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Robert Cormier meets
Melvin Burgess

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...

JD: 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?
MB: 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 cut-off point. RC: 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.
JD: 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.
MB: 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 note. RC: 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.
JD: 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.
MB: 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.
JD: 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?
MB: 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.

Editor: Michael Thorn
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