Last week I reviewed the highly entertaining Bitter Sixteen, by UK author Stefan Mohamed, and today, Stefan has graciously agreed to visit the blog and answer some of my questions. Plus, Salt Publishing is offering two copies of the book (to UK residents only!), so if you’re eligible to enter, keep reading to the end of this post.
Please give a warm welcome to Stefan! Welcome to the blog, Stefan!
Hi! Thanks for having me!
How long have you been writing, and how did you get your start in publishing?
I’ve been writing since I was young – it’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. I first started writing stories in school, then when I was about seven I was given a creaky old Amstrad word processor and started using that to write stories at home. I’d always make huge plans for epic fantasy and science fiction trilogies, then write maybe half a (terrible) chapter, get bored and write something else. I’m a bit more disciplined now.
It took a while to get a foot in the door in publishing. I won the Sony Reader Award, part of the Dylan Thomas Prize, for an older draft of Bitter Sixteen back in 2010, not long after I graduated from my university creative writing course, and managed to get a literary agent off the back of that – he’s been utterly invaluable. I thought at the time that everything else – publishing deal, film rights, world domination etc – would fall into place immediately but it didn’t quite pan out like that. At this point, though, I think the extra time was a good thing. It’s allowed me to get the story in shape, write plenty of other things, and generally mature as a writer and as a person! And we’ve ended up with a very supportive, understanding and dynamic publisher in Salt.
One of my favorite characters in Bitter Sixteen is Daryl the talking dog. What made you decide to feature a talking dog in your story?
He seems to be the break-out star of the book, definitely! To be honest I can’t remember exactly where he came from – I’d love to say he just walked fully-formed into my brain, or that I saw a beagle and then watched Casablanca and a lightbulb went on over my head, but it’s getting on for ten years since I wrote the first draft and some of the creative decisions are buried in some neglected filing cabinet at the bottom of my brain. I was sixteen so I probably just thought it was cool! Actually, to be fair, I still often include things because I think they’ll be cool. You just have to be prepared to jettison cool stuff if it’s not working narratively, which is always painful.
In terms of the purpose Daryl serves in the story, as Stanly is a loner with few if any human friends, I think it makes sense for him to have someone to talk to at home, someone to sound off to. And I like that Daryl’s presence is both ultra weird and kind of normal – he’s obviously a totally fantastical, bizarre character, but in a way he keeps Stanly grounded in the real world, which is a contradiction I enjoy. It is odd that I would have chosen to make him a dog, though, ‘cos I’m definitely a cat person.
Ha ha! Well, I’m a dog person, so I adored Daryl:-D The word “Bitter” in the title seems to be an underlying theme in the story. Would you say some of Stanly’s experiences in school—being bullied, having a hard time making friends—come from personal experience?
There is an element of personal experience, yes. I didn’t have too much trouble making friends at school, luckily – I was not a cool, enigmatic loner, I desperately wanted people to like me! – but I did have lots of problems with bullying. School is a hard, cruel environment, especially for odd shy kids, outsiders. It’s a cliché to say that every day feels like a battle, but it really does – kids can be so awful to each other. And I suppose in a way Stanly represents how I would have liked to have dealt with things – he takes bullying in his stride, shrugs it off with a quip, then if necessary punches people. Whereas I tended to just keep my head down. There were a few times when I stuck my head up above the parapet and fought back, but I nearly always regretted it afterwards, for one reason or another.
Bitter Sixteen is full of pop culture references, and Stanly and Daryl both love genre movies and TV shows. What are some of your favorite things that you geek out over?
Well, Buffy obviously! All of Whedon’s stuff, actually – I think Angel is a hugely underrated series, as is Dollhouse. And Firefly obviously is a perfect little gem. Lots of other TV – Veronica Mars, Person of Interest, Community, Rick & Morty, Breaking Bad. I’m a big Star Wars geek too, and I’ve come back to Star Trek in recent years, having dismissed it as naff for a while when I was a teenager. I love Terry Pratchett’s books and was really sad when he passed away recently. Comics like Preacher, Saga, Ms. Marvel, Rat Queens. I’m also a massive music nerd.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I’m an absolute Joss Whedon fanatic as well:-D There are lots of superhero stories out there. How is Bitter Sixteen different from all the others, and what can readers expect from this story?
One of the main things I wanted to achieve with the story – and this is one of the reasons I wrote it as a novel, and not as a film script – was really getting into the psyche of someone discovering their superpowers, and exploring their effects and consequences with some psychological depth. I’m not saying that films or comics lack psychological depth, of course, but the kind of internal monologue that I work with in Bitter Sixteen is something that’s very unique to prose, I think. You can get really close to the character, get inside their thought processes. And while it is a hyper-real version of our reality, I wanted to explore the ramifications of discovering crazy stuff in a recognisable world, and play the fantastical elements and the mundanities of everyday life off one another. I find those juxtapositions really fun to play with.
It’s also very much written with fellow geeks in mind – but as with Spaced, another TV series I adore, the references are there for those who want to pick up on them but hopefully don’t detract from the story if you don’t!
You also don’t get many Welsh superheroes…
I understand you are working on (or have already written) two follow-up books to Bitter Sixteen. How exciting! Can you tell us a little about what’s in store for Stanly and Daryl and the gang?
Let’s just say things escalate quite dramatically! While there is an overarching story being told, each of the books is quite different in terms of tone and pacing. Bitter Sixteen is smaller scale, more personal, and very much a traditional origin story in many ways; I wanted a fairly self-contained narrative in which to set up Stanly, his world, his friends etc. The sequels expand the world, the threats, the consequences of the powers. Stanly will be pushed to his limits. Maybe beyond…
Since I’m a huge Buffy fan, and I know Stanly is too, I have to ask you this question. What is your favorite Buffy episode?
Tricky one! Very tricky. There are so many different types of Buffy episodes – brilliant comedy ones, heartbreakingly emotional ones, awesome action ones, weird conceptual ones. So it’s kind of hard to pick one that sums up the whole series. If I were going to do that I might pick Becoming Part 2, because it ticks all of the above boxes…
But actually I’m going to go for The Body. It’s not a fun episode by any means – in fact it’s probably one of the most harrowing pieces of television I’ve ever seen. But its impact, and the fact that there are hardly any supernatural elements to it, is a testament to the strength of the characters, the relationships that have been built up between that family of people, and between them and the audience. And ultimately I think that’s why people connect with Buffy so strongly, and why it’s still so adored now. Cool fighting, epic mythology and snappy dialogue are all great, but they’re no substitute for a set of characters you love like they’re your own family.
And of course I’m going to chime in and say my favorite episode of Buffy is probably Conversations With Dead People. It’s simply brilliant! Please tell us three things about yourself that can’t be found on the internet.
I love carrots. I’m about the same height as James Marsters (i.e. not tall). And I once played the part of Bugsy Malone in a school production (I also played Romeo once, but – weirdly – that was after having written Bitter Sixteen).
Talking with you today has made me ravenous for a Buffy and Angel series-rewatch-binge! Thank you so much, Stefan!
STEFAN MOHAMED is an author, poet and sometime journalist. He graduated from Kingston University in 2010 with a first class degree in creative writing and film studies, and later that year won the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize for New Writers for BITTER SIXTEEN.
Stefan lives in Bristol, where he works as an editorial assistant, writing stories and performing poetry in his spare time.
And now for the giveaway: Salt Publishing is kindly offering up two copies of Bitter Sixteen to anyone from the UK! I know this is an unusual demographic for a giveaway, at least for this blog, but the publisher is located in the UK, so it makes sense. So, UK readers, please enter below and spread the word!