In this modern day and age, artists have more possibilities and resources than ever before to have an established career and more creative control. David Stewart is a great example of this: he is an American author who has developed a very consistent career of independent books and has gained a degree of popularity on his YouTube channel, where he talks a lot about storytelling, analysis on modern human society and culture and a lot of insights on music (he is also a musician).
I had the opportunity of talking with David and we discussed a lot of topics, especially some that he has addressed in his channel throughout the years, which I think you will all find very interesting. I hope you enjoy it.
Thank you for being here, David. It’s great. For those readers that perhaps are not familiar with you, what can you tell them about yourself?
Well, I’m currently an author and YouTuber (or online content creator, whatever you want to call it), as well as a musician, though I do less of that these days. I was a classical guitarist by trade for a number of years before deciding to focus on writing fiction.
What got you into Literature and prompted you to become a writer?
I can tell you what didn’t prompt me: literature classes. Public school seems designed to take the fun out of everything, including stories. I decided to be a writer due to my enjoyment of all the things that you never read in school, or the things in higher education that are totally disregarded by the self-appointed elite. They like to focus on stories that they think are important for analytical reasons, rather than stories which really matter to culture – think reading James Joyce rather than Robert E. Howard. One re-wrote The Odyssey in an unreadable style to impress the elites; the other created Conan the Barbarian.
It’s no different in music, by the way. In general, the professors who teach music hate things like Heavy Metal, I have to believe mostly because lots of people actually like to listen to Metal rather than their favorite post-modern aleatoric pretend art pieces.
I had stories like Conan, or Elric, or Lord of the Rings I wanted to tell, so that’s what I did.
Who were the authors and books that have influenced you the most?
Just to list a few authors: Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, HP Lovecraft, Poul Anderson, Ursula Le Guin, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock, Stephen Erikson, Phillip K. Dick, James Clavell, and of course JRR Tolkien.
There’s so many books I’ve loved, it’s impossible to list them all, but in general, if I have read it more than once, it’s probably pretty good: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dark Tower series, the Elric Saga, Shogun, plus many more.
What would you say are the aspects of being a writer that are not discussed enough?
First, it’s the work you have to put in. It’s a lot of time and a lot of focus, and frankly, most authors have trouble with it, which is why it takes so long for some books to get finished.
There are also the realities of the business – the business is very unpredictable and most authors don’t make much money. Lots of them get into the business wanting to have financial success without realizing that it’s either luck in the extreme, like with JK Rowling, or else it is a years-long slog to get noticed.
What books would you recommend to our readers?
There are so many out there that are great reads and the market is so, so diverse that there is sure to be something to please everybody out there, thus it is hard to make recommendations, since undoubtedly some people will not like what I like.
With that in mind, I think most people can get something out of some of the “classics” (using the term loosely) in science fiction, horror, and fantasy that remain very accessible: things like 1984 by George Orwell, The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, any of Robert E. Howard’s stories (Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and the like), any of HP Lovecraft’s horror and scifi stories (which are in the public domain), Dune by Frank Herbert… and I still think Dracula is a good read. The main thing is, read what you like!
If you want recommendations for my own books, Voices of the Void is my most popular, which a sci-fi horror story, as well as Muramasa: Blood Drinker, which is a samurai tale. Both of those are a bit gory, so be warned. The Water of Awakening is a great fantasy adventure, and I’ll be continuing the series later this year.
Your YouTube channel is very popular and you offer many interesting insights about the writing world. What prompted you to get a channel started?
I originally started it as a guitar instruction channel, where I provided videos on technique and how to play certain classical pieces. The impetus was that I was quitting classical guitar, and I didn’t want all my experience to disappear into the nether; I wanted to provide some free way for people to begin playing music. Lessons are often expensive and taught by non-experts, so I wanted to provide something for self-motivated people who didn’t have hundreds of dollars per month to throw at private instruction.
I only shifted my focus to other kinds of content once I started experimenting and seeing that other topics (like movie critique) were more popular than videos on how to file your nails.
What have you learned about running a YouTube channel after all these years?
Randomness is a big part of outcomes. Don’t expect to go viral. When you do, don’t expect it to convert into a steady audience. Those occur along two different trajectories. It takes time to build up an audience, so you have to do the work now (and be consistent) and reap the rewards later.
You’re usually very critical of modern writing and storytelling in general in your videos. What do you think are the main problems with storytellers these days?
First, most of them lack technical knowledge of story-writing. Literature degrees don’t teach what you need to know to actually write books, and even creative writing degrees will push students to focus on and practice the wrong things. Mainly, we are talking about “themes” and “style” here, which are things that don’t matter much to real people, and can actually hinder their enjoyment of the story. Writers don’t know characters, plot, or even how to expose a setting. They write florid sentences which communicate nothing. It’s style over substance, which is a problem if you want people to read your book.
There is also the problem (again at least partially from the academy) of pushing “edginess” – inverting heroes and making them villains, constantly trying to make basic themes of justice and heroism into nihilistic depression-fests, “deconstructing” genres through stories. The first person to do it usually has done something cool, but after that it’s just boring. I don’t care about stories involving fat divorced superheroes or stories about nihilistic space wizards who act “just as depressed as normal people.”
People in Hollywood are also mentally ill to a much greater degree than the rest of us, and it gets annoying when they constantly write “flawed” characters that have the same mental disorders as the writer.
Postmodernism, for example, is an ideological that has become very notorious in recent years with a lot of established franchises, such as Star Wars or Star Trek.
I think it’s more than just post-modernism. Post-modernism views aesthetics as relative and “in the eye of the beholder.” Post-modern art is about challenging your pre-conceptions.
Star Wars and Star Trek really are expressing a post-modern take on morality, not so much the art itself. The new Star Wars movies, for example, are aesthetically just copies of what George Lucas did. It’s basic, crass corporate mush – very little original to be seen, but that’s what they needed to do to sell tickets to nostalgic Gen X and Gen Y males.
What they are doing is taking something which was honest and coherent with its message and inverting it. It’s deconstructive, not so much post-modern, with the writers just viewing all moral messages and systems as cynically equal. The hopeful future portrayed in Star Trek, where man is motivated by intrinsic desire to grow and explore and is lead to the stars by paragons of intelligence and virtue, has been inverted to be about “flawed” inferior men struggling within their own flawed system.
What you have is a corporation who “owns” an intellectual property, hands it over to people who hate it and its honest messages, and then allows those people to pretend to be its creators.
Do you feel that character archetypes are undervalued these days in storytelling?
It depends. When a creator inverts one, they are recognizing its existence. Archetypes are a starting place, they aren’t the whole character, and they have more to do with a character’s role in a story than a set of specified traits. Most stories still use them whether they intend to or not.
There are a lot of cases where writers of established franchises openly admit that they do certain things to “piss off the fanboys”. What is your take in that matter?
I think we all need to grow up and recognize that art not created by the original creator is on the same level as fan-fiction. Star Wars without Lucas is simply fan-fiction. Nobody should get pissed off anymore, because none of it is actually Star Wars. Same thing with Trek without Roddenberry (or Berman, if you want to go that far), or any of the Marvel characters now.
As to why they do it, it is because they view it as a morally “right” thing to do. The fanboys are evil white males, you see (even if they aren’t), and they should have what they love destroyed because they belong to the wrong group.
Fundamentally, corporate entertainment control is what allows this. Corporations aren’t people, and yet they own things which don’t exits – stories. There are people who realize that if you want to gain control over a social institution, it’s easier to do so through the non-democratic and opaque bureaucracy of a corporation than through politics. Once you gain control of the corporation, populate it with people like yourself, you can then turn it toward your own uses.
In this case, that means getting enough power in a company like Disney that you can use their hegemony over story properties to send out the messages you want, rather than the ones the customers or, more broadly, the culture itself, wants.
Do you think there is too much emphasis in politics in storytelling these days?
I think the problem is injecting politics that are outside of what is established into previously existing franchises. Star Trek is not apolitical from its inception, nor is Star Wars, or any story, really. I think fans are right to object to older franchises being used as political mouthpieces for ideas that weren’t originally there. It’s one thing to portray a future where men and women are equal, like in Star Trek; it’s quite another to portray one where all the women are better than men. People pick up on that.
What motivated you to become an independent writer?
One of my first books, Muramasa: Blood Drinker was so outside the normal boundaries of genre fiction (and in such a small niche) that publishing it independently was what I needed to do. Now, I can’t really imagine having to deal with the demands of a publisher – I get to write my stories exactly the way I want them to be. I also don’t have to wait months and months for something to be published and to see what readers think of it.
What are the benefits and challenges of being an independent author?
You have to do everything yourself or else pay for it – covers, editing, marketing, etc. There’s a freedom in that, because you can do what you want and you are in control, but it takes time and some careful planning to make money doing it.
As a writer myself, I feel that there are certain themes and tropes that are consistent throughout our stories. What do you think are yours?
First, that love matters, and love is often not up to you. Second, that we live in a world that is of our own creation, in both a literal and metaphysical sense. It’s esoteric and beyond the scope of this interview, but you will find that theme in most of my books.
Looking back on your career so far, what do you think are the books that define you more as an author?
Muramasa was the book where I finally put it all together and wrote something really worth reading. It was a story I wanted to tell for a long time. Likewise, The Water of Awakening is like that. Both a great yarns and ooze my philosophy.
City of Silver is actually one of my first books, which had never been published, re-worked and improved. That’s the one that made me decide to switch from music to writing.
How do you find the balance between your now-established style and trying different things with your books?
I don’t try to strike a balance. I constantly experiment and try new things.
What are you currently working and where can our readers buy your books?
Right now, I just finished a book on creative processes called The Keys to Prolific Creativity that I hope will help a lot of people finish their creative projects, whether it is in music, writing, or art. I’m not sure what the next book I will release is, but it will probably be the follow-up to City of Silver, a fantasy book I put out at the end of 2019.
The best place to buy them is on Amazon, where there are a few exclusives. You can find a list at dvspress.com
Do you think the current coronavirus situation is going to affect the different entertainment industries in terms of storytelling?
I think we are going to see a creative boom. People need great music and stories, especially those that make them feel a sense of escape, more than they have in a long time. Of course, in the short-term there are going to be financial difficulties due to the disruption, but I think what comes next will be big.
You’re also a musician. How did you get into music? Tell us about your career in that regard.
I started playing music in elementary school as part of curriculum like band and choir. Later I took up the guitar, and as I exited high school I decided that I would like to make a career in it. I went to college as a music major and even taught at that level for a number of years before moving to Las Vegas. It was in Vegas I decided I wanted to get out of the business; by that point I had been stuck in a rut playing classical music for a decade and needed to move on to grow.
When I came back to music it was fun again. I recorded an album called Memories Adrift a few years ago that you can check out at zulonline.com
I know that you’re a big metalhead and I’m one as well. What underrated albums would you recommend to our readers?
Dimhav’s album, the Boreal Flame, is amazing. My number 1 from 2019. Other things I enjoyed last year were Majestica – Above the Sky and Twilight Force – Dawn of the Dragonstar (though their second album, Heroes of Mighty Magic is where you should probably start with the band). I’m a big fan of Shores of Null, a doom-death band from Rome as well as Rivers of Nihil, a great technical death metal band. They don’t get enough attention.
How does music influence your writing?
The Water of Awakening is at least partially inspired by Twilight Force, although it’s not obvious how (I actually used the same artist – Kerem Beyit – for the cover). Beyond that, it’s hard to say. I love the Black Metal acts that have really great atmosphere and I often enjoy thinking up stories that match that sort of thing.
What do you think of the current state of the Metal scene?
I’m not sure. I think there’s tons of great music coming out, but I haven’t felt like there is an overall stylistic push like in past decades. I’m not sure where things will go, or if Metal will end up in a holding pattern like Jazz has since the 1980s.
How do you think your tastes in music and literature have changed throughout the years?
I listen to a lot less death metal now, for one. In general I am less tolerant of the 90s than even when I was alive in the 90s.
I also realize there are bands I haven’t listened to in decades, like Fear Factory. Nothing against them, I just never think about putting them on anymore.
Thank you for taking the time to do this, David. It was great and we wish you the best in these hard times. One last message for our readers? Where can we follow you in social media?
You can find me at: