The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Gillian Philip

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The Interview: Bookbag talks to Gillian Philip


Summary: In Bad Faith, Gillian Philip talks about a future dystopian society in which religious fundamentalism is causing all sorts of problems. It's also a love story and a murder mystery. She was kind enough to tell Bookbag about writing it, and to chew the cud generally.
Date: August 2008
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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In Bad Faith, Gillian Philip talks about a future dystopian society in which religious fundamentalism is causing all sorts of problems. It's also a love story and a murder mystery. She was kind enough to tell Bookbag about writing it, and to chew the cud generally.

  • Bookbag: Hi Gillian - Jill loved Bad Faith, but at 40-ssh-something probably isn't part of the target audience! When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, what do you see?

Gillian Philip: I can't imagine writing something that I wouldn't want to read. So I suppose in a way I'm writing for myself! My stories are what I'd have liked to have read when I was a teenager - but they're also what I'd like to read now. There's a Toni Morrison quote I like - 'If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.'

There are those who think adults shouldn't read teen fiction, but to me that makes no sense. The quality of the writing is frequently better than in adult fiction, and for pace, plot and character, children's and YA fiction often can't be beaten by its 'grown-up' counterpart. Of course my books are written principally for teenagers, but I hope readers of any age will enjoy them.

  • BB: It's often said that teenagers are increasingly politically disaffected, despite citizenship having been introduced into the school curriculum. Do you think fiction is better placed to incite topical debate amongst the young?

GP: Citizenship classes are well-meant, and I can understand the rationale. I've never experienced one of these classes, so I can't make a judgement, but the concept seems vaguely self-defeating - a bit like the 'Moral Studies' my characters have on their curriculum in Bad Faith. Teenagers will always think for themselves, and good on them.

I think western values and freedoms are worth defending, and I think they need defending, but you don't make children passionate about something simply by drumming it into them. Party politics and the democratic process have got themselves a bad name in recent years - sometimes fairly, sometimes not - but young people care as much as they ever did, and they're as intelligent and passionate as they ever were. I think it's a seriously bad idea for anyone to detach themselves from the political process - one reason things go so wrong for the society in Bad Faith is that people 'lose interest in politics' - but you can't hit readers over the head with a message (well, you can, but it won't get you anywhere).

I hope and believe that young people will re-engage with traditional politics, for the sake of their freedoms and rights. But they'll do that for themselves, because they realise the value of those freedoms and because (I hope) politicians will earn back their respect. And yes, I think fiction about 'real' people is one of the best ways to stimulate that debate. I do hope Bad Faith gets readers thinking, but I would never want the issues to take over from the characters and the story. Human beings are so much more engaging than political theory!

  • BB: Grass roots religion is often a powerful force for good, but organised religion can sometimes be a repressive force. What part, if any, does religion play in your life? Feel free to dodge this one if you like!

GP: No dodging! Right now I'm a lapsed Anglican (if that's possible!). I was brought up in the Episcopal Church and my father was a priest, so I've seen at first hand what a force for good religion can be. I don't go along with the idea that all the world's troubles are caused by religion; on the other hand I don't hold with the notion that only religion can motivate people to do good.

But it seems that religion more than anything else can be warped into something truly terrible. Clerics will always try to sway the moral choices of their adherents - that's their job and vocation - but they should have no right to impose those beliefs on those who don't follow their faith. Yes, secular and atheist states can be as repressive and evil as theocratic ones, but fundamentalist religion has that unique capacity to threaten souls as well as bodies - to have a stranglehold on your eternal life as well as your daily one. Church and State don't belong together: when they are intertwined they seem to bring out the worst in each other. And 'God is on our side' doesn't leave a lot of room for compromise or political opposition.

  • BB: How close are we to having a world like Cass's one?

GP: Many people across the world already do, of course. When I was writing Bad Faith I only had to open a newspaper to get another idea, and some countries make Cass's society look like a model of tolerance and democracy. But I never assume that catastrophic political change 'couldn't happen here'. I believe it only takes a nip here and a tuck there, and society can start to slide. And there are people who would like to see a more repressive society, and a more theocratic one, for good motives and bad ones. The trouble with liberal democracy is that it's always a compromise; you can't be extreme about it. It isn't even fashionable to be passionate about it. People died to create it, of course, but now that we have it we take it for granted. It doesn't inspire fervour any more. It should.

  • BB: We loved Cass so much that we would like to meet her. She's both a typical and a special teenager. Did you meet her in your mind, or is she based on someone you know?

GP: I'm so glad you liked Cass! 'Typical and special' is exactly how I wanted her to be. But in a lot of ways, what I wanted was irrelevant, because she grew in my mind all by herself. She had a mind of her own, too!

Cass kept a lot of things from me, though, and I had to find out about her gradually. I realised she had very short cropped hair - but she took her time telling me why. It was the same with her limp - I knew she was lame, but for a while I didn't know how that had come about. As for Cass's awkwardness with Ming, her bolshie attitude, her stroppy relationship with her parents... well, I guess there are some things you don't forget about being a teenager!

(I met 'Ming' in the flesh, in the foyer of Elgin Library, a few months after I finished the book. He was talking on his mobile phone and he must have wondered why I was staring. I wanted to ask him if I could take his photo, but I didn't have the nerve!)

  • BB: Bad Faith has multiple themes, it's part love story, part political thriller and part murder mystery - how hard was this to juggle while you were writing it?

GP: It wasn't too difficult, to be honest, because I enjoy reading and writing all three. I'm a sucker for a good love story, but I adore murder stories and political thrillers too. The murder element was certainly the hardest part to write, because to begin with I wasn't sure whodunnit. Once that mystery unfolded in my head, the rest of the book came together and the story the characters were telling me made sense.

  • BB: What made you want to write for teenagers rather than adults?

GP: I only properly discovered modern YA fiction when I was looking for books for my own children, and was drawn to the shelves for older readers. There was such great writing there, so many exciting plots and involving characters, I realised I'd discovered what I wanted to write. I have a sense there's a little more flexibility, too, when you're writing for teenagers: there's scope to investigate different genres and wildly different characters. Somehow there seems to be more possibility for adventure, for crossing boundaries. You can let your imagination rip. Young adult readers are very open-minded, and they're not ashamed to be passionate about people and issues. That's a great readership to write for.

  • BB: What books inspired you when you were a teenager?

GP: I was a habitual re-reader, so if I found something I liked I tended to read it over and over again. I was very into fantasy and science fiction for a while, and I read The Lord of the Rings I don't know how many times. I adored comics and graphic novels, too, and I still think they have an incredible immediacy - I like their pace, their economy, their filmic style.

I liked redemptive endings rather than happy ones. I loved John Steinbeck. And there was a teen novel I borrowed several times from the school library, about an American girl who falls in love with a German prisoner of war called Anton. It was exciting but terribly sad, and I've never forgotten the story - only, to my shame, the title and the author. I wish I could remember, because I'd dearly like to read it again.

  • BB: What are you reading now?

GP: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic novel about growing up in Iran after the revolution of 1979. It's been an amazing read - disturbing, moving, but also very funny. When I finish it I'll want a complete change of scene, so next in line is Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies. He's one of my heroes. He seems to exist partially in the world he writes, and I can relate to that! And his love for his characters just radiates out of the screen.

  • BB: What's next for Gillian Philip?

GP: I have a two-book contract with Bloomsbury - the first, Crossing The Line, comes out in April - so I'm working on book number two. Most of the story exists in my head, but I'm at the difficult stage (for me) of getting the characters onto the page and bringing them to life. I say it's difficult, but I also love it. The moment when my imaginary pals come alive and start thinking for themselves - and thoroughly misbehaving - is the most magical part of writing.

  • BB: Thanks so much for some very thoughtful responses, Gillian. We're looking forward to Crossing The Line!

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Gillian Philip said:

Thanks, Bookbag, for a really challenging interview! I enjoyed it very much. Good news too - within two seconds of posting the link on my internet group, writersscotland, a friend had given me the name of the book I loved as a teenager. It's 'Summer of my German Soldier' by Bette Green, and I've just bought a copy on Amazon. Thanks again and best wishes!


Jill replied:

That's great! You should review it for us! ;)