Meet the author

Five minutes with Stephanie Butland

Stephanie Butland’s new book Lost for Words was released yesterday and the writer is riding high on book launch buzz.

The book is set in a bookshop – wonderful! – and is getting rave reviews for its mixture of tenderness and mystery. Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look closely, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are things she’ll never show you.

Fifteen years ago Loveday lost all she knew and loved in one unspeakable night. Now, she finds refuge in the unique little York bookshop where she works.

Everything is about to change for Loveday. Someone knows about her past. Someone is trying to send her a message. And she can’t hide any longer.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? As an extra treat, here’s Stephanie reading from the first chapter.

Fabulous, eh?

Stephanie took five minutes out of her busy book tour schedule to tell us more about Lost for Words and her writing process.

Authors and readers never seem to tire of books about bookshops. What makes them such a good feature of storytelling?

There are many things that a bookshop can do, and be. A bookshop holds, pretty much, every instruction manual you need for life. On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find exam guides, recipe books, maps and dictionaries. At the other end, there is fiction to help you to understand or escape your world, and poetry to make you think. A story set in a bookshop can take you in any direction. You can go into the past, the future, deep space or the centre of the earth. There is endless potential in a bookshop – and that’s before you even think about the people who work there, or walk through the door!

So, a bookshop setting has endless possibilities – but it is also recognised by writers and readers, I think, as being a safe space from which to explore life.

What the five key ingredients to a perfect bookshop?

Only five?! Ok:

  • A sense of welcome. Not the eyes-and-teeth ‘Hey how can I help you today?’ type of welcome, more the sense that here is a place where you can ask questions, browse, and relax; the feeling of coming home.
  • Somewhere to sit down. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a chaise lounge or a windowsill. Some books demand browsing and reflection and you can’t always do that standing up!
  • Books! And not just the books that are in the charts/the newspapers. Backlisted novels of popular authors, books in translation, books that are odd and interesting and will probably never be bestsellers. Basically, ALL THE BOOKS.
  • One of the things I like about a bookshop is the fact that you can’t see all of it at once.
  • Like-minded people. Not necessarily people who like the same books that you do, but people who understand why books matter, and why you came in for the new Stephen King and have bought a graphic novel and an Agatha Christie too.

(There’s a poem about the ideal bookshop at the end of Lost For Words!)

Loveday Cardew is a fantastic character. Do you miss your protagonists when you stop writing them?

Yes! This is my first first-person novel and the experience of writing down Loveday’s thoughts was a delight, even in her darkest moments. It also put me very much inside her head – it’s strange not to be there anymore. There are odd times (when I’m tempted to tell someone off for Poor Bookshop Etiquette, for example) when I feel ever so slightly possessed.

With the novels I’ve written before (and the one I’ve completed since) there’s a similar feeling, of ‘something missing’, when a book is done. A book is at least a year of my life and, once I’ve decided what the characters are going to be, they are with me fairly constantly during that time.

On social media, you talk a lot about your frustration with “Past Me” and the now indecipherable notes she left you in a work in progress. What is your process for writing and editing your books?

Ah, yes, Past Me, who has great faith in Future Me. She leaves notes in manuscripts that say things like ‘MORE DETAIL!’ and “CAN YOU SAY THIS BETTER?’ because she obviously thinks that the things she can’t quite face will at some point become easier…

My process is slightly different with every book, but broadly: after reading and thinking around a concept for a couple of months I’ll have an idea, which is usually: a character, an event that kicks the story off, and a sense of what the ending will be. I’ll write myself into it – then somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 words I’ll think ‘aha! that’s what this book is about!’. I’ll usually spend a lot of time talking to people who can help me, around this time, and usually start to learn something too (performance poetry, in the case of Lost For Words).

Then I’ll research more, think more, and write more – sometimes this draft will get to the end but more often I’ll have another pause about two-thirds of the way through when I’ll need to think/research/rethink again.

Once I get to the end I’ll print off the manuscript, and go back to the beginning, rewriting and making notes. This is when Past Me comes into her own, making her helpful suggestions…and I’ll go back to my advisers, asking them to check for errors.

What’s next for you now that Lost for Words is released?

I’ve just finished my next novel, which is about Ailsa, a young woman who has had a heart transplant and is learning how to tango (and to live). I’m starting to mull the next one, which may well have something to do with photography, but it’s too early to say more.

I met Stephanie a few weeks ago at a mutual friend’s hen party. We had a delicious afternoon tea together and talked about books, writing, reading and everything in between. She’s as lovely in real life and she appears in this post, and I wish her all the best with the launch of Lost for Words (not that she needs it – it’s going down a storm).

If you’d like to meet Stephanie or hear more about Lost for Words, she is touring bookshops across the country to talk about the book. Check out her website for details.

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