Working with Words: Stuart Kells

Author and rare-books authority Stuart Kells talks invented languages, Shakespeare and cures for writer's block.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of author Stuart Kells

I remember vividly my first serious reading binge, where the world disappeared and I just had to finish the book. That was when I read The Lord of the Rings, in about Year Six. Afterwards I gorged on everything by Tolkien that I could find, even fragments and non-fiction and illustrations. And his maps! Utterly real and compelling. 

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

Mainly fantasy and sci-fi. Stories about time travel and genetic engineering. Plus Tolkienesque invented languages, like ‘Silmorgish’!

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I’ve had lots, in many different fields. Extremely useful when it comes to working with books, whether it be writing or publishing or bookselling. I’ve served a long apprenticeship, and have taken something from each of the fields into my writing. In the 2000s I spent some time in the army reserve, in part because bookish, leftish, unfit, colour-blind, peanut-allergic people don’t generally join the army, and I wanted to be their representative.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Dreaming about writing.

Bookish, leftish, unfit, colour-blind, peanut-allergic people don’t generally join the army ... I wanted to be their representative.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Best advice: go after big topics. Worst advice: stick to your day job.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

My pre-teen diary had two parts: a short, friendly message to my future self (which began, ‘Hello self’) and a list of the books I owned (a shelf of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks). I don’t keep a diary now, but I make lots of notes for future books, and I have a large library that tells the story of where I’ve been and where I hope to go.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

The most famous literary book in the world, Shakespeare’s 1623 first folio, is overrated, and that has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Shakespeare’s lesser-known quartos are more important, and have more integrity.

Whenever I hit a wall, which is often, I eat chocolate cake. Great for short-term productivity. Terrible for cardiac health.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I’m superstitious in general, and have lots of obsessive habits. Apart from those, I have a routine for dealing with writer’s block. Whenever I hit a wall, which is often, I eat chocolate cake. Great for short-term productivity. Terrible for cardiac health.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

No, apart from minor errors and typos. I love that moment when a new book arrives from the printer and you handle it for the first time. But even the slightest error at that moment is devastating.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

Shakespeare. I would bother him with a thousand questions. We would talk about everything.

 

Portrait of Stuart Kells

Stuart Kells is an author and book-trade historian. His 2015 book, Penguin and the Lane Brothers, won the Ashurst Business Literature Prize. An authority on rare books, he has written and published on many aspects of print culture and the book world. Stuart lives in Melbourne with his family. He is writing a book about Shakespeare’s library.

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