Dogma, agnostics and the Red Chair…
My guest today, Stuart Aken, says that he was born against the odds to a widowed mother in a neighbour’s bed. Then raised in a number of homes by an artist mother who knew what love meant and a step-father who lacked imagination but made up for it with affection and education in things natural. Stuart maintains he wrote all the wrong things for a lifetime until he learned who he was and I thought that apart from the initial burst into the world, all we writers have done exactly that: written all the wrong things until we ‘grew up’. Stuart welcome,
To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Hull, more properly Kingston Upon Hull, is a largish city on the Humber estuary in the north eastern part of England. I was born in a neighbour’s house, since flattened, as it was considered a slum. My Mum, widowed only 3 weeks earlier, had been thrown out of the house she lived in as it belonged to my late father’s employer, who wanted it to employ a new man.
Mum married again when I was five and we moved to live in a converted railway carriage, still on its wheels, perched six feet from the cliff edge at Hornsea, overlooking the North Sea. It was a wonderful, idyllic childhood; walking the mile or so along the beach to the local primary school and spending summer days on the sands.
My step-dad found a new job, complete with a car, and we moved to Hessle (a dormitory town for Hull), where, following my mother’s death, I finished my education at the age of 16 and left to join the Royal Air Force as an apprentice photographer.
What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, I wanted to be a priest in the Church of England, as I had a crush on the local curate, a man who married and spent his first two years ministering to the Inuit in Alaska.
At eighteen I discovered that the Air Force wasn’t the experience I’d hoped and dreamt it would be. I just wanted to be back in civvy street.
Thirty, I was nine years into my first marriage and living down south in Colchester, Essex, working in the Unemployment Benefit Service. I wanted to be a full time writer back in my northern home, and away from an increasingly unhappy marriage, which loyalty had me endure for another nine years.
What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Raised in the traditions and beliefs of the Church of England, experience made me question the validity of religion around the age of eighteen. There followed a lengthy period of atheism, where I rejected the whole idea of God and especially the paraphernalia of organized religion. Later, limited maturity (I am, after all, only a man!), reflection and further experience made me rethink that stance. I now describe myself as an evangelical agnostic and take a passionate stance that there may or may not be a force or power we can call God, but that this would be something so far beyond our experience and capacity to understand as to be inexplicable. My distrust and dislike of all organized religion, which attempts to define a force I believe to be beyond such restrictions, remains.
What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
Career path is a grand term for what’s been a fairly organic and chaotic development. That I would write was a given from around the age of ten, I’d say. I’ve always loved reading and books and, being without TV until I was fourteen, I read a great deal as a child. The Air Force was effective in a negative way, though it did afford me the opportunity to further my education: I read every book in the library on base, which included works on philosophy, psychology, the sciences, history and many different works of fiction. It was negative in that it taught me I didn’t want a life prescribed by the false discipline of others. I discovered I was, like my mother, an artist by temperament.
My mother’s death, in a car driven by my step-dad (not his fault) just two days after my sixteenth birthday, was influential in many ways. It had a detrimental effect on the school exams I took only a couple of weeks later but, more importantly, it was the event that moved me out of home and into the Air Force.
Later in life I looked at the world around me and saw so much injustice in so many different areas and became convinced that leaders, in all walks of life, are generally bad for the rest of us (though I can think of no viable alternative to democratic government). This attitude still drives my writing, as one of my major themes is to do with the effects of injustice.
Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you- – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
Much is made of the technological revolution. I’ve lived during a period of exponential change in terms of technological advance. But, whether I’d call that change ‘progress’ is open to debate. The book continues as the first choice for many in terms of education, entertainment and informational resource. Whether this is as a printed package between soft or hard covers, or as a digital display on some form of screen, doesn’t really matter in the end.
Although I was initially trained as a photographer, and still enjoy making pictures, words are what fascinate me. I love the infinite possibilities that reside within this wonderful language of ours. Stories have been told since mankind first gathered into groups for protection and social intercourse. To be part of that long and exciting tradition, to add my own tales to the vast compendium, is a great honour and a fabulous means of expressing my feelings, ideas, fears and hopes.
Oh, and I write a daily blog as well.
Please tell us about your latest book…
The Methuselah Strain was born as a short story (a rather long one, at around 10,000 words), which I entered for a novelette contest run by The New Writer magazine in the UK. It won a special commendation and then rested in a drawer for years, for want of a suitable outlet.
Recently tidying files on my PC (I have over 14,000 Word files and they need a bit of culling from time to time to avoid the hard drive becoming engulfed by over-population) I came across this almost forgotten work. A second reading showed both flaws and missing elements. I developed the story and the characters until I had around 26,000 words describing the lives of the remaining human beings on an Earth depopulated and overcome with technology. The love-story, which I believe to be an integral part of any successful work of fiction, came naturally out of the interaction of characters and environment.
This is the story of a future Earth and one woman’s attempts to save humanity from the indignity of fading away through indifference and indolence.
If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
Amazing, I know, but it would be something to do with reducing injustice and the influence of organized religion on life in general. Go on, admit it: you never expected that, did you?
Whom do you most admire and why? Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Most admire? That includes a great many people. I admire courage, individuality, creativity, persistence, and wisdom. So, the panoply of heroes includes, amongst others, Nelson Mandela, JFK (for all his faults, he moved things in the right direction), my mother, William Horwood, Gandhi, J K Rowling, and the millions of unsung, unnamed women who carry on their lives under the rule of despotic and frightened men the world over.
Ambition? Well, it goes without saying that I’ll be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature (one way to ensure you never get that, by the way, is to suggest you should), and, of course, the Booker, and maybe a Pulitzer.
But, actually, I’d be happy if a few people were sufficiently changed by my writing that they became better human beings. That, of course, is far more ambitious than any of the previous realms of fantasy I suggested.
What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Oh dear, this is where I become even more unpopular. So many writers and industry gurus seem to actually want to encourage the wanabees. The industry professionals do this, of course, to increase the number of gullible fools who’ll invest in their often inadequate schemes.
My advice is to aspiring writers is to forget it. Go and do something you’re good at. Around eighty percent of so-called writers are incompetent and, if employed in some trade or other, they’d be sued for the poor quality of their work.
I say this in the full knowledge that those who are truly writers, those who cannot do other than write, will continue to do so in spite of anything I might say. That’s the true measure of a real writer: it’s something you do because its absence from your life would be intolerable.
What are the last five websites you visited?
I have the memory of a gnat when it comes to trivia. But I can, with some sweating and pain from the effort, recall that I visited LinkedIn, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook and your own website this morning. Though, whether that tells readers anything about me, is a moot point.
What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
Having ditched the guilt gifted us by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I feel no remorse at enjoying what this life provides for pleasure. But, in the spirit of the game, I’ll confess to a sneaking enjoyment of the company of women. Not for lascivious reasons (I’ve been very happily married, this time round, for 23 years), but because I find them both physically and mentally far more fascinating than my own gender. (Now, all the men hate me as well; oh dear!)
If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
For all that I admire the Bard, I’m not sure I agree that music is the food of love. But we’ll bypass that thought.
Writing, to me, is a raison d’être. It fulfills the role of educator, informer, entertainer and recorder of events. It allows the building of stories to enlighten, amuse and engage the mind and emotions. Words can make a reader smile, cry, rage, hate, fear, love, laugh, and engage in any human emotion you care to name. Powerful, influential, persistent, interesting and elevating; writing is, perhaps, the essence of intellectual existence. Hope that doesn’t sound too pompous.
I’m a Brit, so some of the above (I leave it to you, as the reader, to determine which) is necessarily ironic in flavour. This also explains the idiosyncratic spelling, of course, as well as some of the phraseology. Who was it who said of America and Britain that we were two nations divided by a common language?
Prue, this has been fun. Thank you for the opportunity to put some flesh on the public bones I expose to those who do me the honour of reading my words.
Links, as follows:
Amazon USA – http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=stuart+aken&x=12&y=17
Web site: http://stuartaken.co.uk