Carnegie Medal-winning author Melvin Burgess is joined by spoken word artist and writer, Steven Camden aka Polarbear, and award-winning advertising copy-writer turned author, L J MacWhirter, to discuss writing about difficult issues in their latest books.
In very distinctive styles, each author read a selected passage from their latest title, to open the event. Camden, whose spoken-word career was evident in his lyrical, tension-filled reading, was the highlight of the event. He read from his latest title, Nobody Real, about a teenage girl whose childhood imaginary friend suddenly re-appears one day. Burgess’ The Lost Witch is a fantasy about witches and the first novel he’s published in five years, whilst Black Snow Falling, is MacWhirter’s first novel: an Elizabethan fantasy and feminist thriller. It was a little jarring to have three authors with very different reading styles in quick succession, as such, it would have been more enjoyable to hear them interspersed throughout the discussion.
MacWhirter and Burgess were somewhat nonplussed when asked about the theme of change, joking about the ‘looseness’ of the theme that tied their books together, saying neither of them had deliberately written about change. MacWhirter’s novel, although set in 1592, deals with issues faced by young women today, and it uses a privileged, educated girl to expose the multi-sexism of the time; something today’s readers are likely to relate to, to some degree. Camden has (consciously) written a great deal about change: the majority of his works, both written and theatrical, explore that specific leap between childhood and adulthood, and are inspired by his own experiences. It comes as no surprise that his latest title is another facet of this semi-autobiographical, self-exploration. On feminism, Camden said he would call himself a feminist, aware as he is of “being afforded certain luxuries” because of his gender; whilst Burgess, rather obnoxiously, said “You’d be stupid not to be wouldn’t you? It’s difficult as a man to say you’re a feminist – it’s a bit like saying you’re a girl, isn’t it?”
When the question of morality was raised, and the power of books to send a message; the panel agreed it was to be approached with caution, as no one has the answers – including writers. MacWhirter said “I don’t know about morality, but we need hope.” Camden recalled reading The Bunker Diary, saying “That book messed me up. But it stayed with me.” The panel believe that books should not serve to educate but to ask questions, and that darkness and fear create resilience in readers. Burgess reinforced that resilience comes from understanding, and that books provide an essential safe space for readers to explore various situations and responses to them.
When the somewhat meandering discussion drew to a close, the panel agreed that young people today are up against so much more than ever before – but they remain hopeful that the younger generations will be the ones to bring about positive change in the world.
The event could have been tighter, but Camden saved it with his brilliantly executed reading and thoughtful responses – I’d love to see him back next year with a spoken word show of his own, or perhaps paired with Kate Tempest, in a discussion around marginalised young voices.
Publications, thoughts and reviews
On themes of mental illness, disability and YA.