The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Melvin Burgess

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Melvin Burgess

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Summary: Jill thought that Doing It by Melvin Burgess was a funny and truthful peek into the minds of sex-obsessed teenage boys. Girls aren't left out, either. Parents might find it shocking but the kids will find it real. When Melvin popped into Bookbag Towers it was Jim who was on hand to ask some questions.
Date: 31 July 2014
Interviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James

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Jill thought that Doing It by Melvin Burgess was a funny and truthful peek into the minds of sex-obsessed teenage boys. Girls aren't left out, either. Parents might find it shocking but the kids will find it real. When Melvin popped into Bookbag Towers it was Jim who was on hand to ask some questions.

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

Melvin Burgess: I never really do. It partly depends on the book. I suppose, in the end, I try to write a book that none else has written and that I would love to read myself.

  • BB: I think it’s probably fair to say that Doing It was your most controversial novel (although Junk and Lady would push it close, of course.) In a famous review/hatchet job, Anne Fine, then-Children’s Laureate, said “Young girls will be begging their parents to send them to single sex schools. Reading this will put many off dating for years.” Were you surprised by the level of vitriol in some reactions to the book, particularly hers, and have you ever spoken to her about it in the years since?

MB: I was surprised at the time. It's the sort of book where you'd expect to get some bad reaction, but I thought that someone like Anne would recognise that the boys weren't using their coarse sense of humour to bully anyone, it was just amongst themselves, and that at heart they were really sweet lads. I thought they were charming myself! Some people just don't find sex funny. I kept in mind a quote from Woody Allen while I was writing Doing It. He asked the question - Is sex dirty? And the answer is, only if you're doing it right! - that just about sums up the comedy side of the book. Anne just didn't get it, but she also missed a lot of the other stuff in there - the fear of rejection, the difficulty the lads have in recognising their own emotions, that sort of thing.

I was scared silly when I heard about the review, I must say - Anne is a powerful writer. But I was much relieved after reading it though. There wasn't much analysis in it, it was more of a rant, really.

I remain friends with Anne, although I never spoke to her about her review. She's a clever woman and a lot of fun. She also has some very strong opinions, but the fact that I might occasionally be on the wrong side of them hasn't put me off her in any way.

  • BB: Has any criticism of any of your books ever made you doubt yourself? When reading a review like Anne Fine's, has there ever been a point where you thought that perhaps you'd gone too far in any particular scene?

MB: Hm, well, of course sometimes you do have doubts. But all these books are thoroughly thought out before they get sent out there. It's not just about seeking controversy, or trying to shock for the sake of it. I'm very well aware that some people find these kind of areas difficult, but I do believe in Doing It, and Lady, and Junk, and they are written from a strong opinion of my own - that it is right and respectful to readers to talk authentically about difficult things in particular.

  • BB: Do you think that Doing It would have provoked the same strong reactions from some critics if it was released for the first time today, or has there been a change in the landscape of teen fiction to render books like this more acceptable?

MB: Teen fiction has certainly expanded and reaction to it has matured. When Doing It came out, a lot of people weren't at all familiar with YA, which was still a very new phenomenon. I don't think it would have the same impact today. Having said that, a lot of people are still very odd about sex - they just can't bear the fact that it is, when all's said and done, really rather rude as well as meaningful and loving. Also, journalists can be very lazy, and even though the idea that teenagers should be ring-fenced rather than informed died as a popular debate in this country a while ago, shock horror always makes a good cheap story. And I do think that in the past few years, we have become a little more prudish than we were before.

  • BB: The idea of age ratings have been discussed at various points over the past few years - what are your thoughts on them? Do you feel there's an age at which teens are 'too young' to read Doing It or Junk?

MB: I've no real opinion on age ratings. I don't really agree, but on the other hand it would be handy for young people to know where to look for stuff they're not supposed to be reading. Books aren't like films - you have to read them to get the juice out of them, whereas images go straight into your brain.

Books like Junk and Doing It should be read after you have all your hormones. I don't think it'll do you any harm beforehand, but quite a bit of it will go over your head, no matter how high your reading age.

  • BB: Do you think there are any taboo topics in YA fiction today, or does anything go as long as it's handled correctly?

MB: I can't think of any taboos - people have pretty well tackled everything already.

  • BB: Doing It has been a consistently popular book since its release and there are lots of different covers out for it. I think the one people will be most familiar with is the one showing a girl with her knickers lowered down her legs. What were your initial reactions when you first saw the cover, and how do you think it compares with the upcoming cover?

MB: Hmm! I did have a problem with the original Puffin cover, not because of the knickers around her knees, but because the girl was SO thin! I took care to have a big sexy girl in Doing It, and they put a twelve year old anorexic on the front instead. I like the current cover, but the Puffin one had one big advantage - it did what it said on the tin!

  • BB: Teen fiction has perhaps been dominated by series over the past few years, but nearly all of your books have been standalones – I think the only exceptions are Bloodtide and Bloodsong? Have you ever considered returning to the characters of any of your other novels, and if so, which would you most like to write a follow-up to?

MB: I have. Doing It would certainly be one; Junk would be another. One day, maybe.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

MB: I've just started beekeeping so I'm reading bee books at the moment. The Buzz About Bees, by Jurgen Tautz, is my favourite

  • BB: What's next for Melvin Burgess?

MB: Political fantasy.

  • BB: Thanks for chatting to us, Melvin - plenty for us to think about there.

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