check if the meaning was clear enough.·I think some of the dialect was more challenging for the US market.·It was the copy editors who took him to task on consistency, mind you! One of the most magical moments was listening to James Cosmo read the audiobook - he nailed it.·
Sharyn: Shannon’s right. That’s because the world is a mixture of Scotland and Sweden, and our casual and root language here in the US is different; the reader needs more of a leap to make the “translation.” I often had Martin say words aloud so that we could make the spelling more congruent. For my part, I love the roll and snap of the dialect, and the way each of the characters speaks. More than anything else, that language brings you right to the heart of his world. (And thank God for the copyeditors, who were sticklers.)
And hey, Shannon – can you send me the audiobook?
·What’s your favourite scene in the novel, and why?
Shannon: The first chapter is always going to feel special to me. It's still haunting every time I read it. I can picture the dark water, Wull and his father in the rowboat and the creaking floorboards . . . And any scene with Tillinghast in it. He's comedy gold.·
Sharyn: Absolutely the first chapter, and for the exact same reasons. I also love the moments when Wull’s father overrides the Bohdan to talk to him directly, as well as the relationship between Remedie and her baby, especially as he begins to come alive.
As editors, what did you most enjoy about working with Martin?
Shannon: It's genuinely difficult to choose one thing because he's so committed and extremely funny. Maybe his ludicrous enthusiasm for editorial work - he loves redrafting. In my experience, not many authors approach it with the relish he does. But also being privy to such a vivid and inventive imagination - being one of the first people to read his writing, and talk to him about his ideas in more detail, is a real privilege.·
Sharyn: I couldn’t say it better myself. Martin is the kind of author every editor dreams about—someone who creates a wholly unique world and story, who loves the challenges and pleasures of revision and engaging with an editor—in this case, two! We all worked hard, but we also had a lot of fun, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Thanks to Martin, Shannon and Sharyn for answering our questions.