We worship the same woman. But other than that, I wanted Anthony McGowan for my next author profile because he’s not only funny, but very very topical. He’s on the Carnegie longlist with the short dyslexia friendly Brock, which is tremendously good news. He – and Brock – also featured on my best 2013 list. It was Anthony’s birthday not too long ago, and he shares it with someone near and dear to me. Definitely a good sign.
And then as I was getting ready to grill him, he went off to Sri Lanka to play cricket! I gather this is an annual tour, where a team of authors travel somewhere exotic to show just how good they are at cricket. (Or is it for the tea breaks?)
How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?
It’s a little complicated… The first book I wrote was called Abandon Hope – a grotesque comedy about a teenage boy who is knocked down by an ice-cream van and goes to hell. I sent it out in the usual way and received nothing but rejections, ranging from the coldly impersonal (“Dear Sir/Madam”) to the appalled (“Please never again submit anything to this agency”). However one agent did finally take me on, largely out of pity, and on condition that I write something ‘saner’ and more commercial. So I wrote a thriller called Stag Hunt. That got a deal with Hodder & Stoughton, and came out in 2004. I then rejigged Abandon Hope, renamed it Hellbent and, as I was now a published author rather than a hopeless outsider, it got snaffled up. So, the book I wrote first, came out second. And vice-versa. Before Abandon Hope/Hellbent, I’d started a few stories and written endless reams of terrible poetry. In fact my first published work was a poem about a pubic louse, that was on a poster on the number 13 bus.
Best place for inspiration?
There’s a small but perfect graveyard surrounding St John’s church in Hampstead. I walk through it most mornings. It really is the most beautiful and atmospheric place, with ancient trees and crumbling gravestones. And a comfortable bench where you can look out across London, drinking Thunderbird tramp wine at nine in the morning, weeping over your failures and humiliations.
Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?
I’m afraid my non-disclosure agreement prevents me from, er, disclosing that.
What would you never write about?
Although I’ve written several YA books, I’ve tended to shy away from explicit depictions of adolescent sexuality. It just doesn’t seem quite right… And yet this is clearly an important area. My way of dealing with it is to have main characters who are shy and embarrassed about sex, as I was. As I am.
Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?
I’ve met many interesting, bizarre, half-crazed and deluded writers at various events, parties and awards. And even more mundane, tedious, humdrum ones. Writers, it turns out, are like everyone else, in terms of being like nobody else. Mal Peet’s a genius, though, and great fun in the pub. As is Andy Stanton. And Meg Rosoff is a goddess. But for sheer strangeness, nothing quite beats the lady in Gregg’s in Motherwell, where I was staying for a book award ceremony. I went in and asked for my usual Cheese and onion slice. She clearly was having some difficulty speaking – her full set of dentures seemed to have been stuck together with chewing gum – so she slipped them out of her mouth, popped them in her pocket, and carried on serving me. Top marks for imperturbability and savoir-fair.
Which of your characters would you most like to be?
Most of my characters have a pretty torrid time, subjected to multiple humiliations and catastrophes. But there’s a lot of me in Connor O’Neil, the main character in Hellbent, and Hector Brunty from Henry Tumour.
Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?
Well, it’s happened – The Knife That Killed Me has been filmed and will come out sometime later this year. Good or bad thing? I can’t imagine how it could be anything other than good.
What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?
How do you titillate an ocelot?
Do you have any unexpected skills?
Not really. I do a vast number of things barely adequately. I’m not bad at cricket. I have a party piece that involves juggling live babies, but it’s hard to find volunteers.
The Famous Five or Narnia?
I didn’t read either, as a kid (I was a huge Tolkien fan). As an adult I find both uninteresting. I quite like Mallory Towers, however.
Who is your most favourite Swede?
That would have to be the poet Tomas Tranströmer. Sorry…
How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?
Broadly by subject, then using a range of aesthetic criteria, with an element of randomness. I’m neater with my books than any other aspect of my life, but I’m still, basically, a slob.
Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?
Of mine? The Bare Bum Gang and the Football Face-Off. More generally, it truly pains me to say that the Wimpy Kid books are terrific for reluctant readers.
If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?
Reading, easily. I can imagine a life without writing – it has a certain appeal appeal, in fact. But I’d give up almost anything before I’d stop reading.
I’ll look out for some volunteer babies. It must be possible to find them somewhere. And if you’ve never read anything by Anthony, I trust that this profile will have you rushing off to the nearest library. In your pyjamas, if necessary. But not, perhaps, on the number 13 bus.