Inventing Elliot – Graham Gardner Interview

Inventing Elliot is Graham Gardner’s (librarian of Abingdon School) debut novel. It is a worldwide critically acclaimed bestseller and has won many awards (Freddie Marshall writes). In this interview Dr Gardner reveals his inspiration for the novel as well as more information about his literary life.

I had this vivid image of this boy in a room with boxes packed and I knew that he had just arrived in this new place and something terrible had happened to him before and that he wanted to reinvent himself

Q: When did you first have the idea for Inventing Elliot?

A: The second year of my PhD in my twenties is when the idea and the inspiration came to me.

Q: How long did it take before you started planning and writing the novel?

A: I started immediately as I had this vivid image of this boy in a room with boxes packed and I knew that he had just arrived in this new place and something terrible had happened to him before and that he wanted to reinvent himself. I got this opening moment down on paper as quick as I could and spent another year actually writing the book.

Q: Could you give a summary of the novel?

A: The book is about a boy called Elliot Sutton. He is 13 or 14 at the start of the novel and he comes to a new town, new house and decides that he is going to create a new persona because prior to the move he has been bullied for two years which in turn followed his father being badly beaten up and injured by muggers. The idea is too much for Elliot that he is going to go to a new school and this is going to happen all other again so he decides to be cool and hard and it works but it works too well. However, unknown to Elliot this school is ruled by a secret society ruled by a boy called Richard and he believes Elliot has qualities that will make Elliot a “guardian” (one of them). This causes Elliot to have a terrible dilemma; if he becomes a guardian he is safe, but at what cost? The guardians make people’s lives miserable.

Q: If you were to give the novel a genre what would it be?

A: That’s really difficult as when I was writing it I had no audience in mind, only the story, and then afterwards I realised it was going to be most appealing to the teenage audience – so the same age as the main character, and this is a genre in itself. However, if I were to put on it in wider terms I would say it were a psychological thriller.

Q: Authors have different reasons for writing their novel. What was yours?

A: The reason the book was an inspiration and not just just a vision inside my head is because I had had fairly unhappy school days and I had been a victim of bullying myself and I had seen a lot of bullying. When I left school I didn’t go to university initially because I decided I didn’t want to go back into that world so I went into sales at WHSmiths. I was very good at it because I invented a personality for myself and put on a mask like Elliot. I got to thinking, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if I could have done what I did on the sales floor back at school?” I ended up being myself at school and I said what I thought despite the potential consequences which can be quite horrible at times, but when you are in an environment when success depends on people liking you or people feeling comfortable then you have to continuously not be yourself. So when the inspiration came for Elliot I think that’s why I knew what he was going to do, because going to a new town is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. In a way you could say the entire book is about me writing what might have been. I discovered many people do this as well. We are not the same with family as we are with friends and I have an opportunity to dramatise this issue.

Q: Were there any other books that inspired this novel?

A: Two key inspirations: The first is a book called The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier which is about a boy in a private Catholic school that goes against the system, and in a way mine is the complete reverse. But what inspired me is that I wanted a different kind of hero, perhaps an anti hero, but equally that book was a landmark in young adult fiction because it dared to show the world as it actually is. It may show the world in a depressing light but I believe it is astonishingly truthful. It is a brutal book but also a brilliant book for that reason so that gave me the courage to really push out and touch on themes that were quite controversial and make the book quite silent and use scenes people might find uncomfortable.

The second of course is 1984 by George Orwell. I quote it at the beginning of the novel and I read it when I was 13 or 14 and I didn’t really understand it but I felt it was important. When I came to write the scenes with the guardian it reminded me of Winston Smith in his conversations with O’Brien, but I thought, “What if someone read it and identified with the villains not the hero?” Furthermore, 1984 is supposed to be a book against violence and totalitarianism. That’s why those two books are absolutely critical.

Q: What would you say is the most important part of the writing stage?

A: I don’t plan very much. I write scenes as they come to me, so Elliot was written back to front. I wrote the first scene first, then the prologue, then I realised what the end scene would be. I would then cut it up and cut and paste scenes together until the book was there.

The most challenging part of writing the book for me is getting inside the mindset of the characters so you want to be able to feel what you want the character to feel but retain enough objectivity that you can portray that from the outside and still communicate with the potential audience and for me that is extremely hard.

Q: Are you currently working on anything new?

A:  Yes I am. I had a long hiatus after writing Inventing Elliot. I was offered a contract to write five more books and have so far not delivered any of those. However, I am working on a very different kind of novel at the moment which is psychological in a way, fictional in a way and science fiction and is hugely exciting. I think you will be able to tell it comes from the same writer as inventing Elliot but it will open up a whole new set of issues and excitement I hope. It’s working title is Renegades.

It has just been astonishing. It is probably my second biggest market in Germany and it has been put on the school syllabus.

Q: Your book has been a great success in Germany. What can you say about that?

A: That was pretty amazing actually! It was bought by a small publishing company in Germany and not much was expected of it but the publishers obviously saw something in it and it was nominated for the German equivalent of the Carnegie Award and it won! Chance would have it it was the 50th anniversary of the award so it was a massive ceremony and televised. I got to go down and pick up my award and was interviewed on German radio and TV. It has just been astonishing. It is probably my second biggest market there and it has been put on the school syllabus.

Q: Wasn’t there an interpretation of your book being about Nazi Germany?

A: Yes, and it was strange because I never thought of that. The first question I was asked was: “So, do you want to talk more about parallels with your book and Nazi Germany?” It’s very interesting because in the UK we focus on the individual but in Germany they focus on crowds and peer pressure and every generation is brought up to focus on the holocaust and in the book it’s all about people taking part but are not doing anything to stop it.

It may also be interesting for readers to know that it has a different name in Germany: In the Shade of the Guardians or In the Shadow of the Guards.

Q: 2016 has been amazing for paperback books, yet many people expected the decline of the paperback and the rise of the ebook. What is your view on this?

A: I think it is not surprising at all because everyone has been predicting the death of the paperback book since the 1960s and we are a long way from there. Furthermore, nothing quite beats a humble paperback for convenience or if you drop it in a puddle it’s only a fiver, whereas with a piece of electronic equipment you are more worried about it. It is very tactile and delicate. It is also very interesting how the biggest uptake of ebook readers are people from the older generation.

Q: What is your favourite book?

A: The Mosquito Coast is one of my favourite books of all time and I always try to push it down the throat of third and fourth years. It is an amazing book about a man who takes his family to the jungle and goes mad. In terms of books I have read recently that have stayed with me I would say The Goldfinches and Defender. Defender is another post-apocalyptic book but it is about a future which is divided between people who hear voices and people who don’t and they are gearing up for war against one another. I believe it raises all kinds of questions about consciousness and about difference and how we relate to people who are fundamentally different to ourselves.

Q: What is your view on existing book competitions and which is your favourite?

A: The one I like particularly at the moment is called the Independent Young Adults Book Award. It takes books which are not necessarily the darlings of the literary establishment and which are not particularly blessed by librarians but are read and enjoyed by older teenagers. I have read some of the nominees and have thought they were really worthwhile. In terms of book competitions I am more against, I would say, the Carnegie, as they have very fixed ideas about what book is good and what book is not.

Q: To end, if you could recommend three books for reading for the third or fourth year, what would they be?

A: My three recommendations would be:

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin. Historical Fiction and sci-fi

The Chrysalids by John Windom. Post-Apocalyptic

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. Young Adult. Psychological thriller.