The Big Interview: With Julian Stockwin

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

“I wanted to go to sea ever since I can remember”

We are incredibly blessed in Devon to be home to so many creative people, from musicians to artists and authors. Perhaps it’s something in the water, or maybe it’s the famous Dartmoor scenery, or the two dramatic coastlines that inspires the imagination of so many that call this county home.

This edition’s Big Interview is another prime example. I have always been fascinated by fiction authors – people who have created whole worlds for their characters to inhabit. Julian Stockwin, an author of historical fiction who lives in Ivybridge, has produced over 20 books as part of the Thomas Kydd series – the story of a man pressed into naval service in the 18th Century, the Age of Sail.

As always with our interviews, I started off by asking him about his childhood and how his love for the sea began.

“I was born in Basingstoke in 1944, but my family – I have two brothers and a sister – moved around quite a bit as my father was a special needs teacher in residential schools. I wanted to go to sea ever since I can remember. My mother says that as a toddler I went up to sailors on the street, and on one occasion dragged home a dead sea bird because it smelled of the sea.

‘My uncle Tom Clay, a seaman in square-rigged ships who sailed around Cape Horn in the Cutty Sark, took me over his ship and also around the National Maritime Museum and was a great influence on me. No one else in my family had any connection with the sea; my father served in the army during the war. As a young boy I read everything about the sea, and was especially terrified by a description of a great storm, but longed to go to sea to experience a real one!

‘I won a scholarship to Harvey Grammar  but my mind was captivated by seeing low grey shapes slip away over the horizon, outward bound to who knew where. I passed this sight every day on my way to school. My scholastic performance suffered.”

I am sure we, like Julian, have all been there: our imaginations running away from us as we dream about what could be. I asked him how he actually managed to fulfil his dreams of finding a career that played to his love of the sea.

“In the hope of having my day-dreaming about the sea knocked out of me my father sent me at the tender age of fourteen to Indefatigable, a tough sea-training school in Wales. This only strengthened my resolve for a life at sea, and after leaving there I joined the Royal Navy at 15.
Although it was a tough regime at the ‘Inde’ I have good memories of my time there – sailing a whaler in the fierce eddies of the Menai Strait, learning all about navigation and rope-craft and many other seamanship skills.”

Still relatively young, Julian’s family decided to make a considerable personal move, by emigrating to Australia, becoming the first place in the world he would live outside of the UK, before eventually returning and settling in Devon:

“They decided to emigrate Down Under when I was in my mid teens – quite a surprise to me at the time – and I transferred to the Royal Australian Navy. I saw service in many parts of the world, including the Far East and South Sea islands.

‘In Vietnam I served in a carrier task force and was on board Melbourne at the time of the disastrous peace time collision with Voyager. I will never forget the heroism and bravery I witnessed that night – as well as the tragic deaths of a number of the men I had served with.”

After serving admirably in the Royal Australian Navy, Julian decided it was time to move on. Not any easy decision to make for a person that had grown up with an intense love of all things maritime.

“Leaving the Navy was a wrench, but I wanted to take up the education I had missed, a considerable challenge having no qualifications from school! Attending the University of Tasmania, I read Far Eastern studies and psychology after what I had seen in the fo’c’sle of a warship – fascinating.

‘After graduating from university I worked for several years in educational psychology and teaching. Then I met Kathy and we decided to leave Tasmania to seek adventure in Hong Kong. The Far East had great appeal for both of us.

‘In Hong Kong I initially did post-graduate work in cross-cultural psychology and in the process was seduced by computers. Somewhat disillusioned with academic life I became involved in the manufacture and design of computers and later software development. Meanwhile, Kathy’s career was developing as a journalist and we enjoyed the social life of a foreign correspondent.”

It wasn’t too long before the call of the sea was just too much to resist, as Julian decided to reignite his love of the Service.
“At this stage I renewed direct involvement with the Navy, being commissioned into the Royal Navy Reserve. I was honoured to be awarded an MBE and retired as Lt Commander.

‘Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was to prove invaluable when I started writing as I had first-hand knowledge of both the men on the lower deck and the officers on the quarterdeck.”

After many years away from his home of the United Kingdom, Julian would eventually find his way back to good ol’ Blighty.

“In 1990 I was invited to head up a NATO project for the naval control of merchant shipping – and also the return of Hong Kong to China was imminent. We knew life there would change and many of our friends were already leaving the territory. Kathy and I enjoy our life in England but do miss the buzz of Hong Kong!”

They say that we all have a at least one book in us. Evidently, Julian had a lot more than that! And it all started with a simple pep talk from his wife, Kathy.

“I have to say the NATO project was an extremely high pressure environment, and in 1996, when it was completed, Kathy and I took stock – handing me a large whisky, she told me to get a life! Her suggestion: that I write. And about the sea…

“She saw my potential as a writer – where I did not at that point – and persuaded me to give it a go. I took a flexible job lecturing in order to have time to devote to mastering the craft of writing.”

Now, all he had to do was decide on what his book would be about. What part of the sea would form the foundations of his new direction in life: “I’m ‘Old Navy’ with a deep respect and admiration for the Service, so it had to be the Navy I’d write about. I chose Nelson’s time, the great climax of the age of sail and a magnificent canvas for sea tales. This was an era when the sea was respected and wooed by men who didn’t have steam engines and brute force. I also wanted to bring the sea itself into a more prominent role.

‘But to achieve that, it seemed logical to take the perspective of the men who actually did the job out there on the yardarm, serving the great cannon or crowding aboard an enemy deck, rather than of those shouting orders from behind. So the lower deck it was; and then I came across some surprising statistics.

‘Unlike the army, where commissions were bought, all naval officers had to qualify professionally, and scattered among these were no more than a couple of hundred common seamen who made the awesome journey from the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck, thereby turning themselves into gentlemen.

‘Some became captains of their own ships; remarkably, some victims of the press-gang even became admirals. How could it be so? Just what kind of men were they?

‘I’ve written 23 books to date in the Kydd Series, starting with my hero being brutally press-ganged into King George’s Navy but gradually coming to love the sea life. Over the course of the books he’s risen through the rates – landman, able seaman, petty officer – and crossed the great divide between the lower deck and the quarterdeck to become an officer. He is now a post captain, on course for flying his flag as admiral at some point in the future.”

Devon seems to be one of the go-to places to keep the creative juices flowing. Having originally been from Surrey, I asked Julian what made him choose to settle down in the South West.

“When we both gave up our day jobs to work together on the Kydd books full-time – Kathy is an integral part of Team Stockwin – we decided to move out of Surrey, which was becoming a very expensive part of the country. A close friend suggested we might consider the South Hams.

‘We visited the area and fell in love with it – and now live in Ivybridge in a house over 250 years old that I took great delight in mentioning in my Kydd tales! We share our home with two adorable and mischievous Siamese – Ming and Mae.

‘There seems to be little spare time for hobbies and recreation at the moment, but whenever I can I take great pleasure in going to sea in the tall ships that are still afloat. I rode out a force six blow in the Irish Sea in the Earl of Pembroke, a square rigger that Kydd himself would be familiar with. I’ve also been privileged to have been on a cruise in a modern Navy ship around the Devon and Cornish coasts.

‘I also enjoy reading and music – and rambling our glorious countryside.”

I, for one, take great interest in understanding how someone has managed to have such success in their particular field. What inspires them? What motivates them? I therefore took the opportunity to enquire what advice he would give to those wanting to follow in his footsteps:

“There are many excellent ‘how-to’ books and internet articles. As well as boning up on the technical aspects of writing, you need to be an avid reader. If I had to pick three pieces of advice they would be these:

‘One: put pen to paper about what you know. By writing on a topic that you have knowledge of, you will have a certain confidence in your work. However, not all topics will be of equal interest. If you know dentistry, for example, it is not the sexiest of topics, but if your story involves an interesting central character and a good plot, it could still work.

‘Two: write the book you yourself would want to read. A useful exercise is to list the elements that excite you in a favourite book. What makes the plot satisfying? How sympathetic are the characters? etc.

‘Three: don’t slavishly follow the market. It is a mistake to think you can just see what is selling well and then write something along the same lines. By the time your book is written and then appears in print at least two years may have elapsed and readers’ tastes could well have moved on.

‘If you are writing in a specific genre, such as mystery or science fiction, there are certain rules. These conventions can be broken, but only if you know what they are first. For example, a murder mystery starts off with the central character being confronted with a body, or finding out about an unexplained death, then the book progresses to the gathering of clues and false trails, ending in a resolution. Readers in this genre will have certain expectations of the book.

‘Publishers will want between 90,000 and 110,000 words. If you write outside this range it will be much harder to find someone to publish your work.

‘Be prepared for the paradox of having to become tough-skinned about hard criticism but also needing to cope with a heightened sensitivity in the way you view the world.

‘Getting the central character right is absolutely crucial. The reader must really care about him/her. This central character is who the reader identifies with as the book progresses. Plot development comes very much after character, and is really only the stage for your character to show his colours.

‘It would be wonderful if all authors could make enough money to write full-time, but sadly this is not the case. Even if the advance is generous, the payments come in stages and you have to do your sums and cash-flows. However, there are fairy tales out there in the publishing world – my story is one of them and yours could be, too!”

For all those who are already avid fans of Julian’s, you’ll be pleased to know that there are further adventures on the way in the life of Thomas Kydd. And for those who haven’t yet begun to read his work: you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

“Well, I’m currently writing the 24th title in the Kydd Series, which will come out next year, with at least several more to follow.

‘I have also written two historical stand-alones, The Silk Tree
and The Powder of Death, and have plans for others in that vein,
as well as a follow-on to my non-fiction tome, Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany. So, no thoughts of retirement for a
number of years yet…”

For more information on Julian and his work, you can visit his website here: