In our third article in the series, MultiMediaMouth speaks to Anthony McGowan – widely acclaimed and prolific author of YA novels ‘The Knife That Killed Me’ and ‘Hello Darkness’ – among several others. Anthony was also a guest at the recent London Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC), speaking on one of the panel events on: ‘Crossover: not just for kids’. As I couldn’t make it to YALC on both days, I was thrilled to be able to ask the author some direct questions on the growing phenomenon of YA.
In recent years, Young Adult fiction has grown immensely – with new titles being released pretty much constantly to an apparently insatiable audience. Did you spot this trend when you moved from regular fiction to children and then YA fiction? Was your decision to write for children/YA a conscious move to offer a product for which there was a bigger demand?
It was a little more complicated that that. The first creative fiction I wrote – back in the mid 1990s – was the text that eventually became Hellbent (the original drafts were all entitled Abandon Hope). I’d heard of a growing category of fiction called ‘Young Adult’, but assumed it meant people like me (as I was) – in their twenties). So, Hellbent was a raucous, rude, quite intellectually demanding book, not at all intended for teens, or at least not for the 12-14 year olds that now form the core of Y/A readers. It didn’t get a book deal, in fact never even came close. But it did get me an agent, who suggested I write something more sensible. I then wrote an adult thriller, Stag Hunt, which got published quite quickly. While that was happening, I had a rethink about Hellbent, and decided, as the main character was a teenager, to recast it as a more obviously teenage book, by taking out some of the filth. It got snapped up, and did a little better than Stag Hunt. I therefore found myself by default as a teenage writer. It was never a commercial decision on my part – in fact I’d certainly have earned more money if I’d stayed in the world of adult fiction. But the truth is I found it very easy to re-enter the teenage world, and it struck me vividly that teenage life is full of exactly the sorts of passion, violence, intensity, love and hate that are the very stuff of fiction.
Series like ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Divergent’ have seized a considerable share of the adult reading market too. What do you think makes YA fiction so appealing to adult readers?
I’ve got into hot water before for suggesting that adults should wean themselves off escapist Y/A, fantasy/dystopian books. I think it’s great for teenagers to read widely – including fantasy, as well as more realistic Y/A, and anything else that grabs their interest, and makes them want to lose themselves in a book. But I think that adults should move on. There’s enough great adult speculative fiction, as well as more traditional literary fiction, to last the most avid reader a lifetime. I think adults read it (teen fantasy) because it’s entertaining, undemanding, and provides what they want in easily digested packets. And many of the adult readers are infantalised, and see themselves as teenagers. Of course people should read what they want, and none of this stuff does any actual harm, but it’s like spending your life eating nothing but Frosties. (Which isn’t to say that there aren’t several Y/A writers who can be read by anyone of any age – Mal Peet, Patrick Ness – all the usual suspects.)
In the wake of the success of series such as the Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maize Runner, the inevitable stream of copycats has followed. Do you think these blockbuster titles help YA literature through the exposure they provide to the category/genre, or are they possibly creating a bandwagon for less talented writers to jump on?
If I’m being brutally honest, I don’t think that the copycat authors are any less talented than the ‘originals’ – they’re all pretty terrible. I read the first fifty pages of Michael Grant’s Gone the other day and thought it was laughably awful. In a cultural movement like this, you tend to get a breakthrough book that changes the landscape, and then the next wave consists of books that already existed, having been born of the same forces as the first, and were waiting, in a sense, for that opening. And they all do quite well. You then get a third surge (the first true copycats), and they also often do respectable business, albeit it at a lower level. And then you get the ragged fourth wave. I think we’re in that now with Y/A fantasy. But as prose writers they’re not necessarily any worse than the first wave/breakthrough books. Well, OK, sometimes they are. But as I said earlier, it’s not like any of these people are Shakespeare.
From anecdotal evidence and just plain observation, I get the impression that most young readers favour the paper book format over the ebook (possibly because they don’t have debit cards to buy online or have to use their parents’ account). What’s the feedback you get from your readers, and could YA fiction be the saviour of the mainstream paper book?
This is such a complex and difficult question, and the truth is that no one has the faintest idea what’s going to happen, whether in relation to adult or Y/A fiction. E-readers are still a relatively serious investment, for young people, at least. There was talk a while back of Amazon essentially giving Kindles away. If they start selling for, say £20, then that might well shift things around. But for now, yes, it definitely seems that older readers are the ones most likely to be reading e-books. Of course there are interesting questions around piracy – you can get almost any bestseller for free, if you’ve a mind. I actually think that publishers should shun e-books. It’s the work of a second to strip the DRM out of an ebook issued by a publisher, but it’s a hell of a job to scan a book, then OCR it and check it for errors. Who’s going to do that for nothing? No, if publishers do really care about piracy, then the only answer is luddism.
Your books tend to appeal to the younger male reader; however, on the day I attended YALC I think it’s fair to say that a good 3/4 of the attendees were female. Why are teenage boys so reluctant to read?
I haven’t got any magical insights into that. There are some boys who are insanely manic readers, so there clearly isn’t a reading gene that girls have and boys lack. I prefer to see getting boys to read as presenting a series of interesting challenges. I try to grab their interest with humour, violence or extreme emotion, but then, once I’ve got them, to stretch them intellectually to breaking point. I try to perplex, enrage, astound, amuse, disgust, enlighten and exhaust them. (I should probably say that although my books are quite ‘male’, my perception is that most of my readers are female – a simple function, I suppose – of the fact that girls read more than boys.)
Finally, what’s the main difference between writing for an adult reader and writing for a younger audience, both in terms of your creative process and connecting and interacting with your readers?
The main difference, for me, is simply the age of the protagonist. I’ve written for younger, pre-teen readers, and there I’m remembering what I was like at that age, and what made me laugh or otherwise engaged me – so it’s a sort of archeological process, digging back to find the lost treasure. But if you’re writing for 8 year olds, the truth is you have to think about your vocabulary, and, to an extent, the nature of the material. When writing for teenagers, in terms of language and intellectual complexity, I essentially go full throttle, just as I would when writing for adults. But I suppose I’d be inclined to think more about pace when writing for teens, being wary of passages in which nothing much happens. But for all that broadly similar rules apply to all writing. I try to apply something similar to the William Morris dictum that you shouldn’t have anything in your house that isn’t either beautiful or useful – so every sentence has to pay its way. Is it funny? Is it clever? Is it wise? Is it interestingly vile? Does it tell you more about a character? Does it move the story on?
Thank you very much for your time, Anthony!