Authorgraph No.230


any people assume that When Mr Dog Bites, published in January 2014, was Scottish author Brian Conaghan’s debut novel, such was the attention it received. But I am proud to say that I was an early fan of his distinctive style of writing with its gritty

realism, humour and heart, since I had purchased for my Schools Library Service, The Boy Who Made It Rain, back in 2011. I suspect I should actually give the credit to Peters Booksellers who procured the stock for our approvals collection in the first place. I was intrigued by the gap and how he moved from a tiny publisher straight to critical and commercial acclaim on the Carnegie Medal shortlist.

Although the magic answer, as you might expect, turned out to be acquiring an agent, it was not that easy. Born in Coatbridge, just outside Glasgow in 1971, Brian claims that he was a school failure, with no interest in reading or books at all and ‘did not read a novel till I was 17’. This despite having a father who was a teacher and who took him to the library every Saturday. He left school with no qualifications and became a painter and decorator. He decided quite quickly that he did want to educate and improve himself, which for a time included reading with a thesaurus by his side, and he started

Brian Conaghan Interviewed by Joy Court

to really immerse himself in books: ‘playing catch up’. He studied Theatre at Glasgow University and got his first taste of creative writing, producing scenes and dialogue and both would become a strong feature of his novels. He significantly also became a big fan of poetry at this time, and his first published works were actually two poems in the now defunct Cutting Teeth magazine.

But he really wanted to try a longer form of writing and produced an adult novel, which failed to find a publisher, as did another novel and a book of short stories. Getting published became his goal and writing absorbed all the spare time left from teaching teenagers in Italy, then Scotland, where he also studied part time for a Creative Writing Masters and then in Dublin, where he still lives, but now as a full time writer. New writers are always advised to ‘Find your voice and write what you know’ which he ‘never really understood’ in his own context, until he tried writing for young people and stopped what he called ‘imitating other writers’. His sense of himself at that age was very strong and he ‘worked with teens every day, had an idea of what they liked and what they needed’ and their voices really resonated with him. Perhaps it was the cast of voices telling the story of The Boy Who Made It Rain, from all their different perspectives, that attracted his first publisher, but that success then enabled Brian to get an agent, by which time he had already written, but not sold, When Mr Dog Bites and developed the idea for his Costa Award-winning The Bombs that Brought Us Together.

He was able to utilise some very personal experience to create the unforgettable Tourettes-suffering Dylan Mint. Although much milder and not diagnosed till Brian was an adult; Dylan’s struggles to control Mr Dog (as he calls his condition) were heartfelt. Dylan was one of the 15% of sufferers with coprolalia and his uncontrollable swearing, while undoubtedly hilarious, created an issue that many publishers backed away from, though not Bloomsbury and not publisher Rebecca McNally who, in February 2014, brilliantly defended ‘Why the swearing had to stay ‘ in an article in the Telegraph. But I cannot deny that a book suffused with swearing appearing on the Carnegie Medal shortlist also initially attracted quite a lot of criticism for the librarian judges!

But Brian absolutely did not set out to write a Tourette’s book

and ‘shies away’ from that sort ‘issues-based grandstanding’ as he told the Irish Times. Similarly, although there is no doubt that The Bombs That Brought Us Together was inspired by the political

6 Books for Keeps No.230 May 2018

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