If aspiring writers have ambitions to follow Kevin Brooks they will do well to observe the fertile soil in which his talent is rooted. ‘Live, read, write’ sums up a working philosophy found in a questionnaire at the end of his sixth book, Being (2007), and the injunction presents a wise, but flexible, rationale for the creation of convincing fictions: the internalisation of direct experience, an understanding of the different ways in which such experience may be mediated, and a dogged (but perhaps for some lucky folk, an inspired) quest for the form and the voice for what you want to say.
‘I always wanted to write,’ says Kevin, acknowledging thereby the double determination needed by a loner who lacks the magic – but often delusive – support of those academic and metropolitan cliques who may sanction such ambitions (at least to their own satisfaction). Born in 1959 he was brought up in Exeter and, after leaving school, was educated in the University of Jobs, combining a variety of employments (from crematorium operative to post office clerk) with a persevering cultivation of some very extra-curricular talents: playing and writing songs for a band, painting, and, always, the craft of writing.
His earliest efforts met with rebuffs, either from himself or from editors out there, who either break the spirit or strengthen the determination. The rejection of novels turned him into a story-writer for magazines, and the acceptance of some of those (and indeed the winning of the Canongate New Writing Prize in 2000) offered some assurance that a way forward was possible.
The composition of Martyn Pig in the early years of this century built on this assurance. Kevin had no conception of it as a book for young people, even though young people were at its centre. It was – so it seemed to him – the first of his novels where all the parts worked together as might the gearings of a successful mechanism and, despite rejection after rejection, he stood by it as an offspring in whom he could repose confidence. It gave him a sense of a burgeoning strength which carried him into the drafting of Lucas, and only when he thought his opportunities for it exhausted did he hear of a comparative newcomer to publishing: Barry Cunningham’s The Chicken House, to whose welcoming perches Martyn Pig was despatched and whose hospitality was rewarded with the winning of the Branford/Boase Award for 2003. (In his third book, Kissing the Rain, Kevin thanks Cunningham for his gesture of faith, ‘for opening the door and letting me in to my life’.)
At this period he was living near Colchester in Essex and the area was to provide the unprepossessing, and slightly ominous, locale for Martyn Pig and most of its successors — and even when we travel from there to Dartmoor in The Road of the Dead the claustrophobia sets in that is something of a Brooks hallmark. The Essex setting extends to its littoral in Lucas, where it is clearly borne in upon our author – perhaps by way of the Chickens – that his core readership was itself to be on the littoral between children and the grown-ups. (Did he see that as a foredooming? Right at the start of Lucas its chief protagonist, Caitlin, remarks of her father that ‘Dad writes books for teenagers, or Young Adults as the bookshops [and she might have added: the librarians… the book reviewers… et hoc genus omne] like to call them… the kind of books that get nominated for prizes but never win [hardly true, Caitlin]… the kind of books that get rubbished by all the papers for being immoral… [and] for contributing to the destruction of innocence in the youth of today.’)
The cap comes pretty near to fitting at least in so far as Kevin chooses for each of his succession of narrators a youth in mid-teens (six boys and two girls) all of whom meet with events and confrontations that tax their physical and moral resilience to the hilt and bring their readers into environments where innocence hardly gets to the starting-blocks – five are either orphaned or have only a single parent; one has a father in gaol; and one of the remaining two has a father on the edge of criminality. Their vulnerability leaves them prey to overbearing or blankly amoral forces and it is often an equivocal matter as to whether they finally survive their various ordeals.
This dark, not to say pessimistic, assessment of human motives and responses (manière Cormier) seems for Kevin to be ineluctably wedded to his concept of Story. Unlike Caitlin’s Dad and his books for Young Adults, Kevin has no target reader, only the story in his head which presses to be told according to its own truth, unmodified by concerns for the tender sensibilities of the young or – more presciently – of their often squeamish guardians. As a result, there is no guarantee of either a conventional plot or a predictable outcome, but the pace is severe and the reader advances through the shifting violences of the story with fingernails chewed to shreds.
There is of course the ever-present danger for the writer in the y.a. den that, by placing a story in the mouth of the teenage character at its centre, you call for a degree of articulacy beyond the attainment of one so young and, usually, so unschooled. It’s all very well for Caitlin’s Dad to say ‘Anyone can write a story… all you have to do is… tell it like it was’, but it’s up to their puppet-master to persuade us that her telling rings true – as must that of Kevin’s roster of seven other narrators, each recounting independently their tormented adventures.
Kevin seeks the necessary authenticity by imagining himself into characters with histories sufficiently varied as to allow them different speech patterns – for instance the colloquial Moo in Kissing the Rain; the sensitive, seemingly telepathic half-gypsy Ruben in The Road of the Dead; (and he says that he lived for years with Dawn Bundy before finding her place in the recent Killing God). He makes a telling point about the rhythms of their voices – only achieved through much rewriting – which may suggest to the reader a text that flows in part from the narrator’s stream of consciousness. And that effect is enhanced by his liking for what may be a legacy from his song-writing days: the repetitions of refrains, whether from ballads like the intrusion of the Jesus and Mary Chain into Dawn Bundy’s thoughts, or Moo’s eccentric equations:
Bad = good.
Good = bad.
TRUTH = lies.
Lies = TRUTH…
(Such brisk inner reflections often occur as baffled participants resort to existential questioning:
‘Why the friction?
Why the conflict?
Why the complexity?
I’m scared to death – I don’t need any complexity.’
which may one day lead to learned PhD theses on ‘The use of the question mark in the novels of Kevin Brooks’.)
‘Telling it like it was’, however, itself poses a question as to the nature of Story. How far are Kevin’s absorbed readers entitled to a commensurate reward for their travails? That is not to ask him to pretend that life is not the bitch that it is for most of his characters, but to worry at the loss of some needful specifics. Martyn Pig is masterly in the almost comic discomfiture that is brought to its narrator. The dying fall: ‘There are no endings’ works in Lucas, as does the smidgen of hope offered at the end of Candy. But there are perversities which the uncharitable might call cop-outs. What did happen to Quentin in The Road of the Dead that the maggoty corpse of Selden came to be discovered? And ‘What you gonna do?’ is no way to end Kissing in the Rain, when the outcome of Moo’s crazy plan is to be left unrevealed. I’m not sure that Kevin might accept the legitimacy of such complaints, and in our discussion of the matter we compromised on the teasing thought that (since he is a man who abhors sequels) the ‘unknown unknowns’ are a gift to readers to imagine their own conclusions.
Black Rabbit Summer left several puzzles unsolved, but its powerful story got it onto the short list for this year’s Carnegie Medal (Kevin as bridesmaid yet again). I’m sorry that it didn’t win if only because I relish the thought of what that Award’s founders would have made of its typically violent and expletive-ridden text. Nevertheless, the fact of its – not unusual – nomination prompts a renewal of the observation that it really is high time for the arbiters of our literature for the young to establish a separate award for Young Adult works – the Junk Medal perhaps. Such a move might help to refocus attention on the parlous state of our pooh-obsessed literature for actual children.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.
Photograph of Kevin Brooks by Genevieve Larose.
The Books (as currently available, one published each year from 2002)
From Chicken House:
Martyn Pig, 978 1 905294 16 9, £6.99 pbk
Lucas, 978 1 905294 17 6, £6.99 pbk
Kissing the Rain, 978 1 905294 18 3, £6.99 pbk
Candy, 978 1 904442 61 5, £6.99 pbk
The Road of the Dead, 978 1 905294 26 8, £6.99 pbk
From Puffin Books:
Being, 978 0 14 131910 0, £6.99 pbk
Black Rabbit Summer, 978 0 14 131911 7, £6.99 pbk
Killing God, 978 0 14 131912 4, £6.99 pbk (as featured on this issue’s cover)