An interview with author Melvin Burgess
West Yorkshire based writer Melvin Burgess has shaken up the world of teenage literature. With over 20 titles under his belt, he has written novels, radio, and TV scripts.
The author’s debut novel, The Cry of the Wolf (1990) shot to fame by being short listed for the Carnegie Medal. This was followed by the success of his 1996 novel, Junk, which scooped the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Later Burgess’ 1999 novel Bloodtide won joint first at Lancashire County Library Children’s Book of the Year Award.
Burgess’ narratives confront risqué subjects, such as sex, drugs and violence. I ask him how his novels compare to the ones he read growing up. He sighs, and takes a big breath.
“Well, there just wasn’t stuff for teenagers when I was a kid. It’s also true that realist fiction just didn’t exist. You had fantasy stuff, and then you had stuff that was written as if it was real, where y’know kids would be out catching burglars or discovering treasure, doing things that don’t really happen. I can’t remember reading any realist books when I was a kid that actually told the truth.
“But now people are a lot more open with young people. Society’s a lot more multi cultural, and with the internet it’s a lot harder to keep secrets from kids, so we have to deal with them in a much more straightforward way than we used to”.
In the absence of realist fiction, I ask Burgess what he did read throughout his youth. His tone lifts in indulgence.
“The first book I really fell in love with was The Wind in the Willows, I adored that book when I was six, and I was always a big nature boy. I really adored Gerald Durrell, as well, who wrote books about collecting animals in zoos.
“Later I was really keen on fantasy, oddly enough, because it’s not something I write. But after that, the author who had a big influence on me was Gorge Orwell. I like his work because he writes about difficult subjects, such as politics, but does it so simply that it’s easy to understand. Thereby proving there’s no such thing as difficult subjects, just badly written subjects”.
This sentiment certainly rings true to Burgess’ own writing. As he is never one to shy away from social taboos, I ask him if there are any issues he still feels need exploring. He mulls this over for a second.
“Over the last 10 or 12 years since Junk came out, I realised there was this huge area of things that people did not like to talk to young people about, and that they found difficult to be straight with them about. So I have made a sort of career writing about those subjects; and y’know I think it’s great now that people do talk more openly about drugs culture, and sexual issues.
“But sexual abuse is still something that people feel very, very uncomfortable discussing. And I think we have a fair way to go before people are happier to be open about those kinds of subjects”.
Burgess novel Nicholas Dane tells the story of a boy struggling to come to terms with the sexual abuse he faces within a 1980s care home. I ask him if he found it difficult researching the novel. He pauses.
“Well, it was really painful.”
Then dives in.
“What happened was there were several big cases of abuse coming up every now and again, and it was incredibly wide spread, practically in every town and every borough in the UK. And then one came up in Manchester, and I got in touch with a layer who was dealing with the case, and talked to him about it. Then he circulated my name among some of his clients, and I went to interview some of them.”
Burgess slows down a bit.
“It was pretty heart breaking really. The people who were kids in the homes, quite often they had been taken off their families, and they were at a low anyway, and were treated really violently and even sexually abused in these kid’s homes.
“They were so vulnerable it would just break your heart. And those guys had suffered, for decades no one would believe them because they were pegged as ‘bad lads’. Some of them were in and out of prison, taking drugs and alcohol, and whatever chance they had of getting their lives together was very firmly squashed by those experiences. You would be amazed how many people in prison for very violent crimes had been through that type of experience. We all pay the price for that sort of abuse.”
Just as I think Burgess has stopped, he continues.
“So it was very gruelling really…And then I wrote the bloody book. And you kind of distance yourself from it while you’re writing it, and you turn it into a story. But then when I had finished it and had published it and was doing talks about it, it all came back. I remember the first talk I did I was getting really nervous about it, just because I had to talk about such dreadful things in public.
“I think maybe the reason that some of the abusers got away with it for so long, and got through so many victims, was because people found it so disturbing that they didn’t want it to go public.”
Confronting taboos is not always such a hard job, as Burgess recalls his ventures researching other novels.
“I’ve done everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. For my novel Doing It, I was talking about young male sexual culture, and showing you can have a sense of humour about it.
“I just asked everyone I knew about their early sex stories, getting people to tell me about their first encounters. There were such great stories, rude, silly and very touching. I got to hear about the nice and charming side of sex, when people are just getting to know about it”.
With the majority of his work being prose, I asked Burgess how the writing process of his TV drama The Well compared. He sounds surprised.
“I really enjoyed it. I mean, you always hear novelist moaning about their team when they try to write for telly, because if you write a novel it’s all your own way really, but you just have to be patient.
“It’s a great relief to do something collaborative, I’ve written over twenty novels, and you’re stuck on your own. So it’s great to be able to go out there and get a lot of feedback from people”.
I ask Burgess if how he combats writers block when he is working alone.
“Funnily enough I don’t get writer’s block. I’m always quite good with ideas. But what happens is, when I don’t know what to do, I just sit down and write any old crap. I just work my way through ideas. So I don’t so much tend to get writer’s constipation as writer’s diarrhoea. But I try not to write more than five hours a day, so I don’t burn myself out.
“As an author, you get a build- up of people emailing you. I’ve got these daily twitter stories and visits I have to do, and all sorts of things going on. So you get a lot of business associated with being an author that’s not actually writing”.
With such ‘business’ in mind, I ask Burges what it was that inspired him to give a talk on Pagan Heritage in November 2009.
“Before Christianity came to Britain, we were pagans. Even though some of those pagan stories have been forgotten for so long, the ways of thinking associated with them, like the traditions and the characters of the old heroes and gods are still oddly familiar to us. Thursday originated from Thor’s day. So I’m attracted to Northern paganism, because it is the mythology out of which our country was born”.
Talking of mythology, my mind wanders to Burgess’ novel Lady My Life as a Bitch. In the story the main character Sandra faces a Buddhist style reincarnation as a dog. I ask Burgess which animal he would come back to life as, given the choice. He ponders the question for a second.
“Well, I think actually it might be a wolf. Y’know it’s very tempting to want to be one of the beautiful big cats, but they lead very isolated lives. Whereas wolves, they have a family structure and get on well together. And they are quite exciting.”
For many more revelations see Melvin Burgess’ website.