Brian Conaghan: ‘I had a strong desire to write a political book for teenagers’

Appalled by events in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria but wary of issue-based grandstanding, the YA author explains how his allegory ended up being about friendship, family and love

Brian Conaghan: The notion of piggy-backing upon whatever cultural, social or political zeitgeisty issue has the social media brigade salivating over tends to make me squirm. That’s why I chose to set The Bombs That Brought Us Together firmly in a fictional world, a kind of Everyman world

Brian Conaghan: The notion of piggy-backing upon whatever cultural, social or political zeitgeisty issue has the social media brigade salivating over tends to make me squirm. That’s why I chose to set The Bombs That Brought Us Together firmly in a fictional world, a kind of Everyman world

 

As a writer I am often asked, where do your ideas come from? Do you just sit there and think these things up? I respond to such questions in my usual unimaginative and wholly unhelpful manner: I shrug my shoulders and mutter, I dunno really, I just do, before slinking back to whence I came.

I wish I knew where great ideas come from. I am all too aware of how much time I spend in my own headspace – which involves drinking lots of coffee while staring at a wall, or, worse, an empty screen – in a vain attempt at fashioning something that is both brilliant and unique: my gift to the literary world. Never happens. After foolish flirtations with inspiration, waiting for the Muse to descend and spontaneously birth my peerless masterpiece, a gazillion-copy bestseller, I revert back to my creative comfort zone. Brian, write about what you know. So, I tend to plod along with books about friendship, family, social reality and, dare I say it, love.

Whenever I write a book I neither believe it to be important nor life-affirming (that’s for the reader to decide). My only wish is that it’s good and/or entertaining (again, for the reader to decide). Having said that, I really do hope it garners a glut of five-star reviews … Come on, we’re writers. We ALL have those ego thingys.

In 2014 I sat down to write my new YA novel, The Bombs That Brought Us Together, with two aims in mind: write something good and write something better than my last book.

How? No idea.

What? Not a Scooby.

And therein lies the novelist’s dilemma. For me this meant more headspace, gallons of coffee, tons of staring into a blank abyss, and – every writer’s devoted irritant – trying to wrestle with the self-doubt.

In those early stages I had a strong desire to write a political book for teenagers. Something that could ignite classroom discussion/debate and get young people thinking on a deeper level about the world they inhabit. Having spent many years as an English teacher, I knew that this would be a futile task unless some vital ingredients were present: believability, cultural relevance, personal engagement and truthful representation of themes and characters. Oh, and a few laughs chucked in for those head-on-the-desk-away-and-not-annoy-me-Sir students.

In 2014 the world outside my window appeared to be imploding. Politically speaking it was a momentous year. In February the “Revolution of Dignity” was taking place in Ukraine; March saw Crimea being annexed by Russia; summer news items were drenched with images of the ritualistic and sustained bombing campaign against Gaza and its people; Islamic State was on the rise in Iraq and Syria; pro-Russian rebels shot down civilian airliner MH-17 over Ukrainian skies and there was an upsurge of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe by sea in the days before such mass movement was deemed a “humanitarian crisis”. Closer to home the Scots were voting NO to remain in the United Kingdom or YES to become their very own sovereign, independent nation. Of course, there are more events I could mention, but it seemed that 2014 equated to a seismic shift in the European landscape. Yet, while the sense of foreboding was palpable, it presented me with a creative stimulus.

I watched the rolling news reports. I listened to elected members debate possible – and quite often ludicrous – solutions to a myriad of problems. I heard the blame-throwers, mud-slingers and fear-mongers hypothesise about a bleak future ahead. And, of course, I bore witness to the horrific nightly scenes of death and carnage. Carnage, actually, doesn’t even come close. No word(s) can recapitulate the sight of millions of people forcibly displaced: fleeing their homes through persecution, occupation, discrimination or blatant state-sanctioned criminality.

What I remember most during that period is the thousands of children shuffling towards a new land in the aftermath. Trundling to an uncertain future. Whether Crimean, Ukrainian, Syrian, Libyan or Palestinian, they were united in the fear etched upon their faces. Their nascent life’s possessions slung over weak and damaged bones. Children with no clue. No toys. No choice. On the move. And I watched it from my comfortable sofa, in a country that affords me the luxury of peace and liberty. I watched it like the creative opportunist I was (am). Here was the subject matter I so badly sought. Here was the something I could write about, presented in a constant stream of narrative montage sequences … on tap.

What joy.

What shame!

I’d like to state at this juncture that I’ve consciously shied away from writing issue-based grandstanding books. The notion of piggy-backing upon whatever cultural, social or political zeitgeisty issue has the social media brigade salivating over tends to make me squirm. That’s why I chose to set The Bombs That Brought Us Together firmly in a fictional world, a kind of Everyman world. My intention was to examine the subject matter allegorically as opposed to literally. Naturally I wanted the wrecking-ball policies of those power-wielding aggressors to permeate my book, but my writing process itself was very much influenced by the realpolitik of the Scottish referendum.

As a Scot I asked myself some basic political questions, questions that allowed me to distance myself from the destructive reality of the aforementioned places of conflict, questions that enabled me to be creative within an actual political framework: what would happen if Scotland voted for independence? How would Scotland cope with a military power as its closest neighbour? How would Scotland survive with no economic strength? What if this spanking new, independent Scotland was ever invaded? Erm … by the English.

And so the analogous world of Little Town and Old Country began. The fictional characters, Charlie Law and Pavel Duda were created. One moralistic and supreme power (Old Country) targeted its frail and delicate neighbour (Little Town) and rained the bombs down on them. Nevertheless, it’s these very bombs that galvanise Charlie and Pav’s friendship and set them on a tumultuous journey of hope, survival and self-discovery. Consequently The Bombs That Brought Us Together was born.

But what of the real refugee children of conflict? Well, among other things, we can only wish that they find safety and compassion in the arms of their new hosts, and hopefully many a lasting friendship may be forged due, in part, to the bombs that have brought them together. I wish my book could tell their stories, or help them, or change perceptions. But in the end, I realise that I’ve gone full circle and written about what I know: friendship, family, social reality and, dare I say it, love.

The Bombs That Brought Us Together is published by Bloomsbury Children’s, at £12.99

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