Book Club interview with author Anthony McGowan
Author Anthony McGowan kindly offered to speak to our Year 10 Book Club about one of his books they had been reading together, following his popular visit to St Benedict’s during Book Week in November.
My books are based on memories that then get blended together with literary texts that I'm reading at the time and what comes out is this weird hybrid thing at the end of it all. ‘The Knife that Killed me’ is really a retelling of Homer's Iliad!"Anthony McGowan
During a chilly January lunchtime, students linked up with Anthony virtually in the Library, quizzing him about his 2008 thriller ‘The Knife That Killed Me’. The book club members, coordinator Mr McWilliams and Librarian Ms Wallace put Anthony through his paces, asking questions about story ideas, real life settings, key scenes, character inspiration and dialogue. Below is the insightful and entertaining interview. Thanks again to Anthony for speaking to us.
Mr McWilliams - One thing we were intrigued by is, it’s quite gritty book, and it raised lots of issues for us that we found fascinating. Could you say a little about that first; where the story was set and how you wrote it?
Anthony McGowan - Yes sure, I might just quickly put it in context. It's the third Young Adult teenage novel that I wrote; the first two are called ‘Hellbent’ and the second, ‘Henry Tumour’ and they're both very different to ‘The Knife that Killed Me’. They are both kind of over the top exuberant comedies, dealing with death and illness, but they're meant to be a bit funny and rude. ‘The Knife That Killed Me’ was meant to be much more pared back; a dark, tense thriller. The school that it's set in is actually quite a close representation of the school that I went to, which was called Corpus Christi High School in Leeds. It was a Catholic school like yours, but in no other respect was it at all like your school! It was in the middle of a very big, tough council estate and all the poor kids from the urban estate went to the school. If you were expelled from any other Catholic school in Leeds, you were expelled to my school. So kind of all the crazy, dangerous kids in Leeds were there as well, meaning there was quite an intense, violent kind of atmosphere in the school, which I tried to represent. The big difference between when I was at school, back in the 1970s and 80s and now, though, was that back then although there was lots of fighting and bullying, none of it ever had very serious consequences. In comparison, when I began to write ‘The Knife that Killed Me’, knife crime was becoming a really important factor, particularly in London, but also in the rest of the country. Suddenly, all these male conflict situations became potentially deadly. The year that I wrote the book, I think there were 40 teenagers in London alone stabbed to death by other teenagers. So, I took my experience at school, but brought it forward into the modern of era, where everything's intensified by that presence of knives and gangs.
It's almost impossible to accurately represent the way people speak in normal life in a book. People speak in broken sentences, with the odd word thrown around and if you tried to actually record and capture that, it comes across as gibberish."Anthony McGowan
Vita Mac-Fall L5G - I was confused about when ‘The Knife that Kills Me’ is set. Is it set when you wrote it in 2008?
AM - You know, that's a good question, because it's a weird hybrid of both. It's really good that you spotted that. It's using my old memories of school back in the 1970s and 80s, but it is supposed to be updated into this modern period or what the modern period was then, more than 10 years ago now when it was published . It's really important to note the differences between a teenage boy in 1979 or 1980 and one in 2008 or 2010. The biggest change I think has been mobile phones. Somebody else has pointed it out; there are never any mobile phones in any of my books. That's because, when I was your age, they were science fiction! But also, mobile phones ruin plots. There's a crucial scene where Paul's waiting for the girl at the cinema and that's kind of based on something that happened to me when I was about your age. I got stood up at the cinema and back in 1979, there was nothing you could do about it, but now, if you are waiting for somebody, you’d just text them wouldn’t you! So, I had to find a reason why phones didn't play a role in this story. In the film of the book it’s dealt with slightly differently, and they do have a role. The film has a few changes in it, it's maybe more realistic and they gave mobile phones a bigger role, but it's quite accurate to the book as well.
So yeah, if you spotted a slight strangeness about the period set, that's partly a reflection of the slight confusion in my own head, but it's mainly supposed to be 2008 or broadly contemporary, but just with a bleeding in of my old memories from the olden days.
There’s an old saying in writing that ‘happiness writes white’, so you have to create this kind of darkness so there’s a story at all and that involves the characters making stupid choices. It is nearly always more sensible to walk away in real life."Anthony McGowan
Alice Moore L5G - The main scene, which caused a lot of debate in our group was the dog scene, with the head of the dog. We were all shocked by that and how you came up with that. We were not sure if it was a bit unrealistic and if anyone would actually ever chop a dogs head off! So I wanted to know how you came up with the idea?
AM - I'm glad that you picked up on that one, because it was meant to be incredibly shocking. I tried to think of the most shocking thing possible. Although, somebody else has pointed out that in nearly all of my books, there is a dead dog at some point! Partly because of things that I remember from being a teenager, but also I suppose because, what I've always found is that young people are much more affected by cruelty to animals than they are by cruelty to people. It's got this incredible visceral power, because we feel something whenever we see an animal being mistreated. And you know, young people are quite hard to shock, so I really wanted to grab you and shake you and make you think “Oh whoa, how could that happen?!” It's in other ways a reflection of the reality that terrible things do happen in the world, whilst also maybe a slightly cynical attempt to really jolt you out of your comfortable world view.
Raania Ansari L5C – Is there anything you've written in the book that has been affected by your real life?
AM – Yes. I mean, at the school I went to there was an awful lot of bullying, so a lot of those encounters between the boys in the school are based closely on what I remember. And you know, some of it was almost journalism - me remembering back and writing exactly what happened. In particular the character of Roth, who I think is one of the best characters I have ever created. He’s meant to be this genuinely terrifying figure, who's both physically intimidating, but also intelligent. He can see into your soul and find your weaknesses and use them to destroy you. And he is very closely based on a kid I knew it school, whose name was Tony Coleman. I was in the school football team and I found a photo of the team recently - I’m in there and Tony Coleman's there and you can pick him out, because he exudes his sense of menace and threat even just wearing his football gear! So a lot the characters are based on people and encounters that I remember, plus also the central plot idea, that of a war between two schools. Again, that was based on our school rivalry with another school called Temple Moor High School in Leeds; there were regular battles between the two schools, one or two of which I was involved in!
Vita Mac-Fall L5G - Does that mean that the entire book is an exaggeration of your own experience?
AM - Yeah, that's a pretty good way to put it. Writers often talk about their experiences now, but I slightly prefer the idea of memory to experience. Memory is experiences that happened, but then in your mind, it gets contorted and twisted by these forces of time and your own intelligence. They've got a kind of relationship to what really happened, but not a direct, lineal relationship. And also, although I do it less in this book than in some of my others, I tend to base my stories on stuff that kind of happened in my memories. They then get blended together with often a literary text or a book that I am reading at the time. ‘Hellbent’ for example, is about a teenage boy who dies and goes to hell; it’s kind of a comic, grotesque retelling of Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Dante was a great Italian poet and the Inferno, written in the early 1200s, is about a journey through hell and my retelling of that, built around that framework. ‘Henry Tumour’ is a kind of retelling of a Shakespeare play called ‘Henry IV: Part I’. It's about a teenage boy who has got a talking brain tumour and the brain tumour is based on this Shakespearean character Falstaff, who is a very rude and comic; a grotesque character. I often have these combinations of literary texts and memories. And actually in ‘The Knife that Killed me’, it is in some ways a retelling of Homer's Iliad, this great Ancient Greek poem about war, between the Greeks and the Trojans. That big battle scene with Paul and Roth is in some ways meant to be a reincarnation of Achilles, who in the play is the hero in the ‘Iliad’, but in the book is actually a terrifying, monstrous character. Also, about the same time of writing, I was reading a book called ‘As I lay Dying’ by William Faulkner, which is about this dead mother, this matriarch and a journey across a state in America to try and bury her. It’s full of intense scenes. So, my books are based on these memories that then get blended together with often literary texts that I'm reading at the time and what comes out is this weird hybrid thing at the end of it all. Did that sound pretentious? ‘The Knife that Killed me’ is really a retelling of Homer's Iliad!
Vita Mac-Fall L5G - The dialogue is quite formal in a way, they all kind of talk to each other like they are very much thinking about what they say before they say it. Was that intentional?
AM – You know, you should make that criticism, because it certainly is. It's almost impossible to accurately represent the way people speak in normal life in a book. People speak in broken sentences, with the odd word thrown around and if you tried to actually record and capture that, it comes across as gibberish. The way I would explain it is that in the book the main character Paul is writing down what has happened. He's slightly polishing it, but I suppose that Paul is himself in some ways meant to be a normal kid, almost a dull kid, but he clearly has got a poetic imagination and a gift for language.
It is a genuine problem though; can you really reflect how people speak? Some of my other books - a series of books about two brothers in a small town, are much more pared down, a bit less flamboyant in the language and people speak in those books a bit more the way I think people speak in reality. In comparison, the first two books I wrote, ‘Hellbent’ and ‘Henry Tumour’, are much more extravagant, flamboyant and eloquent than ‘The Knife that Killed me’. This was my first attempt to try and trim some of that linguistic excess that characterised my first few books.
Alice Moore L5G - When I read the book, I really enjoyed it, but there was one thing, which really frustrated me. The whole time I felt that Paul had an easy way out, perhaps a little bit too easy. I know in a book you are meant to have a better option to take, but normally the better option is not as easily taken. It made me want to speak to Paul and tell him to take the easy option, because the whole storyline would have been nothing if he had gone with the other option!
AM - It's a very good point. I suppose almost all fiction involves slightly artificially pushing your main character down the road of potential tragedy. I tried to explain it in terms of him being stood up by the girl at the cinema; his passion and depression blinds him to the right way to proceed. But also Roth is meant to have this genuine power and a kind of allure, a kind of a glamour that strength and ruthlessness can give you and that's got a strong gravitational pull, which Paul’s got to somehow fight against. You do have ‘The Freaks’, who are meant to be the good guys, but even within the freaks there is Kurt, the horrible one. There’s an old saying in writing that ‘happiness writes white’, so you have to create this kind of darkness so there’s a story at all and that involves the characters making stupid choices. It is nearly always more sensible to walk away in real life.
There is one thing that worried me slightly in that this is an incredibly depressing book. Almost at every stage, you get a bit of hope only to be taken down further and the end is utterly despairing. The book’s last line ‘And so the spirit of Roth is here with me also, and battles my soul. And I don't know who will win.’ There is a question at the end of that sentence, so maybe goodness will win out? But, it was meant to be an utterly bleak and near despairing book, which was a bit unkind of me, I do not know why I did that. Maybe I was in a dark place myself at the time. No, I'm just horrible, that's what it is!
Diego Azpilicueta L5G - Can I ask you about Mrs Eel - is she based on a real person?
AM – Yes! I can tell you her name, she’s called Mrs Ellsworth, a French teacher. When I was at school, it wasn't like now where all the teachers are nice and you get a few who are a little bit stricter. When I was at school, many of the teachers were genuinely terrifying and they controlled us with absolute violence. Mrs Ellsworth, she was different – she was clever, rather attractive, but had this absolute steel inside her and a sense of enjoyment when tormenting kids. The scene with Maddie is absolutely based on Mrs Ellsworth tormenting a rather sweet girl in my class when I was at school. So yes, that was very much based on Mrs Ellsworth!
Ms Wallace – Each chapter ends with the knife coming for the main character, which keeps the tension throughout and then at the end there is the twist. Did you always have that in your mind when writing the book, were you leading the readers there?
AM – I did, but also that kind of broken structure, the knife getting closer is based on some philosophy as my background is as a philosopher. I wanted to put that in there, but actually, the book’s review in The Guardian said that it's a very good book, but it didn't need this regular interruption of the knife - that it actually spoiled the flow of the book. Looking back, I think he may well have been right about that. It was one of those things that I thought was a great idea as an author, to have these interludes, but I think that now, when I reread it, maybe I just should have cut those. It's one of my favourite bits, but also one of the golden rules of writing is ‘kill your darlings’; so the things that you most love are almost always the things in your book that need to go.
You will find as a writer that there will be things that you are really good at; it might be characterization, dialogue or description, but you'll always be inclined to do too much of the thing that you are best at because that is the easiest. And often when you’re reading through it, you’ll see you have done too much of that one thing because you like doing it and not enough or something else. I find that overcomplicated philosophical stuff really easy and I'm inclined to put that in. Whereas what I find really hard is dialogue; as one of you has already mentioned about my artificial and rubbish dialogue - you're right! The other thing that I'm really good at, I reckon I’m probably the best in the world at this, is really over the top rude jokes! The books ‘Hellbent’ and ‘Henry Tumour’ are full of absolutely disgusting, body comedy and that's what I’m brilliant at! ‘The Knife that Killed Me’ is actually the only book I've written without any jokes in it; it's not a funny book. I deliberately pulled back on that over the top physical comedy, which is I think, almost my defining characteristic.
Ms Wallace - Ok, we are about to run out of time, but thank you so much. That was brilliant!
AM - Thank you for reading the book, it was quite something to get through and I'm really impressed. It's really nice to have a chat with a slightly more mature group of young people, so thank you. And thank you to the grownups for helping to organize this as well.