Knives, Underpants and the Life of the Mind
The Conflicting Worlds of Anthony McGowan
Anthony McGowan is many things: an award-winning novelist, an intimate (if sporadic) blogger, a journalist, a philosopher, a father and a husband — a veritable chameleon of skill and craft. However, despite being one of Britain’s shining new literary talents, and incredibly funny to boot, he is nothing if not self-deprecating. As he greets me warmly, I am internally gratified by how very much like a writer-cum-college lecturer he looks — corduroy jacket and shirt, square spectacles and a mop of floppy, curly hair. After pouring the compulsory cups of tea, and remarking over the provided refreshments — pastries roughly the size of a human head — we get down to business. He is disarmingly earnest as he speaks, yet also very self-aware, as if mocking his own enthusiasm.
He tells me of his sordid history with writing, ‘I used to write terrible poems when I was a teenager … I was convinced it would impress girls, but it never did’. It wasn’t until his early twenties, when writing his PhD thesis, that he realised that the previously daunting concept of writing a novel was actually within his grasp: ‘I could, in fact, write a hundred thousand words if I needed to.’ A few years later, while ensconced in a terribly boring job in the civil service, McGowan daydreamed up the plot of his first novel, Hellbent.
However, the book we read today isn’t quite the original he dreamed up, and neither was it the first book he published. He began writing Hellbent at a time when YA or ‘young adult’ fiction was just beginning to take off in Britain. ‘I‘d heard about this category of novel … but I assumed that ‘young adults’ were people in their twenties, like I was’. Upon receiving a publishing deal for the novel, he realised that all the components of the story were primarily teen-related, so he adapted it into a book modelled for adolescents. What was originally ‘quite explicit’ with ‘very strong language’ was now … well … somewhat explicit with rather strong language? All the same, I doubt he’d be the writer he is today without his infamously impolite content. An entire delicious chapter in Hellbent is dedicated to the art of swearing, with special directions on the correct use of the C-word. Rather than trying to shock, McGowan has an almost aesthetic relationship with swearwords: ‘In fact, the bad language in my books tends to be quite poetic and complex and rich language, so it’s salty rather than straightforward swearing.’
What is so engaging about McGowan’s work is his astonishing ability to inhabit the skin of his characters
Anthony McGowan is an author of contradictions, combining highbrow sensitivity and intellect with base humour and primitivism
Prior to Hellbent, McGowan published an adult thriller, Stag Hunt, and its sequel, Mortal Coil was published shortly after Hellbent. On their heels came the critically acclaimed Henry Tumour (2006 Booktrust Prize Winner) and The Knife That Killed Me. ‘Nearly all my books are based some way on another book,’ he tells me fervently, yet still somewhat sheepishly. He elaborates, informing me that Hellbent is similar to Dante’s Inferno, Henry Tumour is basically a version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, and The Knife That Killed Me is meant to be a retelling of Homer’s Iliad. ‘It all sounds a bit pretentious, doesn’t it?’ he laughs. Pretentious or not, any one of his books displays clearly his own rich knowledge of literature.
The relationship between Henry the tumour and his carrier, Hector, has been likened to that of Freud’s id and ego – carnal, disorganised instincts versus rationalisation. ‘It’s a Darwinian kind of life-force … full of appetites and energies.’ However, McGowan himself likens it more to the relationship between Falstaff and Hal from Henry IV; ‘He’s a quasi-father figure, but also leads Hector into all kinds of mischief. He’s disreputable and filthy, but attractively so in a way.’ McGowan once again integrates his unique highbrow style by peppering Henry’s conversation with the likes of Shakespeare and Donne.
While Hellbent and Henry Tumour are both comedies, The Knife That Killed Me is a hard-hitting, intense portrayal of knife crime and youth violence – a far cry from his usual lightly philosophical style. ‘My agent suggested the idea of taking a look at knife crime, and I said no, I don‘t do issues … but then the idea just sort of grew in my head.’ At the time of writing, knife crime was a serious problem, with over 30 teens killed that year in London. The topic was inescapable, and all over the papers, and, added to the inspiration of The Iliad and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, it led to the creation the novel. ‘The Iliad is just an amazing story about war, and it follows these incredible personal clashes. I wanted to get some of the violence and terror of that, mix it with Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked fervour… and write a light romantic comedy.’ he jokes, grinning.
What is so engaging about McGowan’s work is his astonishing ability to inhabit the skin of his characters. His insight into the mind of a teenage boy is razor sharp, which, he explains, is because he was one once, apparently. It’s clear that he draws from personal experiences, and notably writes everything in the first person. ‘I always knew I was going to write about teenagers,’ says McGowan. ‘A lot of the men I know that are my age, and women to a lesser extent, in their heads they‘re still fifteen or sixteen.’ In all three teen novels, the characters attend the same school, which is based on McGowan’s own educational experience. Sometimes, in passing, characters and places are cross-referenced, which is almost like a private joke with the author – a treat for fans.
His protagonists are always the rather ‘normal’ teenage boy, in his description of whom McGowan manages to convey a heady mix of childish vulgarity and intense romanticism, which not only summarises his general style of writing, but also convincingly conveys the general teenage male psyche. ‘It’s a time when your body’s changing and you’re in love for the first time, so there’s all these intense experiences which I’ve never really shaken off.’ So, on the one hand you have this side to his characters that is typically ‘male’ – crusty underwear, fart jokes, and sex, sex, sex – and on the other hand you have this fragile, sensitive soul who wonders at love and life and being: yet somehow it all comes together in this glorious, magnificent mess of hormones.
Women, unsurprisingly, are often the focus of his character’s attentions, but not quite in the lewd way you might expect. McGowan portrays a tender, awestruck and profoundly pure worship of women in his typically prosaic way, while still managing to mix in the delirious excitement of catching a flash of nipple.
To elaborate on the aforementioned vulgar aspect of his writing, I do not write ‘vulgar’ to be condescending or snobbish, rather, it’s truly and honestly the only way to describe the amount of disgusting, gross, grotty, horrifying ‘body comedy’ he writes that is so wrong, yet so very hilarious. ‘Farts are to me what daffodils are to Wordsworth’ he grins. You could be at the point of retching, yet have tears of mirth streaming down your face. Once again, his aim is not to shock or to horrify but to entertain. Hellbent in particular is notorious for this brand of graphic ‘toilet humour’.
Again, like his characters, this lowbrow comedy is juxtaposed with what could be considered its polar opposite — incredibly deep and intellectual philosophizing, prose about beauty and love and always an ingrained existentialism that is almost his hallmark. ‘As writers, we live the life of the mind.’ Every one of these aspects can be found in his younger novels, Einstein’s Underpants and The Bare Bum Gang, though perhaps with more bum humour and less philosophizing.
Anthony McGowan is an author of contradictions, combining highbrow sensitivity and intellect with base humour and primitivism… like the id and ego, I suppose. ‘I’m being pretentious again, I can’t help myself’ he apologizes good-naturedly. However, it’s obvious his writing comes from an honest love of the art. And he’s bloody good at it too. HD