Puffin bio. page...
Puffin ID card...
I was reading STAR on
the train, an 80 yr-old Quaker lady quizzed me about the back-cover
quotation = 'sometimes you have to do a bad thing
to make good things happen', questioning whether such a position is
ever morally justifiable. This is in fact a significant MIS-quote
of what one of the characters actually says in the book; "You
have to do Bad Things for the sake of one Good Thing." In the
context of the story, the one Good Thing could be the 'bad thing' referred
to on the back cover. Was the blurb intentionally distorted?
I’m not sure. The jacket words you refer to are not in quotation
marks and legalistically speaking cannot be a misquotation. More substantially
I don’t feel they misrepresent the sentiment expressed by the character
Macker on page 190. What he is thinking of is how he has to deceive and
steal (bad things) and burn down the House (very big bad thing) to destroy
(a good thing) evil. When I wrote this I had in mind the notion that
to drive out one poison you have to use a stronger one if you want to
cure the patient. Echoing too was Hamlet’s comment that: ‘diseases
desperate grown by desperate appliances are relieved or not at all.’ Incidentally,
current debates about the justness and propriety of waging war, about
means and ends is the same argument writ large.
What I’m not trying to do is assert a point of view. What I am
trying to do is turn up the moral heat, make readers feel the ambiguities
in human behaviour and draw their own conclusions. I have tried to muddy
the moral and psychological waters in this writing because I think that’s
what life cruelly offers – no pat answers, just dilemmas and puzzlements.
What brings us through I think is sturdy self-reliance, the kindness
of strangers and the imagination, the capacity to reach beyond the diurnal
to an enlarged more generous world.
narrative slips in and out of present and past tense. What was the
rationale for scenes that use the present tense?
say I used the present tense to give immediacy to the situation especially
where scenes turn tense is to rationalise after the event. I think much
of it was instinctive. It just felt right. I was, however, concerned
that shifting tenses might trip the reader, break the concentration and
the illusion. But, I do like to make the reader eyewitness and see events
in real time as it were. Talking present tense seems to be like the author
being big game cameraman whispering in the presence of lions.
book is a fairly savage indictment of social workers. Dave is an
individual character, but it's difficult to read the novel without
feeling that you were intending him to represent attitudes that
you believe prevail in the social services. Is that fair?
was concerned about giving Social Services a bad name by representing
one of their workers as morally feeble and professionally incompetent.
But this is fiction and abides by the rules of story. It is not investigative
journalism where balance is required. No literary correctness here. The
point is not to stigmatise a hard pressed social service but to show
how the odds are often stacked against the unfortunate and disadvantaged
and in this story to show up by contrast the moral strength and drive
to survive of Jez. The Jez/Dave relationship also evidences the cumuppance
rule of narrative: weasely manipulators get found out in the end and
it’s more satisfactory if they get hoisted by the own methods – hence
the final scene in the hospital where Jez in effect blackmails Dave.
Another example of doing a bad thing to achieve a good thing maybe!
dustjacket bio. refers to your time in a 'grim boarding-school'
where you were 'bullied stupid and ritually humiliated'. There
are some intensely realised scenes of confrontation in STAR - the
one on the canal towpath, for example. Were any of these drawn
directly from personal experience.
from the hand hitting incident none of the events/episodes in the book
represent actual events. But many of them are surrogates for what happened.
Loneliness and anxiety are constants in most lives and are intensified
in some contexts. Boarding school is one of them. I’ve taken one
aspect of my own schooling - oppressiveness and institutional violence-
and re-invented for them a ‘local habitation and a name’.
Mother, the lady who runs the care home that Jez, the main character,
lives in, is a fiendish and Ahab-like manifestation of all that is
potentially evil in the running of such homes. What would be your response
to someone who says, 'Come off it, there may be a few bad sorts in
the care business, but no one quite as bad as this!'
the credibility of Iago or Fagin or Ahab can be challenged on the same
grounds. But there are, of course, monsters out there. Life’s full
of monsters: headteachers who abuse boys, parents who torture children,
bullies who drive teenagers to suicide. The critical thing is that fiction
does not have to be representational. It has its own way of doing things
like doing metaphor and symbol which it does almost by instinct. So,
I see Big Mother as a symbol of all that is wrong with the system. The
caring purpose intimated in the title ‘Mother’ has been perverted
and has hardened into intimidation and viciousness. And you only have
to talk to people who have worked or lived in the care system to know
Big Mother is not that much of an exaggeration and not just a rhetorical
I suppose the art is to keep the characters rooted enough in reality
to seem plausible and yet possessing of enough symbolic power to tremor
the reader’s imagination.
book is your first novel and appears to have come out of the blue.
It's hard to credit that a novel as strong and as good as this is your
first attempt at fiction. What other writing have you done?
unpublished children’s novels are gathering dust in my loft – dry
runs you might say. But I had a book of short stories for 8-10 year-olds
published in the eighties.
relationship with the girl, Mags, is particularly well-drawn. Female
novelists, when writing from a male point of view, never get this quite
right, but you manage to convey the adolescent male nerovusness of
femininity very convincingly. Is this something you were intentionally
trying to achieve.
feel hesitancy and uncertainty and tentativeness marks many relationships
as people probe and feel their way into friendship and intimacy. Yes,
I’m sure this is especially true of teenage relationships. And
yes I was trying to convey something of Jez’s nervousness confronted
by femininity and show how he tries to make sense of Mags by using masculine
notions like ‘mate’. But it doesn’t quite work and
bit by bit he sees she’s, well, something else!
book is largely action and dialogue, and yet even the minor characters
fly vividly off the page. A significant supporting character is the
old codger, Chadders. What do you hope the reader takes from the conversations
the boys have with Chadders?
offers a different voice in the narrative. He’s a Polonius figure – slightly
comic, has an air of old-man wisdom but often sounds out of touch and
merely garrulous. He’s a depleted man like his dead sprout stalks,
and his stereotypical grumbling highlights the aliveness of the two boys.
But he does offer them succour and a refuge from the spite of Lazarus
House and the malice of the bully Hodge. His hut is a home substitute
and his manner paternal. He does feed them, give them shelter and the
things he says do make the boys think. Book education he considers a
waste of time - an idea that brings Jez and Macker up short and makes
them wonder just what life and the future holds for them. His misogynistic
views and defeatism give Jez food for thought and act as a foil to his
youthful and innocent hope and optimism about Mags.
use of slang is convincingly contemporary. How did you get the patois
don’t know. TV and bus stops probably. I’m delighted you
think it’s believable. Maybe writer’s just pick it up from
the ether. There’s a tumble of voices all around to listen to and
imitate. I’ve always been interested in the demotic and the idiomatic.
The Opie’s book, The Lore and Language of Children opened my eyes/ears
to the traditional language of children and the hidden graces and rhythms
of the spoken word. I think when I was writing dialogue I heard it in
my head very clearly and tried to capture not just a distinctive vocabulary
but a distinctive rhythm too. I wanted cadence and pulse and beat in
the language. I wanted the words to tap and break-dance and slide on
the page and into the ear of the reader.
character Star might be read, by some, as a sort of representation
of God. Would you mind this interpretation?
might be read like that but I don’t see Star in such a role. I
see him as symbolic of the human drive to survive and of the power of
the imagination to launch us beyond the narrow orbit of our ordinary
lives. Maybe Star symbolises the power that drives all life, irresistible
and cosmic like Blake’s Tiger burning in the night. But he also
has a caring protective quality seen when he raises the unconscious Jez
- after Spaz has knocked the lights out of him - and nurtures him back
to well-being. Star I feel is also Jez’s conscience showing him
ways to behave and react, triggering conversations in his head, exposing
his real motives, making him face up to the truth like when he complains
that Macker has betrayed him and Star points out that maybe, just maybe
its jealousy speaking not hurt feelings. In other words Star is the embodiment
of various aspects of human nature and not some alibi for a divine independent
you contracted to write a second novel for Puffin. If so, what will
it be about?
It’s called Skinny B, Skaz and Me. It’s about Lee and his
sister Skinny B who suffers from cancer and Skaz Dutton a wayward trickster
of a boy who is forever challenging Lee and pushing him into crazy dares
and over the edge. At the same time Lee is negotiating his way through
the uncertainties of his feelings for the feisty Alison and torn between
honouring as a disciple the noble purpose of Ti Kwan Do and doing anything
in his power to catch her eye. He becomes the target of Hoodz 5, a gang
of local thugs and pushers, falls into their clutches and only escapes
and turns the tide on Skaz at their final climactic encounter at Swanwick’s
Jungle Amusement Park.
you read Young Adult fiction yourself. If you do, which authors do
you admire most?
have to admit to not reading much teenage fiction. I’m more a diver
in and out than a continuous swimmer in the stream of young adult writing.
Maybe a toe-dipper would be a better description.
© ACHUKA 2003