I’ve been wondering about the best way to begin our conversation and then it struck me that in your latest novel, More Than This, you yourself provide the best possible advice: ‘Go in swinging.’ Can you tell me about your fondness for this phrase which occurs at various points in the novel?
I think the book is about preparing yourself for not knowing what is happening. It’s about the fear of the unknown, being able to live with not knowing what’s next. It’s also about being a teenager and being able to live when bad news fills the entire world because that’s what it does when you’re young. When you feel good, it’s great but when you feel bad, it takes over everything. The book is about being able to say, ‘OK, I don’t know what’s next but I can do it’ and ‘Go in swinging’ is a way of reminding the teenage reader (and myself) that we’re not powerless. It’s about giving a young person power.
You have been quoted as saying about More Than This that you ‘wanted to write a book about waking up alone on the planet since about the day I wanted to be a writer’. What’s the appeal of that notion to you?
I’ve always been sensitive to the noise and bustle of the world: that’s what the Chaos Walking trilogy is about: just trying to find some quiet. It’s such a good teenage dream: ‘I don’t get the world and it doesn’t get me and if I could just have sometime that’s quiet…’ There is something about the idea of an empty world with the teenager the only one in it that seems to capture teenage yearning, teenage loneliness…
You use the word ‘yearning’. When I read More than This something that immediately came to mind was the first page of The Wind in the Willows where the animals are looking forward to the arrival of spring and we are told that it fills them with ‘divine discontent.’
Yes, that idea is especially relevant for teenagers. Everything feels larger than your own life for a teenager and ‘divine’ is exactly the right word for it.
We are always being told about the need for a writer to seize the reader’s attention from an opening sentence. I can think of very few openings which come with quite the drama of your first three pages in which we watch a 17-year-old boy drown. From the point of view of technique, those pages seem perfect to me in their evocation of that particular event. Did that chapter flow easily or was there a lot of editing?
I knew the opening line, ‘Here is the boy, drowning.’ It’s like the chime of a bell when you get the right opening line and you think, ‘That’s it, that’s how I want the book to sound.’ And so when I got that tone, I thought, ‘This is it.’ I knew it needed to be short and I wanted it to be powerful. There was quite a lot of editing to get it exactly right and I did lots of different versions. It was the thing I played with most before starting the novel proper.
It soon becomes quite clear to a reader of More than This that Seth, its principal character, is gay. Was your decision about this one of your earliest decisions when thinking about the subject matter of the book?
There are a couple of reasons behind that. The first was that I reviewed a novel several years ago, X Isle by Steve Augarde, and the secret of the book was that the pretty, smaller boy, whom the main boy had liked, turned out to be a girl. And I was really disappointed by that and I said in the review that we need to bury those kinds of plots. And then I thought I should put my money where my mouth is if I got the right story, because the story has to come first. But also I was thinking about the spate of gay teen suicides in the US which makes me so upset. I might have been one of them, with only the slightest shift in arbitrary circumstance, and I thought, ‘I feel that this has power for me and I really care about this.’ So I felt that for these two characters, Seth and Gudmund, in this story, this is what it needs to be. But it’s also interesting that for the teenagers who have read it so far it’s no big deal.
I have read a number of young adult novels which explore the physical aspect of gay sexuality but I have never seen the subject handled with such delicacy or sureness of touch as in your chapter 18 in which Seth and Gudmund are together in bed. It’s a beautiful re-creation of shared, intimate moments. Could you say something about your memories of writing that chapter?
I thought I owed it to a gay reader to show that this is 100 per cent regular and readable, that there is nothing exceptional about this, except what is exceptional in all intimate moments. I wanted it to read like every other tender moment that had ever been written about. I teach a bit sometimes on writing difficult subject matter. One of my classes is on writing sex and violence and we talk a lot about seeing something like a sexual situation clearly and about how easily you can lapse into cliché. And I thought that the way to describe this moment is really important because it is really important between these two boys. And it’s really important to show that I’m not being coy: I hate coyness.
But you’re not being sensationalist either.
Exactly! I was very conscious of that. I didn’t want it to be, ‘Just look at this, here’s controversy.’ Because that’s stupid, that’s not writing. It’s very much a chapter about them being intimate with each other physically, but it’s also the chapter where Seth reveals what happened to him when he was eight and that is actually more intimate. The whole point of the scene is intimacy. Intimacy is more than one thing: it’s not just physical but it is physical. I cared about them both so much and I thought they were both good guys and I just wanted it to be the truth and not merely attention-grabbing.
At one point in the narrative the house that is discovered by Seth to be the one where he had grown up is described as a ‘memory waiting to be re-entered’. Memory, and its working, seems to me to constitute one of the key themes of the book. Do you agree?
I do. It’s about the past: the future will fade immediately if you lose hope, and the past will just stick to you and that’s really what Seth is battling with. He has one memory of this event with his brother that has haunted him and it directs everything. And the book is trying to say, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure that’s the only the way of looking at it? Are you sure that there might not be other ways to look at it?’ Are you sure that there might not be more?’
With your two Carnegie medals and numerous other awards, I was wondering if this success puts you under any degree of pressure where future work is concerned?
Well, there is always pressure. I always put tremendous pressure on myself. I always worry that if I’m not worried then it’s going to be bad. If I’m thinking that my writing is great, then that’s a bad sign. I always have long dark nights of the soul. So the pressure comes from me. If I’m worried about external pressure, then I’m not telling the story directly that I want to tell. There was certainly pressure after book one of the Chaos Walking trilogy. Will Book Two stack up? The awards are great, I’m very grateful for them. I have been very lucky, but it’s highly unlikely I’m going to win anymore. I think they’re a little sick of me!
The success of A Monster Calls was phenomenal. Would it be an exaggeration to say it changed your life, your writing life?
Well, it’s funny that in the first discussions about A Monster Calls it was supposed to be a small book between two big books for mé, but I read the material and I thought, ‘No, I think I could do more than that.’ I worked really hard to make it the best I possiblly could, and I brought Jim Kay the illustrator in, which was wonderful. In a way, it’s kind of like sending a kid off to college: the book takes on a life of its own. I’ve done my bit and my bit will stay the same for each book. The way that people have reacted has been amazing, but I still have to write my books and I still have to worry about them. However, that experience really is a once-in-a-career thing, and I was given an extraordinary opportunity.
And you took it.
And I took it and it’s gone better than I could ever have dreamed.
You went in swinging.
I went in swinging.
Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books.