Robert Swindells - interviewed Jan 01
Your latest novel, A
Wish For Wings, about a girl's longing to
fly an aeroplane and her brother's falling under the influence
of a bad sort, ends with a couple of beautifully cadenced paragraphs
that serve as an epigraph to the main story. Although they mention
two deaths, one per paragraph, the closing tone is extremely positive.
Do you prefer to end books on an upward note?
Of course, except where subject matter plus honesty renders an
upward note inappropriate, as when describing the aftermath of
nuclear holocaust or the lives of colliery children in the nineteenth
I've read somewhere that you write a chapter a day. A WISH FOR
WINGS has seventy-two chapters. Does this mean it took between
two and three months to write?
would if I wrote every day. It actually works out at about
two days in three. I need four months to write a book the length
of A WISH FOR WINGS.
The Chocolate War by the greatly-missed Robert Cormier is about
what happens when good people stand aside and let evil take its
course. Dosh tells the opposite story in a very distinctive manner
and is remarkable for the fact that it is a novel with no central
character. I presume that you structured the book as you did as
a means of emphasising the theme of collective action (an extortion
racket and a smalltime mobsterís involvement in child pornography
is gradually undermined by group resistance) but were you conscious
that it was an audacious thing to try and pull off?
my intention was that Maisie Malin would emerge as my central
character: the fact that she doesn't is accidental. I'd love
to claim I knew I was attempting something audacious but alas
I cannot. If the thing works it's down to luck.
In contrast, the resolution at the end of your novel ABOMINATION,
whilst being redemptive, is not punitive. What I think you do
very successfully in this book is focus attention on the behaviour
of the adult characters, as well as the adolescent main cast of
two. Scott's parents: uncertain about interfering; Martha's parents:
seeing the shuttered and blinkered cruelty of their lives losing
out to a sequence of redemptive action. That this does not include
punishment through the courts will leave some readers asking,
"Did they get what they deserved?" This was one book which had
to go through a complete re-write following editorial feedback.
It would be fascinating to hear you describe what the original
novel was like.
it was UNBELIEVER that required a rewrite. I had intended
it as an attack on Christian fundamentalism, but in its first
it seemed to be attacking Christianity as a whole. The rewrite
corrected this. As to the question whether Martha's parents "get what they deserve" in ABOMINATION, I believe
strongly that punsihment, retribution, revenge, whatever you
prefer to call it, is pointless once the offence has been committed,
unless it is likely that the offender will reoffend unless deterred
or detained, or unless it can be shown that to punish the offender
will have a deterrent effect on others.
Martha's parents aren't going to repeat their offence, which
has dreadful consequences for them anyway. It's like the proposal
to launch a reactionary nuclear strike whose only consequence
will be the destruction of the whole planet instead of
half: a criminally pointless act.
live in a Yorkshire village, and write each day in an attic room,
but there is certainly nothing ivory tower-ish about your work.
Characters in your novels do recognisably ordinary things, like
go to Boots or buy Flight Simulator at PC World. Your new book
is dedicated to your grandchildren. Is it through them that you
manage to keep so well in touch with the lifestyle and speech
patterns of your young characters?
now that I have retired as a visiting writer to schools, my grandchildren
are an invaluable source of material about the lives and concerns
of youngsters today.
you able to tell us anything about the book you are currently
writing? Which chapter number are you on, for example?
aimed at children between nine and thirteen, is about ten year
old Georgie, whoe passion is World War II, and who wishes he'd
been a boy in the London of 1940. While visiting Eden Camp World
War II museum (it's a real place) with his classmates, he passes
through a stitch in time and gets his wish, thus learning the
hard way that we ought to be careful what we wish for.
remaining questions were put to both Melvin Burgess and Robert
Swindells (ACHUKA's other Special Guest for January). Their answers
are shown side by side, as in the transcript of the Burgess/Cormier
discussion, which has proved one of the most visited sections
of the website...
Do you think that books for young teenagers could be marketed
to better effect, and if so, how?
thing needs to be more direct. I'm very pleased with how Penguin
are dealing with Bloodtide - postcards in cinemas for example.
I do think in general that teenage fiction needs to be detached
somewhat from children's fiction and given it's own place in
the sun. Music stores, magazines - all these areas are much
think about the marketing side. I suppose my publishers do their
best and I can't complain.
What has been the most significant editorial influence on your
work in the past couple of years?
Adams from Andersen Press has been my editor since I began and
I trust her judgement very much. She has the ability to judge
a book with such clarity, not matter what form it takes.
Nissen, at Hamish Hamilton. She's a picky editor who knows what
she's doing. When she retires, I retire.
If you were a 13 or 14 yr. old boy now, what would you be reading?
Almond. Phillip Pullman. Anne Fine. Robert Swindells. Robert
Cormier. Gillian Cross...
age I read very widely both above and below my age, so I would
be enjoying Jacqueline Wilson, Brian Jacques, Thomas Harris,
Stephen King. The list could be endless, there's so many fine
writers about of all kinds.
reading Melvin Burgess, Malorie Blackman, Pete Johnson, Anne
Fine, David Almond...
Charles Dickens, J.D. Salinger, Jack London...
How does film and television influence you?
and TV influenced me a good deal in Bloodtide. The Alien series,
the Terminator series. Films like Bladerunner, too - very important
in my vision of the ruined city of the future. I do think a
great deal about films. Another aspect of Bloodtide is that
it's a love story, and I learned from The Night Porter that
you can have a love story in the most unlikely of circumstances
- even murderous ones. Favourite directors include Stanley Kubrick,
Ridley Scott, James Cameron (sometimes), Quentin Tarentino.
There are a host of others, who I only know by their films.
Not at all - consciously at least. I like the cinema, especially
British and Australian films. I think TV has lost a lot of its
quality, its cutting edge, though Channel Four has made some
good stuff for the big screen.
Your styles are very dissimilar. In Melvin's case narrative is
driven along by means of the internal voice, often (as in Junk)
from different viewpoints. In Bob's books, we usually see things
from a detached camera viewpoint. Are you both aware of this difference
in your work?
I don't always use an internal voice. I am aware that both these
devices have their different uses. From a personal point of
view, Ifind it very easy to pick up a voice and use it to tell
a story - it's a bit like doing an impersonation. It has an
element of performance about it. Even though I write on my own
of course, that appeals to me, and I just love the way the viewpoint
shifts from place to place and person to person, when you use
a number of different viewpoints. I think with the detached
viewpoint, there is more a sense of conducting the story by
the author - it feels as if one has more control over the reader,
whereas with the first person, I feel that the reader can more
easily judge for themselves. That might be an illusion, but
if I feel that a character has something to powerful to say,
I want to give them their own voice, partly to give them scope,
and partly so that I can engage with them as a writer without
having to judge them as I go along.
I'm not aware that my readers see things from a detached camera
viewpoint: I hope my central characters tell the story. A number
of my books are written in the first person. Perhaps I have
misunderstood the question.
As writers for young readers, what efforts do you make to keep
in touch with youth culture, or don't you think it necessary?
I have two teenage boys, 13 and 15, and I don't think they spend
all that much time "keeping in touch" with youth culture. I
try to be open to anything that comes along in the right way
at the right time. You never know what's going to work - you
just have to keep your eyes open. It's a lot of fun finding
interesting ideas and then taking them into a new context, and
that's something that you can play around a lot with, in terms
of what's called youth culture. On the other hand, I don't think
books work terribly well if they try to capture what is currently
fashionable - it's changed by the time you get there and anyhow,
magazines and TV shows are better at illustrating such stuff.
But there is a great deal of talent, often in very surprising
places, and I try to be prepared to mercilessly pinch anything
that strikes my fancy.
It is certainly necessary. I observe my grandchildren, and I
have young contacts I can consult on aspects of youth culture
which escape me, as they increasingly do. I don't even ask
about EmineM or Pokemon because I don't want to know.
Do you crave an adult readership beyond the group of reviewers,
teachers and librarians who certainly do read and enjoy your books?
is a strong word. I'm very proud to be writing for young adults
for all sorts of reasons. Because it's all fairly new there
are so many areas that haven't been touched. Who could resist
it? Secondly, being an area that is perceived by the book establishment
as being somehow "less" or not as important as real proper important
literature for real proper important grown-up people allows
you to mess about and not take life as seriously - always a
good thing when working with the imagination. Having said that,
I am producing books for older people, I know adults do often
get a very great deal out of reading them, and of course it's
always nice to have more people reading your work. One day,
maybe, I'll do a truly adult book - something about bringing
up teenage children or being a grandparent, if I ever live that
long. Then I'll crave an adult readership.
I don't want an adult readership. See my answer to Q16.
Are there any taboos in children's fiction that you are anxious
to break down? (Again, Melvin, you may have answered this one
earlier, with regard to sex/tragedy... If you've nothing else
to say at this point I shall be able to restructure before putting
online, or come back to you with another question).
I've said all I need to on that one... (see Melvin's answer
the important ones fell in the sixties and seventies. I get
mildly irritated when someone writes to my publisher because
they've found the expression 'bugger off' in my book. Where
have such people been these past thirty years?
Both of you have recently written about invisibility, Melvin in
The Ghost Behind The Wall and Robert in Invisible. What is it
about invisibility as a theme that drew each of you to these stories?
And, Robert, is it true you believe in fairies? How about you,
regard Ghost as being about invisibility. [ACHUKA:
Although the main character never becomes truly invisible, he
does remain hidden from view for much of the book...]
I thought of it as being about two things - one, using ghosts
as imagery. What is a ghost? The idea of it being a memory really
struck me the first time I heard it years ago, and the idea
of loosing a part of yourself in old age - my uncle very recently
died of a heart attack, after suffering from Alzheimer's for
several years - struck me very powerfully. It's like someone
loosing their personality, loosing "themselves," if you like.
And it was about that "really big adventure" of children's fiction
- death. Every since I wrote a book called An Angel for May,
which was about depression (and is hopefully going to be turned
into a film in just a few months) I've wanted to have a look
at that subject, and try and make it into an exciting book -
I hope this one is it. I don't believe in fairies, though. Oops!
There goes another one.
Invisibility was a fantasy of mine when I was a boy. Also flying
like Peter Pan. I suppose it was the wish for a means of escape.
I suspect kids still fantasize this way, so I wrote about it.
Fairies, I believe in the Cottingley fairies: the clincher
for me was when the snapshots were examined at NASA who said
they couldn't have been faked. I suspect the photographer's
'confession' in old age was a bid finally to be left alone.
This last one is not a question as such, just an invitation to
both of you to say something about the way in which you think
reading helps the child or adolescent toward an understanding
of the adult world, particularly towards a feeling for what it
is like to grow older. The Ghost Behind The Wall is a compelling
study of old age as, in a more gentle way, is A Wish For Wings.
(For Melvin's character the issue is loss of memory, whilst for
Bob's character it is depression following the death of a partner.)
as Ghost is concerned, I hope it will help readers to understand
something about the frailties of old age, and perhaps to see
how it is posisble to reach an acceptance of death - tricky
thing to imagine when you're ten or so. Those themes are tied
up in imagery of the ghost itself, which in itself is something
to do with the idea of self. I hope the portrayal of Mr Alveston
is sympathetic, and that it penetrates; but probably, the imagery
of the ghost is the most important part of the book in getting
these things across.
work apart, I think that the idea of how books move people,
which they undoubtedly do, is a much more difficult question
than it might seem. The effect stories can have on people is
complicated and often mysterious. They can do so much - provide
refuge, or insight, lead to understanding, provide channels
for change or just pass a few hours - not to mention being boring,
at their worst. Stories are a very deeply rooted part of our
lives and culture, but more than that, I tihnk they are a part
of being human. All cultures and people's have stories. Myth
and religion is born into stories, so God himself appears to
people in narrative form, before he comes as an image. We relate
our pasts, present and future to each other in story form. I
dislike the romantic idea of the mysterious, which is often
just an excuse to be obscure, but I do think stories can provide
a spiritual side in our lives which is difficult to pin down.
Educationally, of course, stories have always been used as an
illustration, or as a way to lead people to understanding and
insight, or to put across information and I'm sure novels will
continue to be used like that. But I do think that one of the
greatest strengths of novels is in deeper stylistic qualities,
stylisitc qualitites, perhaps, which lead the reader to identify
with people or events with which they may not previously have
realised how much they have in common, or to see things in themselves
they may not have known were there before, or even to sense
elements of life they haven't even thought of. Although they
are made up of words, I think stories can reveal things to us
in a pre-verbal form - a thought or feeling before we find the
words to frame it. When I think of the novels that had a big
effect on me in the past, such as Catch-22, or Gormanghast,
or the Norse myths, or The Wind in the Willows, I think I could
describe what it is that fascinated and influenced me, but the
concepts would be far removed from anything on the school curriculum.
I can only speak about my own experience. Books I read as a
child/adolescent certainly opened windows for me on all sorts
of worlds, including the world of adults. In fact, I find it
impossible to imagine what would have become of me, what sort
of person I would have grown up to be, if I hadn't been a reader.
Certainly I wouldn't be a writer now.
my hope that my work will play a part in opening a window or
two for some of today's young readers. That's why I'm not interested
in attracting adult readers: closed windows in their
lives usually stay closed, and some have minds to match.