BookView Interview with Author Iain Stewart

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed Iain Stewart, about his writing and his soon-to-be released, Knights of the Air, Book 1: Rage! , a complex, gritty novel delving into the brutalities of war (Read the review here.)

Iain Stewart was born and raised in East Africa. Time spent at Kenton College in Nairobi, Fettes College in Edinburgh, and Christ’s College, Cambridge was usually enjoyable and often educational. His feeble qualifications as an author of this tale include a childhood fascination with The Romance of King Arthur, and obtaining his pilot’s license at seventeen. Armed with these, he ventured forth to fly Tiger Moth biplanes and pretended to be Biggles. Who was basically Lancelot in goggles. However, earning a crust at HSBC for over twenty years delayed this book. Nowadays, he staves off reality by living in Miami.

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

I think the books you read when you are young are always formative, and I loved good historical fiction with accurate history but also great adventure stories. Wilbur Smith’s first two books, When the Lion Feeds and The Sound of Thunder, hit the sweet spot for me: lyrically written with a love for Africa and filled with bold characters inhabiting real events. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe Series covering the Peninsular War of the early 1800s became famous as a TV series in the UK, but the books are even better. His Saxon Stories are gripping reading too, and now famous as the Viking Series or The Last Kingdom on US TV. More recently, I discovered a few fantasy writers who create their own worlds but are identifiably inspired by real history. When I read Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and his First Law series, it was a revelation, an utterly fresh approach. I devoured Sean Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard series and I am praying Patrick Rothfuss brings out the third in his Kingkiller Chronicles. As you might be able to tell, I love series that allow characters to really evolve, and this fed into my own decision to write my first story as a quartet, of which RAGE! is the first. There is nothing better than picking up a new book in a familiar series. The sense of anticipation is delicious.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Before I hardened plot or characters, I did enough research and reading to become unconsciously competent in the era, so that the characters and plot would ring true to the time. In historical fiction, it is not only the facts but the thinking and the language of the time that are important. Derek Robinson wrote several books on World War 1 flying, Goshawk Squadron being the best. They were wonderfully readable as his characters displayed a 1970s cynicism that was fresh for readers. But as Alex Revell, the doyen of WW1 Aviation historians, pointed out, no characters of the time would have talked or thought remotely like the characters in the book. Yet Derek Robinson’s flying research was impeccable, so he made a conscious choice and his books were bestsellers, so who is to say he was wrong?  One of the most famous WW1 novels is Winged Victory, written by a literary-minded pilot who flew in WW1, and it is sometimes compared to T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was certainly true to its time, but even for me, who loves this genre and era, it is a turgid read that I could not complete. So there needs to be a balance. In my books I tried to be truer to the emotionally repressed dialogue of the time, whilst at the same time showing enough internal emotion to engage modern readers.  

For me, the book is the tip of the iceberg of your knowledge about the period. The bigger mass of research never makes the book directly, but supports it. If you picked a period and topic you love, then the unused research does not feel wasted. The hardest thing is not including too much research in the book. I think it was Hilary Mantel who said you should wear the learning lightly, but it’s hard to do!  I tried to balance giving aviation aficionados enough description of what it was like to fly these planes, while not interrupting the flow of the story for those less interested. I’m looking forward to readers’ feedback because I’m not sure if I got that balance right. I’d be interested in your feedback, too.

What life experiences have shaped your writing most?

Over twenty years in the extremely competitive and demanding financial markets gave me insights into human nature that I would never otherwise have seen. The most interesting of which was the tension between the inherent selfishness of great individual talent and the need for teamwork. I used that a lot in the books. What difficulties did King Arthur face in attracting and holding together the most talented knights and biggest egos in Christendom? How did Richthofen assemble and inspire such talent in his Flying Circus? And how would King Arthur have done it in the RFC in 1917, with its unique blend of hard-bitten colonials and idealistic, teenaged public-school boys? [In England, public schools are the private schools for the richer classes. If you think that is confusing, welcome to England!]

Writing the book bought me flashbacks of insight on events of my past. As I wrote about the politics and searched for character motivations and reactions, I sometimes thought of events that I had not understood in my career, and went, “Aha! That is why X did that.” So in a strange way, bringing the story to life informed me almost as much as I informed it.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

Everything that happens after you have written the book. I dedicated every Thursday to writing and it was pure fun. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called Flow, which he defined as a state of happiness where you lose track of time. That was writing for me. But finding agents, publishers, marketing, etc…Painful.

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

On the very first writing seminar I ever went on, the teacher said you must decide whether you are writing for yourself or to sell books. I decided I was writing for myself. I wanted to explore this idea of the legends of King Arthur re-imagined for the world of war flying in 1914-18 but was aware it was not a “hot” sub-genre. Vikings and Ancient Rome were hot at the time and still are to some degree. But King Arthur meets the Red Baron was interesting to me and the fact it was original was a plus but not a defining factor. So, my choice of genre and story ignored the potential scarcity of readers.

In terms of plot and story structure, I reckoned that if the classic three act structure had worked since the time of Aristotle, it probably made readers happy. So, I shelved originality there. I found it hard work fitting my story into structure, but the more I did it, the more I was convinced that it was the best choice for a first-time author. Ditto for other best practices such as character arc. Some talented folks may be able to flout the rules and be original, but I worried I was using originality as an excuse for lazy writing.

How I told the story, my so-called “voice,” evolved. As I started to write, I struggled to find my voice. At first, I was too literary, and my first pages were a feeble imitation of Hemingway. Then I oscillated to being too conscious of the reader, and the prose rather flattened out and became formulaic. So, I read all the historical novels I had enjoyed in the past, and they probably influenced me too much. When I wrote after reading Wilbur Smith, I reflected him. After reading Bernard Cornwell, his language influenced mine. Over time, I read so many authors that I gradually evolved into a language and style that felt like my own, albeit I am sure there are echoes of many authors in there. One beta reader said it was distinctive, but I doubt it is original, more a blend of many influences. I am not trying to be original or authentic per se, just putting down what comes most naturally so long as it does not detract the reader’s attention from the story.

What inspired the premise of your book?

I am a huge fan of Joseph Campbell and his work on mythology and have always been fascinated by what is left out of King Arthur’s legends. How did such a well-intentioned, noble knight such as Lancelot end up cuckolding his best friend and king? How did Arthur ignore the rumours while retaining enough respect to hold his court together? I thought it would be fun to explore those questions. I started to write with the story set in the Middle Ages, but then I read a flying book written by a World War 1 pilot, Cecil Lewis, who later founded the BBC.  He wrote, the light fast single-seater scout was my ambition. To be alone, to have your life in your own hands, to use your own skill, single-handed, against the enemy. It was like the lists of the Middle Ages, the only sphere in modern warfare where a man saw his adversary and faced him in mortal combat, the only sphere where there was still chivalry and honour. If you won, it was your own bravery and skill; if you lost, it was because you had met a better man.”

It struck me that transporting the story to the WW1 flying would bring the story closer to the modern times, and that it would be fascinating to explore the main themes of the Lancelot/Arthur/Guinevere legends with the dawn of military aviation. It helped that both the Arthurian legends and WW1 military aviation are passions of mine, so it was a marriage made in heaven for me. 

Book One was the hardest to write, since it was the start of the Round Table, and in some way the Arthurian linkages are weakest here. Guinevere for example only comes into the picture in later books. There are thousands of Arthurian/Lancelot stories, but most agree Lancelot was the son of a King in France, thus a foreigner in Arthur’s court. Why and how does a foreigner become the ‘first knight in Camelot’? What stresses and strains does that entail? How and why does a loner dedicated to knightly perfection blend with a bunch of others to help Arthur create an elite fighting force [the Round Table knights] to defend the realm? Book One tries to answer those questions against the background of the true stories of 1914-17.

What’s more important: characters or plot?

I don’t think like that. Which is more important, your heart or the brain? You need both. Emotion binds plot and character together like the flow of blood connects heart and brain.  A plot that does not believably stir the characters’ emotions is a corpse. Ditto a brilliant plot with flatlining characters.

Which scene, character or plotline changed the most from first draft to published book?

Hans Schmettow. But the big change was my POV decision. Because I wanted to tell the story from the German side as well as the British, I started with Third Party Omniscient. But then I read Joe Abercrombie’s first book. I loved that his multiple POV style allowed a more intimate insight into more characters, and for me that generated more immediacy. It was kind of against the rules; too many POVs confuses the reader, I was advised. Hard for a first-time author. All true, but Abercrombie made it work for me as a reader, so I went with it. It shot the wordcount up, which is why the trilogy has turned into a quartet, but I enjoyed inhabiting multiple characters as I wrote.

Once I had taken that decision, I needed to decide on how to treat Richthofen and his POV. The Red Baron was a genuine legend on both sides, and I thought it would be best to present him through the eyes of others to make him more remote. His brother, Lothar, was an obvious choice for a POV character on the German side, but I needed someone to be more critical of Manfred Richthofen to balance that out. Besides, although both Richthofens are on the ‘evil’ side, from Lance’s perspective, they are essentially decent human beings. To up the evil quotient of the protagonist elements, and present a negative view of Manfred Richthofen, I invented Hans. Once invented, he carved a larger and larger niche for himself in each book.

After the writing’s finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?

Difficult question. I think the book finished when I can read it after a month of staying away from the manuscript, and nothing jars, not in plot, language, or character arcs. I used a writing coach, Kristina Stanley of Fictionary, and she helped enormously across all four books, something I like to think she wouldn’t do unless she enjoyed them. I am flattered that Atmosphere wanted to publish it, which tells me it isn’t total rubbish.

The ideal experience I would wish upon my readers is that they read all four books and can say the story gripped them, that they rooted for some characters and against others, and that they have a new sense of awe for the remarkable men, on both sides, who braved the war in the skies during WW1. Then I would be a very happy man and maybe even consider myself an author.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

The manuscript went through so many iterations at every stage that I realised I had wasted countless hours painstakingly trying to perfect earlier versions. Pride would not let me send out anything to anyone that I did not consider close to perfect, and yet when I got valuable structural feedback from coaches, beta readers, publishers etc., all that work often went out the window.

Maybe being published already would give me the confidence so that in future I would ask for structural edits before wordsmithing [my phrase for trying to get the exact words perfect in a penultimate edit] and proofreading the manuscript.  It sounds obvious, but the point is that there were many false finishing lines along the way. I felt like a marathon runner constantly falling across the line, and being told there was another mile to go.

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