Andy Mulligan interviewed by Nikki Gamble

Andy Mulligan was brought up in the south of London. He worked as a theatre director for ten years before travels in Asia prompted him to retrain as a teacher. He has taught English and drama in India, Brazil, the Philippines and the UK. He now divides his time between London and Manila.

In this interview he talks to Nikki Gamble about life in Manila and his award winning novel, 'Trash'.

You are currently teaching in the Philippines, what took you there?

The joy of using my teaching certificate as a passport. You can open up pages in the TES and find invitations to teach in astonishing countries, Brazil, Africa, Asia or anywhere that you want to visit. Working in an international school you tend to be with other teachers who move on quickly, and they tend to be there because they still get a buzz from teaching. So it’s a very positive environment.

Did your interest in writing grow out of the teaching or has it always been there?

Since boyhood. I was one of those kids who couldn’t play rugby very well and got kicked out of the cricket team after the first match. But I was busy scribbling away from the age of eight and was blessed to have a teacher who encouraged me personally and vociferously. At the age of fourteen he was telling me that I had written things that were of publishable standard. He was wrong about that, but nevertheless it was encouraging to have a teacher who had faith in me. I was one of those lucky children who discover that there are good at something.

Why then did it take such a long time to get published?

I have been writing constantly but I gave up the idea of getting published because I became tired of people appearing to show an interest but nothing tangible developing. Those kick-backs discouraged me. Although I stopped sending work to publishers, I continued writing purely for the pleasure.

I was working in the theatre but decided on a career change because I couldn’t make enough money out of directing. And then I got a job teaching in a school in Cornwall, which I loved. All the time I kept writing, things,  like the school play, but I never expected to make any money from it.

After a period of working abroad in India and Brazil, I returned to the school in Cornwall where I inherited a disgruntled unhappy class of 14 year olds. Fortunately, I got on with them. One day we were having a conversation and the kids were asking me if I had ever written anything. So I told them about a funny school that I’d created called Ribblestrop. At the end of the lesson one of the boys hung back and said, ‘you ought to send that to my Mum. It sounds really good.’ I discovered that his mum was his literary agent. I duly sent it off , she liked it and she’s represented me ever since.

When you started writing 'Trash' did you set out to write with a social or political agenda or were you concerned mainly with writing an adventure story?

It was purely a story. It was never political in that tub thumping sense; I’m not a journalist and I don’t think I’m a political commentator. The story hit me in something a friend said to me and a series of images from visiting the dump sites of Manila. We were being encouraged to visit the dump site in order to experience a school that was the polar opposite to ours. I hadn’t yet visited and my teacher friend who had been asked me, ‘Do you know what the kids are sorting down there?’ I had assumed it was bottles, plastic, clothes, paper, things like that. Then he told me that the children were wading through human excrement. I hadn’t realised that few people have toilets plumbed into their houses, so their excrement goes out with the rubbish bags, and that’s what the children have to sift through. 

As an image of children at the absolute bottom of the pile I found it hugely affecting. Of course I was aware of child labour. I had come across child brick makers, carpet weavers, football makers, in India and other places but I hadn’t encountered anything as visually horrific. After that, I visited the dump sites and responded in the way that tourists do numb shock. I saw an elderly man crawling through the waste looking for enough rubbish to earn himself a dollar and behind him, his six year old grandchildren out on the dump site from the crack of dawn because the lightness of their bodies and the dexterity of their fingers meant that they could get on top of the dump where the new rubbish comes. That one image showed me these beautiful, exquisite children sifting through crap along with the certain image of what they would become.

From that point the story battered me in the face. ‘What if the child discovered something other than human effluence?’ I spent a while thinking about different possibilities but it quickly became a key – a metaphor for opening the doors and breaking down the barriers that we so successfully create.

And there are lots of doors and barriers that the children have to break through until the final door opens, offering them a better life.

The ideas of doors, keys and walls I hope aren’t too forced but the children have to constantly unlock things both literally and metaphorically. There are images of assault. Even in the graveyard they are looking in the wrong place and they have to batter through a door into the poor quarter.

The ending that you mention is based on the agony of the children in Manila, and other cities of the world, who are born into poverty or arrive in the city with hopes that they might get a job, might be able to make ends meet, but end up longing to escape, to get back to the idyll that they might have lost.

The story is based loosely on one child I met who sold the story to tourists that all he wanted was enough money to buy a boat so he could get back to his island and fish. I suspect it was a scam but what an image - that he might be the one who could break out of Manila and get back to paradise.

The story gives hope, so I suppose it serves a purpose.

Yes stories do that. I recall being in the Gambia and meeting a child who was barely clothed, had no shoes walked three miles to school every morning, when I asked him what he wanted to be his answer was’ be a doctor’ and the next child ‘be a lawyer.’ It’s refreshing to encounter such aspiration rather than the lack of interest in school and education that afflicts many children in Britain.

In spite of the initial seed for this story, you chose not to set it in the Philippines. Is this because the issues are more universal?

Well, there are two reasons. Yes, one reason is that it’s a universal problem; there are dump sites all over the world.

The second is that I am not qualified to write about the Philippines. I live and work there but I live a very privileged life as an ex-pat. I don’t have a journalistic mission and I would not attempt to insult the country that is hosting me by making a point that  'Trash' is a book about the Philippines. It is true that corruption is endemic and people openly speak of it from ministers down to civil servants and shop keepers, but that’s true everywhere, including our own country. It might be better concealed, but it still exists.

Can you tell us about the book code device that you use in your novel? Your author's note says that you first came across the idea in Lecarre. Have you ever tried to write one yourself?

No, I’ve never been into espionage but I do love thrillers. I teach kids and I know the agony of teaching boring books that kids lose interest in. So once I had the initial idea for the story, then the imperative was always to write a page turning thriller, which had strict linear plot without sub-plots, and which took children into a very dangerous world. 

I can’t remember how the book code emerged. I think it arose from the character’s desperation to conceal a plan that he hadn’t thought through as well as he might have done. The code emerged from the idea that nothing was going to be straightforward for these kids. I loved the idea that they were going to have to work hard to use their courage, brains and street smartness. 

How does that experience of ‘working hard’ translate as an experience for the reader? Do you want the reader to be one step ahead of the game or experience it as the characters experience it?

I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not an experienced thriller writer, so I haven’t broken down how the game works. I don’t know how much enjoyment a reader gets from prediction. I love thrillers but I haven’t got the kind of brain that spends too much time look ahead and trying to work out the solutions myself. I’m not a crossword doer or puzzle solver. When I read a thriller I am very willing to plod along and leave the hard work of solving the mystery to the characters.

I enjoyed the straightforward plot which I know will be appreciated by many young readers. The complexity in your story comes through the manner in which it’s narrated. Can you tell us something about the choices you made regarding the narrative voice?

I think the fractured narrative came from getting a bit tired of being in the head of Raphael. I tired very briefly a third person narrative but gave up very quickly, within an hour. I knew immediately that it had to be first person and I quickly found Raphael’s voice and was comfortable writing his story. But after three chapters I found it limiting. Smart as he is, charming as he is, he doesn’t have the perspective on his own story. I also realised that I was going to get myself stitched into difficult areas because Raphael wouldn’t have the knowledge of what else might be going on. There was also the imperative to keep the story interesting. If I am getting tired of a narrative voice, then the alarm bell starts ringing because it means the reader will probably be getting tired of that voice as well. Once I’d decided that there could be more than one voice it threw up all sorts of possibilities. I could weave in Olivia, for instance, who’s hugely important to me.

I was scared that being tricksy with the narration would lose my reader, so I was careful to make sure each narrator took the plot forward very swiftly. The only exception is the priest, who has a bit of back story and tells us about himself and his time at the school and in the country. The narratives do cross over and hopefully they enhance our perception. The three boys are very different characters and I hope that hearing the story from each of them gives us different perspectives on each of the characters.

How did the distinctiveness of the voices and the switching from one to the other develop?

It was very intuitive. One of the nice things about being a teacher/writer is that I had to write the story very quickly in my Easter holiday. That’s one of the best deadlines that could be set. If an agent or publisher sets a deadline you know there’s a certain amount of flexibility. Not so with school holidays: the fact that on Monday you will be in class and marking 50 exam scripts is an immovable deadline. That meant there wasn’t time to keep going back and playing around with the narration.

I had a sense that the boys were aching to tell their story. I particularly enjoyed writing Rats story. I found him the most exciting, imaginative, emotional and openly vulnerable of the three storytellers. I liked the sense that towards the end of the novel they started writing together and in their adversity had formed a relationship that would never be broken. There’s a moment when Rats has gone on a dangerous mission back to the dump site school and he creeps back in the early hours of the morning into the tiny room that they are sleeping in and under the blanket. There’s a visual image of Raphael who has been unable to sleep since his torture snuggling up and putting his arm round Rat. It’s the first time he’s been hugged. As the narrative voices connect it was important that the boys became one.

The graveyard, like the dump site, is another inhospitable place for children. Did you also visit the graveyard?

The reason I visited the grave site is that there’s another school there. The charity that runs the dump site school has an outpost because squatters have found a space round the grave stacks. My description of the graves being opened and bodies dumped to make way for new ones because the relatives can no longer pay to keep their loved ones interred is based entirely on real events.

Is your school connected with the dump site school?

Yes, my school, The British School Manila is twinned with Tondo school. All sorts of initiatives are going on. The British School Manila has to be seen to be doing a certain amount of community work, which is a requirement of the Baccalaureate. Of course it is problematic. It could be done in a paternalistic way but our head master understands that. So while it could be left at the level of our pupils collecting tetrapaks and ring pulls in order to donate money for the feel good fact, we have in fact gone way beyond that. The children from Tondo are invited to our school to participate in sporting events and festivals. The most long term impact is the teacher training, which we have been involved in by invitation.

You have to ask who benefits most from these encounters?

I think you’re right. At worst the wealthy students might learn that it’s ok to visit a dump site school once a year and as long as they have saved their tetrapaks, they have done their bit for world poverty. However, it could equally be an appalling way of embedding world poverty. The idea that as long as you have a conscience and shed a tear from time to time then you accept that poverty is inevitable. Our hope is that we are teaching the future politicians and governors and that what they have seen touches a raw nerve so that when they reach an age when they can reflect more meaningfully they will have the power to do something. And then we have to ask what happens if we don’t get involved? Would that be better? Of course not, even if we don’t solve all of the problems. . I should also say that the Tondo school does have its successes; one boy has just become an engineer.

But the mind set with which we approach people living in these conditions is important. We shouldn’t assume just because children are living in these dire circumstances that there is little worth in their lives. When I visited the most impoverished housing in Soweto, as well as unspeakable living conditions, I found tremendous spirit. I would say that I have benefited as much from that experience as anyone that I was able to assist while I was there.

Yes, it’s a difficult one. When I was writing 'Trash' I didn’t want to sentimentalise my three dump site boys as fundamentally happy. But you mentioned the word spirit and I tired to invest them with a hunger for life, for bettering their position, taking advantage of the situations. I love the characters for their readiness to cheat, steal, get ahead survive, make their lives better. That’s what I have noticed when I have met street kids, they have a ferocious desire to take advantage of a situation.

As a walking wallet – which you are as an ex-pat in Manila - if I stop and talk to child selling flowers by the road side I can see in their eyes that they have a hook into a rich person. There’s a crossroads close to where I live. The children sell nosegays and I was in the habit of buying one. and I would have a scrum of 15 or 20 children who knew my name. I would buy a couple and I would be pursued down the road like the Pied Piper with the children calling, 'Andy... Andy...'

Who was the first person to read 'Trash'?

I didn’t give it to anybody; I sent it straight to my agent and asked her to let me know what she thought. She sent it out as it was without revisions. David Fickling bought it and only wanted very minor revisions.

Do you think so little needed rewriting because it had been written with the fluency that comes with writing 'from the heart'?

Yes, I wrote 'Trash' straight from the heart, there was nothing frivolous about it. I mentioned Olivia who is hugely important to me because she is me, a naïve school leaver who finds herself in a country she doesn’t understand and her only response is emotional, a response that doesn’t get you anywhere. I don’t want to be cruel to her, I have known many Olivias but it’s an emotional, unintelligent response. She will give a child money thinking it will make things better, not realising that she is being exploited. That child will embrace her and kiss her, partly because they are fond of her, but also because they need to get a hook into her, to take advantage of her. She has a mawkishly sentimental viewpoint that doesn’t take any responsibility for the bigger picture. She cries some of the time and does what she can. I am very fond of her for that. And she does learn something in this book. So the novel, while being a page turning thriller about thee very brave kids, is a way of putting the experience that I had when I first visited India onto the page

Thank you Andy Mulligan for talking to Just Imagine

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