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Melvin Burgess Interview

Saturday, 17 May 2003

Melvin Burgess's new book 'Doing It', which graphically details the sexual experiences of three teenage boys, was published recently by Anderson Press.

Shortly before publication a media furore was created after the book was reviewed by the Children's Laureate Anne Fine for the Guardian Newspaper. In the review Fine labelled the book 'grubby' and called for Burgess' publishers to 'pulp their copies now'.

We caught up with Melvin to ask his thoughts on the book and the reaction to it.

Jubilee Books: 'Doing It' really first entered the public domain with the now infamous review of the book by Anne Fine that appeared in the Guardain Newspaper. Were you surprised by her comments and did you this it was fair of her as the Children's Laureate to attack a fellow author in this way?
Melvin Burgess: I was surprised, I would have expected her to get in touch if she felt like that althought there was some warning beforehand. I didn't think it was very fair really, I don't think she'd have been able to do that if she hadn't been the Children's Laureate. I didn't think it was a very fair review, picking out the rude bits and taking them out of context isn't a very good way of reviewing a book and in that way the laureate thing is neither here nor there really.

Most feedback I've seen since then has been fairly positive though, would you agree?
Yeah I'd say so. I've been very pleased with it, there's been some criticism but useful criticism of it as a book and I haven't had that same sort of response from a moral point of view, or any misreading of it.

Her comments also raised the issue of censorship and what is suitable subject mater for a children's book. You're usually on the receiving end of such commentary but I was wondering what your own views are on this subject. DO you think there are things taht shouldn't be touched upon in books for readers of this age?
I don't really think so. I think teenage books are a bit different from children's books and the thing is that there's a practical issue and there's not much point in writing stuff for people is they haven't got a handle on it. As long as it's comprehensible and so long as it's assimilable, particularly when you're living in an age in which it's actually difficult to introduce anything new. It always reminds me of adults books looking back on their childhood, and how you get this picture of really isolated kids. I think in the past children have been kept very separate from the adult world and a lot of secrets were kept from them. That isn't the case nowadays which is a good thing, but it does mean that we have to engage with kids on many things that we may feel uncomfortable with.

I can't think of any other book that is as sexually descriptive aimed at readers of that age. Do you think other authors have shied away from teenage sexuality or at least failed to recognize the complexities of teenage sexuality?
I think people are very wary of kids and teenagers sexuality in general, there's a great fear of it. There is also the peculiarity that if you write for teenagers then there is a movement to try to connect with them on all kinds of levels. If you're trying to connect with them on a personal level, so to speak, rather than providing a cracking good read then you have to do it from your own perspective. You have to remember yourself as an adolescent and people do sometimes feel uncomfortable about doing that, apart from the fact that thet're likely to be criticized. One of the things I got criticized for is that there's a kind of queasiness that someone my age can write something that's going to turn someone on when they're 14. My answer to that is that really you're writing about adolescence, which is about kids of that age but it's also for people of any age as long as you've been an adolescent you'll get something out of it even if it is aimed mainly at younger readers.

How did you go about researching for the book?
What I did was go around to everyone I knew and ask them for their knobbly stories. Everyone has been an adolescent and i't snot aimed at any particular period and there's no cultural references for any period. It's rather about being that age and that's the reason I didn't put any football or music and all that kind of stuff in it. So I went around asking all my male and females friends what their stories were and so there's a range of input in there from people ages between 23 and 60. What you get is a continuity of confusions and some sort of changes, I think attitudes toward oral sex have changed a lot, but basically the jokey language and the crude language is not something everyone does but if you do do it you'd have done it 100 years ago or today.

You've said that the book was quite difficult to write. What was it about the book that was particularly difficult?
Getting it spot on. It was obviously going to get criticism because some people find sex disturbing for some obscure reason, so I wanted to get it just right. Particularly if you're talking about humorous smut and writing about sex they're both very difficult things. There's nothing worse than writing about sex badly and there's nothing worse than smutty talk that doesn't quite hit the nail on the head. I also found it difficult because I wanted to make it very authentic in terms of what the lads were like. When dealing with the characters of the boys there wasn't a lot out there, I mean you tend to take a lot of character work from other books and from films and TV and so forth and boys in particular just aren't portrayed like that I think. They're not always badly portrayed but they're not necessarily accurately portrayed and I don't think people very much bother drawing from life with boys of that age.

Is that a consequence of people being repulsed by boys of that age and often finding them a bit objectionable?
I'm sure it's partly that, boys of that age are not terribly politically correct and it's supposed to be a terrible age and they're all supposed to be horrible. A lot of the attacks I got on this book I felt were very offensive about my boys because I think they're nice lads. A lot of the people who've liked the book have said they felt very affectionate towards the boys and protective of them and I think that they're quite charming in their own way.

Do you believe there's a distinct lack of books written for boys of that age?
There's a great lack of books for them. I was talking about those books where poeple write about their childhood and there are those one's scattered about but they're quite difficult to get your hands on. A lot of writers get round to writing autobiographical stuff that happened a long time ago, I read one recently by the guy who directed 'Withnail And I' and it was absolutely brillaint but you wouldn't know it was there if you were a lad of that age and you wanted to get your paws on it.

I think that it's also a difficult age to write for because kids that are 13 or 14 and who are readers will already be reading adult books anyway.
Yeah, they'll already be reading adult books and it's a criticism of bookshops that the section for teenagers will only have books written specifically for teengaers, there should be a wider range than that. Despite what people say it isn't an area you go into to become hugely rich because you don't sell so many books. I do believe there is a market thought and kids from 13 up do read adult books and quite rightly so, but it is still the case that there is an absence of books aimed directly at that age. For every other age there's books, whether it be about sitting on your potty, or working, being a student, marriage, diorce and so on but there isn't really an area of work for that particular age. People skirt around adolescence still as if it's some horrible sordid little mess.

You and several other high profile authors spoke out about he sponsorship of the Booktrust Teenage Book Prize by Nestlé. You obviously feel very strongly about the issue.
I felt it was inappropriate really. Nestlé have changed but not that much and Baby Milk Action is a very respectable organization and they are very clear that Nestlé are breaking a lot of codes and covering up. There's also a suspicion that they seem to have been advised to fight against the bad publicity by sponsorship; they have acquired the Smarties Prize, they've acquired the Perrier Prize by buying out other companies. I do sympathize with th Booktrust who actually do an awful lot of good and had begun with the Rowntree Smarties Prize and then Nestlé took it over and it was just the Smarties Prize and then the Nestlé name eventually crept in. A lot of people were feeling quite uncomfortable about it but it was all very well established and no one wanted to make a fuss about it, but when the Teenage Prize came out being called just the Nestlé Prize I thought it was a step too far really. I think people need to reconsider that kind of sponsorship but I was very please, and we were all very please, with the outcome. There does need to be a teenage book prize and the Booktrust are a very good organization to do it.

What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on Bloodtide 2 at the moment. It's a bit difficult to say when it'll be out, I;m about half way through it now and I would say I'll finish it in four or five months so it could even be coming out in Spring next year.