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Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
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When 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?

MIS-quote? 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.

The narrative slips in and out of present and past tense. What was the rationale for scenes that use the present tense?

To 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.

The 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?

I 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!

The 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.

Apart 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’.

Big 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!'

Presumably 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 invention.
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.

The 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?

Three 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.

Jez's 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.

I 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!

The 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?

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.

Jez's use of slang is convincingly contemporary. How did you get the patois so believable?

I 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.

The character Star might be read, by some, as a sort of representation of God. Would you mind this interpretation?

It 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 being.

Are you contracted to write a second novel for Puffin. If so, what will it be about?

Yes. 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.

Do you read Young Adult fiction yourself. If you do, which authors do you admire most?

I 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

Editor: Michael Thorn
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