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A Hotly Debated Novel Crosses the Atlantic
Kit Alderdice -- 2/16/98
For more about "grim" YA titles,
read "Why So Grim?"

Sex and drugs (with some rock and roll on the side) are the topics tackled in a controversial YA novel by British author Melvin Burgess, which has garnered two of England's most prestigious literary awards: the 1997 Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Published under the title Junk in the U.K. in November 1996 by Andersen Press, Burgess's story comes to the U.S. this May, when Holt will release it in an edition retitled Smack.

Set in the 1980s, the story centers on Gemma and her boyfriend Tar, 14-year-olds who run away to Bristol, where they are swept into the seemingly glamorous world of illegal squatters and heroin. In the nearly four years that follow (as narrated by Gemma, Tar, their friends, parents and a handful of not-so-innocent bystanders in a series of first-person chapters) the teenagers are transformed from idealistic and often exuberant kids to self-deluding junkies. While Gemma learns to support her habit by prostitution, Tar devolves into a shifty-eyed addict who will steal from a friend, lover or stranger to finance his next fix.

Burgess has been criticized for making the teenagers' initial flirtation with heroin seem very enticing. But this, of course, is precisely the point: to the uninitiated, drugs can start out seeming fascinating -- a point that few cautionary tales ever make. Giving this taboo topic a multi-dimensional treatment was one of Burgess's goals. "There weren't any books written for school-aged people that depicted the culture," he says, "which is something a lot of people that age are looking forward to becoming part of. Or are a part of."

Drug culture is a topic on which Burgess speaks with some authority. Though never a heroin user himself, "a lot of people I was close to had heroin problems," he admits, including his brother, who died of Hodgkin's disease a few years ago. Indeed, many of the book's characters -- in particular the vividly drawn protagonists -- are based on people Burgess has known. "Gemma's based on a real person -- on a real person's personality, rather than story. Tar is much more of a composite. My brother is there."

The sheer volume of attention -- both positive and negative -- paid to the novel has taken Burgess by surprise. "I expected there would be some sort of opposition to it [but] I expected that the most likely thing was that it would sort of languish on the shelves, that people -- teachers and librarians -- wouldn't stick their necks out to stock it."

The combination of prestigious prizes and press coverage has led to relatively substantial sales for this YA novel -- 2500 copies of the hardback edition and 55,000 copies of the paperback. Further boosting U.K. sales was the post-award decision by Klaus Flugge, the book's publisher, to let the book be released in paperback nearly a year ahead of his typical schedule. Flugge is also quick to point out that the paperback was published by Penguin, not Puffin (the company's children's division).

Though rights have been sold to publishers in 17 countries thus far, the book was not an easy sell in the United States. "We got about 10 rejections before Holt took it," Flugge says. "There are several publishers who would have loved to publish the book, but they all felt that it was too tough for the American market."

In the end, it was Holt editor-in-chief Laura Godwin who took on the challenge of bringing the controversial work to the States. "I was coming home from the Bologna fair, and I bumped into an agent in the airport," Godwin recounts. "We were talking about what the big books were in Bologna. And she said, 'I think the biggest book of the fair hasn't been bought yet. You have to read this book by Melvin Burgess. I'll tell them to send it to you.'" This word-of-mouth recommendation is all the more striking since Burgess's novel -- which had not yet won either of its recent awards -- was not among the books the agent represented in the U.S.

Godwin's reaction to the novel was certainly in line with her advisor's expectations; she recalls "intending to just look at a page or two and finding myself sitting down, shutting the door and reading the entire thing."

And Godwin's response has been mirrored in the pre-publication industry buzz on this side of the Atlantic. "I'd say it's one of the most requested or sought-after books that I've published for a while," Godwin says. "I've had people calling me saying 'I've heard about this book you're doing -- do you have an extra copy?' We have a waiting list for the book and we haven't even published it yet."

When the book appears here in May, its title will be Smack in order to avoid confusion with another recent novel, The Story of Junk by Linda Yablonsky (FSG, 1997). Although Godwin felt the British jacket was striking (an almost psychedelic design of a girl's face and a dandelion set against a bright purple background), the American edition will have different cover art. "We wanted something that was more contemporary and American," she said.

Besides these changes, the book will be left nearly unaltered, save for the addition of a more detailed author's note explaining what Godwin describes as "that very particular world of squatting in the 1980s, because there are legal aspects to it that an American reader wouldn't necessarily understand." To help decode the unfamiliar slang "we added a kind of funky glossary at the end. But we kept all the British words and spellings. I think if you're old enough to deal with the topic of heroin, you're old enough to deal with different spellings and colloquialisms."

What sort of reaction d s Godwin anticipate for Smack in this country? "There's always the question of what age something like this is appropriate for," she says. "Burgess d sn't downplay the thrill or the glamor [of drug-taking]. I think that's what's strong about it."
For more about "grim" YA titles,
read "Why So Grim?"
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