I’d like to thank Finbar Hawkins for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about his second novel, Stone. Firstly, congratulations on another brilliant story. I am a huge fan of Witch and was delighted to get the opportunity to read Stone. 

Thank you so much, Krystal! Delighted to be here! ;-)

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the story?

It’s about a teenage boy called Sam who’s dealing with the loss of his father, a soldier killed in a bomb attack in the last days of the British Army’s involvement in Afghanistan. 

On the day of the funeral, Sam goes walking up on the hills near the White Horse, where he and his father had often walked and talked, sharing their love of folklore and legend. He stumbles across a strange stone, ice-cold to the touch, and this object seems to give him visions, make him faster, stronger. 

The story is about how Sam navigates his grief, at first pushing back against his family, his younger sister Beth, his mum and friends. 

And it’s about how the supernatural, the unknown elements of the universe, start to weave about him, drawing new friends to him, in the form of the mysterious Oona, and a gruffly kind old man, Bill, himself grieving in his widowhood. 

Ultimately the story is about how Sam starts to find a way to continue, how memory, myth and magic show him a path.

The imagery in your writing is so beautifully vivid and honest. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing for you and what that looks like?

Thank you so much. Well, the process is a mix of lots of different things. I keep a journal for each book where I scribble down things as they’re occurring to me. I also put notes into my phone, as often when I’m walking the dog or out for run, I’ll be turning over things in my mind. To be honest a lot of things come to me when you’re not thinking about them directly. I like this – that our subconscious is always sifting thing gently, not forcing the ideas. I sketch a great deal too, as I find that visuals help me ground a scene. I like to visit locations of where I’m setting my books, and I take a photos that I print out and keep in my eyeline when I’m pottering around my study. And, when I’m starting on a new draft, I try to keep writing every day, just a little – 2-300 words – but it means that I’m chipping away at things, exploring things, or working on backstory. A lot of writing is rewriting, so for the initial draft I tend to write more before honing down.

It is obvious that a great deal of research has gone into both Witch and Stone, when writing about the witch trials of the 16th and 17th century along with Norse mythology. How important is it to you to show historical accuracy in your writing?

Oh gosh, well this is huge for me. I’m still, will always be, that child fascinated with the history, myth and folklore of the British Isles and Ireland. I really adore delving into the background of things, because other than it being just fascinating, there are always, always things to inspire you, give you ideas for plot, a character or a scene. Research also gives you that important texture to things. Our reading mind loves to jump on a small detail, a piece of authenticity, as this helps to build the sensory experience, the immersion in a story. It’s also why I like to research flora and fauna in a setting, to ground the reading audience in a situation. 

The plot for Stone is beautifully interwoven with interesting characters such as Bill. Which comes first for you, is it the plot or the characters and why? 

It’s a bit of both to be honest. We want a story to have a ‘hook’, a scenario that we can immerse ourselves in, to keep those pages turning. But it’s characters who ultimately drive the story – the plot is what happens to them, and the reader needs to identify with those characters and what they’re experiencing. What would the audience feel and do in that situation? With ‘Witch’, ‘Stone’ and the new book I’m working on, I’ve known pretty quickly what the situation is, but its the characters who journey through that situation that I work on first, outlining and exploring initial scenes. 

Sam and Oona develop and instant connection in Stone. Where did the inspiration come from for the characters of Sam and Oona?

I think all writers are magpies. You delve into your own memories and feelings from being a young person, the memories and stories of others, as well as things you read (research again!) and sometimes things you just observe and scribble down. I also have teenage children, so often something they relate to me will go into the mix. Where we live in Wiltshire there’s a lot of MOD land and local barracks. Just that idea stuck with me too – young people growing up with the Army life and all that it entails. Sam and Oona come from that world, so there’s something there in how they connect with each other. 

The time shift between both books is very apparent, Stone being set within modern day in contrast to Witch. Was it always your intention to have a time shift between the two books?

I started writing ‘Stone’ about a year or so before ‘Witch’ came along. I very much wanted to explore this idea of a young person, on the threshold of adulthood and how they would cope. I am also drawn to how time is a very odd thing – that it shifts and bends around us. And alsohow things repeat through time, like an echo. I like this idea of things being buried, how those echoes can get stronger when we unearth ancient things. So when ‘Witch’ came rushing into my brain, it just seemed natural for me to link them using the eponymous stone that appears in both stories. They’re standalone but I wanted to explore this idea of two young people in completely different moments in history, and how their emotions echo across time.

Both Witch and Stone begin with death/loss. Why did you decide to begin both stories in this way and how important is this to how the narrative unfolds thereafter?

I think it was this echo theme again. I wanted to write from the perspective of a girl and a boy in different moments, dealing with very intense emotions, which have a potential outlet in the stone. While both stories deal with death & loss, they’re coming from very different places. Grief and how it affects our mental health is a really important thing. Evey in ‘Witch’ is fortunate enough to encounter Anne, who has a healing effect on her. While Sam finds himself in psychotherapy and, while initially resistant to it, starts to bring his barriers down. I am also continually fascinated with how death is dealt with by human civilisation, how strong a part it plays in religion and spirituality, and how we have no real notion of what the supernatural is, how the universe works. So both books look at death from lots of different angles. 

There is very strong imagery linked to birds in both books. Can you explain the significance of this? 

Who doesn’t love birds?! I am a bit obsessed I will admit. Other than being beautiful and fascinating, I think it’s how they link us with a prehistoric world, and also how birds are a huge part of folkore, myth and art. I think humans have probably always been fascinated by them – the desire to fly, or taming birds as friends, or as hunters, and importantly as messengers. We affix story and superstition to them continually, so there’s something about how birds flit through our subconscious, alighting on our ideas, pecking at our memories. Birds also give us context in a story, arriving at different seasons, and they’re useful to create atmosphere. They can conjure something both peaceful or eerie in a moment.

We would love to know whether you are currently working on any other books. What are you allowed to tell us?

It’s very early days, but I can say that I’m working on a ghost story. It’s been an ‘of course!’moment with me, given spooky stories go hand-in-hand with my interest in folklore and myth. I think it’s been kind of sitting there waiting for me to pick it up. Given your questions earlier about historical research and writing process, it’s playing to all of those things. I’m already enjoying delving into background and reading widely, finding juicy bits of inspiration, writing quick thoughts as I walk and think. It also has a setting I can get to andexplore, take pictures and sketch. So all my favourite aspects of story-telling are in play already. And being a big M.R. James fan it means I can get inspired by my favourite reading material at this time of year. There’s absolutely nothing better – and I think integral to our innate desire to tell stories – than curling up in a corner with a dark tale during the cold winter. Oh, and be assured, in this new story there will be birds ;-)

Can you describe Stone in three words?

Mortality. Magic. Love.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer our questions.

My immense pleasure, great questions and thank you for having me!

Q & A hosted by
Krystal McCann