The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Andy Mulligan

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Andy Mulligan

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Summary: You will probably know Andy Mulligan best for Ribblestrop, his wonderfully absurdist comedy set in a boarding school. Now he's turned his attention to social issues and mystery adventures in Trash, a gorgeous fable that is bound to win awards. You shouldn't miss it. Andy was kind enough to have a chat with us.
Date: 18 September 2010
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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You will probably know Andy Mulligan best for Ribblestrop, his wonderfully absurdist comedy set in a boarding school. Now he's turned his attention to social issues and mystery adventures in Trash, a gorgeous fable that is bound to win awards. You shouldn't miss it. Andy was kind enough to have a chat with us.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Andy Mulligan:

I see a kid called Ben, who was the most avid reader I ever taught. He hoovered books up - thin ones, fat ones, kiddie ones, adult ones - and read so fast I thought he was faking it. But whenever I asked him testing questions, he could always answer them. He sat on a bean bag in our school library, and looked like he was reading in secret - he kind of curled round the book like a bear with a honeypot. So I picture Ben, even though reading Trash would take him about three minutes. Of course, girls can read it too - so Ben in a dress. That's not a very appealing image so I am trying not to see that.

  • BB: Poor Ben! We're not looking either! We fell in love with Trash - as you can see from our gushing review! What inspired you to write it? And what came first, the characters or the plot?

AM: The plot came first. A friend told me about that extraordinary first image on page one - about kids sifting through human muck. I could not get it out of my head - I had never heard a child-labour story so foul and so frightening. The plot emerged from that simple question, What if you found something that could change your life? Here in the west it might be a lottery ticket or - if you're into fantasy - an invisibility cloak. In my mind it became a key, because I had a strong sense that those children had to get through doors that are very firmly locked.

  • BB: That makes complete sense to us. The book has a really upbeat feeling about it, despite the poverty and hardship of life on the dumpsite. We'd call it a feel-good book. Was this your intention from the outset, or did it evolve as you wrote?

AM: I don't know… I never wanted to write a "feel-bad" book. I’m trying to think if I've ever read a feel-bad book - yes, I have. The Outsider by Camus, which I have to teach to sixteen year-olds every year and always makes me want to cut my throat. We do it alongside Kafka's Metamorphosis, which is another feel-awful-about-the-human-race book. Why we have to teach this slush, I do not know. I was brought up on feel-good books, like To Kill A Mockingbird - however testing the journey and however much horror you encounter, you will survive and you can make a difference. I've got no time for books that dish out gloom. Imagine if Mr Tom had gone all way to London and found his little evacuee dead! Imagine if The Famous Five had all been killed under Kirren Island in a rock-fall! No! There is life everywhere, and it's good - and where things are grim, there is hope. The moment I started writing Trash I knew the children had to succeed. In my experience, street-children have a resilience - a desperation - that marks them out for survival. Energy, edge, hunger - call it what you want, the children I based my Trash characters on were all survivors, without the luxury of feeling gloomy.

  • BB: Erk! The Outsider is a favourite of ours, but yes, we see what you mean. There's always room for optimism and it's precious. Was Trash more difficult to write than Ribblestrop?

AM: No. Ribblestrop was very hard because the plot is tricky, and there are loads of characters who don't ever shut up. When I write Ribblestrop - and I'm just editing Return to Ribblestrop (the next volume), all the characters want their space, and take me off down tangents and into subplots. My publisher has to fight hard to trim it and get me to focus. With Trash the plot came to me very quickly, and I wanted to keep it tight. I wanted to do a short book - a thriller. Once I sat down, I zoomed through Trash.

  • BB: When did you start to write? And where do you do it?

AM: I started at the beginning of my Easter holidays last year. As a teacher, I had three weeks holiday in the Philippines - I teach in a very fine school called British School Manila - get on the website and you will see the rows of smiling faces. I had three weeks, so I borrowed the very quiet flat of a friend who was on holiday, and locked myself in a small room (without a view) – I will send a photo. That was the best advice I ever had - choose a room without a view, sit down, and write. I would take the occasional coffee-break, but just went at it for 6-8 hours a day, and the first draft was done by the end of the holiday.

  • BB: Teaching or writing?

AM:What?

Do I prefer?

Do I prefer teaching or writing? Teaching is more fun, because it’s social. I am a fussy, irritable teacher and my pupils tell me that I turn red very quickly and they worry that I'm about to keel over. But that being said, I love being in the classroom. I have worked in schools where you get headbutted and sworn at (I haven’t lasted long, being very, very soft), but 98% of my teaching career has been in schools where children arrive looking forward to the day, and ready to have a good time. Teaching is a nice babble of discussion and irreverence, and I enjoy the company of my pupils and my colleagues. Writing… it's a bit lonely. Particularly in a room without a view. I have met a few other writers recently who tell me that I'm doing it all wrong, and should only write in the mornings, so as to have a life in the afternoons. I am going to try to do that. Life's not good when your best friend is a Pilot pen and you realise you've started talking to it.

  • BB: What do you do when you're not writing or teaching, and do you like fishing?!

AM: I went fishing once, with a friend called Michael, who took it all very seriously. We caught nothing, and were told off by other fishermen for wearing the wrong boots or coughing too loudly. I went sailing once with a friend called Colin, and we spent two hours getting the boat ready, and an hour sitting totally motionless on a low tide, and then we spent two hours putting the boat away. I played golf once, with a friend called Lee, and we got told off because we were sharing clubs, which I now know you can go to hell for. These were all childhood experiences that made me realise the outdoor life was not for me. When I'm not writing or teaching I am cooking, or reading, or eating, or drinking. I do like music, and my idea of heaven is opening a bottle of wine and putting on a nice CD. I will not say what CD - I made the mistake of telling my pupils, and am still mocked for my wretched taste.

  • BB: Your life sounds idyllic to us, wretched taste in music notwithstanding! Tell us about living and working in the Philippines.

AM: Well, how long have you got? What a country! Manila is a city with its problems, like all big cities, but beyond Manila it's paradise. If you like surfing and diving - which I don't - you'll be in heaven. White beaches, fish barbeques, translucent seas… that's the tourist side. The real joy of the Philippines is a culture of hospitality that is humbling. Wherever you go, people seek to avoid conflict. As a tourist, I am treated as a guest. Teased, of course - the humour is infectious, delightful. I love it there.

  • BB: What would be your Desert Island children's book?

AM: I think Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho is very good, but it is not really a children's book as it deals largely with sadistic killing and mutilation - so if I can't have that, if the Desert Island police take it away from me as I'm washed up on the beach… Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings Goes to School? But that’s a bit short. Marianne Dreams is crazed and surreal, about the girl who dreams what she draws - but I've read that so often. I think I will have Winnie the Pooh and I know that’s a bit "young", but there's more good comedy and wisdom and risks and emotion than in many an older book. When Christopher Robin tries to say goodbye to Pooh in the enchanted place, because he's off to school, and he can't find the words - and Pooh doesn't really get it. I still weep every time. And Rabbit, the racist, trying to ethnically cleanse the forest of kangaroos! It's deep stuff. And Eeyore, who apparently inspired Leonard Cohen.

And can I take Lord of the Rings as well? - just as a fire-lighter?

  • BB: You can take them all! In particular Marianne Dreams, which we love. What's next for Andy Mulligan?

AM: I have just had a brilliant idea for a book. I've got to edit Return to Ribblestrop. And then I've got to finish a radio play about a man who wants to kill his neighbour's dog because it's ruining his concentration. And then I get a nice long run of time, and I'm going to find a room without a view, and…you wait! It's going to be such a laugh.

  • BB: Oh fantastic! We can't wait at all, so you'd better hurry up! Thanks so much for talking to us, Andy. And thanks for writing Trash!

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