Drawing On Experience
By site contributor Chris High
Author Mal Peet explains what being this year’s Liverpool Read means to him.
Devon based author and illustrator of around eighty educational books for children, Mal Peet, has had two of his full-length young adult novels chosen as this year’s annual Liverpool Read.
Mal, who works closely with his wife, Elsbeth, will see around 13,000 of his books given out free of charge, as the city wide reading initiative goes into its sixth year in the drive to get people reading.
‘It was a fabulous bolt from the blue,’ Mal said. ‘I didn’t do any campaigning or baby kissing or anything like that but one day I was contacted by my publisher, Walker Books, and was told both Tamar and Keeper had been selected. When I put the phone down and stopped dancing around my kitchen, punching the air, I finally reflected on what a tremendous honour it is.
Keeper by Mal Peet
'Firstly because this is Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year and secondly, but no less importantly, because its National Reading Year. Liverpool Reads is a fantastic initiative and I don’t understand why more cities don’t do this, because it seems to have become such a strong institution here.
'The great thing about novels is that each individual who reads one recreates the story and that in turn encourages discussion and dialogue amongst a cross-generation of people. Book reading is such a solitary thing and I find the increase in the popularity of book groups really encouraging as a writer.’
Keeper, Mal’s award winning debut novel, is set in South America and concerns the life of the world’s greatest goalkeeper, El Gato, and how he came to be so good. Tamar, on the other hand, tells the story of the two SOE agents working with the Dutch resistance during World War II. Two very different themes set in two very different places.
‘I like my books to take readers to another place. It’s ridiculous, really, but I have often been accused of not writing for teenagers because I don’t write about teenagers. Nobody says British adult fiction is solely about British adults and, in fact, I get loads of readers thanking me for not writing about teenagers.
'My aim is to physically lift people through time and space and take them back into history or to other countries. As far as I’m concerned, all writing should be travel writing; words on a page that transport the reader to a different place. That to me is the most important job of an author.’
Tamar by Mal Peet
Mal grew up in a working class council house in Norfolk and admits that three things kept him sane; his bike, on which he would cycle for miles along the flat roads that surrounded his home, football, at which he excelled, and books.
‘I was a very early reader, which is something of a miracle because in 1950’s working class homes books were a commodity that didn’t really take priority. For me books were, and still are, a place of safety. Whatever was happening around me and my emotionally dysfunctional family, I found that whatever was happening in Treasure Island was much easier to cope with and so sort of escaped into the pages of a book.’
Mal found his writing career began when his illustrations started to become noticed.
‘Originally Elsbeth, and I wanted to do children’s picture books and Walker Books are the best in the business at doing that although we did a lot of work with Oxford University Press, too. Initially Keeper was going to be a graphic novel but when I submitted my idea to Walker they turned it down.
'So every time we heard an editor had changed at Walker we’d just resubmit the same idea and it took around five years of very encouraging rejection before they asked if I could just turn the story into a novel and Keeper became what it is today, so persistence is key to all things. In the end I found Keeper pretty easy to write because I’d known the story and the characters for so long.’
Tamar, in contrast, was a very different proposition. Although it describes the atmosphere of war-torn Holland and the effects the Nazi occupation had on the people with great clarity, Mal found himself wanting to add more detail than was strictly necessary.
‘It took a long time to get right, in all honesty. I always think its best to write about stuff you know nothing about because it liberates and stimulates you mentally and I knew nothing at all about the war in Holland. The essence of the story came about from talking to the father of a friend of mine who had been an SOE agent and when we got into a conversation about codes and people communicating in coded language, I was enthralled.
'The difficult part came with the editing because I’d done an awful lot of research and had discovered so much, I didn’t want to leave anything out. Tamar is quite a big book now, but originally it was a good 15,000 words longer, so cutting that much out and not affect the story was really difficult and a very long process.
'In the end though it’s a bloodstained business that can break your heart. You work so hard finding this stuff out and writing it, only to see it disappear. At the end of the day, I’m not a history teacher and although I am quite passionate about kids not forgetting their history, lecturing them in a book is not the way to do it and that’s why so much had to be cut.
'I am so lucky, because it really is important that writers have quality editors. Mine would simply sit me down and painstakingly explain to my why something had to go. I have to admit that, a vast majority of the time, she was absolutely right. Yeah we’d argue about certain things but without her input, the book wouldn’t have been given this accolade and that speaks volumes.’
Mal has his fourth novel, Exposure, published towards the end of the year and intends to remain actively involved with The Liverpool Reads initiative throughout the coming twelve months.
‘I was in the city for its launch on National Book Day and did some events in schools and libraries which were so much fun I’m back in May to do some more. After that I’m up for anything and I’m really looking forward to listening to the opinions of those who’ll have read the book by then … I think.’
last updated: 30/04/2008 at 17:14