David Beagley, editor

An interview with Kevin Brooks

Ben Screech

Ben Screech is a PhD candidate at the University of the West of England researching otherness in twenty-first century British children's fiction. He will be speaking on 'homelessness in the fiction of Kevin Brooks' at 2015's 'Child and the Book' conference in Aveiro, Portugal. Ben tweets on issues relating to literacy education and children's literature; you can follow him on Twitter @benscreech87.

Kevin Brooks is an English writer of young adult fiction. He is the author of thirteen bestselling novels, as well as three series of detective novels aimed at a teenage audience. In 2013 he won the Carnegie Medal for his controversial book The Bunker Diary, a dystopian novel that was labelled by British newspaper The Telegraph as a "uniquely sickening read" which "seems to have won on shock value rather than merit", but which was defended by the Carnegie judging panel as "absolutely the book Carnegie should be championing – superbly well-written, atmospheric, and loved by readers".

Ben Screech is a PhD candidate at the University of the West of England researching otherness in twenty-first century British children's fiction. As part of his PhD research on the concept of 'otherness' in children's and Young Adult fiction, he interviewed Kevin Brooks. Kevin's novel Lucas is an example of a twenty-first century 'outsider narrative' and one which Ben is exploring in depth as part of his thesis in terms of its portrayal of an 'othered' young-person.

If we consider otherness as being concerned with 'in' and 'out' groups, for example, as defined by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who asserts; "the enemy is the other of the friend, 'them' the other of 'us'" (from Modernity and Ambivalence, 1991), then Brooks' fiction resonates strongly within this thematic concern. Initially stemming from a fascination with otherness in regards to Lucas, the interview developed more broadly to include Brooks' discussion of themes in his work such as religion, traveller culture and geographical setting. In addition to this, Brooks articulates wider concerns as a novelist, from his writing habits to a potential film adaptation of iBoy, one of his best-selling novels.


Ben: Much of your writing seems concerned with the idea of the young person as outsider or 'other', or otherwise inhabiting some sort of liminal role. I was wondering what it is about these character tropes that interests you?

Kevin: From the story-telling perspective, it allows me to step back and look in at the world (through the eyes of the outsider-narrator), which to me is much more interesting and enlightening, than if you belong to the world you're writing about. But also, on a personal level, it's just very natural for me to take the outsider's point of view. Whatever I've done in my life, at whatever age, I've never really felt a sense of belonging. I've always been happy hanging around on the fringes, watching and listening, looking in, rather than being part of anything.

Some of your novels (eg: The Bunker Diary) have resulted in a certain degree of controversy and a renewed interest in discussions around what children should and should not be reading. Philip Pullman once talked, in a discussion on this subject, about the dangers of 'ring fencing childhood', I was interested to know what your feelings are on this subject?

I could honestly write about a million words on this subject and since the Carnegie it sometimes feels as if I haven't talked about anything else! National newspapers are freely available to children of any age – with no censorship, no 'adult content' warnings and no age restrictions. I think it is fair to say that most adults would be perfectly happy to see young people reading a national newspaper (although admittedly some might worry if that paper was The Sun or the Daily Star). However, in general, there are no widespread calls to censor newspapers, to keep them from children's innocent eyes or to hide them away. Even if you disregard the horrendous morality of some papers, and the blatant bias, prejudice and bigotism they encourage, the straightforward news content of all newspapers is necessarily hard- hitting, violent, awful, sickening and shocking ... which it has to be. The world's a scary place, full of terrible things. Newspapers wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't report on the sometimes awful reality of life. The way I see it, if it's OK for children to read about 'difficult' subjects in newspapers (which often don't put all that much thought into how they're portraying these subjects), then it's OK for authors to write with thought and insight, about the same subjects. In fact, they wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't.

Your first book (Martyn Pig) was published when you were fourty-three, comparatively late in terms of other YA authors. Do you think, coming to writing fiction later in life has given you any different or interesting perspectives or reflections on the experience of childhood, and secondly, how has your breadth of previous life experience (you mention elsewhere working as a musician, in a crematorium and for British Rail), shaped you as a writer in your opinion?

From a purely personal point of view, I would much rather have been published when I was younger. Firstly, because I always wanted to be a published writer, and if I could have made a living from writing I wouldn't have had to spend decades doing jobs I despised just to earn money. And secondly, being published at 43 gives me a writing career of 35/40 years at the very most, whereas if I'd been published at 20, I would have had an extra 20 years doing the thing I love. However, from a writer's perspective, being published at a later age does have some distinct advantages. For a start, because I did so many other things before becoming a professional author, I have a vast reservoir of experiences to draw on – some good, some not so good, some downright abominable! But they're all incredibly useful to me now. Also, having spent so much of time doing 'real' jobs, I truly appreciate how lucky I am to spend every minute of my life doing something I love. No matter how hard writing can be, no matter how tiring, frustrating, mentally draining, and no matter how difficult some aspects of promotion might be, I never forget that compared to a 'real' job writing is an absolute joy.

In addition to your non-genre specific work, you have written a series of novels focusing on a detective character named Johnny Delgado. What appeals to you about police procedural / detective fiction and how did you go about re-imagining this genre for a young audience?

The best crime fiction is never really about the crime itself, or even how it's solved. That element is merely the framework of the story, the narrative that draws the reader in. It's the characters and their view of the world that actually forms the story. The crime/detective aspect also means that the story usually deals with the essentials of human life – why we do what we do, the laws (written and unwritten) that make us 'civilised' and the age-old battle between 'good' and 'evil'. It's not really a matter of re-imagining the genre for a young audience, (the basics remain the same), so much as re-working the practicalities. For example, in my Johnny Delgado series of books (which can be seen as an earlier version of my current series featuring teen PI Travis Delaney), the main problem was trying to work out how a teenager could realistically be a private eye, but not in a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew sense.

The film of iBoy is currently in development. Many of your novels seem to have quite a cinematic element, particularly, as we will discuss presently, with their often strong sense of setting and place. Apart from iBoy, are there any other of your novels that you think would translate well to film and, if so, what aspects of the book would you like particularly to see 'brought out' for the screen?

Most of my books have been optioned by film and television companies. Potentially, I think any of them could work very well as movies. I have already seen rough drafts of how iBoy's powers might be portrayed in the film which were very impressive, and I think it's these more fantastical or science-fiction elements of some of my novels that I'd particularly like to see on the screen.

In a recent re-reading of Candy I was particularly struck by the series of questions Joe asks himself near the end of the novel – "Why the friction?" "Why the conflict?" "Why the complexity?" As a writer for young adults, is it inevitable that your work will negotiate friction, conflict and complexity?

I think it's inevitable if you're writing the kinds of books I write – realistic, human, emotional – simply because friction and conflict are such a massive part of not just adolescence, but all stages of life.

Discussions around God, Religion and the nature of faith are increasingly being found in children's books (Pullman's The Golden Compass is perhaps the most famous example of this). However, what struck me when I read Killing God was that this felt like a decidedly angry novel. You are obviously interested in the theme of God and Religion in the novel, and I was wondering what the initial stimulus was for writing this book?

I had Dawn's character in mind for a long time before I wrote Killing God – I was just waiting for the right story for her to come along and I always knew that anger played a big part in her life. It worked out even better than I imagined then because once I realised that Killing God was her story, the anger I feel about many aspects of organised religion was naturally transferred to Dawn.

Your work deals often with the themes of homelessness and transience (Candy), or features characters from traveller or 'gypsy' extractions (Lucas, The Road of the Dead), where travel and movement is culturally ingrained. Can you comment on the importance of these characters / themes in your work, and also what drew you to writing about a cultural group such as travellers; (this last point particularly interested me because there are so few literary representations of travellers, particularly in YA fiction).

I've always been fascinated with gypsy / traveller culture – mainly, I think, because of its outsiderness, but also because the age-old prejudice against gypsies is not only still very much alive, it's also still very acceptable to many people. It is, if you like, the last socially acceptable form of prejudice left in the UK. It's also an excellent example of the way in which societies fear and hate cultures they don't understand, and (crucially) cultures that don't wish to integrate. I don't know why there aren't more representations of gypsy culture in YA fiction. To me, it's a wonderfully interesting world, almost tailor-made for stories about prejudice, fear and hate. It's simply too fascinating to not write about.

I thought the description of place and landscape was particularly beautiful in Lucas. So much so, in fact, that after reading the novel, I studied various maps of the south of England in an attempt to find out where might have been the inspiration for the island of Hale. Could you firstly enlighten me, in regards to the inspiration for the fictional island in Lucas, and also discuss why (apart from the obvious plot-related logistics relating to Lucas's attempted escape), you decided to set the novel on an island?

Hale is loosely based on Mersea Island, a small island about ten miles from Colchester in Essex. I lived in Colchester for many years, and spent a lot of time at Mersea Island, and I always knew it would be a wonderful place to set a story (incidentally, Mersea is also the setting for a brilliant piece of melodramatic fiction called Methusulah, by Sabine Baring-Gould). Again, one of the main themes in Lucas is the way societies react to people they don't understand and the island setting in Lucas allowed me to focus on, and emphasise, the notion of an isolated culture.

On the topic of place and setting and their importance in your writing, I was interested to read in an interview you did around the time of the publication of The Road of the Dead that prior to writing about Dartmoor (which forms the fantasically bleak backdrop to part of the story), you spent time visiting that location. Is visiting locations a typical preparatory element to your work, and what other processes do you go tend to go through prior to beginning work on a new book?

Most of my books are set in fictional settings based loosely on places I know or have known (like Mersea Island), but if I am using a real setting that I don't know (or haven't visited for a long time, like Dartmoor), I will sometimes make a quick visit just to get the feel of the place. For my book Naked, for example, although the novel is set mainly in London part of the backstory is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I had never been. As a result, I spent a couple of days there to get a feel for the place. I do a lot of background reading before starting on a book, and while I don't generally do extensive research, I do enough to ensure that I know what I'm talking about. Apart from that, almost all of my preparation is purely sitting and thinking.

What are you reading and enjoying now, and what impact, if any, do you think the books you are reading will have on your work in the future?

I go through phases when I barely read any fiction at all, and I'm in one of those phases at the moment – a decidedly non-fiction period. Some of this non-fiction is background reading for possible upcoming books, but most is just stuff I'm interested in. Some examples of the kinds of things I've been reading about recently include: Islamic State, WW1, money, boxing, Lou Reed, forensics and the 'Dark Web' among other things!

The film of iBoy is scheduled for release in cinemas in late 2015.



Ben Screech

Volume 17, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, November 2014

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