Steph Swainston: 'I need to return to reality'

Fantasy author Steph Swainston tells David Barnett why she is giving up her day job

The critically acclaimed novelist Steph Swainston has a dream: to be a chemistry teacher. Yes, you read that correctly.

While there are doubtless many teachers spending their summers writing novels, with an eye on escaping the lesson plans and daily commute, Swainston has been there, done that, and had enough. And now she's throwing in the towel to retrain as an A-level chemistry teacher.

It's a move that will surprise her fans. And she has a lot of those, having had four novels published in a genre – fantasy – that typically generates a vocal and faithful audience. But it's also a move that has surprised her publishers, Gollancz. Swainston decided partway through a two-book deal that she didn't want to carry on, and has instructed her agent to negotiate her way out of the contract. The advice to those dreaming of packing in the nine-to-five to write books, it seems, is be careful what you wish for.

"There's just too much stress on authors," says the 37-year-old Swainston. She lives near Reading now, but grew up in West Yorkshire and she hasn't lost her gentle accent. "The business model seems to be that publishers want a book a year. I wanted to spend time on my novels, but that isn't economically viable."

Perhaps the gestation period of Swainston's first novel in her Castle cycle, The Year of Our War, spoiled her. It was published in 2004 but she had been concocting stories about its imaginary world, the Fourlands, since childhood.

Filtered through the years of adulthood, Swainston's stories resonated with a market that was eager to embrace something different in the genre. The buzz at the time was about "the new weird", exemplified by China Miéville's novels and utilising the recognisable building blocks of fantasy, such as cod-mediaeval settings and non-human races, but with the sensibilities of contemporary fiction, an experimentalism in form and style, perhaps even a certain radicalism.

So while the Fourlands, on the face of it, might look a wee bit like Middle Earth, and Swainston's winged hero Jant can fly, he also has a nasty little drug habit, wears T-shirts, and reads sports reports in the newspaper.

The Year of Our War and its sequels in the Castle series, No Present Like Time and The Modern World, earned sparkling reviews and the thumbs-up from celebrity fans ranging from the aforementioned Miéville to Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon.

But – cautionary tale alert! – the writer's life isn't what it could be. For starters, packing in the day job can be a mistake. Swainston says: "Writers have to have something as well as writing, something which feeds back into their work and makes it meaningful." She references the 19th-century Scottish writer and reformer Samuel Smiles. "He said that if you are going to be an artist, you should have a job as well, so that you're not relying on your art to pay your bills. If we don't have external influences ..." she pauses, "well, look at Stephen King. All his characters seem to be writers."

Then there's the lack of human interaction: "I suffer terribly from isolation while writing. I really need a job where I can be around people and learn to speak again. It's much, much healthier to be around people. Human beings are social animals."

And then there are the fans. I first met Swainston at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow in 2005, when her star was ascendant. She was on a panel discussing the influence of drugs on the genre. (She was speaking from some experience, having once worked for a pharmaceutical company developing medicines from cannabis.) Afterwards, when I spoke to her, she seemed harassed, impatient. She felt that no one was really listening or engaging; that the fans simply wanted to outdo one other with namechecks of books and authors.

"I don't have a problem with fandom," she says. "But I don't think fans realise the pressure they put on authors. The very vocal ones can change an author's next book, even an author's career, by what they say on the internet. And writers are expected to engage and respond." She pauses. "The internet is poison to authors."

Swainston is also unhappy with the "book a year" ethos of modern publishing: "Publishers seem to want to compete with faster forms of media, but the fast turnover leads to poorer books, and publishers shoot themselves in the foot. And it's as if authors have to be celebrities these days. It's expected that authors do loads of self-publicity – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forum discussions – but it's an author's job to write a book, not do the marketing. Just like celebrities don't make good authors, authors don't really make good celebrities."

All of which, in a roundabout way, is why she's decided to stop. It isn't as if her career's on the wane; the fourth Castle book, Above the Snowline, was published to acclaim, the Finnish edition of The Year of Our War was recently shortlisted for the Tähtifantasia Award for best translated fantasy book, and Swainston is to be a guest of honour at the 2012 Eastercon SF/Fantasy convention, a commitment she's honouring despite withdrawing from the genre.

She says: "I have to get back to real life again. It wasn't an easy decision, because it took a lot to get to the stage of being a published author. But during my teacher training so far, I've dealt with so much – flooded schools, fire alarms going off, children being sick ..." And, after living in her own fantasy worlds for so long, it's this seeming mundanity that Swainston craves. That and "doing something meaningful with my life". But won't she miss the writing? "Chemistry feeds that sense of wonder that made me want to be a writer in the first place," she says. "Besides, I've never said I won't write again, just that if I do write another book, I'll do it on my terms."

From 'The Modern World' (2007) By Steph Swainston (Gollancz, £7.99)

"... From birds I learnt the trick is not to flap all the time but glide as much as possible to save effort. It's a game of wits for me, though. When I was on drugs, I took the overfamiliar countryside for granted; flying around in a daze, delivering letters or failing to. No longer – I was seeing it with new eyes, full of gladness that I'm clean at last."

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders