It is sometimes a little too easy to forget the living, breathing person behind the books we read. We become involved with the characters and the plot, but it is much harder to step back and examine the thoughts and feelings of the mind that created them. Our own associations and impressions are valuable, as are those of our students, but author’s intention and background are often equally fascinating. The antidote to this narrative isolation is simple: ask the author!
OK, so it might not be that simple. If your class is working its way through Harry Potter then the likelihood of convincing JK Rowling to come round for tea and a bit of a chat is somewhat remote. Philip Pullman probably has a lot on his plate and some authors have even gone so far as to die to make themselves difficult to contact. Short of dusting off the Year 9 ouija board, there might be some barriers to talking to Jane Austen or Dickens but this is not to say there is no hope for any author. This is demonstrated by the wonderful and instructive visit from Jamila Gavin which our PGCE course was lucky enough to host.
Gavin has published more than 50 books for children over her career and we asked her to talk about her much loved, and much studied, novel Coram Boy. Telling a story of foundlings and class struggles in the 18th century, this marvellous book won the Whitbread Prize when it came out in 2000 and is studied across the UK. Our group enjoyed reading it tremendously and eagerly awaited a glimpse behind the curtain into how it was written.
“The highways and byways of England are littered with bones of little children.” This was the remark that began the project that would become Coram Boy. Gavin described being intrigued by this statement, made by a friend, and their mysterious mention of “the Coram man”. Having grown up in India this stark and rather shocking image was not as unfamiliar to her as it was to us. She knew this was of interest to her and having written mostly multi-cultural texts up until that point she felt the need to write something entirely English.
Her first move was to look through the London telephone directory and, after a few false starts, this led her to the Coram Foundation. This, still surviving, charity was able to inform her about the Coram Foundling Hospital which would form the centre of Coram Boy. It was fascinating to discover that a chance remark could lead to this chain of inquiry and eventually inspire a novel.
Another intriguing and very personal dimension to Coram Boy, which we could not have gleaned by reading it, was the influence of her heritage. Her mother was a historian at Cambridge and met her father on a trip to the Middle East. Despite the social disapprobation at the time, they were married. Her father’s Indian heritage is a thread that kept returning in Gavin’s discussion of Coram Boy. “Class is in every relationship,” she pointed out. She spoke about the deprivation in Indian society and the fact that, after a while, extreme poverty becomes invisible to you when surrounded by it perpetually. This is something she wanted to explore through the novel.
Gavin described her maternal grandfather as a master potter who was “very bright”. This was passed to her mother who gained a scholarship to both Oxford and Cambridge. Her father had come from the background of the Indian caste system and all of this informed her depiction of class in Coram Boy. The irony of being trapped by class, both low and high, was much in her mind at the time of writing, although she was careful to point out that she “wasn’t writing from an ideological point of view, but from curiosity.” Her interest in the limitations which are thrown up by class boundaries shows in the writing, but hearing where they arose from in Gavin’s own life lent them a new significance. Nowhere is this secret significance more apparent than finding out that the main character, Meshak, is named for her grandfather.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the discussion was when Gavin was asked about the intentions she had when writing. “I saw a damn good story in that material. I’m a writer; I’m not an educationalist; I’m not a politician.” It is all too easy to put words into an absent author’s mouth and the experience of meeting the person behind the book enhanced all of our reading of that and other novels. We will be, perhaps, a little less eager to guess at the background of a novel and a little more curious in researching it. If they are not too unavailable or too dead, I cannot recommend highly enough making the effort to contact the author. There is nothing to lose and so much to gain by reaching out and it would hard to top the moment when one of your students quotes their conversation with the author in an exam answer.