Sophie Stewart

Sophie Stewart is a writer of middle grade fiction based on the UK south coast.

Sophie Stewart is a writer of middle grade fiction. She is drawn to stories with fantastical, otherworldy elements and enjoys the creeps. Her first novel is a gothic adventure set in the French Alps.

For many years, Sophie has worked as a drama specialist in a school for young people with learning difficulties, teaching communication through storytelling.

After graduating from Glasgow University, Sophie taught in India, Nepal, Japan, Thailand, and London before settling on the UK south coast, where she lives with her husband and daughters. When she isn’t writing, she can be found doing epic DIY projects, singing, doing yoga, gardening, reading, or making puppets.

Sophie is represented by Kristin Ostby.

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Author Interview

When and how did you start writing?

Despite a love of books and stories, and studying literature at university, the idea of being a writer never even crossed my mind as I was growing up. It was something that other people did, extraordinary people, and, as a normal human being, I was encouraged to get a “proper job.”

So, I became an English and Drama teacher and was lucky enough to spend the next 20+ years sharing my love of stories with young people. Over the years, I wrote so many plays and films and school shows, and told and read so many stories, that I started to believe that the story that had been bubbling away in my imagination for years might have a life of its own.

In November 2019, I finally gathered all my scribbled notes and pictures, took a deep breath, and began to write. I started tentatively, using far too many words, drowning the action in description, and unsure of whether I would even get to the end.

But the more I wrote, the more ideas sparked and the more the story developed. And, as my confidence grew, my output snowballed.

Alongside this, I took an evening course in making hand puppets with a wonderful artist and puppeteer called Daisy Jordan. As I was writing, I created puppets of my characters and by doing so, I was able to find their stories and voices and physicality; they seemed to come to life in my hands.

By the end of May 2020, I had a first draft! I’d written a book!

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

As a very small child, I was terrified by a picture book called The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It was about a child who went on a stealing spree with an elephant and then was chased home by all the shopkeepers, including a butcher with a huge axe! As a child, I hated getting into trouble, so this book was a fascinating nightmare for me, and I asked for it to be read over and over.

I’m showing my age here, but The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton captivated me as I became an independent reader and words made worlds in my mind for the first time. I remember longing for the faraway tree to be real and to visit it myself. Even as an adult, I still look for that tree.

Can you talk us through your career so far? What were the key moments?

At the end of May 2020, I finished the first draft of my first novel just in time to enter the Times/Chicken House children’s writing competition in the UK. In July, I found out that I’d been longlisted. I’d been chosen as one of the last 17 from nearly 1,000 entries. That was a super high!

I then made a small round of submissions to agents. There was interest, and I got a handful of full manuscript requests, but it wasn’t ready—yet! I realized that there was lots more work to do, but I had no idea where to start.

So, in the autumn of 2020, I enlisted on a three-month children’s and YA course with Curtis Brown Creative, mentored by Catherine Johnson. I’d also been given a reader’s report from the Chicken House senior editor Kesia Lupo and got advice from the wonderful Sarah Stewart at Lighthouse Literary.

Armed with a much better understanding of the craft of writing for children, the potential of the book and a shiny new group of writer friends, I set to work taking the story to pieces and putting it back together.

With all the existential difficulties of that strange year, it took until May 2021 to finally reach a point where I was happy to share it again. I sent out another small round of submissions and within a few days, I’d heard back from Kristin Ostby. Another super high!

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

In the summer, I write in an old shed that I converted into a “making space,” overlooking the garden. When it gets cold and wet, I retreat to the back of the spare room.

I have to write around my teaching job and family, so I tend to need deadlines to force me to carve time. Before joining Greenhouse, I used competition entries as goals to keep me focused. If I’m honest, I don’t think I have any regular patterns yet. But, when the story gets a grip on me, or I have a deadline, I work like the clappers.

The original sources of inspiration for my first novel came predominantly from time spent visiting my parents in the French Alps—the mechanical music, festivals, street theatre, clocks, snowy peaks. Otherwise, I find ideas everywhere—conversation, books, museums, galleries, nature, films. I also collect images—photos, postcards, Pinterest pages—and often draw pictures to help me visualize what I’m writing about.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

For those setting out: You won’t necessarily know everything about your story or about writing or publishing before you begin, and that’s okay. Have faith in the writing process being extraordinary and teaching you all sorts of things about yourself and your capacity for creativity.

You can research and make connections and learn from the internet and books about writing craft as you go along.

Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

Character agency: This was the biggest learning curve for me. I wrote the entire first draft with a main character who was just along for the ride. When I realized that she had to drive and activate the story, it was a revelation (an involved a major rewrite!). It seems so obvious now but really wasn’t when I started. Thank you, Catherine Johnson.

Editing: Initially, I worked alone, reading chapters aloud and crunching sentences, analyzing the structure and making brutal cuts in service to the story, adding and shifting details. When I could do no more, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with Kristin who got right inside the story with me and asked all the right questions.

Stories: The way that I read and watch film, TV, and theater has changed. I often find myself analyzing structure or character or action in a much more active way and thinking about whether I can apply successful elements to my own writing.

Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

Well, I would have to invite Francis Hardinge and Neil Gaiman. I’m sure I’ll think of more, but we’ll start with them. I don’t want to be too overwhelmed.

I wish I’d invented Malcolm from Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. I just love him. My daughters laugh at me when I tell them he’s the son I never had.

Actually, can Philip come too?