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Tony McGowan Interview

Posted on 29 March 2010. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to Tony McGowan about his Young Adult fiction

Tell us all about your writing background- what youíve written, what youíre currently writing

I wrote my first book, Hellbent, while I was working for the Civil Service back in the 1990s. The work was both hard and boring, and writing was my release, my joy, my hope. After Hellbent I wrote two literary thrillers, Stag Hunt and Mortal Coil for Hodder & Stoughton, and then two more teenage books for Random House. Iíve also written a clutch of books for younger children. My latest book is called Einsteinís Underpants, a sort opf sci-fi comedy thing aimed at 10-13 year olds. It comes out on April 1. Iíve just finished the first draft of another Y/A novel, provisionally titled Death Be Not Proud. Itís a High School noir thriller.

Before working for the Civil Service Iíd spent a long time at University, culminating in a rather fey PhD on the history of beauty. A PhD is, basically, a book, and writing it both taught me the craft of stringing sentences together, and reassured me that I could, in fact, produce a book-sized object.

Other work besides writing; ie. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works/worked for/against your own writing

I currently work two days a week at St Maryís University College, Twickenham, as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. In a nutshell, I help students to write essays and other course work. The work is relatively pleasant and stress free. However Iíve still found that itís cut down my literary output. It turns out that Iím bone idle, and use any excuse to convince myself that the weekís work has been done. On the up-side, it gets me out of the house. Thereís a danger that when you become a full-time writer you lose contact with the real world and actual living, breathing human beings. Itís why lots of writers are cranks. Having a job gives you a reality check.

How, when and why did you first start writing for kids?

My first book, Hellbent was originally intended for adults. However it was rejected by all the adult editors my agent sent it to. So I stripped out the worst of the swearing and re-imagined it as a teen book. Once it was accepted I found that, without really consciously willing it, I was childrenís author. Although I stumbled into the role, Iíve found it very comfortable. My teenage years were unusually vivid, and filled with dramatic incidents and characters. Even now, my brain defaults back to those days, filled with tension, excitement, love, boredom, danger and joy.

Who are your favourite writers and why?

Catch 22 was the book that first made me want to write a novel. I read it as a seventeen year old, and was totally hooked by the mix of gravity and levity, the intellectual playfulness, the tragedy. Around the same time I began working my way through all the novels of Anthony Burgess, who has probably influenced my style more than any other writer. Shame nobody reads him anymore. My next big influence was Rabelais, fifteenth century French monk, philosopher and smut merchant. Iíve endlessly pillaged his Gargantua and Pantagruel for dirty ideas. Before that I was a huge Tolkien fan. Between the ages of nine and eighteen I read the Lord of the Rings over and over again. Iíve been reading it to my 10-year old son, and Iíd forgotten its power and beauty. Forgotten also how much of my own style was borrowed from the master.

How did you get your first agent/ commission?

For me the journey was immensely complex and fortuitous. I sent Hellbent off to ten or so agents, picked more or less at random. They all sent rejections right back, often impersonal to the point of beginning, Dear Sir/Madam. That was discouraging. Then my wife, who works in the fashion industry, had an idea for a book. I helped her write it. She got an agent and a big deal quite quickly. Her agent agreed to look after me as well, in a pitying sort of way. Quite quickly thereafter, I got deals for Hellbent and Stag Hunt. But without the sheer luck of my wife getting an agent, it would never have happened for me.

What's the worst thing about writing?

It can be lonely and boring and, as I suggested above, it turns you into a crank. And Iíve lost some good friends who thought they saw themselves in my characters, and didnít like it. Plus, unless you strike it lucky, the pay is rubbish!

And the best?

The freedom to do what I want, both in terms of my work, and in terms of how I spend each day. That and the groupies.

Tell us what kind of response you get from audiences/readers and if/how this affects/influences your writing

Most of my books for children are supposed to be funny. Funny is all about getting laughs. That makes me acutely aware of the response of my readers. If they donít laugh, then Iíve failed. I do lots of school visits, and monitor what goes down well and what flops, in my readings. I take the line of least resistance, and go in the direction of the laughter. I get a dribble of fan mail, which I find immensely touching and encouraging.

What was your breakthrough moment?

The first chapter of Hellbent, my first book, is still the funniest thing Iíve written. After Iíd written it I thought to myself, yep, you can do this.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Comments by other Members

Vimes at 11:29 on 30 March 2010  Report this post
Wow - one of my favourite authors! I bought Hellbent because I was worried it might be too similar to my WIP (a 1st person about a lad who goes to Hell)... then I nearly gave up because his was so much better, lol! The only bad thing about his books is that if you read them in public you look like an escaped mental patient laughing out loud.

JulesA at 08:35 on 09 April 2010  Report this post
Another great interview

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