A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I recently reviewed the fantastic Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray which you can find HERE. Never being one to shirk my responsibility to bring you as much detail as I possibly can about the books I love, I asked Keith if he would have a wee chat with me. He said yes. So here it is…
What draws you to writing for teenagers?
I was labelled a reluctant reader when I was at primary school, didn’t really get into books until I was about 12 or 13 and at secondary school. I missed out on a lot of the usual Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl stuff and jumped straight into teenage fiction. The book that really did it for me was The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. Now what I’m trying to do is snare readers who are a bit like I was then. I completely believe it’s possible to write accessible, entertaining fiction that’s also non-patronising and thought-provoking. I’m trying to write books like The Machine Gunners that can hook-in reluctant readers. And keep them reading.
Ostrich Boys deals with the incredibly serious subject of suicide. Why did you choose this subject? And is there anything you hope your readers will learn from the book?
I’ve been wanting to write about suicide for a few years now – just never quite managed to find the right story to carry the issue. Ostrich Boys is actually my third attempt at writing about it – two previous novels tackling the subject were dumped (my choice). It was only when I co-incidentally re-watched one of my all-time favourite film, Stand By Me (80’s movie based on a Stephen King short story with a young Kiefer Sutherland and even younger River Phoenix) that I hit on my story – or perhaps stole it… But in the movie four teenage best friends go on a journey to see the corpse of a dead boy, while in my book the three friends take the dead boy with them.
But suicide is such an important issue, and an issue that touches so many people. Just looking at the stats from up here in Scotland is shocking: Two suicides a day; two out of three of those are male; it’s the leading killer of young men between the ages of 16 and 35. I’m amazed more people aren’t writing about it.
On a personal note, I attempted suicide when I was 18. Ostrich Boys isn’t about me, it’s not particularly autobiographical, but my own experiences have obviously added a lot to the book. I’m 36 now, which is 18 + 18 – I’m two times as old. It’s complete coincidence that Ostrich Boys is published this year, but it’s this year more than any other that has got me thinking about how I was feeling back then: what’s changed in the last 18 years, who I would have left behind, what I would have missed out on? I think Ostrich Boys approaches the subject of suicide with these questions in mind.
The issues in Ostrich Boys are quite dark and yet the book is full of humour. Was this important to you?
It’s all about pulling the reader in. I didn’t want to write an overpoweringly bleak book about suicide. I knew Ostrich Boys had to be realistic, sensitive, and above all honest. I also knew I wanted my target audience to read it. No way would the reluctant teenage boys I’m aiming at really want to read a dirge-like novel with a preachy moral branded into the end pages. And I realise writing a light book about suicide could strike people as insensitive or disrespectful, just please go read it before you judge.
But what a great way to juxtapose the tragedy and waste of suicide. Make the reader laugh for the first 300 pages… Then kick ‘em in the guts!
And again, from a completely personal point of view: this book took me three years to write. Who wants to get up every day and face yet another miserable chapter? Being able to sit at my desk and giggle at my own jokes certainly helped make the writing process that bit more enjoyable.
You manage brilliantly to show the boys talking all the way through the book without actually really “talking” (if you catch my drift). Is this based on your own experiences? And do you have any answers to this problem boys seem to have with not talking about their problems?
Boys do talk. But it’s usually about computers, football and breasts. What boys are notoriously rubbish at talking about is how they feel (unless it’s feelings about computers, football and breasts). It didn’t used to be a problem – you’ve got to admit, it’s a bit of a new-fangled idea this “boy’s talking” malarkey. I’m sure my dad running wild in the back streets of Grimsby was to sit down and open-up, to talk about his emotions. And certainly not my granddad either, who was working on the trawlers out of Grimsby docks by the age of 14.
I believe these are precarious years of adjustment for young men, because plenty seem to be struggling to figure out exactly what being a “man” entails these days. The iconic male is so different to what he used to be. No more Jimmy Stewarts, John Waynes or Clint Eastwoods. But where was the fun in acting so repressed? Then again, do we really all want to be metro-sexual Beckhams? Do we really want to be grubby, druggy Pete Dohertys? Maybe we’ll retreat into ourselves and live vicarious lives inside our computers. Maybe we’ll simply drink, shag and carry knives – that’s gonna prove how manly we are…
I don’t know the answer. But do boys need to talk?
In this day and age, perhaps, yes.
The story visits so many locations from Cleethorpes all the way to Ross. The boys have an incredibly convoluted journey because of all their mishaps. Did you do the journey yourself as research? Is the paint in Carlisle Station really gangrene coloured?
I’ve been to all the places the boys visit in Ostrich Boys, but not in one big journey. I was born in Cleethorpes, grew up and went to school there, so obviously know it very well. I know the east coast rail route well too and spend a lot of time on trains travelling to visit various schools around the country to talk about books and reading and writing. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with trains (which possibly shows through in Ostrich Boys). When I was 22 I had an extremely raucous weekend in Blackpool. Extremely raucous. Carlisle station has been a stopping-off point in several of my train journeys and I guess I should apologise for being quite so disrespectful of its decor (even though everything I wrote is true). I suppose the only proper bit of research I did was visiting the tiny speck on the map that is Ross Bay in Dumfries and Galloway. I’m really glad I did too.
Usually I avoid any kind of research because I find it dull and nowhere near as exciting or fulfilling as making it up as I go along. Also, I never plan my books. I like to surprise myself along the way. And I’ve rarely got a clue how a book is going to finish until I actually get there. But when I went to Ross for the first time, walked over the headland and saw the sea and the lighthouse, the whole ending of Ostrich Boys kind of fell into place. It’s become a special part of the world for me.
The Age-Banding question just isn’t going away and I see you have a TEEN sign on the back of Ostrich Boys. I do think this is probably a teen book but there’s nothing in there very offensive or particularly gruesome to put off younger kids who want to have a go. How do you feel about your label?
I’ve done a few interviews about this already – with the Scotsman and Publishing News among others – so forgive me for being brief. The age-band of ‘TEEN’ that was stamped on the back of Ostrich Boys was done without the consent or knowledge of me or my editor. I was angry and disheartened. My publishers have since apologised unreservedly for not consulting me, but I am still fighting hard for some assurance that it will be removed from any reprints and future novels. Which all goes to say I’m dead against age-banding. I admit my books are usually aimed at teenagers, probably always will be. But this issue isn’t just about one book or one author, it’s about the whole industry. I believe age-banding on children’s books is a mistake that will adversely affect future readers and writers.
You are the Virtual Writer in Residence at the Scottish Book Trust. What does this role entail? Is this something that’s happening elsewhere or are you unique?
The idea of the Virtual Writer in Residence project with Scottish Book Trust is to build a literary equivalent to Beebo or My Space for teenagers. We’re publishing exclusive short stories by some of the best writers for young people, we’re running an online writing competition for young writers, there is a series of creative writing podcasts, and plenty of events and stuff planned for the autumn too (but still a bit secret just now). As far as we know, it’s the first of its kind. Have a look at www.scottishbooktrust.com to keep up with what’s turning out to be a really exciting and popular project.
So… what’s next for you? Another book? More virtual projects? Holiday in the Bahamas?
What’s next for me is another book. It’s a job, I’m afraid. If I don’t write the books, I don’t get paid. My deadline is the end of this July with a pencilled publication date of next July. It’s another book aimed at teenagers and so far it’s called ‘Hoodlum’ but that may change. None of my books have ever kept the same title throughout the whole of the writing/editing process. Ostrich Boys was originally called Painted Black, then it became ‘Ash’, and was even ‘Still Death’ for a short while. My publishers loved ‘Ash’ – but I fought for my own way. I’m very happy with Ostrich Boys.
We have a long held tradition of asking our guests to recommend their 5 favourite books, and why they love them. So on you go…
I hate these things. Are you sure I’m not allowed 10? Choosing is always so tough. But…
The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall – the book made me a reader.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – this book made me want to be a writer
It by Stephen King – my favourite read as a teenager
The Bottoms by Joe R Lansdale – my favourite recent read
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – the book(s) I will re-read for ever
Thank you very much to Keith for taking the time to chat to me. Keith can be found on his website where you’ll find details of all the other brilliant books he’s written and you can see him on the Scottish Booktrust website.