Stephen May, novelist, playwright, TV writer, and purveyor of quality rugs (see photo), is a Southerner by affliction, but now lives in Mytholmroyd (pronounced… don’t ask me, I don’t live there) which is close to Hebden Bridge, the ‘lesbian capital of the UK’. Mytholmroyd is the birthplace of the poet Ted Hughes and also hosts the annual World Dock Pudding championships (where Robbie Coltrane came second in 2007). Stephen lives there with his partner Caron, who is a champion boxer, and their son Herbie. Stephen also works for the Arts Council, teaches Creative Writing, and runs a festival. Busy man.
I met up with him last week on a train from Newcastle to Leeds. I’d just read his excellent new novel and thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him a few questions. The book is called Life! Death! Prizes! (published by Bloomsbury) and is about a 19 year old boy called Billy. When his mother dies after being mugged for her laptop, Billy takes on the role of parent to his 6 year old brother Oscar. At first he appears to be coping but his world starts to fall apart as his obsession with the man who killed his mum grows.
I read Tag (his first novel) a few years ago and loved the way he dramatised the growing relationship between a sixteen year old excluded girl and her teacher. The tension was present on every page and the voice of the sixteen year old girl was entertainingly spiky and humorous. I was very excited to buy a copy of Life! Death! Prizes! at a launch event a few weeks back. I soon became equally as gripped by this book and found his portrayal of Billy and Oscar very compelling and ultimately poignant. I was really pleased to see in Billy’s character a sort of antidote to the tabloid portrayal of young people. That’s not to say Billy is a saint, but a flawed and complex human being who is trying to do the right thing. As a piece of writing, it’s a great achievement, a thoroughly enjoyable read, and although the book deals with failure, my overall impression was a writer who believes in people and their ability to do the right thing.
Tell me three things about you I don’t know already.
In this googleworld in which we live almost nothing is secret – but maybe these have escaped the streetview data thieves: I’ve never had a pet. I don’t own a television. And didn’t go on a plane until I was 26 (the same year I learned to drive…)
You’ve blogged previously about the misery of writing for Emmerdale, but what did it teach you?
Emmerdale taught me don’t ever do anything just for the money, especially when it’s not all that much money. Working for Emmerdale I felt that I had sold my soul and sold it on eBay at that. If you’re going to sell out, you should at least get the going rate don’t you think? It did also remind me over and over that much of a writer’s life consists of ripping stuff up and starting again. Before deciding that the words you ripped up were probably the good words after all… It taught me that I can write to order very quickly when I have to. But most of the time I felt a fraud. The wrong person, in the wrong place and the wrong time saying all the wrong things. Quite demoralising, as you can imagine.
Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire? Why?
Franz Kafka – because he seems to capture perfectly the restless, pervasive anxiety of the modern mind. Robert Louis Stevenson for the story-telling. Fay Weldon who is inexplicably out of fashion but is as inventive as any other living writer, taking artistic risks which are interesting even when they fail. Ian Macdonald whose book on The Beatles helped me hear songs I thought I knew well all over again. Hear them almost as if they had just been recorded. He committed suicide and I’m very angry with him for that. I want to hear his thoughts on a whole host of other great songs, and I never will now. And the translators of the King James version of the bible were pretty good…
What’s wrong with English Literature?
Nothing much. Except there’s too many writers and too few readers. There’s things wrong with the publishing industry, but the work itself seems in good health to me.
Why is the book called Life! Death! Prizes!?
It’s the tag-line from Chat magazine and seems to sum up some very contemporary view of how life plays out. And, Billy, the central character of my book takes some comfort from the fact that the lives written about in mags like Chat are worse than his. And also, despite the horrors people go through in Chat, they are generally optimistic – despite everything.
Where and when is the story set and how important to the book is this?
The book is set in a smallish Essex town round about now. My view is that the real beating heart of the UK is not found in London, or the big cities, but in all the thousands of small towns. Bedford, Kettering, Colchester, Dunfermline, Mirfield and so on… and my town – Southwood is one of these. I am – and always will be – a small town boy. And so are most of us, however far we travel.
How does a middle-aged man write convincingly from a nineteen year old boy’s perspective?
I’m not middle-aged! – but I have a teenage step-son and also a much younger boy, so I had a living breathing example of a kind of Billy/Oscar dynamic in front of me as I wrote. I was a young parent (my daughter, Hannah, was born in my final year at University) and I have been a teacher. So several laboratories in which to see teenage lives develop. Also teenagers are not an amorphous mass any more than the middle-aged are… It’s capturing what’s different, unusual, unique about your characters that makes them believable I think, whatever age they are.
What do you think the book says about young people and single parents?
I think – hope – my book says that families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. And all families need support and all families can stumble. And that young people are smart and resilient sometimes. And scared stupid at others. just like the rest of us in fact.
Both Tag and this new book feature a cross-generational relationship at their centre. What draws you to explore this?
Somebody said you ignore your obsessions at your peril. And yes, clearly, I’m pulled back to this area (I am in the novel I’m writing currently too). It might be something to do with having a bullying father. It might be something to do with having become a parent while still pretty much a kid myself. It might be because emotionally I’m stuck in a perpetual state of being 17… but early adulthood is a bewildering time full of conflict and change and – often – mistakes. The stuff of good stories in other words. I should say that I don’t write YA novels and I never would. These are emphatically adult books.
If you could change one thing about Britain, what would it be?
A proper grown up country doesn’t need a monarchy. Oh, and I’d raise inheritance tax… To 50 or 60% of estates over £250K just for starters – use the money to encourage real social mobility…
BTW – do you like Dock Pudding?
That dock pudding – essentially a dinner of weeds – is our local delicacy just tells us how poor and how desperate ordinary people once were around the Calder Valley. It’s a reminder of the harsh reality of working class life in the not so distant past, and also a reminder of how resourceful people are.
Everyone should eat a dish of it once a year. But no more than that.
LIFE! DEATH! PRIZES! can be bought from all the usual places. Dock Pudding is a dish best served cold.