So you’ve heard me banging on about this book The Life and Times of Chester Lewis recently, yes? If not, perhaps I haven’t been shouting loud enough. Anyway, Steve Rossiter, the man who got the ball rolling on Chester, gave up some of his time recently to answer a few questions regarding Chester Lewis, the Australian Literature Review and his own writing.
To begin with, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Grow up?
I was born in Hobart and grew up in Tasmania, until I moved to the Gold Coast as a teenager, later moved to Canberra to study at uni, lived in Melbourne for a number of years and have spent extended periods travelling around Australia.
Can you remember when you knew you wanted to be a writer? Was there a particular author or book which propelled you in this direction?
I first considered being an author at 9 years old when I started reading novels instead of shorter children’s books. At that age, some of the fiction books which appealed to me were Tintin books and Choose Your Own Adventure books. The following year, my Year 4 primary school teacher would read books out loud to the class one chapter each day. Ones that stood out were Charlotte’s Web by EB White, Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I found more Cynthia Voigt novels (my favourite was The Wings of a Falcon), as well as The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier and others, but started running out of fiction books I liked in the primary school library and branched out to novels by Stephen King, Wilbur Smith, Ken Follett and Eric Lustbader.
You established The Australian Literature Review to help emerging Australian writers to find their feet. Do you think there’s a particular need in Australia for new writers to be helped find themselves?
The aim of The Australian Literature Review is not necessarily to help emerging writers find their feet. That is one aspect, but it is also about giving readers and writers access to interviews and articles so they can get first-hand insights into how authors go about their fiction writing and their thoughts on various aspects of fiction writing. This is useful for aspiring fiction authors, but also to published authors and readers who don’t necessarily want to write their own fiction.
Australia is a relatively small publishing market which makes building a sustainable career as a novelist generally more complicated for Australian writers than writers in countries such as the US and the UK. Australia also has less world class universities where novelists can build sophisticated knowledge and writing skills to compete on the same level as US and UK novelists.
The Life and Times of Chester Lewis is the latest in a series of books published under the Auslit banner. The way it was written, with one author taking on the next stage of Chester’s life with nothing but the previous stories to base it on, could have lead in quite a few different directions. Did the book unfold in the way you envisioned?
I put the initial book concept in place, which was to chart the approximately 100 year lifespan of the main character via a story per decade in that character’s life. Beyond that, and a general idea of some authors I might invite to each write a story, I did not have a pre-conceived idea of how the book would unfold. The first story, by Michael White, established Chester’s parents and the circumstances leading up to Chester’s birth,that Chester would be born in Perth in 1932, etc. If Michael had established the main character’s birth for 1900 or 1987 instead of 1932 it would have been a very different book.
The Life and Times of Chester Lewis has an associated fan fiction competition with a top prize of $2,000. What advice would you give to someone whom this has prompted to write their first short story?
In a recent interview, Kelly Inglis asked me what makes a compelling character and I said a combination of purpose and personality. In another recent interview, I told Jo Hart that a simple but important tip is to have a story concept in mind before writing the story. (You can click on the relevant interview link to find a fuller explanation.)
You’re working on your own novel right now, set in WW2 Poland. Tell us about it? Was there a particular reason you chose that period and country?
The 1939 invasion of Poland is a pivotal turning point in world history, marking the start of WW2. It is a time and place which has gravity for people around the world, yet it is not a setting which has been overdone in novels or films. Poland is a place rich in sophisticated history. For example, Nicolaus Copernicus (who famously advanced the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way round) lived not far from where my story is set, around 400 years earlier. It is a time and place where high stakes conflict is all around in various forms while a conflict of ideas also plays out on a grand scale.
What authors do you particularly admire, or had an influence on your writing?
In a recent interview, Kerry Brown asked me which ten authors, living and dead, I might ideally select for a hypothetical book of similar concept to The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and I suggested the following might be in the running:
Robert Louis Stevenson
Finally, the question all writers dread…. Keyboard or pen?
I prefer to do the first draft in pen and do the first edit as I type it onto the computer, or to do planning and write research notes in pen and/or on a whiteboard then to type the story.
Thanks Steve for taking to the time. And if you’d like to try your hand at the fan fiction competition (and why wouldn’t you? What’s there to lose?) head right on over to the Chester Lewis site or its Facebook page. Happy writing.