At the heart of Stephen May's terrific new novel Life! Death! Prizes! (Bloomsbury, April) is the relationship between two siblings, 19-year-old Billy and his younger half-brother Oscar. When their single mum dies in a bungled street robbery, gap-year student Billy finds himself bringing up six-year-old Oscar in the family home.
Fending off the well-meaning intentions of an aunt and Oscar's estranged dad, Billy and Oscar keep the world at bay with a diet of takeaways, computer games and true-life magazines from supermarkets (hence the novel's title).
Billy narrates the book, and his teenage voice is spot-on; funny, sarcastic and defiant by turns. May explains, over the telephone from Yorkshire, that he himself is a parent of a teenage stepson and a much younger son with his partner, so he has had ample opportunity to observe their dynamic. He also used to teach drama in a comprehensive school: "All good writing is about paying attention, and paying attention to your own memories as well as what's around you," he says.
In Life! Death! Prizes! Billy pores over true-life magazines, taking a kind of comfort from stories that are more tragic than his own. May found himself developing a fascination with that type of magazine during the writing of the novel: "They are authentic working-class stories I think, and they are always hopeful. Terrible things happen but they always have an upbeat, uplifting—whatever the opposite of a sting in the tale is—ending, a warmth in the tale."
May has much to say about the realities of modern family life in the novel: "I think we are struggling with the nature of family, of what makes a family now." There is humour in the book as Billy grapples with the day-to-day demands of a six-year-old—hippo wellies are in, Fireman Sam wellies are out.
But there's a darker thread too, as he nurses an obsession with his mother's missing killer that threatens to get out of control: "I wanted to write a hopeful book but I also wanted to write a book that wasn't afraid of going into the darkness."
Life! Death! Prizes! is May's second novel. His first novel Tag started life as part of his MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He acquired his first agent in 2005 (Camilla Hornby at Curtis Brown) very quickly, but finding a publisher proved much more tricky.
"We got the worst kind of rejections," he remembers. "Not the kind that say 'this is shit', but the kind of rejections that say 'I love this, but...' And if even the people who love it won't publish it, then where are you?" Tag was eventually published in 2008 by the small Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press to "almost complete indifference" he says wryly, although it won the Reader's Choice Prize after being shortlisted for the Welsh Book of the Year in 2009.
May began Life! Death! Prizes! in 2006, and ended up rewriting it three times before his present agent David Smith sold world rights to Bloomsbury, which will also publish in the US and Germany: "The only thing that kept me going through that whole process was that it did get better every time".
Alongside his writing May has had some interesting day jobs. He organised residential creative writing courses for the Arvon Foundation at Ted Hughes' old house Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He didn't sit in on the workshops with the established authors though, or make any starry contacts: "Even though you do meet a lot of writers, you're fetching them toilet roll and making sure their shower works."
But the general atmosphere was very conducive to creativity. A script he wrote was noticed by a producer who then hired him for "Emmerdale". He found writing for a soap invaluable; "You have to write all day every day. You have to be prepared to rewrite everything and do it all to a deadline. You just get on and do it." It also left him with the ability to write anywhere; the first draft of Life! Death! Prizes! was written on his commute to the "Emmerdale" studio in Leeds.
He is now working for the Arts Council England in Yorkshire, which means getting up very early to squeeze in a few hours writing on his third novel before work. Bloomsbury plans a "major" publicity campaign for Life! Death! Prizes!, and May is keen to promote at bookshops.
"I think you can't second guess the zeitgeist. You can't say: 'I'm going to write a book that appeals to the mass market.' If you do that you're doomed to chase a high-speed train that's already left town. It's pretty futile really. But you need a distinctive voice, an original voice. You have to be doing something that nobody else is doing. And I do think, whether you like my book or hate my book, that I'm doing my own thing."
- Life! Death! Prizes!
- Rose Tremain | "I'm very, very uncompromising. I just think 'that's what I want to write' and no other thing."
- Attica Locke | "I think you can get people to think about things that are new, or uncomfortable, if you take them on a journey that feels vaguely familiar"
- Alexei Sayle: "I used to be fuelled by rage and hatred, and I'm not any more. I have a more moderated view of human beings now..."
- Jane Green: "I'm now writing about women in their 40s. I don't think I'm a chick"