Four times nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, Kevin Brooks has finally made it with his controversial Young Adult novel The Bunker Diary. It tells, in pitiless detail, of the travails suffered by 16 year old drop-out Linus Weems after he is arbitrarily kidnapped and then imprisoned along with a few others by someone whose character and motivation remain a mystery to the end. It could have been published ten years ago when it was first written if only he had toned down its exceptionally bleak ending. Yet this and no other version is the novel he wanted to write, and now here it is at last, already the cause of much agitated discussion not just in book circles but also in the press. Nicholas Tucker talked to Kevin on the day he won the prize.
My first question was whether he had been surprised to be chosen as the winner.
‘Well, there was certainly a touch of relief! I had been so close to winning before and didn’t look forward to losing out again. So here was another ambition ticked off – always a satisfying feeling.’
Tell me about your writing style. This has always seemed to me ruthlessly pared down at a time when much else written for young adults has become increasingly bloated and repetitive. Is this how you have always wanted to write?
‘I have long looked to American rather than British writers when it comes to writing concisely. Authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett advance their stories using the minimum of description. This way difficult subjects are made more accessible to readers because they arise organically as the plot develops without the writer ever having to make any extra big deal of them.’
Yet The Bunker Diary did in fact remind me of a British novel, John Fowles’s very sinister The Collector, which – spoiler alert! – also features the kidnapping of an entirely innocent person who is then left to die.
‘You’re right – this book was a massive influence on me and my novel, along with Lord of the Flies, which also describes what can eventually happen to people taken so far out of their normal environment. I may have been influenced too by the Big Brother series on television, which of course also featured strangers locked up in a big room although not actually kidnapped.’
But in real life there have also been some truly horrible stories quite recently about people being kept captive for years in underground dungeons or even in otherwise normal houses. I did find it disturbing to be reminded of such things reading The Bunker Diary. I was also tormented by not ever getting to know who had kidnapped all these people and the one dog and why. So by the end I was left unclear about what it all meant. Do you know why it all happened the way it did?
‘I don’t know the answer to that question myself! All I can say is that the plot came entire to me very quickly and I also wrote it up at top speed. It was much revised later on, as in all my writing, but the basics of it never changed.’
Do you think there is anything that can’t be written about for young readers these days? For example, how would you feel about a novel involving adolescent suicide?
‘In my experience young people today are quite capable of thinking about and resolving pretty well everything for themselves. And violence is part of the world in which we all live. I know that books still have the power to affect lives and I do get occasional letters from readers looking for advice about personal problems which they have found some echoes of in my novels. I always reply to them, and if it seems really serious I will tell them that while I can’t help here there are people who can and this is how to find them. I believe there are limits to what one can and should write about, but I don’t consider I have ever got near those myself. So long as I feel I am writing thoughtfully, showing readers the consequences that can arise from particular self-destructive impulses, if that is part of the main story, then that is what I shall continue to do.’
Freud once had a patient he nick-named The Rat Man. This was because the person in question was haunted by a particularly revolting form of torture involving rats, told to him by a fellow officer while they were both on military service. I sometimes worry myself about reading about very detailed descriptions of suffering or torture that I would much rather not know about or think about afterwards. So naturally I also feel some concern about younger readers who may also react very strongly to particularly gruesome details in what they may be reading.
‘It is a dilemma. I absolutely hate all violence and all forms of torture myself. So when it comes up in my novels while I try to stay within reasonable bounds. But I am also determined to show readers the consequences that can arise from all types of brutality. I also feel they should know about the very real pain and shock involved for those suffering from violence instead of finding it treated merely as a form of entertainment.’
Do you find it a bit odd that novelists writing for a young adult audience can get away with scenes of quite explicit violence, yet when it comes to writing graphically about sex they often come over as far more inhibited?
‘I do think it’s important that novelists get fully engaged when writing about sex, and particularly the wonderful side of it – something that all those wretched porn videos can’t or won’t even touch on.’
So do you think there will ever come a time when this still largely existing taboo will finally lift, allowing a Young Adult novelist to write a truly lyrical and sustained account of first sexual love?
‘Hmm. You may just have given me an idea for a future novel!’
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
The Bunker Diary, Kevin Brooks, Penguin, 978-0141326122