The Casual Vacancy is radically different from Harry Potter. What made you want to write it?
I had the idea on a plane this time – not on a train – and was immediately very excited by it. It is another novel about morality and mortality, as Harry Potter was, but contemporary.
It’s set in a small community, which involves writing characters who are adolescents all the way up to people in their sixties. I love nineteenth century novels that centre on a town or village. This is my attempt to do a modern version.
Why is it called The Casual Vacancy? Were there other possible titles?
The working title was Responsible, because a central theme is how much responsibility each of us has for where we are in life – our happiness, our health and our wealth – and also the responsibility we have towards other people – our partners, our children and wider society.
However, when I came across the phrase ‘a casual vacancy’, which is the correct term for a seat left empty on a council by the death of one of its members, I knew at once that I had my new title. The title speaks to me on many different levels. First of all, it seemed to me that the greatest casual vacancy is death itself, which often arrives with no fanfare and creates unfillable vacuums.
I was also aware that all of my characters have lacks and deficiencies in their lives that they are attempting to fill in a variety of ways: with food, drink, drugs, fantasies or rebellious behaviour. These, too, could be called ‘casual vacancies’: those little emptinesses that we are perhaps not entirely conscious that we possess and yet we still feel the need to assuage.
The novel has been described as blackly comic. Can you tell us a little more about the humour in the book?
The humour’s rather dark. I wouldn’t have described it as a black comedy, personally. Perhaps a comic tragedy!
It’s a book about a divided community – and one of those divisions is between adults and children – why?
As families in developed, Western societies become increasingly time poor, children and adolescents are having a different kind of upbringing to those of us who grew up in the fifties or sixties. There’s also a huge divide between the generations when it comes to communication.
Facebook, Twitter and texting are the provinces of the young and I think that one of the challenges of parenting these days, even more so than in previous generations, is to fully comprehend the issues around social media with which adults are often not very familiar.
What attracts you to writing about adolescence?
I think it’s the fragility of the adolescent, even though teenagers are often stigmatised as dangerous and destructive. It’s a very vulnerable time of life. As you emerge from childhood you realise that you have to live this life; with everything that implies.
You become conscious of living, and of time passing, in a way in which a child is not so conscious.
Teenagers are often living with parents in middle age, so you’ve got this volatile combination in households between the adolescent who suddenly realises he or she is going to have to make choices in life and take responsibility for the shape of their lives, cohabiting with people who are perhaps regretting their own choices while becoming increasingly aware of their own mortality.
This can be quite an explosive combination. It certainly is in this novel.
You tackle serious issues in the book, including self-harm, sexual experimentation, drug abuse and rape. How did you research it?
I didn’t research the book in the sense that I needed to go out and find out about these things from scratch. Although this is a work of fiction (no character in it is based on any living model) I have known people like these characters in the course of my slightly unusual life. At one point I was very, very poor.
Clearly I’ve undergone a huge reversal in fortune for which I’m very grateful. But I’ve known people like every single character in the book.
What can you say to people who were hoping for something closer to Harry Potter?
As a writer you have to write what you want to write; or rather what you need to write. I needed to write this book. So I hope that some people like it.
I’m at peace with the fact that some people may not and I’m certainly not upset that anyone wants more Harry Potter; I take it as a compliment! I will definitely write for children again, because I love doing so and I doubt I’ll ever stop.
This interview was provided courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa and Little Brown UK. To read the interview in its entirety, head on over to Penguin's official blog, Classybird.co.za or visit Little Brown UK's website.
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