Anthony McGowan

What’s great about Matthew’s school librarian – indeed about all good librarians – is that she understands him as an individual, and has an idea about what he’d enjoy. The truth is that we all have unique tastes, and different books touch us, or leave us cold.

Anthony McGowan

Matthew, Stinky Mog, is a young boy dealing with life as a young carer for his Mum whilst also dealing with bullying at school. He wants to stay invisible. His isolation is heart-breaking to witness but friendships come along and he finally finds his tribe when he needs them the most. A touching novel that sensitively and realistically deals with a wide range of themes: mental health, young carers, poverty, bullying and friendship. A MUST read for this January and beyond!

I’d like to thank Anthony McGowan for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about I Am the Minotaur.

Without giving too much away could you tell us a little bit about I Am the Minotaur?

The idea for the story began with the character of Stinky Mog – someone totally isolated at school, and in a pretty desperate situation at home. He’s based partly on a couple of the kids I knew at school, but also on reading about the situation of many young carers today. From that low place, I wanted to first give him hope, then snatch it away, and finally offer him redemption. The actual mechanics of the plot, which involves an attempt to steal back a stolen bicycle, is based on something that actually happened to me, in real life …

Matthew recognises the hierarchy within the school community: brainiacs, sporty, artsy, golden groups etc. All schools have cliques and groups so which group did you fit into when you were at school?

My school was pretty tough, whereas Matthew’s is a ‘good’ one. I was quite academic, and enjoyed learning, but there wasn’t much kudos in that – in fact it picked you out as a target for the hard kids. But I was also good at sport, and the one thing our school didn’t suck at was sport. So that gave me a certain amount of protection. There were also the cool kids – it was smack in the middle of Punk – and I was a bit peripheral to that, neither cool nor uncool. So it was quite a complicated picture! But the upshot is that even at my rough old school I had a good time. What saved me – along with being sporty – was, of course, friendship. If you have mates at school, you’re always basically OK. It’s why Matthew’s situation is so desperate, at least until the library geeks open their arms to him.

The librarian supports Matthew with fabulous book suggestions like, ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ and ‘Watership Down’. What book would be on your ‘must read’ list and why?

What’s great about Matthew’s school librarian – indeed about all good librarians – is that she understands him as an individual, and has an idea about what he’d enjoy. The truth is that we all have unique tastes, and different books touch us, or leave us cold. So what I’d recommend would depend a lot on the reader. But a Kestrel for a Knave and Watership Down would be good places to start. The book that really got me reading was The Lord of the Rings. But there are many more books around now aimed at teenagers, and the vital thing is to pick up the reading habit. My own son was a reluctant reader. What got him going were the Wimpy Kid books, which I’d rather looked down my nose at. But he raced through them, and suddenly he was a reader. The key is to get children to love reading – to see it as fun, not work – at the earliest possible age. That’s down to parents and carers to read with their kids. I think the greatest books for filling children with the joy of reading are the Mister Gum books by Andy Stanton. 

How much did your own schooling give you inspiration for your books because Corpus Christi appears to have left a lasting impression?

Corpus Christi was a very dramatic and intense place to go to school. There was a lot of violence and bullying, and the teachers kept control with their own violence. But it was also an amazing place, full of great characters. Looking back, I can see how the teachers – most of them, at least – were desperately trying to get some knowledge into our heads in very difficult circumstances. The upshot was that so many experiences and characters got burned into my memory, and when I started to write, there was really no choice but to write about them. Strangely, I am the Minotaur is the first of my YA books not to be set in a version of my old school. Indeed its’ the first one not to be set in a version of Leeds. Although it’s not specified, Minotaur is set in London, and I had in mind an excellent state school in Muswell Hill I’ve visited several times – and which happens to have a great librarian! 

You’ve had a range of jobs, like many of us but what made you want to be a writer?

I wanted to be a writer from my mid-teens. For me it was firstly to do with my love of reading – writing was an extension of that. And then I realised that I was quite good at it, so I got in a positive feedback loop – my essays and stories would get read out at school, which made me want to improve. What I never thought was that I’d be a full-time writer. I always assumed that I’d have a day job, and write in my spare time. But I’ve been lucky enough to be a full-time writer for twenty years now. In some ways I almost preferred the early years when writing was my ‘hobby’ – people rather frown at that word in relation to writing – but a hobby is a thing you do purely for the love of it. When writing becomes your job, some of that love seeps out of the process. 

You’ve been long listed and shortlisted, won prizes for your writing and ‘Lark’ won the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal, huge congratulations, and so much of your writing is insightful and has hard hitting themes but which of your books are you most proud of?

I think it would probably have to be the four books in The Truth of Things series – of which Lark is the last I think with them the gap between the aspiration and the achievement is closest. And they touch people. But I’m also fond of my (deeply-flawed!) first novel, Hellbent, which is very rude and funny. And people rather love my second YA novel, Henry Tumour. But my absolute favourite is probably the least successful – Hello Darkness. In some ways that is the definitive McGowan novel, in that it’s a complex comedy about a very serious subject. But it got rather lost on publication, and hardly anyone had read it. But if I’ve got a single favourite character, it might well be poor Stinky Mog from Minotaur. I felt very responsible for him and so – spoiler alert! – I had to give him a happy ending!

Which age group do you prefer to write for having published books both young and adult readers (and those in between)?

I’ve always felt that YA is my core, but I’ve had a lot of fun writing for younger children. And I suspect that I’m going to be writing more for adults as the years go by. The trouble is that it’s very hard for an old codger like me to keep a connection with today’s teenagers. I had my own kids to help for a while, but I feel I’m drifting out of range. Luckily there are many brilliant younger writers coming up who’ll give voice to teenagers and properly reflect their diversity, their changing loves and hates.

What’s next in the pipeline, if you are allowed to tell us?

I’ve recently finished a book called (provisionally), Chernobyl Dogs. It’s about dogs and wolves and people interacting in the contaminated zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It’s Call of the Wild meets War and Peace! It should be out at the end of the year, or possible early 2022.

Finally, can you describe the I Am the Minotaur in three words?

Three – hah, Impossible! But try ‘Courage transcends sadness’.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer our questions.

Q & A hosted by
Jack Graves