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Melvin Burgess

Monday, 07 January 2013

Melvin Burgess is both one of the most popular and controversial children’s authors writing today. His latest book is ‘Doing It’ which follows the sexual experiences of three teenage boys. His other books include ‘Junk’, which tackles the issue of drug addiction, ‘Lady: My Life As A Bitch’ and the ambitious and unsettling ‘Bloodtide’, based on the first part of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga.


Melvin Burgess“I was born in Sussex in 1954 – far too long ago. I was an extremely dreamy and shy child, and I used to used to wander round muttering to myself and playing games with imaginary friends. My parents had to shout – “He’s in the land!” to explain to people why I apparently couldn’t hear what they were saying to me. I did very badly at school – I was daydreaming too much to concentrate on anything much. It wasn’t until I was pretty nearly grown up that I started to think that the world around me might be at least as interesting as what was going on in my own head. 

I did poorly at school, although occasionally teachers would think I had a lot of promise. In those days we had an exam called the eleven plus, which you did just before you went to High School. If you were a clever kid with a good brain, you passed and went to Grammar School to learn brainy things, and if you were a dumb kid, you failed and went to Secondary Modern School and learnt how to do things with your hands. I was a kid with hands. I went to Secondary Modern School.

I wasn’t very happy at my new school. I remember having a lousy teacher there, who bawled me out for doing a story in a way she hadn’t ordered – I’d done it as a diary. She was furious! – called me out in front of the whole class and made a fool of me. So, she got no good stories out of me.

My parents moved again, to Reading in Berkshire. This new school was going comprehensive – children of all abilities were to go there. I got on much better there, due to one or two very good teachers who helped me along, but I was still a poor worker, and came away with two very bad A levels, in Biology and English. Mine was only the second year to do A levels – I’m sure, if they hadn’t been just gagging to let anyone do them, no one would have let me near the exams at all.

Life got rapidly better for me after I left school, but for the first few months I hadn’t got a clue what to do. My dad eventually filled in an application form for a job as a journalist with the local newspaper. Somehow I got the job and went off to do a course for six months training.

The course was great – it was my only real time as a student – but by the end of it I had decided that I really wanted to write and that no other career would do. I packed in the job as soon as I got back home, much to the editor’s disgust. “I think the saddest, thing, Melvin, is that you have deprived someone else of a career opportunity,” he intoned. Then I got on with writing my first book, which, of course, no one wanted to publish.

For the next fifteen years, I wrote on and off, had casual jobs here and there, spent a lot of time out of work with not much to do, and I enjoyed myself enormously. I moved to Bristol after a couple of years where I lived until I was thirty. Inner-city Bristol was a great place to live, with a big racial and cultural mix. I learned a lot there and got my feeling for life. My book ‘Junk’ is based on Bristol in those years, and although it is not biographical, you can pick up a lot of the atmosphere and meet a few of the people in its pages.

I was living in London aged about thirty five when I began to think it was time for me to really try hard to see if I could make writing work for me. I’d written a great deal off and on for years, a lot of it experimental, but I’d never really put getting published over writing what I felt like writing. So I had a go – I did short stories, radio drama, and children’s fiction. I had some success in all three, but my book ‘The Cry of the Wolf’, was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

I now live in Manchester, with my wife Judith, my son Oliver and my step son Sam. I have a daughter, Pearl, who lives with her mother in Odessa, Ukraine.