Luckily I wasn’t very hungry, because Melvin Burgess ate most of the crusty French bread that came with our mushroom soup. And he was extremely generous with the butter, but that will be what slim people can get away with. We met up at the local bookshop over bowls of soup and the fast-moving bread, and pots of tea.
Melvin’s got a black and blue stripy jumper on, with jeans and a black leather jacket. It turns out the jumper is new, from a recent “jeans and tops day” at Kendals. I expressed my surprise at Melvin shopping at Kendals, but it’s good to meet a man who can talk clothes shopping. And I know this, really, but I still get a surprise when I hear his southern accent. When in Manchester you don’t have to speak like a Mancunian.
He has just returned from a week touring the length of the country to talk about his latest book, Sara’s Face, which is out in paperback. The book is about face transplants and features an ambitious and beautiful young girl, Sara, and famous rock star Jonathon Heat. There are many twists and turns with the face in question, and you’re never quite sure where the face will end up. It’s a fairly shocking account of what a teenager will do for fame.
In the book Sara records a video diary, and for the launch Puffin have worked with Melvin and the people on spinebreakers.co.uk to make video logs, with an actress playing Sara. It’s a different and effective way to advertise a novel. I tell him how I had to fight for the book with my daughter, and Melvin says “everyone taking it in turns is quite charming, isn’t it?”
Melvin groans when I mention the title “Godfather of Young Adult fiction”. He’s obviously heard it a few times, though I wonder what kind of godfather it refers to -the religious kind or the mafia variety. It’s “somewhere in the middle I hope”, he says, “a compliment, but a bit of an embarrassment”.
I’ve had a quick look through his books again, before our meeting, to refresh my memory. I tell him that what surprised me, was the feeling that I’d like to re-read them, if only I had the time. It goes to show what a good and, above all, versatile writer Melvin is. I went so far as to list the books chronologically, to see if some sort of pattern would emerge. The Cry of the Wolf was Melvin’s first, and the more recent ones include Doing It and Sara’s Face. But it’s not possible to say that Melvin has gone from traditional children’s fiction about animals and nature and children, to drugs and sex and hard teenagers. The list kind of meanders between the types of stories, and whereas it’d be easy to sterotype Melvin as the streetwise city child, there’s a lot of the nature child in him, as well. “I’m a big wildlife person, really”.
He fidgets quite a bit while we are talking, and his mobile rings from time to time, until we decide to turn both our phones off.
The wolf in Melvin’s book is not as well known – yet – as Jack London’s Buck or Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, but he is just as likeable a character. I thought Melvin may have been influenced by Jack London when he wrote The Cry of the Wolf, but “the ones I really adored were ‘Finn the Wolfhound’ which isn’t so well known”. He says “animal stories in general I’ve always adored”, so it’s hardly surprising that Puffin asked Melvin to write the introduction to The Call of the Wild for their new children’s classics edition.
Kite is another of the more traditional children and animals books. It’s set in the sixties, when Melvin was the same age as the boys in the story, so the period feels genuine. He explains that it had to be set at that point, as it’s when the kite was very nearly extinct, which is the background to the plot. I’d hoped that Melvin would turn out to have all that bird knowledge himself, but he says that he did some research and his son’s “teacher was a big RSPB guy, so I got it all off him”.
When it came to Tiger Tiger Melvin didn’t hesitate to let the tiger kill people. “It’s always the adults who get worried” and not the kids, he says. The setting for Tiger Tiger is around Manchester and in Yorkshire, and the story features a tiger tracking down and killing a wealthy businessman in south Manchester, which just happens to be where I live. Let’s just hope a relatively clear conscience will help guard against prowling, murderous beasts.
Lady: My Life as a Bitch is an animal story with a twist. Considering Melvin’s reputation – sex, bad language and so on – it’s an easy mistake to assume all kinds of things about this book. But Lady really is a bitch, in the dog sense. There’s a fantasy element to the story, in that the main character is a teenage girl who is suddenly transformed into a dog. She belongs to the drunken beggar outside the supermarket, and we’ve all seen them around. I wondered if Melvin had contemplated reversing the transformation, and he had, “but it just didn’t ring true. She was a bitch, wasn’t she?” I still have to look twice, whenever I pass a man and his dog on a pavement somewhere.
There’s sex in Lady and, more surprisingly, there’s sex in Tiger Tiger. Interspecies sex, at that, but somehow it all makes sense by the time you get there.
THE Melvin Burgess book about sex is Doing It, from 2003. Anne Fine, who was Children’s Laureate at the time, blasted it extremely thoroughly in the Guardian, quoting out of context and sounding persuasive, to the extent that I initially sided with her. Thanks to a meeting with Melvin’s friend and colleague Tim Bowler, I had my stance reversed. Tim spoke so eloquently about Doing It, that all us middle-aged women present, went off to read the book.
At home I had an argument with my then 14-year-old son. We could neither of us agree, as to who should read it first, to vet it for the other. When I first met Melvin at a book signing I told him about this, and he really wanted to know who did read it first. Strangely enough I couldn’t recall how it ended. But it’s a sort of surreal feeling to stand around in Borders and talk about sex with a man you’ve only just met.
Doing It has clearly had an impact on other writers. In 2006 my son and I were under the impression we were interviewing Jacqueline Wilson, when she turned the tables and wanted to know if son had read Doing It, and started a long discussion on the subject. “How interesting” is Melvin’s comment when I tell him. “I heard she found it quite a page turner”.
That first copy of Doing It is still languishing on a shelf in the office in the school library, not to be taken out by the students. Melvin reckons this kind of censorship is getting increasingly rare, and many schools have no problem displaying his books on the shelves. We could do with more schools with a backbone, that are willing to stand up to parents complaining about “unsuitable” books. As Melvin puts it, “sex is so much more dangerous than drugs”.
“Shall I be Mummy?” is an incongruous phrase at this point, but it’s Melvin politely offering to pour me some tea.
A few years ago Melvin managed to get himself thrown out of a school that had invited him to come and talk to the pupils. It makes you wonder what they had been expecting – possibly that all authors are bland and stuffy and therefore safe. Who knows? I ask if that’s the only time, and he reckons he’s not “had any new scandals for a while”. Although he goes on to tell me something else, but “you mustn’t put this down”.
Melvin seems to be so into things that teenagers like, that I need reassurance that at home he is as dreadfully un-cool as the rest of us. He is. “I’m afraid so. They’re just embarrassed at my pathetic attempts to be cool”. Phew. Though you can find Melvin on MySpace, which is sort of cool. I think.
The scared and square me finds the title Junk a real disincentive to read the book. Deep inside something says it’s not for me. But of course it is, and possibly more so for the way Melvin wrote this Carnegie winning novel. He knows the Bristol where Junk is set, and remembers it as “squatting and being young and doing drugs and getting drunk”. What makes the book accessible, is using all the characters in turn as narrators. To be able to see something from someone else’s point of view, is what makes you understand them and even like them.
My very first Melvin Burgess book was The Ghost Behind the Wall, which had me quite worried to start with. The main character, a young boy, appears to get away with being mean and unkind to a confused elderly neighbour, which I found outrageous. Should have known there’d be a plan, and that Melvin knew what he was doing. It’s a warm and lovely book.
The Baby and Fly Pie was inspired by some news about things happening in Colombia. Melvin chose to set his book in and around London instead, which makes for a much more shocking story. Where we might feel complacent about horrible happenings far away, it just doesn’t feel the same if it happens in Sidcup. There was a dramatised version of The Baby and Fly Pie at the Royal Exchange in Manchester a couple of years ago, which was very effective. It was one of these productions where the audience is on the set, with the actors acting around them. That, too, makes the horror of the story much more real.
I wondered whether you have to know the Icelandic Volsunga saga to fully appreciate Bloodtide and Bloodsong, and how closely related they are to the original story. Melvin feels he followed the saga in most respects, but a concept like the Half Men he had to invent “out of the need to find monsters”. He had a long gap between the two books to work out a problem, and he wanted to use the original plots as far as possible.
From Iceland to Dickens is a long jump, but Melvin’s next project is to write a modern Oliver Twist, which should prove interesting. “Fagin’s a monster. There are some very dark moments”. When I asked about the time he’s setting it in, it rather sounded like the Middle Ages, but I managed to decipher it to the mid eighties, which is more likely.
The next book to find its way to the shops, next spring, will be Melvin’s teenage memoirs that he’s been working hard on for quite some time now. He’s not sure what the target audience will be, and I’m wondering if it will appeal most to readers his own age, wanting to re-live their youth. He describes it as covering “the difficult, embarrassing years”, though he’s “tried not to make it too horrendous … and I’ve changed the names”. Thinking back to those years has “made me quite anti-school, but not anti-education”, and it’s been his “chance to have a rant as well”.
Before we end our talk I make sure to ask Melvin for a Philip Pullman quote for my son’s collection. “He’s a great story teller, but all that academic stuff is a bit over-rated. Never quite understand why he despises the Narnia books so much when he takes so much inspiration from them. I enjoyed it when he killed God – quite fun”. Well, that will do fine for getting on with.
As we finish Melvin apologises for having to make an urgent phone call. But it’s OK; he wants to check up on a friend to find if it’s good news or bad. That’s nice and caring, and thankfully it’s good news.
And I have to be fair; there is at least one chunk of French bread left.
Melvin and my witch’s broom