The latest in our series of author interviews sees us catch up with one of the masters of teenage literature, Tim Bowler. Tim has written twenty books for teenagers and won fifteen awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal. He has been described by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘the master of the psychological thriller’ and by the Independent as ‘one of the truly individual voices in British teenage fiction’.
OUP have recently reissued the Blade series of books (Literature for Lads review of No.1 in the series here) written by Tim so we grasped the opportunity to ask Tim some questions about this series in particular.
How would you as the author describe the Blade series of books?
The series consists of one long story and it covers many themes, but in essence I would describe it as an urban odyssey about a complex, dangerous but hopefully engaging fourteen-year-old boy with a violent past and his desperate attempts to make sense of his life and to achieve some kind of redemption for the things he has done.
The Blade books look at the issue of knife crime. Why did you choose to write about this particular social issue?
All violent crime is hideous but knife crime has always seemed to me to be particularly vicious. It is not the click of a trigger from a safe distance. It is close and raw and chillingly personal. I have always been horrified at the thought of young people carrying and using knives and it was this that prompted me to start the Blade books. I wanted to write about knives as honestly as I could, without in any way glorifying them, and to show that those who wield the blade becomes victims too. The boy in the story has a terrible past but one of the reasons for writing the series was to discover whether he could have a future as well.
Some of the language in the Blade series is a little unusual, i.e. gobbos, dronks, trolls. Is this used to help take us into the environment that Blade is living in?
Blade’s language is a personal slang that I invented just for him. It is his own deeply individual way of describing his world and his feelings. The boy is incredibly creative with language. He basically does four things with it. Firstly, he makes up completely new words, e.g. gobbo (guy), neb (person), dimp (idiot), dunny (old woman), grink (enemy). Secondly, he takes existing words and gives them an additional meaning of his own. So ‘muffin’ means the usual thing, i.e. something you can buy at the bakery, but in Blade-slang it also means ‘a harmless person’. ‘Troll’ has its usual meaning, i.e. a creature you might find in a mountain cave in Norway, but in Blade-slang it also means ‘rough teenage girl’. Thirdly, he takes words we know, adds a secondary meaning, and then twists that as well, often into a verb, e.g. he takes the word ‘snug’ and turns it into a noun meaning ‘a safe place to doss’ and then he makes a phrasal verb out of it too, so that ‘to snug out’ means ‘to spend time in a safe place’. Fourthly, he makes up his own ornate phrases for things, e.g. I don’t give two bells = I don’t care; one more crack up the line = another thing sorted; it’s no bum gripe = it’s no big deal. There are many more examples of all the above and I worked very hard to make sure that the meaning of what Blade says is always clear through context and would not require a glossary at the back of the book.
Did you do any research on gang culture for the Blade series?
I read a great deal about gang culture and the kind of criminal underworld in which Blade has lived his life. As the story developed, however, I came to realise that I was writing about much more than just gangs and crime. Essentially I was writing about a boy who is far older than he should be. There’s a line towards the end of the series when in a moment of revelation Blade suddenly reflects (perhaps for the first time in his eventful life) upon how very young he actually is. It’s almost as though he’s forgotten he’s fourteen. But even as he ponders this aloud, another character contradicts him: ‘You ain’t fourteen,’ he says to Blade. ‘You’s as old as sin, brother.’ When I wrote that line, I realised that the contradiction in those words went right to the heart of this boy’s story and almost transcended everything else.
The chapters in Blade are short and sharp, often ending on a cliffhanger…were they fun to write?
Yes, they were. Each chapter felt like a sprint. I was aware that I was writing a long story, i.e. a tale that would be told over several books, but the scene-by-scene expression of that tale felt breathless at times, especially as there is lots of fast-moving action. Having said that, it took a long time to get those chapters right. I would usually get the rough shape down quickly, but once I’d established that, it would then take me ages to hone the text so that it ran smoothly, and especially to get the slang right. So yes, they were huge fun to write but challenging too, and as the boy’s story deepened and grew more emotional, I found myself increasingly anxious not to mess it up. Blade may be a fictional character but he felt so real to me and I grew so attached to him that I was desperate not to let him down by writing his story badly.