Here, Phil talks about how he came to write Being Billy and how it was very nearly a fantasy novel instead:
I’d love to be able to write a fantasy novel.
A big fat tale as epic as William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer or as mesmerising as Garth Nix’s Sabriel, as let’s face it, these are the books the kids want aren’t they? I’m no expert, but I know that young readers have been fascinated by stories from other realms for decades, centuries even, and unsurprisingly, these are often the books that command the most excitement when auctioned to publishers, the books that dominate shelf space and bestseller charts alike. So if this is what the readers want, then why on earth write a book about an angry young man reeling from a life spent in care?
Well, it’s simple.
Because for the last fifteen years, I’ve not been able to shake that boy from my head.
I was twenty-one when I started working with looked after children. Some of them were only three or four years younger than me, but all of them, whether they were toddlers or seventeen years old, had lived more than I had. They were often angry, violent or substance-addicted, many were unable to form lasting relationships with other children or adults. They were, at first glance, the kids that you would cross the road to avoid, the youths you’d refuse to sit near on the bus for fear of getting robbed or worse. But if you spent time with them, and got past the spiky armour, you found something different, a resilience, a determination, and a bravery that no abusive parent or failed fostering placement could kick out of them. The same kid that tried to kick seven bells out of you at the start of your shift would sidle up to you at the end of it to tell you they’d had a great day, to offer a shake of the hand, or even (unheard of for them), a hug.
They were unpredictable, chaotic, and as a result they got under my skin, where they have been ever since. A lot of time has passed, over a decade without working in the care sector at all, but still that voice nags away in my head, asking me how I would have felt if I was them? How would I feel if I’d been rejected by two different families by the age of eleven? How willing would I be to trust social workers, carers, anyone in fact, who claimed to be working in my best interests, when for so long they’d failed to find me a family or a home? All these questions bubbled around for a long time, and it was just after the birth of our second child, that I decided I wanted to write Billy’s story down.
Although his journey had taken a long time to form in my head, it didn’t take long to come out. A first draft completed within four months, and a revised version within six. It would be a huge cliché to say it wrote itself, as it stumbled along on many occasions, but at the same time I loved pretty much every minute I spent pretending to be Billy Finn. It was important for me to give a voice to the questions I still had, but more importantly to show the huge potential he held within him, and to show readers what he was truly all about, why he behaved as he did.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that whilst I have these kids in my head, and whilst I can still recall not only their stories, but also their steel, determination and will to survive, I don’t need or want to dream up mythical creatures or far-flung lands. There is more than enough drama in the everyday without having to go anywhere else. Let’s just hope that readers out there agree, that they stay with me in the ‘here and now’ and give Being Billy a go…
Many thanks to Phil for such an interesting post (anyone who name checks the glorious Sabriel is OK by me). On reading Being Billy, I'm sure that you'll agree that it's good news for readers that Phil didn't go with his initial idea of a fantasy novel... Although I'd certainly love to read a fantasy title from him too!
Being Billy is available in the UK now - thanks to Puffin for arranging for me to review this title and receive this post from Phil.