Stephen M. Giles, author of The Death (and Further Adventures of Silas Winterbottom
Stephen is the youngest of four kids and spent lots of his adolescence buried in books. He began writing "serious" adult literature, but always felt whimsical and adventurous voices fighting to be written. He decided to make the leap to MG writer when he realized how much his nephews and nieces enjoyed the stories he'd make up for them.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from an early age and I guess I’ve always had stories and characters swimming around my head trying to get my attention. For me writing was the best way to do that. The first serious writing I did as a teenager was a screenplay – it was an appalling melodrama of adolescent misery – but I quickly discovered that books were the best forum to express the stories I wanted to tell.
When did you begin writing seriously?
Probably late teens/early twenties. I knew early on what I wanted to do with my life and I was determined to make my way as a writer. And in the interest of honesty I have to say that my early attempts at writing were awful! It took me several years to really find my voice and in my opinion, having a distinctive voice is one of the most important elements of storytelling. Fortunately I stuck at it and my ability to craft a story improved – hopefully! It’s a tough road but the rewards when you finally see your book in print make all the angst and torture worthwhile.
Tell us about your experience in releasing your first MG book, THE DEATH (and further adventures) OF SILAS WINTERBOTTOM.
So far it’s been really wonderful. The feedback I’m getting has been overwhelmingly positive; the reviews haven’t been too brutal, thank goodness. Releasing a book is a lot like sending your child off on their first day at school – you worry about how they will be received and you hope they make lots of new friends and aren’t bullied by the bigger kids. Or something like that!
I know you were inspired to create the Winterbottoms from a story of old, AUNT JANE'S NIECES. What do you think it was about that story that attracted you and how have you made this story different? Do you believe it will intrigue the same crowd?
I read “Aunt Jane’s Nieces” at a time in my life where I had pretty much given up on a career as a writer. I’d written a number of books that had failed to find a publisher and I was feeling utterly dejected about the whole thing. I happened upon the book online, quit by accident, and I just started reading it. The story itself is very old fashioned and rather quaint but something about the tale of a grumpy old Aunt and her three nieces really struck a chord with me. Reading it was like eating comfort food. It reminded me of watching old black and white movies with my Grandmother as a kid. I read the book in just a day or two and I found I couldn’t get the story out of head. It was just a perfect little story and I can remember saying to myself, “I want to write a story just like that.” So I did. Initially I wanted to write a contemporary version of Aunt Jane’s Nieces, but once I got started I quickly found myself writing a radically different book. My three heroes are very different to the three girls in Aunt Jane’s Nieces and Uncle Silas is a far more ruthless, ghastly villain than dear old Aunt Jane. As a writer it was really important, I think, that I made the story my own – the characters and the plot ended up a million miles from the book I set out to adapt. Having said that, I’m really proud to say that a book written nearly a century ago inspired me to write again.
The three children portrayed in the book are quite diverse. You must have had a blast writing them. How did you keep track of their distinct voices?
I did have a blast writing the three Winterbottom cousins. The interesting thing for me about creating these characters was really making sure they were utterly different in personality and just as importantly in their motivations for accepting their Uncle’s invitation to visit his island estate. Once I established what those different motivations were, I really found the voice of each character. Milo is angry and bruised by the tragedy in his life; Adele is clever and sweet, but owing to her ruthless mother she is timid and afraid when we first meet her; and Isabella is a complex mixture of extreme arrogance and vanity mixed with a deep sense of loss and underneath it all, insecurity. It’s amazing how easy it is to keep the voices of your characters distinct and unique once you have a really good idea about what makes them tick. One of the best things I learnt writing The Body Thief was that giving my heroes very distinct motivations for doing the things they do, made it much easier to create individual voices for each of them. It’s a sort of shortcut for writers, I think.
What about Silas? He's an interesting character: part snoot, maffia god, and all-around-creepy guy. (Hope you don't mind my characterization. I think he's brilliantly done.)
Silas was almost too much fun to write – the guy has a pet crocodile, after all. Silas is painfully polite, proper and refined, yet he’s utterly villainous and capable of the most awful acts. That tension between his smooth veneer and his underlining treachery was a lot fun to play with. In a strange way, he’s a very human sort of villain. The danger with a character like Silas is that he can be reduced to standard card-board cutout bad guy. I was really determined that he would be more interesting than that. I wanted the reader to really understand his motivation, his hunger, for doing the ghastly things that he does. Silas is so dangerous because he feels entirely justified in carrying out his horrific plan, which involves the three young Winterbottoms in ways that I don’t want to divulge! He’s a character I will be writing for several years to come and I’m really lucky that I’m actually pretty fond of him – putting to one side the fact that he is a despicable, vengeful lunatic.
The story is not your typical middle grade fantasy, fairytale. It's dark with a Gothic undertone, and in a few scenes a bit gory--gory in a clean and good way. What made you write that route and do you think it was risky?
I’m a huge fan of gothic fiction – I love writers like Sheridan Le Fanu and Wilkie Collins. I wanted to write a story set in a grand and gloomy mansion that told a tale about a tortured family and the legacy of past sins being visited upon the younger generation. It’s classically gothic in that way. Did I think it was risky? Not really. I wrote the sort of story I would love to read. I didn’t think about any particular genre, I just set out to write a real page turner that would hook the reader in and keep them guessing. Having said that, I also wanted to write a story with a lot of humor in it to lighten some of the darker themes in the book. Hopefully The Body Thief is a good mixture of the comic and the gothic.
Ooh, without giving too much away, I know this is the first in a series of books about the Winterbottoms. Can you give us any hints on what's to come? Will the children age or are you planning on keeping the story primarily middle grade?
All I can say is that the Winterbottoms haven’t seen the last of the Uncle Silas – not to mention the evil Dr Mangrove. I have five books planned in the series and while each book will be self contained the over-arching story is a classic battle of good versus evil between my three young heroes and their villainous Uncle Silas. And yes, the children will age from book to book. For example, about one year will pass between The Body Thief and the next book. But I can’t give anything else away. Stay tuned!
And stay tuned we will. I'm sure we'll be hearing more from Stephen in the future. Feel free to visit his WEBSITE.
Now, if you're not the winner of the book giveaway, you can purchase his book on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com.
And the winner of a copy of The Death (and Further Adventures) of Silas Winterbottom via Random.org is.....
Please email me your physical mailing addy, and I will forward it to the publisher!!
Congrats and thanks to everyone who entered and supported Stephen!