QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I often get requests from students for interviews about various subjects, which I don't always have time to do in full. These are some I did earlier ... they may be useful ...
This is a selection of interviews I've had over the past months - mainly over e-mail, for various people and organizations. They are a mixed bunch - but I find myself repeating myself so often, I thought these might be useful ..
I've arranged them loosely into subjects where possible.
GENERAL - FOR DUTCH MAGAZINE
1. Do you believe in 'crossover fiction'?
Sure there is, although not particularly teenage books.
2. Do you think that it is a new phenomenon?
Not at all. Look at Alice in Wonderland. Having said that, these thigns go in and out of fashion, and once publishers put an idea on their radar, of course they play to that market which is bound to increase it.
3. What do you think has caused the recent upsurge in titles that are bought by both adults and children?
Partly the huge popularity of JK Rowling - it became one of those must-read things, in a very big way. Phillip Pullman is another example/ Fantasy has always been cross over, as has sci fi - if you look at those shelves in the book shops, they are browsed by adults nad children alike. Pullman brought some lit cred to the whole thing, so adults could feel safe reading it. But both of those authors benefited from the general increase in quality in children's fiction - there are so many good writers working in that area just now.
4. Do you think that there is a big difference between titles that are considered crossover and those, like Doing It and Junk that are teenage titles but are read by adults?
Sure there is. Reading children's books is much more about nostalgia, feel good reading. Teenage titles tend to be much harder edged. People are most happy to be reminded about being a child than about being a teenagers.
5. Doing It was published by Penguin and not Puffin in the hardback. Did you agree with that decision?
It was the paperback which was published by Penguin. The hardback was published by Andersen Press. I was fine about it. One of the problems with teenage books is marketing them. They are labelled by age in book shops and not by genre, as for instance, film and music is, which means you have to make a statement about yourself just going to the right section. A book like that in the adult section will picked up by just as many young readers.
6. Why do you think that the paperback garnered so much publicity while the hardback did not?
Well, that's wrong. The fuss was about the hardback.
7. Do you like the hardback and paperback jackets of Doing It?
I was fine with the girl with her knickers half way down - or up, if you look closely, but I didn't like the fact that she was so thin. She looked either about twelve or ill. Since the book was about normal shaped people, I didn't like that. They did the same thing in the states, too.
8. Do you write a book with a specific audience in mind?
Well, I set it up with a specific market in mind - my publisher. No, that's not true. I set it up for young readers, but I write them with no audience - just do it was well as I can.
9. Would you agree that the power of narrative is essential to a children's book?
Hmm - not sure about that. It's obviously the main driving force at the moment, and that's a good thing - stories are important and powerful things. I remember Stig of the Dump and such things, and Alice, and I'm not sure that narrative was quite as important in those days. Essential is a strong word.
10. If yes, do you think that this is why adults are turning to children's and teenage titles? It's certainly true that kid's books are all about strong narrative at the moment, and it's one reason why adults read them.
11. What other features, if any do you think that children's and teen books have that adults don't?
I have no thoughts on this one. I'd suspect, nothing.
12. A main difference between children's and adults books is that children's books have to have an element of hope? Do you agree with this?
No, not at all. It's usual, though.
13. Do you think that authors are increasingly aware that there is an adult market that they can tap into? And do they, in your opinion, write with this in mind?
Very much so.
Question 1 What I find interesting about 'Junk' is the multiple narratives that place you directly into the characters thoughts and feelings. Was this your intention from the start?
No, at first I had the book from just Gemma's point of view - but although she's an interesting character, she didn't half rattle on. To be honest, the book was already off to the publishers and accepted, when a reader pointed this out and I had to rethink, which is when I started on the multiple viewpoint - to try and get away from Gemma. I didn't want the book to be in the third person - I wanted it to be more immediate than that - so the multiple view was the obvious choice. Once I got going I found it was a great way to tell a story - it builds up a very three dimensional picture, moves the story along quickly, and in this case in particular, shows how addiction affects and is worked out through the relationships as well as the individuals.
Question 2 I have read a piece of criticism by Stephen Thomson, who said of the multiple narratives: 'To what end have all these voices been assembled, and by whom? A journalist? An official conducting an inquiry? Who is the mysterious interlocutor who has made sure that each voice dovetails with the proceeding and following sections, to form what is undoubtedly a story? Have you ever considered this point of view? Did you intentionally write the book without an authorial voice?
A very lit crit angle on it. I certainly didn't want an authorial voice - the idea was to allow people to make their own judgments on the characters and what they were doing, and third person tends to insist on too much comment. As for the idea of who assembles, that wasn't in my my mind. What I had in mind was that the reader knew these people, was friends with these people and was, perhaps, living in the same house as them in some undefined reality, where stories were told over cups of coffee or whatever, and the reader pieced together the action to form the story as it reveals itself in the end. In that sense, there was no clear intention on my part as to who was assembling the pieces, but to create the illusion that it was the readers themselves. A view which is bourne out by readers, one of whom recently wrote to me, saying how they felt that each character was whispering in their ear.
Question 3 Throughout my research of 'Junk', I have read many pieces that say that you drew inspiration form actual people and incidents in Bristol. None of the pieces directly say whether or not you were in close contact with drug users. To what extent did you experience what you wrote?
I lived in Bristol during that period, and the five central characters, Gemma, Tar, Lily, Rob and Sally, were based to some extent on people I knew - they were in fact a group of friends who had similar if not identical experiences. Some of them are closely based on the real people, some are montages. I never used heroin myself, but like everyone else who was there, I did quite a bit of other stuff.
Question 4 Do you find it amusing and interesting the way that a lot of the media have reacted to 'Junk' and also 'Lady'? I find it fascinating that with all the controversy surrounding the two books, you manage to prove them wrong with winning the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Carnegie Medal. Did you feel that this was a sort of 'win' for you and the book?
I was delighted with the stuff about Junk - I felt that it was caused by the book winning those awards and so it was fair game. The fuss about Lady was a load of nonsense, a silly season story. It was very gratifying in that the book was designed to be a tease, but rather appalling the way they all got up and barked at it. It makes me a bit wary about becoming a sort of public sport when I bring out another book.
Question 5 Have your daughter, son and stepson read 'Junk'? If so, did they find it disturbing or enlightening? As I am 21, I would find it interesting to hear what people younger than myself thought about it. All you can find in books, papers and on the Internet is irate parents and advisory boards asking for book classification!
My son and stepson have read Junk. My son read it too young, really - it didn't do him any harm, but if you read these books too young a lot of it just goes over your head. My stepson is a very proper kind of young man,m who wishes I would write more respectable books. A good place to look for readers opinions of Junk is on amazon.co.uk, or amazon.com. (In the US the book is called Smack.)
Question 6 As well as studying 'Junk' on my Children's Literature course, I also have to look at Harry Potter. Have you been caught up in the media hype or have you left it well alone?
I like the Harry Potter books a lot. I was on a judging panel when the first one came out and we were all rather snotty about it - it carried so many influences, was unoriginal and so on. But I think she is amazingly inventive. When the film came out the other week I had a number of media people on TV, radio and newspapers wanting me to make opinions around it and on it, but I tend to avoid being a pundit. What do I know?
Question 7 As I am now sure you are bored by my questions on 'Junk', I was wondering what your all time favorite book is and why. Did it inspire you in any way?
My favorite changes from time to time, but I finished Ian McEwans Attonementa little while ago and I thought it was a real masterpiece - just wonderful, and it made me as jealous as a cat. OK? Melvin
- How long did it take you to write BILLY ELLIOT?
- I did Billy really quickly - the first draft only took me about three weeks. The thing was, all the hard work had already been done - plot, character, the lot. All I had to do was retell it. I think it shows how well thought out the film was that I had to barely fiddle with it at all.
- And how many times did you watch the movie during that time?!
- Just the once. They didn't let me have a video, so I went to the cinema once and then got on with it. But I had Lee Hall's screenplay to work from.
- What excited you about this project?
- It was a new thing - turning a film into a novel. It's made me want to do more of it, maybe using old black and white movies and updating them - there's so many fabulous stories. - One of the most exciting things about Billy was, it's all so male. All the main relationships are between men, except for Billy's with his dance teacher. The pivotal character is Jackie, with his very traditional male role being challenged by the strike, his inability to provide for his family, and the fact that his wife has died means that he has to be a mother to his sons as well as a father - something he finds very hard. Then there's male sexuality, with the relationship between Billy and Michael and Billy and Debbie. It's not the kind of stuff you usually get in books for young people. -
- What was it like working in tandem with another writer's idea? -
Great. Like I say, Lee had done al the hard work beforehand
- - Why devote time to this when you could have been writing another of your own stories? -
Made a good change - and you learn a lot from adapting other people's work. -
- How have people reacted to "Carnegie medal-winner Melvin Burgess" writing a novelisation?
- No-one that I know of. It's often supposed to be a trashy thing to do, but Billy Elliot was such a good film, it was really only going to be trashy if I trashed it up. -
- I gather the Germans got very excited about the book - building a boxing ring at Frankfurt?
- Yes, it was great. They had me and Heike Brandt, the German translator, doing readings in English and German. The boxing ring was just a corner of a boxing ring and they had a German boy - he looked more ballet than boxing, really - with a pair of huge boxing gloves on standing next to us not quite knowing what to do. It was real fun. -
- Would you consider doing another?
- I'd love to do another. -
- What's next for you in 2002?
- Just finishing off my new book, probably to be called Doing It. And I'll start on Bloodtide 2. - - So when are we going to see a big screen adaptation of one of your own novels? - As soon as someone wants to! But An Angel for May has just been filmed in Sheffield for the Children's Film Foundation - not quite big screen, but I have a good feeling about it. -
Where did you get the idea? (Halfmen of Bloodtide/Kafka's cockroach?)
I'm tempted to say I've always been interested in wildlife, but I think it might come out wrong If you look at my books there is an animal theme running through them, and like nearly all other animal stories, they are really about the human relationship with animals. Lately I've been taking that one step further and using animals as metaphors. You can see it in Tiger Tiger, and especially in Bloodtide. Lady is another step along that path. I was very interested in the Animorph books when they came out but very disappointed in the very limited way they used the idea of the animal within, so to speak, and I remember comparing it with Kafka in Metamorphosis, where the transformation into a beetle is treated as being completely real. I wanted to do something like that. There's another theme in my work, which gives an expression to the irresponsible and the desire to just do your own thing. My stepson is in the middle of GCSE work at the moment, and I think it's just awful the amount they have to do. If I was that age, I'd be furious. I think that if we trusted people of that age to go about their lives sensibly, as parents we wouldn't insist so strongly that they get all those qualifications so soon, in so few years. It's a rubbish way to spend the end of your childhood, in my view, even though it's very difficult to avoid. So I have this developing theme of animals and the relationship with animals and what they mean to us and I was looking for ways of writing about sex and desire and irresponsibility for young adults - and the book opened up like that
. Male writer turning a teenage girl into a bitch could lay you open to charges of sexism. Especially as she decides that it is better to be a dog than a girl - what would you say to accusations of misogyny?
That's simply to misunderstand the book. It's an allegory, a satire, a bit of fun. All you have to do is look at how woman and girls are depicted in the rest of my work to put it in its correct context. Writing as a man depicting female characters is part of the territory of being a novelist, although in many ways you are setting yourself up in doing a teenage female character in the first person. On that one, I'll just have to wait and see if I've pulled it off successfully - I have before, in Junk. It was partly the response of girls and young women to the character Gemma that made me feel confident enough to try this. I suppose the real question is, Why make her a girl in the first place? Two things there - one I am writing a book about boys and sex at the moment, so I wanted to look at a girl instead for a change from what I've been doing these past years. Second, for a long time I've enjoyed depicting female characters who are very strong and very unusual and have qualities that aren't traditionally female. Sandra is one of these. So no, I don't think it's sexist. She may be a dog, but she's great dog. Enjoy! Did you find Sandra easy to write? Sandra was OK, I already knew her.
Female characters feature very strongly in your work - Issy, April, Gemma, Signy and now Sandra. Why? Is this just a cynical response to most readers being female?
When I started writing, I came from a very feminist background - most of my early adulthood was spent with very feminist people, my girlfriends were very militant, and so it was part of my vision of things to make unusual, strong female characters. It's something I've had a lot of practice at and that I return to for that reason. It's not something I regret in any way at all, but I do now feel that the time is right to write much more for boys. Male roles have been neglected, I think. Things have changed so much in the past thirty years, and there's been far too little thinking and awareness about the ways boys have to relate to themselves and other male figures around them, so that's something I'll be looking to do from now on.
Some people will say the book is amoral or even immoral for its failure to advocate restraint or responsibility in any area of life - how would you answer that?
Once again, as so often with fiction for young adults, it comes down to an issue of trust. I think it's staggering that there are people who so misunderstand fiction and the roles of fiction in a an age where fiction is everywhere. Adverts, films, comics, TV, computer games every area of life involves the use of fiction in some way or other. And the people who are most at ease this are young people, who have grown up with fiction in so many different forms and on so many different kinds of media. Of course they know what kind of context to put Lady in even someone who doesn't know what an allegory is will recognise that Lady is not a piece of advice, or a suggestion on how to govern your life; its simply a way of trying to make people think about the ways in which we define work and play. Of course, people may not like that.
Have any young adults actually read it yet and, if so, what kind of feedback have you had from them?
I have had some feedback, and so far, readers have been very excited about the book. Books for this age group are so very rare that when they come across them, people are just surprised and delighted that something's actually been published not for their parents or teachers but for them. Young people recognise this, and it comes across in their enthusiasm for it. First time you've done comedy? Did you enjoy it and will there be more? I guess looking back there was some humour in The Ghost Behind the Wall, and quite a bit in Junk, too - but I have been interested in getting more humour in my books. Life is funny, after all, except when it's being tragic. So yes, I did enjoy it and I'd like to do more.
1. Do you see yourself as a youth writer.
Why? Yes, I do see myself as a youth writer, though it's difficult to say exactly why or what that is. People always get confused about what is a youth book, or a book for teenagers, which is just what you'd expect. It's material for people who are going through a transition - why should anyone expect it to be anything other than ambivalent? There are books that are clearly not for young people - books about second marriage or old age, or office politics. Of course young people might read such books, but their interest is for older people. Then there are books that are specifically for young people, that deal with areas like school life, or early relationships and so on. But I think it's more fruitful to look at it from the point of view of style. What kind of material do young people turn to in other media? There's a definite market for people aged something like 14 - 20-something. It's very well defined in terms of music, film, magazines, computer games and so on - almost every other area but books. No one asks, what makes this a youth CD or a youth film. It is a question of style. In terms of subject matter, of course, people of this age are more than capable of dealing with any kind of adult material - they see it and read it in a hundred different ways quite habitually. So I don't worry myself about subject matter in terms of moral suitability - only in terms of whether it is likely to be of interest to the people I'm writing for.
2. With which music can you compare the style of your book Bloodtide?
Bloodtide is definitely on an Indie label, but if you pushed me I'd say, Rhythm and Blues with a dash of house here and there.
3. What kind of person where you when you were 18 years old?
As a child I was very shy, but I got louder and more interested in people as I got older. When I was eighteen I left school and had no idea what I was going to do, until my dad filled in an application form on my behalf to become a journalist. I went away on the training course, and learned nothing at all about being a journalist but a very great deal about having a good time. It was in Cardiff. I came back wanting to spend as much time as possible out of work so that I could sit around all day and night talking and dancing. And writing books .
4. What is the main difference between Bloodtide and Junk?
One difference is that Junk is more social realism, whereas Bloodtide is what you might call social fantasy. On another level, Bloodtide is a step further on. Junk was an experiment for me - I had no idea how a book that dealt in an open way with issues like drugs would be received, and the lesson it taught me was that teenagers are greedy to read fiction that is unpatronising, honest and exciting. When I wrote Bloodtide I knew that I no longer had to worry about violence levels, or sex, or the darker side of people and society, or about the level of sophistication in my book. My readers have no problem dealing with anything I can fling at them: why should I worry on their behalf?
5. Is Bloodtide based on personal experience?
In no way.
6. When do you prefer to watch a soap on TV instead of reading a book?
I'm very fond of TV, and I like TV trash much better than when it tries to be serious. (Mostly) Soaps are very good when you're tired and just want to unwind. They're also very good to watch with family and friends. Like most writers I love gossip, and while gossiping about soap characters is not as good as real gossip about real people, it's better than no gossip at all.
7. Which famous person do you respect and dislike at the same time?
The people I get close enough to know well enough to like or dislike, I would never say publicly that I dislike them, because I can't abide bitching. I don't actually know any, but I find most film stars and rock stars a revolting combination of talent, privilege and ego, which adds up to a truly amazing amount of smugness, and makes me feel sick. I would pick out the Gallagher brothers from Oasis as being particularly nauseating in this respect. How's that - not bad for someone who can't stand bitching .. I also hate hypocrisy.
8. Which bookmarks do you have in your computer? Bookmarks - not sure about this one, do you mean bookmarked web sites, I guess? There is a very fine book site called achuka over here which I look up often. I love film, I look up film2.com. By and large, though, I just use e-mail or cruise about, look at publisher's sites or other author's sites.
9. What have you stolen in your live? Food and drink mainly. There was a period when I lived in Bristol when shoplifting was very politically correct, but I was never very good at it - too nervous. I had a friend who had theft down to a fine art. Even when he was still at school, he used to come down stairs, enter the room and creep around it while they watched TV without them ever noticing, as a practice to be a thief. It was his masterly theft of an expensive art book from a bookshop in Bristol that I based Rob's theft of the Sky Bible on, in Junk. 1
0. What is the strangest item in your house?
I have a pokemani pole in the toilet and a gargoyle in the stair well. Take your pick!
11. Are you religious. Why or why not?
I made a deal with God; I'll not bother him if he doesn't bother me. It seems to work quite well. I used to have a relationship with him when I was young, but I after I gave him the elbow he never complained, so I guess it must suit both of us.
12. How often do you use Internet?
Daily. E-mail is the best thing since the pen, and I love idly looking up new sites.
1. What did you do before you became a writer?
I did all sorts of things - I was a bricklayer for a while, not a very good one though. I wasn't fast enough, but I did a few jobs. I spent a lot of time doing building work in general, renovation, mainly, and odd jobs for people. I had a funny little business for a while, marbling silk - you know those wavy coloured designs you sometimes get on paper? That sort of thing but on a much bigger scale. And I was out of work a lot.
2. What was the first piece of writing you were ever paid for?
A radio play called, "The Bald Angel." It starred Brian Glover, a very nice Yorkshire actor who also did the voices for the Tetley tea adverts. He was bald.
3. How do you plan your stories?
It varies. Mostly I spend a lot of time turning the scenes and characters over in my head before hand, trying to imagine what might happen. I often get two or three scenes in my mind that seem to be typical, or perhaps occur at dramatic points in the story. Then I fill in the gaps. I usually do a synopsis before I start, but I often deviate from it. Then it usually takes me much longer to finish my story
4. Are any of your stories true?
Junk was based on people I knew in Bristol. Not all the events happened to them, but all the events were true, in as much as I'd heard of them happening to other people through those five central characters. That's about as true as it gets in fiction!
5. If you weren't an author, what would you be?
I'd like to be a naturalist. Or I'd like to run a smoke house and make smoked salmon, kippers, cheeses and so on.
6. What do you like to do in your spare time?
I walk, cook, garden and send emails to people.
7. What were you like as a child?
Very dozy, very dreamy, very stubborn, very lazy. I spent most of my childhood day dreaming.
8. What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
Gormanghast, by Mervyn Peake.
9. What was the best moment or period of your teenage years?
One summer when I was fourteen, with my girlfriend, hanging about down by the river Thames at Sonning, swimming and well, all sorts. Most of it was awful, though.
10. Were you good at English when you were at school?
English was about the only thing I was good at. I had two teachers during my school years who were very encouraging about my writing. But when I got to do the exams, I lost interest. There wasn't much space for fiction at O and A level.
11. Do you have any funny reading habits?
Can't think of any. While I'm stirring something on the cooker I read, and in the bath. But then I read just about everywhere, except in cars. It makes me sick.
12. What's your favourite treat?
I have lots of treats. Just know I'm thinking about homemade marmalade for breakfast - I've just made loads with Seville oranges, which are in season. Bacon and egg for breakfast. Body shop stuff for the shower and bath. I have a bergamot one at the moment which is gorgeous. Having a date with my wife during the day while the kids are at school. Going out to dinner. Getting drunk - where do I begin?
13. What's your favourite music/song?
I don't have an absolute favourite, but at the moment I'm listening to Blur, Miles Davies and Santana.
14. If you could meet anyone from history, who would you choose?
Martin Luther King. Not only a great man, but he did the most memorable and powerful piece of literature of the century - wrote and performed it. People rarely to get to hear all of his "I have a dream," speech, but it's just stunning.
15. If you could meet any book character, who would you choose?