There are no taboos as far as Keith Gray is concerned.
“If I ever write an autobiography it will be called Red Bull Nights,” Keith Gray jokes, explaining that some of his best writing is done during the night. He has just finished giving a lively talk to the third year English pupils at my old high school, entertaining and horrifying them simultaneously with stories of rock climbing accidents and the effects of drinking too much Sunny Delight. Before he heads back home to catch up on that day’s writing quota, he lets me pick his brains on writing for young adults and talks to me about his most recent novel, Ostrich Boys, which was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award.
Ostrich Boys tells the story of Blake, Sim and Kenny, three teenage boys struggling to come to terms with the death of their best friend Ross. After a dispiriting funeral that does not seem to do justice to Ross’s memory, they steal the urn containing his ashes and set out to travel with it 261 miles to the tiny hamlet of Ross in Scotland. They believe that taking Ross to Ross will be a more fitting tribute to their friend. Pursued by the police and by their parents, the boys have to overcome a series of obstacles that threaten to cut short their journey. On the way, they begin to uncover some uncomfortable truths about themselves and about their relationship with Ross and have to face up to the possibility that their friend may have taken his own life. It’s a difficult theme but Keith handles it with sensitivity and humour.
“I didn’t want it to be an ‘issues book’,” he explains. “When you read Ostrich Boys you can enjoy the adventure and the humour of it; it’s an exciting story, but there’s something heavy underneath.” The darker issues that the novel touches on – death of a close friend and suicide of a young man – are counterbalanced by many funny moments as the main characters wriggle out of one scrape and land straight in another one. “People have said you shouldn’t have humour in the book, but not once do you laugh about suicide or death.”
Although the feedback on Ostrich Boys has been overwhelmingly positive, Keith has received letters from some parents and teachers who feel that suicide is not a suitable theme for young adults. “Where some people have a problem is that they think a book about suicide should be called Don’t Do It.”
Keith disagrees. “A lot of young people don’t want to be told things black and white.” He should know. His first published novel, Creepers, appeared in 1996 and since then he has been growing in popularity with teenage readers all over the world. He writes horror, thriller and adventure novels which have featured, among other things, terrifying creatures, runaways and guns.
“I don’t think there should be any taboos or any restrictions on what we write for teenagers or young adults,” Keith says firmly. “I don’t write about drug use, because I’m very much from the school of ‘write what you know’ and I don’t have any experience of that, but there are other writers who have been involved with things like drugs and I think, yes, they should write about it. If young people have to deal with these things in real life then, yes, we should write about them in books.” Keith believes that suicide is an issue that affects young people today. “Suicide is the biggest killer of people under 35 in Scotland. I’m amazed more people don’t write about suicide.”
While Keith stresses the importance of writing about issues that matter to young adults, he avoids current issues that might quickly become dated. “If you try to be too topical or contemporary, by the time the book is written and published it is not contemporary anymore. There are certain issues with young people – bullying, friendship and family – that never age.”
Friendship in particular is a recurring theme in Keith’s novels. “I think in today’s world, friends are becoming more important. With the breakup of families, people feel closer to their mates than to their parents. I had some really good friends when I was at school so the ideas that I have seem to involve friends.”
Keith’s story ideas are inspired not only by his own teenage years but also by other people’s books and films. “The initial spark of an idea is ‘How would somebody feel if this happened?’ With Ostrich Boys it was, ‘How would it feel if your best friend died and you were part of the reason?’” Once he has identified the question at the core of the novel, Keith goes on to develop the characters.
“I work from emotion outwards. Before I knew the protagonist of Ostrich Boys was called Blake, that he was overweight and that he was one of the clever kids at school, I knew how he felt about his best friend dying. I built everything around that feeling.”
The protagonists of Keith’s novels are usually male, because he writes with an audience of teenage boys in mind. “There are lots of books written for teenage boys all about being a spy or shooting people or flying to the moon or whatever. There are very few books written for teenage boys that talk about what it feels like to be a teenage boy and that’s the gap I’m trying to fill.”
The way the main characters in Ostrich Boys communicate with each other, constantly taking the mick and winding each other up, is something that teenage boys reading the novel can identify with. “The dialogue is the thing I am most proud of in Ostrich Boys,” Keith tells me. “Young lads show their affection by calling each other names. All the name calling, bitching and arguments in Ostrich Boys are 90% though love.”
Keith warns against using current slang in teen fiction, pointing out that it quickly falls out of fashion. “You can still write decent dialogue without using it,” he says, then adds with a mischievous grin, “Swear words never age.”
Although Keith does not like to research for his novels, finding that it gets in the way of the story, he does admit that to make his dialogue convincing he is “always switched on” during school visits. “I listen to the way kids talk, watch how they interact and see how they use language. That’s my research.”
School visits are a mutually beneficial experience. In return for the soaking up the speech patterns of young people, Keith inspires them with his love of reading.
“Reading a good book is the greatest pleasure I’ve ever come across. People who read books are cleverer, wittier, more open minded and downright nicer than people who don’t. ” And he certainly knows how to make books sound appealing to today’s gadget guzzling youngsters. “A book is an incredible piece of technology. It’s like a little solid block of virtual reality.”
Keith is also keen to get more young people involved with creative writing. “A lot of school is aimed at passing exams. Sometimes people forget to tell the kids that writing is just an incredible, cathartic, pleasurable experience. I’ve worked with young offenders and I get them to create an imaginary character and to write a story using that character to describe their own lives and themselves. It can be a really liberating thing to do.” No sooner has Keith uttered these words than he claps his hand over his mouth and apologises for sounding pretentious. I assure him that only his infectious enthusiasm for writing is coming across. You can get a dose of this yourself in the five podcasts that make up his Creative Writing Masterclass at the Scottish Book Trust website.
I ask Keith if he can offer any tips for adults who would like to write for a teenage audience. “If you want to write for young adults, you need to read some of the best writers out there for young people at the moment.” Keith reels off a few examples: “Kevin Brooks, Robert Cormier, Siobhan Dowd – she’s fantastic. There are also some really appalling books for teenagers out there, but I won’t name any names. You have to read everything to let you know what’s good and what’s not so good.”
As for the actual writing, Keith’s advice is to “put story first. Young people don’t want morals and they don’t want to be preached at. They do want a damn good story.”
Point of view is crucial. “Don’t write hindsight fiction. Don’t be an adult looking back, be a teenager looking forward. When I write for young adults, I’m standing side by side with the teenager, looking forward.” In Ostrich Boys, the three main characters are looking forward into a future without their best friend in it. It is a crushing loss to come to terms with but they discover that life still has much to offer them. “Blake, Kenny and Sim are having an adventure and Ross is going to miss out. That’s my message with the book.”
Ostrich Boys is available to buy in bookshops and at Amazon.
Ostrich Boys was shortlisted for the 2009 Carnegie Medal and is on the shortlist for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.