On 10th October Just Imagine hosted a discussion group at Anglia Ruskin University featuring two best-selling teenage authors: Kevin Brooks and Melvin Burgess. The group was mainly focused on writing for teenagers, enough to persuade me to go, however Kevin and Melvin also discussed their books, lives and writing techniques as well as answering any questions from the audience.
Kevin Brooks had always wanted to be a writer, in fact at the age of 5 he asked for and was bought a writing desk, which he considers as a little sad however he was, from then a wordsmith, a lover of language and especially of books. As with many authors it took Kevin a while to get published, but until his mid 30s writing was not the main focus of his career, he explored both art and music. In many ways he never left the field of expression. He played in bands, composed his own songs and recorded music from his late teenage years to his mid 20s when he took a detour into the artistic field of sculpting and painting until his late20s. All the while Kevin says he was building up within him the knowledge that at some stage he was going to have to just sit down and write, as inevitably, this would be what he did in life. This time allowed him to learn that writing would take patience and extreme discipline, an art which can be neither be found in neither music nor art.
When asked how he decided to write for teenagers Kevin quickly answered that he never decided on either audience nor genre, the words decided that for themselves. His first book held the rather amusing title of Martin Pig and it was centred around the life of a rather bemused 15 year old boy. It was whilst writing this that Kevin discovered how natural it felt for him to write from the perspective of a teenager and brought to light the realisation that he writes the age he feels, as a person Kevin says he feels the same today as he did aged 15; he just looks a bit different. “That child, that teenager, that adult”, he said, “they’re all still me and they have made me who I am today.” Writing from the point of view of a teenager is enjoyable for Kevin because he appreciates how in a teenager’s life, every little thing appears much bigger than it is and that in itself can make a novel better than that focused on a nostalgic, acceptant adult. In his words he writes as if, “looking at the world through confused eyes” – an outlook with which many adolescents will be familiar.
Melvin Burgess was 35 when he started writing for young people. An immediately funny man, he instantly grabbed the audience with his shockingly honest, casual tone. He was surprisingly lucky as an author as he did not face the tedious struggle to get published, he appeared on the radio, wrote a few short stories for various magazines, published a children’s book and then he “was off!” Jokingly frank Melvin said he never considered writing an adult book because “to be honest, they take too long.” His real breakthrough into the literary world was after a book he wrote, “Cry of the Wolf” was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. At this time Melvin himself, considered it a children’s book however publishers and librarians informed him it was more suitable for teenagers because of the slightly vicious aspect.
Melvin Burgess is a self-proclaimed controversial author. His biggest success, Junk, a novel about drugs, sex and teenagers, invited swarms of critics, good and bad for at a time when the country was being encouraged to say “no” to drugs, underage sex and alcohol Melvin published a book which shone a revealing light on those who say “yes”. Some say his book encourages such behaviour whilst others say he empathises only enough to convey a realistic storyline. One journalist, in the Guardian, said “to understand is to forgive” however Melvin energetically disputed this on the grounds that it is simple to understand how a paedophile has ended up as he/she (eg- they were abused as a child) however to “understand the monster is not necessarily to become the monster.” Whilst listening to this I considered how society has a large problem with dealing with hard-hitting issues purely because we are afraid that by empathising just that little bit too much we may, in turn, come to justify what we now believe to be outrageous behaviour. It is becoming a stress to think about an issue for fear that you will, accidentally, understand it too well.
Melvin Burgess raised an interesting point in which the literary and film industries clash in a rather unfortunate way. Junk as a book is for teenagers, many 14 year olds would read it comfortably however if it were to made into a film, which is still cannot be to this day, the certificate would be an 18, such is the content of the plot. Instantly the small niche in the market for Junk has been disallowed access to view it as a film, simultaneously plunging its rate of success. Society connects the word teenager with child before it considers adult may be a nearer match and so Junk is understandably a controversial book to an age where innocence is still intact.
Kevin Brooks’ new teenage novel, Naked is set in 1976 – the year that Punk Rock was born and died. The year of the Sex Pistols, the year of wild experimentation, music, drugs, alcohol – the year the youths of Britain went mad. The story is focused on a girl who plays bass in a band called Naked, it is in a sense a love story but also a story about the power of music. There are also connections with the IRA, not just a teenage novel but in fact a book entwined with cultural references for those who experienced 1976 as an adolescent. At this point in the discussion Nikki Gamble, owner of Just Imagine, expresses her love for the phrase used by the main character of Naked, for she is asked what chord she considers herself as. Kevin asks Nikki what chord she considers herself as and she answers, perhaps a little too quickly, that she has always thought of herself as A minor. This provokes a conversation between the two about chords, before Nikki asks Melvin what chord he thinks he is to which he responds bluntly. “Dunno. I can’t play hopscotch, how am I meant to know what chord I am?” Kevin Brooks believes songs and books are very similar. A song means something specific to he who wrote it however it means what it means to you, everyone interprets it differently- he thinks the same philosophy applies to books and that art should have a certain beauty to it – writing too.
Melvin Burgess’ latest teenage novel, Kill All Enemies, is focused on the lives of three adolescents whose lives slowly meet. Melvin believes that one of the most important skills in life is being able to listen for when you look at faces you have no idea what’s going on inside but when you ask and they talk the most magnificent of stories can be unearthed. When writing a book you should fictionally explore your characters in the same way you would if they were real: who are their family? Who do they hate? Who do they pine after? What do they do with their spare time? Melvin Burgess visited care homes across the country, talking to the children and teenagers, finding out about their lives. One girl’s story struck him, inspired him, captured him – the story of a girl who in Kill All Enemies is named Billie, a girl whose family of 6 was falling apart, her mother was an alcoholic, her 4 younger siblings in need of a mother; Billie. For weeks, months, years Billie played mum consequently being tired in school, never doing her homework and being viewed by her teachers as a child who simply could not be bothered to learn. Of course she couldn’t tell anyone for fear of the social services getting involved but what happened when they did? When Billie’s mum was sent to a de-tox centre and her siblings were all separated around various homes and foster parents? Billie had failed. In her eyes all that she had been aiming for was gone, all she was trying to do was to hold her family together and she’d failed. And when Billie’s mum came out of de-tox she had big ideas for a family reunion, only without Billie. She claimed Billie was too much work and so she was left in care. When Melvin read an extract from the book where Billie visits her family in their new home and witnesses the oldest of her younger siblings in the position she was once in, acting as mum, I was moved close to tears. The harsh reality of his words cut deep and did not beat around the bush. Violence and pain are such powerful topics to write about. Many people dislike a graphic book that tells it how it is but both Kevin and Melvin were sure they’d be lying to themselves and to their readers if they did anything else. If I as the reader am distressed after reading something then they as authors have achieved their aim, they have conveyed true emotion, unlike violent films, for example in James Bond violence comes with no consequence, the hero would never die, he could be shot through the chest but it’s nothing a bout of miracle surgery can’t handle. Such portrayals of violence and pain do not allow you to learn to feel, to properly come to terms with the silent, cruel truth.
Both authors believe that writing is not always about the beauty of the words so much as the meaning of them. Melvin Burgess says that when you come across writing that is difficult to understand it is always the reader’s fault and never yours as a reader. The best things can be said in the simplest ways – in the words of George Orwell: “Never use a long word when a short one will do.”
This talk was a thoroughly inspiring experience for me and I was pleased to note how friendly, down-to-earth people they were. A name on a book inevitably sounds more foreboding than a face in person and it was a delight to meet both Kevin and Melvin. I should point out that I run the teenage book club at Just Imagine once a month from 4.30-5.30 and on 2nd November we will be discussing another of Kevin Brooks’ books, Being which he was particularly flattered to here. Feel free to come along, contact or better still, visit Just Imagine for more details. Since the event I have managed to contact Melvin Burgess to ask him if he has any tips for aspiring authors, such as myself. He replied very quickly, just as friendly as when I met him. He wrote, “Hi Emily – I’m in Ireland now- all over the place! Advice is – get a skin like a rhino and never, ever give up. And remember the law of 10,000 hours! Good luck – I’ll meet you on the bookshelves.”