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My First Time...with Leo Carew

Leo Carew, The Riff Raff

The third of four children, Leo Carew grew up in London, in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Inspired by audiobooks, he developed a late interest in reading and began trying his hand at writing soon afterwards. It was at this time that he also developed a sneaking suspicion that the city was not for him and spent as much time as possible exploring remote areas. After school came two formative months spent on expedition in the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, followed by three years followed reading Biological Anthropology at Cambridge University, most of which was spent staring out of the window, dreaming about colder climates.

Obligatory time with serious studying done, Leo returned to Svalbard where he lived in a tent for a year training and working as an Arctic guide. During this time, he revisited a novel he had begun at the age of 12 and began reassembling it in the considerable space offered by 24hr darkness. A reluctant return to London to train as a doctor and pursue a career as an army medic followed, during which time he completed his first novel, The Wolf.

Leo currently lives in London, writing, studying medicine and breaking off as often as possible for an adventure somewhere cold and wild.

He will also be taking a break to join us at The Riff Raff on Thursday 11 October. Tickets are going fast, folks, so you know what to do...

Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.

I was in a tent in the Arctic. It was 24hr darkness, I was doing a lot of walking/skiing which gave me a lot of thinking time, and the characters which had been dormant in my head since I was about 17 started waking up.

The story started taking shape in my head for months before I put anything down on paper, but I knew I was going back to the UK to apply for medicine, and that seemed to me a good time to write it all down. I’d been writing for such a long time (since I was 12) I thought I owed it to myself to see whether I could make anything of it sooner rather than later.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?

I’ve been thinking about this question for ages and the truth is nothing! It all worked out so much better than I’d ever expected. I’d have produced a completely different book if I thought there was any real chance of it getting published – I just really enjoyed producing it.

Even the negative bits like my rare forays onto Goodreads (that can be a savage experience!) have taught me so much about motivations and handling criticism that I’m very grateful for it.

What did you enjoy most about writing it? The rare moments of reading through something I’ve written the day before and finding that I have something compelling. I love throwing my characters at each other too, and finding out which one comes off best. And finding a satisfactory resolution to a plot issue.

And the worst part?

The self-doubt! Constantly thinking to yourself ‘Why on earth would anyone want to read this? I am literally sitting here making it up’

The isolation can be tough too – it’s not a very social life!

What’s your go-to procrastination method?

People-watching. I usually do my writing in cafes and get very easily distracted by those around me. That and selecting a soundtrack to work to – I spend a lot of time on YouTube looking up tunes to set my scenes to.

The Wolf by Leo Carew, The Riff Raff

Go-to writing snacks?

A mocha, and a cheese and mustard scone, as sold by the café I do most of my writing in. Another good method of procrastinating…

The book that changed you?

There are so many, but the winner has to be Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. It changed everything! I now believe I ended up living in the Svalbard and becoming an explorer because of the way that book depicted the Arctic, and also explorers (Lord Asriel and John Parry). When I realised that was responsible for where I had ended up living, lots of other things slotted into place as well.

My favourite drink is Tokay (as drunk by Lord Asriel) and I also suspect it’s why I became a writer. None of that was conscious – I thought my desire to live in the Arctic was spontaneous, but after I’d been there for about 6 months I realised I could trace it to reading Northern Lights. I really wouldn’t be the person I am now without it.

Your pump up song?

Good lord, so many. Being pumped up is one of my favourite states! Cloudbusting by Kate Bush, Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, Marble House by The Knife and The Gael as performed by Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are probably the biggest ones at the moment.

If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer, who would it be?

Probably Philip Pullman. Already mentioned how central Northern Lights was to shaping me as a character, but I also read a collection of essays he produced recently (Daemon Voices) in which he spoke about a few odd moments during his life in which the physical world had suddenly come alive – becoming symmetrical, radiant and textured.

I spent this winter writing alone on an abandoned island, and am certain that I experienced that same sensation, which I thought might be the beginnings of insanity. I have never met anyone else who’s spoken about it before, and would love to compare notes.

One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get published?

Do it for your own sake. Partly it’ll read better if you’re interested in your subject, but mostly it makes it so much easier to bear when you get rejected (as you inevitably shall), when you get dispirited (also inevitable) and when you read your first bad review (inevitable).

Why do you write?

I think I feel a bit bored by the modern world. Everything is so tightly controlled, and there are so few genuinely significant variables. I use it to explore somewhere more chaotic, which I find a bit more compelling.

There’s also just something I love about the art of trying to express yourself in original or illuminating ways. You’d sound ridiculous if you started trying to do that in normal speech, so writing gives me a free pass to experiment and be creative.

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