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Alan
Durant

1. You've been publishing for about ten years now. Do you have the same aims as a writer as when you started out, or have they shifted?  

 

 

OrderI suppose there's one fundamental shift: when I started out I just wanted to be published; now I want to be read. In the early days I wrote for myself. Hamlet, Bananas and All that Jazz, Blood, A Short Stay in Purgatory - those were driven books. I was reliving an emotionally turbulent but creatively crucial period in my own life. These days my aim principally is to please and entertain my children and other readers their age.

2. As you know, I am an ardent admirer of your fiction for teenagers and older readers, and would like to see you concentrating rather more on this audience. Try and persuade me that you are right to 'mix it' as much as you do, and indeed to leave us waiting some five years or more (since THE GOOD BOOK) for another teenage novel.

 


 

OrderThere's a glut of issues here. First, I'm a versatile writer - as a professional publishing copywriter I have to be - and I like turning my hands to different forms of book. I started out as a novelist writing about adolescence, but since I've had children their preoccupations have come to the fore. They are my inspiration. When they were small I read them picture books and told them stories and, quite naturally, started to write my own picture books. As they've got older, so has my fiction. Over the last few years most of my fiction has been written for junior school-age children because I had two of my own. I'm still writing picture book stories for my youngest. In fact, the most recent, Big Bad Bunny (published by Orchard Books later this year) began as a story she told me! Now the other thing about having children is that they take up your time! I wrote my first two novels--Hamlet, Bananas and All that Jazz and Blood--before I had children and, although I had a full-time job, I had lots of time at weekends. I worked a lot at night then too; these days I'm simply too tired. I used to get up early and write for an hour when the children were small (if you're up for the day at half past five, you may as well do something useful), but they wake up later now so I don't get up either. There's little time for writing at weekends either--my son plays lots of football and the girls have their activities, but I'm not complaining. They're interesting and entertaining and I like spending time with them. It just doesn't leave much time for writing--just Wednesday (my writing day), and sometimes not even that if I'm visiting a school, which I do quite frequently. So one of the reasons I haven't written a novel for five years is because I haven't had the time--you can't write a novel on a one-day-a-week basis. You have to really immerse yourself in it, write every day. A novel takes over your life. The Good Book took me two years to write. I loved writing it, but it's not a happy book and I was a very gloomy person while I was writing it. I don't think my family would stand for that now! There's another issue here, though, too. I've had an idea for an adolescent novel - a synopsis even - for four years and it's not just because of lack of time that I haven't written it. It's also lack of sales. If I'm going to spend two years of my life writing a novel, I want to be sure that there will be a readership for it. I got very demoralised by my royalty statements from Random. They seemed to be telling me that no one was interested in my novels - or very few people anyway, and despite some very good reviews. I've never written to make money, but like I said earlier, I want to be read. This issue still hasn't been resolved, hence the hiatus in my association with Bodley Head and my novel writing (but I hope neither will be permanent). I told you there were a lot of issues involved with this question!

3. The first book of yours I read was BLOOD (still, I think, one of the best teenage novels to have been written, especially in the UK). It has such an arresting opening paragraph, and such a powerful narrative voice, although the narrative format is far from straightforward. Can you say a bit about the book's structure, and how it came to be the way it is.  

 

OrderI'm very proud of this book. It does have quite a complex structure with different narrative viewpoints and devices. I'm a big fan of thrillers - particularly American detective fiction, which often has labyrinthine plots with many twists and turns, but also has strong, and very human central characters - Ross MacDonald's Archer for example - who involve you as a reader in a way that, say, Hercule Poirot doesn't. The MacDonald books are family tragedies basically and so is Blood. I wanted to write a thriller in which the why-dunnit was as important as the whodunnit and in which in investigating a crime, the central character had to investigate himself and his family too.

4. You had a short story collection published during the first few years of your career - A SHORT STAY IN PURGATORY. This shows you up as a superb short story writer, and I went so far in one review as to compare your work, on the basis of its use of 'emblems' (in the title story a golden crucifix is passed from one prisoner to another, and in ‘The Star’ a battered Christmas decoration is dotingly cherished) with the short fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Since then, you have had stories published in mixed-author collections, many of these with a football theme or with a younger audience in mind. Are you still writing the kinds of stories you produced in those early collections?  

  OrderI love short stories - both as reader and writer. I'll always be grateful to Ann-Janine Murtagh and Anne McNeil, who commissioned and edited the book respectively, for giving me the opportunity to publish A Short Stay in Purgatory. It's the book of mine which means most to me, partly because it has so much of my life in it, but also because it gave me such freedom to write in different voices - male and female, first, third, even second person. Most of the short stories I've written since have been football themed, though not all. I contributed a story to Simon Puttock's Same Difference gay adolescence anthology a couple of years ago and included a story called Howl in the Vampire and Werewolf Stories collection I compiled for Kingfisher. That and another story, Night of the Stick Insects (in the Quids for Kids book scared stiff), both for older readers, are, I think, among the best things I've written. I hope to write lots more short stories in the future.

5. PUBLISH OR DIE, published in the Point Crime series, is the one novel you have published for older readers in the last five years. It's an excellent book, very entertaining, very insightful, very turn-the-page and climactic, but it's genre fiction. Did you have to think carefully before agreeing to write it, or was it something you were eager to do?  

 

OrderI didn't hesitate at all. I thought it would be fun to do - I like writing mystery stories - and it was. I have no problem with genre fiction, as long as it's well written - which a lot isn't, unfortunately. I certainly didn't lower my standards when I wrote Publish or Die. It doesn't have the emotional depth of Blood, but it's not supposed to. If, as you say, it's entertaining, insightful and turn-the-page, that's good enough for me.

6. Your CREEPE HALL books appear to have been very successful. How many do you envisage writing? When working on a series (LEGGS UNITED for example) is the idea generated by you or the publisher?  

 

OrderCreepe Hall was written as a one off. When I wrote it, I had no interest in writing sequels or series - indeed I was a bit sniffy about them. But the fact is that kids do like series - I certainly did. The Narnia books, the Famous Five series, these were among my favourite books as a child. As a writer, too, you sometimes want to go back and revisit old pastures. I wanted to know more about Oliver and the Creepes, so I wrote Return to Creepe Hall and then Creepe Hall For Ever! But that's it (probably!).

OrderI've written a couple of books about a chracter called Spider McDrew (and would like to write more) and a couple about Little Troll and my first science fiction title, Star Quest: Voyage to the Greylon Galaxy came out at the end of last year with further adventures to follow. Then, of course, there's the Leggs United series. I was approached by MacMillan, who wanted to publish a football series to coincide with the last World Cup. They asked me if I was interested in writing one, I came up with a few ideas (I think the ideas should come from the author rather than the publisher) and the series developed from there. I thought there would be four books, but in the end they asked for eight - and quickly. I've never worked so hard in my life!


Order7. In the latest CREEPE HALL title a game of cricket (or, rather, an amusing variation on the game) is featured, but you're a football fan at heart it would appear, from the amount of football fiction you've produced, and the fact that you've claimed a 1969 Manchester United Yearbook signed by George Best as your most treasured possession.

 

 

OrderI believe in writing about things you know about and, even more, things that you are passionate about. I'm passionate about football. As a child, I loved the football fiction of Michael Hardcastle - I loved the action on the pitch and the problems off it. Like it or loathe it, football plays a massive role in many children's lives. It's a great subject for fiction, too, because you can address many different issues through it - bullying, self-confidence, friendship, justice...

8. Can you tell us about the work you do at Walker Books and explain how you fit it around your writing?  

 

OrderI work four days a week for Walker as a Senior Copywriter. It's a very creative and varied job and, most of the time, I thoroughly enjoy it. I write blurbs for all the books and for posters, ads, catalogues, etc, but there's a lot of concept work involved too - thinking up ideas for marketing campaigns and promotions. The "downside" is that the job is far more demanding than when I started and takes up a lot more of my creative energy. I've never wanted to be a full-time author, because then I would have to write for money rather than for fun. It would be good, at some stage, to get the balance between my job and my vocation a bit more even, though.

9. You have published books with nearly all the main children's publishers, although your association with Random House (who published your earlier work, via Bodley Head) seems to have ceased for the time being. Is it the result of a conscious plan, not to limit yourself to a single publisher?  

  OrderNo. The ideal situation would to be published on no more than three lists, so that each had a good body of my work. But that's not the way it works. For a start, I've been quite prolific and, as you've pointed out, very wide-ranging. The amount of work I've produced over the last nine or ten years couldn't really be contained on just a couple of lists. Also, though, different editors like different things. If one publisher turns down a story, then, naturally, I send it elsewhere (or my agent Hilary Delamere does). The best thing about being published widely is the opportunity it's given me to work with lots of different editors, which has been very stimulating - Wendy Boase, Ann-Janine Murtagh, Anne McNeil: I owe these three in particular an awful lot. I've only really had one bad experience with publishers (not editors) and that's Viking/Puffin. I'd never do a book with them again - but then I don't suppose they'd ask me!

10. As well as contributing to story collections, you have also been the 'editor' of some. Is it a process you enjoy?  

 

Yes, though not as much as writing. Compiling the Vampire and Werewolf collection was fun - more fun than I thought it would be. I've almost finished putting together my second Kingfisher Storylibrary anthology - a book of sport stories, which I'm really enjoying. It's surprising just how few sports stories there are beyond football. I've found the project quite a challenge, but exciting too, because it will be the only one of its kind on the market. If all goes well with the rights clearances there will be stories or extracts from Michael Hardcastle, Jan Mark, Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson, P G Wodehouse, Thomas Hughes, Walter Dean Myers, Ring Lardner and many more. I've contributed one story and am currently working on a retelling of the funeral games from the Iliad. It's a real mixed bag, as you can see.

11. Were you allocated the 10th century for your contribution--'The Hammer and the Cross'--to Centuries Of Stories, the well-sung Wnedy Cooling selection, or did you choose it yourself. If the latter, why this choice? If the former, how did you come by the idea for the story content?  

 

My original choice was the 16th century but Jacqueline Wilson had already bagsed that. I'd just come back from a trip to the Orkneys on the Readiscovery book bus and my head was full of all the Viking stuff I'd seen there. So that's what I wrote about: the Vikings in the Orkneys in the 10th century and the clash between Norse paganism and Christianity.

12. Religion is a theme that many children's writers seem wary of tackling. But in the story just mentioned, and of course in THE GOOD BOOK, you push it to the fore. Can you explain this?  

 

OrderReligion has been a preoccupation throughout my writing life. I don't come from a religious background, but I started singing in a church choir at the age of nine or ten and most of my closest friends as a teenager were connected with the youth group attached to a number of churches in the area where I grew up. I've always believed in God, but my faith has fluctuated in intensity over the years. Whether or not there's an after-life and what form it might take is the most persistent thorn in my flesh. There's barely a day goes by without me worrying about it. Given this, it's maybe surprising that I don't write about religion more. The Good Book is more about violence and non-violence than religion, though obviously that plays a part.

13. In TALKING BOOKS by James Carter there is a 2-page reproduction of an intriguing story you wrote at school called Judas Escariot. You were awarded 15 out of 20 and the comment 'Macabre but effective' for a story which is revealing not so much for its adolescent sensationalism as for an early obsession with religion. (In the closing sentence, the main character, a flesh-eating cannibal, is revealed as a clergyman. Does your early poetry--in the same book, you say you wrote a great deal of it in your teens and early twenties--also reveal a preoccupation with the theme of religion?  

 

When I was 14/15 I only wrote about one thing: the crucifixion. Whatever the subject our English teachers set - and boy, they set some stunkers! I wrote about some aspect of the crucificxion, usually in a macabre or just downright weird way. Far too weird for the English teacher whose comment you quoted. A retired Naval Officer, he had no idea what I was on about. Mind you, reading those essays again, I'm not exactly sure what I was on about either!

14. When you set out to be a writer, did you have any role models you were seeking to emulate? (I know you are a big Leonard Cohen fan, and ACHUKA would agree that Famous Blue Raincoat is a fabulous song of its kind.)  

 

OrderI started writing, seriously writing, at the age of fourteen because that was the only way I could express myself. In those days and for some years afterwards I wanted to be Leonard Cohen. I must have listened to Famous Blue Raincoat about a million times in my life and I still love it today. It was J D Salinger, though - and in particular The Catcher in the Rye - who had the biggest effect on me as a writer. Reading that book was so inspiring.

15. Has the success of David Almond and the powerful impact made by his first three novels, Skellig, Kit's Wilderness and Heaven Eyes (two of which are most definitiely teenage or young adult novels) rekindled your interest in writing for this age group or do you see yourself concentrating on the younger age range for the forseeable future?  

 

I want to write a novel again. Despite everything I said earlier, I think my next project will be a novel for older readers, maybe just pre-teen. I've still got that other young adult book on the back burner, though, and hope to get round to writing it soon. I've never lost my interest in writing about adolescence - though it's not quite the compulsion that it was. Maybe when my children get a little older. In the meantime, I'll certainly carry on writing picture books and young fiction.

16. When you carry out school visits and workshops you must be asked similar questions time and time again. What has been the most original and astute question a young reader has asked, and what was your response?  

 

Children's questions vary from "How much do you get for making a book?" or "What's the biggest/second biggest/third biggest book you've written?" or "Why did you use bad language in your book?" to "What would you say is the main theme of your work?" or "Who was your biggest inspiration?". Perhaps the question that most sticks in my head is, "What's the biggest mistake you've ever made?". My reply? "Choosing to go to a secondary school that didn't play football." Like I said, it 's important!

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