Robert Muchamore interviewed by Damian Kelleher
Best known for his fast-moving, high octane thrillers, there are some seriously strong themes in Robert Muchamore’s new YA novel Arctic Zoo, as Damian Kelleher discovered when he interviewed him for our Authorgraph.
Robert Muchamore’s latest YA novel has an unusual beginning. It takes the form of a direct letter from the author to his readers, and talks about an attempted suicide back in 2012 – his own.
‘I wound up spending three months in a psychiatric hospital,’ writes Muchamore. ‘I met my characters Georgia and Julius there, or at least troubled teenagers who were very much like them…When I left hospital I wanted to write about my experience and the people I’d met, but it took me five years to figure out how to find a way.’
The result is his latest novel, Arctic Zoo. The split narrative follows the story of two teenagers, thousands of miles apart, who live very different lives. Georgia lives in Leighton Buzzard, a straight A student with a love for Japanese stationery and a seriously talented drone pilot since she was seven. Julius goes to St Gilda’s High School in Akure, Nigeria, and comes from a privileged family – his uncle is state governor but it’s his high-flying, power-obsessed mother who’s pulling all the strings. As his world becomes more hostile, Julius finds refuge in an abandoned zoo where he strikes up a friendship with Duke, a skater kid with a talent for breaking rules. The sexual attraction between them is instant. Eventually, through very different routes, both Julius and Georgia will form a close bond in the Walter J Freeman Adolescent Heath Unit in Sussex.
‘It was quite an interesting book because after I wrote it, I wasn’t sure if I’d overdone it,’ explains Robert. ‘I thought maybe it was about too much that it was too complicated. But the most interesting thing is what has happened since I wrote it. It’s really weird.’
In Muchamore’s story, through a series of serendipitous events – including the suicide of her sister, a junior doctor – Georgia becomes the pin-up girl for a direct-action protest group; comparisons with Greta Thunberg have already been made.
‘A lot of the book is about the protest movement and the school protests and I was writing that two and a half years ago,’ says Muchamore. ‘I was doing all this research and when my editors were reading it, they said you need to explain it. They said there hadn’t been any school protests since the Iraq war, that kids would think it was completely incredible, they won’t believe this could be happening. I wasn’t deliberately trying to predict things.’
But why a protest movement? Had he sensed that something was building among teenagers?
‘I guess it comes from a sense of frustration. I definitely sensed that more and more young people I was talking to were frustrated so it had to come to something.’
In Arctic Zoo there are echoes of the mental health issues that Muchamore writes about in his opening letter. At the time of his illness in 2012, Robert was topping the bestsellers’ list with his Cherub series, enjoying massive success and all the trappings that go with it. But suddenly he found himself in the grip of depression so all-consuming that he ended up suicidal. How did it all happen?
‘I think that’s one of the things at the heart of depression,’ he explains, shaking his head. ‘There’s no rationality to it. The most horrible thing can happen to someone – their child dies, for instance – and they won’t become depressed. And then another person will become depressed, a bit like I did, because two or three smallish things happen, and you don’t really feel good about yourself and you get a bit anxious. There is a level at which you’re not in control of your own emotions. It’s not just that you’re sad about something; you are sad, but your body is responding to it in a completely abnormal way.’
Robert’s honesty and candour about his illness back then was brave and unprecedented. For many writers, working on their own, his openness about his mental health issues struck a chord. ‘People who were really close to me – I won’t name names – admitted “Oh I’ve suffered [with depression] for years.” The number of people who said, “Oh yeah, I’ve been taking that drug as well.” It was very often the drugs that was the trigger; people who are taking medication for depression often compare their pills and they’d tell me, “Oh yeah, I’ve taken that one”, and it became clear that it was quite serious and they’d been suffering for years. It was often relayed in this indirect way; people wouldn’t say “I’ve been depressed for a long time and I’ve been seeing my doctor regularly”, they’d just say “Oh I suffer from a bit of depression, too.”’
Not everyone responded in the same way to his brutally honest Facebook post that read, ‘For the past year I’ve been suffering from depression…I have checked into a psychiatric hospital. I’ve posted this because I’m sick of lying about it.’ So, what kind of response did he get?
‘There are two ways people react,’ says Robert. ‘There were the sort of people who were quite helpful and then other people who didn’t really know how to cope with it and were quite standoffish. I don’t actually hold anything against those people because when I think about what my reaction would have been if I’d been at the other end, I’d probably have been the person who was a bit socially awkward and didn’t quite know what to say. It is not an easy conversation to have.’
For so many authors now, writing books and updating social media posts is all part of the same endeavour. To build a readership, you need to build an audience, but as many YA readers have discovered, Twitter users and Facebook friends can turn against you when provoked, and teenage readers can be hugely sensitive to the issues surrounding the books they read. Robert has always been a strident voice on social media; is he more careful about the messages he tweets nowadays.
‘I must admit that with the toxic YA thing that has been attracting so much attention recently, I think I am less off the cuff now, and that comes down to who I write for. I’m writing for youngish teenage boys and my books contain ‘rude’ words – the thing that I find quite difficult is I have never adopted the persona of ambassador for children’s books. Those roles are fine but when you’re writing for the audience I’m writing for, the last thing they want is for a grey-haired adult to tell them to sit and read books in the cosy library. I’ve always been a bit irreverent, a bit rude and a bit sarcastic, but the pressure on social media now means that a joke that I could have made 10 years ago that everyone would have laughed at, now people would say “Oh that’s outrageous”, “that’s insensitive”. There’s been a bizarre cultural shift – it’s so puritanical that some of it is almost Victorian. There’s a great literary novel waiting to be written by someone more intelligent than me on that!’
Rather like his historical series Henderson’s Boys, Arctic Zoo clearly involves a lot of in-depth research. Getting the detail and atmosphere right for the Nigerian scenes is always going to be a challenge. Was Robert tempted to spend some time in Akure to make sure he was painting an accurate picture?
‘The idea of me going to Africa and not speaking the local language, not having any personal connections – it makes it impossible,’ he insists. ‘The reason I picked Nigeria is that it’s a large English-speaking country so there are an enormous amount of cultural resources I could draw on. My starting point was ordering about 10 books about Nigeria and I picked Akure because I read a lot about it and then started wandering around on Google street view – I found some quite dodgy looking places that I wouldn’t have gone near as a tourist! And then there’s the language – I didn’t want to do it with an over-the top hammy accent, but I did want to get a taste of how the locals speak. Funnily enough, there are two Nigerian news channels on Sky and they’re in English so you can see how people are interviewed in the street, you hear how they talk, and pick up how they dress. And of course, we had a cultural reader who picks up the nuances. Funnily enough, where I’d gone wrong was with stuff like combinations of food. The reader said: “No they wouldn’t eat that and that together!”. So yes, it was a challenge but one I really enjoyed.’
There’s no doubt there’s a growing awareness of mental health issues in the media right now, especially among a YA audience. It’s about time today’s teens had books that addressed the serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression that they all face, right?
‘I think the important thing is not just to have books about it, but to have books where it doesn’t have to be the focus. So, we’d see children’s books featuring kids who just happen to have mental health issues and it’s not a big deal. Yes, they have a horrible time, but they deal with it and they lead normal lives. It’s just progress.’
Damian Kelleher is a writer and journalist specialising in children’s books.
Arctic Zoo is published by Hot Key Books, 978-1471407642, £12.99 hbk.