Catherine Bruton is the debut author of We Can be Heroes, which is a story about friendship, 9/11, bombs and an unforgettable summer. It's published by Egmont on August 1st, and you can find out more about Catherine and the book at her official site: Catherine Bruton.com.
What inspired you to write We Can be Heroes?
Lots and lots of things. The central idea came from an article I wrote for The Times in 2008 about children who lost a parent in the September 11th terrorist attacks http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article4706754.ece
I included interviews with four American teenagers who had lost a mum or dad on 9/11. They talked about fear of forgetting (‘Some of my memories of Dad are fading and it scares me’); anger at the media (‘They’re showing my dad’s death on TV all the time and it’s just really offensive’); growing up in the shadow of 9/11 (‘You can’t escape it. It’s just everywhere you go’) and about looking to the future and wanting to help others (‘I don’t think I would be the same person if 9/11 didn’t happen to me’, ‘Maybe if I can help give back it will spread and people won’t do things like hijack airplanes and take the lives of other people.’)
I also interviewed a British boy whose father had been one of the victims of the July 7th London terrorist attacks. ‘When my dad was killed it felt like I didn’t have time to grieve,’ he told me. ‘Suddenly I was the man of the house and all the responsibility that entailed was suddenly foisted upon me.’
Those voices are at the heart of the story I decided to tell about a 12 year old British boy who lost his father in the 9/11 attacks and the friendship he forms with a crazy madcap little Muslim girl who thinks her brother is a suicide bomber.
With my shrink head on I can now see that it also probably had something to do with the fact that my own father had just died of cancer (something I only just figured out a couple of months ago – duh!) and also about the effect I could see my grief having on my own little boy who was the original inspiration for the character of Ben.
After that about a million other things inspired me, from a couple of other quite serious articles I’d been writing for The Times – on mothers who live apart from their children, bereaved children, 9/11, eating disorders etc. – to silly stuff like the Year 9 boys doodling manga cartoons in my lessons; my daughter’s obsession with wheelie shoes; re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird; the mischief my kids and their pals got up to (nibbled washing machines, disappearing lap top keys etc!); reading teen spy books to my son at bedtime (I LOVE Alex Ryder!); a joke somebody made about a terrorist moving in across the road; watching Son of Rambo and Juno; the Muhammed family wedding on Elm Grove . . . and lots more that I’ve probably forgotten. The whole lot seemed to come together in a big muddle and the silly stuff was as big an inspiration as the serious bits.
Oh, and I’ve been told to add that my hubbie and kiddy-winkles are an inspiration to me every day and in every way! Here’s hoping that makes up for dereliction of wifely duties, complete absence of house-wifery and general away-with-the-fairy-ness whilst I’ve been writing the book. Thanks, guys, couldn’t have done it without you!
Was your publication process an easy one?
Good question! Because my agent thought We Can be Heroes was a crossover book - which meant it would appeal to adults and younger readers - this posed a question about which publishers to pitch it to. In the initial version the kids were a lot younger and my agent made me redraft it and make them a couple of years older, which required huge rewrites!
Then we submitted to a couple of adult publishers who were really enthusiastic about the book but they all said that the character of Ben was missing something – that he didn’t engage the reader’s sympathy enough. So my wonderful, super- astute and ever so patient agent suggested yet another rewrite before approaching more publishers.
Now I’m generally of the opinion that if you are ever in need of inspiration, kids will usually provide it. So I used my Year 10s as guinea pigs and took in an article on 9/11 to class (we were studying media at the time so there was an educational point to this as well – honestly!) After the lesson one of the boys, Ollie said to me, ‘You know, Miss, after 9/11 I just kept doodling cartoons of planes flying into towers.’ I had a proper light-bulb moment and that evening I went home and rewrote the whole novel, weaving in the thread about Ben and his doodling and the way he interprets all the events of the novel through his manga comic strip (which now appears in the back of the book!). It’s funny because that is now my favourite part of the whole novel and such a key part of Ben that I can’t quite believe it wasn’t there from the beginning. It also means Ollie gets a massive thank you at the back of the book!
And that must have been the missing ingredient because Egmont made an offer for it a couple of weeks later. They invited me to a meeting, gave me chocolate cake and Mr Gum books and told me they loved We Can be Heroes and it was one of the loveliest days of my life!
So I think I’m really lucky to have such a fab agent who spotted what the book was missing and also to have such a great editor at Egmont who then went on to work with me to make We Can be Heroes even better still. People often don’t realise how much an editor does but there is so much creative input in the editing stages. I found it incredibly exciting and a really wonderful collaborative process which I have loved every minute of.
How have you handled the subject of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? With humour, gritty realism?
Does it sound really odd to say that I hope it is quite funny? I mean, I draw my inspiration from heart-breaking real life stories and I really, really hope that I’ve been true to them in the novel, but I was also really chuffed with the ‘Curious Incident’ and ‘Millions’ comparisons - because those are both amazing books that deal with very serious topics but with humour, so that you are laughing one minute and crying the next. I’d love to think that’s what Heroes does too.
I also think that’s actually quite true to life. The thing I noticed about my own son after my dad died was that he’d be asking really complex questions about cancer and the after-life one minute, then dressing up as Hannah Montana and feeding his sister slug pies the next (he won’t thank me for telling you the Hannah Montana bit but I have the photos to prove it!). I think that’s what I wanted to inject into the book. The main characters are confronted with some really troubling things: racism, extremism, the terrorist threat, kidnap, family breakdown and eating disorders – and there are some dark and difficult elements to the book, but there’s a lot of crazy, mad-cap laugh-out-loud silliness too!
I haven't come across many children's books that deal with 9/11 so honestly. Did you ever think it would be too much for your younger readers to handle?
This is such an important question and, yes, I have worried about this. My own children asked me recently to tell them the story of We Can be Heroes and it meant telling them about 9/11, which they knew nothing about (they are only 8 and 6). For a long time afterwards they wanted to talk about the terrorist attacks and why they happened and, if I’m honest, a bit of me just wants to shelter them from all the bad and scary stuff out there and for them never to have to know that awful things happen in the world.
But then I read the recent article in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ that was calling for ‘no-go’ areas in teen fiction and it got me all riled because I also passionately believe that fiction is an amazing safe space for readers, young and old, to confront the more troubling realities of our world and of human nature and work through them. I’ve written more extensively on this (check out the blog I’m doing on 5th August at Serendipity Reviews) but in a nutshell I don’t think that writers/publishers/parents/teachers should underestimate young readers - or patronise them. And I also think that fiction has an important role to play in helping young readers see things from new perspectives, opening their eyes to other people’s views on the world and – to borrow a phrase from Harper Lee – encouraging them to, ‘climb into [another person’s] skin and walk around in it.’
I did a lot of research though because I did take the responsibility of writing about such a controversial topic very seriously. I think writers need to be honest when dealing with complex and troubling themes but also to leave room for readers to form their own opinions. I also feel that fiction dealing with controversial topics needs to offer hope. Not answers or pat solutions but hope.
So, basically, I hope the novel will challenge readers - young and old - but in a good way.
Oh, and I’ve realised I need to stop wrapping my own kids up in cotton wool quite so much – must work on that one!
What do you hope your readers take away from your book?
Well, I guess fundamentally the novel is about prejudice of all different kinds, and, although I really don’t think it is the place of fiction to preach or convert, I suppose at the heart of We Can be Heroes there is a message about the need for tolerance and reconciliation.
But that makes it sound horribly didactic! Mainly I hope readers will get so caught up in the story they won’t be able to put it down. I hope it will make them laugh and cry and then laugh again. And I hope and that afterwards the characters and the story will stay in their minds because that’s what the best stories do, isn’t it?
Mind you, it’s really hard to know with your own book because you are so close to it. I just hope readers enjoy it and I’m really looking forward to hearing what readers think which might be completely different to the way I see it!
I really love your UK cover, it reminds me of a movie poster. Did you have any input into its design?
Thank you! I love it too! It went through several versions before it landed up on the one we have now and I can take no credit for its brilliance because it was all down to the incredible Tom at Egmont. I did request the slightly wackier clothes for Priti but I think that’s the full extent of my involvement apart from a lot of excited squeaking, jumping up and down and saying. ‘I just love it’!
Egmont wanted the book to really stand out on the shelves and look totally different from anything else out there which I think it really does.
You can check out the German version of the cover on my website too - www.catherinebruton.com. It even has a different title: it’s called The 9/11 Boy which was my original title for the book. I’d love to hear what people think about the different covers and titles!
Can you tell us anything about what you're writing next?
Yes! I’m working on a novel called Pop! which comes out next year and which I am very excited about. The tag-line will be something along the lines of: ‘Never mess with the rules of Talent TV’ (or something like that) because it’s about these kids from oop North (like me) who decide to enter a TV talent contest (X-factor/BGT style) as a way to escape the from the credit-crunch crapness of their lives: striking dads, walkabout mams and pushy parents with Olympic dreams and celeb-gossip obsessions. It’s Billy Elliot meets Slumdog Millionaire via Britain’s got Talent and it has been great fun to write because finally I have been able to indulge my guilty passion for reality TV and justify it as research!!
I’ve also written the first draft of another novel which I am quietly excited and terrified about. Excited because I really love the idea and terrified because my first drafts are always PANTS and I know I’m going to have to do a lot of work to make it into what I want it to be. I can’t tell you about it now because it’s a fragile wee thing and I fear if I say too much it may curl up and die on me! New ideas are like that! So wish me luck and watch this space!
Thanks for answering all of my questions, Catherine! Check out the next blog tour stop at Fluttering Butterflies on Sunday July 31st.