Mal Peet Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Mal Peet

Mal Peet

An interview with Mal Peet

Read Mal Peet's Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech and find out more about both his strongly held opinions and his books, which include Keeper, The Penalty and Tamar.

Tamar is a historical novel. It is also, at a certain level, about history. A fifteen-year-old girl discovers that her life has been shaped by events that occurred fifty years ago, in a past of which she is only dimly aware, and that those events were, in turn, dictated by earlier ones. She realizes, in other words, that as well as being an individual she is part of a human continuum. This is hardly a profound or difficult concept, but it worries me that it is in danger of being lost. I sense a widespread disconnection from history, that people - younger people in particular - have little idea about how they "got here."

Disconnection or alienation from the past has political consequences. A clear example is the popularity of Margaret Thatcher's mutilation of the trade unions in the 1980s. Many of those who supported her in this seemed to have forgotten or not known that they owed the social benefits they enjoyed - health, education, social security - to the trade union movement. Now I do not think that there is a single young person of my acquaintance who has any knowledge of the social history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have the somewhat gloomy feeling that, as a result, those struggles will have to take place all over again. There are already companies, including supermarkets and call centers, whose attitudes toward their employees are not that different from those of nineteenth-century mill owners. And "globalization" is, of course, a euphemism for the exploitation of cheap labor. I'm not quite crazy enough to think that my novel can address, let alone affect, any of these matters, but I'd like to think that one or two readers might take a livelier interest in the "connectiveness" between their present and the past.

I've done little bits of work for [England's] National Reading Campaign. In fact, I'm a "Reading Champion," and I've got a badge to prove it. The National Literacy Trust campaigns under the slogan "Reading Is Fundamental," which is of course true. But as the Carnegie award ceremony takes place on July 7, 2006, it is perhaps appropriate to say that reading is also anti-fundamentalist. Fundamentalism - of any variety - is a form of illiteracy, in that it asserts that it is necessary to read only one book. It is unbelievably stupid to imagine that this kind of illiteracy can be combated with bombs and bullets. And terribly scary that the U.S. and Britain are being led by men who do not, or cannot, read. Three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote a satire called The Battle of the Books; it would be great if Bush and Blair could be helped to read it. It has a great deal to say about the "collateral damage" that is incurred when violence is used in a battle over the printed word.  They might also discover that when it comes to struggling with fundamentalism, there are arsenals packed with weapons of mass education in all our towns and cities. They are called "libraries."

Behind The Scenes With Mal Peet - Carnegie Medal Winner For Tamar

"The three things that kept me sane as a child were bikes, books, and soccer"

Mal Peet grew up in what he describes as an emotionally impaired family in a small and very dull market town in Norfolk, England. His bike took him many miles from home, and his passion for soccer led him to play for his school, his town, and his county. But naturally, books took him the farthest away of all, often to islands: Coral Island, Treasure Island, and wherever it was that the Swiss Family Robinson found themselves. He also had - and still has - a passion for comics. (He originally envisioned his award-winning first novel for young adults, Keeper, as a graphic novel.)  Peet says that he didn't grow up with a burning ambition to be a writer - in fact, his main ambitions were to be a soccer player and a cartoonist. He wrote and illustrated stories as a child and often handed in his school history essays as cartoon strips.

"I get bored too easily"

Mal Peet studied English and American Studies at the University of Warwick, in England. There he began drawing cartoons in earnest, first for his friends and then for the university newspaper.  After obtaining his B.A., he wasn't sure what to do next, so he decided to try his hand at academia. In the early 1970s, he received a master's degree, then went to Exeter to pursue a Ph.D. in American political cartoons and graphics. He was lured into teaching by the luxury of a regular salary, but, afflicted by a low boredom threshold and an allergy to routine, he quit after a few years.

In Devon, England, while working variously as a plumber and a builder, Peet met his future wife, Elspeth Graham. Elspeth persuaded him that in spite of his having no formal training in art, he ought to use his talent for caricature and cartooning to become an illustrator. Since then, Mal and Elspeth have made their living writing for children and young adults - mainly school texts and literacy books. He supports the work of England's National Literacy Trust, for whom he is a "Reading Champion." Keeper, a tale of soccer and the supernatural, lent itself to the National Learning Trust's "Reading the Game" project to get boys reading, and the author has given readings from the book at schools and soccer grounds all over the country. When it comes to children and literacy, he believes that the most important thing is to cultivate a desire to read, not to impose it.

"It's possible that in writing Tamar I was getting in touch with long-lost family roots"

Mal Peet's name is of Dutch origin, but his direct connection with Holland stops there; in fact, he only really got to know the Netherlands while researching this book. There are probably two key things that inspired him to write Tamar. One is that he is passionate about history and what he calls historical "connectiveness"; he feels that the way history is taught in schools now is fragmented and episodic, and that young people don't get to understand the relevance of the past to their own lives. The other is his acquaintance with Paul Peters, the father of a close friend, who had been a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent in Holland toward the end of World War II.

In conducting his extensive research for Tamar, Mal Peet spent a good deal of time with Paul Peters and his wife, discussing their wartime experiences. Peters and his wife retained vivid and detailed memories of Holland under the Nazi occupation and had even held on to the silk code sheets from Peters's time with the SOE in Amsterdam. Peters provided Peet with a fact that became pivotal in the novel: that despite the extreme and constant danger, operating "underground" was often so boring and solitary that it threatened one's sanity.

Peet describes himself as a very visual writer. He "films" his stories in his head, often drawing storyboards for episodes. His visual imagination comes through strongly in Tamar; his capacity for imagery, metaphor, and simile help bring this powerful story alive to the point where the reader can visualize events and feel the fear, horror, and intense cold and hunger the characters experience.

Although Keeper has a more or less linear narrative, Peet confesses to a taste for more complex structures for fiction. Tamar consists of two interlocking stories separated by fifty years. After the author had written the two stories separately, he and his editor, Averil Whitehouse, decided independently how they might best be "spliced." Fortunately, they both came to pretty much the same conclusion, and the final work emerged.

"I'm passionate about libraries, they're our arsenal in the war on error"

Mal Peet started reading at a very young age and quickly consumed the book collection at his local primary school. He was then given special dispensation to join the town library at the age of eight. It was just one room in a basement off a narrow alleyway, but it seemed to him like a subterranean treasure house. Peet loves his local library in Exmouth and feels that the librarians do a fantastic job in cramped and difficult circumstances. He believes that reading is vital not only to develop imagination but also to develop the empathy and understanding that help people cross racial and social boundaries.

"What Next?"

For some time, Peet has been working "furtively" on a satirical novel for adults. He describes this work in progress as a black comedy. It's the story of an author who writes sensitive, issue-based fiction for children, but when his career stalls is bullied by his agent into attempting a "sword and sorcery" fantasy. In his own words, it's "sort of Faust with goblins." In October 2007, Candlewick Press published The Penalty, a young adult novel by Mal Peet that returns to the fascinating South American setting of Keeper. The author was working on a third novel in this series when he "was suddenly interrupted by astonishing news" - the announcement that he had won the Carnegie Medal.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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