Please welcome Stephen Lloyd Jones to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The String Diaries was published (in North America) on July 1, 2014 by Mulholland Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing fiction?
Stephen: Thanks for having me! I’ve enjoyed telling stories, in one guise or another, for as long as I can remember. I received my first rejection slip aged fifteen, from a British magazine called FEAR. I took screenwriting classes at university, where I also wrote my first novel (a dreadful effort, long consigned to the attic). After graduation I fell into a job at a London advertising agency. While I concentrated on building a career, the writing began to dwindle. My father’s death, a few years ago, was a turning point. I began to consider how easy it is to neglect childhood dreams. I started writing The String Diaries shortly afterwards.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Stephen: I guess I’m half and half, which makes me either an impatient plotter, or a paranoid pantser. I need to know exactly what’s happening in the opening five chapters, so I can spring out of the blocks without worrying about what’s up ahead. I do like to have a possible ending in mind and a loose idea of major plot points, but they often change along the way. I can plot for only so long before I feel the engine beginning to overheat. That’s when I know it’s time to start.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Stephen: Finding the time, definitely - an advertising career is extremely demanding of it. The String Diaries was written either very late at night or during snatched lunch breaks in coffee shops. I squeezed in edits on the train to and from London. Now things are a littler easier, as I’ve taken the gamble to write full-time.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Stephen: Other than Tolkien and Dickens, they’re mainly US authors. I’m always first in line for the new Stephen King or Dean Koontz, and I love the work of Joe Hill, Robin Hobb and Thomas Harris (I wish he’d write another book.)
TQ: Describe The String Diaries in 140 characters or less.
Stephen: A supernatural thriller about a young woman, Hannah Wilde, fleeing from a man who’s murdered the last five generations of her family.
TQ: Tell us something about The String Diaries that is not in the book description.
Stephen: Although much has been made of the novel’s shocks, it’s fundamentally a story about sacrifice and love.
TQ: The String Diaries is described as "...a sweeping thriller...". What appeals to you about thrillers?
Stephen: I love reading about characters placed in impossible situations and forced to become instruments of their own redemption. The larger the landscape upon which those events take place, the more immersed I become.
TQ: What sorts of research did you do for The String Diaries?
Stephen: The historical sections set in Budapest required the most research. I’d already visited Hungary in 2010, but I spent months studying the country’s history, poring over old photographs and maps. I also took Hungarian language lessons to ensure that the foreign phrases I used were correct.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Stephen: The easiest was Beckett, an Oxford professor of Philology. He has a minor role in the book, but he arrived fully formed and was enormous fun to write. The most difficult characters were Hannah and Jakab: Hannah, because so much of her journey is laced with pain; Jakab, because of his increasingly disturbing actions as the novel progresses.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The String Diaries.
Stephen: To avoid any chance of spoilers, I’ll give you the very first line. ‘It was only when Hannah Wilde reached the farmhouse shortly after midnight that she realised how much blood her husband had lost.’
TQ: What's next?
Stephen: I’ve just delivered the sequel to my publishers. We don’t have a title yet, but it’s out November 6th in the UK, and next summer in the US. I’m very excited about it. Meanwhile I’m about to start work on my next book. (Once the World Cup is over, that is…)
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
The String Diaries
Mulholland Books, July 1, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages
A family is hunted by a centuries-old monster: a man with a relentless obsession who can take on any identity.
The String Diaries opens with Hannah frantically driving through the night--her daughter asleep in the back, her husband bleeding out in the seat beside her. In the trunk of the car rests a cache of diaries dating back 200 years, tied and retied with strings through generations. The diaries carry the rules for survival that have been handed down from mother to daughter since the 19th century. But how can Hannah escape an enemy with the ability to look and sound like the people she loves?
Stephen Lloyd Jones's debut novel is a sweeping thriller that extends from the present day, to Oxford in the 1970s, to Hungary at the turn of the 19th century, all tracing back to a man from an ancient royal family with a consuming passion--a boy who can change his shape, insert himself into the intimate lives of his victims, and destroy them.
If Hannah fails to end the chase now, her daughter is next in line. Only Hannah can decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to finally put a centuries-old curse to rest.
The String Diaries hit all the sweet spots for me: interesting mythology, strong female characters, a sociopathic shape-shifting antagonist (who's had a long time to practice), action, fear, a bit of gore and horror, and a terrific story.
Hannah Wilde is the main character in the present as she is the most recent generation to have to deal with the horror that has been stalking and killing members of her family for years. She's a strong woman. She makes mistakes. She's a mother, wife and daughter. She loves her family deeply. She has decisions to make about how she will live and how her family and future generations of her family will live.
While the main plot centers around Hannah, Jones takes us back and forth through her family's history to show how this all started, how it has affected generations of her family, how the monster Jakab came to be, and who and what he is. It's fascinating. It's chilling as Jones slowly lets the reader in on the history of this multi-generational horror as the characters ineluctably move towards each other. Jones does a great job of building and building the tension. The end chapters of the novel are pure adrenaline as things finally come to a head.
There is gore and violence, but it's not over the top. The writing is crisp with a mythology that is inventive and different.
The String Diaries is compulsively readable. It's a taut unnerving supernatural thriller about what one woman will do to finally save her family. I loved every minute I spent reading this debut novel. I can't wait to see what Jones does next.
Stephen Lloyd Jones was born in 1973, and grew up in Chandlers Ford, Hampshire.
He studied at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and now lives in Surrey with his wife, three young sons and far too many books.