Anthony McGowan is well-known for his highly-acclaimed novels for children and young people, including Henry Tumour, winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize in 2006, The Knife That Killed Me, longlisted for the 2008 Carnegie Medal, and The Donut Diaries.
Most recently, he penned a popular trilogy of books for dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke – Brock, Pike and Rook. We caught up with him to discuss Rook, the final book in the trilogy, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Carnegie Medal.
Q: In Rook, as well as the other two books in the trilogy, Brock and Pike, animals and nature are used as a metaphor for the difficulties experienced by the main characters. Can you tell us a bit more about the significance of nature in all three books?
Nature has always been important to me, both in my life and as a writer. The small town where the books are set is very closely based on the place I grew up in – Sherburn in Elmet, in the old West Riding of Yorkshire. It’s not an area of outstanding natural beauty, or anything like that – it’s more scrappy farmland and pit villages – but the fields and woods were only ever a short bike ride away, and my great obsession back then was birdwatching. So, yes, I’ve always wanted to write about nature and, in particular, the way that the natural world can enrich and transform our lives. However, what I didn’t want was to make the animals in the trilogy (the badger in Brock, the fish in Pike, the birds in Rook) become nothing but metaphors or symbols. The world is complex and knotty and awkward. It has a presence but not a simple ‘meaning’. I wanted to show Nicky and Kenny steeped in nature, in some ways healed by it, but it’s never simply there ‘for’ them. And, I suppose, in a more straightforward way, it shows Nicky and Kenny’s fundamental decency and kindness.
Q: Your writing is very diverse, and the more recent novels are a departure from some of your more humorous early fiction aimed at slightly younger readers. Did this development come naturally, or were you commissioned to write on particular themes?
It’s true that I’ve written comic stories for younger children – but also for teenagers – my first two YA books, Hellbent and Henry Tumour are both pretty gross comedies, although they also deal with serious subjects (death and serious illness). The Knife that Killed Me, which came out in 2008 is anything but comic, and, I suppose, anticipates some of the themes in the Brock/Pike/Rook trilogy. So, rather than a progression from comedy to more serious themes, I think it’s more than I’ve always written a mixture of funny and sad, with different proportions of each in my various novels. And I certainly haven’t left funny behind for good! Indeed, I tried to add a touch of comedy to Rook, which indicates the fact the family has moved on emotionally and materially from the incredibly difficult circumstances they find themselves in in Brock.
Q: Kenny’s learning difficulties are portrayed with sensitivity throughout Rook. How easy or difficult did you find it to represent disability in the novel?
The relationship between Nicky and Kenny is, obviously, the most important thing in the series. The key for me was to ‘see’ Kenny not through my eyes – those of an adult, but through Nicky’s. Nicky hasn’t got the same politically correct, progressive views that I have. But what he has, is love. So, for him Kenny is a pain, an annoyance, an irritation, but also the thing he loves most in the world, the centre of his life; his burden, but also his joy. I was particularly keen to show the relationship change through the books. At the beginning, Nicky feels that he almost has to breathe for Kenny. But, by the end, Nicky has to realise that Kenny has grown up, that he has a life not solely oriented towards him. That’s perhaps the biggest challenge Nicky has to face – bigger than the bullying and brutality. He has to let Kenny go, let him lead his own life, make his own friends (and mistakes).
The other thing that was important to me was to show Kenny in a positive way, that was also realistic. He has special needs, moderate learning difficulties, but also gifts – honesty, courage, joy. Finally, I’d like to say that I felt a sense of responsibility towards Nicky and Kenny that I’ve never experienced before for fictional characters. I honestly felt that I had to walk with them from the darkness and horror and squalor at the beginning to the real hope at the end. I wasn’t sure at the start how we’d get there, but we did, we made it…
Q: As part of Barrington Stoke’s super-readable, dyslexia-friendly range, Rook conveys complex themes in sparse yet powerful prose. Has writing for Barrington Stoke changed your view of the writing process?
Writing for Barrington Stoke definitely made me change my prose style. And, I think, it was a change for the better. My earlier books are written in a rather complex ‘look at me’; sort of style. There’s a lot of showing off, a lot of proving how clever I am. But writing for Barrington Stoke made me focus on the barebones of what makes us want to read: on character (above all), on the story, on the setting. I tried to create characters that were complex, troubled, ‘true’, but with depths of courage and decency. I put those characters in a world that was as real as I could make it – the world I knew growing up, a world that my readers would recognise as their own, yet also a world filled with adventure and danger and mystery. The plot – the things that happen in the stories – had to come out of the characters, rather than being imposed upon them, emerging from the choices they make as they move through that world.
And writing like this was definitely a challenge. I had to abandon the panache, the flash and fizz of books like Hellbent and Henry Tumour and replace them with … well, truth, I hope.
Q: Many of your books deal with the intensity of teenage experience, and growing up. How have your own experiences and upbringing influenced your writing? Do you have any favourite authors that have influenced you?
The world of Brock, Pike and Rook is the world I knew growing up, the world of my small town. But one difference is that I went to school in Leeds, rather than to the local school, like Nicky and Kenny. The school I went to – Corpus Christi, was very tough indeed (it was the same school where, a couple of years ago, a much loved teacher was stabbed to death – in fact she had been my First Year (or Year 7, as it is now) form teacher). But it was also exciting – every day was full of conflict and danger and friendship and humour. Lots of experiences got burnt into my memory, and so when I began to write, for me, there was only one possible subject: the intensity and turmoil of the teenage years. In my head, most of my teenage books were set in a version of Leeds, and I’d rather neglected the small town where I actually lived.
In terms of influences, three contemporary writers had a very big impact on Brock/Pike/Rook. Melvin Burgess was about the first YA writer to make teenage boys sound in fiction as they sound in real life, with all their filth and humour and vulnerability intact. Keith Gray again created utterly believable teenage characters, and demonstrated how you don’t have to go to Middle Earth to find adventure. And, even more crucially, Phil Earle showed me, in Being Billy, Saving Daisy, and Heroic, how compelling honesty and integrity could be. When I read Being Billy, I genuinely thought, OK, time to stop messing about and at least try to write something that good.
But perhaps even more important than my contemporaries was the book A Kestrel for a Knave (filmed as Kes) by Barry Hines). It’s a book we read in class at school. I still remember one moment when a kid called David Tordoff was reading, falteringly, out loud. We’d been restless and mucking about, but then somehow the words began to filter through, and suddenly the mood in the class changed. There was a kind of intensity, a focus. And then David looked up at the teacher (Miss McGinley), gestured at the page, and said, ‘Miss, that’s us, that is.’ And so that’s what I want (among other things). I want my readers – many of whom, because of the unusual reach of Barrington Stoke, won’t have had much contact with literature – to read my books and think, ‘that’s us, that is.’