The two authors
were introduced by Kirsten Grant of Puffin and the discussion was chaired
by Jonathan Douglas of the Library Association.
Both Jonathan Douglas's
questions and the responses of the two authors have been heavily edited,
but what follows is a transcript not a precis...
At the heart of many people's concerns with your writing is the fact that
they don't see your books as young people's books... A lot of people expect
there to be a moral framework in works of fiction for children... they
expect a point to it all... and a distance between the reader and the
experience and a cushioning of the impact of what's going on in the novel.
Clearly those things aren't evident in your writing. What is it about
the writing that actually defines it as work for young people?
As time goes by my books are written more and more for the adult child.
There are certain themes that you wouldn't pick. If I were to write the
second part of Bloodtide, most of that would be about people in long-term
relationships, so that is by its nature not a book for young people because
by the time you're 17 you haven't been in an adult sexual relationship
with someone for over 10 years. So quite a lot of it is thematic... books
about people going through their second marriage or books about people
having teenage children. As for what specifically makes a book for teenagers,
I don't necessarily think anything particularly does. When I write for
people of that age I want it to be very vivid, I want it to move them
and shift their feelings and I want it to engage them very very strongly.
And I think that in many ways the issues and feelings that are dealt with
are the kind of issues people are bothered about then. For example in
Junk, the question of living close to the edge, falling in love with a
low life, they are themes which are attractive to people of that age.
But by the time you're writing for someone who's 15 or 16 you're also
writing for someone who's 31, so I don't think that there's any particular
I'm glad I've had that label of Young Adult writer because it's given
me a wonderful audience. Not only that, the teachers who teach the books,
the librarians... I'm very appreciative...And yet I don't feel any restrictions
when I sit down to write... I admit freely I'm an arrested adolescent...
I think a lot of us carry around the baggage of adolescence in our lives,
so I don't have to sit there and take a big leap into how a 14 year old
boy or girl feels, because I know how they felt, they felt exactly how
I felt. Those feelings are universal and timeless. Clothes change, styles
change, the music kids listen to changes, but the emotions, the longings
and the doubts, those are timeless. I think we all have them, whether
we're 15 or 70 years old. When I start to write, frankly what I do is
write for an intelligent reader, knowing that I can be as clever as I
try to be, they'll forgive me my errors and be indulgent with me. I'm
not one of these people who write for themselves, I write to be read,
and I'm very conscious of my reader. I write to upset the reader, and
to provoke the reader, and I feel I can go to my full capacity for that
intelligent reader, who often turns out to be 14 years old.
All of us, regardless of our age, can only stand so much truth, so much
honesty, and the younger you are the less emotionally equipped you are
to cope with the situation. Is it fair to expect people to deal with the
truth and honesty which you display in your writing at an age in which
they haven't experienced it for themselves.
I've never come across that child, who's been so traumatized by what they've
been reading. If anyone wants to introduce me to them, I'd be very interested.
I remember when Junk came out a girl came out with a very bright
remark amidst all the controversy: "It's not books that corrupt,
it's people." I remember that so vividly because it's so true. This
idea about truth, I suppose what people really mean is hard truths, or
bitter truths, dangerous truths, because you could in theory be equally
honest about nice truths - rice pudding tastes nice, or something. The
point is books of this kind are very humane books and they treat real
monsters as human beings. It runs through all of Bob's work and if you
take something like Bloodtide which is so violent and so gory.
Conor IS portrayed as a tyrant, not as someone who makes the trains run
on time. Signy starts off a very optimistic girl and ends up as a monster,
but she's human all the way. There's a real desire for a narrative lesson.
A clear conclusion that points to good or bad. I think you can trust your
reader to make their own minds up about that one. I've had people say,
There has to be some hope at the end of the book, as if a child's whole
life is going to be blighted by the fact that a book closes on a down
Listen, I can't afford to sit at my typewriter and worry about a 13 or
14 year old's sensitivity. If they can't handle it, tough. On the other
hand, I know that audience is out there... My books are highly censored,
or should I say highly challenged in America. I think it's because of
that truth thing you've brought up. Despite all that, my best answer to
the censors is to keep writing, because I think they'd like to shut me
up. So I have a big laugh when I sit there writing yet another book. I
have my own standards. Tenderness is a very tough book. But it's
written in a minor key. When you're dealing with a serial murderer, a
serial killer, and a sexually precocious girl, it's easy to let the blood
flow and the sex roll, the harder part is to contain it, and suggest it.
So my conscience is clear. As to that sensitive child out there, I know
they exist, but maybe a good dose of truth would be a warning for what's
waiting. You seldom get a censorship attempt from a 14 yr old boy. It's
the adults who get upset. The letters I get are letters of support and
the line that runs through them all is You tell it like it is. Some people
get upset because we do humanize monsters. They think we're making monsters
attractive. They'd rather keep the monster as a monster.
I still feel that perhaps in Bloodtide you do squeeze out as much
empathy as you can but there is an alienation in the text which means
that at the end it's very hard to feel sympathy for any of the protagonists.
The thing about Bloodtide is that it's a tragedy, and tragedy isn't
very popular at the moment. The whole point about tragedy is that it's
down. You don't leave someone with a dollop of hope at the end. I always
found that really thrilling. Somehow something shines through very bravely
through tragedy. Hardy got into trouble for this as well. People really
don't like it.
Can I question how brave you were to write this tragedy, because
this tragedy was actually a myth which already existed, and therefore
there's a distance between yourself and rewriting the myth. Now that distance
doesn't actually exist between the child who's reading it and the story.
Do you not fell that you are insulated from the story because you were
retelling a myth?
I don't think so. Story works in a very direct way. I wouldn't have been
moved to write the story if I hadn't read it over and over again when
I was a kid. As for the idea that because I knew the story as a Viking
legend, and that it's easy for me but the poor child who reads it... I
don't think that holds any water whatsoever really. From my point of view,
do I say I had to write it, I had to think about it, I had to realise
it, so it's much worse for me.