Gregory Hughes: Winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010
Congratulations! How are you feeling?
I am really thrilled to receive the Booktrust Teenage Prize. They were great books who won this before. To win an award that those writers have also won is amazing – the whole thing is amazing.
I’m really pleased for you. It was sad not to see you at the ceremony.
I’ve heard that the ceremony was very nice and I’m gutted at not being there. I really did want to go but circumstances wouldn’t let me.
That’s a shame but we recorded the ceremony and will send it to you so you can re-live it.
I will really look forward to seeing that. I actually meant what I said in my speech. If someone is moved by your work it and it raises their spirit a little bit, I think that’s the real reward – don’t you?
Yes, absolutely. This book was found in your agent’s slush pile, published and then went on to win the Booktrust Teenage Award. It’s like a dream come true I imagine.
It’s a dream come true it really is. I used to live and work in New York and went to writing classes at Mary Mount College for three years and I couldn’t even get a short story published. I wrote a very very bad novel that no one liked and now years later to win the Booktrust – and I like Booktrust, the quality of people who won this award like Neil Gaiman and Patrick Ness – in fact I haven’t had any sleep. I stayed up all night, I couldn’t get over it – I’m so hyper now I’m going to go for coffee!
Do you have to get to your day job?
I don’t work here in Vancouver, I write. I’m going to be here for 12 months and I intend to write three scripts. I can only do these things here. If I were to stay in Norway I don’t think I could get the job done but where I am now I don’t know anybody so all I can do is write. It’s hard but it’s going reasonably well.
You’ve mentioned before that you like to tell a story in a simple way. Did you set out to make this a children’s book or was it decided by the publishers?
I’ve written a lot of adult stuff and it never got anywhere. One of my favourite books is To Kill a Mockingbird and I wanted to do something like that, that children would enjoy reading. I wanted a crossover novel really, something that would be enjoyed by everybody. If you get a book that children really enjoy then adults will enjoy it as well, there’s no difference.
I knew I wanted to write this book about two kids from Winnipeg. I wanted them cycling on the praries of Winnipeg and cycling through the streets of New York and their story would become this huge media event. That was the idea for the story. My ex girlfriend was from Winnipeg. I remember getting off there one day and there’s nothing there. You could actually stand there and turn 360 degrees and all you could see is the sky. It’s a very strange place.
You’ve lived in a lot of countries and you said you’re not that keen on Liverpool. Would you say you are running away or looking for anything in particular as a writer or as a person?
I’ll tell you something, that’s an interesting point and I often think about this myself. If I wasn’t running away from life I’d still be living in Liverpool and I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Running away I’ve been all over South America and Australia. I’ve worked on the ferries in New York, I’ve been a bicycle courier in Toronto. It’s true, I’ve run away and ended up living life to the extreme somehow.
Could you tell us a bit about your characters, where they came from and who inspired them? How about the Rat?
My brother’s daughter has big blue eyes and mousy hair and she could always mimic other people’s voices perfectly. When she was a kid she was funny. She was a good kid, but my God son Russell was a bad kid and he was always in trouble. He’d do anything to wind anybody up.
I combined these two characters to come up with the Rat and then I added my imagination and she sort of developed from there. I’m very proud of her I am.
How about her illness – is it meant to be a real illness or fantastical?
I have a friend who has epileptic fits. She once had a fit in my house and I found it moving that somebody lived a life with this drawback if you can call it that. Where the rat was concerned, I remember giving a talk at school once and someone stood up and said the reason why the rat has an illness is that it makes the character more real. And I thought, that’s it, you’re very right there love.
So if people ask now I say it makes the character more genuine if she’s got an illness, but I don’t think that’s true it’s just something to say to people. She just ended up with this epilepsy or whatever it is she’s got but I can’t remember why I gave it to her, I really can’t.
And how about the ending – it’s not a particularly happy ending.
No I never wanted a happy ending. I think too many kids’ books have happy endings and I think happy endings are patronising in a way. If you look at the world we’re in with war and terrorism, kids come home and they must see that on the TV and I thought to myself, the world is not such a happy place even when you’re 10.
There were two things in the book I knew were going to be controversial – to mention paedophiles in a children’s book, I dreaded the publishers would want it gone. And the other thing is that they would want a happy fluffy ending. I do like the ending, and the publishers liked it. I don’t think it’s a bad ending it’s just a sad ending.
What are your favourite movies?
One Flew over a Cuckoos Nest. I thought that was a great ending and Betty Blue as well. I enjoyed those endings. I do love movies. Books and movies that’s me. Sense of a Woman, Goodfellas and The Godfather, I tend to like the gangster movies.
You can really see Unhooking the Moon as a film.
I’m struggling to be a scriptwriter at this moment in time but one day I do want to write scripts properly and then I’d like to write the script of Unhooking the Moon as I’ve always seen this as a movie.
I think other people can see it as a movie for a very simple reason. I’m not that clever and because I’m not that clever I don’t know any big words. If you can describe something simply it becomes very visual. If you overdescribe something you get lost you don’t know what the writer is saying.
Have you always been a reader? What’s the importance of education to you?
I never read a book until I was 21. At the home we were taught about bricklaying and fixing cars. We never did any formal education, no reading and writing. When I left many years later in my 20s I did go back to education because I’d always wanted an education. I never knew that until I was in my 20s.
I did want to read and write and spell properly and I had a great great English teacher, and his name was Jim Rand, and I tell you now a good teacher is worth his weight in gold and he used to give me books to read. I remember him giving me The Old Man and the Sea which I thought was a load of rubbish, and then he gave me The Great Gatsby and then To Kill a Mockingbird. He gave me some great books and it wasn’t until 20 years later that The Old Man and the Sea became one of my favourite books of all time.
As a young hooligan out on the street I couldn’t see the point of an education but I do now. I see the point in reading. It’s not just that it takes you to another world, it actually broadens your mind. If I have kids, if they don’t want to do maths or science that’s fine, but I’m going to insist that every week they read a book and write an essay about it. I think that would be a great education.
Your favourite books are all classic American books. Which contemporary writers do you enjoy reading?
I’m actually terrible. I try not to read new novels. I wouldn’t go out and buy Harry Potter I’d go out and buy The Jungle Book. My favourite book of all time is Treasure Island. There’s not a superfluous word in that book and if you talk about depth of character theres no more devious character in history that Long John Silver, the way he switches character and sides in the book, it's a magnificent piece of work.
I don’t actually read new books, I read sections of them. You can see the power of the book from the first three chapters. I wouldn’t actually read the whole book, I’d just get the essence of it and see what it was. Kurosawa , the Japanese film director, said that to understand how to produce art you had to understand what it is.
My publishers are going to send me some recently published children’s books to read. I’m dying to read The Graveyard Book and Patrick Ness’s trilogy. I’ve been told that Ness’s trilogy is better than Pullman’s His Dark Materials!
That’s contentious! You’ll have to let us know what you think!
What about Bob?
He’s not based on anyone, he’s not such an interesting character. I think he’s a good kid. If he was your son you’d be proud of him.
In writing there has to be conflict and I couldn’t have two crazy characters. Bob is the reason. The guy with the common sense. He doesn’t come across as being so interesting himself, it’s the conflict between him and the rat that makes him shine.
What about Ice? What a fab character.
Ice is quite simply a combination of a number of rappers; Tupac, 50 Cent, Jay-Z. A combination of all the good things in the rappers not the bad things. To me the book is like an urban fairy tale and Ice plays the part of a warrior. The Rat always sees him as an angel and he’s not an angel, but what people won’t see in the book is that she’s the angel and he’s the warrior. To me the book is like an urban fairy tale and Ice plays the part of a warrior
And Joey and Tommy?
Joey is what we call in Liverpool, a scally. He lives on the edge as a character. He’s not based on anyone, but Tommy is. I used to work for a guy in New York as a furniture removal man and Tommy is very much based on him. He was quite a bad character in real life. He was always cheating people and every day he had something bad to say about somebody. He wasn’t so bad within himself but he was an out and out hustler. He was a failed opera singer and one of the biggest grouches I’ve ever met.
The Rat tells Ice about a Native American legend in the book and a Native American friend of the family performs the burial ceremony at her dad’s funeral. What inspired this?
My interest in Native American beliefs came from this short autobiography on Sitting Bull. He was a great man and when everything was taken away from him and he was put on terrible land to live, he got a job with the Wild West show. They used to tour doing this show and he used to get paid quite a lot and most of the money went to hungry children.
I found this very touching and I always had an interest in Native American beliefs after that. He was a very spiritual man and I found him very moving.
Well thank you for your time and congratulations again.
I’d just like to say it’s an honour to win it and I’d like to thank everyone at Booktrust. I would have liked to be there and I feel truly honoured that I’ve won and feel myself very lucky to have won amongst the competition I was with.
Are you going to celebrate?
I’m going to get coffee. I don’t drink alcohol, and any time I want to celebrate I get a huge mocha and a huge piece of chocolate cheese cake and there’s a place just by me that sells that.
Gregory had a colourful childhood. He was expelled from his Catholic School in Liverpool and sent to a wayward home for boys near Southport before being sent to a detention centre. He then lived in the US working as a removal man and cleaning the windows of New York skyscrapers and had to sleep rough on numerous occasions.
When he returned to England he took his GCSEs and began writing, which he continued in New York where he attended creative writing classes. His debut novel, Unhooking the Moon, was written in eight months whilst living in Iceland. Gregory lives in Norway and is currently in Vancouver working on a series of scripts.