Australsk forfatter med internasjonal suksess
Gordon Reece er forfatter og illustratør. Han er opprinnelig fra England, men emigrerte til Australia i 2005. Han har tidligere utgitt bildebøker, tegneserier, graphic novels og skjønnlitteratur for voksne. Med "Mus" oppnådde han på kort tid internasjonal suksess
About the book – from the author
I was always keen to write a novel for sixteen-year-olds. I remember sixteen as being a time lived with an acute sensitivity to the people and things around me – almost hypersensitivity; a time of extreme emotions, of the first meaningful self-discoveries and engagements with the world outside family and school, the gateway where we bought our ticket and – not without some nervous backward glances – passed on into adulthood. There’s a vividness to life at sixteen that perhaps little in later life recaptures – which is why, looking back, that period seems like a dark hill line rising from a flat horizon. I wanted to reflect that hypersensitivity in the character of Shelley – the way she sees the world in acute detail, almost like a slow-motion camera, acutely aware of everything around her, but aware most of all of herself, her own feelings and motivations, of herself crystallising slowly into a new self, her adult self.
My aim was to write a novel that would be so gripping that even if the reader wasn’t a ‘good’ reader, wasn’t an habitual reader, they’d be compelled by the narrative to carry on reading to the end. For that reason Mice is strongly plot-driven with twists and turns designed to take the reader on the proverbial white-knuckle ride. Having said that, however, I didn’t want to make any compromises with the prose style which I worked just as hard to smooth and perfect and to make balance rhythmically – the book took a year and a half to write – as I would have if I’d been writing a novel for adults. This might make it a more ‘literary’ novel than the adolescent reader might perhaps be accustomed to, but I was confident the desire to find out what happened next would keep them turning the pages.
I’m aware that the violence in Mice could be seen by some to be controversial and there are various points I’d make here. Firstly, I think we should be wary of patronising the modern sixteen-year-old. We know that adolescents of sixteen and younger read Stephen King and James Herbert horror novels; we know that they watch horror films with strong content and listen to music with aggressive and sexually explicit lyrics – we may not always condone it, but it’s a fact. If fifty’s the new forty, then maybe we should get used to the idea of sixteen being the new eighteen. Sixteen is the gateway to adulthood – and it’s for that reason the genre is called ‘young adult’ and not ‘older children’. So I would maintain that Mice is age-appropriate, if that appropriateness is based on a realistic assessment of modern sixteen-year-olds.
I concede that the bullying episodes are shocking and unpleasant to read, but I’d argue strongly that they have to be. This is an issue that can’t be debated enough. I was appalled when I researched girl-on-girl bullying in the UK to see just how many cases there were that ended with the victim’s suicide. What happens to Shelley is based on an assortment of these real life cases. I also noticed how after such incidents the school’s attitude was often one of legalistic exculpation, as if the existence of an anti-bullying policy cleared them from any responsibility for the failure to implement it properly. I wanted to show in Shelley’s case how easy it is for the victim to slip through the cracks, how difficult it is for them to reach out for help, and how conditioned submissiveness – conditioned ‘good girl’ behaviour – could lead Shelley to see her suicide as the neatest and most natural solution to the problem. As I say, this is an issue that can’t be debated enough because real teenage girls are still committing suicide to escape bullying.
I want to take issue with those that feel Shelley and her mum somehow ‘get away with murder’. Leaving aside the point that a jury would most likely have found them not guilty of murdering the burglar and the blackmailer, I don’t think it can be argued that they escape scot-free from the circumstances of their actions. The decision to bury Paul Sullivan’s body in the garden leads to agonising mental anguish for both of them (Shelley’s nightmares) and unleashes a series of unknown, uncontrollable forces into their life which culminates in the arrival of the blackmailer. At the end of the book they still have the problem of Sullivan’s body in the garden, the removal of which is fraught with danger. There is also the possibility that the blackmailer has told others about them and that others will come to prey on them. But where they’re most deeply affected is in their own personalities – they’re no longer the people they once were – even if they don’t see it themselves yet – and maybe this is a more profound punishment than their being taken away in handcuffs.
This book was written in the years following 9/11 that saw the US attack on Afghanistan and Iraq. Although this is definitely not a political allegory I did want what happens to Shelley and her mum to quietly echo US actions post 9/11 so that that the killing of the intruder (invasion of Afghanistan) would be seen by most people as a justifiable action, justifiable self defence, whereas the assault on the blackmailer (invasion of Iraq) should create far more ambivalent feelings in the reader – are their actions justifiable? Have they gone too far? At the end of the book, we have the uncomfortable sensation that we don’t quite know Shelley and her mum any more, the morality of the tale has become less clear and we are left asking ourselves questions: what might they do next? What have they become? Have they lost the moral high ground now and become more like the forces they saw themselves as being morally superior to? These were the questions we were asking ourselves about the US after the invasion of Iraq – with Abu Grahib and Guantanamo Bay – do we know our ally any more? Have they changed? Are they still the good guys or have the lines between good guys and bad guys subtly shifted? As I say, this is not a political allegory, it’s a horror story, a suspense thriller, a page-turner – but the political events of those years definitely provided the narrative with its background music.
The final thing I’d say is that although Mice is driven by its plot, my enduring memory of it now is the relationship between Shelley and her mum, Elizabeth. This is a mother and daughter who in a way have been expelled from normal everyday society – the world of husbands and friends and family and school – and due to the circumstances of Paul Sullivan’s death they can’t look to the police for protection like other citizens, nor do they feel they can look to the legal system for justice. Ultimately, they only have each other, but that bond, the strength of their love – particularly Elizabeth’s ferocious maternal love – sees them through the macabre traumas they suffer. Together they survive, bloodied and battered, but proofed against any challenges the future might hold.
GORDON – Sales conference speech
Sales con speech
Thanks for inviting me here today to talk to you about my YA novel MICE. I live in a place called Mudgegonga in NE Victoria where cows outnumber people by about 100:1, so if I seem a bit nervous that’s because I don’t normally speak to this many people in an entire year!
When I was preparing for today I asked my wife, Joanna, ‘How do I tell people about my book without sounding like a complete egomaniac?’ She said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ve heard lots of writers on the make before – and besides, you are an egomaniac. Get over it.’
So, reassured by this advice, let me begin at the beginning...
Back in 1999 I was a personal injury lawyer being slowly worked to death in a small firm in Maidstone, Kent. Walking back and forth to the station every day during a bitter winter that refused to end, I began to hatch an escape plan. Joanna and I would move to Spain and I’d give my ambition to be a writer one last try. If I didn’t get a publishing contract within a year I’d admit defeat and return to the UK and my filing cabinet full of paving-stone trippers, supermarket slippers, the self-electrocutors, the luckless with ladders, and the veritable army of the rear-ended all in matching neck braces.
And so six months later we moved to Spain, to a coastal town an hour south of Valencia called Javea. Joanna worked in a dental clinic which was an Australian infielder’s underarm throw from the Mediterranean sea and I stayed at home day after day writing and drawing like a madman or ‘como un hombre loco’ as I was starting to learn to say. By some miracle I got that precious first contract within my allotted year and I began working for SM, Spain’s biggest children’s book publisher. Joanna and I would end up living in Spain for six years.
My long-term goal, however, was to give up illustrating and become a full-time novelist. My degree was in English literature and I knew that when it came to illustrating my comfort zone was about the size of a matchbox and I was never going to be able to compete with the wonders the art school graduates were producing. So in 2002 I started my first novel – MICE.
I aimed MICE at a 16-year-old audience, partly because that seemed a sensible staging-post between what I’d been writing and the adult novels I wanted to write, but also because I remembered 16 as a particularly intense, particularly vivid time of my life. At 16 you stand on the cusp of so many things – you’re supersensitive to experience, it’s almost as if your life is a movie filmed in slow motion and intercut with close-ups – and there’s quite a bit of shaky cam too during those first encounters with the demon drink. At 16 our emotions are exaggerated – there’s an angst, anger and agony attached to even ordinary experiences which we lose as we grow older but which I’d always felt strangely nostalgic for. As we all know, the average teenager can have a King Lear style meltdown if they can’t find their favourite T-shirt, so I was interested in imagining how an intense supersensitive 16- year- old would respond to the intensest traumas that I could imagine.
I also saw writing for the 16-year-old age group as something of a challenge. When I was training to be an English teacher in Bath back in 1986 we were always being told what an uphill struggle we’d face getting teenagers to read. And so I was determined to write a book that was so compelling, so gripping that even the most reluctant teenage reader wouldn’t be able to put it down. I wanted it to be a white-knuckle ride that would convince them that words on a page could be just as thrilling, just as exhilarating as any movie or computer game.
The idea for MICE came from newspaper stories I’d read about girls bullying other girls at school, bullying which was sometimes so spiteful and so relentless that the victims had ended up committing suicide. One victim had been bullied because she was too tall – 6ft at 13 - another because she was too fat, another because she was too bright, and one because she’d donated bone marrow to save her younger sister from leukaemia and had been hailed as a hero in the local press. A detail in one of the articles stuck in my mind – one of the girls had had her hair set on fire – and that would become one of the central events in MICE.
These stories of lives cut tragically short at 13 and 14 years of age began to cross-fertilize with a personal nightmare of my own – the home invasion. The family awoken from their beds in the middle of the night by an armed intruder, bound hand and foot, then stabbed to death one after the other.... There’d been several high-profile crimes of this sort when I was growing up in the UK and they’d haunted me. Which would be greater I wondered, your rage against the intruder as you waited for your turn to die, or your rage against yourself for passively allowing him to tie you up? Of all the possible deaths one could meet I couldn’t imagine anything worse than that. Even today when I live right out in the country, I have a lock on my bedroom door, a baseball bat by the headboard and a knife under my bed. All I can say is that it’s a god job Santa Claus doesn’t exist, because if anyone comes down my chimney in the middle of the night he’s going to get more than a mice pie...
I finished MICE around June 2003 and set about trying to find a publisher. Although there were some editors and agents that liked it, it never got beyond the acquisitions meeting and by about 2004 I’d pretty much concluded that MICE was unpublishable. It was a white-knuckle ride alright but a white-knuckle ride so full on that no one was going to let a 16 year old go on it.
MICE went into the sock drawer and I went back to writing and illustrating books for young children. In 2005 I left Spain and emigrated to Australia. I published picture books for Lothian in Melbourne and later Hachette in Sydney and in 2006 I began an 8 book series for Macmillan in Spain called ‘Pepe in England’ which taught basic English to Spanish children. When my wife tried to encourage me to write another novel my response was an unequivocal - NO. I’d worked my guts out for a year and a half and had nothing to show for it except more luggage under my eyes, a lot less hair and a few new interesting nervous tics.
MICE would probably still be in the sock drawer to this day if HC at Hachette hadn’t suggested I take a graphic novel proposal I had to Erica Wagner at A and U. I met Erica in February 2008 and ended up writing a 400 page GN for her called ‘graphic designs’. I was preparing sample artwork for this when my agent bumped into E and happened to mention that I’d written a YA novel way back when that had never found a publisher. I passed the MICE ms to E with no little reluctance – I hadn’t read it for five years and it now seemed completely alien to me as if it had been written by someone else altogether. I was worried that E would hate it so much that she’d cancel the GN we were doing. I contacted her and told her not to bother reading it – I said it was crap and she was wasting her time and that everyone had agreed it was unpublishable. This wasn’t clever reverse psychology, I assure you, this was straightforward panic. If I could have broken into E’s office to get it back from her I would have done so. But E being E my pleas only made her more determined to read it. She refused to give it back.
And then one Monday morning in Feb 2009 I opened my email to find a message from E with the title ‘Mice is brilliant.’ She rang me a few hours later and said she’d missed the Australian tennis final because she hadn’t been able to stop reading it and that she was mad keen to publish it. At that point, I have to say, I just thought she was just plain mad.
And, the rest, as they say, is history, or if not quite history, at least a very good story so far. Since Allen & Unwin decided to run with MICE, I’ve watched with bemused amazement as the wonderful Angela Namoi has sold it to Viking/Penguin in the US, Macmillan in the UK, and unpronounceable publishers that I’ve never heard of in Germany, Italy, Brazil, Holland, Taiwan and Hong Kong and I’m assured that it will end up selling in all the territories. And just last week, with almost a year to go before its publication in the US, we received the first offer to option MICE for a Hollywood movie. Only France has, with characteristic gallic stubbornness, refused to be seduced by the charms of the wretched rodent as we call it – and I’d like to say here – and I don’t think I’m the first Englishman to express this sentiment – WHAT THE - HELL - IS WRONG WITH THE FRENCH???
I want to thank you for all the efforts I know you’re going to put into selling MICE and helping me to buy the Tuscan villa that I’ve always wanted. Over the years I’ve learned that the publishing business is a much more collaborative effort than people think and I know that if MICE does become a bestseller it will in large part be down to you. So thank you. And if you ever want to run something past me then I’m very happy for you to email me at home – unless, that is, you’re a stalker in which case please refer all your enquiries to Erica.
And finally I’d like to further incentivize you by announcing that the person who sells the most copies of MICE will win five rose bushes – spring-blooming Hybrid Perpetuals just like the ones that appear in MICE – to go into the winner’s very own oval rosebed.
The decomposing burglar, I’m afraid, you’ll have to supply yourself....