This article was published in The Times newspaper on 24th May 2003 and also in The Sunday Times. It was written by Tim Teeman and the photograph – used separately – is copyright: Andre Heger.
From the age of eight, David Lee Stone was obsessed with being a writer. After years of rejection he gave up, but his mum rescued his first novel from the bin, netting him publishing deals worth 1m. Now, he tells Tim Teeman, he wants his childhood back.
YOU won’t find David Lee Stone on Granta’s list of best young British novelists. Nor is he the product of a creative writing course, or a telegenic graduate from the dreaming spires. But, having signed a £500,000 three-book deal with Hodder, he is one of our wealthiest young novelists and geekishly atypical of his peers. I have barely alighted from the cab outside his narrow three-storey home in Ramsgate before he is shaking my hand; big, puppyish smile, glittering eyes.
He is entitled to be excited, for he is — in his own words — “living a fairytale”. After years of rejection, Stone angrily tore up the manuscript of his first novel and threw it into the dustbin.
Unbeknown to him, his mother retrieved it and sent it to Ed Victor, star literary agent to Frederick Forsyth, Nigella Lawson, Will Self and Anne Robinson. The rest is pure Hollywood — and, yes, film rights are being negotiated.
Stone — 25, skinny, dressed in fitted navy jumper and trousers — leads the way to his study on the top floor. The stairwell is dark with creepy wood veneer walls and office-style doors concealing bedrooms; claustrophobic, very Silence of the Lambs. The stairs creak ominously. He has lived here since he was a baby with his mother and grandmother Doris, 76, who owns the house (and who disappears to the pub for nine hour stretches each day).
On the shelves of his neat study are Terry Pratchett novels, books about folklore, Monty Python and Dave Allen videos. There are two computers (one VDU and a laptop), a photo held in place by entwined teddy bears showing him and his girlfriend Chiara. There is a row of copies of his first novel, The Ratastrophe Catastrophe, above the VDU. He doesn’t take his eyes off them. The first in a trilogy about the kingdom of Illmoor, presided over by a dour duke and in danger of a plague of rats, it resembles the comic fantasy world of Pratchett with touches of other favourites of Stone’s — Blackadder and Douglas Adams.
Stories tumble from him. As we sit down, he is telling me about “the terrible things” that happened while working at his mother’s estate agents at the age of 16. Misplaced keys? I jest.
“The doctors say it’s psychological,” he says gravely (yikes, what’s he going to say?), “where if I cut my hands I pass out. If I cut myself anywhere else, I’m fine. They think it’s psychological because I use my hands for writing. And one day I cut my hands and fainted in front of an old couple . . . Ah, here she is,” he says brightly. I look around. There’s no one there. Then Barbara, his mother, appears with a mug of tea, a slight 51-year-old with ash-blonde hair and a knowing smile.
AT EIGHT, Stone wanted to be a comedian, to write and perform his own material like his hero, Dave Allen. He had never read a book. “Everyone was reading The Hobbit but I got very bored easily. I had a short attention span.” His mother was concerned at how withdrawn her son was. She took him to a Methodist Sunday school but he always wanted to go home and write. When he was ten he entered a short story, poetry and essay competition.
“At the prizegiving, they said ‘David Stone third prize, poetry competition’. I was aghast. (The poem was about dying in a swamp.) Then I won second prize for my essay, which was about shoes. My short story came first — it was a fantasy about some plastic figures who lived in a dustbin. I thought ‘Maybe I could create a world with a special set of stories’.”
Stone played truant for much of his time at secondary school. “I was never very confident there. I wasn’t completely introverted. But I never liked to get involved in extra-curricular stuff. I hated football.” While everyone else sweated in double maths, he sat in his eyrie and created lists of characters. He drew plans of villages and cities in the land of Illmoor, put names on houses, concocted stories for each of its residents, imagined giants and inept sorcerers. “I wanted to mimic all those huge fantasy epics where a king drones on for 40 pages about his kingdom. My duke hates the place he lives in. Everyone is good and bad.”
He looks plaintive. “I gave up my entire young life to write,” he says, a note of real regret tinging his voice. “I had one friend, Clive, who would come round on a Saturday afternoon. Apart from that, I’d be up here writing. I had a gameplan and I was sticking to it.”
His school recorded that in one term he had missed 106 half days out of 136. “This was major truancy,” he says, shrugging. “I would stare at the mirror and concentrate on looking ill. I hated Weetabix and once I ate three bowls of it to make myself sick.” Each time, his mother would send him to the surgery — he made sure he saw different doctors so he wouldn’t be caught out — and “they were like, ‘it may be contagious’, and signed me off.”
At 14, Stone started sending chapters and short stories to publishers and received his first rejections. Dispirited, he wrote to Pratchett and fellow fantasy writer Tom Holt, who sent encouraging letters. Only one teacher, Ms Reeves (English), inspired him. He created puzzles for classmates. “People asked, ‘Who is this freak?’ It was a power of sorts. The cool people wanted to talk to me.” But school reports were damning. “There are a lot of problems coming from absence”; “David is very bright but never applies himself”.
He looks down. “My school life was complicated.” That note of regret, again. Was he bullied?
“I was tormented. My school bag was kicked around. They took the mick out of my hair (ginger), my size (he was growing bigger). I may have been more bullied had I spent more time there. But I had a talent for putting people in headlocks and making their eyes bulge.” (Which must have made his uncle, former champion boxer Alan Minter, proud.)
Stone did his GCSEs but never picked up the results. Despite Ms Reeves asking him to, he never went back on the last day of school. “Once I’d left I was glad it was over. But now I linger on Friends Reunited talking to people. I’m desperate to grab the past I missed out on.” His voice hardens. “It’s a great wound in me. Everyone keeps saying, ‘You’ve done so well’, and I think yeah . . . I missed out on friends. I mean, I’ve got a lot of friends now, but not ones that connect me to my past.”
But you were a practised geek, I say. You sat up here in self-imposed isolation. You’re famous and rich because of it. Stone looks at me pointedly. “Last week, I had terrific news. We’ve signed an incredible deal with Disney, who have bought the trilogy for the US and Italy for roughly the same amount as Hodder (making him a millionaire on paper). Also we’ve sold the first book to Russia, Brazil, Holland and Japan. The Disney lady said she was going to e-mail me on Monday but I have been more waiting for a reply to an e-mail from an old classmate than I have from her.”
He is so intense. “If you asked people what I was like at school, no one from a secondary school of more than one thousand pupils could tell you. That’s awful.”
When he left school he became very depressed. “I thought I was nothing and would come to nothing. Perhaps all that isolation had beaten every ounce of confidence out of me. I thought I should have put more effort in at school but it was too late. I thought, ‘Oh god, I’ve got no friends. I haven’t got a girlfriend. I’m a terribly sad person’.”
Stone went to work at his mother’s estate agency but hated it and spent all his time scrawling more Illmoor character names and profiles on buyers’ application forms, while pretending to be working. He ballooned to 17 stone, having fallen for a sales assistant in the bakery next door, then lost seven stone in as many months with a strict diet and fitness regime. Finally, he sold a story to a magazine and his confidence returned.
To make matters soapier, Stone’s father, whom he had never known, came back into his life at 18. (Stone was the result of an adulterous affair. When he was a few months old, his father returned to live with his wife.) He was dying of cancer and Barbara, who had never felt any bitterness about what had happened, suggested that David meet him. “I thought ‘I’ll make him feel good before he dies’. We shook hands. He was very nervous and tearful. He had so much regret but I’d never felt I missed out on anything so I had nothing to ask of him and he was grateful for that.” He died two years later.
Stone got a job at Blockbuster video, became confident and outgoing, met his longtime girlfriend Chiara (her father is “Thanet’s premier joiner and woodsmith”, he says proudly, one of a clutch of Alan Patridge-isms; later he says he was “the life and soul of Blockbuster video”). He sold stories to magazines but didn’t worry about making money. He wrote furiously, refusing to go out at weekends. One editor said he could be the new Terry Pratchett. He had meetings with publishers. He wrote a book, After the Organist.
“But it was rejected everywhere. One day, I had had enough. I thought, ‘What am I going to do? The whole of my life I’ve been obsessed by this. Has this cost me my schooling? My social life? When am I going to wake up and pack this bloody thing in?’ I ripped up the manuscript and threw a chunk into the bin. I knew the dustmen were coming the next day. I told my mother I was going out. ‘I have quit writing’ I told her. I was angry, punching the walls.” He is contorted on his seat, angry for himself even now. “I thought, ‘If I can’t pursue my dream, what’s the point of anything?’”
Stone eyes the row of books above the computer. “I walked and walked. I was crying. I’m not the kind of person who would consider suicide but I was thinking, ‘This thing has taken away my life’. The book was the best I could do but it would kill me if I allowed it to. Why, aged eight, had I been given the inspiration to be a writer and why had it taken my soul?”
Phew. Meanwhile, a dovetailing melodrama was occurring in the house. His mother saw a chunk of manuscript was missing, deduced he had thrown it away and retrieved it from the bin. The only literary agent’s name she knew was Ed Victor, agent to her son’s hero Douglas Adams. After Barbara regaled Victor’s secretary with David’s life story for an hour and a half, the secretary said that the agency would take the unusual step of looking at an unsolicited manuscript. Without telling her son, Barbara sent it.
Stone came home but he did not go back into his study and stopped writing completely. A couple of weeks later, his mother answered the phone and he heard her say, “Oh my — well, he’s here but I’m going to have to explain something to him first.” It was Ed Victor’s office. Contracts were sent out that day. “I was knocked for six,” he says, shaking his head, insisting he has not embellished any aspect of this extraordinary tale. “Why hadn’t I had faith in myself when my mother did?” Sophie Hicks, an agent at Victor’s, found him a publisher and over two and half years he recast the book. He was stunned at the £500,000 at first, but then felt “vindicated. I had been right all along. I have so much ambition. I see my books as everything.” He predicts he will be “a lunatic” around Illmoor’s merchandising — DVDs, T-shirts, computer games. An unashamed “prostitute for publicity”, Stone adores appearing on TV and wants a part in any future movie of the book.
He does not worry about writer’s block and writes quickly: his second book is completed and he is well into the third. He has material for 16 more Illmoor-set novels, he says, and has written two children’s books — one a comedy about pirates, which he wrote wearing a bandanna and a plastic parrot on his head, the other about a little boy who likes to befriend demons.
Does he think he’s worth £500,000? “My mum said that if I divided the figure up into all the years I’ve been writing then it comes to nothing more than what I would have got for quite a well-paid job. That’s the only way I can look at it or I would go insane.” The first review of the novel, by M. J. Simpson in SFX magazine, encourages readers to not think of the advance but whether the book is worth its cover price, £10.99. “To which the answer is a resounding yes,” the critic concluded.
“I have lived on very little,” Stone says earnestly. “I still go into Smiths and pick up a book for £5.99 and think, ‘Can I afford this?’ I worry about the money getting taken away from me.” He has bought his mother a small car, a home entertainment system and a pedigree dog and wants to buy her a home of her own. He wants to give some money to charity. He doesn’t want a fast car. He cannot drive.
Yet Stone still feels incomplete. “I want the approval of people in my past because I was such a nondescript character at school. I have only the pictures on the mantelpiece to prove I had a childhood. I want the books to prove ‘this is what I’ve done, this is what I was doing all that time, this is what I wanted to be’.”
His mother has archived all his work since he was eight, acts as his PA, still reads his work first. But their close relationship is set to change. He and Chiara are buying their first home. “My mum is in a bit of a . . . thing about it. She’s like, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’.” His voice wavers. “If she hadn’t made that phone call I wouldn’t be where I am now. I am so grateful. I really do owe her everything.”
Barbara comes in. She speaks quietly but is far from meek. The story of her removing David’s manuscript from the bin is certainly perfect drama — maternal love saves the day — but she contacted Ed Victor because, she insists, she felt her son’s writing was genuinely good.
Did she feel irresponsible, letting him play truant from school? “Yes, but I didn’t know the truth,” she says. “I thought he was ill. But when I read what he had been doing I was struck that his grasp of English was so good, far beyond a normal youngster’s.”
Stone laughs. “You’d take me up to the football pitch and ask the kids to play with me and I would end up standing on the sidelines while you played with them.”
“I couldn’t understand why he didn’t play with other kids or do sports,” she says. “But I realised he was putting his thoughts down on paper and it made sense. Full stop. David writes.” She will enjoy his success “from the outside — he’ll look after his old mum”. Theirs is not a cloying intimacy, she implies.
She drives me to the station, David in the back. We mull over local fame — he’s been recognised in Waitrose. The other day a woman told Barbara that her son had been in the Cubs with David and Barbara said “How nice” and walked on. “But David was never in the Cubs,” she says.
I get out of the car, leave the passenger door open. Front seat?, I motion to David.
“No, I’m fine in the back,” he says, looking small, scrunched up. David Lee Stone, 25, is finally happy to be a kid.
Nicholas Clee, Editor of The Bookseller, on the fantasy phenomenon
“David Lee Stone’s novel is another example of a children’s fantasy that publishers hope will ‘cross over’ and find an adult market — a trend fired by the success of Harry Potter, followed by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. You could say Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld books, was doing this before Rowling.
“There have been a number of other examples. Macmillan paid a six-figure sum for Lian Hearn’s Across The Nightingale Floor set in an imagined realm. Penguin paid a lot for Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books which have done very well.
“There are no signs of a decline at the moment. Although figures of £500,000 sound a lot, publishers put a lot of marketing muscle behind these books to ensure they pay their way. And even if it doesn’t pay back, £500,000 is not much compared to the £100 million big Hollywood studios spend on a blockbuster. Publishers are better covered against things that don’t work.” TT