AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Stewart Foster

    Stewart Foster

    CHECK MATES

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    JULY 2019


    CHECK MATES, the latest novel from Bubble Boy author STEWART FOSTER, follows Felix whose struggles with ADHD make it hard for him to progress in school. When his mum suggests he spends more time with his grandfather, Felix is dismayed; things haven't been the same since his Grandma died and now all his grandfather wants is to teach him how to play chess. But some lessons can be surprising, and life-changing.

    We asked author STEWART FOSTER to tell us more about CHECK MATES:


    Q: How did you find writing Check Mates compared with writing your earlier titles, The Bubble Boy and All the Things That Could Go Wrong?

    A: I found it a little bit more straight forward than the others because for once I had the story planned in my mind. Whilst I never work to a plan, it was good to just have a rough outline to work to.


    Q: What does a story idea need to have to entice you into it, and how does the novel develop for you?

    A: I have to find the character first, then once established in my head their story will follow. The character doesn't have to be likeable, but it helps to have empathy or an affinity with them.

    Storywise, it has to be unique, but most importantly believable.


    Q: The main character in your novel, Felix, has ADHD. Why did you decide to give him this challenge, and how much research did you need to do into it before you could write about Felix?

    A: At first I started with no plan to give him ADHD, but as his character grew his restlessness and poor attention span evolved naturally.

    From the point of research, I did interview two school children and their support workers, however I drew mostly from my own experiences of the condition. I decided that the best way for Felix to learn was by using his imagination and visualisation. Therefore I allowed granddad to encourage these attributes, rather than suppress them.


    Q: Check Mates focuses on Felix and his grandfather, why did you want to cross generations and also to bring history - the grandfather's background - into a contemporary story?

    A: In these days where parents have so little time due to work pressures, grandparents have an increased role in their grandchildren's lives. I wanted to encourage children to talk to their grandparents to find out what life was like before computer games.


    Q: Felix and his grandfather bond over chess as he teaches Felix how to play the game. What made you decide to use chess as the focus?

    A: As a child, I remembered playing Snakes and Ladders with my grandparents and how it made us sit round the table together concentrating without any distractions. Using Chess seemed a natural progression from a simpler game.


    Q: And what gave you the idea of the ten 'rules' his grandfather teaches him?

    A: I like lists - it gave it a focus and it gives you an insight into the character of the person who has written them.


    Q: Do you play chess? Where did you go to research it and all the different moves that Felix's grandfather teaches him?

    A: Yes, very poorly! Research of the types of chess moves came from online and meeting a chess expert from a local club. A big influence was the film, Pawn Sacrifice, which Felix watches during the course of the book.


    Q: You also explore how friends can affect how we behave and also bring out aspects of ourselves. Why did you give Felix such very different friends - Jake and Rebecca?

    A: I didn't want pigeon hole Felix into being a naughty kid, albeit with good intentions. So Jake was there to encourage his imaginative, playful side, whilst Rebecca offered stability.


    Q As Felix's perspective shifts, are you suggesting to your readers that we can decide the kind of person we want to be?

    A: It's about not accepting who people think we are - it's that through effort, application and dedication we can be anything we want to be.


    Q: What would you like your reader to take away from this novel?

    A: It's important to believe in yourself and find someone who believes in you.


    Q: Where is your favourite place to write and what are you writing now? What do you enjoy doing when you're not writing?

    A: I live on a boat and I like sitting on the on the sofa there to write. I love to cycle up mountains!


    Q: Have you read any younger books recently that you'd like to recommend to our members?

    A: I Really Want to Win, by Simon Philip is one of my favourite picture books. An a chapter book that's really made me laugh out loud is Charlie Changes into a Chicken by Sam Copeland - watch out for the French pigeons!





    THE BUBBLE BOY

    SIMON & SCHUSTER

    MAY 2016


    Joe is eleven and has spent most of his life inside a 'bubble', a special room in hospital that keeps him safe from life-threatening germs. Then he gets a new nurse, Amir, who firmly believes in aliens - and that Joe should have the chance to leave his hospital room.

    We spoke to critically-acclaimed author Stewart Foster about THE BUBBLE BOY, a moving and compelling read, and what inspired him to write his first children's book. He answered the following questions for us.


    Q: You were previously working in finance, so what took you into writing?

    A: I have always liked books and reading and while I was working I still wrote poetry and stories - but I wouldn't tell anyone about it. Then I was in my 40s and we were heading off on holiday to Cornwall and my wife heard about a short story competition for Waterstones and said, "You should do it". I bought a laptop there and then and then missed the deadline for the competition! But it got me into writing.

    Some time later I wanted to get a degree because I thought I might want to teach, but I realised the only degree I could do would be in creative writing. I wrote a book while I was doing the degree and, while it's not been published, my next novel called We Used to be Kings was. And now I write full time.

    Being a writer isn't always easy, I've been doing it for six years now and it can be isolating, but it's the little moments that make it feel worthwhile, not just seeing your book on a shelf but I remember reading one review that said, "I can't believe how much this book has helped me" of my first novel. Moments like that catch you unawares and make it all worth it.


    Q: Why did you decide to write for children when your debut novel, We Used to be Kings, for adults was so well-received?

    A: When I started writing The Bubble Boy, about a boy with Severe combined immunodeficiency or SCID, I had the idea and I just started writing. It was only when I was 20,000 words in that I realised it was probably a story for children although I think it would also appeal to adult readers.

    We Used to be Kings has adult subject matter but it's quite childlike in the way it was written. Like my other books, this is written in the first person. I wanted this story to be told from Joe's perspective.

    I wanted a child as the main character who had not been influenced by any other children, so he is untouched by the outside world. I decided to keep him in the hospital room as a way to maintain his innocence. He's a pure person. All he has is words and television and relationships and he's only had relationships with people that care for him so he retains his innocence. So it's a very pure story.

    I think I'm a little tired of everything being a bit portrayed as a bit evil, as contrived. I just wanted to show that one person on his own with hope and imagination can still get by and it doesn't have to be horrible. An innocent child can make people happy.


    Q: How did you drive the story when your main character is trapped in one room?

    A: When I start writing a story, I don't have a particular plot in mind, what drives the story for me is the relationships. Even if people are quite isolated, like Joe in his room, he still establishes relationships and that's what I enjoy writing, people chatting one to one.

    Amir, the nurse who comes to look after Joe, was a bit character to start with but once he started talking, I knew I had him; I knew the relationship between him and Joe would work.

    I seem to end up writing about very close relationships. I get irritated with a lot of television dramas, like Eastenders, where they are so dysfunctional and it's all about argument and conflict. I'm interested in relationships where people are making each other happy.


    Q: One of Joe's friendships is with another boy, Henry, who has similar medical problems to Joe but who lives in the US. How hard was it to develop their friendship as they can only communicate online?

    A: I remember when I was at school we used to have penpals who we wrote letters to - there was no internet in those days - and we'd write and tell each other what we were doing. I had my penpal for a year or so. Joe can actually talk to his 'penpal' online and although they live so far apart, they are very close. It was important that each of them had a 'sounding board' in the other but because they live so far apart, they can tell each other anything.


    Q: Did you need to do much research into Joe's condition before you could start to write about what happened to him?

    A: I decided I didn't want to research everything about Joe's condition and then write the story; I wanted the story to be paramount. So there would be moments in the story when Joe would feel lousy and I'd research why he might feel like that and found out about white blood counts and how doctors might make him feel better. For the first part of the book, I needed to know about blood cells; later on I needed to find out what could be lurking in our car's air conditioning systems!


    Q: Why is Joe such a superhero fan - and who is your superhero of choice?

    A: I think superheroes are about escapism. We've all lost a few of our dreams along the way and when we watch a film it's because we want to escape. For Joe, superheroes are his escape because they help to get him outside his room when he escapes into the superhero dimension. They can do anything! All Joe wants to be able to do is the same things everyone else does but in his mind, being a superhero is more of a possibility than going outside to have a coffee with someone.

    I used to love Superman when I was younger and I've always loved the Spiderman films but I only started reading the Spiderman comics in the last four or five years and think they're really good - I love the idea of someone trying to do good most of the time.


    Q: How did the character of Amir, Joe's nurse, develop?

    A: Amir was inspired by a real life person I met while I was waiting to see a good friend who I'd had an argument with. We'd arranged to meet in Soho and while I was waiting for him, checking messages on my phone, a guy walked up to me and asked why I was taking photos of him. I think writing We Used to be Kings has helped me to recognise mental issues and writing that book had also made me decide that, if I ever saw someone who looked distressed or who needed help, I would chat to them.

    When I spoked to this guy, he said he was a pilot from a plane that had crashed into a mountain. He sat down with me and I could see someone here who had every fear in the world. When my friend arrived, we had to go but this man had left a real impression on me. It upset me because he just looked like any ordinary person in the street but he had so much fear inside him.

    Four or five months later, I saw in my head a nurse walk into a room a say the line, 'Do you believe in aliens?' and he spoke just like that man. I think it was his mannerisms, rather than his issues, that inspired Amir. He spoke very rapidly and flitted from one conversation to the next. But I hadn't thought for a moment when I met him that I would put him into my novel.


    Q: Amir is a firm believer in aliens - are you?

    A: I can't say I've been watching the sky for aliens like Amir does, but the book is set near Heathrow and, like Amir and Joe, I love watching the trails that planes leave in the sky and the stories they tell. So on a 747, you'll have 300 stories sat in there - who are these people, where are they going, what will happen to them when they arrive....?


    Q: What's the future for Joe, will you write a sequel to his story?

    A: I'd love to revisit Joe's story for a sequel but what would I be exploring, and will he survive? I am very optimistic for Joe, there are more developments in this area so I think he will be alright but he might have another five years or so in his 'bubble' to come!


    Q: So if not Joe's story, what you are writing now?

    A: My next book is a take on bullying but it's taking quite an unusual angle on bullying and I'd not banked on the emotional impact it would have on me. I found out that a friend of mine experienced a similar kind of bullying, day after day, when he was only ten or 11 and it's horrible.


    Q: Where do you write and what's your routine?

    A: I write from home in a little cottage, I don't have a particular room I write in, often I'm just on the sofa with the laptop, writing while the music is playing and I just type away.