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Author, Melvin Burgess

Melvin Burgess

About Melvin Burgess

An Interview with Melvin Burgess

More About Melvin Burgess

Melvin Burgess has written several novels for children, three of which were shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. He lives in the north of England with his son, a cat, and a tarantula.

copyright © 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

PLACE AND DATE OF BIRTH
London; 1954

FAVOURITE BOOK
The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit

When did you start writing?
Melvin first started to write when he was twelve and an English teacher gave him an 'A' ('I was so pleased I never stopped...'). He left school at eighteen and trained as a journalist, but he hated it. He wrote his first book when he was twenty, and continued to write in his spare time until he became a full-time writer at thirty-five.

Where do you get your ideas?
For Junk, Melvin's publisher suggested he write a book about drugs. However, Melvin also drew from personal experience, as his own brother was a drug addict, as were other people he knew. A lot of the events that take place in the story were true.

When Melvin gets stuck with a story he does something relaxing, like taking a bath or having a doze; walking, he says 'is a bit too energetic for proper imagining, which often happens when I'm at my most lazy. You get good ideas in the bath'.

Can you give any tips to becoming a successful author?
Melvin thinks that books that tackle serious issues, such as Junk, should be entertaining, engrossing, educational and above all, honest.

What are your hobbies?
Melvin has some pets: two gigantic cockroaches, some snails in a jar, and a cat named Panky.

If you hadn't been a writer, what do you think you would have been?
Before he started to write full-time, Melvin had a business marbling fabrics for the fashion industry.

More about Melvin
Melvin was brought up in Sussex and Berkshire. After leaving school, Melvin moved to Bristol where he worked at occasional jobs, mainly in the building industry, and was often unemployed. He wrote his first book when he was twenty and wrote on and off for the next fifteen years before his novel The Cry of the Wolf was accepted for publication in 1990. It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. At about this time Melvin met the author Robert Westall who said to him, 'As the shocker of the seventies, I'd like to say hello to the shocker of the nineties...' Melvin thinks this is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to him about his books.

Melvin Burgess, described by Maureen Owen, writing in The Times, as 'a new and powerful talent', is now regarded as one of the rising stars of contemporary children's literature. His books are never easy; they deal with difficult subjects such as homelessness, hunting, witchcraft and child abuse. His writing is powerful and his characters are drawn with sensitivity and power that makes them leap from the page and into life. Jill Burridge writing of The Baby and Fly Pie in 'Books for Keeps' gives a real sense of his work: 'The tale is compulsive and its wry tone brings flashes of humour and occasional warmth. Gritty and realistic, this novel touches and challenges, and certainly can't be put down.' Three of his novels have been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. In 1997, Junk won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award.

Melvin continues to write challenging novels for young adults as well as extraordinarily imaginative fiction for younger readers.

In an exclusive interview, we uncover the dark world of Melvin Burgess

Why Bloodtide?
When I was a child I had a book called Tales of the Norse Gods and Heroes, which I read and re-read over and over again. One of these tales was the Volsunga saga: Bloodtide is an updating based on the first part of that story. The thing that appealed so much to me about it, and still does, is that despite the way the whole narrative spirals down to a final, crushing finale, the characters live their lives and face their deaths with such ferocity and pride. The Norse people believed that there was no such thing as free will. Everything - your birth, your death, and everything in between - was determined by fate. But how you faced these events was up to you. Nothing could be changed: all you had was yourself - the thoughts, feelings and attitudes with which you faced your inevitable destiny. That's what made you human; that's what made you yourself and it's that attitude which makes the story, and the people in it, so compelling.

Who or what inspired you to write such diverse characters as Melanie Pig and the Halfmen?
I
n the original story, the twelve sons of Volsung are captured by Conor, and chained in the woods to a great fallen tree. Each night, two huge gray wolves come out of the trees and kill and eat one of the brothers. Eleven nights, eleven brothers. There's only one left...

Wolves were creatures of darkness in Norse mythology. It is wolves who are to devour the sun and moon at the end of the world. Another, the Fenris Wolf, one of the sons of Loki, was a monster so strong that he could not be bound with iron, and had to be chained with bonds made only of impossible things.

I didn't want to write about Vikings, I wanted to write about modern people, and so I had to find monsters for today. We're always hearing about genetic engineering. What sort of things will they be able to do with that in another hundred years? Perhaps it will be possible to mix up different creatures - a bit of wasp, a bit of pig, a bit of man, a bit of iron and steel - and breed up monsters in artificial wombs, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Why not? So that is where the halfmen and Melanie Pig came from.

Most of the other characters are based on people from the original saga. The challenge there was to make them work as modern people, reacting to modern events as we might today, and that was very hard. People in heroic sagas don't act as we do today, and their inner life is not the subject of the original poets. The career of someone like Conor is drawn very much from the careers of modern day tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. Siggy is someone who developed along with the story. Perhaps the hardest character to get to terms with was Signy. In the original, written down eight hundred years ago and told perhaps for hundreds of years before that, she is much more passive, but if anything, more strong willed - an amazing combination. Having been married off to Conor, who then slaughters her entire family except her brother Sigmund, she has to remain living with him for decades before Siggy and her incestuous son are able to extract revenge. At the end she comes out of the burning long house to congratulate her son and brother - and then goes back inside to die with her husband. Her life is over. I found it impossible to get her from the young married girl, full of optimism, through all those years of trying to produce a child fit to join her brother in the quest for revenge, to the point where she goes back into the burning house. The reason is that women at that period in history were passive. What else could Signy do but try and provide soldiers for her brother's war, and what other resource did she have but her own womb? I found it impossible to imagine how someone could think and behave like that today. So I had to change her story. I remembered a phrase of Orwell's - "if you wear a mask, your face grows to fit it." So Signy had to become a monster, just like Conor, whom she spent her life pretending to support.

Bloodtide portrays a particularly dark land, is this your vision of the future? If so why?
No, the book is fiction. I made it up.

You seem to put many issues in your books, why is this?
Well, I really hope I don't write "issue" books - I hate all that. It seems to me that some people are writing not about people, but about ethics for purely educational purposes - to get people to think that they ought to be caring, or to come to the right conclusion. On the other hand, what is most interesting of all is people, and people are at their most interesting when they're dealing with things they care about. If you read in the paper about a murder hundreds of miles away of someone you don't know, it's hard to relate to it. But what if the murdered person was your mother, or your brother, or your best friend? What if the murderer was your mother, your brother or your best friend? Then you'd have to understand what was going on for them. The issue might be murder, but you'd be writing about people, trying to bring them to life, and that's what fiction is about - trying to make all of humanity real.

Why do you think this book will appeal to teenagers?
I'm tempted to say, because of all the sex and violence in it. In fact, I think I will...

But that's not really fair. The thing is, the Volsunga saga is such a great story. It must be one of our oldest European tales. It was known to the writer of Beowulf, it exists in a Germanic form, the Neibelungenlied, and it hasn't survived for over a thousand years for no reason. Whether or not I've done it justice I don't know, but if I've managed to capture just a glimpse of the drama and urgency and life in the original, then it's bound to thrill anyone who reads it.

Violence forms the core of Bloodtide, which will undoubtedly attract criticism, how can you justify this?
I don't justify it. If you don't like it, don't read it: don't read it and you'll never known whether the perspective of the book is humane or not. Although I remember the words of the narrator of another, completely unpronounceable saga, who said that you might as well enjoy the entertainment, because while you are, you're not going to think evil thoughts - or do evil deeds, if it comes to that.

Who is your favorite character in Bloodtide? Why?
My favorite is Siggy. He's a reluctant hero. He's been badly damaged by events, and he understands enough to know that this has happened to him, but it doesn't stop him from trying to trust his better instincts. He despises revenge, even though that's what the whole story - his story - is all about. He's very human. He lives in a world where the future is as fixed as the past and he finds that depressing, as you well might. For a long time he refuses to try and change anything, but in the end he joins the war against Conor, not for revenge or to fulfill his destiny - he resists the fight as long as he does partly because the Gods have made it his fate. He does it for the sake of justice, because Conor is a tyrant who must be stopped, and even though events are preordained, he thinks he has to go through life doing what he believes in, and I admire him for that.

Which character would you least like to be stuck in a tower with!
There are plenty of monsters in Bloodtide. The Pig wouldn't make a very good room mate. Conor of course is a tyrant, a madman, and horribly cruel, and I think to spend any time with him would be disgusting and terrifying. But he's a coward, and I think you'd be OK so long as you didn't fall asleep. I find Signy one of the most frightening characters, because she starts out so charming, so full of life and so determined to make things better for everyone, and ends up so narrow and bitter and cruel - just like Conor, whom she spent her life trying to destroy. But I think the worst one is Styr. He has no humanity in him at all. He's like a machine with only two functions - to kill, and to hate.

How much do you research your books?
It varies a great deal. Usually I write about areas that I'm interested in, so I usually already have quite a bit of background knowledge. I sometimes do research after I've written most of the book, when I know what I'm looking for - cheating, really. I often ask for help from people who know about a subject better than I do - I gave Kite to someone who knew an enormous amount about birds, for example; I gave Loving April to someone who taught deaf children, to see if I'd got anything wrong, and if there were any tips they could help me with. Of course, there were. If you're writing about a different period of history, you have to do a fair bit of reading around, but the lying part of writing, the part that's to do with sounding convincing about something, isn't the hardest thing. A few well-placed facts can give the illusion of great expertise, and it's only rarely that you actually need a great deal of expertise to write a story. Of course it's important not to be inaccurate or to make foolish claims, or to be misleading, but nearly all stories are about people. You have to know people and be interested in them, and care for them very much, or you'll never write a convincing word in your life.

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