The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Anthony McGowan

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Anthony McGowan

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Summary: Bookbag has always loved Anthony McGowan's work, including The Knife That Killed Me and Henry Tumour. After laughing throughout his latest work (Einstein's Underpants - And How They Saved The World) we couldn't resist the opportunity to ask him some questions.
Date: 26 March 2010
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Bookbag has always loved Anthony McGowan's work, including The Knife That Killed Me and Henry Tumour. After laughing throughout his latest work (Einstein's Underpants - And How They Saved The World) we couldn't resist the opportunity to ask him some questions.

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

Anthony McGowan: It depends, obviously, on what type of book I'm writing. For my books for younger children, I see my own kids – Rosie (7) and Gabriel (10). For the teenage books, I see myself as a sixteen year old. In many ways I was every writer's dream back then. I was incredibly open to new experiences, and I'd tackle almost anything if it came in between the covers of a book.

  • BB: That's recognisable. When reviewing, we try to put ourselves in a reader's shoes, but it's much for fun when we imagine ourselves as the readers. Which sounds schizophrenic now we come to type it, but makes perfect sense to us! How much fun was it to let down your hair with such a wacky book as Einstein's Underpants? Is writing fun?

AM: I love writing big comic scenes – such as the audition sections of Einstein's Underpants. Quite often I'll chuckle to myself at some grotesque bit of comic action. However, over all, Einstein's Underpants was very hard work.

  • BB: Was it difficult to strike the right balance between a fair portrayal of Otto's and Jamie's issues, and a funny story about pants?

AM: Yes, it was. Although it's never spelled out in the text, Jamie has Down's syndrome. I wanted him to be a member of the gang, and to be accepted by the others. But the truth is that he isn't exactly like them. I got round it by making the gang look after him and feel responsible for him, the way they would with a slightly younger child. But he also brings something special to them – his courage and strength and boundless optimism. It's a slightly rose-tinted portrait, but also has a basis in reality – I had a lot of contact with Down's children when I was growing up, as my dad worked with them in the NHS. Otto is played much more for laughs. I should probably have treated schizophrenia with more seriousness, but there's only so many issues you can cram into one funny book.

  • BB: Don't you think Einstein would have been more a fake leopardskin posing pouch kinda guy? (Ahem.)

AM: Not sure I want to speculate about what was going on under the real Albert Einstein’s trousers. Perhaps he’d wear something like x=y² fronts. Okay, crap joke, but the best I could do, under the circumstances.

  • BB: It was a better joke than ours! When did you last have a pair of pants on your head?

AM: When I was a student in Manchester I lived in a house with no heating and, for a couple of months, no bedroom windows. In bed at night I’d wear all my clothes including socks and gloves and, on my head, a pair of underpants, as I didn’t have a hat. Strangely I didn’t have a girlfriend in those days...

  • BB: We won't ask what style of pants! We know and love you as a writer of books for older children, having missed out on the Bare Bum Gang. Does shifting down a couple of years in terms of readership make things easier or more difficult? Or simply more openly lavatorial?

AM: I can't tell you how much I loved writing the Bare Bum Gang books, but they aren't, actually, much more lavatorial than Hellbent and Henry Tumour. I'm afraid that bodily functions are to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth. It's probably something to do with being northern and at the nexus between upper-working and lower-middle class. The Bare Bum books came very easily. They were a combination of my childhood memories (and mine was in general a very happy childhood) and my observations of my own children.

  • BB: Which three books should every child read?

AM: You're not going to like this answer, but I honestly don't believe you should be prescriptive about what children read. They should read whatever they fancy, exploring the great world of books until they find the kind of thing that engages them. It's why libraries are so important to children – they're a playground made of words. Having said that any child that reads The BFG, Tom's Midnight Garden, and The Lord of the Rings won't go far wrong.

  • BB: Actually, we do like that answer. Very much. Although we - even as adults - prefer The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings. What are you reading at the moment?

AM: I'm at various stages of several books, none of which have totally grabbed me. I'm seven eighths of the way through Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, which is a huge great baggy novel about code breaking in the Second World War, combined with an analysis of 1990s geek culture, and, well, pretty much everything else. I'm a fifth of the way through Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I decided is rubbish, and have cast into the corner of the room. I'm also half way through Sassoon's Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, which is ever so slightly dull. The most fun I'm having is reading The Lord of the Rings to my 10-year old. We're up to the third volume, The Return of the King, and it really is magnificent.

  • BB: Is Twitter any good?

AM: It's like smoking, in the sense of being a really crap drug – highly addictive but totally unsatisfying.

  • BB: Oh! We love Twitter. We seem able to accomplish a lot in a very short time, and it puts our relationships with publishers on a much less formal setting, which is good. How do you titillate an ocelot? (You see, we do pay attention).

AM: Well, you oscillate its … oh, never mind.

  • BB: What's next for Anthony McGowan?

AM: I honestly don't know. I've just finished the first draft of another teenage novel called Death Be Not Proud, which is a very, very strange paranoid noir comedy. I quite like the idea of trying something totally different. A play, perhaps. Or I might retrain as an accountant.

  • BB: Oh, no! No sums! We'll look forward to Death Be Not Proud - and probably fight over who gets to review it. Thanks, Tony.

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