Ian Stephen is a writer, artist and storyteller. Since the late 70s his poetry and short fiction have been published in numerous UK journals, and in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland and the USA. He served 15 years in the coastguard and became a full-time writer of poetry, prose and drama in 1995 after winning the inaugural Christian Salvesen/Robert Louis Stevenson award. In 2004, he was the first artist in residence at StAnza, Scotland's annual poetry festival. He was given a Creative Scotland Award (2002-3) to sail through the geography of Scottish maritime stories. Ian's debut novel ‘A Book of Death and Fish’ was a book of the year choice in The Guardian, The Herald and The Glasgow Review. He also visited Pakistan to attend LLF-2016 and was one of the panelists of the session ‘Storytelling: Oral Traditions in Scotland and Pakistan’. In his recent interview with the Weekend magazine he talks about his career and the art of storytelling.
First of all, how has been your trip to Pakistan?
It has been a stimulating experience of great contrasts - bustle and calm, seeing donkey-carts and Mercs side by side, watching the endless swirl of black kites. The over-riding impression is one of meeting with kindness and great affinity - the human need to share experience in a language of some kind.
What is storytelling and who the real storytellers are?
For me the real storytellers are my mother and her brothers with their wit and their memories of my late grandfather's gift for casting spells with words. They are also the folk, often from travelling-people stock who have passed on tales which make a bridge between the world's cultures. Often these narratives, which cross boundaries, would have been lost without the travellers who were often despised by mainstream society. I also hear harbour-lore most days and observe how people in hospitals or offices are also driven by a need to tell their story.
Spending a long time in coastguard how the idea of becoming a full time writer came to your mind?
After completing university I balanced writing short-stories and poems, storytelling and working shifts as a part-time coastguard. Then I worked full-time as a coastguard officer (organising marine rescue) for a further ten years. I still published poems and stories and sketched out ideas for development into a novel but simply could not find enough hours to be coastguard, husband, father and writer. I took more photographs then, as an immediate response and I tended to write very spare poems. When I won the first Robert Louis Stevenson prize I plucked up courage to lead the insecure life of a jobbing writer and artist.
Did your love for boats and sea developed during the job or it had some background?
My brother tells me (the younger) that I was always a creature of the sea, not of the land. My Lewis grandfather was a herring fisherman for a time and uncles on both side of the family were in the Royal Navy. Then the family link grew less strong but I look to the land from a seaward perspective -I was introduced to lining up marks (transits) from an early age, to find fishing grounds and have been obsessed with boats as long as I can remember. It was a privilege to work in marine rescue but I found I could not do justice to being both a writer/artist and coastguard.
What is a useful comparison between navigation and storytelling?
You know for sure what your starting point is. You have a very good idea where you hope to reach. But along the way, you must be sensitive to changing conditions or the reaction from your listener. Similarly, storytelling is improvisation. This is the subject of my first work of non-fiction, due from Adlard Coles Nautical (Bloomsbury) in spring 2017.
Is your story telling ability God gifted or it is indebted to your connections with the maritime world?
That's one hell of a question. I think some people simply have a gift of narrative and the ability to engage. You can learn techniques and improve but I think all the storytellers I admire have a gift. I see it in classrooms all the time. Often there is a natural teller, perhaps not the strongest 'academic' in the class. The maritime world has always inspired storytelling. 'Swing the lamp and tell another,' my colleagues used to say, on watch. I remember the natural eloquence of my mentors, intoning their fishing marks for me. Now I've also passed these on to others.
Brief us something about your sailing projects and how these are connected with your art projects.
Because some of my work is made using photography, or video or as an artist's book or has a sculptural aspect, people often ask, 'What are you?'. The Scots word for poet is 'makar' - a maker of things - that surely covers it all? Sailing is an extension of that. For example, I once made a poetry and video blog of an attempt to sail to StAnza poetry Festival (east coast of Scotland) in winter. Another time I sent instalments of a story by satellite-phone from a voyage across the North Sea to a computer at the 50th Venice Biennale. There was a bit of luck in getting a sailing commission and an artist's commission at the same time.
How does story telling develop a love of language and vocabulary?
I loved it when my uncle Kenny told us island traditions of a bogey-man character - the scarier the better. That asking for repetition is surely about the language itself as well as the story. My own two sons would often ask for the same story, written or spoken, again and again. You could never leave a bit out. The words might be a bit different but they loved the familiarity of aspects of the language as well as the narrative.
You always prefer to combine storytelling and poetry workshops with performance and readings. How much it is important in education?
I think I'm a pretty practical person and so get a bit impatient when there is a lot of discussion on theory without putting it into practice. You can talk till the cows come home about your plan for a novel but, for me, it takes shape by the doing. For me there is an element of play as well as hard work in making things with language. Play is experimentation which can lead to innovation.
How did you master you story telling ability?
I didn't. I'm still learning, the way I still have to re-learn important aspects of navigation - like responding to the signs of a wind-shift before it becomes a problem.
What is the cardinal sin of storytelling?
No matter how eloquent you are, I think you lose the listener if you are not lost in the telling. For me there is an irony - you must make it your own, not imitate the way another tells it and yet you must respect what you have heard and be true to the tale.
How a great story comes? What are a few tips of a good story teller?
I think you have to be a listener as well as a talker.
As a writer what do you enjoy the most about the writing process?
Getting lost in it. The language takes a hold of you and you are a vessel, pushed out. It's always an adventure.
What is your favourite childhood book or story?
I think that remains Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Kidnapped' with 'Treasure Island' close behind. Both exemplify great storytelling. You are only aware of the great subtlety of the narrative techniques, much later, as an adult. I also loved my mother's trickster stories of Donald Campbell, her father's cousin who could always get out of trouble with a twist of wit.
Who are some of your favourite storytellers?
Tom Muir, from the Orkney Islands, is learned but natural and uses his strong, bass, local voice to full effect. Lawrence Tulloch from Shetland tells tales his father told, often funny or bizarre. Both have also published strong versions of Orcadian and Shetlandic tales. Two are Irish tellers; Nuala Hayes and Clare Murphy. Both are clever, lively and full of fun. From the Arctic, Stina Fagerton (Tromso, Norway) is also witty but has a strong sense of where she is coming from.
What advice do you have for other story tellers?
Enjoy it. Maybe tell your favourite stories first in an intimate setting, with friends you trust. Tell the stories that take a hold of you rather than the ones you think you really should tell.