Reviewer Clare Hingston spoke to Gordon Reece about his new YA psychological thriller Mice (A&U).
Mice raises some very difficult moral questions. Do you believe good will triumph over evil, or is it more a case of survival of the fittest?
I think few of us see the world in such black and white terms any more and I doubt even Superman himself believes that good will triumph over evil. It would be wonderful to have that conviction, but I think we’ve all seen too much. Even defining ‘good’ and ‘evil’ isn’t straightforward—is an act ‘evil’ if it’s carried out for ‘good’ reasons? In Mice Shelley and her mum are involved in something that will stand their moral code on its head; an act whose corroding influence prepares the ground for the—hopefully unexpected—finale. I wrote the novel in stages, sending each finished section to my agent, Debbie Golvan, for her opinion. I remember her saying when she’d read the final section—‘I’m not sure I know these people any more.’ And, in a way, that was precisely the point of the novel. The survival of the fittest is an interesting lens through which to read Mice. It’s arguable that in some ways, in spite of the odds stacked against them, Shelley and her mum do prove their fitness to survive. It’s certainly closer to my intention than the triumph of good over evil.
How do you relate to Shelley and her mother, and to what extent do you identify with the ‘mousey’ aspects of their personalities?
I should start by saying that my definition of a human mouse isn’t necessarily a person who’s painfully shy or socially inept—in fact, Shelley and her mum are intelligent, talented and successful in many different ways. For me, what makes them ‘mice’ is their inability to deal with confrontation—verbal, physical or psychological. And in a world where so many people seem to thrive on confrontation, this leaves them dangerously exposed and vulnerable. Many of Shelley and her mum’s ‘mousey’ characteristics—bookishness, intellectualism, a love of classical music, respect for the law, speaking well, politeness—are almost defining features of English middle-class culture. I came from an essentially working-class background and I know I kicked against what I saw as these ‘unmanly’ characteristics. I recall a school report describing me as ‘aggressively anti-intellectual’ and I can remember smashing my glasses I was so frustrated that I had to wear them. So there’s a degree to which middle-class culture itself is seen as ‘mousey’ in the UK. When Hamish Hamilton dropped my first children’s book way back in 1985 and I thought the door to a writing career had been closed forever, my reaction was quite telling I think. I tried to join the army.
Mice is ultimately a very empowering novel, but what inspired you to write a book that deals so extensively with the darker side of humanity?
I suppose I’ve always written stories that dealt with the ‘the darker side of humanity’—even when I was at school—not horror exactly, but more thrillers, stories that invariably revolved around a violent act and some sort of twisted psyche. If I was to indulge in amateur self-psychoanalysis I’d say this was due in part to my personal history and in part to the books that have influenced me most strongly. When I was nine my brother-in-law gave me a bag of American comics which had, in amongst all the superheroes, several issues of ‘Uncanny Tales and Astounding Stories’. These horror and sciencefiction short stories changed my life—I was immediately addicted to these dark melodramas and I crammed my school essays with their ecstatic vocabulary. I really believe they taught me how to write (people underestimate how well written a lot of those comics were). They also gave me a healthy appetite for plot, for plot-driven narratives, usually with a darkly ironic twist in the tail. Continue reading