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INTERVIEWS

Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward

You know how sometimes you get bad TV reception, and there is a kind of shadow that follows the picture, so that things seem to happen twice? It was a bit like that: I watched him move and saw him standing still at the same time...
Keeper is a quite magical book - about football, fatherhood, the forest...
Get a taste, by reading this extract
(courtesy of Walker Books)

Mal Peet writes:
I grew up in Norfolk, in a very, very dull town which I managed to survive by means of football, bikes and books. I was a scholarship boy, and went to The Paston School when I was 11. It was, I suppose, pretty dreadful; the kind of place where the masters (it was an entirely male place) went around in black gowns like daylight vampires and the Head kept a display of canes on his study wall (and used them not infrequently). But – and this is a familiar story, I suppose – there was one teacher who inspired and encouraged me to write. (Although I still really wanted to draw cartoon strips.)
I escaped Norfolk by getting a place to read English and American Studies at the University of Warwick. I stayed in Warwickshire for a few years, got a Masters degree, then moved to Devon. I didn’t mean to stay for long, but fell in love with (and in) the place and I’m still here, living in a seaside town called Exmouth, with my wife, Elspeth Graham, and my son Tom. (My older son, Charlie, and my daughter, Lauren, are in their twenties now and are out in the world doing things I’d rather not know about.)
Jobs? I’ve had all sorts. I was a teacher for a while, but I have a very low tolerance for routine, and gave it up. I’ve worked in a hospital mortuary (I didn’t much like the night shifts); I’ve been a builder and a plumber; I worked on a road-building crew in Canada; I’ve been (and still am, sometimes) a cartoonist and illustrator; I’ve written rather academic text-books about poetry. About 18 years ago Elspeth and I decided to concentrate on writing and illustrating for children, and we’ve (just about) made a living doing that ever since. Most of our work has been in Educational publishing, writing books for literacy schemes and that sort of thing; I think we’ve produced almost a hundred books altogether (although some of them are very short).

Congratulations on winning the Branford Boase Award. In what ways do you hope this success will advance your life as writer?

I was pretty amazed to win the Branford Boase. As I said at the award event, I never win things, not even raffles, so I hardly knew how to react. As for how it will make a difference to me… well, it’s a huge encouragement, for a start. Gives me the will to soldier on. (I find writing quite hard, and I’m very self-critical and often think I’m useless.) And I hope winning the award will sell more copies of Keeper and I’ll get a bit more money. That’s not as cynical as it sounds. It would be great to earn enough from writing novels so that I don’t have to do other bits and pieces of work that distract me; I think I might improve as a writer if that happens.

In your acceptance speech for the Award (which is given jointly to writer and editor) you thanked your editor, Paul Harrison, for being a man. How did Keeper end up with Walker and with Harrison?

On no! I didn’t mean to thank Paul Harrison for being a man – I don’t suppose he had any say in the matter! I was just making a little joke about the fact that childrens books editors are nearly always women, so it was a new experience to work with a man. (In fact, Paul is the only male editor I’ve ever worked with.) I hope I didn’t give the impression that I don’t like working with women. My present editor at Walker, Averil Whitehouse, is brilliant and distinctly female, and I love working with her.

How long had Keeper been in the making?

I had the idea for Keeper a long time ago – about six years, I think. Elspeth and I were at Walker Books discussing non-fiction, and at the end of the meeting I met Sally Christie, who was the senior fiction editor at the time, and I asked her what sort of novels she was looking for. She said that she was interested in stories about death and stories about football. So I said ‘Well, maybe I should try writing a story about a dead footballer.’ It was a feeble joke, but then it started to turn into an interesting idea. So the ghost element of the novel was there right from the beginning. But I always wanted, always imagined the book as a graphic novel. (I love graphic novels, cartoons, animations.) But no-one would publish it as a graphic (too expensive, not a big market for graphic novels in Britain, etc., etc.). So I sulked for about a year. Then Elspeth and I were commissioned by Oxford University Press to do a great big series of books for early readers which kept us busy for at least four years, and Keeper lurked half-forgotten in a drawer all that time. Then Walker persuaded me to write it as a straight prose novel. And I think what I did was imagine the novel as a series of pictures (as in a graphic novel) and describe what I saw. That took me several months (we still had other work going on). And then Paul took his hacksaws and scalpels to the manuscript. I think I reworked the story about three times.

Did you write it specifically as a children's/YA novel, or just as a novel?

A really key question! I’m not sure I know the answer. It’s a young person’s novel, I suppose, although several adults have told me that they read it without realising that. I do hate categories, pigeon-holes, ‘genres’; they come with sets of ‘rules’ and all I ever want to do is break them. I think that when you write for younger readers there are certain things you do and don’t do. These are to do with pace, and sentence structure, and stylistic things like that. Otherwise, I assume that my reader is my equal. Please promise to shoot me if I start to ‘talk down’ to younger readers.

I can dip back into the book at any page and find myself getting lost in it again, luxuriating not just in the narrative, but in the clarity of the telling. There was some strong storytelling amongst the submitted novels, but much of it was let down by sloppy or awkward writing. To what extent is your style worked at or naturally achieved?

Thank you for the comment about clarity. Writing in a way that’s vivid and interestingly different but clear at the same time is, as far as I can see, the most difficult and important thing of all. Style is everything, I believe. More important than subject or story. I can enjoy reading about anything as long as it’s well-written. And yes, I do work at it. I fuss and fret and tinker and rewrite all the time. (I’m a slow worker!) If I write a clunky sentence and can’t find a way to get the clunks out I get very frustrated and ill-tempered. Also, I have a strong allergic reaction to cliches, especially if I’m the one using them. I had a bit of a struggle to find the right style for Keeper, because it’s a first-person narrative. The style is in the voice, if you see what I mean. Then it occurred to me that of course El Gato and Faustino would not be talking in English, so I tried to write in a way that sounded just a bit as though it was a translation, just a bit unnatural. And that seemed to work. Well, it worked for me….

I'm embarrassed to say that I did not read Keeper in the year of publication, and the judging panel were agreed that the novel's jacket design did it no favours. Do Walker have any plans to reissue a rejacketed edition? I suppose this will hinge on how many copies of the original printrun are left in the warehouse.

Ah, the cover… Jacket designs are always an issue. I’ve heard rumours of book jacket meetings ending in punch-ups or duels. Because the truth is that (unfortunately) lots of people do judge a book by its cover. (I do, sometimes, I’m ashamed to say.) I’ve had letters and emails from young readers that begin ‘I didn’t think I’d like this book because I’m not interested in football…’ And yes, it worries me that the book looks like a ‘football novel’, which it isn’t, really. (I think it’s about a boy who has to choose between two very different fathers who want very different things for him and from him. But I might be wrong.) On the other hand, other readers think the cover is ‘cool’. Walker wanted a cover that was sophisticated and didn’t announce the book as being exclusively for children, I think. (And it is a very nice shade of black.) In fact, a new edition is planned for next year, and it’ll have a different cover. I think the idea is that it will be in the same sort of style as the cover of my next novel, Tamar. (Which has nothing at all to do with football, by the way.) Keeper is being published in the USA, France, Germany and Greece with a different cover in each of those places, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re like. (I’ll probably end up spitting blood and feathers and challenging someone to a duel.)

Watching the second half of England international games is the extent of my footballing enthusiasm. One of the merits of your novel is that it gives people like me an increased appreciation of the game. Indeed, it shows how pitiful televised football commentary is. I can't remember how many times during Euro2004 we were told Rooney's age, but we were never given any insight into his prowess as a player. Keeper, in particular, is highly informative about the art of the free kick, positioning of the defensive wall etc. Are you evangelical about spreading appreciation of the finer points of the game.

Er… I suppose I am a bit evangelical about football. It’s the only sport I like. It’s interesting what you say about TV coverage. One of the problems is that the camera almost always follows the ball, and a lot of important stuff happens off-camera. A player might make a brilliant decoy move that opens up a defence even though he doesn’t receive the ball, for example. But in Keeper I was trying to describe what it’s like to actually play. (There are legions of armchair experts, including children, who’ve never played a real competitive game of soccer in front of a crowd.) I tried to keep the technical stuff to the minimum in order to concentrate on the physical and mental experience. But I’ve been surprised (and pleased) by how many times readers have told me that they found the technical bits interesting, and increased their enjoyment of the game. Which is a result, as Alan Hanson might say.

The goalkeeper in Keeper is South American. Did you have any particular South American team in mind?

No. The reader can choose.

Do you have personal experience of goalkeeping?

I was afraid you’d ask that. I might as well own up: I’ve played in goal very little. I played loads of football, but hardly ever in goal. When I have done, I’ve found it scary. You can feel very isolated and vulnerable, and it’s very difficult to keep concentration when the play is a long way from your goal. (And I remember how hard it is to keep warm on freezing cold afternoons, although that’s not a problem Gato has to deal with.) These are some of the reasons I chose to make my hero a keeper rather than an outfield player. But there’s something else about goalkeeping: a keeper has this one particular defined space to protect and make his own, and he is the last line of defence. And that struck me as a metaphor for defending and protecting other things, bigger and more important things, and I tried to suggest that in the book without getting too heavy and pretentious about it.

Who do you rate as the best goalkeepers of all time?

Funnily enough, England has produced several great keepers including Frank Swift, Peter Bonnetti, Peter Shilton and David Seaman. Top of the list, though (according to Pele, who should know) is Gordon Banks. I once put a penalty past him at a charity game, but I think he dived the wrong way on purpose. Other all-time greats would have to be Dino Zoff and Buffon, both of Italy, and Russia’s Lev Yashin. I also rate Shea Given of Newcastle and Ireland very highly. I think I should stop there because I’m starting to sound like a goalie anorak, which I’m not, really. (It’s just that I’m old enough to remember all these guys.)

Did you consult any professional goalkeepers or goalkeeping coaches while writing the book?

No, I didn’t. I thought about it, but decided against it. When I eventually sat down and started serious work on the book, I wanted to do it quite fast (by my slow standards) and without too many interruptions. I knew that if I started researching goalkeeping I’d very likely get too involved in it. And that I’d probably try to get too much of it into the novel. A few months ago I did a reading at Charlton Athletic’s ground, and Dean Kiely (Charlton and Ireland’s keeper) and Pauline Cope (keeper for the England women’s team) were there. They didn’t give me a hard time, so I guess I got away with it.

What will your next book be about? Is it for the same audience?

Tamar is quite a lot longer than Keeper, mainly because it’s two interlocking stories. One is set during World War II and is about two agents of the Special Operations Executive who are parachuted into nazi-occupied Holland to work with the Dutch resistance. The other takes place 50 years later when a teenage girl tries to unravel the truth about her grandfather, who was one of those two agents. It’s about false identities, deceptions, codes, secrets and lies. I think it’s also about how we can be tortured by things that happened in the past (especially in our families) but go on living in love and hope somehow. I guess it’s more of a ‘crossover’ (ugh!) book than Keeper – I mean that I hope it will appeal to adults too - but I’m pretty sure that readers who enjoyed Keeper won’t find it difficult. I had all sorts of reasons for wanting to write this book; I admit that one of them was that I really don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a ‘football writer’. But having said that, I think the next children’s book I write will star Paul Faustino, the soccer journalist who features in Keeper. It’s not going to a ‘sequel’, though. I’ve written all I know about goalkeeping. As I said earlier, Averil Whitehouse is editing Tamar. Paul Harrison is now working as a freelance so that he can combine working with looking after his one year-old son (who has already mastered the art of dribbling).

Which authors do you most enjoy reading yourself?

I’m ashamed to say that I don’t read much by other children’s writers. That’s not, of course, because I’m not interested. It’s because when I’m writing I just don’t read; I haven’t got enough room in my head. Also, I’m scared I’ll discover that other writers are much better than me and I’ll lose my bottle. (Self-confidence is not my strongest characteristic.) So I’m a bit daunted by the fact that I’ll be a judge for next year’s Branford Boase Award.

There is a quality of magic realism in Keeper which is quite unusual in children's books, which can usually be neatly categorised as fantasy or 'reality' writing. Was that quality in the book from the start?

II don’t know if I started off with the intention to write a ‘magical realist’ story, but I suppose if you begin with a scenario in which a ghost teaches a boy to become a great goalkeeper on an impossible soccer pitch in the middle of a South American rain forest, it sort of just suggests itself. And, OK, I confess I am a big fan of Borges and Garcia Marquez and other Latin American ‘magical realists’, so-called. I just like the challenge (and the sheer bare-faced cheek!) of writing about outrageously impossible events as if they are ‘normal’. (Besides, I think it’s a good idea to question what ‘normal’ means.) And you’re absolutely right to make the distinction between that and ‘fantasy’ writing. I really dislike fantasy writing, especially the ‘Sword and Sorcery’ variety. I got to page 2 of Lord of the Rings before I threw it out of the window, almost crushing a passer-by under its vast weight.

What kind of feedback, if any, have you had from young readers of the book?

I’ve had fantastic, wonderful, feedback. Really! It has amazed me. I’ve had letters from young readers that have made me quite wet-eyed. (And if Gabriel Sutton of Mosely reads this: send me your full address and I’ll get back to you.) I really did not expect it. I’ve been especially delighted by comments from girls, almost all of whom have said things like ‘I think football is boring/crap/stupid/a boy thing but I loved the book…’ Because I did very deliberately set out to write a book about football that wasn’t a ‘football book’, and a very important part of that idea was that it would bust the gender/genre thing: that is, boys like soccer stories, girls don’t. When I do readings in schools and colleges and it gets to the ‘Do you want to ask me any questions’ bit, I’m always incredibly pleased when lots of girls put their hands up.
Another comment that really pleased me came from a friend of mine who read the book. He said ‘By the time I got to page 3 I’d forgotten that it was you that’d written it.’ I think that’s the perfect compliment for a writer.

 

© ACHUKA 2004


 

Editor: Michael Thorn
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