Teenagers, Books & Politics Don’t Mix…Or Do They? by Brian Conaghan
As a writer I am often asked, where do your ideas come from? Do you just sit there and think these things up? As a response I usually shrug my shoulders and mutter, I don’t really know, I just…sort of… do.
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.
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).
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 clue.
And therein lies the novelist’s dilemma.
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.
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 the 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 Scotland was voting NO to remain in the United Kingdom or YES to become their very own sovereign, independent nation. So, while the sense of foreboding and hopelessness was palpable, it presented me with a creative opportunity.
Night after night I watched the rolling news reports. I listened to elected members debate possible – and quite often ludicrous – solutions to a multitude of problems. I heard the blame-throwers, mud-slingers and fear-mongers rant about a bleak future ahead. And, of course, I bore witness to the horrific scenes of death and carnage. Carnage, actually, doesn’t even come close. No word(s) can sum-up 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.
I’d like to state at this juncture that I’ve consciously shied away from writing issue-based grandstanding books. 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 flood my book, but my writing process itself was very much influenced by the Scottish independence referendum.
As a Scot I asked myself some basic political questions: 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? Ahem … by the English.
And so the parallel worlds of Little Town and Old Country began. My 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 bombs down on them. Nevertheless, it’s these very bombs that galvanise Charlie and Pav’s friendship and set them on a turbulent 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.
My aim was always to write a political book for teenagers. Over the years it intrigued me when I was told that teenagers had zero interest in politics, that politics bored them. It also confused me because they continued to have strong, powerful views of what was happening in the world they lived. I want my book to stir up such viewpoints. I want to hear what young people think about those persecuted, displaced and banished. I want to hear teenage voices talking, screaming and debating politics. Why? Because their opinion counts.
Brian Conaghan lives and works as a teacher in Dublin and has a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Throughout the years, Brian has made a living as a painter and decorator, bartender, teacher, and now writer. When Mr. Dog Bites was his debut American novel.