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Creatives in profile: Steve Gay

A city on fire, a community in turmoil, a family torn by its principles.

Steve Gay’s first published novel, The Birds That Do Not Sing is set on the day after the World War II city bombings campaign. Now available for purchase in paperback, the novel was inspired by long-told tales from his own family history. Launched on the even of the 80th anniversary of the Coventry Blitz, the novel is told through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy from a pacifist family in neighbouring Rugby.

A writer of historical fiction, sci-fi, thrillers and short stories, Gay spent his childhood in Rugby in the UK, and in New England. He grew up writing stories, then put them aside for far too long, working as an underwriter, a salesman, management consultant and lobbyist. Years of commuting and business meetings, of doodling and daydreaming rekindled a habit of writing fiction, of collecting and shaping the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens’ that lie behind the real world.

It was while graduating from Warwick University’s highly regarded Warwick Writer’s Programme two years ago that his The Birds That Do Not Sing began to take shape. NITRB’s Ellen Lavelle reviewed the novel last week and caught up with Gay just before the book’s release. Gay told her all about the process of turning fact into fiction, his early writing influences and why we should blame Lisbeth Salander for everything he’s written.


INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live? What’s your background/lifestyle?

GAY

I live in Rugby, where ‘The Birds that do not Sing’ is set. My family has been in the town for a hundred years, and although my life took me away from the town for a long while, I returned in 2010 with my wife and children. I retired recently and now with work behind me I am free to spend more time writing.

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you? 

GAY

Exceptional people past and present, particularly people who rise from humble beginnings to become leaders: Lewis Hamilton, Greta Thunberg, spring to mind. Landscapes also inspire, environments that provide the adversity from which great characters and epic stories emerge. 

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love or do you have another passion?

GAY

I never happier than when I am ski-ing. I love the French Alps and have many happy memories of days when the weather was perfect and the snow pristine. I always take my laptop, intending to write when I am away, in a local cafe or bar. Good intentions – but it never quite works out that way.

INTERVIEWER

The Birds That Do Not Sing is loosely based on the wartime experiences of your father. What was it like turning memory into fiction? 

GAY

My father supplied many of the details that are woven into the story, but people have a tendency to describe circumstances rather than feelings, particularly in a formative period of their life. The passing of time doesn’t always deliver a clearer perspective. It requires persistence to dig behind what is being said, but sometimes they will surprise you (and themselves) with comments that spring fresh and raw from the past, things that have never been said before. And when that happens, when you hear a comment like ‘Little birds that do not sing…’ repeated verbatim after 80 years, you know you have stumbled onto something meaningful, found the story amidst the jumble of memories. 

Steve Gay’s father, Charles, on the Elephant in 1938.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about your main character, Jim Brown. We see Jim as both an elderly man and a young boy. What was it like writing about a character at two very different phases of life. Do you feel like you know Jim better as a result? Did you have to make any technical decisions when writing, to make young Jim sound young and elderly Jim sound elderly? 

GAY

We all have psychological drivers that shackle us, and in young Jim’s case it is about doing the right thing and knowing what that is. His mind is that of an engineer, valuing precision, and struggling with ambiguity – at a moment in our history when opinions and values, and truth itself was shifting like the sands. I don’t think we change as we get older, not really, and elderly Jim isn’t a different person to the 10-year-old he once was. The challenge in writing the story was to separate a single character into two subtly different voices – so the reader would become immersed in young Jim’s life, no longer hearing the mature narration of his older self but sliding away into something more innocent. The elephant is a prop in this process, providing a bridge between the naïve outlook of the child and something more knowing – although as a make-believe friend, it had to stay within its limitations. ‘I only know what you know’, says the elephant. ‘I just know it differently.’

INTERVIEWER

Which writers should we be paying particular attention to at the moment? 

GAY

I am going to duck this question, because I think one of the greatest joys of reading is to stumble upon a story or a writer yourself – to open a book in a dusty shop (or even online) and think ‘Wow’!  At the moment, I am paying particular to non-fiction – particularly history. We are living through extraordinary times, and I find knowing the past helps me make sense of it, put it all in boxes. Andrew Marr has done me a service these past months. Besides – non-fiction has all the best stories!

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank screen to completed manuscript? Do you plan the plot before you write, or do you just dive in? 

GAY

I always had plans in my working life – without a plan things are bound to screw up. But I write for enjoyment, and I don’t find planning much fun. I have a reasonable idea of where a story is going, and I write down notes as they occur to me, but I tend not to see much beyond the next bend in the road. The ideas emerge instead from the process of writing rather than by sitting with a chart in front of me. It means I write a lot of material that I shuffle around or discard in a second draft, but I find I can write more freely that way. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a writer? 

GAY

I think it as much about integrity as responsibility. You want to present your story in an authentic and thoughtful way – to walk in your characters’ shoes, give them their voice, rather than making them mouthpieces for your own perspective. Ultimately the interpretation belongs with the readers, but if causes them to think, to care enough about what you have written to make a discussion of it, that has to be a good thing.

INTERVIEWER

What was the first book that made you cry? 

GAY

To Kill a Mockingbird. Nothing hurts so much as injustice.

INTERVIEWER

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

GAY

Labouring in the midday sun is hard, risking your life breaking ships, or scavenging on a rubbish heap to support your family. Hard is being a healthcare worker in these times of Covid – at any time, actually. Writing is a privilege, and most of us are drawn to it by passion rather than necessity. A blank page – how fortunate we are to have such adversity!

That said – I prefer the drafting and editing to story building. One I find relaxing, the other just turns the brain to knots.

INTERVIEWER

Name a fictional character you consider a friend. 

GAY

Lisbeth Salander – though she doesn’t really have friends. Lisbeth’s voice snarled in my ear until she forced me to give writing a try. So, blame her for everything I have written. Since Lisbeth’s staged her intervention with me, the fictional characters of my writing have become my friends – and more reliable ones – you have to really like characters if you are going to spend hundreds of hours in their company. Lisbeth would hardly give you the time of day.

INTERVIEWER

Did getting published change your perception of writing?

GAY

I published ‘The Birds that do not Sing’ independently. It didn’t change my perception of writing, but it did open my eyes about publishing… the myriad pitfalls, the countless things to annoy and exasperate. Above all, it has caused me to see writing not as an art, but a craft – one that has to be approached with humility and pursued with a determination to improve. And then what you have achieved is simply a product – something that requires another set of skills to produce, package and market – and the economics can be daunting. Oh, to just…write!

INTERVIEWER

Which book deserves more readers?

GAY

I will tell you a book that deserves more writers – it has had plenty of readers in its time and won a Pulitzer Prize. Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’ is a book I have been reading for a number of years, and I may never finish it. The reason is that it is so packed with lessons on the craft of writing that it makes me want to put it down and go to my laptop. It is a book that nourishes, but fills me up so easily that I can only sip at it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any friends that are writers? If so, do you show each other early drafts?

GAY

Yes, I made many friends on the Warwick Writing Programme – all of us fellow sufferers of this writing addiction. ‘Hi – I’m Steve, and I am… a writer.’ We do share our work, we provide a safe haven to show our experiments, to receive criticism that is knowledgeable and well-meaning. To receive the gift of honesty. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? 

GAY

Something different. I like writing science fiction – escaping from this world into one where the only rules are the ones you make yourself. I am planning to publish the first book in my sci-fi series next summer.

QUICK FIRE ROUND: 

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book? 

GAY

Every Man for Himself (Beryl Bainbridge)

INTERVIEWER

Saturday night: book or Netflix?

GAY

Netflix is more sociable on a Saturday – other nights, a book might win.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 

GAY

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents? 

GAY

The Argentinian Tango…. I wish.  

There is this trick I can do with two corks and I…  

INTERVIEWER

Any embarrassing moments?

GAY

Are you kidding? Which item, from which page of my curated collection of embarrassing moments do you want? I wish I was as diligent about recording my moments of joy. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s the best advice you ever received? 

GAY

Well, my Dad said: ‘Son, get a job doing what you want to do… and if you can’t, get a job doing what you don’t want to do.’  I did the latter for far too long – now it’s payback time!

INTERVIEWER

Any reading pet peeves? 

GAY

Books that are longer than they need to be. Books that are shorter than I want them to be.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a theme song?

GAY

Often stories come with a theme tune – something that attaches to it muse-like as I write. My first novel was a thriller, and for some reason the song was The Fray’s ‘How to Save a Life.’  My sci-fi novel was Eva Cassidy’s version of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, and The Birds that do not Sing, was (perhaps less surprisingly) Gracie Fields singing ‘The Thing-Ummy Bob Song’.

INTERVIEWER

Your proudest achievement? 

GAY

My children – how could it not be?

INTERVIEWER

Best advice for writers just starting out?

GAY 

Think carefully where you are ‘placing your camera’ in each scene, and then look through that lens unwaveringly, and write what you see happening. 

Click here to see Steve Gay’s profile on the Rookabbey Press Website and to buy a copy of The Birds That Do Not Sing. You can buy the ebook from Amazon and follow Steve Gay on Facebook and Instagram. Steve also gave this fascinating interview in The Rugby Observer and you can also read the story of how came to write the novel here.


About the Interviewer

Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She works as a digital copywriter and is writing a novel. You can find her interviews with authors on her blog and follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. 

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