Mal Peet (pictured below) and his wife Elspeth Graham (who he also writes with) had been enjoying a few days of New Zealand sunshine before the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival kicks off, when I met them in Auckland city to catch up. Mal’s been a guest here before and has plenty of fans of his exciting and absorbing young adult novels, and many are not teenagers. He’s been writing books, many award-winning, for the last ten years, aimed at that youthful audience, but they enjoy a wide readership.
I asked Mal about what distinguishes his books as YA, a tricky and much discussed issue.
“I do sound off about this. I get very fed up with people who are more obsessed with categorising books than reading them. There are a lot of bloggy nerds out there who want to advance a rigid definition of what is teen or YA and I just think – to hell with it, it doesn’t matter. I mean I do write, in my opinion, for young adults, but not exclusively. I don’t believe that teenagers exclusively want to read about other teenagers. But there’s a very strong school of thought now, that teenage fiction should be fiction about teenagers. And I simply don’t hold to that view … which I consider entirely reductive, formulaic and silly.”
Is there anywhere you won’t go because your books are aimed at teens?
“No, not in terms of content. I think I do moderate my style somewhat, in that I just try to avoid anything that might be beyond the average well-read teenager’s reading really, so I don’t make a lot of clever literary references, and I don’t presume they know historical stuff and so on, so I either avoid it or I have to work explanation into the text.”
There is a lot of information worked into Peet’s stories, but you hardly notice that you’re learning something new when you’re so caught up with the characters. The most recent novel Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker Books) is based in Norfolk, the countryside of Peet’s own childhood, and there are many elements from his own youth in the story of Clem, a shy boy with a love of drawing, and his rather fumbling romance with the gorgeous Frankie, overshadowed by the Cold War and its threat of nuclear annihilation.
The war itself is also full of strongly drawn characters as Peet melds together quotes taken directly from scripts on record from White House meetings before the Kennedy and Khrushchev governments finally decided not to blow the world to smithereens.
“One of the motives for writing the book was that it seemed to me that it had been almost forgotten. It seems very odd that the nearest we ever looked like we were coming to nuclear annihilation has been sort of tucked away as a footnote.
“28 October marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Cold War and thus a great time to read Life, hoping that the knowledge and renewed awareness can help prevent such events happening again, and perhaps asking questions, as Peet does in the postscript of his book, about where all those nuclear weapons are lurking now.”
See Mal Peet at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival event ‘In the Shadow of History’ with Sebastian Barry and Jesmyn Ward with chair Paula Morris THIS SATURDAY (Saturday 12 May) 11.30-12.30. Buy your tickets now.
Mal Peet was interviewed for Booksellers NZ by Crissi Blair, editor/publisher/reviewer at Silvertone Ltd.
Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
Published by Walker Books