Born in Sussex in 1954, Melvin Burgess left school with A-levels in Biology and English (a strange but suitably quirky combination!), and promptly enrolled on a journalism course for six months. At 21, he moved to Bristol (where his controversial novel Junk is set) for a few years and began his writing career, experimenting with short stories, children’s fiction and radio plays, in between spells of work and unemployment.
By 1990, Burgess was living in London and published his first novel, The Cry of the Wolf. It takes many writers several novels before they get noticed, but Melvin Burgess quickly made a name for himself when The Cry of the Wolf was shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal.
During the early 90s, Melvin Burgess’s reputation slowly grew as a succession of novels for young readers attracted both critical and popular acclaim. Then, in 1996, he suddenly found himself at the centre of a controversy over his seventh novel, Junk (US title Smack). Junk was praised and vilified in equal measure for its gritty tale of heroin addiction amongst a group of Bristol teenagers. Some public figures called for the book to be banned. Today, Junk frequently appears on lists of the most popular books for young readers and is a set text.
Burgess’s image as a controversial, provocative writer grew further with the publication of Doing It – a novel about underage sex. However, this reputation is largely undeserved – a brief look at the 20-odd books that Melvin Burgess has written during the last two decades reveals a wide and eclectic range of themes and ideas, from the age of witch-hunting to a story set in a post-apocalyptic London. The only thing his novels have in common is that young readers (and older ones too!) find them unputdownable.
Melvin Burgess currently lives with his family in Yorkshire.
Your books are hugely popular with our younger customers, so it’s great you agreed to a chat to us today, thank you!
Q: First, describe a typical day in the life of Melvin Burgess?
- I like to get my work done in the morning. I get up, have a hot drink and go up to my office, while my partner takes the dog out for a walk. When she comes back, we have breakfast together and then I go back up. I have an office at the end of the garden. It’s great. I live in a little town called Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire – very nice place to live. I’m up amongst the raspberries and bird feeders. I come down again for tea, snacks, elevenses and so on. Lunch comes any time between twelve and two, depending on how early I get up. I like to think that’s my writing day over, but in fact there’s invoices, visits to organise, website, Facebook, twitter – the list is endless. But most of the real work gets done in the morning. I may take the dog out myself in the afternoon – that can take a couple of hours, there’s loads of lovely walks right out the back door. In the evening I cook – I’m the chef, she’s the cleaner – and then we relax, often with TV. There’s rarely anything good on, so it’s often a film.
Q: On a personal note, you have been described as the “Godfather” of Young Adult fiction, how do you feel about having this reputation? Is there a certain pressure to live up to this identity when you write your novels?
- It’s always sounded a little schmaltzy to me. There were people before me – Aiden Chambers in this country, and Robert Cormier, both writing for older teenagers long before me. However, it is true that Junk opened the way for gritty, realistic fiction for older readers and widened the genre of teen fiction. I think that’s partly a case of being in the right place at the right time – but also of being the right person, so I think myself very lucky to have been able to do that.
As for writing stuff since – well, you always try to produce the best book you can. I think Junk allowed me to go off and write the things I wanted to write – not something many people get a chance to do. Like I say – I’ve been very lucky.
Q: Right, so let’s be frank, your books are highly controversial, whether this involves explicit sexual exploration in Lady: My Life as a Bitch (2001) and Doing It (2003), or magnified body distortion issues such as those explored in Sara’s Face (2006), many of your novels have met with “as much outrage as success” in terms of criticism. If you could have a cup of tea with your critics, what would you say?
- Most (although not all) of my critics have objected to my books for political reasons, rather than literary ones, so that would be a political conversation about how to treat teenagers. There are two views – one is that they need protecting from the world around them; the other is that they need to be empowered to deal with it. Obviously I take the latter view.
As for the argument that I’ve been needlessly controversial – I’ve published over twenty books and only two of them have been sexual. If I wanted only to shock, or to make money, I would have been on Doing It 6 by this time. I do like to be controversial – but only when the controversy is a real one. There is a genuine debate in the country about drugs and young people, and sex and young people, with genuine disagreements. It’s a great thing to write a book that sets that debate going, or moves it on. But if a book just makes waves purely for the purposes of it’s own publicity – what’s the point?
Q: You have been praised for your sensitivity and understanding towards teenagers and their issues, if you could go back and give your teenage self three pieces of advice, what would they be?
A – Be patient! They’ll come to you. You’re kinda sweet (most teenage boys don’t realise how sweet there are.)
B – Don’t try to do anything – just soak it up.
C – Panic attacks – just sit it out.
Q: Here at World of Books we LOVE Billy Elliot, were you surprised at its success? And, most importantly, have you seen the musical?
- It was an odd commission – to write the book of the film. Books of TV are sometimes done, but I can’t think of another occasion when someone’s done a book of the film quite so soon. I was pleasantly surprised at it’s success – but I was aware how solid the script was when I was working from it, and what a great story it made. I think the musical has given it an extra long life.
And no, I haven’t seen the musical. I can’t bare them, I’m afraid!
Q: It’s a general consensus with teenagers that parents just don’t ‘get-it’. Have your children read your books? What do they think?
- My kids read my books as they were growing up, and by and large they liked them. I think when they were younger (they’re 20 and 23 now) they were half embarrassed, half proud. My son Oliver was always telling me to write more like his current favourite author – Phillip Pullman or Brian Jaques.
Q: What book is currently on your bedside table?
- Strangers by Taichi Yamada. It’s a strange story about a man who meets his own parents, who died, but are now living in a suburb of the town where he lives. Even though they’re ghosts, their lives are perfectly ordinary. I just love Japanese fiction!
Q: Your new book, Kill All Enemies, is out September 1st. What can our young bookworms expect from this?
- I think they’ll be surprised at how vivid, how brave and how dangerous the lives of some of their contemporaries are – as well as with what humour people live difficult lives.
Q: When researching for your new book, you went to Pupil Referral Units (PRU’s) to meet young people who have been excluded from their various schools. Were you nervous about meeting these society labelled ‘troubled’ youngsters? And what was the first thing that struck you about their stories and current situations?
- No, not nervous. People are very often keen to tell their stories, and those young people were no exception. They very often had some wonderful stories to tell – full of humour and heartbreak, and love and … everything! I really admired many of them.
Q: Lastly (the one we ask anyone who’ll listen!), here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. By sourcing a large amount of our books from charities, we are also able to support their cause, often sending books out to developing countries and recently to UK based Army barracks. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
- I love what you guys do. I have a Kindle and I read online – but I love my books as well. Long may you go on doing that good work.
Sure to be as gritty and brilliant as his previous work, make sure you read Kill All Enemies, hitting the shelves on September 1st! If you are searching for used books why not search on our website.