Renowned storyteller Ian Stephen will be involved in the Community and Schools Engagement programme on the Skye Book Festival’s second day (Friday September 2).
From the Isle of Lewis, Ian Stephen made his name initially as a poetry-writing Coastguard in the 1990s and is now a full-time writer, storyteller and artist who draws great inspiration from being a sailor, often of traditional sailing boats.
His prose, poetry and drama have been published around the world and garnered several awards. He was both the first winner of a Robert Louis Stevenson Award and the first artist-in-residence at StAnza, Scotland’s annual poetry festival.
As a storyteller Ian sweeps listeners of all ages away into the realms of his own imagination, creating an experience in which narrative, song, music and evocative visuals all combine to draw you into other parts of time and space.
Ian does regular sessions in schools across the Islands and Highlands. But he rarely plans ahead in detail for the content of the sessions or the exact pattern of the stories. “It’s an improvised form, if it’s the same wording every time you do it, it ain’t story-telling.”
Schools are a great forum for his work, he said. “Some classroom environments are the most conducive story-telling environments you could hope for. They are just buzzing with creativity, wonderful illustrations, you know you are walking into a very creative environment. The commitment of primary school teachers is astonishing.”
Ian trained as a teacher but said he realised he could not maintain his creativity doing teaching work day-in, day-out and admires those who can do this.
He said he gets fewer invitations to schools nowadays with council spending cutbacks, and they are more often associated with festivals, which is great, says Ian, as it also involves a chance to be involved in other sessions. Also, in addition to schools, he is also invited to day centres to regale older people with stories and he will be doing one of these sessions when he is in Portree.
As Ian said, he has “two hats on” for the festival – one as a storyteller and the other as an author. On the Thursday evening Ian is discussing his first novel ‘A Book of Death and Fish’ at Portree Community Library from 6.30pm. It will involve a reading of some of the text and a chance to discuss the format and content of the book – 190,000 words in total which took Ian around 30 years to bring to fruition.
He pointed out that the novel is an authored text, in contrast to the tales that are transmitted by the storytellers, rather than originated by them. Also, unlike the stories, the novel is not linear but darts back and forth in time.
Ian said: “They are linked but they are different. Several reviews of the novel have commented that it is a celebration of the oral tradition but it is an authored text. It includes traditional stories spliced in, but it is not a retelling of traditional stories.”
Ian’s next completed book is a non-fiction work and will include traditional stories with their sources and provenance carefully documented. It will link stories and journeys to particular places, for example the Shiant Isles. It will be published in March next year by Adlard Coles Nautical, part of the Bloomsbury publishing house. And what’s next after that…a possible successor to ‘A Book of Death and Fish’ with a development of one of the characters from that novel.