As you may know, there is a very special event taking place on the last day of this month: the UKYA extravaganza, with 35 UK authors of YA books at Waterstones Birmingham. Tickets sold out within 24 hours, and it looks like this will be the first of many, rather than a one-off event. Today the blog tour stops here, with Alan Gibbons answering a few questions about writing, the UKYA phenomenon and reading.
Alan’s books cover a range of important and interesting topics. They are often contemporary novels, focusing on difficulties that teens and children face. He has written about gun crime (Raining Fire), hate crimes (Hate), domestic violence (The Edge), bullying and suicide (Hold On) and racial tension (Caught in the Crossfire, An Act of Love) as well as football (Total Football series), mythology and folklore (Shadow of the Minotaur, Night Hunger). With all of Alan’s books that I have read, there is a very real and very human story at the heart that brings the issue into focus. His writing is issues-led, but never preachy or didactic.
What do you think is special about UKYA? Why does it deserve celebrating/ promoting?
I think any initiative that keeps young people reading through the teenage years is to be supported. This crossroads between childhood and adulthood can often be turbulent, thrilling, troubling and monstrously exhausting. It was for me! The genre barely existed until landmark books such as S E Hinton’s The Outsiders, Robert Cormier’s Chocolate War and Heroes and Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land and Stone Cold blazed a trail. Now it attracts some of the most talented writers around. An event that brings lots of these authors together with their readers is a terrific idea.
You obviously believe in the importance of diverse books. What advice do you have for writers who are hesitant about writing characters who are from different cultures from themselves?
I suppose I just feel that the variety of human experience should find its way into literature. Writers who have a range of black and Asian, male and female, gay and straight characters aren’t following an agenda or pushing ‘political correctness.’ They are reflecting their society. They are being human. Anyone who chooses not to do this is surely pushing an alternative agenda.
I would never be so arrogant as to give other writers advice. Personally, I think I have nothing to lose by walking around in somebody else’s skin. Whatever details of skin colour, gender or sexual orientation, we are all brothers and sisters and have far more in common than we have difference. I just write out of human solidarity and that means having that little bit of courage to stray into the odd avenue I have not trodden myself, to imagine another person’s circumstances and responses. Hey, if I get it wrong I can apologise in the best way possible, do it better in the next book I write. Defensiveness is the enemy of literature and artistic creation.
I’m also aware of your tireless library campaigning. Do you see this as part of your role as an author, like school visits?
Absolutely. I am a teacher-writer-activist. Each of those elements is as essential as the others. What this government is doing is wrong, the greatest act of cultural vandalism carried out in this country since World War Two. How could we writers step aside and let the philistines get away with book burning by proxy without raising howls of protest?
Can you tell us something about what you’re working on at the moment?
My next novel is about political and personal betrayal, focussing on the son of a Member of Parliament and something his father did in public life that impacts disastrously on the family. It was planned to be called You Took My Son, but may morph into End Game because my publishers prefer the second title. I am just happy for it to see the light of day in the spring. I am now working on a book about abduction and abuse for 2016.
How do you work? Do you plan in depth? How do you decide what your topic will be? Does the story come first, the characters or is that not at all how it works?
I was an angry young man. Now I am an angry man in late middle age. Pretty soon I will be an angry old man. I usually start with something in the news that either upsets me, confuses me, perturbs me or inspires me. From that, the characters start to emerge, essentially how they respond to crisis. I would love to be good at planning, but I am terrible. I usually get an ending, a few ‘scenes’ in the middle and a vague sense of where it is going then start tapping away at my laptop. I feel my way through the text instinctively and rather chaotically, I’m afraid.
Thank you, Alan, for that insight into your work. I look forward to seeing you in Birmingham!
In the meantime, if you fancy a well-written thriller set very firmly in the real world, grab one of Alan’s books.