I Am the Minotaur

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


Edgar & Adolf

Phil Earle &
Michael Wagg

After Phil spotted the badge on Waggy’s cap we started talking about Edgar, and decided to make a badge the starting point for our story.  We love the fact that stories can be found in the smallest, most ordinary things.  You just have to keep your eyes and ears open to them.

Phil Earle & Michael Wagg

Edgar & Adolf is the brilliant and emotive story of an English-German friendship before the start of the Second World War. It is based on the real lives of two footballers who played for opposing teams: Dulwich Hamlet F.C. and Altona F.C. 1893. Phil Earle and Michael Wagg, do a wonderful job of filling in the gaps in what we know about these footballers’ lives, whilst keeping the story believable and heart-warming. We are left with a poignant reminder that even in the most awful of conflicts, a real friendship can transcend anything.


I’d like to thank Phil and Michael in joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about Edgar & Adolf.

Firstly, congratulations on Edgar & Adolf, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Thanks so much for your support.  We’re really glad you enjoyed reading Edgar & Adolf.  It’s a fictional story inspired by real lives, about a friendship between two footballers, who as you say played for teams in different countries, around 100 years ago.  We asked ourselves the question ‘what if?’ and set our teenage hero, Adi, off on a mission to discover more about them, and to return a simple yet very precious object.  

I read that the inspiration behind the story came from a badge on Waggy’s (Michael Wagg’s) hat, is that correct and can you elaborate?

Yes, it was a small button badge showing the face of the young Edgar Kail, who was a Dulwich Hamlet footballer in the 1920s and 30s.  The amazing thing is that he is a hero to fans of the club today and they still sing about him at every match.

After Phil spotted the badge on Waggy’s cap we started talking about Edgar, and decided to make a badge the starting point for our story.  We love the fact that stories can be found in the smallest, most ordinary things.  You just have to keep your eyes and ears open to them.

You both obviously carried out a lot of research for the book, what were the most surprising discoveries along the way? Did anything have to be omitted from the book?

We love the fact that the real Edgar Kail played for the England team (as does the Edgar in our book) despite playing as an amateur for a relatively small club.  Adolf Jäger played for his country too and was the Germany captain.  We also enjoyed discovering things about their real lives off the pitch – like that Edgar was a drinks salesman and later moved from London to Scotland; and that Adolf owned some shops, including a tobacconist.  We couldn’t include everything and had to decide which elements to use and what we might want to change for the book, to keep the story focused on Adi’s mission.  We hope that readers might want to go away and find out more about the real Edgar & Adolf after they’ve read the book.

In the book, the chronology is cleverly used to flick between present-day and the past in order to tell the story. Was it always your intention to tell the story in this way?

In the story Adi is on a journey of discovery and we wanted the reader to go on that journey with him.  So it felt important to be able to learn things at the same pace as Adi, and in the same way – looking at it though his eyes.  Adi learns about the past by talking to Edgar and by looking through the old letters and newspaper articles they share with each other.  Edgar learns things too, in the same way.  It all happens one afternoon, over a few hours, but by using the things they share we were able to travel back in time, and also help Edgar remember how he felt when he was younger – when he was a similar age to Adi. 

What was it like writing for the new Super-Readable Rollercoasters series with Oxford University Press?

It was great.  We definitely wanted the book to be ‘super-readable’ and we hope it’s a rollercoaster, too!  Supporting your football team can feel like a rollercoaster sometimes.  But most importantly we wrote the book specifically for Barrington Stoke and their new collaboration with OUP, because we know they really care about good stories that are accessible to young people, including those who might be less confident or who find reading difficult because of dyslexia.  

Was this your first experience of writing a dyslexia-friendly book and what were the challenges and the positives of this task?

Phil has written books for Barrington Stoke before and really enjoys working with them, and as we worked together Waggy was learning from Phil all the time.  It was helpful, and rewarding, to keep in mind that we wanted the story to be really clearly told and for it to have a forward momentum – so that readers are keen to turn the page.  I guess we saw each scene as opening a door to the next one, and we wanted the door to stay open.  I think that was helped by the fact that we wrote it together: when one of us sent a chapter to the other, that was also like opening a door into what might happen next.  It was tricky at times to get the structure right, but no-one said it was easy!  It was great fun to write together.

I read that you had endeavoured to include the known facts about Edgar and Adolf, but that you wished to explore the unknown in an imaginative way. Did you ever worry about the fictional events that were added to enhance or fill in the gaps within the story? 

The book is a celebration of these two footballers, Edgar & Adolf, and a celebration of friendship too.  We wrote it out of love and respect for them and we hope that shines through.  Keeping that respect in mind we allowed ourselves to use our imaginations, including some of the facts and changing others as we went along, making it clear at the beginning that our story is a fictional account of what their relationship might have been.  Still we hope that we’re somehow ‘true’ to the spirit of these two real people, by trying to bring them to life as fully-rounded, believable characters.  

In the author notes, you mention that the pair of you have been friends for over 30 years, how did that influence the book?

It made it a lot of fun to write.  We enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other – and the idea of opening the door for the other one at the end of each chapter.  We were also able to encourage each other at times when either one of us might have been struggling to know what to write next.  In the end the story is about a really strong friendship and about respect too, so that made it easier to write – because we are such good friends and we respect each other’s ideas.  We were able to push each other too, to have another go, to try something else, to keep going.

In learning more about Edgar and Adolf, were you surprised to discover that both sets of fans still remember these players in such affectionate ways?

This is the extraordinary thing.  We knew that they’re both still remembered and celebrated by the fans, but yes that still surprises us.  They must have been very special players and people.  If you ever get a chance to go to a match at either Dulwich Hamlet or Altona 93 we’d really recommend it.  The fans of both clubs are very welcoming and the atmosphere at the grounds is great.  Both clubs have men’s and women’s teams and teams for younger age groups.  If you go there you’ll see that the road that leads to the Dulwich Hamlet stadium is called ‘Edgar Kail Way’ and the Altona stadium is named after Adolf Jäger.  

You can sing the song too: “Edgar Kail in my heart …”

On your journey in creating the book, were you able to speak to fans, visit the stadium and speak to people close to the story? How did that shape your perspective on the story?

Waggy has been a Dulwich Hamlet supporter for over ten years and Phil has seen lots of their matches too.  In fact Waggy and his wife got married on the pitch at Dulwich Hamlet and Phil was there that day – he sang a song in the clubhouse before (and after) the wedding!  Waggy also has friends who live in Hamburg and are Altona 93 supporters, so it was easy to talk to people who could tell us more about the players and the history of both clubs.  There are lots of friendships between fans of the two clubs today, and we were able to get a good sense of the spirit of Dulwich and Altona by chatting to them. 

Hypothetical, of course, but if you could meet the real Edgar and Adolf, what would you like to say to them?

Over ‘ere son, on me ‘ead!  

Finally, can you describe this book in three words?

Friendship is everything.


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann


Rat

Patrice
Lawrence

When my daughter was young, I was a working single parent and found it very hard to keep my head above water – my salary would be swallowed into the gulf of my overdraft within two weeks and I wouldn’t be able to access any money for two weeks. At one point, I was looking down the back of the sofa for money to buy food. We lived in a flat on a council estate and neighbours were incredibly supportive during those tough times. So I definitely wanted to write about the power of community.

Patrice Lawrence

Gripping and immersive, Rat packs a powerful punch. Written by the award-winning author Patrice Lawrence, it follows a teenager called Al, who’s already faced so much adversity in his life and there seems to be no end in sight. Luckily, his pet rats, Venom and Vulture, give comfort from the outside world. Perfect for developing empathy, this eye-opening book covers a wide range of themes, including: poverty, crime and the importance of family. I was left with the overwhelming wish to save Al. Save him from misery. Save him from anger. Save him from himself.


I’d like to thank Patrice for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about her latest book, Rat.

Firstly, congratulations on Rat, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Al is angry. His family is scattered and his only friends are Venom and Vulture, his pet rats. His mum has just come out of prison – again – and promised that this time things will be different. But when she’s caught shoplifting food for supper and sent back to prison, it’s another promise broken. It’s not Mum’s fault, though. It’s down to Mr Brayker, their neighbour, who’s had it in for Al and his mum since they moved in. So Al starts to plot his revenge. After all, he’s got nothing to lose, has he?

Where did the inspiration for Rat come from?

My contemporary stories are always inspired by both personal experience and from more than twenty years working in the not-for-profit charity sector. When my daughter was young, I was a working single parent and found it very hard to keep my head above water – my salary would be swallowed into the gulf of my overdraft within two weeks and I wouldn’t be able to access any money for two weeks. At one point, I was looking down the back of the sofa for money to buy food. We lived in a flat on a council estate and neighbours were incredibly supportive during those tough times. So I definitely wanted to write about the power of community.

I’ve also worked with organisations supporting families and children involved with social services and others working with the families of prisoners – and sadly, there is some overlap. The continued rhetoric about prisons being cushy absolutely infuriates me. Anybody who has visited a prison will know that certainly isn’t the case. (I absolutely recommend Carl Cattermole’s Prison: A Survival Guide for an accurate albeit very funny insight into English prison life.) Although I’ve visited a few prisons, I found women’s prisons toughest. The lovely folk at NEPACS, an organisation supporting the families of prisoners in north east England, gave me a photobook called The Road to Low Newton by Adrian Clarke. It’s a series of photo-portraits of women who had been imprisoned in HMP Low Newton with accompanying text giving an account in the women’s own words of how they ended up in prison. It’s honest, heart-breaking and unsurprising. Although the majority of the women are imprisoned for offences relating to their drug use, many have a history of childhood neglect and domestic violence. Many are also mothers and want the best for their children. Al’s mum, in Rat, has a supportive family, but even so, she is struggling.

How did your experiences prior to becoming a full-time writer, influence this book?

In addition to the above, I’ve also worked with organisations that support families and children with experience of social services child protection involvement. I’ve interviewed a number of families – frequently grandparents – who are looking after children because the children’s parents are unable to, often through imprisonment, addiction struggles or mental health difficulties. Often, these arrangements are sudden and unexpected – a social worker would suddenly arrive with traumatised and distressed children with many support needs.  Again, I wanted to touch on this in Rat.

There are countless themes in the story but which were most important to you and why?

Community, particularly in working class and poorer neighbourhoods. There’s been much talk about ‘community’ during lockdowns, but in many places, it has always been there. I had a neighbour on my block who used to cook a mean Sunday dinner. He gave me great tips about making the best Yorkshire puds. He and his partner used to keep an eye on a young guy who was struggling with heroin addiction, taking food around to him. There was a woman on our block with openly racist views and who would completely blank me when she saw me, but knocked on the door with a present for my baby daughter. 

In my review, I mentioned that I really wanted to jump into the story and save Al from himself and his awful situation. Was Al based on anyone in particular?

Funnily enough, no. I also have no idea why I wanted to write about rats! I have a bit of a rodent-phobia. (It doesn’t help that a mouse once jumped out of a box of Cheerios at me!) Though, with all characters, I take bits of myself. My biological father served a short prison term and he was so ashamed he wouldn’t talk about it. I’ve also felt Al’s sense of outsiderness and loneliness, growing up as the first in my family to be born in the UK and in a predominantly white area in Sussex. Like Al, I’m also often angry but I have outlets for my anger whereas Al is trapped by the decisions made by the adults around him.

The descriptions of poverty, hunger and prison, were hard-hitting. Was that always your intention?

My intention was to simply be realistic. Again, food poverty may be in the news now, but it is and has been everyday life for so many. The estate where I used to live qualified for regeneration money and the forward-thinking head of the primary school employed the cooks directly and bought in organic food. There was also a breakfast club. He knew that money was stretched for many families and wanted to make sure the children had a good meal which consequently supported their ability to concentrate and learn. 

I was also on a secondary school visit in Liverpool in early 2020. The canteen serves hot drinks and toast during the first break; they explained that this may be the first hot meal some students may have that day. They also kept food parcels in the library to support families that needed that boost. It was fantastic that the school provided this, but how can we be in a society that relies on schools to stop children going hungry? I visit both private and state schools and the most shocking difference is the food given to children. I certainly don’t begrudge privately schooled students good food; I grew up in a low income household where my mother and stepdad always cooked fresh food. I wish more schools in lower income areas had the chance to cook great meals for their students too.

I think I actually went easy on prison! In some prisons, there are non-profit organisations that do fantastic pastoral work with prisoners and their families, as the prison service itself is too underfunded and deskilled to really focus on rehabilitation. When prisoners are released, they receive the grand sum of a £46 discharge grant to help with the first few days after release. The amount hasn’t changed since the mid-90s. It doesn’t go far.

Al’s rats, Venom and Vulture, are so important to him. What was the reason for such a choice of pets?

I have been told that rats are much misunderstood! They seemed an appropriate for a boy like Al. I also wanted to show that Al is very capable of love and loyalty even if other only saw an angry young man.

What challenges did you face when writing Rat in this dyslexia-friendly format and what were the positives?

I actually thought as Al as an ideal reader of Rat, so it helped me shape the way he expressed himself. There is a mantra in creative writing that ‘every word counts’ and in these books, it most certainly does! Creating a book for publication is always, to some degree, a collaborative process, working with the editors to make sure that the words on the paper do exactly what they’re supposed to. With Rat, there was more collaboration as it involved editors from both OUP and Barrington Stoke, plus additional editing to make the book dyslexia-friendly as well as attractive to reluctant readers. I knew that I shouldn’t get too hung up on using certain words, so the focus for me was making sure that the storyline was strong enough to play with the way it could be articulated. (If that makes sense!)

We would love to know whether you are currently working on any other books. What are you allowed to tell us?

My next full length contemporary YA is published in summer. Splinters of Sunshine takes the character of DNA-Dad from Eight Pieces of Silva on a road journey with a son, Spey, he wants to get to know but who is completely different from him. They are trying to find Spey’s vulnerable friend, Dee, who is caught up in ‘county lines’ drug-dealing on the sough coast. It contains Queen anthems, wildflowers and forgiveness.

Finally, can you describe Rat in three words?

Not for musophobes!


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann