If you cross two of Kevin Brooks's favorite authors—J.D. Salinger and Raymond Chandler—you might approximate the hardboiled humor of the British author's first novel, Martyn Pig (Scholastic/Chicken House). The eponymous narrator, a hapless and motherless teenager, spends his Christmas vacation coping with the corpse of his alcoholic and abusive father, in a plot that gets thicker (and funnier) with every twist. British and American reviewers have praised the book for its edgy wit and intelligence.
"I've always written," says the 43-year-old Brooks, speaking by phone from his home in Essex, a town about 50 miles from London. "But I started writing seriously, dedicating myself to it, only about five years ago." Brooks describes a peripatetic career—he grew up in Exeter, embarked on a university course in psychology and philosophy in Birmingham, and left after a year. (He eventually completed a program in cultural studies at Northeast London Polytechnic.) Brooks pursued music for many years, playing with others and writing and recording his own work, and later turned to painting and sculpture. He worked a variety of jobs to support himself.
"I always set a kind of limit for myself," he says, explaining that he had harbored an indefinite plan to stop what he was doing at some point, whether music or art, and concentrate on writing. "I had a drinking problem, and when I stopped that [also about five years ago], I found the discipline to write."
Why did he decide to write for children? "There aren't that many differences, I don't think, between writing for children and writing for adults," Brooks answers, "because children aren't that different from adults. But I would say the story is the main thing, with children. With adults you might use different styles and structures, perhaps indulge in fiddly niceties. Writing for children brings you down to basics."
Brooks was braced for some criticism, or "fuss," about the dark subject matter of Martyn Pig, which takes in not only Martyn's abandonment but also murder, blackmail and various other obstructions of justice. So far, however, reviewers have been approving. "I think you can deal with any subject as long as it is done in a reasonable way," Brooks ventures. "Martyn Pig is not gratuitous and it is not nasty."
Publishers, however, were more timid. The novel is actually the third that Brooks has completed; the first was an adventure story with some science fiction elements, for younger children, and the second was for adults. The first manuscript drew a few encouraging replies from major British trade publishers and agents, although no offers, and he sent Martyn Pig out to those who had responded positively in the past. Editors liked it, he recalls, but didn't feel it was quite right for their lists. Just as he was exhausting the possibilities, he came across a mention of The Chicken House in a magazine, and sent the manuscript to publisher Barry Cunningham, whose imprint publishes books simultaneously on both sides of the pond. "Barry helped me to focus on one direction," says Brooks. "I'm not ruling out ever writing for adults, but I think I write best for children."
These days Brooks is writing full-time. "I quit my job [for a railroad] a few months before finishing Martyn Pig," he says. "I just got fed up with working." (His wife, Susan, a freelance editor, "works extremely hard to keep the both of us in food and shelter," he adds.) "I've spent all my life doing jobs I don't enjoy. I know what it's like doing something you hate for eight hours a day, and it is quite different to be seated in front of a computer, working out ideas.
"I'm not stuck for ideas," he continues. "I've had so many over the years. It's more a question of picking the right one. But I don't mind taking an idea, working on it for a couple of months and putting it aside if it doesn't work."
A second novel, to be published by The Chicken House, is a "story of love and hate, and death, and all sorts of things," he says. This time Brooks adopts the perspective of a girl, and describes the work as "more expansive" than Martyn Pig, with a "wider" plot. "Hopefully you can relate to the main character. That's something I want—my favorite authors have always been American. Somehow there's a closer relationship between characters and readers in American books, and the characters become a part of your life," he notes. "I want to do that, too."