I hope my non-writing blog buddies will bear with me for another couple of posts while I do writery things on the blog. This post (and I make no apologies for the length), the second in a four part series, is a rough transcription (of my hastily scribbled notes) of the dialogue that YA author Kevin Brooks had with a group of teens at the Cape Town Book Fair. The teens had read either Being and/or Black Rabbit Summer before attending the event, so some of their questions were about those two novels. It was very much a question and answer session so I will stick to that format. Please bear in mind that I do not quote Kevin verbatim and these are my notes of what he said.
Q: What is Robert Smith, the main character of Being - is he human or not, it’s never really made clear in the book?
A: The book is about what it means to be human or a living thing. Do we really need to know who or what we are to be content? The key thing is about not knowing because the reality is we generally don’t know. The idea for the story came about 20 years ago and it took a lot of thinking before finally finding its form as a story.
We assume we have a heart, lungs etc and that it is what is in our brain, our consciousness (perhaps our souls) that makes us who we are.
There isn’t a quest to find answers in the book but to explore the notion that “I am me but I also don’t have control or really know who I am” – as it is for Robert. So it is important that we never really know who or what Robert is.
Kevin wanted to portray Robert as normal to himself – so Robert sees himself as normal where others don’t, in the same way as we all see ourselves as okay/normal/bad even when that may not be the case. Because Robert has a certain coldness about him we don't see him as normal whereas he does.
Q: There are no big theme in your books – is that intentional?
A: No, it’s not intentional. Kevin knows what he’s writing about and yet also doesn’t. He’s been made aware that there are recurring themes in his books and he puts this down to the fact that most writers put some part of themselves, in some way, into what they write. For him, not knowing is a constantly recurring theme.
He has studied theoretical physics and philosophy and that influences the fact that he tends to write in a way that is not about solving questions but asking them. It is a journey of asking - and he believes it would be arrogant of him to assume he had the answers.
He purposely doesn’t explain things and purposely doesn’t know the answers – and he accepts that not everyone likes this aspect of his writing. But he maintains that there is stuff in life that can never be explained or neatly wrapped up and to do so seems false.
When a reader finishes a book it must remain in his/her head, it must stay alive. If it is all neatly wrapped up and explained then when the book is finished the story dies.
One of the other themes that is reflected in his books is how he sees the world and humans – which is pretty much as animals because we do quite brutish things. We’re a young, pathetic species and as such you can’t really judge people - just as you can’t really judge a lion for killing.
Q: You seem to write very much in a crime fiction genre, would you agree?
A: He doesn’t really think in terms of genres but agrees that all his novels have elements of crime fiction but he wouldn’t call them crime fiction. He acknowledges though that he loves crime fiction, particularly US crime fiction.
He believes it is essential for both writer and reader to be immersed in the story, and finds that with crime fiction the narrative takes you along with it.
He finds crime fascinating, even though he hates it. There’s a basic idea of law and order, the way to live as a society founded on laws – and it’s there that there is the big gap between us and other animals. When we tacitly agree to an unspoken agreement to abide by laws we are in a kind of guarded circle. The criminal part of life lives outside that circle – this is what is particularly fascinating and what takes him into interesting and complex aspects of morality, along with the consideration that right and wrong differ from one country to the next.
He likes to deal with powerful emotions and believes it’s the darker emotions that stay with us for a long time. Happiness is ethereal, unlike sadness, grief, anger or fear. These are the emotions that are linked with what people shouldn’t do.
The Road of the Dead is about violence and its ramifications, how it affects people. And the reality is that violence is intrinsic to human society.
Q: What is the role of music in your books?
A: Music is part of his life, he’s played in bands, recorded and spent many years writing songs. He sees painting, writing books and songs as very much the same thing – expressing oneself but through different mediums.
There is a lot about song writing which has helped in writing novels – for example rhythm, structures and themes. Rhythm is particularly important and helps to shape words, sentences, punctuation, paragraphs and chapters. Rhythm also adds to the creation of emotions and feelings in a reader at a subconscious level. When you read a book consciously you get stuff through words, when you read “unconsciously” you get stuff through rhythm.
In Candy he knows the “feeling” of the Candy song – he could write and record it.
In Killing God, Dawn Bundy is obsessed with the Jesus and Mary Chain and he’s used lyrics from their songs as a soundtrack to her life. He did think it would be great to have a Jesus and Mary Chain CD to go with the book but it worked out to be prohibitively expensive.
He feels that books should be seen in the same way as music, and that books and music should be intertwined so you could, for example read ebooks and play music together (books are in your head, music is in your heart and it would be good to blend the two) but unfortunately he finds this is a problem for the publishing industry and older people who see books in a very particular way.
Q: Your topics are pretty hardcore, as in Black Rabbit Summer, can you tell us about that?
A: Black Rabbit Summer is about friendships but includes drugs, sexual feelings and homosexuality. A reader once said she liked his books because they dealt with these things but without being about them. He feels kids find no big deal with this stuff – they deal with it far more easily than most adults do. Although he may write about sex, he doesn’t write about the details because that would be boring and he prefers to keep it subtle.
Q: Your settings are quite detailed, can you tell us about that?
A: Most settings are based on made-up medium sized towns in an unstated area of southern England – what he calls “anywhere towns” so that they can be relatable to a wide range of people.
Because the books are about young people he feels it’s important for the stories to have a small microcosmic world, because that’s how teens relate to their world – home is their area, the lanes, streets, rivers and trees in their immediate vicinity.
The book he’s currently working on is set in a high rise estate in south London.
Many of the settings in his books are based on memories of where he’s been and places he has known.
He also pointed out that you can find anything on the net in order to create a particular setting.
He felt the worst thing a Young Adult writer could do is to pretend or assume that they know what kids are about and what they are doing. He believes it’s dangerous for an adult writer to pretend that they are a teen and write in a teen way. He urged YA writers not to write in current slang. He writes about emotions because those don’t change – although he will research stuff which is current for teens, like texting.
Q: Do you relate to your characters?
A: He writes as the character but elements of himself come out in different ways. He never starts writing until the character has evolved organically in his mind.
In terms of his writing style he has ideas and puts ideas together and leaves them in his head to grow and waits for the character to start to build.
He had Dawn Bundy in his head for ages before he could find the right story for her.
He creates a framework for his stories and when the character has evolved in his mind and is as true to him, as alive as they can be – then he starts writing and he writes as the character, he becomes the character. He said he felt like he was possessed by Moo when writing Kissing in the Rain.
A: How are you guiding us as young people to make choices?
Q: His doesn’t “guide”. Books must be a good story first and foremost. If you are made to think about what’s been said that’s great, but he is very anti-issues and never takes a moralistic position because he doesn’t believe he’s in a position to tell anyone what to do – he has no great wisdom and he’s not qualified to tell people how to live their lives. He just writes about life, death and everything in-between – so this person does that and it has these consequences. Books can’t provide answers; people must find their own answers. But he acknowledges that some of his readers may get positive stuff from his books.
Stuff happens in life, good, bad, horrible, wonderful, and there’s something to be had from everything. But it is not his duty to provide directions, positivity or hope. He doesn’t consider that his role - if his books do that, then fine, but people find out stuff for themselves and from multiple sources.
Next week I’ll be posting an interview which Kevin Brooks has very kindly agreed to for the blog, along with a brief review of Killing God, his latest novel which was released in the UK today (25 June).