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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, thriller writer David Stephens talks about the inspiration behind his new book, The Disappeared.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed David Stephens about his life and career, what inspired the story of his new thriller book, The Disappeared, and his creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I have spent almost a lifetime working in the Global South teaching, researching and advising on ways to improve primary education, especially projects to encourage girls into schooling. Six years ago, my wife landed a great teaching post in Lima, Peru and my university in England – Brighton – agreed somewhat reluctantly – I could go part-time. With time on my hands and a view of the Pacific from my desk I thought, ‘Well, you always said you’d write that novel….’
When did you first WANT to write a book?
As a university professor, I have enjoyed writing academic and student textbooks – and the last one was about the role of narrative as a research method in the social sciences – but always felt drawn towards fiction. Aged 13, I won the Brooke Bond Tea national short story competition, so I guess it’s take me awhile to find my groove.
When did you take a step to start writing?
In terms of creative writing, in the mid-1980s I attended two Arvon Foundation writing retreats based here in the UK. One of the tutors, P.D> James said to me, ‘You must keep going, dear!’.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
My first novel, ‘Purely Academic’ was published in 2017 and it took about 2 years from idea to publication, helped in that it’s a campus satire and I was living its context every day. In fact, given the state of UK higher education at the moment, it is less of a satire and more of a documentary.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Much longer, in that it is set in Peru and involved a great deal of travel into the Andean valleys, meeting the grandmothers of the disappeared, learning Spanish, which meant about 2 years research, a year writing, and a year finding a publisher i.e. ‘we liked it but we didn’t love it’! So about 6 years in all.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Disappeared?
I have always been fascinated in disappearance, and upon arrival in Peru learnt more about the disappeared – 69,000 – who were abducted and killed during the battle between the Shining Path and the State. I was also estranged from my son and it seemed I could combine a father looking for his ‘disappeared’ son and the broader issue of disappearance during conflict.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Disappeared?
I was helped a great deal by Peruvian friends. I set up the Lima Writers’ Group who provided much help. COVID in Peru was a challenge, particularly for the poor, and my wife had health issues which provided a challenge to both of us.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
My main character is based a little on myself but also my father. I was also inspired by many strong female Peruvian women I met who helped me create the female character, Julia.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Ah, well I haven’t met too many drug Lords or rogue army officers but during my work as an academic in some challenging places e.g. Afghanistan in 2003 where I met Taliban chiefs and Liberia in the 1980s, I did run into a number of ‘strong’ warlord characters.
What is the inciting incident of The Disappeared?
The phone call, Hugh the father receives, telling him his son, Adam has disappeared.
What is the main conflict of The Disappeared?
The main conflict is between those searching for the disappeared loved ones and seeking justice for those lost, and the corrupt forces responsible for the initial disappearances and, importantly, the continuing trade in cocaine. A minor but important conflict is also between father and son, a conflict that may be a reason for his voluntary disappearance. There is also a conflict within Hugh – his loyalty to his dead wife and his growing love for Julia.
Did you plot The Disappeared in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I wrote it freely but kept a careful record of the plot as it emerged.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Disappeared need?
Yes, I hired an excellent editor – who was also an accomplished writer – who presented me with a 15 page report of minor and more major suggestions/changes. I’ll use him again. Editing of the plot and character point of view was very helpful.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
‘Don’t get it right, get it written!’.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’m a good way in to a literary genre novel, The Cottage at the Edge of the Saltmarsh’ set on the North Norfolk coast and exploring how reliable is our knowledge of the past, particularly when events in the present collide. It has two protagonists – a retired man and his deceased wife – their experiences told in present and past alternating chapters.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, I am. In many ways it is a gift to the country – Peru – in which it is set.
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