Children’s author: Alan Gibbons
Orion website July 2006
Alan Gibbons laughs. It is a big, unselfconscious guffaw: the laugh of a man who feels like the luckiest man alive, thanks to a job that takes him into a place many would fear to tread – the minds of teenagers.
He is laughing at my question about why his latest novel, Rise of the Blood Moon, swaps the mean streets of northern towns for an exotic fantasy world populated by warriors and vampires. “I had got to the point writing books about gritty northern realism that I started to feel that when I visited schools I should arrive with a whippet and a ferret,” he answers.
The book is the first in the two-part Lost Souls Stories, its sequel, Setting of the Cruel Sun, follows in September. It is a rich, profound and powerful story of war, cruelty, tyranny, betrayal and love, set in a sumptuous world of spices and silks and gloriously gothic monsters. Such is its ambition, it is bound to draw comparisons with J R R Tolkien and Philip Pullman.
It is a far cry from Alan’s recent work, including Caught in the Crossfire about race hatred in a northern town and gangland thriller Blood Pressure. “It is a big gamble,” he admits of the change of direction. “The idea started when I saw the film The House of Flying Daggers. I started to think about books that are socially real and books that are fantasies, and realised that writers like Philip Pullman do both, and maybe I could too.”
It is not his first venture into fantasy, his Lengendeer Trilogy was a commercial and critical hit. It is his most ambitious and the fantastical backdrop does not mean he has shied away from the big issues such as racism and fundamentalism that drive much of his fiction. In fact part of the reason he set the book in a fantasy world was because he felt it would be a better place in which to tackle some very contemporary issues. “I had the idea of tackling strong themes such as tyranny, and realised that I could do that by presenting them in a way that felt relevant to children from all cultures.”
Crossing cultural divides is important to Alan, not least because his work in schools brings him into contact with many inspiring young Asian readers. “I meet so many brilliant kids in this country who want to talk to me about India and Pakistan. They are desperate for a book that is about them that isn’t just about racism,” he explains.
He consciously modelled the setting of the book on the Indian Sub-continent, there is even a hint of Bollywood in the more lush scenes. It is also why the characters, such as feisty slave girl Cusha and the mysterious Shamana, are Asian. “I get so fed up with the likes of Gandalf and Merlin being blue-eyed hippy guys. I wanted this book to be something that for once was not rooted in Celtic and Teutonic myth.”
It is rooted in an empire once known to Britons: ancient Rome. “One of the things that comes across watching Gladiator was that Rome was a multicultural society,” Alan observes. Like the Romans, the cruel Sol-ket who rule the world in Rise of the Blood Moon are warriors who revel in the enslavement of their victims. “I wanted the Sol-ket empire to have the feel of the Roman world, where the only thing that mattered was not the colour of your skin but where you are in the power structure.”
While working on the book, Alan read extracts to children on school visits. He was blown away by their response. “I read the opening to quite a lot of kids and their eyes just lit up and I knew I was connecting with them.”
The children were not the only ones listening: Alan was too. “I did some fantasy writing workshops and bounced some ideas off the kids,” he recalls. “They started talking about what they wanted to read and I have incorporated some of those ideas into the book.”
His enthusiasm at listening to his readers as well as writing for them is palpable. As an educationalist – he was inspired to write by books he read to pupils as a teacher – he is frustrated by the mechanistic approach to literacy taken by the education system. Children should be encouraged to read and write because it is fun and opens up whole worlds into which they can escape, he believes. “Writing is for pleasure, not to demonstrate a subordinate clause,” he asserts.
His criticism of government literacy policy has made him a vocal campaigner. He organised Authors Against SATS, which was backed by every major children’s writer in the UK.
But it is not just in politics that Alan gets his hands dirty. Spending time with readers means that he is painfully aware of the suffering of many at the hands of bullies. Bullying is the theme of Hold On, a heartbreaking story of a boy’s suicide.
He hopes Rise of the Blood Moon will encourage victims of bullying. Young characters such as Cusha, whose suffering does not deter them from fulfilling their fate, reflect his belief that bullies bully those they envy. “I notice that in schools it is the kids who aspire to do something with their lives who get bullied the most, ” he says. “That is why a big theme in what I write is about making the most of yourself.”
He cares deeply for teenagers. They inspire him to write. He becomes pensive. “I love working around teenagers,” he says. “They get a bad press from the Mickey Mouse papers, but kids now are passionate about issues, whether GM crops or the peace movement. They have this huge idealism.” And that commodity is invaluable in any world: real or fantasy.