Monday, 30 January 2012

LEGENDS OF LITERATURE: Melvin Burgess and David Almond

Hello and Good Monday. Now this is a something I wrote last year and it hasn't yet found a home, so am posting here because I felt the urge to let you know about two books I FLIPPIN' LOVED from the end of 2011.

They be this:

And they be this:

At first it would seem that David Almond and Melvin Burgess make a rather odd couple.

No, I'm not attempting a bit of unlikely literary matchmaking. (In case you are interested, if I was attempting literary matchmaking the result would be a special version of Dinner Date in which Patrick Ness makes a speech to me about libraries, then Marcus Sedgwick tells me a ghost story and then Philip Pullman tells me anything. Absolutely anything. Because EVERYTHING HE SAYS IS RIGHT.)

But this was a real event, not an ITV programme in my head. This was Puffin Live: Legends of Literature and it brought together Melvin Burgess and David Almond in conversation about their books (Kill All Enemies and The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean respectively) and about stories in general. As I said, you might at first think that they are very different – one a creator of strange, lyrical worlds and the other a controversial writer of gritty realism. But the event showed that these two (most definitely legendary) writers had plenty in common as they spoke about the power of storytelling.  

Kill All Enemies began with Melvin Burgess interviewing young people who had been excluded from school. They were people who would be judged as being ‘a bad lot’, he said, but hearing their stories made him realise they were heroes. The story is told by four characters – Billie, a violent ‘psycho’ rejected by her mum,  Chris, who exasperates his parents with his decision not to do anything, Rob, a big metal fan with an abusive stepdad, and Hannah, a social worker who connects with all of them in some way. Although the story takes them off-piste, as Melvin described it, the characters are all real people and it was both heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure hearing him talk about their stories. Describing Billie’s background, bringing up her siblings while her mum was drinking and then being rejected when her mum was well enough to take them back, Melvin said ‘it is no wonder she went round punching the world in the face’. He read a passage from the point of view of Chris, whose wit and intelligence sparkles on the page and who certainly wins over the reader in his crusade not to do anything his parents want him to.

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by Almond is also a story of growing up. Billy Dean is brought up in secret, as he is the result of an unholy union between a priest and his hairdresser. At the age of thirteen Billy is brought outside – into a town that has been devastated by war. He becomes a symbol of hope to the survivors of the town, and he even seems to be able to communicate with the dead. Through the book Billy learns to understand this world and eventually learns to write his own story. David read a passage where Billy attaches the wings of a sparrow to a mouse, creating a ‘mowsbird’ – a symbol of the beauty that only Billy seems to see in the fallen world around him.

Claire Armitstead, chairing the event, suggested that what draws these books together is that they are both about finding a voice. Through the course of Billy Dean Billy learns to write. The book is written phonetically, which looks at first almost like another language, but it captures the way Billy is finding the words he needs to tell his story. Melvin Burgess’s book has given a voice to young people marginalised by the societies they live in. His characters are learning to make sense of the world around them – and to say how they feel about it and what they want from it.

Another parallel Claire drew was both books’ use of emblematic images or objects that sum up characters. Rob in Kill All Enemies has a Metallica t-shirt that gets him beaten up, but he is determined to keep wearing it because his mum bought it. In Billy Dean there are religious icons (David Almond said that angels seem to keep appearing in his work, and that he’s given up trying to stop them), but strange or broken ones, like the mowsbird or the statue of Jesus that Billy finds in pieces in the rubble and rebuilds. These seem to show a town trying to put itself back together when its faith has been destroyed.

Finally, they talked about hope. Both stories have an optimistic feel and there is hope in the way the young protagonists take on their worlds. David Almond said that people often tell him to ‘be realistic’ and by this they often mean ‘be miserable’, while he shows in Billy Dean that it is possible to find beauty in the most miserable circumstances. Billy comes out into the world with no received opinions and takes things as they are – even his phonetic language shows this clear-sightedness – words stripped down to their essentials. Melvin Burgess’s young characters show themselves capable of greatness in the face of adults who don’t give them a chance. The book suggests that it is possible for them to turn things around and be happy – a very hopeful message indeed.

It was certainly a fascinating conversation - the sort that has you very much in awe of these genius writery types and causes you to forget to do 'proper person' things like write things down or close your mouth. 

Thanks to Melvin, David and Puffin: for an evening that was as brilliant as the books being talked about. 

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