The illustrator has released his debut novel. He talks to us about the move from pictures to prose
Putting pen to paper takes on a new meaning when you’ve had as creative a life as Stevie Lee.
The former Belfast Telegraph daily cartoonist — he created over 3,300 cartoons in his 13-year tenure — has turned writer, with his debut novel, Time Served, released in November 2021.
He self published his first work of fiction under the pseudonym N E Shawson, and, like many other writers, it’s a nom de plume of particular emotional significance.
Annie Shaw — ‘she’s the woman I called Mother for most of my life’ — had an evident impact on him from a young age.
His literary name honours Annie — who he calls Nanny Shaw — and speaking face to face in a Belfast café, Stevie is visibly moved when speaking about the woman he considered a guardian.
Does writing under a different name give him a greater license we ask.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I have the second book finished and have put it out for submissions and it’s under N E Shawson and the book I’m working on now, [the name] it will be forever more.”
Time Served has, in some shape or form, been in the offing since Stevie left his role in the civil service via redundancy in 2000.
Twenty years ago, the climate was right to go full-time with his artistic role, and he accepted commissions for illustrations and cartoons from magazines and newspapers in Belfast.
He also spent time working in a juvenile justice centre in Bangor.
“I was asked to stand in for a job in Bangor, working with disadvantaged kids.
“It went really well, and they gave me a job and I really loved it,” he explains.
A lot of people look at these kids and have an opinion of who they are, given where they are, he says, but ‘whenever you’re in a classroom with two or three of them and they start opening up, you understand why they’re there’.
He taught art, graphic design and made short films.
“I really loved that part of it because once I said, ‘OK, action’ they froze. So I’d say, ‘We’ll do a run through’ and turn the camera on and not say anything because you’d get them acting more naturally. Whenever you did the next take, they were all overacting. But it worked out superbly.”
Helping others find their creative outlets is one thing but finding what really makes him ‘absolutely’ happy has changed his life.
“I had a wasted childhood in school,” Stevie explains.
“All I cared about was English language and art, a wee bit of history if it suited me.
“I should have been kicked out many times, but my form teacher and a couple of other teachers made sure I wasn’t.
“I wasted an education, but I didn’t want to do anything else. Maths… my son loves maths and when he starts talking maths, I say, ‘give it a rest,’” he laughs.
“It meant I sort of sailed into graphic design pretty early. I went down the job experience on a Tuesday and said, ‘I want job experience in graphic design’. They said they didn’t do that, I said OK, and next Tuesday I was standing there again.
“After about four Tuesdays, they rang a company and they said yes. It worked out great. Then me and another guy went off on our own. It was enjoyable but it wasn’t making enough. [Wife] Karen was pregnant with our first child, so I thought I had to earn real money.”
He joined the civil service and when times were quiet, used to draw people who appeared in newspapers.
While a career in art beckoned, writing remained something he badly wanted to do.
“It’s not for money, I just want people to read and enjoy my stories.’
“I’ve turned down caricatures, loads of stuff, because I do and I don’t miss it. But I don’t miss it more than what I’m doing now [writing].”
Stevie describes Time Served as ‘gruesome’ yet ‘highly emotional’, saying, “you’ll still have empathy for the protagonist right until the very end.”
Troubled Belfast prison officer John Patterson’s life is in a tailspin after surviving a booby trap bomb that kills his friend.
Taking solace with his sister Shirley, who reveals a dark secret about their family history, Patterson commits to a life of vengeance.
His relationship with the wife of a republican godfather is uneasy and it’s not long before he’s within the sights of her husband and DS Harry McDermott.
The race — or rather — the chase is on for John to find what he seeks without himself becoming a statistic.
“Research is good and it’s easy for me because I’ve seen a lot of bad things in my life,” says Stevie on writing.
“I’ve lost a few friends and, in a way, it’s a bit of a tribute to them.”
He laughs recounting a particular piece of his fact finding.
“I went to the doctor and said, ‘How can you kill someone and get away with it if they’re comatose?’ He looked at me and I explained I was writing a book!”
Feedback has been positive. One reviewer on Amazon wrote; ‘the writer wasn’t afraid to infuse the gritty and nihilistic narrative with very real, very moving moments of emotion, human drama and pathos.’
Another dubbed it ‘clever, brutal and emotional, all in the same pot.’
“It’s not a story about the Troubles,” says Stevie.
“The main characters are all imprisoned in one way or another. The prison officer has issues with gambling and drinking. The woman he’s running around with is locked in a loveless marriage and the one she’s married to is the top guy in the IRA in the jail.
“There’s a policeman who is so frustrated because they can’t get evidence; he has a hunch of what’s happening but no matter how often he goes to the Superintendent, it’s not happening at the moment.
“Patterson’s sister lives in Blackpool and has a dark secret, she’s imprisoned by that.
Working in such visual environments for over the last decade meant the move from picture to prose was an easy one.
“When I’m writing I can see what’s happening in my head,” explains Stevie.
“I have a journal. I am very old fashioned, but then so are a lot of authors. I write it out free hand and the reason is, if you’re typing it out and the wee red line is there because you’ve misspelled something, you automatically go back and change it. I don’t care; I keep writing.”
Book two is a standalone but there’s a revenge/vengeance theme going through all of his fiction.
“The second one, I actually won an award for the screenplay of it because I have been a screenwriter for years.”
This is perhaps no surprise, and he talks about a five-day seminar undertaken in Cornwall wherein his hook — the opening scene of a play — was chosen as one of six to be performed by professional actors.
“Whenever you hear professional actors for the first time…” He pauses. “I still get emotional about this.”
His scene featured a former police officer, turned bar owner now living a quiet life in the middle of England, who is visited by an unwelcome blast from the past. After serving him a drink, the bar owner says, ‘It’s over’. The unwanted guest walking towards the door stops to say, without turning round, ‘It’s never over.’
“When you hear professional actors voicing your words, it’s spinetingling,” says Stevie.
“And I got that drunk I ended up singing Danny Boy in front of a Welsh male voice choir who were staying in the same hotel. They made me sound like a good singer,” he laughs.
It’s clear how much writing means to him and it’s a medium that he has enjoyed since childhood, ‘because I had an imagination.’
“I have been so unlucky with my teeth, and I wrote a wee story about getting a filling, I was about eight or nine.
“Nanny Shaw couldn’t finish the story because it was too gruesome the way I was describing the noises of the machines and the sweat and the way you were feeling.
“They had a wee shop and I got comics all the time; when they had a new batch, Batman, Superman and so on.
“As soon as they came in, I’d take one of each and go to bed at six o’clock and read them.
“I’ve illustrated a few things for my boys as they were growing up, made up stories and so on, so it’s always there.
“I miss watercolour painting. I used to take a wee book with me, no matter where we went, down the Nile or in Jamaica, and paint. But the only thing is, I’d have to have about four different pairs of glasses now,” he smiles.
His second novel is out for submissions and while he’s experienced some rejections, he refers to them as ‘educational.’
“Even my editor has said if I don’t get this published there’s something wrong. It’s always a kick in the teeth when it says, ‘Thank you… but….’ But you just have to live with that. Somebody somewhere will pick it up; if not, I’ll go back to this again,” he says of self-publishing.
As a reader he enjoys crime and thrillers, as well dipping into history — recent books have included historically based fiction about the rise and fall of the Mongols and the Roman Empire. But he dislikes writing the ‘first person’.
“They’re narrating; it’s like listening to an audiobook. They’re not going to hit the points where you want it to go big.”
He also has the knowledge that an international bestselling author finds his work of interest.
“In 2007 whenever I had a chance to really get tore into this, I sent off a three-page full synopsis to [suspense thriller writer] Dean Koontz,” he says.
“The only reason I did it was I forgot to bring a book with me when we were in Portugal and the guy there said there were stacks of books in the apartment.
“I read one of his and really enjoyed the story. It had details of how to contact him, so I wrote to him, and got a handwritten letter back from him. It said my story was antihero but that’s a growing market.
“Irrespective of that, he said, your story is universal. It can be set anywhere. So I sent him a book at Christmas… just in case he’s talking to Netflix,” he laughs.
Time Served paperback by N E Shawson, £10, is available from Amazon as well as a Kindle eBook for £2.97