Needle-sharp tales for teens

Interview: The controversial winner of the Carnegie Medal for children' s fiction explores the dark side of growing up. Ann Treneman meets the author of a beautifully written story of the glamour and waste of the drug culture
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The Independent Online
Melvin Burgess probably doesn't mean to look scary, but he does. Perhaps it is the missing front tooth. Never mind that he knocked it out with a hammer while on a DIY mission, it still looks frightening. Or perhaps it is the short and haphazard haircut. "I suppose it does make me look a bit of a convict," he says.

Or perhaps it is because he is the author of Junk, a book about a couple of 14-year-olds named Gemma and Tar who run away from home and get hooked on the glamour of drugs just a moment before they get hooked on heroin for real. Yesterday this book won the Library Association's Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious prize in children's literature, but the fact that it is beautifully written does not make the profoundly depressing tale any easier to read.

The book uses nine characters to chart Gemma and Tar's downward spiral, but Melvin says none of them is him. Yes, he lived in inner-city Bristol for eight years in the Eighties and he knew the scene well. There were a lot of drugs, unemployment and interesting people milling around. "A lot of crime and a lot of ideals as well, lots of left-wing politics." His brother was a junkie and died a junkie (though of Hodgkin's disease) a few years ago. But Melvin was not.

"I managed to steer clear of needles and highly addictive substances," he says. "I was an observer. Journalists are observers but so are novelists. You try to arrive at the truth by telling a pack of lies if you are writing fiction, as opposed to trying to arrive at a pack of lies by telling the truth if you are a journalist." He laughs at this with real delight.

At one point, Melvin did a bit of journalism himself but hated it. That was right after his schooling, which he wasn't too keen on either. "You see the thing is I failed my 11-plus and so I went to a secondary modern. I can remember one hideous old bag of a harridan who set us a story. I did it in the form of a diary and she was furious because I hadn't done as I was told. I remember her saying to me: `You have to learn to walk before you can run.' So I didn't do any more stories for that old bag."

He pauses for a moment in what is obviously a roll. "I have excised her name from my memory. They weren't all ratbags but some of them were the most horrendous bitches and bastards. I can remember teachers in those days at secondary moderns who really wanted their entrails pulling out through their navels."

His upbringing may have been middle-class and Home Counties, but for years after he gave up on journalism he was a spare-time writer who was often unemployed or doing jobs such as bricklaying or bus conducting. At 35 he moved north and started writing full-time. Eight years later he is still making a living at it - just - from his terraced house in the village of Earby, near Skipton, Yorkshire.

He is separated and lives there with his son Oliver, eight, and his daughter Pearl, six, who visits regularly from her mother's home in Germany. Pets include two gigantic cockroaches and a large jar of snails. There is also a cat named Panky. There used to be one named Hanky but he has moved next door. All of this was in aid of being able to go out of the back door and shout: "Hanky-Panky! Hanky-Panky!"

The practical and the magical live side-by-side in this house. There is a large, custom-built Wendy House in his front room, for instance, and the fireplace is dwarfed by a giant kite. But the kitchen is geared to real-life cooking and as a single father he knows what that means. His writing also can be surreal, though his approach is anything but. "When I decided to see if I could do this full-time, I decided to do short stories, radio plays and children's fiction." He sold all three but his children's fiction got the best response, so he went to the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook and started contacting publishers. He never got past the "A"s because there he found Andersen Press and its director, Klaus Flugge.

"With Klaus I don't need an agent. He's a good publisher, he looks after you. He makes sure you get your money early at Christmas. You can walk in with a manuscript and out with a cheque. Why give 20 per cent to an agent? Sod them."

His first book, The Cry of the Wolf, was shortlisted for the Carnegie and he was off. Nature seems a favourite - tigers and red kites both have books - but he has also roamed from the eerie world of a rubbish tip city to the rubble of the Second World War. His best books all have a dark edge. "Grown-ups are terribly nostalgic about childhood," he said. "But it's not necessarily a happy time, is it?" He knows he has a talent for writing about the dark side of life. "I do like the internal intensity," he said.

It was Klaus who suggested he might want to tackle the subject of drugs. "His son was around the age when he might start experimenting and he wanted to give him a book, but there weren't any on the subject. Particularly there was nothing about the culture which is so exciting - the drugs, the glamour, the music."

The research was already done, of course, and so he decided to do the book. "I knew it all already, but some of the bits, particularly those to do with my brother, were upsetting. It's terribly upsetting watching somebody who is addicted. It has a totally distinctive effect on the personality and how they operate. I would be very interested to know how the very rich behave, but its effect on your average poor Joe is quite devastating. They become astonishingly devious and self-deceiving. You cannot leave your credit cards or a handbag lying around as they just disappear. Even if they love you."

Since it was shortlisted for the Carnegie, Junk has had its share of shock-horror headlines but Melvin believes that no one really objects to the book - though the media are determined to find someone, anyone, who does. It is true that the most quoted critic - Nick Seaton, from a parents' lobbying group - had not read the book and objected mainly to it being on the shortlist. Burgess dismisses the whole farrago: "It is just nonsense that anyone should object to any child who is 14 or 15 reading something like this."

But when one or two paragraphs are quoted out of context, then it is his turn to object. Like the time a radio interviewer read out a passage where the beautiful but hopelessly hooked Lilly injects into the veins between her breasts while feeding her baby. "As far as the heroin side of it is concerned, it is based on things that people I knew very well did. All the shocking bits are true. The Lilly character is based on a real person who still has bruises up and down her beautiful long legs and who did inject while breastfeeding," he says. "But I really didn't think people would say how dare he write about people injecting their milky tits with heroin. I thought it would be how dare he acknowledge that drugs are fun and that drugs are glamorous."

Perhaps one reason for the headlines is that teenage fiction itself is a fairly new world. Even bookshops are confused: some place Junk with adult fiction, others in the children's section. But part of the book's danger comes from its 14-year-old narrators. "Chasing the dragon ... yeah," says Gemma. "It's like Chinese magic. That smoke, that's your Chinese dragon and when you breathe that dragon in and he coils about in your veins, like Lilly said, you feel better than anyone else ever did. You feel better than Churchill after he won the war, you feel better than the caveman when he discovered fire, you feel like Romeo did when he finally got to bed with Juliet."

Then there is Tar, who traded his parents' alcohol-sozzled world for his own drugged one. Here is how he reacts to finding Alan and Helen, two of his friends, dead with needles sticking out of their arms. "They looked just like themselves but they weren't moving. Alan was still gorgeous. She'd gone a bit thin lately, which didn't suit her. So had he but it made him look even nicer if anything. I wanted to kiss her on the cheek because I knew she couldn't wake up."

You could not write this kind of stuff for an 11- or 12-year-old but you can for a 15-year-old. "The funny thing is that the actual glamour of realism isn't really realism. It's a sort of glamour embedded in life. The whole thing about heroin, for example, is that being dead can be seen as really quite glamorous. You know the whole thing of too fast to live, too young to die. Now there's heroin chic, sick, skinny, pale girls with bags under their eyes. And they even have them sort of fashionably huddled up in corners of concrete urinals. The only thing they don't show is the pool of vomit they would have next to them in real life."

Junk is rather good at pools of vomit. "Of the central people that I based Junk on, one is dead, one I've lost touch with, two still have a problem and one is still on methadone," he says. "It is dangerous stuff. There are a lot more fun things to do. If people are going to take drugs - and a lot of them are - then they should be encouraged not to take this one in particular."

The real challenge in terms of druggie novels, he says, would be to write one about the not-so-dangerous kinds that hundreds of thousands of people take every weekend with no dreadful consequences. For the moment, though, he has other things on his mind. One is a "knobbly boys' book about sexuality", and another is a tale of loneliness and kids who live in ventilation shafts.

Does he ever yearn to write a book about smiling people and happy endings? "No, not really. I quite like to do funny books though my funny books are quite nasty as well, come to think of it." He laughs, his gap tooth flashing merrily away.

`Junk' by Melvin Burgess (Andersen Press, pounds 12.99).

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