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Posts tagged ‘NZ teen fiction author’

Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels, by Bernard Beckett

I’m currently working on the third book of what I like to think of as a metaphysical trilogy. The first, Genesis, focussed on the mystery of consciousness, the second, August, on free will, and the last, my current novel Lullaby, is exploring death. All three are an attempt to both examine the metaphors we use to describe the self, particularly in a world where religious metaphors are not the common currency they once were. They’re also explicit attempts, through story, to introduce philosophy to the teenage reader.

So, why should we expect the teenage audience, or indeed anybody, to be interested in philosophy? Considering the teenager first, I would argue that the late teens is precisely the time in life where you are most likely to be excited by the essential contestability of knowledge. Part of the teenage experience is the realisation that the simple world of reliable authority figures and protectors is behind you, and ahead lies a mess that you alone will have to navigate. That’s both tremendously exciting, there’s a sense of freedom and possibility, and terrifying – two of the more easily accessed emotions during adolescence. One of the most tantalising thoughts you can be exposed to during this phase is the possibility that absolutely everything you have ever been taught or told about the world is quite wrong. What if nobody else is really conscious in the way you are? What if other people experience colours differently than you do? What if the rules of the universe were always going to change tomorrow morning? What if somebody was able to predict your every move in advance? What if you’re really just a brain in a vat? What if there’s no you at all, and the continuous self is an illusion?

The first thing philosophy does is allow you to question the foundations of your most certain knowledge, and the enduring appeal of The Matrix amongst teens is evidence enough that there is something highly attractive about this process for the younger mind. I think this is because it mirrors the personal reshaping that is going on, and also because it allows a tremendously important chain of thinking to emerge. If nobody knows anything for sure, then the people who tell me how the world is might be wrong, which means I have permission to consider the world anew, and reach my own conclusions, permission, in short, to enter adulthood.

Of course, the dalliance with the more extreme versions of scepticism is short lived. Very quickly we realise we must put down our foundations in the swampy ground of knowledge and get on with the business of living. Yes, technically is might be true that as of tomorrow morning being hit by a bus will no longer hurt, but to base one’s beliefs about the world upon this possibility appears to be insane. So perhaps all philosophy is, in the end, of no real practical use, beyond its fleeting appeal to the adolescent mind.

That’s a popular view, and one that I would argue is clearly wrong. Part of the reason I’ve included philosophical abstractions in my novels is that I love the idea of the adolescent reader forming a longer lasting attachment to the subject. Here is not the place to defend the worth of philosophy to the adult mind in full. Suffice, I hope, to point out that philosophy is something we all do, all the time. We use observation and reason to build models about our world. To ignore the theoretical framework of these assumptions is not to avoid philosophy, it’s just to do philosophy very badly. This failure matters most, I think, when we find ourselves in contact with those who starting assumptions are very different from our own, perhaps because of a different upbringing, or a different set of religious beliefs. If we don’t understand the premises upon which our own beliefs are based, then there is the very real danger of believing it’s fact all the way down. Now, two groups of people, holding opposing views and being unable to properly interrogate the root of that difference, strikes me as a very dangerous situation, and one that’s worth avoiding.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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GenesisAugustRed CliffNo Alarms     Deadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)The Door of No ReturnThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Mistakes I’ve Made As A Novelist, by Bernard Beckett

The spark for a particular novel can come from many places and arrive in many forms. For me, sometimes it’s an idea that’s puzzling me and the writing of the novel is a working through of my own confusion. Other times there’s a plot element, a particular ending perhaps or an opening that intrigues me. Other times it’s a character. The trick is taking this starting point and weaving it into a successful and satisfying story. The trouble is that the path from starting point to finished product is not at all clear. There are any number of paths to take and the great majority of them will end in failure. This, by way of illumination, is a story or one of those failures – my novel Home Boys.

The starting point was unusual for me, it began with my father telling me the story of a man who lived in the same small town as him. The man in question had been sent out to New Zealand post World War Two, as part of the scheme meant to offer new starts to children whose lives had been ripped apart by the war. Like so many of the children, this man’s story was not a happy one. He was signed up to the scheme by an older brother and didn’t know he was on anything other than a day trip until the boat was out to sea. He ended up on a farm where he was essentially used as slave labour. I went and interviewed the chap and was captivated by his story, and by his resilience. In the way of his generation, he seemed to have simply shrugged and got on with it, and looking back, held no bitterness or regret.

My plan was to use the first half of his story (being put on the boat, ending up on the farm, then running away) and then fictionalise the rest. The trouble was, I didn’t exactly know what that rest was. And because I had such a solid start, there was an opportunity to start writing without really thinking about it. The first bits came easily, the character developed, along with the sense of place, and I figured I could probably just follow my nose from there and something would work out.

As I approached the point of departure into pure fiction, I began playing around with new ideas. Another runaway down the road becomes a mate and suddenly we’re into Huckleberry Finn territory. Feeling confident, I threw in some disturbing dreams (always a mistake) that hinted at the possibility of the supernatural. I brought back an Italian prisoner of war, who by strange coincidence (no worries, I’ll solve it later) reappeared and then, following my nose, ended up at a small fishing village and a love triangle at its apex. I think there was even mention of a mysterious cave in the bush from whence no man had returned. I was, it was fair to say, having fun. And the writing, for me, wasn’t half bad. I was enjoying getting the sense of time and place. It was the geography of my own childhood, I knew it well, and loved the challenge of getting that landscape into the paper.

In hindsight, I can see that I was absolutely seduced by the process of putting more and more balls in the air. The idea was that somehow I’d nail the catching as well, that they’d land in my hand one by one in a satisfying succession of plops, and I would bow to the standing ovation. I was caught up in the feeling the reader would also have, that somehow this mad mix of myth, dream, history, lust and coincidence was going to weave itself into an astonishing ending.

The trouble, clearly, was that I had no ending. I didn’t even have a feel for the what the ending should do, what the satisfactory completion of Colin’s character arc would look like. The book was coming to an end, the options were closing in, but there was no place to jump to that would tie it all up. At that point, what I should have done is taken a deep breath, gone back to the beginning and tried to work out what it was I was really trying to achieve. Instead I cheated and threw in a non-ending with the two boys sitting on the back of a truck, having hitched a ride, heading into the city. It was supposed to be symbolic, I suppose, but it was no such thing. It was just a case of not knowing how else to end the story, because this particular story didn’t have an ending, making it not a story at all, but rather a collection of ideas and events and people and places that I really loved writing about. Less a novel, more an extended creative writing exercise.

Looking back on it now, I still love reading from Home Boys, for exactly the same reason I enjoyed writing it. In my head, it’s hugely alive, maybe more than any other piece of my writing. As such it must be filed under ‘ones that got away’, a book where I got caught up in the telling and lost sight of the story.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

GenesisAugustNo AlarmsRed Cliff     The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)Red is for RemembranceRooftop

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

On Novels That Are For-Teens-By-Accident, by Bernard Beckett

At some time during my education, somewhere between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, the establishment decided I had outgrown teen fiction and was ready for real, grown-up writing. In fact, they were only half right. I was indeed a little past The Outsiders, much as I had adored it a few years earlier. I was at the stage of developing an appreciation of abstract ideas and I was beginning to shift my conception of adults: from people who must be opposed, doubted and undermined, to people who, in at least a few cases, might be able to teach me a thing or two. I was ready, therefore, for something a little more sophisticated than the standard Young Adult (YA) fare. But they were half wrong too, in that leaving early-stage adolescence behind does not automatically catapult one into the mental and emotional state of a forty three year old female English Literature teacher. The leap from YA to Wuthering Heights and Sons and Lovers was an ill conceived one, all but guaranteed to turn a very great pleasure into a chore.

So, where else might they have turned? Perhaps to my very favourite YA novels, those which I think of as YA-by-accident. These are novels that were written with an adult audience in mind, and as a consequence are free of any of the instinctive talking down and oversimplifying that dogs the genre. And yet, simply because of the nature of the type of story the author is trying to tell, they are of the teen world: they speak directly to its concerns, curiosities and aspirations. Because they are accidental (I think it would be foolish to set out to deliberately write such a book) they are also fairly rare. Three of my favourites are The Catcher in the Rye (the book that casts the shadow in which the rest of us labour), Sydney Bridge Upside Down (a classic New Zealand title) and, in the interests of trans-Tasman balance, Tim Winton’s superb Breath.

I’ll use Breath to illustrate my point, which is the way some novels perfectly inhabit the adolescent twilight. When I first read Breath, I remember being filled with English-teacher excitement. I began to imagine it unfolding in the classroom – small town claustrophobia, mateship, pushing against physical limits, sexual awakening, elegant but simple prose and a sense of escalation driving the narrative. None of the ingredients required for a teen novel were missing. Yet, on another level, it isn’t a teen novel at all. Or rather it isn’t just a teen novel. It’s not just that it veers into the world of auto-erotic asphyxiation - although for a school teacher there’s a certain caution light flashing at this point – it’s also that the story is delivered to us by an adult narrator, who is unashamedly viewing his coming of age through the lens of later experience.

This device, or rather perspective, is what allows the writing to achieve a level of beauty that wouldn’t be available to the authentic teenage voice. It’s not just in the way the landscape is so carefully brought to life, it’s also in the wonderful, wise re-interpretations of childish experience. Winton writes “I couldn’t have put it into words as a boy, but I later understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful.” Here he is explicit: an adult writing as an adult can say things and understand things that the younger narrator can’t. So he has licence to move into what is for me the most striking passage in the whole book; a concise, wonderfully weighted examination of manhood, that succeeds in placing all that is to follow in a poetic context.

As a sixteen year old boy, I wish I’d had access to writing like this, writing that both inhabited my world and then led me by the hand beyond it. A story that, by the very fact it wasn’t aimed at me, treated me with unusual respect. It is the occasion of the unnoticed child, listening in to the adult conversation, and for once hearing talk of something that interests them.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

GenesisAugustLesterNo Alarms     Rikers HighBeware, Princess ElizabethTracks

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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