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HAPPY ENDINGS

Having written for both adults and younger readers, I often speculate as to whether they are radically different disciplines and which – if any – is harder. On the whole, I approach both in much the same way. I try and make them truthful, funny (funny is my weakness, I’d hate to read a book that was totally humourless) and as entertaining as possible.

Martin Amis was a bit snotty about writing for children (can’t remember what he said exactly, but something to the effect that he’d never stoop so low), which caused a bit of a furore in children’s literary circles – and rightly so. The best children’s/YA literature is every bit as complex, sophisticated and wide ranging in theme as any adult novel. I don’t think there’s any subject under the sun that a children’s author would be afraid to tackle – although I don’t suppose a novel about accountancy would ever get commissioned.

Of course there are a few conventions that must seemingly be observed when writing for younger readers. My adult novel ‘The Opposite Bastard’ (about an eighteen year old quadriplegic at Oxford University) is chock full of swearing. The children at St Thomas’s Community College (the comprehensive school where my YA books are set) only use the mildest of expletives. When I hear the girls from our local comp coming down the road after school, I realise this is far from realistic. Even in the grittier YA novels, the ‘forbidden words’ are used far less frequently than in my own little corner of West-Sussex. I sometimes wish I could more accurately recreate the speech patterns of my teenage protagonists, but it’s not really a big deal.

Possibly the one area where I have felt a little constrained when writing for younger readers is when it comes to endings. On a couple of occasions, the pessimist in me would have been inclined to make the denouements a little bleaker. No one says you have to have a happy ending, but there is a definite suspicion that even if the book ends with a miserable death, (quite possibly from cancer) there has to be something life-affirming or empowering about it – or a lesson that the main character can take forward with her.  Come to think of it, it’s probably the same in popular adult fiction too.

There is also an unwritten rule that the protagonist must somehow be responsible for his own salvation. This is a laudable message, but rather goes against my experience of the powerlessness of childhood. Sometimes I’ve had characters working things out for themselves where in real life a teacher or parent might well have played a more active role.

I suspect too that the kind of YA fiction I write must also adhere to a fairly liberal, slightly leftist orthodoxy. This is absolutely fine by me, I’m both of those things – although I try not to let it show too much in my books. (I do seem to remember a loathsome public school Headmistress who wants to advise state schools on how to operate). Because of social media, and the fact that one only follows like minded people, it does mean that it can sometimes be quite shocking to glance at The Daily Mail or the on-line comments. Those views are unlikely to feature in YA fiction – except in the mouths of the ‘villains’.

But I’m rambling again. What I’m saying is, it’s just as hard to write for young people as adults and possibly more rewarding - especially when you actually get to meet your readers. It’s great when they like your books, but I still smile when I think of one boy’s on-line reaction to ‘Silenced’: ‘I didn’t have high expectations, but even then it didn’t meet them.’


 

ABSENT FRIENDS

Whenever I go into schools to talk about my books (just e-mail me if you’re interested, I’m quite reasonable and neurotically punctual, Southern Rail permitting!) I often say that I hope my books might be of help to young people experiencing some of the problems of my protagonists.

I’m currently awaiting my agent’s opinion on a new book (please be kind) so I’ve had time to read several books aimed at teenagers. It was interesting to note that the last three all featured dead or absent parents. Thinking back to my own work, I realised that of the six main characters only three of them live with both parents and Chris is Silenced is grieving for his best friend, Declan.

Given that the loss of a parent is probably a child’s greatest fear (I’m fifty-seven and it’s still a major preoccupation) I suppose it’s not surprising that it should feature so heavily in Young Adult fiction. Billy Elliot (although a film and musical) is in my view one of the most perfectly plotted examples of Young Adult fiction around. Perhaps the selling point is the dancing, but the really emotional aspect of the story is about Billy coming to terms with the death of his mum.

Indeed as I try to plot a new book it’s quite difficult to imagine a family with two parents working as well as a single parent family. Even when both parents are physically present, one is quite often emotionally absent (depression is one of the current themes that is often explored.)

So who are we writing for? I always say that when I was being bullied at school, I would have liked to read a book like comin 2 get u - truthfully I’m not sure it would have helped. Similarly when I offered the books I’d been reading featuring deceased parents to a teacher friend for her primary school library, she politely declined (for the moment) on the grounds that a parent had recently died and it was all ‘a bit too raw’.

I was also warned before an awards ceremony for which my book Silenced (about a boy whose best friend dies in a car crash) had been nominated, that some pupils from one of the schools attending had recently been involved in a fatal car accident and it would be best to talk about one of my other books.

But I still believe fiction can help young people to understand their peers better, particularly ones who are suffering. Perhaps it’s a question of timing. Because sometime books are a great way to help people realise that they’re not alone.

 

 

 

 

DISTANT MEMORY

When you’re creating characters in fiction, it’s good to remember that people are seldom what they seem. Characters should surprise you sometimes.

Driving home yesterday I was listening to an acoustic album by Everything But The Girl. Tracey Thorn is one of my favourite singers and by happy chance she was singing probably my favourite song; ‘Alison’ by Elvis Costello.

It reminded me of a brief encounter some forty years ago in my hall of residence at Manchester University. I had stayed behind one holiday to rehearse a play. Most of the other students had gone home, but a boy in the year above me – let’s call him Tony (not his real name) – had stayed behind too.

Tony, a punky, thin tied northerner, was notorious in hall circles for his right wing views. Rumour had it that he was a fully paid up member of The National Front. I’m not sure if this was an act or a strongly felt conviction, but I was certainly a bit frightened of him. So when he invited me back to his room to listen to records, I was more than a little conflicted.

Up to that point, my taste in popular music had been conservative to say the least. When I returned to university the first song I played was always ‘My Love’ by Wings followed by Elton John’s Greatest Hits (Volumes 1 & 2). Although I attended our hall of residence ‘New Wave’ Discos (my drink of choice a sickly Pernod and blackcurrant) I was much more at home with Billy Joel.

But in those days the fear of solitude far outweighed the fear of the new (in middle-age it’s the other way around) and I accepted Tony’s offer. I remember little of our meeting, which can’t have lasted more than an hour. He played me an album by The Jam I think and then moved on to ‘My Aim is True’ by Elvis Costello. It was his sensitive analysis and love for the song ‘Alison’, which has stayed with me all this time. Perhaps it was patronising of me to be surprised, but I couldn’t help being impressed by the way he’d thought so deeply about the lyrics and the story the song was telling. For me it was one of the damascene conversions (blue cheese being another) that happen throughout life. The next day I went out and bought the album, which I have loved ever since.

Tony seemed at the time an unlikely guru, but I’ll always be grateful to him for his master class on the art of the lyric. I like to think that someone with such a sensitive side has long since renounced his right wing views. But maybe that’s patronising of me too.   

 

 

 

An ABC of Bullying

 

It all started in the Easter term of my second year, although I can pinpoint the moment that school became a fearful place for me to an incident at the beginning of the previous term. We’d been playing football on the field at lunchtime. Walking back towards school, I was rugby tackled from behind by a group of my classmates who then started to ‘de-bag’ me. I don’t doubt it was meant in fun, and the fact that I’d been included in the ‘japery’ was probably a compliment. But instead of entering into the spirit of things, I panicked (I’ve always hated that claustrophobic feeling of being pinned down) and became borderline tearful.

A nice boy called Douglas said, ‘leave him alone; can’t you see he isn’t enjoying it?’ and they let me go. But the damage had been done, especially to my psyche, and I’m pretty sure I avoided the field from that moment on.

Unlike the de-bagging, the bullying was targeted. In the space of a matter of weeks I went from being a relatively confident, outgoing twelve-year-old to an anxiety ridden recluse. They say that the greatest gift to any writer in an unhappy childhood. If I owe boys A, B and C anything, it is the rich vein of unhappiness they gifted me, and from which I now draw inspiration for my fiction.

Why they picked on me – apart from the fact that I was the smallest, youngest boy in the class and an all-round coward – I’m not sure. Some people say that bullies target people they’re jealous of. If they were jealous of anything it might be that they detected in me a boy with a happy home life. Plus which of course they couldn’t fail to see how upset it made me.

Like most victims, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if it was my fault. These boys (certainly A and B) were notionally my friends. And indeed boy A – for whom I still retain the deepest loathing – kept up the fantasy that he was my ‘bffl’ (best friend for life) throughout their campaign. What did I do to make them turn against me?

I vaguely remember a broken ‘play date’. But that would hardly be good reason for such a concerted spell of bullying. Perhaps I was too cocky, too full of myself. But whether it was simply random or the result of some unconscious slight on my part it soon became apparent that they’d set out to make my life a misery.

Nearly forty years later, I’m able to see that they probably weren’t the happiest of children. Neither were they in that select group of school bullies who were universally feared by boys like me. In fact, I doubt they ever picked on anyone else. Maybe persecuting me gave them the kind of self-respect that their relative anonymity in the school had failed to provide. I sense also that there was something sexual about it. They were obviously going through puberty; I obviously hadn’t reached it yet.

I can’t even remember how it started. Name calling perhaps: Boy B renamed me ‘Bridget the Midget’ and – like everyone who played a musical instrument - I was regularly dubbed a ‘poof’ and a ‘queer’. I do recall a ‘short story’ they sent me about my homosexual encounter with a skinhead (‘And then Bridget and the skinhead wanked’). For several years I kept their billets doux in a drawer by my bed thinking they would serve as evidence should they ever turn on me again. But my Mum must have found them at some point and thrown them away.

There was never any physical violence – only the threat of it. The closest it came was one lunchtime when A and C trapped me in our form room. I still remember the exact words. I even used the first sentence in ‘comin 2 gt u’.

 

BOY A: (To Boy C) Go and get Beezo. Then we’ll see some fun.

ME: (TO A BOY CALLED DD) Help me Dave, please.

DD:(BARELY LOOKING UP FROM HIS SANDWICHES) You’ve never helped me.

 

Somehow I managed to escape. And from that day I did everything in my power to avoid them; walking the school like a squaddie on his first tour of Northern Ireland (that’s what it felt like) expecting at any moment that one of them would jump out and ambush me.

After a while, the situation became so unbearable that I started feigning illness; a difficult to diagnose all purpose stomach ache that resulted in me having almost a term off school. It was only when I ended up in the children’s hospital for ‘tests’ that I lost my nerve and told my parents the truth. Whenever I read a story about a child who has committed suicide as the result of bullying, (it happened at my son’s school the year he started there) it’s very often the case that they’ve kept it a secret. There’s almost a sense that the parents have been negligent in some way. Perhaps there’s a small part of me that feels angry with my Mum and Dad for not picking it up on my distress. But how could they have done when I worked so hard to conceal it? I don’t think it was so much a question of shame, but more the belief that if I told anyone it would only make things worse, coupled of course with the bullies’ charter, which states that ‘sneaking’ is the greatest sin of all.

I don’t know what happened after I’d confessed; how my mum and dad went about reporting it. But the next thing I remember I was back at school watching my three persecutors following the music master into the music room where he was obviously about to give them a bollocking. There were no such things as bullying policies in those days (except perhaps those of the bullies themselves) and I suspect that had I not been such an active musician I wouldn’t have found someone to champion me so whole-heartedly. There followed a fake letter of apology, signed by all three of them, in which they named the items they had stolen from me and were now returning (I seem to recall a book about dogs) and vowed never to have contact with me again. Boy C even appeared at my house with a record by a trombone player called ‘Slide Hampton’. Perhaps he was genuinely sorry – or perhaps he’d been put up to it by his parents, but of the three of them, I always felt he was the least committed. Later that day, as I lined up to go into a lesson, probably the nastiest of the mainstream school bullies (now a solicitor) enquired, ‘it is true you split on A and B?’

Although technically the bullying stopped there, I still went round in a state of low level panic for the next three years - until A and B left school at the end of the fifth year to join the police. I still did everything I could to avoid them, escaping to the music room whenever possible and adopting a policy of casual indifference in lessons so as not to draw attention to myself. I also took to sneaking off to the cafe in the local park where I would tease out morning breaks with a Twix and milky cup of tea. And it wasn’t until the end of the fourth year that I felt confident enough to take even the slightest interest in any school work.

To my eternal shame I also became something of a bully myself; picking on my younger sister Francesca, who incidentally was one of the few people to stand up for me when Boy A and his coterie starting bad mouthing me one afternoon on the bus home.

I’ve never been bullied since, and my life improved immeasurably when I met my lifelong friend ‘Big D’ – to whom I later dedicated ‘Silenced’. But underneath the scars remain. I hate being in large groups (particularly of men) and have probably unconsciously avoided any situations where bullying is likely to take place. I’m quick to back down – even when I think I’m right - and will always go the extra mile - or thousand - to avoid conflict. Perhaps it was in my DNA already, but I have a feeling I would have turned out rather differently if I hadn’t encountered boys A, B and C.


 

 

VERY RAMBLING

My new book, ‘Only We Know’ will be published on Thursday. It’s the seventh time that’s happened to me now, but the feelings are still the same; a sick excited sensation (a bit like before the first night of a play), a deep fear that I’ll never have anything published again, a crazy sense of optimism that – despite my best attempts – is impossible to subdue, and a profound hope that readers will like it – or probably to be more accurate that they won’t hate it.

            That last one is easier to deal with since I stopped reading reviews. It’s pretty obvious of course, but I suddenly realised that rave reviews make me happy for about thirty seconds whereas the bad ones will probably still rankle on my death bed. Coming from an acting background I’m used to bad notices (‘the acting is like the ship – wooden.’), but as an actor you can blame everyone from the director to the costume designer, whereas a book is almost completely of your own making, and such a personal thing that it’s like having someone diss your baby.

            (* I always remember proudly pushing my newborn son through Ealing fruit and veg market. An old lady looked down into his pram and clucked: ‘Oooh, what lovely......strawberries.’)

            But of course having a book published is nothing like a first night. Because unless there’s a book launch (and these are few and far between nowadays) nothing actually happens. If you’re lucky you might get a card from your publisher and a mention on Twitter, but basically it’s the same as any other day.

            I would never hand out writing advice (well probably for money – and then it would be the usual stuff, plus find better phrases than ‘I am passionate about’ and ‘emotional roller-coaster’), but there are two things I think of as most important: first that I have been as truthful and true to myself as possible (you will always have to compromise, but try not to compromise on the things you care about most) and secondly that any book without humour in it is unreadable.

But what was I rambling about? Oh right, publication day. Yes, it's kind of exciting. But for me, one of the greatest pleasures is when someone leaves a kind message on your website about one of your 'forgotten children'; a book you might have written years ago, but still love very much. It's nice to think they're still out there.

          

 

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