A Q&A with Anthony McGowan: Killing Father Christmas

Anthony McGowan, possibly best known for his gritty YA stories including The Knife that Killed Me and the Brock, Pike and Rook series, has published a gorgeous Christmas story for younger readers with publisher Barrington Stoke: I Killed Father Christmas. Although it may sound rather horrific from the title, this is a gentle story about the true meaning of Christmas.

When Jo-Jo hears his parents arguing downstairs, he feels that it’s all his fault and that he has killed Father Christmas by asking for too many presents. To make amends, Jo-Jo feels he must try to do Santa’s job himself. Although McGowan shows Jo-Jo’s frustration here, he also incorporates much humour, and sprinkles more than a dash of Christmas magic across the pages. Cleverly, although the story is sweet and endearing, it does manage to incorporate the darker issues of Christmas time and families – showing how children may fear they are to blame for family arguments, as well as admitting how difficult it can be for some families to afford the excess costs at Christmas time. 

The book is illustrated by Chris Riddell, the former Children’s Laureate, who brings the story to life with both realism, and a clever use of colour. I had the opportunity to ask Anthony a few questions about his writing and Christmas, and this is what he said:

You’ve had huge success, and certainly critics’ acclaim for your series for Barrington Stoke: Brock, Pike and Rook. Is there something special about writing for dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke?

Before I began writing for Barrington Stoke, my books were anything but dyslexia friendly. My style is naturally rather excessive, ornate and fancy and, unless I’m restrained, I tend to show off, letting the reader know just how clever I am. My earlier books tended to grab the reader by the ears and scream into their face. I pulled out all the stops to dazzle, astound, impress, amuse, disgust. Writing for Barrington Stoke taught me that less can be more, that three simple words can do the work of a hundred complex ones, that stories are about characters undergoing trials, and emerging from them changed. And so writing for Barrington Stoke simply made me better at my job.

I was quite surprised when reading I Killed Father Christmas to find out how ‘sentimental’ it was: full of hope and love. It doesn’t seem to fit with the author who writes with such grittiness and cynicism in The Art of Failing and The Knife That Killed Me for example…Is there a softer side to Anthony McGowan that isn’t normally seen?

Well, it’s a Christmas story! Actually, there are quite dark elements in it – it begins with a bitter argument, and tries to hint at how families can struggle with the cost of Christmas. But, yes, the underlying (and overlying) message is that what gets us through is love and kindness. I suppose I also wanted to salvage something from the commercialisation of Christmas – trying to find a core of goodness under all the tinsel.

Was Christmas a big part of your upbringing?

I’m one of five children, so Christmas was always exciting and chaotic. We were pretty skint when I was growing up, so it must have been a struggle for my parents to give us the presents we pestered them for, as well as all the other festive elements; but they made a huge effort to make Christmas special. I suppose it was all quite traditional – both in the wider sense, and in the more particular McGowan family rituals. We had the same decorations every year – the same tinsel draped over the pictures in the living room. There was always a huge tin of Quality Street – hidden by my dad, searched for and plundered by us.  Presents (always from Father Christmas, never acknowledged as being from my parents) were left in pillow cases at the end of our beds. We were allowed to open them at the crack of dawn, in a frenzy of tearing and rending and squealing. Then we’d go off to Mass, then Christmas lunch, that always happened around 4pm. The best part was going out to play with my friends, showing off your new toys – that Action Man, or a new torch, or a bike. I suppose the main thing is that because we didn’t have much money, Christmas felt very different to the rest of the year – it was a time of plenty – enough sweets, enough nice food, the toys …

Can you describe your perfect Christmas now?

For some reason it always makes me feel a little sad. I suppose it’s a very obvious marker of the years passing, of my own aging, of my children growing. But my daughter still gets incredibly excited by Christmas, and that infects the rest of us. There are plenty of family occasions – we go to my wife’s parents on Christmas Day, then travel up to Yorkshire to see my parents on Boxing Day. The McGowans are still mad and chaotic and noisy – quite a contrast to my wife’s very decorous family! As for perfection … well, as a parent all you want is for your children to be happy. The easy route is to buy them the presents they want, but the better path is to fill the house up with as much love as you can – which is what I Killed Father Christmas is all about.

Your writing is incredibly diverse – across genres and markets – do you find you prefer writing on any particular topic (cricket?) or for any particular audience? Presumably they all hold their own challenges..

I probably find it easiest to write for teenagers – those teenage years were very intense for me, and so my mind often drifts back there. And teenager’s lives are just so full of the stuff of fiction – conflict, friendship, love, hate… But there’s a huge joy to be had in writing funny books for younger children. And yet the book I’ve probably most relished is my recent autobiographical book for adults, The Art of Failing … I guess what all this means is that what I really love is the variety, the chance to write for anyone able to read (or be read to).

Do you write more than one book at the same time? And are you disciplined about your writing day?

Often, yes, I’ll have a couple on the go, though that’s more due to necessity than design. I think it’s much better to finish one project before the next begins, but that’s just not possible when you’re a professional writer, having to cater for different audiences. I try to write a thousand words a day, but I’m not particularly disciplined. Almost anything can distract me, a leaf falling past my window, the noise of a road drill, the constant urge to check Facebook and Twitter. Luckily, when I get going I’m quite fast, so I can do my thousand words in a couple of hours, then spend the rest of the day loafing, or fretting, or bumbling around.

What are you reading at the moment? And your favourite Christmas children’s book please?

Just as I often have several books on the go as a writer, I generally find myself in the middle of several as a reader, usually a classic, something frothy, and a work of non-fiction. So, as a slightly trashy pleasure I’m reading The Stand, by Stephen King; my current classic is The Story of the Stone, an 18th century Chinese novel, by Cao Xueqin, and my non-fiction is  The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. I’m not sure I have a favourite children’s Christmas story, though I do have one that makes me weep uncontrollably whenever I read it – The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Anderson.

With thanks to Anthony McGowan for taking the time to answer my questions so fully. You can buy your own copy of I Killed Father Christmas here.