Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Author Visit: Anthony McGowan

The lovely Anthony McGowan has stopped by to answer some questions about writing, breaking wind and sleeping with JK Rowling.

Ok, really only the first one of those is true.

Nevertheless, make yourself a cup of tea and read on :)

Hi Tony, welcome to my blog. Pull up a chair! So. Down to business: How would you sum yourself up as a writer in a couple of sentences?
I try to do two quite possibly irreconcilable things – I try to be as intellectually stretching as I can – hence the philosophical and literary underpinning of my books, whilst also appealing to the part of the brain that laughs at the conspicuous breaking of wind.

What’s your ‘story’ – getting your first book written, finished and published?

Quite a complicated one. I wrote my first book– an early version of what eventually became Hellbent, while working as a civil servant in London. It was the most enjoyable writing time of my life – I was writing purely out of love, and enjoyed every moment at my computer, which I think transmitted itself to the text I was pretty excited about it and sent it off to the usual places, receiving, in due course, the usual rejections. In the meantime my wife (whose day job is designing clothes) wrote a novel which, embarrassingly, got a book deal straight away. Her agent took me on out of pity. She suggested that I write something more commercial, which I did – an adult thriller called Stag Hunt. Hodder and Stoughton snapped it up. And now I was published writer, suddenly Hellbent seemed attractive, and Random House brought it out.

What motivates you to get your writing done? Do you set yourself word limits every day? Do you leave a sentence half finished for the next time you sit in front of your computer?
I always try to write a 1000 words a day. That seems a good target – achievable, but reasonably stretching. I’d never leave a sentence hanging – I’m such a bubble head I’d probably forget what I was going to say.

When someone says to you ‘What do you do?’ and you answer ‘I’m a writer’ – what reaction do you normally get? What’s the worst reaction you’ve had? And the best?

Yeah, I usually fess-up. Generally people are polite and interested. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever had anything other than that, except for the occasional embittered unpublished writer, who’s convinced that I only got published because I’m sleeping with J K Rowling or Martin Amis or whoever. Although, it could be argued, that I only got published because I was sleeping with my wife, who happened to get a book deal ... But compared to ‘I work in the VAT department of HM Customs & Excise’, ‘actually, I’m a writer’, usually goes down very well.

You’ve written both adult and YA novels – which do you enjoy writing most?
Hard to generalise – each book has its own challenges and frustrations. But, over-all, I’d say I slightly prefer writing for teenagers.

To those [idiots] who say that writing for children is easy, what do you wish to say to them?
All writing is hard. Or easy. Or somewhere in between. Children’s books are often shorter, which can be an advantage. Or make things harder. Or something in between. I know that’s not very helpful, but the answer to this question does simply depend on where your natural gifts lie. One thing that annoys children’s authors is the idea that any old celebrity can knock out a quick kids’ book. They’re invariably crap, but get so much marketing attention that they end up selling way more than much better books by less well-known authors.

Your YA novels mix the supernatural with real-life issues facing YAs today. How do you find the right balance between the two?

I trust my instincts. I like to mix up the real and the strange/supernatural/fantastic. Actually, I think with me, the most important mash-up is not between reality and fantasy, but between reality and literature. All of my books begin with some other text, which forms the spine my story. So, with Hellbent, the originating text is Dante’s Inferno. With Henry Tumour it’s Henry IV part 1. With The Knife that Killed me it’s the Iliad. Ah, just how pretentious does that sound!

You also teach writing, and will be running a YA writing workshop, ‘Writing For Children’ with The Faber Academy in the new year. How has teaching writing affected your own writing?

I don’t think teaching has affected my writing at all – it’s the other way round - what I teach is based on what I’ve learnt about writing from actually doing it. Having said that, I find it terrifically stimulating from an intellectual point of view – creative writing students are (quite rightly) very demanding, and I always feel like I have to be at the top of my game to keep them happy!

In a recent interview, Tom Vowler said [when asked what was his most memorable moment of his writing career so far] ‘…but increasingly I’m finding it’s the little moments. Seeing a stranger browsing the book in the High Street. Or when a writer emailed me to say one of the stories had just made her cry on the train.’ What is your most memorable moment, and what are your ambitions for the future?

Writing is such a diffuse and vague activity – a book can take a year, two years. So I treasure the rare intense moments of pleasure - winning prizes is always very, very nice. But the simple joy in seeing your book in a bookshop, which used to thrill me, fades ... Having a boy who’s never read a book before send me an email saying they’ve enjoyed The Knife that Killed Me (or whatever) is also very moving.

And, final question, in our Book Forum, we have the ‘Book Tree’ where members pick their favourite book and post it to each other in a circle, so everyone reads each others’ books, writing comments in them as they go. If you were to join in, which book would you choose and why?

In the teen book world, it would have to be Red Shift, by Alan Garner. If an adult book, I’d probably pick The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley – the greatest book that no one’s ever heard of.


Tony McGowan will be teaching ‘Writing For Children’ at The Faber Academy starting 25th January 2011. For more information, see www.faberacademy.co.uk or call Ian at the Faber Academy on 0207 927 3827.


Sent to Hell for typical teenage misdemeanours, Conor is surprised to find that it's not all pitchforks and leaping flames. But an eternity in a fusty cave full of philosophy books and obscure classical music is actually worse.

Then Conor realizes that his personal version of Hell might be someone else's idea of Heaven – and vice versa. He sets out on a filthy, funny and forbidden journey to search for his opposite number, accompanied by his repulsive pet dog, a depressed cross-dressing Viking and a stumpy devil called Clarence. What he sees is disgusting and what he discovers is shocking, but oddly enough Conor learns a hell of a lot about life – now that he's dead!]


  1. Ooohhhhh must read this! Thankyou both of you!

  2. No problem, thanks for reading :) x