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