Anthony McGowan – ‘I have more cricket in me’

I always think back to my second meeting with Anthony McGowan with a degree of pleasure. Because he remembered me from our first meeting – the memorial service for Siobhan Dowd – and he didn’t have to. It’s been a few years now, and this time he has his work cut out as I’ve changed hairstyle in order to confuse him. From my lack of a bob, we move on to his three grey hairs. (He has more hairs than three, I hasten to add. But three of them are grey. Apparently.)
We also move to a different room in the Hampstead pub, which is much quieter than where I originally sat down, although there’s a slight drip, drip coming from the skylight above me. Tony goes off to get a beer, while I continue to nurse my Coke. We talk about the weather. Tony looks at me fiddling with my recorder and with the camera and asks if I’m filming him.

Anthony McGowan's beer

‘No no, this is your voice and this is just a photograph of you drinking a glass of beer.’
’Which is not particularly rare, me drinking beer.’ He laughs.
‘About writing Pike; how was it possible going back to where you left Brock and start again?’
‘Well, I wanted to write a sequel, partly because I loved the characters, and because I got such positive feedback from readers, that I wanted to write another one. Also, the the psycho-geography is quite important to me, because it’s based very closely on the small town where I was brought up, just outside Leeds. Everyone in town would completely recognise it. And I’d done all the work in mapping it out, so it seemed sensible to go back to it because the terrain was already there. The characters and place where already there and I felt like they’d not been exhausted yet.’
‘My thought was that things ended so nicely in Brock, and I wondered how you were able to return to stir those boys up again.’
‘When I wrote Brock I’d no mind for a sequel to it, so it was only later I saw what the potential was.’
‘Was it you who wanted it or Barrington Stoke?’
’It was completely me. They wanted another book, and I said “do you fancy a sequel to Brock?”’
‘Could you write even more books?’
‘More about the same characters? I’m not so sure. I knew I could write a second, but I’m not sure what a third book would be about.’
‘There is the mother issue.’
‘Yeah, the father’s already got a nice partner. I felt a bit guilty about the mother. It seemed she was getting all the blame in the first book, partly because of the perspective of the kids. You would blame the one who wasn’t there. I wanted a bit more context, to make her less of a hate figure, slightly explain what happened to her.’
‘What’s wrong with Kenny?’
‘He’s got non-specific learning difficulties.’
‘When you started writing, was that when you had a small boy of your own?’
‘You mean when I absolutely first started hammering at that keyboard? My early publication history is quite complicated. Even I can’t remember it now. I wrote Hellbent, when I was working in the civil service, sent it off, got universally rejected. Not even personalised rejections. My wife was a fashion designer, and had an idea for a story and I helped her write her story. And she immediately got an agent, and on the basis of a couple of chapters, a book deal with HarperCollins.’
‘That’s so unfair.’ I laugh.
‘Yeah, horribly unfair. Then her agent, out of pity, took me on, and tried to sell Hellbent, and got more favourable rejections, but still rejections; “this is too mad, not like anything else.” So she asked “why don’t you write something more conventional?” I wrote an adult novel called Stag Hunt, which was published, got snapped up again based on a few chapters. Then, rather than being a complete loser, I had a book deal, and someone did want to publish Hellbent. That was around 2002, and I had a little boy at that stage.’
‘But you clearly didn’t write Hellbent for him.’
‘When I wrote it, I’d heard of YA, but I thought that was young adults as in people in their twenties…’
’Yes.’
‘… but it was teenagers
‘Well, it’s not obvious, is it? I was wondering if you were writing for yourself, or had someone you were wanting to find books for, but that’s not it?’
‘No, not at all, I was writing for myself really. The first draft was much more adult than YA. Hellbent is still quite stretching, a challenging text. I did slightly teenage-ise it.’
‘What about some of your other ones, like the Donut Diaries?’

Anthony McGowan

‘The first non-YA books I wrote were the Bare Bum Gang books, for ages seven to nine. Those I did write with my son in mind, based on things he’d talk about.’
‘Does he read them?’
‘He did at the time. I think he read all the ones that were appropriate for him. My daughter is a little trickier, she’s got very definite taste about what books she likes.’
‘Do you write boyish books because you are a boy, or because you think that boys need books more?’
‘There certainly wasn’t an ideology behind it, but I do think that boys need to be induced to read. I think it’s more that I’m a first person narrator, based on a version of me, so it’s that reason why they’re literally a boy’s voice. I drew on male experiences. A lot of my best friends are women,’ he laughs, ‘I’m married to one and so I think I understand women. And men, because I am one of them. I understand boys at different stages in life, because I was one, but I’ve no idea what a teenage girl is like.’
I laugh. ‘You’ll just have to wait.’
‘My daughter is twelve, but I can’t even occupy that mental space. That’s why I can’t come up with a main female character.’
‘The girl in Hello Darkness is rather unusual.’
‘She’s a figment of his imagination, she’s definitely not a real person.’
’By the end you are left wondering if anything was real.’
‘Yeah, you are, aren’t you?’ Tony laughs, sounding satisfied.
’It doesn’t actually matter, because it was such fun to read.’
‘Oh, thank you. I think if I was asked for my interpretation – as a reader – it would be, there were scraps of reality in there, which in his psychotic mind is formed into his own narrative. So the gangs were there, the bullies were prefects, the teachers existed, but he reformulated it and made his noir plot for himself. His bookshelves were the key to everything that happened. The talking cat came from Murakami, a lot of it was based on The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. There was Chandler. He was reading these books and turning the key events of his own life into a noir-based story.’
‘Have you read Cathy MacPhail’s latest book?’
‘No, is it Barrington Stoke as well?’
‘No, this is a normal one for from Floris. It’s what goes on in the mind of a weird boy. I was thinking it was a bit similar.’
’It was actually Cathy who got me into Barrington Stoke, years and years ago, at a book award up in Scotland. She said “you should write for them.” It’s just a really lovely company to work for. There are a lot of struggling child readers. Short chapters gives you such a satisfaction that you have got through a chapter.’
‘Yes, I remember when I first read a book without pictures in, you know.’
He laughs. ‘What was it?’
‘Five on Treasure Island.’
’In Swedish?’
‘Yes. It’s good actually, because you don’t get much of the underlying class aspects. Except they eat a lot.’
Tony laughs. ‘That’s a function of British books in the forties, the rationing. The classic is Brideshead Revisited which is all about food, because Evelyn Waugh… Have you heard the story of Evelyn Waugh and the bananas?’
‘No.’
‘Just after the war, when the first shipment of bananas came to England, the Waugh family got this bunch of them, I think five bananas, and the children had to sit around the table, and watch Evelyn eat every single one.’

Anthony McGowan

With those bananas in mind, I ask Tony about his favourite genre.
‘What I’m most comfortable with, is slightly surreal, scatological comedies, to which Hellbent and Henry Tumour belong, and to some extent Hello Darkness.’ He catches me looking up at the skylight. ‘You’re getting dripped?’
‘Just checking.’
‘That body comedy element, which goes back to my influences, like Anthony Burgess, or Rabelais, with a combination of the high and the low, which is what really appeals to me. It’s not really a genre, so it’s pretty wide. It’s not an easily categorisable box. It’s a comedy of the body, which I think is fantastically democratic. The things that unite us are absurdity and our grotesqueness. It’s what makes us human.’
‘You didn’t list The Knife that Killed Me.’
‘No, you see that’s completely off my graph.’
‘I found it depressing.’
‘Well, it’s dark and grim and relentless, and the trajectory is down, and it starts quite low. It was a suggestion from my agent, Philippa Milnes-Smith. She said “have you thought about writing a book about knife crime?” So it has a different origin to my other books, and it’s a dark thriller without any jokes in it, and I never thought I’d write one of those.’
‘Yes, I gave up in the end. I read it soon after Henry Tumour and it was so very different.’
’It’s got a kind of structural complexity which actually undermines you, as it were. That’s why I go back to the knife approaching, a kind of artificial cleverness, which I think links it to my other books, which makes it worse than what it is.’
‘Can you please explain these cricket trips to me?’
‘Hahaha, do you really want to know?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘What it’s all about, or..?’
‘Everything, because it just sounds so strange that you’ve got a group of authors going off to far flung places, which must be so expensive, playing cricket…’
‘Yeah, yeah.’
‘How? Why?’
‘There was an authors’ cricket team early in the 20th century, lots of quite well known people, like Arthur Conan Doyle, J M Barrie, and other people. The moving force [now] was literary agent Charlie Campbell, and novelist Nicholas Hogg. They asked, “how can we get more cricket into our lives?” and they came up with the idea of re-forming an author team. The key stage was writing a book about our first season, so we each wrote a chapter describing our game and a wider theme. The first whole season was based around the book. We just got on, we all loved it, and it became the most important thing in our lives. Then we carried on as a team and the tours began to happen,’ Tony sounds a lot more passionate now. ‘Charlie had a connection with India, and we went out there. We were subsidised, but it was still quite expensive.’
‘Yes.’
‘I’m one of the older players in the team, but we all felt we weren’t fulfilled as sportsmen,’ he laughs at himself, ‘and that we all had more cricket in us. Also, there’s two things about cricket,’ he sounds much livelier, ‘from my point of view; the first is that it’s so completely all-consuming that the rest of the world disappears. Your mortgage, your relationships, your children, your job, don’t matter. What matters is this ball game, the camaraderie of the team. It’s so hugely energising and fun, we play all day, we get drunk all night, make outrageous jokes, it’s the best thing in my life.’
‘Who do you play?’
‘Other teams a bit like us. We’ve played a team of actors, played Private Eye and the BBC. Whenever we play against a really good team we get massacred, whenever we go abroad we get massacred almost every game. In England you find people still playing cricket who aren’t very good at it, whereas in the rest of the world if you’re not very good at it you just don’t do it.’

Anthony McGowan

‘So you go to India to lose.’
‘Yees, we go to India to play, and losing is part of that. This is sounding slightly dull…’
‘No, not at all.’ I laugh. ’It’s just I’ve noticed over the years how you say “well I’m off to do this” and I wondered how and why and so on.’
‘The Rome trip a couple of weeks ago, someone has lots of contacts in the Vatican, in the Roman aristocracy, so again we had experiences you couldn’t buy. It’s a holiday you couldn’t replicate. It’s just the connections of the team, and particularly surreal and strange to me as a working class northern kid, suddenly hobnobbing with Roman aristocrats.’
‘Yes.’
‘And indeed the Pope.’
‘You hobnobbed with the Pope…’
‘Only two of us were allowed to meet the Pope, not including me, I’m afraid, but the rest of us were very close and it was very moving.’
‘I didn’t know they play cricket in the Vatican.’
‘They recently formed a Vatican cricket team, mainly of Indian and Sri Lankan and Pakistani training priests. We also played the club of Rome, and they were mainly Italians and they were quite good.’
‘I’m trying to get my head round them playing rugby, let alone cricket…’
‘What do Swedes play? Tennis? Football?’
‘Ice hockey.’ We laugh. ‘I was at an event last night where there was a very good question…’
‘Was this Danny Hahn’s interview?’
‘Yes, someone in the audience said that Philip Pullman’s Amber Spyglass had had a dramatic effect on her when she was younger, and she wondered if they [Pullman, and Penelope Lively] had read any books like that. What about you?’
‘The first one was the Lord of the Rings which a teacher gave me when I was eight or nine, so way too young and I hadn’t read any kids’ books. I didn’t know what a novel was. I didn’t even read the Famous Five.’
‘OK.’
‘This teacher, Miss Mahoney, gave me this huge book, and I didn’t know what to do with it, and it took me three years to read, but by the end of that three years I was a different sort of person. You know, I was someone who read novels. For the next four years, it was a Forth Bridge kind of cycle, always going back to the beginning. That was the first that totally hooked me, but I didn’t really read many children’s books.’
‘Was it a library book?’
‘Miss Mahoney gave me her lovely paperback copy, and I sort of wrecked it so much that then I moved to the library copy, and then my parents got me my own when I was 13. There’s not a millimetre of the front cover that’s not creased and wrinkled and bashed. That book has been loved.’
‘Did your family not read much?’
‘They did. My mum and my dad both read quite a lot, but there weren’t many books in the house. They would go and get library books, and there were encyclopaedias. Both were busy, you know, the house was full of stories. You know, working class intellectuals. I was always reading fact books. I had my huge collection of nature books, so they didn’t worry about me not reading.’
‘Stealing another question from last night; do you think that there is a future for the book?’
‘The book as an object? Or stories?’
‘Both.’
‘From what I see of sales figures, books are doing fine. For the past five years the publishing industry is supposed to have been in some sort of crisis, but there are still more books sold now than there were twenty years ago, loads more, so there are plenty of books being bought and being published. I think in the next five or ten years it will be ebooks. I don’t need more books. If I want to read a Stephen King or something, I’d always rather have it on my Kindle, than the actual book. I’m sanguine about the future of the book.’
‘What does a book need to have for you to want it as an actual paper book?’
‘Hmm, I love the book as an object, the feel in the hand, the cover, the paper, the idea that you might go back to it at some stage, so not fiction. I’d always have that as an ebook. For history books where you need the maps… My main way now to consume books, strangely, is audiobooks. There is a lot of time when I can’t do anything else, waiting for a bus or cycling round London, I listen to audiobooks.’
‘No time wasted. So, does all this make you rich?’
‘Am I rich, you say?’
‘Yes.’
He laughs out loud. ‘Well, I make more from the books than I did from any alternative profession in the past 15 years. My first few books got very good advances, embarrassing amounts of advances, and now I get the living wage …’ Tony laughs again. ‘So I had a couple of years when I felt quite rich, now my needs, and my income are roughly in line.’
‘Do you find doing events helps with sales?’
’It does. If you do a good event you might sell fifty copies or a hundred, or two hundred, and also you get paid for the events. But I don’t think you can launch a bestseller off the back of doing events. They just help keep you afloat.’
‘How many do you do?’
’It comes in spurts and spasms. I probably do three a month, not very many.’
‘You went to Brazil, recently. Have you done other long distance book tours?’
‘I went to Vienna with Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, which was fantastic.’
‘Oh yeah, I vaguely remember reading about that.’ We laugh.
’It’s quite nice going away with other authors and escaping the family for a few days, and getting wrecked in Vienna.’

Anthony McGowan

‘What would your alternative job be, if any?’
‘I was a bit stuck being a civil servant. My life plan was always teaching Philosophy in some red brick university, and then write a literary novel every decade. I never got a job in a university, until recently. You know, it’s not inconceivable I might be a teacher. It’s an amazing thing to do, it’s hard and draining but…’
‘What are the writing courses that you do like?’
‘I do two different strands; I teach at the Faber Academy, which I find fantastically rewarding. People are interesting, really committed, they’ve paid a lot of money to do the course so they are investing in it. And they’re often really interesting as people. They are grown-ups, and then we go to the pub after. I also teach at Royal Holloway College, teaching undergraduates, and that’s slightly different. Because they are basically kids, they haven’t got the complex life histories, there’s a bigger gulf between us, they are focussed on getting their degree, so they’re not committed to it in the same way.’
’It’s just another module to them.’
‘Hardly anyone on the course wants to be a children’s writer. They took this course to do the course, and yet they are all clever kids.’
‘Your other students, do you reckon they will publish books?’
‘A few of them have. I’ve got quite a good strike record. Three people have got book deals and at least another five have got agents. I do think the walls around publishing are a little lower in children’s publishing, because there is a huge demand for more books. Children read more books. Kids might get through seven books a week, so there is a demand.’
‘Are you writing anything at the moment?’
‘Yes, I am. I’ve almost finished a book I’m writing with Jo Nadin. Do you know Jo?’
‘Oh yes.’
‘Harking back to me not being so good at writing about teenage girls, Jo’s writing the girls.’
‘How did you come up with the idea?’
‘Well, I had the idea, and felt I needed another person with me. It’s a sort of warped love story, combined with a pastiche of the cancer death-lit books.’ Tony hesitates, ‘you’re not looking impressed…’
‘Just thinking, sorry.’
’It’s in bad taste and… Jo is a really good writer, so her sections are not in bad taste at all. Mine are gross.’
‘How long have you been working on it?’
‘It’s taken far longer than it should do, we’re into our third year, mainly because I’m so slow. I’ll send Jo my chapter and she’ll come back in a week, and I take four months.’

Anthony McGowan

‘But you’ve been writing other things as well. What about your Willard Price books?’
‘I think that’s done now. I wrote four of them, and they did OK, but didn’t set the world on fire.’
‘Maybe the world has moved on from Willard Price.’
‘I think the problem was, he wasn’t a big enough name on his own to add momentum, and I wasn’t a big enough name on my own. They are good adventure stories, but didn’t have that wind in their sails. I’m proud of them. I don’t see how I could have done better, there were a lot of other books I wish I’d had another draft of, but but these were as good as they could be.’
‘Were they in the style of Willard Price?’
‘The characters of the original books are in there, but the main characters are their children, the next generation. The originals are fantastically dated. In the very first one there’s two boys who go out into the world collecting animals they send back to their father, who sells them to zoos. They get a baby tapir, but the problem with the baby tapir is the mother. They don’t want the mother, they shoot her,’ Tony almost whispers. ‘The stuff they kill in those books… They become much more environmentally enlightened later on.’
‘Are you just working on the book with Jo, or have you got anything else?’
‘Well, I still chase the big block-bustery, mildly dystopian, horror sci-fi Anthony McGowan book. I can’t tell you the story now; it’s already got film and TV interest, and everyone tells me they are instantly in love with it. The great thing with my agent is that Philippa was a senior person at Puffin. It’s a world she knows well, so she knows what works. So if I can pull it off, it should be a really commercial project, and would be fun to write, a sort of Stephen King.’
‘Sounds interesting. I’ve got your DVD, but I haven’t watched it yet.’
‘The Knife that Killed Me?’
‘Yes, I ran out of time.’
He laughs. ‘If you were struggling with the book you’ll struggle with the film as well.’
‘I thought it might be easier to take in the movie than to read the book.’
’It looks astonishing. It’s a great piece of work.’
‘What do people say about it?’
’That it’s a fantastic achievement, it’s hugely visually arresting. Technologically it’s breaking new ground. If it has a problem, it’s that it’s not entirely clear who it’s for, because it’s essentially an art house film, about teenagers, so it’s probably too arty for some teenagers and probably too teenagery for the art house crowd. I think it’s a really important piece of work and it deserves a wider audience.’
‘How can they get something like that out into the world, seeing how difficult it was to find screenings of it?’
‘Downloading.’
’Yes, I hadn’t thought of that as a way.’
‘I really hope they get it into schools to be shown.’
Since I’ve got all the background to the cricket, and even to Tony’s writing, I switch to fan mode and get copies of his books out to be signed.
He laughs, ‘I’d better get another drink, then. I’ve got a New Year’s resolution; I’m not going to groan whenever I stand up or sit down.’
‘That can be hard to stop,’ I say, as someone who also groans.
Once the books have been signed and Tony’s second beer drunk, he goes to take his shirt off, and then we walk out into the rain, down the hill, to the book launch we are both attending. He’s good at giving downhill support to elderly witches, and I try not to groan. Tony’s is a good New Year’s resolution. And I pray I won’t have to do to this interview what he did with his long ago interview with Anthony Burgess…

Caroline Green, Rachel Ward, Joy Court and Anthony McGowan at the Read Me Like a Book launch

One response to “Anthony McGowan – ‘I have more cricket in me’

  1. Pingback: Hobnobbing with the Pope | Bookwitch

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