The death of Mal Peet has taken from us not only an exceptional writer, but also someone who truly loved life and was loved. Mal Peet was a late starter to publishing: he was 53 when Keeper appeared in 2003. Mal had a strong following in Australia and his books made an immediate impact. At the time of this interview, Keeper and Tamar had been published. Tamar won the prestigious Carnegie Medal and his later book, Life: An Exploded Diagram (2011) was a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book.
Writing questions for this interview was quite a challenge. Although I had responded strongly to his books, I didn’t really know very much about Mal himself. But his detailed, nuanced and often very funny answers told us a great deal about him – what pleased him and what didn’t. It also helped set the seen for his first visit to Australia, for Reading Matters (he was to have come in 2007) in 2009, where he appeared along with John Green, MT Anderson and Isobelle Carmody. On news on Mal’s death, John Green called him ‘One of the greatest YA writers…’.
Mal Peet died at home on 2 March, 2015.
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Mal: First off, let me say these are really good questions; I’ve scratched a small pink helipad on the top of my head thinking about them. So here we go:
Mike: Your books tell some unusual stories. What draws you to write about these things that are outside your own world?
I’ve always, from a very early age, liked books that take you elsewhere. That may be because I didn’t like where I was. Or it might just be that I somehow realized, when I was kid, that words are a form of transportation. Through time, as well as space. I don’t think I was ever very interested in books that told me about what I was already familiar with. In other words, ‘realism’ never appealed to me very much. My early loves were for books like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Treasure Island, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Time Machine. I was also very into comics, like The Wizard, The Hotspur, The Victor, and these had strips about ‘ordinary’ boys whose lives were transformed by strange meetings, or magical events, or the discovery of peculiar powers. Keeper comes from there, I think; from way back when I was maybe eight or nine or thereabouts. And anyway, the best books are those that persuade you that the impossible is possible.
You seem to be in some ways a very un-English writer…Where in England do you live and where did you grow up?
Am I un-English? I’ll take that as a compliment…
When I was fairly young, maybe 13 or so, I discovered American writing. Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, people like that. I found it really exciting stuff, again, perhaps, because I was a sort of frustrated traveler. Later on, I found South American writers and Australian writers. No, I’m not trying to suck up to you guys here; I read everything that Patrick White wrote, and Peter Carey is still a major hero of mine. (That Ned Kelly book is brilliant, don’t you think?) I think maybe that what makes those writers so good is that they were and are writing about new(ish) countries, so there’s a kind of freedom in the writing. A sense of anything being possible. England has been written about since the year dot, and I don’t think I have anything new or interesting to say about it. English writers have been staring at their English navels for a long, long time. I’ve always wanted to be out of there. I grew up in Norfolk, a county that’s half of East Anglia, which is the sticking-out buttock on the right-hand side of England when you look at the map. I was bored before I was old enough to tie my own shoe-laces. It took me seventeen and a half years to escape, and then I was off like a shot. After wandering about for a long time I settled in Devon, which is in the South-West of England, and very beautiful. I came down temporarily and I like it enough to stay here. I live about a hundred yards from the sea. I like the sea because so far no-one has figured out a way of building shopping malls on it.
Have you traveled a lot and has this influenced the kind of stories you are interested in telling?
Yes, and yes. For example, I’d already started a second Paul Faustino book (it’s called The Penalty, published over here in October 06) before I went to northern Brazil. Being there changed the book. There’s a lot of culture shock in it now.
What drew you to writing about the Dutch Resistance?
Chance, really. A Dutch-born friend of mine told me that her dad, who’d been in the Special Operations Executive, had suddenly decided to show her these bits of silk that he’d hoarded for sixty years. They were the printed codes he’d used for his secret radio transmissions to London in 1944-45. I found it really interesting that he’d kept them, that they had great meaning and significance for him; and at the same time it interested me that they were meaningless – they were codes, designed to hide true meanings. It was a nice paradox. So I started to research the history of the Nazi occupation of Holland – something that no-one outside of Holland seemed to know anything about – and found it incredibly interesting and tragic and moving. And it occurred to me that no-one had written much about it – in English, anyway.
Tamar doesn’t exactly scream ‘YA fiction’ for the most part. Did you set out to write a YA novel in Tamar?
Don’t get me started on Age Categories. My hobby-horse is foaming at the mouth. Like, what the hell does ‘young adult’ mean? I don’t know what the rules are over there, but in England you are technically adult at eighteen. So a ‘young adult’ is what, maybe eighteen and a half? Do people that age go into bookshops and head for the YA section? Does YA just mean ‘teenage’? If so, do thirteen year-olds read the same kind of books as seventeen year-olds? If someone tries to put you into some kind of category you should politely kick them in the teeth. I wrote Tamar for anyone who might like to read it. I’ve had good reviews from kids in Year 7 (that’s 12 plus) and also from my mother-in-law who’s 87. That pleases me. And when I think back to when I was young – that’s about a hundred years ago – I’d have been outraged if anyone had told me there were books that I was ‘ready’ for and other books that I wasn’t. Age categories are for the people who want to know where to stack books in bookshops. And I say to hell with them.
The writing about landscape in Tamar was very striking. It seems that people don’t often write about place so comfortably; the major trope these days is often decay, loss, decline…whereas in Tamar the locations, even the harsh Dutch landscape, offer a kind of enchantment. They are powerful players in the drama. Can you say something about how important place is in your writing?
Great question, and thank you for asking it. I like places. Places are at least as important as people. In fact, I happen to believe that places make people, rather than the other way about – even in a country as worked-over and built-on as England. And as a writer you need to factor this in. So, in Keeper, the fact that the landscape is a place you can hide in, a place where secret events can occur, is absolutely vital. In fact, the story could not have happened anywhere else. In Tamar, the landscape is very open. Holland is, famously, flat. (Like Norfolk.) Which means that it is hard to hide. (When I was researching the book I came across this great quote from an English army officer, who said that you could see all the way across Holland by standing on a chair, and unfortunately the Germans had the chair.) So Tamar is a book about people who are exposed, whereas Keeper is a book about people who are hidden. The stories depend entirely on where they take place. Also, I like to write about place, to bring my readers to some kind of elsewhere. Both reading and writing are a form of travel. And it’s quite hard to do, that conveying of the sense of place, and I like a challenge.
Can you tell me something about your own writing heroes? Does Graham Greene figure on your bookshelf? Who are the writers or what are the books that get you going as a writer?
Spooky that you should ask about Greene. When The Penalty comes out, I fully expect people to say that it’s Graham Greene-ish because it’s about religion, in a sideways sort of way. But Greene isn’t, in fact, someone who’s influenced me, as far as I’m aware. I’m not an anxious Catholic. For me, religion is a subject rather than a personal issue. I live, thank god, in a god-free zone. (Actually, that’s not true. There are self-appointed martyrs on the London Tube. What I mean is that in my everyday life I don’t come up against Bible-thumpers or Quoran-thumpers. God has left me alone for a long time now.) I’ve read such a lot that it’s hard for me to say who my influences are. I learnt about ‘clean’ sentences from Ernest Hemingway. I learnt a lot about writing dialogue from American crime writers like Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. I learnt to take risks from Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m just a magpie, really: I steal from either people’s nests. All writers do.
How did Keeper come about? Someone recently described magical realism as ‘fantasy for adults’…I really liked the balance of the skeptical journalist and visionary story.
I dislike the phrase ‘magical realism’. It’s a blanket term used by lazy critics in the weekend papers. It gets applied to anything that contains supernatural elements set in an exotic location. In my South American stories, beings from some other time or ‘dimension’ intervene in the lives of the characters. That’s a really ancient story device, old as the hills. It’s there in the Old Testament, in Classical mythology, in Asian mythology. It’s not much to do with ‘fantasy’. It’s got everything to do with human beings seeking and needing an explanation for things, and finding a way to dramatize that in the form of a story.
Writing Keeper, I came to realize that I needed a character who would challenge El Gato’s version of reality. That there had to be a dialogue, an argument. To offer the reader a choice. Without Faustino, there would only have been Gato’s version of events. I don’t like books that tell the reader what to believe. Ambiguous books last longer in the reader’s memory.
As for where Keeper came from, I’m not too sure. Ellie (my wife) and I were at Walker books one day long ago, and someone there said that they were looking for interesting books about football and about death. So I said, sort of joking, that maybe I should write a book about a dead footballer and cover both bases. Later, I got to thinking that it wasn’t actually a bad idea. But it seems to me that the story-line could belong in one of those boys’ comics that I mentioned earlier.
What is about a goalie that makes good fiction?
Defending a space. Simple and as complicated as that.
How much research did you need to make Keeper work?
To tell you the truth, I did absolutely no research. I came up with the basic idea, then realized that I had two problems. One was that I knew nothing at all about goalkeeping, and the other was that I knew nothing about South America. (I do now, though.) So I made it all up. I sat and stared at the computer screen until the words appeared. Research is fun, but possibly over-rated. And dangerous – you can find out all sorts of interesting stuff that you want to get into the book whether it belongs there or not. That was a problem I had with Tamar, for which I did do a load of research. But I have a brilliant editor, Averil Whtehouse, who took a delicate machete to the manuscript.
What is unique about the Branford Boase Award, which you won for Keeper?
For a start, it’s for the year’s best first novel, so you can only ever win it once. (And you never get a second crack at it.) Also, it’s awarded to writer and editor, and good editors are unsung heroes, usually. (Paul Harrison, Keeper’s editor, is unusual in that he’s not only as sharp as a razor, he’s also a footy fan.)
How did you come to be involved in the Booktrust Teenage Book Prize?
Well, if you win the Branford Boase, you get to be judge for the next year; that was my first ever judging job. Keeper also won a Nestle Children’s Book award, and the next year I was asked to be a judge for that, as well. So I guess that when the BookTrust people were looking around for a tired old hack to chair the panel they thought of me. I dunno what I think of it all, really. I’m not really comfortable sitting in judgment over other people’s work – like, who the hell do you think you are, Mal Peet? On the other hand, I think prizes are good for getting publicity for writers and writing, and therefore might encourage more people to read. In other words, it’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it…
Tip for the World Cup? How far can England go?
I’m writing this about three hours before England’s first game, and I’m getting nicely worked up…
What I really don’t want to see is another Brazil-Germany final. People are writing Germany off, but I’m not. They love winning the Cup, and they’re playing at home; and the pattern tends to be that either Brazil wins it or the home team does. You have to fancy Brazil, though. Spain ought to be a side to watch, too. Good mix of excellent young players and old heads. At the risk of being oily (again) I’d love to see Australia do well. Tough group….
As for England: well, I’m a pessimist – I’ve had years of practice – but I think that this side is the best we’ve had for a very long time. Possibly the best midfield in the world. If the larrikins can stop breaking their feet they could go all the way. Certainly the best chance of reaching the final we’ve had in 40 years. I’m tempting fate. They’ll probably lose this afternoon…
This interview was first published in the Centre for Youth Literature newsletter in 2006.