Write On! interviews prolific fiction and non-fiction author Stewart Ross.
After several years teaching at university and college level in Britain, the USA, the Middle East and Sri Lanka, Stewart became a full-time writer 33 years ago. With some 350 published titles to his credit, he’s one of Britain’s most popular and versatile authors. His fiction and non-fiction works include widely acclaimed and prize-winning books for adults and children, including the long-running Coming Alive/Flashbacks/Timeliners series, The Soterion Mission trilogy, and non-fiction on exploration, British monarchs, Scotland, Sherlock Holmes, the World Wars, and the Middle East; many of which have been translated into other languages. He has also lectured on cruise ships, at ICES (La Roche sur Yon, France), Rollins College, Florida (US), and Canterbury Christ Church University (UK). Stewart lives near Canterbury, Kent, and commutes each morning to work in a large hut in the garden.
WO: How would you describe your writing/work to someone new to it?
SR: The most satisfying and enjoyable way of making a living I can imagine.
WO: Can you tell us a bit about your latest book Queen Elizabeth II For Dummies?
SR: As often happens, it began with a call from my agent. Was I interested? Well, maybe. It all depends … Video calls with the publishers in the US followed and within a few weeks it was contents, sample material, contract, and off we go.
I’d never written for the Dummies series before, and the very strict format took a bit of getting used to. (The text has to be written on pre-defined templates – typeface, spacing, etc.) At first, I found it a bit annoying, but soon realised that working within fixed limits is quite creative. Like writing sonnets, it forces one to focus. Creativity does not mean lack of discipline.
The most enjoyable aspect of the project was digging into the lives of assorted royals, their scandals and failings as well as achievements and trying to present old stories in fresh ways. While, at the same time, standing back and putting the whole hereditary monarchy malarky into a broader historical perspective.
All the time I had to remember that the prime market was the US, with its love-hate relationship with the idea of monarchy and its incomprehension of many of our arcane institutions and traditions.
All in all, a worthwhile experience that forced me to consider my own opinions and prejudices and look carefully at the way we do things.
WO: What inspired you to write in the first place, and what inspires you now?
SR: I was inspired by the career of my great-grandfather, a Victorian writer, freethinker and publisher, by my love of books (they smell and feel so good), stories and history, and by a desire for independence.
WO: Previously Write On! explored the theme ‘Worlds Apart’. With that in mind, do you find yourself drawn towards writing about the world you know intimately, or do you strive to discover a world unknown?
SR: I do both. My non-fiction deals with this world, past and present, while much of my fiction – The Soterion Mission trilogy, for example – carries me into other worlds. But not fantasy. I’m not into broomsticks!
WO: The current issue of Write On! explores the theme of ‘Home’. With that in mind, how important is a sense of belonging to your writing process? Do you find your idea of home working its way into your creativity? Is there a feeling or place that you continually find yourself coming back to?
SR: I hadn’t really thought about this until you asked the question… How fascinating! I suppose it can be taken on different levels. On the most fundamental, the answer must be yes: my fiction is rooted in physical places I know. Some are where I have lived and others I have visited. This is important to me in order to give a sense of place to the reader, not just visual but also sounds, smells, and that elusive quality we call atmosphere. On a much more abstract level, I suppose the ‘home’ question that recurs to me time and again as I’m writing is best summed up by Alexander Pope’s observation on humanity: Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d: The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
WO: What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring writer?
SR: Read all you can and read like a writer, taking each word, phrase, sentence as a lesson.
WO: Question from Twitter user: @madeleinefwhite What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
SR: Depends on whether fiction or non-fiction. For non-fiction, it’s a matter of seeking (but never finding) objective truth and judging, where required, by the standards prevailing at the time under discussion. With historical fiction, anything goes. Fiction writers should be free to write whatever they want on any subject, even if they tread on precious toes!
WO: Can you tell us anything about future projects?
SR: I’m re-writing The Captive, a hostage love story, and publishing my Ten Covid lockdown stories: The Dark Web. I also have another Dummies idea.
WO: Lastly, if you could choose one fictional animal/creature to be a pet or companion, who would it be and why?
SR: Hmmm, tricky. Not a great fan of the twee, so I’d go for something from Roald Dahl: the ant/aunt eater, or Fantastic Mr Fox.
You can find out more about Stewart Ross at his website: www.stewartross.com and connect with him on Twitter: @booksmyth.
Queen Elizabeth II is available to buy from Amazon.
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Writing is the most satisfying and enjoyable way of making a living I can imagine.