The shortlist for the 2016 Costa Book Awards features four novels for young people,each accomplished and very different. Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs that Brought Us Together is described as a book that finds humour in the most extraordinary circumstances, while shining a light into the darkest corners. Costa judge Anna James interviewed Conaghan for Books for Keeps.
‘The funny thing is the vast majority of this book was written in a Costa Coffee in Dublin – I’m not even joking!’ So says Brian Conaghan as we speak about his Costa Children’s Prize-shortlisted The Bombs That Brought Us Together.
This is the second time that Conaghan has been shortlisted for a prize (When Mr Dog Bites was shortlisted for the 2015 Carnegie). The news comes at a point where he’s just gearing up for the release in February of his next book, We Come Apart, written with Sarah Crossan: ‘Bombs has been out for a while now,’ he explained. ‘I just assumed it had floated away a bit. So when I heard it had been shortlisted I was just delighted. I hope it will ignite it a bit and give it more readers. You hear these figures about how many books are published and if you put them in your head you can get a wee bit downhearted – you’re just trying to find your way in and find an audience.’
Despite not being a big reader as a child, Conaghan became an English teacher, and the children he worked with are what prompted him to eventually put pen to paper: ‘Being in the classroom and seeing what was on the curriculum – I remember having Dickens – how are these kids going to cope with that? I just wanted to connect with those reluctant readers. These boys and girls who felt disenfranchised with what was on offer to them, and alienated from the language and the themes in those books. I find writing really tough,’ he adds. ‘Some days I can rattle off 1000 words no problem, and other days it’s like wading through treacle with a pair of wellies on. But I’m hard-working – I sit there and I make sure it happens because to this day I have those readers in mind – trying to write dialogue they would connect to, with short chapters, lots of debate points.’
The Bombs That Brought Us Together has all of these. It’s the story of the friendship between Charlie and Pavel; Charlie is from Little Town and Pavel is a recent refugee arrival from Old Country. Conaghan started writing it in September 2014, inspired by several events around the world: ‘The annexation of Crimea, the Arab Spring, the war in Syria that was in its infancy and then the Scottish Referendum which was really polarising people. And night after night I was watching the news and it was a stream of people being displaced and there were so many images of children with bags not knowing where they were going or why and I wanted to give them a voice.’
In his efforts to tell the stories of young people, Conaghan did a lot of research on blogs and social media accounts: ‘At the start of the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, a lot was based on Twitter and online where they were getting support and driving the campaign. You can read all these blogs about what they were doing and how they were activating and campaigning. And then of course we were saturated online with information about the Scottish referendum.’
Events in Little Town escalate when soldiers from Old Country arrive, tensions spiral and the boys get inadvertently caught up in a local crime ring who are mounting a resistance to the invasion. Although firmly rooted in reality, the book resists grounding itself in a specific country or time: ‘I didn’t want to call it Scotland or England – I wanted to open it up and be influenced by all the other wars and civil unrest in the world. I wanted to create a reality, but also a fable, a cartoon, something almost Kafkaesque.’
The book is undeniably a confronting read, but there is a lot of humour among the darker elements. Conaghan has given Charlie a brilliantly comedic voice, and Charlie’s inability to stop talking even in the most terrifying situations is wonderfully pitched. The humour in the book was important for Conaghan: ‘We’ve all been in those situation with friends where someone breaks a serious situation with one line. And fourteen-year-olds often don’t have the tools to articulate emotion sometimes, so they swear, they make jokes. It goes back to those kids in that classroom – give them a wee laugh and a joke and you’ve got them on side. I try and find humour in a lot of bad places – it’s the Glaswegian in me!’
Charlie is also dealing with his all-consuming crush, which isn’t abated by the falling bombs: ‘I wasn’t writing a book about refugees – I wanted to write a book about friendship, kids, teenagers, wherever they’re from in the world. We all want to be better looking, we all fancy girls, we all see our flaws in the mirror. That transcends boundaries and religion and nationalities.’
Anna James is a writer and journalist. Her debut children’s novel book Pages & Co will be published in October 2017 by HarperCollins.
The Bombs that Brought Us Together and When Mr Dog Bites are published by Bloomsbury.