I’d like to introduce you to the fifty-sixth interviewee in my ‘Meet the Author’ series. He is Ewan Gault.
Hi, Ewan! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer?
Hi Susan, I’ve enjoyed reading your series of interviews, so thanks for having me. I’ve always loved writing, but only started taking it seriously when preparing a folio to get on a Creative Writing Masters course. I got on the course, but couldn’t really afford to do it so went to work in Japan for a year. I had lots of spare time over there and I guess it was then that I really got the writing habit.
Your literary novel, The Most Distant Way, will be published in September/October 2013, by Holland House Books. What is it about and what inspired you to write it?
The Most Distant Way is about two British distance runners who are training in a high altitude camp in Kenya’s Rift Valley, an area with the greatest density of elite endurance athletes on earth. They’ve been there for three months and their feelings for each other and very different personalities are causing a lot of tension. Meanwhile the country around them is beginning to tear itself apart as it descends into an election that will lead to weeks of bloodshed.
Kirsten, the female narrator, becomes dangerously involved in the plight of a street child who she believes has been killed at a political rally. Mike, the male narrator, remains totally focused on unlocking the secret to the Kenyan running phenomena, and on getting them home in one piece.
The novel was inspired by a period I spent training in The Rift Valley. As a runner it was amazing to be surrounded by so many high quality athletes. Every morning we would go out for our first run at 6am and there’d be groups of incredible runners going off in all directions.
The country was building up to an election when I was there. Elections, particularly in that part of Kenya, have often led to violence and the tension in the nearby city of Eldoret was palpable. Five years after I was there around 1,200 people were killed in the following election, including a group who were burnt to death after seeking sanctuary in a church that I used to cycle past in Eldoret.
After watching footage of this, I started to have ideas for the novel, but it wasn’t until I spent a short spell working on a British Council project in Ethiopia, Africa’s other great centre of distance running, that I started writing. When I was there I was reminded of that sense of uneasiness that most Westerners feel when suddenly brought face to face with the appalling inequalities in the world. I remember sitting in a bar in Addis Ababa and one of my co-workers pointing out that our salary could buy us 15,000 bottles of beer a week. Meanwhile in the city around us there was a cholera outbreak and people were dying because they couldn’t access clean drinking water. Obviously, we all know that this is happening in parts of the world, charities and news agencies remind us of it every week. What I wanted the novel to explore, is how people struggle to find an acceptable way to react when faced with these inequalities, and that these inequalities create a massive distance between people, which sometimes seems impossible to bridge.
When training with people from other parts of the world however, differences in wealth, background, race, etc. seem to momentarily fade. Running, unlike rowing or show jumping, for example, is just you and your legs and your lungs and your heart. It is a great leveler.
Are you working on another book?
Yes, I’m working on a collection of short stories that are all set in different countries and are based around a premise in Salman Rushdie’s novel, Shame, that, “to unlock a society, you should look at its untranslatable words.” Basically, each story takes an ‘untranslatable word’ for its title. The stories not only contain these words within them, but try to explain the often abstract concepts or unfamiliar social phenomena that these words describe.
I’ve also got a collection of linked short stories that I’ve been tinkering with for years. They’re about a group of friends from a rundown fishing village in Scotland who become involved in smuggling drugs into the country. As their friendships disintegrate one of the boys disappears, leaving the novel’s narrator to try and piece together what has happened and whether his friend’s disappearance isn’t part of some elaborate hoax. Six of the stories from this collection have already been published and some have won prizes but I really need to focus on getting the final chapters right.
What has your experience with your publisher been like? Is it everything you’d hoped for?
The Most Distant Way was edited by Robert Peett at Holland House Books. I really enjoyed the process and found that he could be encouraging and diplomatic when he needed to be, but also dug his heels in when this was required. I’ve never been a great fan of writing by committee and had found that the few times I’d gone to writers’ groups that they were more about the coffee and the cakes than serious critiques. So, I wasn’t really used to having someone seriously edit my work, but I think we established a really good working relationship. Holland House have also involved me in decisions about the novel’s cover and release date.
Give us an interesting fun fact or a few about your book.
I’ve just finished reading Adharanand Finn’s excellent book, Running with the Kenyans, in which he notes that in 2011, 66 of the world’s top 100 marathon runners were from Kenya, almost everyone from the Kalenjin ethnic group. Running is an incredibly accessible sport, yet this one group, which accounts for 0.06% of the world’s population, dominates it. Discovering the reasons for this incredible anomaly, fascinates one of the narrators of The Most Distant Way.
You’ve won awards for some of your short stories. Which ones? Can you tell us about them?
The first story that I ever sent anywhere won a Runner Up prize in The Scotsman/Orange Short Story Competition. There were 1,300 entries and I was 23 at the time, so it gave me a lot of confidence. In the following year I won The Fish/Crime Writers’ Association Prize and a competition in which you had to imagine Glasgow in the year 2020. Last year I was short listed for The Scottish National Galleries Award and The Bloody Scotland Prize. I really enjoy getting stories into shape for competitions especially when there is some sort of theme or image that you have to use as a source of inspiration.
You’re Scottish, but you were born in Kuwait and have lived in Japan, Italy, Kenya, Ethiopia, and England. What took you to all of those countries?
Sometimes I went for very obvious reasons like wanting to see different places and eat different types of food. I think you can get pretty hooked on the shock of the new. But I also enjoyed being in places where the language and the things going on around you were often untranslatable and inexplicable. I think that for a writer this can provide a sort of sanctuary in which you can create your own narratives. You also by default become a sort of floating camera, or what I think the modernists called a flâneur.
How has your writing been influenced by those places?
Well The Most Distant Way is largely set in Kenya, and in the last few years I’ve had three Japanese based short stories published. I suppose that moving about forced me to meet people who were very different from anyone that I knew in Britain. I also got used to spending a lot of time on my own, and while a writer should be immersed in life and all that, he or she also has to spend huge amounts of time alone.
You currently live in Oxford, England. Where do you call ‘home’? Does another place feel more like home to you?
My parents live in a small town in central Scotland. It’s not where either of them originally come from, but it’s where I grew up as a teenager and it’s where I go back to at Christmas and on holidays. No one that I’m friends with live there now, but there are lots of great running routes around the town and my feet know all the paths. That sort of makes it feel like home.
You graduated with distinction from Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Masters Program in 2006. How do you feel about the “rules” of contemporary writing: no adverbs, no dialogue tags, show don’t tell, etc.? In your opinion, how important are they to writing? Are there any that you particularly adhere to?
I’m really not conscious of following any rules when writing. For short stories I think Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory has influenced me, and most of the short story writers that I admire certainly have this mass of turmoil and conflict going on beneath what is being presented as ‘the story,’ but I think I just write things that I hope sound like the right words in the right order.
Are you a character/story builder or an outliner or do you use some other method?
I’m really not sure. I normally have a fairly strong idea of some sort of problem that is at the heart of the story, but whether the problem is to do with plot or character would be hard to say.
What is your favorite or least favorite part of writing?
I really like the first stages of editing when you’ve got the story and the characters down and you are refining things and noticing what needs to be cut or tightened.
Do you have a writing routine, a special place where you go to do your writing, or a certain time of day? Do you listen to music while you write, and if so, what kind of music?
At the moment I do all my writing in a café on Oxford’s Cowley Road. I’m a Secondary School English teacher so I really only have time to write in the evening and need a good supply of coffee. There are always interesting characters going up and down the road and the café is full of people typing away seriously at their laptops. The walk between the café and my house also takes me past the Iffley Road track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub 4 minute mile. When I was editing The Most Distant Way, this always seemed like a good omen. I can only really write to music that doesn’t contain too many lyrics or music which has distorted vocals. It also has to be pretty slow. If it’s too fast, it encourages me to do victory dances every time I complete a good paragraph. This is another reason why writing in cafes is a good idea as impromptu dancing is generally frowned upon. Recently when writing I’ve been listening to Soley, The XX, Burial, Warpaint and Boards of Canada.
Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!