Today Catherine Bruton, the author of We Can be Heroes is on the blog. I'm really pleased to welcome her as I'm sure her book is going to be very popular. It was published August 1st by Egmont Books and can be purchased here. After you've read the interview leave a comment to win one of 5 copies! Thanks Egmont for this great giveaway.
1) Why did you decide to write a book focused around the effects of 9/11?
Well, it was mainly inspired by an article I wrote for The Times in 2008 about children who lost a parent in the September 11th terrorist attacks here.
I included interviews with four American teenagers who had lost a mum or dad on 9/11. I remember one boy, Erik saying, ‘After 9/11, I used to hate everybody around me. And I was just so - mad. It’s only this year that I've started to really come to grips with what went on and how I was affected by it.’ I also interviewed a grandmother who had not been allowed to speak to her grandchildren since the day her son died in the twin towers; a British mother who was pregnant with her son when his father was killed; and a British boy, Martin Hart, whose father had been one of the victims of the July 7th London terrorist attacks. ‘As a boy you are expected to be manly and crying is not a manly thing to do,’ he told me. ‘I cried a bit at my dad’s funeral but otherwise I’ve kept my feelings to myself.’
It would have been impossible not to be haunted by those voices, and I continued to think of them long after the article was published.
Because my own children were very little when I started writing the book – and perhaps also because I’d just lost my own father and could see the effect that my grief was having on my pre-school age children – I chose to focus on a child who would have grown up never having known the parent they lost.
A lot of what the characters say and do in the novel is directly influenced by the research I did and the kids I featured in my original article. No novel could hope to do justice to the terrible events that have shaped their lives and sometimes I am troubled and wonder if any novelist even has the right to use real-life events as a springboard for fiction. But We Can be Heroes is intended as a tribute to them: to their strength, honesty and enduring sense of hope, and I really hope they might read it one day and maybe even tell me what they think.
2) What do you hope readers will take away from reading We Can Be Heroes?
Ooh! This is a good question! I suppose that writing the article for The Times made me extremely conscious that my own children – who were only 5 and 3 at the time - were growing up in a world shaped by the events of 9/11 and so I suppose I wanted to write a novel which explored the difficult questions that might throw up for them.
The children in We Can be Heroes are forced to confront the terrorist threat, Muslim extremism, Islamophobia and racism and my hope is that the novel might allow readers to explore those issues themselves and reach their own conclusions.
But I hope it will make people laugh too. I was completely and utterly chuffed when it was compared to novels like The Curious Incident and Millions - amazing stories which will make you laugh one minute and cry the next – and also to the work of hilarious novelists like Louise Rennison and Paula Danziger- who I love.
So I suppose I hope it will make readers laugh, then cry then laugh again – and maybe make them think a bit too. Mind you, it’s really hard to know with your own book because you are so close to it so I’m really looking forward to hearing what readers think which might be completely different to the way I see it!
3) You've written about some sensitive issues, was this a conscious decision or did it just happen?
I’ve had to ponder this quite a bit and try to think back to the time when I came up with the story. On balance, I suppose it probably was a conscious decision. The ideas came out of various quite serious articles I’d been writing – on mothers who live apart from their children, bereaved children, 9/11, eating disorders etc. – but also from the kids in my classroom who were always doodling manga, my daughter’s obsession with wheelie shoes, re-reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and the mischief my kids and their pals were getting up to (flooded bathrooms, nibbled washing machines, vandalised laptops etc). The whole lot seemed to come together in a big muddle and the silliness was as big an inspiration as the serious bits.
But I didn’t shy away from the controversial stuff either. When I’m not writing novels or articles, I teach English part time at a local high school. And so I was really mad recently at the author of ‘that’ article in The Wall Street Journal who argued that YA fiction shouldn’t be covering controversial or distressing topics (I’m exaggerating what she said slightly but that was roughly the gist of it!) Because in my opinion anyone who thinks that teen readers should be fed a diet of nothing but happy-ever-afters fundamentally under-estimates the intelligence – and the needs – of young people. Teen readers are amongst the most discerning and enlightened I have ever come across. And they typically approach literature with a greater openness and willingness to embrace new ideas or have their preconceptions challenged than many (most?) older and - so-called - more sophisticated readers.
And I suppose I also believe in the transformative power of books – books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Cry, the Beloved Country, Wide Sargasso Sea – books that make readers see things from new perspectives, by opening their eyes to other people’s views on the world and – to borrow a phrase from Harper Lee – by encouraging readers to, ‘climb into [another person’s] skin and walk around in it.’ And although it makes me sound like a young upstart I think that was what I was aspiring to in my own writing.
Golly, that makes me sound terribly high-brow and over-reachingly ambitious, doesn’t it? Eek! Definitely not claiming my book is in league with those others but I guess a girl can dream!
4) What was it like teaching in Africa and how different was it to teaching in Britain?
I think teaching in Africa - although it was over ten years ago now – fundamentally shaped who I am. It was amazing and terrifying and terrible and incredible all at the same time.
I went out to work as a volunteer at a tiny bush school in the middle of nowhere in Namibia. I was only supposed to be doing sport and art and other extra-curricular stuff, but a scandal involving an Iquira (said with a click on the first ‘i’) - a witchdoctor - and the headmaster’s wife left me teaching a class of six- eight year olds. I was 22 – totally unqualified and inexperienced. Needless to say, I was pretty rubbish!
Nowadays I delight my children with stories of the puff adder in my bedroom cupboard; the scorpion in my classroom; the plague of giant cannibalistic Hunibes (also said with a click) beetles that emerged in their thousands in the monsoon and proceeded to eat each other. I tell them of the day I hitchhiked on an airplane; of evenings without electricity and letters that took a month to reach home.
But the truth is I was a terrible primary school teacher!!!! I tried and failed to teach my unruly class fractions and spelling rules and handwriting, but my refusal to use the cane - and my total lack of discipline - meant they mostly ran riot! But at the end of each day I read them stories – The BFG, then Matilda and The Twits. I tried reading The Witches but gave up after three pages when it all started getting a bit close to the witch-doctor scandal that had seen off my predecessor!
When I ran out of books I started writing stories. About the children mostly: about Franzina the champion Mopani worm eater, Adolf the football legend who played with only one shoe and little Belinda who saved Miss Catherine from the scorpion in the classroom. It was the only time I achieved quiet or imparted anything of any value as they sat spellbound listening to stories. I think that was when I became a writer.
Teaching in Africa taught me three things. One, I never, ever wanted to teach primary school again. Two, if there’s scorpion in your classroom and you jump onto the desk screaming, ‘Kill it!’ to the nearest six year old, your pupils will never let you forget it. And three, I wanted to be a writer.
5) Have any of your pupils read We Can Be Heroes Yet?
Quite a few of my current pupils contributed to the book in one way or another. I did ask one of my Year 9 manga boys (the boys who spent most of my lessons doodling manga and inspired the character of Ben) to read it and check that my manga frame of reference was accurate. I was always asking them questions about manga and I think they thought I was nuts!
And then some of my Year 7s helped by handwriting the letters that appear in the novel. And actually at one point we were hoping to get one of the manga boys to do the comic-strip that appears in the back of the novel but in the end deadlines were too tight and so a professional illustrator did it which I’m still a bit sad about - although the manga strip he created is incredible and amazing and brilliant!
I do hope my pupils will read We Can be Heroes (even though I forgot to put it on the reading lists I distributed at the end of term – duh!) because pupils past and present very much inspired it - as you can tell by the fact that so many of them get thank yous in the back. I like the idea of one of my former pupils picking it up and reading it and not realising until they got to the acknowledgements in the back that they helped inspire it! If any of you do, please drop me a line!
6) What has the publication process been like?
I am blessed with the world’s best editor and agent so it has been an amazingly exciting collaborative creative process. It is incredible to work with people who love your book and who can help you make it better than you would ever be able to do on your own.
People underestimate the role of an editor (and an agent if your agent is hands-on with editing as mine is): a good editor has huge creative input in both shaping a novel and fine-tuning and polishing it. I suppose it would be awful if your editor wanted different things to you but I’m lucky that Ali (Dougal at Egmont) is so great. She thinks a lot like me - only way, way better!
The whole process of design is also fascinating. My cover has been through many incarnations and even the type-faces, inside cover design and the amazing process of seeing Bens’ drawings come to life have been fascinating. I am in awe of designers now!
7) What would your advice be to teens considering a career as an author?
Do it! Someone once told me that all it takes to be a writer is to write. And that means not waiting for inspiration to strike and it also means giving yourself permission to write rubbish – and believe me I write a LOT of rubbish along the way!
I reckon you’ve got to treat writing a novel like training for a marathon (not that I’ve ever run a marathon but I’ve run a half so I almost know what I’m talking about!) So, most days you probably won’t want to go out and train/write and you won’t be in the mood but when you get running/writing quite often those feelings go away and you get in the zone, and the more often you run/write the better you get and the easier it is.
Mostly the analogy works - except that I’m not sure it ever really does get easier and you don’t always get in the zone - but that’s exactly why you have to give yourself permission to write rubbish, on the basis that no matter if you bin everything you write you are still exercising your ‘writing muscles’. And, because sometimes you can start out feeling utterly uninspired and then that’s the day you write your best stuff. There’s a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg which says all this far better than I ever could.
Oh, and Dorothea Brande also has some great advice that I finds helps (I think she says this stuff in Becoming a Writer but I am prepared to be corrected on this!). She talks about writers needing two different ‘brains’: your creative brain and your critical brain. You need both but you also need to keep them separate!
Your creative brain is the one with all the initial ideas: the first rushes of inspiration etc. This is the part of your brain that writes first drafts, but it is a sensitive wee soul with a fragile ego who needs a bit of mollycoddling or it curls up in a ball of self doubt and can’t function (or at least mine does)!
Your critical brain is your editing brain: the side of your head that is able to see faults, look at detail, consider plotting, pace and structure etc. This brain is essential to achieving good writing, but if you let it in too soon, it squishes the creative brain and turns it into a quivering wreck of self doubt.
Brande reckons you need to give the creative brain free flow by just going for it: just write, write, write and don’t look back. Then put your first draft away for a period – a day, a week, 2 months. You then come back to it when you are feeling more dispassionate and able to bring your critical faculties to bear and start editing it with some objective distance. Because if you try editing it right away you just see all that is wrong and get depressed and that kills the creative impulse and you collapse into a morass of despair – or at least I do! Does that make sense? It’s definitely the case for me - probably because my first drafts are uniformly rubbish! I mean, utterly and totally pants! I probably redraft twenty times before I get to something finished.
So: write, write, write; give yourself permission to write rubbish; and only get out your red editing pen out when you feel strong enough to do so.
Hope that sort of helps. Oh, and read, read, read. Cos books are the best inspiration in the world!
Thanks ever so much for asking me to do this! It’s been great fun!