Not long ago I featured a new publishing house that specializes in the avant-garde: Hic Dragones. Today, I will be featuring one of their intrepid authors and a book as unique and astonishing as it is chilling: Aimee and the Bear. Word to the wise: this is not a children’s bedtime story!
When her mother’s cruelty is too much, Amy holds her teddy bear’s paw and travels to the Other Place—a world where teddies become real bears, where children attend the Night School to escape whatever it is they face at home, where Amy becomes Aimee, and there’s magic in the air. But the Other Place is in danger—the Witch has awoken, and Amy must find the courage to save her baby brother before it’s too late.
A dazzling, heart-wrenching and brutal descent into the world of the imagination. This is not a children’s book. This is not a fairy tale. This is not your average heroine.
And frankly, that is a good thing.
About the Author
Toby Stone went to the same school as Batman (Christian Bale) and Benny Hill. Though they were not all there at the same time. As an adult, Toby has been a toy-seller, an Avon Lady, Double-Glazing Salesman of the Week, a mortgage broker, a suspicious barman, a school governor and a bingo caller. On the Reboot, many of our featured authors tell similar career tales. It proves two things: first, having multiple experiences is often a hallmark of writers…and second, it can actually help you. This is his first published novel, and its merits speak for itself. Of course, we are writers…. so we never let things speak for themselves. I mean, come on.
Thank you, Toby, for joining us!
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” I recall that you also wrote from an early age. Could you say a bit about your early experiences?
I’m pretty sure I write because I’m flawed. This isn’t a jolly story to start with, but when I was baby I wouldn’t eat. This wasn’t great for my overall health, so I was admitted to hospital. The nurse told my mum I was 110% sure to kick the bucket (not her exact words, I hope, or her bedside manner was as bad as her maths), but my mother refused to leave my side, visiting time or not, and I lived. The nurse then quit. Ever since then, I’ve been an attention-seeker and would pace around the playground (at primary school) telling stories to my friends, learning what kept people engaged. This graduated, in secondary school, to Dungeons and Dragons, which, for some reason, never helped me gain the attention of girls.
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give this work the time and energy it so deserves?
At the age of twelve I walked into the lounge and said, “Mother, I have decided I shall become an author.” Between the age of this and thirty, my life became littered with half-spawned novels—frightful things that, thankfully, never saw the light of day. While I always had an image of being published in mind, I hadn’t submitted Aimee and the Bear anywhere when Hic Dragones approached me. So, rather like the Asimov quote, I gave my writing no more effort for publication than I did when I was the only one to see it—not writing just seems unnatural to me.
3. Magical Realism is an art that not everyone does well, and yet this story blends the two together in a seamless way. Can you say more about what attracted you to this genre? And speaking of genre, I know firsthand how difficult it is to place works that don’t fit neatly into niche. It takes courage, I think, to stand behind a work in the face of market odds. What are your feelings about the drive for market hegemony?
Thank you! Unfortunately for my publisher (especially when it comes to blurb-writing and publicity), I don’t write with genre/trend in mind. I tend toward the strange/weird in speech and thought (just ask my editor, Hannah Kate, who has been unfortunate enough to hear what my mind produces when it’s drunk). The real is something the world forces on me—just by annoyingly being there, like a five-year-old with a megaphone, shouting “Hello… I’m the world! HELLO!!!” So I’m constantly flitting across worlds, and the magical-realism in my work says more about my thought processes than anything else. Also, ignoring market trends comes as naturally to my way of thinking as magical-realism. Admittedly, I will pay attention to the market later in the process (several drafts in) —for instance, when taking a novel to an acceptable word count for publication.
I am influenced by Stephen King, and he advised writers to follow their guts, ideas-wise. To extend this thought, and quote songwriter David Okumu (via Jessica Ware), “writing is like shitting, you’ve gotta let it all out.”
5. I grew up underground next to a graveyard. It does things to your brain and to your fiction. What are your inspirations? What was the impetus for Aimee and the Bear?
Next to a graveyard? Or, more relevantly, underground? Excellent. I get the impression from horror movies that the reincarnated always dig upward, but zombies are rather stupid, and I wonder if you got a few dizzy ones going sideways, groping through your walls? I am jealous of this childhood.
The inception of Aimee and the Bear came twelve years ago, when I was thinking that teddy bears are extremely powerful figures and wanting to write a novel about them coming to life, which, of course, I ssumed would be a children’s book. However, I came to realise that some children only have a teddy bear to rely on. That teddy bears were often the primary care-givers. From here grew the very real, rather scary, but also protective Barnaby Bear. As with any good mutant, a book’s gestation involves the splicing together of several strands of DNA, from different themes and ideas. It is said that there’s a set number of plots, with every one already covered in fiction. But my feeling is that books should combine ideas, thus reducing the odds that a certain combination has been attempted before, and (hopefully) making it feel unique. So to Barnaby was added: the feeling that there was a wide distance between children’s literature and children’s experiences; the idea that the protagonist’s mother would be a bitch in the real world and the witch in the Other; the protagonist kidnapping her little brother, taking him into the Other world and then having to rescue him from the witch. By this point, the novel felt different from anything I had read before.
6. Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world?
I sometimes have an image of literature being a vast plain full of writers clamouring, all of them, to be heard above each other. Think of the Pellonor Fields but, instead of a battle, an immense X-Factor audition. The chances of ‘making it’ in any kind of meaningful way are as utterly remote as the Wraithlord being killed by a blonde, posh lady. It does, obviously, happen, but it would be foolish to bet your hobbit-hole on it being you. So, my advice is: have another job, something you like doing, to take the pressure off what you love. I once considered International Assassin but, instead, have settled happily into being a teaching assistant at a primary school.
7. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
Apart from the horror-fantasy Venn diagram of King/Tolkien/Weiss and Hickman/Livingstone/Jackson, I spent every lunchtime and weekend for several years playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I like to think I was cool as dorks go, but I went to a single-sex school, so this seems unlikely. Telling stories helped form me as a writer, as much as the compulsive, antisocial reading I did at every family gathering or on every trip to an animal sanctuary. Oh, and I loved Asimov.
8. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
Mmmmm… I may have tried the wrong sites, but the internet has never seemed particularly useful for my writing. For many reasons (accuracy of feedback, contacts, having an excuse to go for a drink afterwards, getting used to people staring at you as if you are mad), I would recommend writers’ circles instead. For a number of years, I’ve been attending the Monday Night Group (http://www.mondaynightgroup.org.uk/), one of Manchester’s longest-running writing groups. I’d recommend any new writers check out what’s available in their local area.