Books Are for Life, Not Just for Homework: Kieran Fanning Interviews Keith Gray

Keith Gray is the author of over 15 books for children and young adults. His first novel, Creepers (1996) was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize. Since then, he has been shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, the Angus Book Award, the Catalyst Book Award, the Costa Children’s Book Award, and the Carnegie Medal. 

I caught up with him to discuss reading, writing and teenagers, and I began by asking him about his earliest memories of books and stories. I was classed as a reluctant reader at school. There were no books in my house. My parents valued education but they’re not particularly well educated themselves and so they didn’t read. But my dad did tell stories. Books were always an educational thing. Nobody told me books were an entertainment thing. I only found this out from a boy in the year above me. I wanted to be Richard’s best friend; I thought he was very cool – he could drink a glass of water and shoot it out of his nose in twin jets. He gave me a book, which I read partly because a pupil had given it to me, and not a teacher, and partly because I was desperate to be Richard’s friend. So I read this book, The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall, and it blew me away. It was a domino effect from then on, and I suddenly realised what books had to offer.

At what stage did you decide you wanted to write? I can remember coming home from school, and I would have been about 13. My tea wasn’t ready yet so I tried writing my own story. It took me about twenty minutes. It was about three-quarters of a page long. Not a great effort, but that was the start of my writing. I don’t believe you have to be published to be a writer. If you write – you’re a writer. Later I started writing longer stories and handing them out to my mates. I’d get a friend to draw the front cover, print it up and photocopy it. It was quite a quick turnaround from learning to read to wanting to be a writer.

So do you think it’s an innate thing, something inside you? At some stage, were you always going to become a writer? I have thought about this a lot, the nature versus nurture argument, and I really don’t know. My parents didn’t read fiction but from the age of four or five my dad would tell me stories he’d made up. I guess you don’t need to read or write to be a storyteller.

A lot of writers say the same thing, how the educational system failed them. What is it, in your opinion, that schools are doing wrong? Schools do many, many, many things right. But as far as the love of fiction goes, schools teach it. You have to have a yes/no answer, a correct answer or an incorrect answer. Another problem is schools have league tables so people can go to the best schools. The best schools are the ones with the best results. The best results are the ones where the pupils have answered the most questions correctly. That’s rubbish when it comes to creativity. There’s no such thing as a right or wrong answer when you write a story or paint a picture. And because schools have to be league tabled, schools have to tick boxes. You can’t teach kids this way. Schools should allow time for the pure entertainment and enjoyment of books, because once you have a love of reading, it will open up your mind. It will improve you as a person.

And when you visit schools and meet reluctant readers, especially boys, is this the sort of thing you say to them? Absolutely. Books are for life, not just for homework.

Most of your teenage protagonists are male. Do you find writing from a female perspective difficult? Yes. I write from a boy’s point of view because I’ve been a boy. For example, I don’t like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. I think it’s laughing at being a boy. It’s an adult book. It’s looking back at adolescence. I want to laugh with my reader, not at them.

Your first book was published when you were quite young. Do you worry that as you get older you might lose your connection with the teenage psyche? I wrote my first book when I was 21 and people said to me, “Why are you writing for teenagers?”. I said, ‘Well, I’ve spent plenty of time being a teenager but I don’t know what it’s like to be an adult.’ I’m 39 now and I do know what it’s like to be an adult but I’m getting further and further away from what it’s like to be a teenager. It does worry me. I desperately try not to patronise my readers. There’s a writer in Scotland called Alan Bissett, who writes about teenagers for adults. I write about teenagers for teenagers. I am standing shoulder to shoulder with the young person, looking forward, whereas he is looking back over his shoulder at the teenager. So when I say I don’t patronise my audience, I mean I try to be a ventriloquist. I put my feet in my character’s shoes and write as if I was that character.

When a story comes to you, what comes first: a plotline, a character, or something else? For me, it begins with an emotion. So in Ostrich Boys, it’s about a boy discovering his best mate has committed suicide. I know how my character felt. The whole book is based around this emotion. In The Fearful, my protagonist is caught between following in the family tradition and going his own way. That emotion is what the book is built around.

For me, The Fearful is a strong allegory for organised religion. How do you feel about readers reading between the lines of your stories? While I’m writing it, it’s my book, but once it hits the shelf, it’s not mine anymore.

Do readers contact you about these things? They do. It’s great to get mail from people who like your books, but it’s also great to get mail from those who don’t. You can learn a lot from these people.

You tackle controversial subjects in your books. How do you deal with complaints? I tell them to read the book. If they haven’t read the entire book I won’t entertain them. If they have read the book, then I’ll have a conversation about it.

Keith and I talked about many other things: his writing process, the importance of a good editor, how he’d like to be a truck driver, about Ostrich Boys being turned into a play and possibly a film, and about his experiences of living in Edinburgh where “you get tired of bumping into authors more famous than you are”.

When we discussed favourite books, we discovered some common ground with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Holes by Louis Sachar. But he also added some new ones to my wish list – Any Human Heart by William Boyd and the work of John Green. It reminded me of what Kate said about books in Gray’s The Chain:

"She knew that books could make you laugh, or make you cry. They could be thrilling, or romantic, or scare you. They could take you all around the world, and beyond. They could make you see things from someone else’s point of view. They could challenge you. They could help you understand. They could bring comfort. So much. So very much. Kate thought that books could be shared."