Melvin Burgess, author of YA novel Doing It, was kind enough to spend some time answering some questions on his novel and the topic of sex in YA.
How did you come up with the idea for Doing It?
After writing Junk (Smack) it seemed to me that sex was another one of those subjects that people find it very hard to speak honestly about to young adults. Love, yes, relationships, yes, but desire and lust, and the culture around these things – no. After that I spent a while asking my friends – everyone I met, really – to tell me their teenage knobby stories. Everyone has one, at least. It might be rude, or sweet or embarrassing or funny – but everyone has one. I used that as the basic research for the book.
Doing It can be quite explicit and crude. Did you ever think you might be going too far?
I know some people think that. I actually feel that teenagers are in some ways often quite extreme people, when compared to adults. They like loud music, rude jokes, scary stories at least as much and often very much more. Adults tend to shy away from actual teen culture – they want it kept strictly private, out of sight, so they don’t have to think about it, but if you write for teenagers, I think you should address them directly, not through a lens imposed by teachers or parents. The language and themes of Doing It reflect the culture I was in when I was that age, and that other people reported back to me.
I found the book quite surprising in how sympathetic I felt towards Dino, Ben and Jonathan. Was it your purpose to step away from stereotypical views of boys with this book?
There is a generally unsympathetic view of teenage boys. Lots of people find them difficult to cope with, sometimes from the point of view of “good taste”, sometimes from a feminist view point. Male sexuality is less touchy-feely, more in your face than female sexuality and when it begins to arise in young men, a lot of adults are deeply suspicious. It’s my feeling that if you make dirty jokes with your mates, that’s your business and no one else has the right to make it a problem. It doesn’t mean you’re a bully, or that you’re sexist – just that you have a sense of humour. I remember Woody Allen’s line – “Is sex dirty?” And the answer – “Only if you’re doing it right …”
I hope the book shows, just because you can see the funny, ungainly, ridiculous side of sex, and just because you're fascinated by it and thinking about it all the time… doesn’t mean to say you don’t treat girls with respect. Dino, Ben and Jonathon are dirty minded, yes, find the whole thing half ridiculous and half fascinating – but by and large (with the possible exception of Dino) they want to be honest, open and respectful …
I like how Doing It was written in both first and third person, and the conversational style when it was in first person. Why did you chose to write in this stlyle?
I enjoy writing in multiple first person voices. I find it moves the story along quickly and helps get inside the heads of the various characters better than a third person narrative, or a simple first person voice. It’s a way of writing that comes very naturally to me. I try to give an effect that you know these people, that they’re your friends who are chatting away to you about what they’re up to. But sometimes, in multiple first person novels, I find I want that third person over view as well. Why not?
Although light hearted, you covered some serious topics in this novel, such as physical relationships between teachers and students. Did you feel it was important to cover serious topics as well as having an amusing story?
Yes, I did. Sex is such a wonderful thing – it’s rude and ridiculous, yet it forms the basis for the most important relationships of your life. Sexual bonds are so strong they can change our lives – for the better, or the worse. The teacher-pupil thing was really about abusive relationships, of the kind where an older person is using a younger person – something very many of us experience at some time in our lives. There was also Jonathon and his various neuroses … I wanted the book to represent various sides of sexual culture – the rudeness, the seriousness, the anxiety ….
Why do you choose to write on controversial topics?
I feel that society in general has a real problem with teenagers. We find them difficult to talk to, they scare us, we feel that we don’t understand them. At the same time, when most adults look back on their own teenage years they feel they had a bad time, and they are anxious about people who they know are not enjoying life as a group. School is so busy educating teenagers and preparing them for the workplace, that it hardly ever even begins to consider how to make themselves teenager friendly. As a result, the bad way we treat teengers continues down the generations and I can’t see even a small chance of it changing.
All this means that there are huge gaps in media for teenagers. Movie censorship means that it’s almost impossible to try to get inside the skin of anyone about the age of about twelve – mostly we don’t even try. For some reason, publishers have allowed me to explore many of the areas we have the most problem talking to young people about, so I think it’s only right to take it at face value.
What’s your opinion of how YA novels are dealing with the topic of sex?
Very patchy indeed. But getting better all the time.
Do you think there is a limit on what should be covered in YA novels?
Well, grand parenting would seem to be a bit of a waste of time, or re-marrying, or perhaps coming to terms with your old age. That sort of thing.
What books did you read as a teenager, and how well do you think they dealt with talking about sex?
I can’t think of any books that dealt with sex, really. When I was about eleven or twelve, my mum gave me a little book about the facts of life, but it said nothing at all about relationships, lust or anything that I was personally interested in. I remember attitudes to sex back then were such that I didn’t really understand that girls liked it too – it sort of seemed that they just went along with it because they were expected to. The only books I really remember were the porn ones that got handed round at school. They weren’t dreadfully sordid, most of them, and at least they gave me some idea of what people actually did …
What do you think about parents not allowing their teenagers to read novels with a certain sexual content?
I think you’d have a job stopping them. Someone was telling me just today about a librarian who cuts the pictures of nude ladies out of art books to keep them away from the students.
I think the attitude we should take is that sex is actually a wonderful thing. Whether you decide to save it for one special person or to do with a lots of people is your decision alone, and no one else should even have a say about it. Of course we should know about safe sex, but we should know about enjoying it too. When teenagers reach puberty, we should celebrate that such a fantastic gift is now theirs. There should be fireworks, cakes and dancing until late into the night …
Thank you, Melvin, for such a fantastic interview! It was fascinating!