Sarah Lowe speaks to Steven-John Tait
First published in the Literary Lowedown Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Sarah Lowe: Summarize your book for readers.
Steven-John Tait: Vagabundo is a bildungsroman with a difference. Rather than coming of age, it’s a coming of middle age story. It’s about a man who wanted more from life but was never able to put himself out there and go after it. Full of self-loathing, he leaves society and heads for the Amazon. But on his way there he finds an unexpected town, all his regrets come flooding back to him and he decides to give life in a community one last shot.
At its heart Vagabundo is a universal story. It goes under the superficial differences we have as people and explores the issues we share as humans.
SL: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.
SJT: My two favourite things are reading and travelling. I love meeting new people and visiting different places. Some people I’ve met brought to my attention that I tell a lot of stories. So I thought to myself, why not try writing some? I enrolled in a creative writing course and began to write short stories. I was given encouragement by teachers and readers all the way. After writing a few short stories I set the goal of completing a full length novel. When the idea for Vagabundo came to me, I didn’t care how the book was going to turn out. I just wanted to stay true to the story and experience writing a novel. I treated it as a gap year, but it took 6 years to get the job done. It was the most satisfying experience of my life.
SL: Tell us about your research and writing process for Vagabundo.
SJT: I turned my second bedroom into an office. On the walls were cork notice boards where I pinned anything remotely related to the story, locale and characters. In the mornings I would draft by hand, type up in the afternoon, then print out and redline at night. When I wasn’t writing I was researching. Vagabundo is set in Brazil, a place I’ve only spent 8 weeks in; I had to gain an understanding of the language, the flora and fauna, the religions and the people to make the story true.
It came together layer by layer. I knew the ending first and set a loose outline to get me there. I knew what themes I wanted to explore but many times I’d let the characters take the pen. There were both conscious and unconscious decisions, and the story seemed to evolve between the drafts until eventually I knew I’d written the story I set out to write.
In the thick of it I’d lose track of time, gluing myself to the chair from morning till night, I’d forget to eat and got no exercise other than the occasional walk to clear my head. My family got worried and told me that I should never write another one.
SL: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?
SJT: My first writing teacher gave me this advice: ‘Let people walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.’ It stuck. I want readers to be entertained and to experience a kind of escapism, but I also want them to feel like they’ve gained something from the reading, even if that’s just the opportunity to pause and think about their own actions and opinions, to consider those of others and to think about how we all fit together trying to get along while having different motivations and ideas of how life and society should be.
SL: What writers are you influenced by, and how are those influences reflected in your novel?
SJT: One of the biggest direct influences on was an image of a homeless man by Lee Jeffries. My main protagonist was inspired by a real person, but I got stuck on my idea of how this particular man would think, what he would do. The image by Jeffries is full of character. It forced me to forget the person I’d met and dive deep under the surface of my protagonist to discover his humanity, the who, why and when of him. It was a real moment of illumination.
I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and thought to myself, if I can take one year out of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and make it into something of my own, I might have something worthy of a novel. So I set the timeline of Vagabundo to be around one year. Of course, the story turned out completely different. I hoped for a work of magical realism but I’m more of a realist writer.
I like the psychological style of the 19th and 20th century Russian writers and try to get deep into my characters. I’m not so interested in beautiful language, my aim is to make the words flow and for the the reading experience is very visual and visceral. I’m a fan of Hemingway and Bukowski and want to write solid stories about life. I also relate to the the politics of London and Orwell – the championing of the poor and oppressed, and this is reflected in my book.
SL: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?
SJT: 90 percent of what I read is by dead authors. I just finished Moby Dick. Before that I was on Lord of the Flies, and before that Naked Lunch. Next up is The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre as I move towards reading a list of books as research for my next novel.
The book I most often gift to people is The Meaning of Things by A.C. Grayling, and the novel I recommend to all who speak English as a second language is 1984.
SL: What’s next for you? Any preview you can give readers?
SJT: I’m working on a novel called Portmanteau. The idea came to me in Pilots Bar & Kitchen, Heathrow Terminal 5. I’m not sure if I actually saw or imagined him, but an old man sitting at a table finished his drink, gathered his papers into a leather shoulder bag then rushed off to catch his flight. A young man came in moments later and sat in his place. It got me thinking about how two people could be sharing the same space, but by a matter of only a few seconds, have no idea that the other exists; what event would bring them together? Portmanteau will be based mostly in South East Asia which is one of my favourite parts of the world.
SL: Where can our readers find you online?
SJT: You can find me on instagram @stevenjohn.tait but most of my posts are from my film photography instead of my writing. They can follow my writing on the Instagram pages for my books @vagabundobook and @portmanteau2022
Vagabundo is available across all Amazon sites for £ 6.99 paperback / £ 2.99 ebook or equivalent. Search Vagabundo by Steven-John Tait
I don’t claim ownership of the advice and axioms presented below. They’re processed from whatever I’ve been exposed to. I try not to use direct quotes, but where I do, I’ll annotate. Updated infrequently. Some might be repeated because I forget what I’ve already posted.
Your main priority should be to enjoy or ‘live’ the present. Don’t sacrifice your present for an uncertain future. Sacrificing your present also ruins your past, for your treasure chest of good memories will be sparse. But do plan for the future. Learn about compounding interest as soon as you read this. Own what you can instead of renting from someone else – where it makes sense to do so.
Instead of focussing on improving what you are bad at, spend time perfecting what you are good at.
You get what you get in this life, whether you deserve it or not. It might feel like a good thing or a bad thing in the moment, but over time you’ll probably find it was just another thing.
There may be times when you find yourself in a desperate situation. There will be people around you who want to help but can’t, there might be others who can help but won’t, and so you’ll have no choice but to help yourself. These are not times for self pity and doubt, they are times for resilience, strength and determination. Hold your head high and rise up. The strongest crops grow from ashes.
Be nice to other people. And yourself.
Your time is very important. Use it to gain joy and wisdom.
When someone tells you a secret, they are relieving themselves of a burden and passing it on to you.
Miserable people (toxic) want to infect you with their misery. Be cautious of them. Seek out happy people instead.
When a piece of egg shell falls into an uncooked egg, fish it out using one of the shell-halves as a spoon.
To get the skin off a whole garlic, put it in a pot and shake it like a you’re a bartender with a cocktail shaker.
Ferment vegetables using salt and water.
When you have a sore stomach, eat a piece of fermented vegetable.
When arguing, step back and try to see things from the other person’s point of view.
Always ask yourself ‘why?’ Always consider what someone’s motivation is when they ask you do do something.
Try to limit synthetic stuff – drugs, plastics, et cetera. Find a natural alternative where possible. This includes clothing. Wear wool (non-mulessed). Go organic. Conventional (and GM) cotton is terrible for the environment.
Try to find common ground with people. To work in partnership is always better than to be in combat.
Communication is better than silence.
Ghee might be the healthiest cooking oil for high temperature cooking.
Use a cast iron skillet.
Don’t be burdened by having too many possessions.
Write. By hand.
To move your body is to celebrate it. The brain might be primarily intended to enable movement. Move often. Get a sweat going.
There are many truths.
The answer you are ultimately seeking more than likely doesn’t lie with someone else.
Spend time in nature.
if you think about work when you are in bed, you are probably stressed. Think of something else. For example, things you are grateful for.
Eat healthy, organic, wholefoods.
Be in competition with yourself, not others. Your best is always good enough, IF it’s really your best.
You are never too old to do start something new. Unless you want to be pitch perfect. If you want your kids to be pitch perfect teach them before they are 4.
From birth to 7 years old is of huge importance for the formation of a child. Be careful in how you interact with them. Your goal should be to limit the damage. Any action or teaching you give them will stick like glue. J, I hope when you read this you have stopped biting your nails. You have me and your dad to blame for that habit. M, I hope you haven’t developed it.
Crying as a kid might help you get what you want. Crying as an adult never will. If you want something you need a strategy and tactics, or in other words, a plan and milestones.
Break a big, overwhelming problem into small manageable ones. Fix the small problems one at a time and the big one will disappear like an effervescent tablet dissolving in water.
Being selfish and disagreeable repels people. Nobody wants to be told they’re wrong. Be generous and diplomatic.
I think there are two types of happiness. The happiness that comes from enjoying your present moment, and the happiness that comes from working towards a goal. Balance them.
Don’t rush. Speed kills.
Your granny told me: “If you’re soft the world will eat you.” Your dide told me: “Greed is the nature of the beast.”
Balance your ego. If your ego is too big you’ll be blind to your weaknesses (but others will see). If your ego is too small you’ll never realise your strengths (and nobody will know you have any).
Things are rarely black and white. More likely they are grey.
You’ll know when someone doesn’t value your time and effort. So don’t give it to them.
Your opinions are formed on what you have learned up to now. Do not let them set. Keep them flexible so they can change as your learning continues.
You have the right to live whichever way you want to as long as you’re not hurting anyone else. You have no right to tell someone else how to live if they are not hurting anyone else.
Wherever possible give people solutions instead of problems.
Learn how to lose gracefully.
If you can’t adapt to changing environments you are doomed to fail.
Give people full attention when they are speaking to you. Don’t be messing around with your phone.
Sleep from 7-8 hours a night. Have a regular bed time. Put your phone to airplane mode when you do.
Eat breakfast within a couple of hours of waking.
When you have done something wrong to someone, apologise.
Break open a boiled egg from the round side. There’s an air pocket. It makes it easier to peel the shell off.
Try to get at least three different quotes for any work you need done.
Where do you spend most of your time? Does it bring value to your life? If not, figure out how to spend less time doing what doesn’t add value and more time doing what does.
Don’t force your beliefs on anyone else. They are free to believe what they want. At the moment, I’m vegetarian. I don’t go around telling people who eat meat that they should stop. It’s none of my business.
Cut out as much background noise as you can.
The free-thinker’s mind has no limits. Her thoughts can take her wherever she chooses and return her unscathed, and possibly wiser. The mind loyal to a religion, political party or single philosophy is not free. Its thoughts are held within a net. Yes, it can pass through it, but regardless of what it finds beyond, it will return with guilt. Be a free thinker.
When you think you only have two choices, aways try to come up with a third.
Your parents want what’s best for you, but how they express that might cause conflict when important decisions for your future have to be made; what school subjects will you choose? Will you go to university or not? Can you go travelling for a year or two? Ultimately those decisions belong to you. It is your responsibility to listen to your parents concerns and opinions, and use them along with your own acquired knowledge and considerations for short/medium/long term gains and losses, to come to the decision that satisfies you. You must live your own life, not someone else’s. (Read Kahlil Gribran’s The Prophet ‘on Children’)
No one should have to suffer for someone else’s ideology.
To criticise someone to their face is brave. To criticise them to their back is cowardly. Be brave.
Saying ‘Yes’ to one thing means you are saying ‘no’ to another. Make sure you give the thing you are saying ‘no’ to proper consideration (paraphrased Peter Mallouk from interview with Tim Ferriss).
No matter how far you travel, you can’t escape your own head. Sort your shit out regardless of where you are. Don’t expect your problems to go away because you’ve put some distance between yourself and where they started.
Control your fear by learning about what you’re afraid of, being logical and prepared.
Try to look at yourself objectively. Evaluate your actions, hold yourself accountable for your mistakes and make peace with yourself by reaching out to who you’ve wronged. Their reaction is not your concern.
When you want to build someone up, do it in a way that doesn’t knock someone else down.
When you’re feeling shy or awkward in a social situation, remind yourself that it’s not all about you, it’s about the other person(s) too. Go out of your way to make them feel comfortable and you might sort yourself out in the process.
I regret more the times I acted too ruthlessly than those when I acted too compassionately.
“Most of us, however, are specialists. Instead of a latticework of mental models, we have a few from our discipline. Each specialist sees something different. By default, a typical Engineer will think in systems. A psychologist will think in terms of incentives. A biologist will think in terms of evolution. By putting these disciplines together in our head, we can walk around a problem in a three dimensional way. If we’re only looking at the problem one way, we’ve got a blind spot. And blind spots can kill you.” Farnam Street
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