Melvin Burgess is one of the most influential writers of recent years. His books are famed for being highly controversial and extremely captivating reads. Much of his success has been attributed to his ability to capture the minds of the older teenage generation, a group generally neglected by many authors.
Burgess was born in Twickenham, Middlesex, on 25 April, 1954, but grew up in Sussex. As a child he loved to read the works of Gerald Durrell, who owned a zoo in Jersey, and for a while Burgess wanted to be a zoo-keeper. He also daydreamed a lot, often dreaming up scenarios, situations and characters he would talk to. In fact his daydreaming was such that it got in the way of his education, and as a result he performed badly at school. Burgess tried for the 11-plus but failed to get into grammar school, and thus was educated at a secondary modern instead.
He hated the school and recalls that a teacher once called him up in front of the class because he had created a story that didn't adhere to her specifications. His parents then moved to Reading, where he continued his education at another school, and was even inspired by some of the teachers there1. After seven years at secondary school, he was left with two rather poor A-Level results: one in English, and another in biology.
After school, Burgess applied for a job as a journalist on a local newspaper. Once he had obtained the position, he was sent on a six months' training course that would teach him the ins and outs of writing journalistic reports before taking up the role. But Burgess had other plans when he finished his training, and decided to be an author instead. This infuriated the editor of the local newspaper, who said: "I think the saddest thing, Melvin, is that you have deprived someone else of a career opportunity."
In 1975 he moved to Bristol, where he spent many years doing casual work and writing in between. Eight years later he moved to London, where he set about writing radio plays, short stories and children's fiction.
In 1990, Burgess hit success with his book The Cry of the Wolf being nominated for the Carnegie Medal. A number of other books followed, with An Angel for May and The Baby and Fly Pie also being shortlisted for the same award.
I remember with Junk, one young reader coming out with a remark which summed it all up really, which was that it's not books that corrupt, it's people.
- Melvin Burgess
It wasn't until 1996 that he achieved his first Carnegie Medal, and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, for the novel Junk. By far the most successful of all his books, Junk tells the story of Tar and his girlfriend Gemma who, having run away together, find themselves embroiled in prostitution and drug abuse. Angered by the way the book deals with drug-taking, critics shunned the novel, as Burgess reflects: "I had touched on the enjoyment factor of taking drugs when everyone connects drugs with misery and destitution. This was wrongly interpreted as encouragement of drug-taking among young people."
However, the book offers more to the reader than an insight into drug-taking. For instance, it gives them a vision of Bristol in the early Eighties: "When I lived in Bristol, I knew kids who had left home while they were teenagers and got themselves into drugs and prostitution, and Junk is largely based on them." The book also reveals that there is a writer out there who is willing to sympathise and understand teenagers. Burgess says: "My books are about important, exciting issues. I look for an imaginative, adventurous way of writing about them that isn't preachy."
To emphasise his belief in giving teenagers an honest view on things, he deliberately reveals each chapter using a different character. So the reader obtains an insight into each of the characters in the story and an understanding of how much influence difference perspectives can have on a situation.
Drugs, Sex and Rock 'n' Roll
Burgess also faced criticism with the book Lady: My Life as a Bitch. Released in 2001, the story tells the tale of a young girl who has slept with a number of boys and in the end turns into a dog. Eric Hester, vice-president of Family & Youth Concern, told the BBC: "This is very unpleasant - it is about a girl who is on drugs; she's promiscuous, she steals from shops, and she prefers in the end to be a 'bitch on heat' to being a human being." In his defence, Burgess said: "There's no question about this book being a Sunday school tract about how to live your life or advice of any kind. It's a satire about freedom, sexuality and personal responsibility, and the hope is that it will make people think about those things."
Similarly, his book Doing It tells the tale of a group of boys, their sexual experiences and the conversations they have. With these books on general view to all children, many critics have called for 'parental guidance' labels to be put on them, like those used with films. Burgess thinks this is ludicrous: "You can't ring-fence children any more away from the rest of the world."
Burgess's biggest critic is author Anne Fine, who was particularly shocked by the book Doing It. Fine believes females are seen in a derogatory light in the book and therefore: "Young girls will be begging their parents to send them to single-sex schools. Reading this will put many off dating for years." However, instead of being thrown aside and left to gather dust on the shelves of various shops up and down the country, the book was a huge success. Both readers and critics were in favour of Burgess's book.
On Transplant Terror
In 2006, Burgess released the book Sara's Face. The novel tells the story of a young girl who, having obtained an iron burn, wishes to change her face through a transplant. The book is both a satire on how important image has come to be seen by society, particularly in line with stardom and fame, and a thriller, for Sara encounters Jonathan Heat who wishes to steal her face.
Burgess was first inspired to write this book after having seen the film Eyes Without a Face by George Franju. The book couldn't have been released at a better time because, in his own words, "It is certainly topical at a time when face transplants are making the news and we see how Michael Jackson has changed for the worse, yet keeps his own children hidden behind masks."
Burgess currently lives in Manchester with his son, Oliver, stepson, Sam, and wife, Anita Turner. The house in Manchester was built in the Victorian era and came equipped with cellars and a garden. The family also share their house with two cats and a parrot named Henry.