Q&A for Under The Moss
Recently, the lovely Sam Ellis asked me lots of questions for Veracity Magazine about Under The Moss. With his permission, I've posted the interview below.
Your debut novel, Under the Moss, is being published soon. How does it feel to have your
first novel published?
It feels a bit weird, to be honest. When you put so much work into something so intimate, where you’ve put all those odd, little thoughts in your head down on a page, it’s strange to then have it printed in a book for anyone to read. When I got my proof copy, I just kept turning it over in my hands thinking, “It’s real. It’s real!” It’s exciting, and I’m lucky to have found a small press who believes in the book, wants to invest in it, and put it out there. I’m excited for people to read it.
Under the Moss - what's it about?
It’s a contemporary novel following the relationship between enigmatic Sophie and troubled Ben. They begin a whirlwind romance, but Ben soon discovers Sophie is hiding something. She won’t talk about her past, and secretly visits a man’s grave. But Ben has a secret of his own. He’s embarrassed about a psychotic episode he experienced while at university, and fearing further mental illness, he struggles to form any sort of relationship with people. Sophie is the first person he’s connected with.
One day, Sophie brings home moss she’s collected from the grave and soon begins an
obsession with moss. Her behaviour becomes erratic, damaging her relationship with Ben, and she eventually becomes ill. Ben tries to help, but when Sophie reveals the secret behind her moss obsession, it breaks their life apart.
Hopefully, readers find it a little dark, a little funny, and a little bit weird, but very readable. When writing it, my hope was that people would describe it as, ‘that strange little book about a girl obsessed with moss.’
Is it fair to say that Under the Moss is a love story?
On the face of it, it’s a pretty one-sided love story. Sophie’s actions suggest she’s in love, but
she never says it to Ben. And the reader might struggle to see why she would love him. She’s
enigmatic and beautiful, and Ben just isn’t. He’s very ordinary, perhaps dull in comparison. Ben just wants someone to love, someone to be with, to not be so lonely. He’ll forgive Sophie almost anything to be with her. We learn late in the book what lies beneath Sophie’s moss obsession and why she's really with Ben, and it breaks his heart. But she's coming from a place of love. It’s definitely not a romance novel. There’s no happily ever after, although there’s hope at the end.
Where did you draw your inspiration from?
The spark of the idea came from when my partner’s mum was choosing her name for a new
puppy. She said, “I really like Moss.” It set my brain whirring. I couldn’t shake thoughts of what
would happen if someone really, really liked moss. I started seeing moss everywhere. And
soon after wrote a short story about a woman who loves moss so much, she starts eating it. It’s not my best story, but the ideas in it wouldn’t let go of me, and when I decided to write a novel, something inside me insisted it be about a moss obsession. The story grew as I explored reasons someone would be obsessed by moss.
I drew a lot of the novel from my own experience. Many first novels include a lot of
autobiographical stuff. All my previous relationships have provided inspiration, and I
shouldn’t admit it, but there’s probably more of me in Sophie’s character than Ben’s. Also, I knew some troubled people when I was younger. All of that experience went in the mixing bowl and came out as Under the Moss.
Under the Moss's subject matter is thought provoking in that it looks very closely at
obsession. Did you find it hard to write on a subject that can be disturbing?
I took the easy way out to some extent in that I wrote the book from the point of view of
someone living with the person who’s obsessed rather than in the head of the one obsessing. The other way round would be a very different book, and one I might write one day. I think we all get a little obsessed by things occasionally, so it was a matter of finding those feelings and amplifying them. Everyone knows someone who has taken on a hobby which has escalated quickly. They start off with a cheap set of golf clubs and in a month, they’re spending thousands on a putter and the exact same shoes worn by Tiger Woods. The things Sophie does in the novel are pretty wild and escalate so they’re damaging to both her and Ben. She gets completely lost in moss because there’s a vacuum in her she needs to fill. But I hope readers see some humour in Sophie’s actions, although she’s actually someone really
struggling with grief.
Did you have many difficulties with the writing process?
I didn’t write moss linearly. I jotted scenes in my notebook as they came to me. They might be a page long or a chapter length, and once I’d typed them up, I spent ages piecing everything
together like a jigsaw and filling in gaps in the story line to glue everything together. Sometimes I got a bit stuck on how things fitted together, but then an idea would suddenly come to me out of nowhere. There are loads of sections that got edited out. There was a character I really liked who I had to cut—he was funny but wasn’t needed for the story. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the novel is finished—I think there’d always be things I’d change, but I have to let it go and move onto the next thing. When I started on Under the Moss, I was still learning to write, and it helped me get better. I’m still learning now. All writers continually learn and improve the more they write. It never stops.
What was the most joyous part of the process for you?
I remember having pieced the novel together and deciding to type The End. It was a great feeling, like a massive weight lifting off my shoulders—a real achievement. But then I did
probably eight or nine more drafts. When I found a publisher who really got the book and got me, that was a great feeling too.
What was your writing journey to get you to this point?
I always enjoyed writing at school and really wanted to do English at A-levels, but my teacher
convinced me to do all science A-levels by saying, “You can write about science and be a science journalist.” Needless to say, I’m not a science journalist. But Science has been good to me. I’ve got a great career and it takes me all around the world. When I moved to St Albans in 2015, I began writing seriously. I had lost my creative outlet of playing in a band, which had been a big part of my life. I’d always said I’d like to write, but I just needed a push. My partner convinced me to join a beginner's creative writing class at Oakland College and I loved it. Former VW chair, Nick Cook, led it. After that, I did his intermediate class. And if there had been an advanced one, I would have taken that too. But I did join Verulam Writers with some of my course mates, and although it was very scary that first time walking into a room of
experienced writers, it gave me a community and licence to call myself a writer. I entered some competitions and started winning prizes. That really pushed me to write more. Feeling I’d come to writing later in life than I should have, I wanted to get better at writing and better
quickly, so very quietly, not telling many people at all, I started an MA in Creative Writing with
the Open University and graduated with a distinction. I wrote a lot of Under the Moss as
part of my MA and I got useful feedback from tutors and course mates to improve the novel.
Now I’ve got my first novel out of the way, I want to crack on with the next. I might self-publish
some of my short stories too if I ever get round to it.
How has being both a member and Chair of VW helped you along on the journey?
Being a member of VW has been enormously helpful. It’s provided a community of like-minded people. I’m always nervous about telling people I write because it feels pretentious to call myself a writer. Growing up, no one I knew was a writer—amateur or professional. No one read seriously and talked about books. Being a writer was on par with being an astronaut. It was so unachievable. But being with VW makes me feel like a writer and proud to be a writer. It’s an enormous honour to be Chair of the group. I still keep it relatively quiet that I write—I don’t broadcast it to everyone, but I need to shout about it more if I want my novel to sell to as
many people as possible.
VW has also helped my writing journey because it forces me to write. The competitions I’ve entered and the Veracity articles I’ve written have given me deadlines. The competition prizes give me something to aim for. And my writing has improved because I get to hear other people’s writing and think about what I like about it, or what I don’t like, and that makes me think about how I can improve my own work.
What's coming next from your pen?
The bones of novel I’m currently working on was written in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month. I’ve since been expanding and editing it, but preparing for the launch of Under the Moss, and life in general, has slowed the pace of revising it. The new novel is quite different in subject matter to Under the Moss, but my style comes through. It’s about a family who move to an island nature reserve after a family disaster and become its sole occupants. Set in the late 1980s, it's narrated by the 12-year-old son, so I need to get the voice right. It’s much darker than Under the Moss. There are elements of folk horror, but some humour too. Ultimately, it’s about a family collapsing and a boy’s struggle with his role in that breakdown. And there’s a big cat stalking them too.
Your pen name is Steven Mitchell. What was the reason behind this name change?
Phil Mitchell is best known as a TV character on BBC's EastEnders, and only my partner when I’ve annoyed her, and my mum call me Phillip, so I went with my middle name, which also happens to be my dad’s first name, so he’s telling everyone he’s written a novel. Steven’s a bit boring, I guess, but I might change it to something like Kurtis Blood when I begin writing
gruesome crime thrillers.
Under the Moss - how/when/where can we read it?
It’s published as a paperback and eBook via SRL Publishing on 10th May and is available from all good online and physical bookshops. If you buy it directly from the publisher, they’ll plant a tree for every copy sold. Even if you buy it elsewhere, the publisher works out how many trees have been sacrificed and contributes to tree planting or forest preservation schemes. They’re the world’s first climate positive publisher and their sustainability approach helped them to win a 2022 British Book Award for the best small press in the East and South-East of England. If you come to a Verulam Writers meeting, I’ll sell you a copy of Under the Moss at mate’s rates.
You can purchase Under the Moss here: