In the first post of a new series, DIVERSITY MATTERS,
tall tales & short stories talks to author, Phil Earle.
* Hi Phil and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a thirty-six year-old dad of three, who spends the rest of his time (which isn’t much, believe me) reading and writing YA fiction. I work for a children’s publisher too, which means most of my waking hours are spent thinking or talking about kids books. I’m a very lucky bloke.
Faces flashed before my eyes.
And for every face there was a time that they had let me down.
Each punch that landed was revenge.
My chance to tell them I hadn't forgotten what they did.
My chance to tell them I hadn't forgotten what they did.
Eight years in a care home makes Billy Finn a professional lifer. And Billy's angry - with the system, the social workers, and the mother that gave him away.
As far as Billy's concerned, he's on his own.
His little brother and sister keep him going, though they can't keep him out of trouble.
But he isn't being difficult on purpose. Billy's just being Billy. He can't be anything else.
* What inspired you to write Being Billy?
Billy had been in my head a long time before I started writing it all down. About eleven years in fact. I’d met a lot of children like him whilst working as a carer in local authority homes, kids who were angry and disillusioned with their lives. They were the sort of young people you’d cross the road to avoid, the ones you’d label as trouble at first sight.
Having been lucky enough to work with them however, and seen beyond their abrasive exteriors, I started to understand why they behaved like they did: because they’d been let down time and time again, witnessed more violence and neglect than many of us face in a lifetime.
I desperately wanted to make sense of how they viewed the world, to understand what future they saw for themselves when the rest of society had already written them off.
I suppose as well, I wanted to celebrate them, to show people what resilience and strength of spirit they had, their ability to make sense of the utter chaos they’d experienced.
* Did you do much research for your story? Do you think when dealing with issues and situations such as Billy’s it is essential to be as truthful and true to life as possible or do you think there is some room for creative licence?
I’ve learnt quite quickly that undertaking research puts me off the process of writing. I find it stifles me and takes the buzz out of the whole experience.
With Billy, my research was what I experienced as a carer, the stuff I saw first-hand, the mistakes I made in dealing with the young people I was meant to be looking after. It felt like the best research there was on offer…
During writing I became really fixated on the truth of Billy’s story, of not sugar-coating the pill if you like. As an avid reader of young adult fiction I like to be told how it is. I don’t want the author to hold my hand and tell me it’s all going to be alright, as that strips the tension from the story. YA readers aren’t daft either, if they get a whiff that the narrator isn’t authentic then they’ll move onto the next book immediately. I love that about the genre, there’s a need to be honest, even if that means exposing ugly truths.
* You have a degree in English Literature and Drama. Do you think this has influenced or inspired your writing in any way?
The drama part of my degree definitely inspired me, as we were taught how to tell entertaining stories. It doesn’t matter that the medium is different, the principles are the same for the page as they are on the stage.
The story still needs to be pacy, the characters believeable and well fleshed out.
There are also dramatic methods that actors use to build characters, like ‘hot-seating’ (where an actor answers background questions about their characters) that I use in creating characters like Billy. I owe a lot to my university lecturers, they gave me a great grounding.
Ironically, my English degree had little, if no influence on my writing. I really struggled to engage with the books we were asked to study, felt they said little to me about anything.
That’s why the YA genre was such a revelation to me. There’s a real purity to the story-telling, no wasted words or pages of waffle about an authors likes or dislikes. As I said earlier, readers tire of that quickly, and I do too!
* What do you think the teenage reader likes to read and how should we write for them?
In all honesty. I don’t know the answer to this. I know from school events that there are many readers out there, and more boys than you’d think, but I haven’t a definitive view on what they want.
All I know is what I like to read. I like stories that are pacy, with the power to move and amuse me in equal measure. What I’m trying to say is that I write the kinds of books I like to read…..
* Do you think it's important to write about all kinds of life experiences and from all kinds of perspectives and social classes to truly reflect our multi-cultural, multi-background society?
I think this is only important if it matters to the author. Writing is such a time-consuming process that I wouldn’t consider writing about a certain social class just to ‘tick a box’. That would make for an unhappy few months, alone with a laptop!
I know I’m still new to the writing game, but I’m desperate to tell the stories that I’m passionate about. If that’s means I’m writing about outsiders or people from other cultures, then great. But the most important thing to me is telling the stories I’m desperate to tell. If I’m not doing that then my writing will suffer, it won’t feel authentic.
* Taboo subjects, moral boundaries and gatekeeping - How far can and should writing for teens go?
Is there any taboo subject that hasn’t been written about already? When you consider writers like Melvin Burgess, Tabitha Suzuma or Kevin Brooks, it feels like nothing is taboo.
Personally, I love writers who tackle difficult subjects, who can take something like suicide and shape it into something powerful, whilst handling it sensitively, like Keith Gray’s ‘Ostrich Boys’ for example. What a book that is. It should be available on the NHS.
* How do your teen readers react to your writing? How should we treat them as readers?
I don’t think we should treat teen readers any differently to any other. They still want to be entertained, moved or challenged like anyone else. I’ve loved speaking to teenage lads about ‘Being Billy’. Some adults would argue that boys have little or no emotional intelligence. This isn’t my experience. They’ve related to Billy’s predicament in a really impressive and in-depth way.
* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?
My oldest is only five, so I’ll spare him the horror of my stories for a few years yet. Pre-‘Billy’ coming out, it hadn’t been read by a single teen, which looking back is terrifying. I did get though, to visit a brilliant school in south London ahead of publication, to practice my ‘event’ on them. It was a brilliant introduction to how to engage with large numbers of teenagers…
* What made you think ‘I want to write for teens’? Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
It was absolutely that. Nine books out of ten that I read are from the YA genre, so it seemed like the natural place to write. I absolutely fell in love with literature thanks to writers like David Almond, Louis Sachar, David Klass and Keith Gray. Although it was daunting to try and emulate them, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager?
I was a hesitant reader as a child, lacking in confidence. I didn’t believe I had the ability to wade through 250 pages of prose. What helped me were graphic novels, Batman, Daredevil, but also ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman. That book taught me that weighty subjects like the holocaust didn’t just belong in ‘traditional novels’. That there was real power and worth in other types of literature. This is a point I try really hard to make when I’m talking to students now.
* What’s next for Phil Earle? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I’m just copy-editing a novel about Billy’s mate Daisy. It covers the year before she meets him, a pretty tumultuous year in her life. It’s strong stuff, as Billy is, but I think there’s real heart and hope in it.
If I had to sum it up in a sentence I’d describe it as ‘Before I Die’ meets ‘The Shawshank Redemption’.
It comes out in January and is called ‘Saving Daisy.’
* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Read Read Read Read Read Read.
Read the things that excite you, that you desperately want to engage with.
Don’t be told that things like graphic novels have no worth either, there’s a real skill to telling a story with such an economy of words.
And if you’re writing? Find people you trust to share with. There’s no point getting lip service from family or friends. Seek out folk who will give you objective feedback, whilst not destroying your confidence.
A tall tales & short stories review will feature at a later date as part of a DIVERSITY MATTERS Recommended Reads post.