The following interview was printed in Mass Movement Magazine. It was conducted by Jim Dodge Jr and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.
Where did you first come up with the idea for School’s Out? I know your bio says that your time spent in boy’s schools only minimally affected the story but I’m not so sure. What’s the real story behind the story?
The thing that established writers always tell aspiring writers is ‘write what you know’, so when it came to pitching a storyline for Afterblight it just seemed natural to set it somewhere I knew intimately, both as pupil and, briefly, teacher.
Boarding schools are a very particular environment, full of weird rituals, power struggles, festering resentments, unspoken loves, vicious vendettas and strong friendships. It’s very fertile ground for stories, as the Jennings and Harry Potter books ably demonstrate.
Another truism is that every writer’s first book is in some way autobiographical. And while I never crucified any of my teachers, or shot a prefect in the head, I‘d be lying if I said I hadn’t daydreamed about doing it when I was at school. All. The. Time.
I was not a happy boarder, to put it mildly. I had – still have! – issues with authority, and being in an environment where I was subject to the whims of teachers I didn’t respect, and prefects I didn’t like, was very hard for me. I ran away more than once, came close to expulsion several times. And yet, bizarrely, was made a prefect myself at one point. I was a terrible prefect, too young to handle the responsibility, and I’m ashamed to admit that became a bit of a bully myself.
Then, when I spent four summers teaching in a residential school I had a few horrifying moments when I found myself acting in ways very similar to those teachers I’d hated so much. It was sobering when I understood how easy it is to be a bad teacher, and, in the larger sense, how subtle the process is by which a person can come to justify acting in ways that they would once have considered unforgivable. That thin line, and how easy it is to cross it, is what the book’s really about.
It’s fair to say that writing the book helped me exorcise a few demons.
Your main character, the tragically heroic Lee Keegan, keeps trying to do the right thing but fails to save those around him most of the time. It seems to me that maybe he really didn’t want to be a savior. Is it possible that he screwed up because his heart wasn’t in it? Or was he just a poor leader, even though he tried his best?
Lee’s problem is that he’s physically brave – he has no problem putting himself in harm’s way – but he lacks true moral courage. He plots and schemes to undermine Mac, but when the opportunity presents itself to just stand up to him and say ‘that’s not right’ he backs down, which Matron doesn’t do. He knows the right thing to do, but he has problems doing it.
I think that’s partly lack of self-confidence but more so a reluctance to take charge, because he realises that being a leader is a poisoned chalice. He doesn’t want power, and agonises over every decision he makes. Which is why he’s far better suited to wielding power than Mac.
But let’s cut him some slack, he’s only fifteen. I think he handles it pretty well, all things considered.
I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about another one of the book’s characters now, Jane Crowther, a.k.a. Matron. Do you have a thing for older, experienced women or did you just need a bit of a love interest for Keegan?
Matron is the real hero of the book. Lee is the narrator and protagonist, but Jane is the one who makes the right calls all the way down the line, but she pays a heavy price for it.
Unlike most characters in the book, she is actually based, in part, on my real matron at school, who was a hero to all of us. You’ll be seeing a lot more of Matron in the sequel, Operation Motherland.
As for having a thing for older women, you might think that but I couldn’t possibly comment. Lee does, that’s for sure.
Sean MacKillick, the highly despised Mac, is a twisted person on the inside and becomes twisted person on the outside as the plot unfolds. Is this some kind of passive-aggressive revenge against someone in your past, maybe somebody who beat you up for your lunch money? How did you develop Mac and the other characters in your book?
Mac’s an amalgamation of all the prefects, bullies and teachers who made my life a misery at school. At no point did he represent a specific person.
As for developing him, my main approach was to create a stereotype and then try to undermine it. About a third of the way into the book I allow Mac to explain why he acts the way he does, and he makes a surprisingly cogent argument for his actions. Lee almost agrees with him, and that was interesting to me. I found that, no matter how much I may have wanted to write a very two-dimensional bad guy, I just didn’t believe in that character.
As I wrote Mac and Bates I found myself wanting to get deeper into their motivations than I had initially planned.
Bates was initially a paper tiger created specifically so I could get revenge in a particular teacher from my school. But then I ended up giving him a backstory that made him quite sympathetic. I did that almost against my will. I felt desperately sorry for him in the end, and took no glee in his fate. I cheated myself out of a catharsis there. But I think it made the book better.
I particularly like the character of Rowles. Having a ten year-old who’s a highly efficient killing machine is a nice touch in the book. Did you place him there to help your readers focus on the tragedy of the story or did you have another nefarious purpose?
It’s interesting, but loads of people have said he’s their favourite character in the book. I think that’s because he’s the most real, in a way.
Rowles is that kid who always keeps himself to himself at school, never bothers anyone, just wants to be left alone and is perhaps a bit of a geek on the sly. But if anybody mistakes that attitude for weakness and tries to bully him he’ll rip their bloody heads off. I knew a few boys like that; in fact, I think there was a time when I was a boy like that.
He’s in the book partly for fun, but partly because he’s very real to me. I just know how he thinks. Again, he plays a pivotal part in Operation Motherland.
You did an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of doom and gloom. How did you keep the story so dark without giving up that ray of hope that’s so necessary to keep people reading?
I must admit I found it hard at times to go to the dark place that the book required of me. I struggled sometimes with the morality of Lee’s actions, and of writing horror as entertainment when there’s so much horror to be had in the daily news. Those dilemmas I faced are reflected in Lee’s struggles with his own choices. In the end I felt that it was okay for the book to be really grim, and for Lee to do some really awful things, as long as I always remembered two things.
Firstly, that Lee should be deeply affected by the things that happen to him. I was careful never to portray violence as anything other than horrible and traumatic for everyone involved.
Secondly, that Lee was not fighting for power, or land, or glory or money, but for the right of people to sit on lawns and watch cricket with a scone and a glass of ginger beer. There’s one calm point in the book where it looks like Lee has won and he says that his only ambition is to go sit in the sun and spend the day reading a good book. That’s what he’s fighting for. And that seems very noble and right to me. That’s the ray of hope.
I know that when I write I have to listen to angry music and caffeinate myself into a jittery, shaky beast. Do you have any special rituals or meditations (medications?) that get you into the writing mindset?
I started writing the book on the train to my 9-5 job, and that was very productive for a time. But once I got to a certain point I need more space to concentrate, so I took three months off and wrote every day. I find I can write 1,500 useable words a day, write best in the mornings, and that silence is necessary.
As for rituals, I hardly had a chance to develop any because I had a new baby in the house during those three months, so the writing process was a bit… fractured.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received in relation to your writing? What’s the worst review you’ve ever received?
I think “I couldn’t put it down” is just about the best complement a writer can get. Had a few of those, which was extremely nice.
The worst comment was a guy who thought the book was full of filler. Ouch!
Were you offended or only amused by the critic’s ignorance? As a critic yourself, are you more or less sensitive to criticism?
As a one-time critic I’m very aware that any review is just one person’s opinion, so I don’t take it to heart. I wouldn’t consider a bad review to indicate ignorance, merely that the book didn’t connect with that particular reader, and that’s like alchemy, who knows why that might be.
Unless a piece of work is the most awful exploitative trash it is the product of one person’s vision and has taken a huge amount of time and effort to produce. That deserves respect. No-one sets out to make a bad film, although god knows so many people manage it with comparative ease! So I always tried to be kindly, even to films or books that had, in my view, failed miserably. I only once ever wrote a truly scathing review and that film was so bad I still have nightmares about it.
But I’m not naïve, and I expect no such kindness from those who read my work.
Is there any advice you’d give to those of us who have yet to achieve any monetary success with our writing? Are there any things we should NEVER do?
Never write something solely for money; if you can’t find anything at all about a project that speaks to you personally then write something else. That said, a good writer should be able to inject an element of personal value into the most simple, mechanistic of projects. You may cynically think that writing, say, a Star Trek novel is all about selling your talent for cash, but it needn’t be. Find the interface between your passions and their requirements, and you can write a rollicking good TV tie-in book that Trekkies enjoy but that is also deeply personal and of which you can be proud.
Never take a rejection letter to heart. Take one day to wallow if you must, but then banish it from your mind and write something else.
Never dismiss the opinion or notes of an agent or editor. They’re not attacking you or your work; they’re trying to help you make the book better. Engage with their notes in the spirit in which they’re offered, and be willing to accept that they have something valuable to bring to the table.
Never stop writing. I have about four abandoned novels in my drawer, all discarded because they were derivative, or not working, or just plain crap. But I learned something from each attempt and immediately started writing something else.
Your first paragraph reads “I celebrated my fifteenth birthday by burying my headmaster and emptying my bladder on the freshly turned earth. Best present a boy could have.” I know from experience that the beginning of the book is rarely the first part of the story to come to mind. Where did this story begin in your head and how did you develop it into what it became? How long did it take you to perfect that first paragraph?
The original first sentence was: “When the anti-psychotics finally ran out, Alex began to wonder if rescuing his brother from the asylum had been the wisest move.”
There was a whole prologue that was part of the pitch that got me commissioned, and which stayed in the book ‘til very late in the day, but I eventually decided to cut it. My editor was a bit wary of that, but I convinced him. It was fun to write, and helped me establish the tone, but it was the only part of the book not written in the first person by Lee, so it felt out of place. Read the unpublished prologue.
I felt the eventual opening was much stronger because it established the ‘voice’ of Lee, his age, the setting of the book, and his attitude to authority all within the first few lines.
Here’s a scoop: the current opening of Operation Motherland is: “I celebrated my sixteenth birthday by crashing a plane, fighting for my life, and facing execution. Again. I’d rather have just blown out some candles and got pissed.”
It may change, though!
Was there ever a point where you struggled with the story? Were you ever tempted to give up and try something else?
There was one day where I wrote a thousand word sequence about a secret passage in the school. It was weird, like I was suddenly channeling Enid Blyton. I had to bin it.
I did struggle, especially in the middle section, where I found that my pitch contained far too little material to make a book. Eventually I added a whole new subplot and set of characters and wrote my way out of it by setting myself challenges like ‘write a three thousand word fight sequence’, or ‘contrive the most extreme cliffhanger you can think of’.
That was the point at which the book really came alive for me, and from that point on I started to improvise around my pitch rather than sticking religiously to it. It was very liberating and lots of fun.