Monday, 6 December 2010

Interview with Debut Author and 2010 Booktrust Winner: GREGORY HUGHES

tall tales & short stories is thrilled to welcome Gregory Hughes to the blog.  Gregory very kindly took some time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about UNHOOKING THE MOON which won the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010.

The Booktrust Teenage Prize is a national book prize that recognises and celebrates the best in contemporary writing for teenagers. It is run with the support of The Reading Agency, which publicises the Teenage Prize in libraries across the UK, primarily through coordination with public and school library services.
Previous winners include Patrick Ness for The Knife of Never Letting Go (a tall tales & short stories book recommendation) and Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.

Hi Gregory and welcome. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

To start with I am 48. I am from a working-class background. I got in quite a bit of trouble as a kid: getting expelled from school, age fourteen, and getting into trouble with the police. The reason I mention this is because I want to point out that anyone can turn their lives around - it's never to late!


'Where are you going?' asked border patrol.
'We're going to New York to see our grandma and the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and everything. And our granny's going to bake us her very own apple pie.'
She sounded so convincing. Some days I wondered who the Rat really was.

Meet the Rat: A dancing, soccer-playing, gangster-wise prairie kid.
When the Rat's father dies, she decides to head for new York.
What can her older brother Bob do but follow?


* What inspired you to write Unhooking The Moon? I’ve read snippets about some of your life growing up. Did your own childhood inspire your novel?

My own childhood was not unhappy. But it was in no way inspirational for writing the book. In fact I never really read until I was in my twenties! That said, when I did start reading I took to it with a passion. But I had a preference for books written in the first person. I would say my inspiration for writing the book came from my nieces and nephews and the great books I read.

* Unhooking The Moon is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

I had first written an adult novel that was not only no good but similar to much of the material on the shelves. No one was interested in it and rightly so. Therefor I decided to write a children's book - or rather a crossover.

* Firstly, a huge congratulations on your well-deserved win. How did it feel and what does it mean to you to have won the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010 for your debut novel?

I described winning the Booktrust as bliss. But that was just the first day. It's amazing to win such a prestigious competition! And it's like passing an exam. No one can take it away from you. And to do it with my first published book is more than I dreamed of.

* I believe you wrote Unhooking the Moon while in Iceland, writing for about seven hours every day. Could you tell us a little more about this part of your writing journey? What prompted you to sit and write about Canada and America while living in Iceland?

I went to Iceland to find work. But I couldn't. All I found was a tiny room in Reykjavik that was quite cheap. I had done the research for the book in Winnipeg four months earlier and since I had enough money to sustain me I decided to get started. It was a good decision. I never knew anyone in Iceland and so there were no distractions.

* One particular aspect of the book is the poignant ending that made me shed a tear or ten. Some might call this a bleak ending but I believe it is sad yet in many ways positive and doesn’t fall into the trap of conforming to that Hollywood-style happy ending. Was this a deliberate choice on your part and what motivated this decision?

It was a deliberate choice. What motivated the decision was the failure of my first book. It was a New York agent that told me it was too similar to other books. I didn't want to make the same mistake again. Most children's books have happy endings. A sad ending would differentiate the book and make it stand out.

* Were your publishers open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself because of your target audience? Were some issues considered too risky or taboo?

Funny you should ask that because I thought they wouldn't like certain things in the book. That is the use of the word paedophile and the ending. But Quercus were great. They liked everything.

* Your main protagonists are a young girl, Rat, and her teenage brother. You have written such a wonderful character in Rat and her voice is so distinctive she really comes alive. How difficult, or easy, did you find it to get inside the head of a young girl?

I found writing for the Rat quite easy. She became a joy as soon as I started and she developed all by herself. I tell people that she's the wayward daughter I never had.

* Did a particular person provide the inspiration for Rat and although her illness is a never fully explained, did experience of a specific illness motivate your decision to give Rat a health problem?

The Rat looks like my brother's kid Julie, who's probably about thirty now. But she's styled on my godson Russell who was such a mouthy, precocious, kid that he had an answer for everything. But he was funny with it. I think the idea for the illness came from a friend of mine, Claire, who suffers from epileptic fits. But the truth of the matter is that I can't remember why I gave her this condition.

* Publishers and agents often talk about ‘Voice’ and from a personal perspective I found your writing to be both vivid and memorable. It’s one of very few books that has really stayed with me, both in terms of prose and character. How did you develop your ‘Voice’ or did it come naturally?

I think part of it came naturally. And some of it was learned.
For example a creative writing teacher that I once had told me: when you're writing a story, write it like you are telling it to someone sitting in front of you. In other words be natural. Don't use words or phrases that you wouldn't normally use. Don't use flowery language or try to impress. And that's exactly what I did! I speak in a simple way and so I wrote in a simple way. Simple writing is not only easy to read but it's easy to visualise. And if something is graphic it stays with you.

* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

Not really. I just stick with the simplicity and hope it works.

* Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

I would say it's gave me more confidence. I know if I wrote another book I would have to work just as hard, but I think I would have more chance of it being published. When I was writing Unhooking The Moon I was never sure if it would be published or not. And that can be quite disheartening.

* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I have a general idea. So I knew I wanted to write a story about two prairie kids who travel from Winnipeg to New York and that their story would end up being a major media event. That was the general idea and I built on it.

* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

I would say about two years.

* What made you think ‘I want to write for kids?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I wanted to try something different and I do enjoy reading YA novels.

* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I think children want to be told the truth. I think they appreciate an honest story. I loved To Kill a Mocking Bird, Treasure Island, and Huckle Berry Finn. I read War Horse recently. And I would say that it would stand up, in quality, against any of the aforementioned.

* How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I had been writing for ten years before I was published. Reading and writing is the only way that I have improved my skill. Reading good books will always help. Genius rubs off.

* Before finding your current agent and achieving publication, did you approach many agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?

Rejection with the first bad novel, yes. I sent Unhooking The Moon to four agents. They all wanted it. And then two publishers wanted to publish the book.

* As an award winning author what words of wisdom and advice could you give to any aspiring children’s writer?

Read a lot of good books and write a lot. And when you write, write in your own voice, no one else's.

* What’s next for Gregory Hughes? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I am working on a script at this moment in time called 'Becoming Harry Lime.' When it is finished I am going to write another script but I don't know what.

* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

I think that's it.
All I really want to add is this: I am far from clever. I cannot spell to save my life and I have no knowledge of grammar. I cannot type and I have only ever attended two dozen creative writing classes in my life. If I can do it anyone can!

Unhooking the Moon ~ a tall tales & short stories review

I love this book. There I've said it. To be honest I had my doubts when I first heard about it and I don't really know why - I hadn't even opened the book but it had been nominated for awards so I felt compelled to read it. And boy, I am so glad I did!

As an aspiring writer I often hear agents and publishers talking about 'Voice' and how important it is, and as an avid reader, for me personally, I actually feel it's quite rare to find a truly unique voice but I think this book has it.
At the end of the opening paragraph sits a fantastic line that instantly conjures up the prairies around Winnipeg - 'A land so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days.' 
And the wonderful writing continues from there.

This is a story which insists you suspend some disbelief but I gladly did, I became so caught up in the story and I wanted to spend time with the wonderful character of Rat.  She's annoying, precocious, fragile and tough, sassy and innocent - she's a fully-formed three-dimensional character who leaps out from the page.
Bob, her older brother, narrates the story - he's the level-headed, sensitive, opposite of his little sister but you care as deeply about him and Rat, as Bob does for his little sister.
This is a poignant story of two orphans on a road trip. The hints and mystery of Rat's visions and illness create another level of otherworldliness to the pathos and humour woven into this wonderfully written book. And for those who like a book to move you to tears, well, this reader certainly shed a few.
For this reader, Unhooking the Moon is one of those rare books that will stay with me for a beeping long time.


1 comment:

Ruth Eastham said...

An inspiring interview - thanks both!

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