Tuesday, 30 August 2011

DIVERSITY MATTERS: COLIN MULHERN and his publisher talk CLASH & respecting the teen reader.

* Hi Colin and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I work full time as a Teaching Assistant in a primary school. I laugh at my own jokes when no one else does, I like throwing things in the air and catching them, currently trying to learn to ride a unicycle despite being in my forties. I love cartoons, old horror movies, and anything with Simon Pegg in.


Alex: school psycho and under-ground cage-fighting champion. 
Kyle: talented artist, smart school-boy and funny man. 
When Alex witnesses a brutal murder at the club he can't go back to The Cage, but without fighting, he starts to lose control. He soon sets his sights on Kyle, a boy he thinks can help. 
But Kyle has his own problems and he's convinced Alex is one of them. 
Boys can play dangerous games when they're scared and this one will haunt everyone involved. 
What will it take for each boy to confront the truth?


Colin Mulhern on Clash and writing for teens.

First of all, I haven’t got a clue what teenagers like to read, and I think, for writers, it’s a lost cause trying to work it out. I spent several years trying to write for teens, trying to gauge what would work. I missed the mark every time. That’s probably because the market moves so quickly. If you look at what is popular now and try to write something similar, then by time an editor sees it, she’ll know it’s going out of fashion. The only thing you can do is write the book you really, really, want to write. That’s how Clash came about – total frustration at getting nowhere for a long time. I decided to write something I wanted to read. I didn’t even plan to send it out because I never thought it would get picked up. Weird, eh?

On the subject of issues and moral boundaries, I try not to consider them unless they come into play as the story progresses. If you set out to write an “issue” book, say on a medical or mental condition, you risk it sounding like an “issue” book. There are issues in Clash, but I never set out with those things in mind from the start; I started with Kyle and Gareth getting chased by the local psycho. It grew from there. The local psycho became Alex, began to develop, and before I knew it I was writing about him just as much as Kyle. Their individual problems developed with them.

I didn’t worry about taboo subjects, otherwise a lot of Clash would never have been written. There were a few scenes that were calmed down when it came to editing, but I never really considered holding back at the time of writing because, as I said at the beginning, I never really thought it would get published. I wrote it for me. I only sent it off because that’s what you do when you finish a book.

Having said that, teen readers react very well to Clash. When I go into schools, I often talk to the kids who hate books and don’t like reading or writers. It’s more fun that way. We talk about honesty in fiction, why realistic language is important, then I go on to read that first chapter. I tend to read it from memory, so I can engage eye contact and get a true reaction. In one school (where they were a particularly tough crowd) they ended up standing on the tables, cheering like a football crowd – they loved it. I often get kids coming up to me afterwards saying, ‘I never thought books could be like that.’ - That’s a pretty good feeling.

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

No. If kids see something in my books that speak to them, it’s because I’m from a similar background. I went to a rough school – kids were beaten up in the bogs, teachers were evil, often humiliating students, throwing anything that came to hand. My maths teacher used to throw a golf ball at us if we tried to get some sleep in his lesson. We survived by throwing insults at each other, avoiding the toilets and endlessly quoting “The Young Ones.

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

The Butterfly Tattoo by Philip Pullman. Simple as that. I picked it up by mistake, loved it, and got hooked on YA fiction.

I didn’t like reading as a child. As a teenager I tried to keep up with friends but found it difficult. I was a very slow reader, but I did manage to get through a few Stephen King novels. It was James Herbert who really drew me in though. I loved those book: The Rats, The Fog, Fluke... I still love them. In fact, I sent James Herbert a copy of Clash to say thanks for inspiring me to want to be a writer.

* What’s next for Colin Mulhern? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

Arrrghhhh – so tempting, but unfortunately not. I should be making an announcement shortly though. Keep a check on my website.

Non Pratt @ Catnip - No, Colin isn’t allowed to talk about what he’s working on next. All I will say is that the manuscript he just sent over blew my tiny mind right out of the water.

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Writing doesn’t make a good writer. Observation makes a good writer. Reflection, experience of emotions, of highs and lows, loss and gain.

So turn off your laptop, get out there: live life, do stuff, and take it all in.


Non Pratt, Commissioning Editor @ Catnip Publishing

Diversity in publishing is a tricky thing. There’s no getting away from the fact that many of the books out there address those concerns most keenly felt by the white middle classes. There’s a reason for this – most writers fall into this category and so do most of the publishers. So if you roll with the statistics, then you get a predominance of books that speak most strongly to that group of teenagers. 

But the problem is that this is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. If you don’t have books that speak to a wider audience, then why would you expect a wider variety of people to want to write them? And if a wider variety of people don’t write them...

I think it’s interesting that Colin didn’t read as a teen, nor did he have an overly privileged school life but that’s not what I saw when I read his manuscript for Clash. What I saw was a throat-grabbing narrative and characters so real I wanted to scream at them in frustration and throw my arms around them only to cry when they shrugged me off. Colin is a believer that life experience is what helps make a great writer and I think he’s the greatest proof of his own theory – his writing is instantly believable and immediately empathetic because of his own experiences. The fact that this resonates with me (someone who owns a pickle fork and shops at Waitrose) and desk-jumping teenage boys just goes to show how far one piece of writing can reach.

I’ve spoken to lots of other gatekeepers and the main thing we’re concerned with is not the swears, or the violence so much as the quality of the writing. Write well, publish responsibly (by which I mean actions have consequences and nothing is gratuitous) and librarians, teachers and booksellers alike will be happy.  Your problem isn’t with the keeper of the gates, but the ones with the keys – the parents. They don’t like their children seeing an F-bomb dropped on the page or finding out about sexy times in a YA novel and they complain to the teachers and the librarians and the booksellers, who then have to worry about what to stock. Honestly, I’m mystified by the idea of minding my daughter reading something that has been vetted by so many people already, especially when you consider how easy it is to access violence/swearing/sex via the internet. I wish there was a way of engaging parents on these issues...

The one thing I think is important to remember is that it’s about respect.
Respect your teen reader and your teen reader will respect you.

You can read an interview with Non Pratt, Commissioning Editor at Catnip Publishing HERE


Lisa Fee said...

Oh man, my blog is also called TALL TALES, oh well great minds think alike:-)

Sue said...

An honest and down-to-earth interview. I particularly liked the point about writing what you want to write, not trying to second guess what's flavour of the month with teens.

Anonymous said...

I work in a library at a Catholic School and if there are too many swear words or too much violence, the book won't be ordered. The librarian doesn't have time to read every book that comes through, so it's based on what jumps out from a quick flick through. The quality of the writing doesn't really get judged at that level. We probably miss a few good books that way, but we also miss a string of complaints from parents.

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