One of my favourite contemporaries of a brilliant year has been the stunning Fifteen Bones by RJ Morgan - I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to her for the Bookbag, and am delighted to republish the interview here!
1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
I must admit I’ve never done it. As soon as I saw a physical copy of my book and realised people might actually read it, I went to the tiny reading room, had a mini panic attack, and wanted to withdraw it, but by then it was a bit late because they’d already made the stickers and I’d spent my advance on chocolate buttons.
2. Fifteen Bones is 'not suitable for younger readers', according to the warning on the back. What do you think of age ratings or age guidance in books?
An abomination! Only kidding….sort of kidding. Age ratings are uniformly patronising and awful, but, ‘not suitable for younger readers’ is a little different. I think it comes from a caring place, it wants to protect young people from the world, but it doesn’t account for the disregard violence, mental illness and grief have when it comes to one’s age. What are you supposed to do? Find out about gangs when you’re forty and drive a Toyota? Also, when I was young enough to not be allowed in to certain films, I loved that books didn’t have age ratings. Reading is its own entry requirement. It was the one world where you control everything. It would be awful to lose that.
3. I think I'm correct in saying you're a teacher yourself, like me? Do you talk to the students you teach about YA books? Do you get, or give, any recommendations?
Yes. And YES! I have a dedicated YA box, much of which was recommended in an excellent move by the Institute of Education whose entire initial reading list was a bumper crop of the world’s best YA. When I hear that we need to ‘move students on’ from YA, I say well, Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye, and Great Expectations, and Romeo and Juliet are on the curriculum…so…what’s your point?
4. And on that note, do you think being a teacher has helped you? One of the things that most impressed me about Fifteen Bones was how realistic the dialogue felt - is that aided by working with teens?
I don’t think being a teacher helps with anything other than developing a massive dependency on glucose to get through each never-ending day. I’m only joking…yes, when I had a ‘proper job’ I was bored out of my tiny malteser-brain because I only had adults to talk to. More than anything on this earth, I love the English language, and teenagers are absolute masters of it. Whenever I read a book that has a teenager talking like an adult, I send it windmilling across the room. What a waste! It’s like offering up a candy pez that only dispenses tiny pellets of poo. Teenagers – and Londoners in particular - are the emperors of wordage, you can see how the language lives and breathes…and they don’t waste a beat. I never ask the kids what stuff means or to translate for me… it would kill the precious words, and I’m scared they’d ask for royalties.
5. Fifteen Bones deals with some really tough issues, including gang violence. How much research did you have to do for the novel?
Unfortunately not very much. I’ve been a teacher in South London for a long time so I know what’s what and I’ve filled out enough child protection forms for one lifetime.
6. Despite this toughness, it's a very funny book, with Jake's narration featuring a lot of black humour. How important do you think that humour is to the story?
Humour is the story. It’s a story about someone trying to get their sense of humour back. Humour is our route to expression, our defence, our glue, all we do as kids is chase bubbles of humour and try to make them burst. Some lucky people keep it in adulthood, in others the bubble mutates into cruelty… or dies, and that’s always a terrible thing.
7. Cattle Rise is a memorable school setting. What was your school like? Were there any teachers who particularly inspired you?
I went to a huge state school in Cardiff that was chock full of brilliant, kind, and dedicated teachers. A lot of people from my high school have their dream jobs, from the DJ to the police officer to the doctor to the news reader….to the kid who plays for Real Madrid (we don’t like to brag) and I think that’s the best thing you could say about any school… they didn’t turn you into a money guzzling sloth muncher, they helped you follow your stupid dreams! I loved my biology teacher Mr Withey, and my history teacher Mr. Thompson, he used to tell amazing stories and all the famous poshos would have funny accents. I’ve still never heard anything funnier than King George III as a cockney wench. I thought I’d die laughing. He was a great teacher.
8. I know you've been doing the rounds of several London bookshops signing copies of Fifteen Bones. Is it strange seeing your debut novel on shelves? (And, indeed, in pride of place on display tables!)
Strange and incredibly exciting. I first saw it at the Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace and it was hard to shake the idea that Jonathan – the owner – didn’t just have them there as a favour! My friend and I visited the book in Waterstones in Clapham Junction - and then it started to sink in. I spoke to all the lovely booksellers there and even signed a copy for an amazing woman who was amused by my delight at seeing my own book! The best thing ever was seeing it on someone’s personal bookshelf, right between Kafka on the Shore and Hannah Kent’s excellent Burial Rites. Amazing!
9. What was the last thing you Googled?
Actually I just cleared my cache because I’ve also been looking up so much about paralyzers and untraceable poisons (for a book, guvnor, I swear!) I’m worried the NSA are coming to get me.
10. What's next for R J Morgan?
Well I’m currently writing a profound, world-beating, bestselling revision lesson for my Year 11s about Of Mice and Men (the key to it is marine biology. Marine! Biology!), and then I’m off to Texas to get loads of research done for the next book. Including going to a gun range. I’m definitely on a watch list aren’t I?