What was the inspiration behind Trash?
It was setting – a vast dumpsite in Manila, which is where I live and work – a gorgeous country, full of paradise islands and the most hospitable people in the world. But…like so many countries, wracked by certain problems. A friend told me a true story: that the dumpsite children spend most of their time sorting through parcels of human excrement. We all know about child labour, but that detail – that little vision of hell – wouldn’t leave me. I wanted to write about some of those children, and allow them to fight back.
In Trash you do not specify where the story is set. Some reviewers have guessed Latin America or Mexico. Was it important that the exact location of the story was not revealed?
Yes. I was anxious that the book was never seen as an attack on one country. Corruption and child-exploitation are vile facts of life that exist (or have existed) in every country in the world. I did not want to localize the book when its issues are international
Trash is being promoted as a ‘crossover’ book into the adult market as well as for young adults. Did you have a particular readership in mind when you wrote the book?
Not really, no. I teach from 11 upwards, so I suppose I was writing for the children I teach…but really, I write for myself. I like books that are plot-driven, with characters that intrigue me. I wanted the narrative ease of a Huckleberry Finn, because I like books that seduce and charm me. I find the whole 9+ or under 16 thing very difficult.
As I researched your early years, I found very little information available. Can you tell us about your life growing up in South London and what impact this has had on your writing?
Sure, but I’m not sure what the connection between South London and the books I’ve written might be – I haven’t given it much thought. I had a safe and happy childhood half an hour from central London. I went to a boys’ grammar school, and English was the one subject that I really enjoyed. I met teachers who cared passionately about literature, and instilled some kind of work-ethic. But I think my books have emerged from much later experiences – the wildness of teaching overseas, and – in the case of ‘Trash’ – the enormity of meeting street kids.
After Working as a Theatre director for 10 years what prompted you to leave and travel Asia?
I was out of work. Mrs Thatcher, bless her, was closing the country down, so I was making nothing. I was made redundant, and as if by magic a friend invited me out to India, to assist with the rescue of an orphanage. India simply turned me upside down. I got a job teaching there, and returned to the UK determined to spend time in the classroom. Sitting around waiting for an arts subsidy no longer seemed an option.
Upon reading Trash I was left a feeling you must have had as much fun and excitement writing it as I did reading it.
Absolutely, yes – I’m glad that came across. You have to remember that I teach the 11+ age-group, so I know that awful sense of boredom, when the shutters come down, when you lose your audience. I have to teach books that children find unrewarding and difficult – literary assault courses. What I wanted to do with ‘Trash’ was learn from authors such as John Grisham and John Boyne – I wanted characters to jump off the page, and I wanted meanstreets. Yes: writing it was an exciting period.
I was reminded in part of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ with the impoverished life of these children. Do you consider yourself a derivative copy-cat leeching on the success of others, or someone with a social agenda?
I haven’t read or seen ‘Slumdog’, so I am not sure of the comparison. I think most writers simply take a story forwards, without any agenda as such. I know and love the George Orwells of the world, who do have major social purposes, and hope to confront, educate and change. I know of writers who use their writing to deal with fury and pain – that isn’t me. I have met street-children. I visited the dumpsites. I was astonished and upset, and a story emerged.
How did you set about researching child-poverty and how widespread do you think the problem is?
The problem of child-labour, child-exploitation is vast and never-ending, and I’m not a researching journalist or an economist. I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ when he sets out to write his anti-war novel, and a friend says, with withering scorn: ‘Why not write an anti-glacier novel?’ He means, of course, that a puny book purporting to oppose epic, natural forces is a pathetic thing – and I’m sure he’s right. That doesn’t stop you writing, though. I can’t account for why so many people have billions, and billions of people have nothing. I can’t find an ideology that makes sense of it. All I can do is respond to the specific details I see, with a story.
Did you base your characters on any one person, or are they a collage of many?
They are boys I’ve met melted down and re-forged. When JM Barrie wrote ‘Peter Pan’ he claimed that he took the five Davies boys – his beloved adopted sons - and “rubbed them together as savages do with sticks, to make fire”. Each boy is an amalgam of the street-children I’ve met: vulnerable and dangerous, uneducated and smart, desperate and resourceful.
What can we expect next from Andy Mulligan?
I’m working on a radio play right now about a man who wants to kill a neighbour’s dog. It’s based on a neighbour’s dog, and my desire to kill it. Then I’m off to India for a few months, and am hoping to finish what I’ve started...
What do you hope you readers take away from it?
I hope they get involved with the boys, and live closely with them. I hope they enjoy the thrill of the chase, and I hope their adrenalin pumps. I hope they find the ending rewarding, and I hope they think – because we all need to think. I hope they feel the hours spent reading were well-rewarded, and I speak as a man who just spent $40 on a brand new best-selling thriller by a very famous writer that was absolute pants – I threw the damned thing across the room in disgust. I really hope my readers don’t feel the need to do that.