Brian Conaghan is interviewed by Joy Court
Many people assume that When Mr Dog Bites, published in January 2014, was Scottish author Brian Conaghan’s debut novel, such was the attention it received. But I am proud to say that I was an early fan of his distinctive style of writing with its gritty realism, humour and heart, since I had purchased for my Schools Library Service, The Boy Who Made It Rain, back in 2011. I suspect I should actually give the credit to Peters Booksellers who procured the stock for our approvals collection in the first place. But I was intrigued by the gap and how he moved from a tiny publisher straight to critical and commercial acclaim on the Carnegie Medal shortlist.
Although the magic answer, as you might expect, turned out to be acquiring an agent, it was not that easy. Born in Coatbridge, just outside Glasgow in 1971, Brian claims that he was a school failure, with no interest in reading or books at all and ‘did not read a novel till I was 17’. This despite having a father who was a teacher and who took him to the library every Saturday. He left school with no qualifications and became a painter and decorator. He decided quite quickly that he did want to educate and improve himself, which for a time included reading with a thesaurus by his side, and he started to really immerse himself in books: ‘playing catch up’. He studied Theatre at Glasgow University and got his first taste of creative writing, producing scenes and dialogue and both would become a strong feature of his novels. He significantly also became a big fan of poetry at this time, and his first published works were actually two poems in the now defunct Cutting Teeth magazine.
But he really wanted to try a longer form of writing and produced an adult novel, which failed to find a publisher, as did another novel and a book of short stories. Getting published became his goal and writing absorbed all the spare time left from teaching teenagers in Italy, then Scotland, where he also studied part time for a Creative Writing Masters and then in Dublin, where he still lives, but now as a full time writer. New writers are always advised to ‘Find your voice and write what you know’ which he ‘never really understood’ in his own context, until he tried writing for young people and stopped what he called ‘imitating other writers’. His sense of himself at that age was very strong and he ‘worked with teens every day, had an idea of what they liked and what they needed’ and their voices really resonated with him. Perhaps it was the cast of voices telling the story of The Boy Who Made It Rain, from all their different perspectives, that attracted his first publisher, but that success then enabled Brian to get an agent, by which time he had already written, but not sold, When Mr Dog Bites and developed the idea for his Costa Award-winning The Bombs that Brought Us Together.
He was able to utilise some very personal experience to create the unforgettable Tourettes-suffering Dylan Mint. Although much milder and not diagnosed till Brian was an adult; Dylan’s struggles to control Mr Dog (as he calls his condition) were heartfelt. Dylan was one of the 15% of sufferers with coprolalia and his uncontrollable swearing, while undoubtedly hilarious, created an issue that many publishers backed away from, though not Bloomsbury and not publisher Rebecca McNally who, in February 2014, brilliantly defended ‘Why the swearing had to stay ‘ in an article in the Telegraph. But I cannot deny that a book suffused with swearing appearing on the Carnegie Medal shortlist also initially attracted quite a lot of criticism for the librarian judges
But Brian absolutely did not set out to write a Tourette’s book and ‘shies away’ from that sort ‘issues-based grandstanding’ as he told the Irish Times. Similarly, although there is no doubt that The Bombs That Brought Us Together was inspired by the political turmoil of 2014, including the Scottish Independence Referendum, he deliberately left the setting ambiguous. He did not want to tell young people what to think about a particular issue, but to get them thinking about the world they inhabit. It was also ‘futile’ to try to do that without authentic themes and characters and of course some of his trademark humour because ‘when I read I like to laugh’. So the book hangs on the friendship and banter of Charlie Law and Pavel Duda, thrown together by the bombs, on their journey of self-discovery and survival.
It is the need to capture these authentic voices that dictates his method of working. He writes very quickly: ‘an explosion of words’ like ‘throwing paint at a canvas’ that produces a very unstructured first draft, but one where his characters have come to life. The next stage for him is the most exciting, but difficult. He describes ‘always fighting with myself’ and likens it to the creative collaborations in music and theatre and film. The to and fro of discussions with agent and editor challenging him to do better is essential to him. He is most certainly not ‘precious’ about his writing: ‘I have a really thick skin’! He is enormously self-critical and believes his craft improves with each novel. He tries not to re-read his novels, once published, because all he can see is the flaws. He would love to be able to write them again and perhaps some of that itch can be scratched by re-working in another medium. The film rights to When Mr Dog Bites have been sold to Film4 and he will, soon we hope, get to write the screenplay.
This collaborative approach (and his love of poetry) is certainly reflected in We Come Apart, the verse novel he co-authored with Sarah Crossan. Currently shortlisted for the 2018 UKLA Book Awards this novel grew out of their meeting at a Bloomsbury dinner celebrating their both being on the shortlist for the 2015 Carnegie medal. They hit it off immediately and being both driven writers, who were thematically similarly inclined to write about life and what matters to young people, this deeply poignant story about two troubled teenagers meeting on community service, told in the two voices of Nicu and Jess, came together remarkably quickly. More frustratingly for readers is the news that they have loads of ideas and would love to work together again, indeed they have almost a quarter of a new novel written, but their own stories are keeping them apart.
June sees the publication of Brian’s latest novel, The Weight of a Thousand Feathers, which has another unforgettable male protagonist and once again has love at its heart. Just how far would you go for someone you love? In Bobby’s case that someone is his Mum and she is in incurable pain. Raw, angry and powerfully affecting, yet ultimately life-affirming, it also features the most beautiful sibling relationship; this is Conaghan at his best. Yet he admits the first draft was almost completely different, with Before and After sections and a dual narrative. Once again he says the process of collaborative discussion helped him make it the best book that it could be, describing how a good editor can curb his tendency (often with his humour) to go off the rails. He jokes about writing a book that is simply funny one day, but with two YA novels in the pipeline for 2019 and 2020, that won’t be any time soon. He still has much to say about young people, friendship, family and the realities of life. Also, although, like the true adolescent male he brings to life so well, he does not often say this aloud, he has a lot to say about love. Emotional literacy for young men is crucial in the climate of #MeToo, and we need Brian to carry on helping these young readers understand themselves.
Formerly Learning Resources Manager at Coventry Schools Library Service, Joy Court is a consultant on reading and libraries, Chair of the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Medals, and reviews editor of the School Librarian.
The Boy Who Made It Rain, Sparkling Books, 978-1907230196, £9.99
When Mr Dog Bites, Bloomsbury, 978-1408843017, £7.99
The Bombs That Brought Us Together, Bloomsbury, 978-1408855768, £7.99
We Come Apart (with Sarah Crossan), Bloomsbury, 978-1408878880, £7.99
The Weight of a Thousand Feathers, Bloomsbury, 978-1408871539, £12.99