From punk rock to punchy prose
Former punk rocker Kevin Brooks has toiled long and hard to become an overnight success. Steven Russell finds the author with 'a growing international reputation as a major talent' has his feet firmly on the groundChapter and verseName: Kevin BrooksWho is he? Up-and-coming author of gritty but sensitive novels for teenagers.
Former punk rocker Kevin Brooks has toiled long and hard to become an overnight success. Steven Russell finds the author with 'a growing international reputation as a major talent' has his feet firmly on the ground
Chapter and verse
Name: Kevin Brooks
Who is he? Up-and-coming author of gritty but sensitive novels for teenagers. Spotted by the man who discovered JK Rowling.
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Martyn Pig: “A boy caught in a miserable world whose life just got worse. Trapped by events following a single, shocking accident, he makes a decision with breathtaking consequences.” Won the Branford Boase Award and was shortlisted for the Cilip Carnegie Medal
Kissing the Rain: “Moo Nelson spends a lot of time alone, avoiding the rain - being pushed and laughed at by others. Every day he walks through it all with his eyes down, wishing things were different. But knowing they're not. Until the night he sees a car chase - and a murder . . . Or does he?”
Lucas: “Caitlin's life changes from the moment she sees Lucas walking across the causeway one hot summer's day. He is the strangest, most beautiful boy she has ever seen. But to others he quickly becomes an object of jealousy, prejudice and hatred.” Won the 2004 North East Book Award; shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction and The Book Trust Teen Fiction prizes.
Candy: “Joe takes Candy deep into his soul. He thinks about her night and day, and even his music throbs to the sound of her name. But Candy also takes him somewhere else - to her world: a bitter place of drugs, violence and hopelessness.”
Web link: www.doublecluck.com
KEVIN Brooks's Christmases have come all at once, pretty much. Not long ago he was fielding moans from rail travellers - the last of a string of jobs taken simply to put food on the table.
Before that came, in no particular order, work as a petrol pump attendant, a crematorium handyman, a civil servant, a vendor at London Zoo, a post office counter clerk and a railway ticket seller. Many of them, he winces, were “horrible”.
Then the man who had spotted the potential in a story by an unknown called JK Rowling happened to pluck a tale from a slush-pile of unsolicited manuscripts. And liked what he saw. Barry Cunningham's company The Chicken House thus published Kevin Brooks's first novel.
The Essex author hasn't looked back. He's had four novels published by Chicken House and another is out in March. He's now signed a three-book deal with Puffin, has linked up with talent and literary big-wheel the William Morris Agency - offices from Beverly Hills to Shanghai, via Miami Beach - and some of his characters are heading for the screen.
Filming is likely to begin in America this year on his debut novel, Martyn Pig. Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe has apparently expressed an interest in Lucas - a story about a strange but beautiful boy that's told by a girl - and Peter Howitt, once of the comedy show Bread and now a director, is likely to shoot Kissing the Rain.
Not bad for someone who described himself as “mostly confused and a little bit scared” at school - and cheerfully admits things are largely the same in adulthood.
It's little surprise that much of the atmosphere in Kevin's work has been drawn from his own life. Recurrent themes in his novels - all penned for a teenage audience but gripping enough to be enjoyed by adults too - include angst, loyalty, loneliness, the pangs of young love, the way adults let down children, and teenage resilience. Circumstances are often miserable and violent: think the polar opposite of the middle-class comfort of The Famous Five.
The middle of three brothers, Kevin grew up just outside Exeter and went to the local primary school. Then he won a scholarship to a private school. “All the kids I grew up with went to another school, and I went to what was known as the posh school. It was quite a strange period of not really fitting in. I learned then to get on with anybody,” he says, his London accent masking any hint of a Devon upbringing.
He was - is - sensitive, and lived in his imagination. Take his most precious memory: “Sitting on a wall when I was ten years old, wondering where your thoughts go when you die. I decided that they float up into space and become fuel for the sun.”
So what precisely psyched him out?
“Mostly people, really, I suppose! When my first book came out and I started to give talks in schools, I was thinking 'Woa, I don't give talks - that's why I write books!' It suddenly hits you: the noise and all these people.”
He explains: “I wasn't bullied, but I know what it's like being different. You've got to deal with it yourself, and that's the hardest thing. I love books about tough heroes, with nobility, who can stand up for themselves.”
For a while he commuted to London from Colchester. “I realised after a while that it is exactly the same when you're grown up as it was at school. Instead of getting the bus, you get on the train for London: Little cliques here; tough guys there; gossiping there.
“Instead of riding your bike to the bus station you drive a car. Instead of a rucksack you have a briefcase. Instead of comics you have grown-up comics. Your wife will pick you up instead of your mum. Your boss will bully you at work. It's all exactly the same, except we're a bit taller and think we've learned how to act as grown-up people!”
His favourite film is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Parts of his new novel, The Road of the Dead, borrow from the western genre, although the story is set in contemporary Dartmoor. Strangers enter a dusty bar and the customers fall silent - that kind of thing.
The gripping tale is about two teenage brothers who set out from their London home to a dark Devon village to find their sister's murderer. The younger one is a sensitive soul with extra-sensory perception; his brother, Cole, acts on instinct and is not burdened by doubt and reflection.
It's easy to see how Kevin would envy Cole some of his traits.
“If somebody says something to my wife, I want to be able to look them in eye and say 'Bugger off!' or something,” he smiles. “But I know I'm not going to! Because he's probably going to stick a knife in my back. So I just keep my mouth shut.”
From about 10 or 11 he was writing down bits of poetry, lyrics, little stories. “I had one of those really good English teachers who would encourage you to read. Because I was on my own going to school, on the bus I would read - and I think that's when I realised the power of books and how they could be a sanctuary.”
At about 14 or 15 Kevin got heavily interested in music. He played guitar and punk rock exploded onto the scene.
“We were the first punk group in Exeter. We were called The Brakes. People look back on it now as exciting, and it was, but it was also so scary because everyone wanted to beat you up. The people I was with, kind of the bad kids from school, liked the confrontation. They'd go into bikers' pubs knowing there would be trouble. We used to get car chases and bottlings, knives and all sorts. The music was very exciting, and we were doing OK, but I just thought it was too much.”
A-level studies didn't stand a chance against the punk revolution, and he got two grade Es. Guitar and suitcase in hand, he headed for London and a civil service job in the Department of the Environment - sharing a dorm with a handful of strangers.
“I didn't really have a clue what the job was all about; I think it was something to do with housing.”
He stuck it for four or five months, stayed in London until he ran out of money, then returned to the West Country. All the time he was writing bits and bobs, and working on his music.
He'd been offered a college place at Aston to study psychology and philosophy, and took it up - but quit after the first day of his second year when he realised he didn't really want to be there. Back to Exeter: a few humdrum jobs to keep the wolf from the door while he concentrated on music and writing.
London again. Enrolled on the new cultural studies course at North East London Polytechnic. All he really wanted was the grant that would allow him to live and play his music. Mind you, he stayed the course.
Kevin knew people from Exeter who were living in a big squat in Seven Sisters, and moved in with an eclectic collection of poets, actors, writers and all sorts. He got himself some recording equipment and toiled away writing and performing songs: material akin to Joy Division and The Cure.
He sold quite a lot of homemade cassettes, had songs on a few compilation LPs, “and had a few offers. But it's a weird old business. You've got to have 'front', but I was never sort of that good at selling myself”.
Kevin had promised himself that if he hadn't made it by a certain age he'd pack it in, “because music is a young person's business, to me”. It was probably the mid 1980s, around the time he met his wife to be, Sue, that the day arrived. It was the start of that string of different jobs, fuelled by necessity.
The last one in London was as a post office counter clerk. “It was almost an environment of misfits: People who didn't know what they wanted to do, so they joined the post office.”
About 20 years ago he and Sue moved to Colchester. Kevin commuted to his post office job, pending an expected quickish transfer to Essex, but rule changes threw a spanner in the works. The continued commuting drove him mad and he took voluntary redundancy.
“Despite all the music and art stuff, I always knew that eventually I was going to be a writer. All this time I'd been writing poems - not weird stuff but unstructured stuff that would never be published. I'd always loved novels and knew that's what I wanted to do, but never had the discipline to do it. When I took redundancy, I thought 'This is the time to do it.'”
Some of the work he did eventually became Lucas, his second book, but he hadn't had his big break by the time his £10,000 or so redundancy pay ran out.
Kevin had to get a job again: initially selling tickets at Colchester railway station and then at a new customer service centre - dealing with travellers' complaints.
“It was around then I started writing the first book, Martyn Pig, and it was hard because I was working full-time and then coming home to write. It was the first time I'd finished a full-length piece of work and thought it was OK: that it was 'a proper book'.'”
He didn't set out to write for teenagers, but found it came naturally.
“You can laugh and joke about it, but I do feel pretty much the same now as when I was 15 and I can remember things. I've learned to hide it away, but it's pretty close to the surface. And I don't drive: I go on buses and trains, and I walk around a lot. The important stuff, the basic stuff, is always the same: emotions, and what you think and do.”
Before they moved closer to the Suffolk/Essex border, the couple lived in the Hythe Hill area of Colchester and would walk near the abandoned factories. “Those are the kind of places where, if you haven't got dogs to walk or are kids, you don't go. There are loads of footpaths. That's a kid's world. You have all these little places where you go - places that mean somewhere - whereas to adults it's just a clump of trees.”
Writing for young people also taught him to write more concisely. “Before than I was maybe a bit over-concerned with style - which is fine, but the most important thing is story. You can put in all your fancy touches and poetic bits, but they've got to be a garnish to the main part.”
Martyn Pig was “rejected by everybody! Which wasn't a big deal. Because I'd spent all that time in music, I knew that was how it worked. I just got on with writing. I was about halfway through that when I came across The Chicken House. Mine was just a slush-pile thing, and he read it himself.”
He was Barry Cunningham - the man who brought Harry Potter out from the cupboard under the stairs.
“I met him, when he offered me the contract, in the same café he met JK Rowling at Liverpool Street. I think he offered me the same advance as well: not much! But you don't care, because you're now a published writer.”
The timing was perfect. Kevin had finally quit his “awful” railway job about six months earlier. Sue
had learned proof-reading - and now does indexing and editing - but resigning still represented a risk. “But I was 40 then and I knew that if I didn't do it now I'm never going to do it.” The gamble paid off.
His three books for Puffin - the first is already written - will also be for teenagers. After that he might work on some ideas for adults, and screenplay-writing is a possibility.
“I'm not 20 years old. I don't imagine I'm going to be a 70-year-old author still writing about 15-year-old kids. I haven't got limitless time!”
(blob) The Road of the Dead is published by The Chicken House in March, £8.99. ISBN 1-904442-75-7