Article first published as Children Of The Resolution on Technorati.
Jason Shaw talks to Author Gary Murning about his moving and thought-provoking novel Children of the Resolution.
A strong wind of change was starting to circulate around the educational establishment of England in the mid to late seventies – that change was ‘integration’ Society as a whole was changing back then and integration became the decades key word, especially prevalent in relation to education.
Prior to the late seventies in the UK children with disabilities were mostly educated in ‘special’ or segregated schools or at home, that’s if they were educated at all. Disabled people then were more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications whatsoever. Various moves took place to change that, to move those with disabilities away from segregation, isolation, stigmatization and ‘integrate’ them into the mainstream school system.
For better or worse the whole social and educational experiment of integration under the guise of progress was underway in some British schools in the late seventies. It’s against this backdrop of change that Gary William Murning sets his deeply thought-provoking novel Children Of The Resolution. No nothing to do with underage sailors on board the Captain Cook ship, but a moving account of a child going through this mode of integration. A deeply personal story as I found out when I spoke to author Gary William Murning.
Gary, your latest book ‘Children Of The Resolution’ takes a detailed look at the British education system at a time of revolutionary changes and the integration of disabled children into the mainstream school system. Please can you talk us through a little about that, what you think the reasons for it were and why you decided to write about it.
The pre-1970s environment was, I suppose, in many ways casually hostile towards those with disabilities—less casually the further back you go. Disability, of whatever kind, had always had stigmas attached to it. The product of ignorance and superstition in many cases, but, also, fear of difference and perceived “imperfection”. That all started to change, I think, with the whole development of the civil rights movement—or movements. Everything was starting to change very quickly in the 1960s, whether for black people, women, gay people, everywhere you looked attitudes (at least ostensibly) were changing. And I suppose the natural course of events would have to include people with disabilities.
The main area of very obvious segregation at that time was education. The history of how this actually developed, the detail, isn’t something I’m entirely familiar with. I was a child, then, and when I wrote it, I very much wanted Children of the Resolution to be about the child’s experience of those times. I didn’t really want to overload it with material on the historico-political influences or the underlying civil rights background. My job was to (hopefully) write an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that explored the results in an experiential way. In retrospect, though, it now occurs to me that there was a very strong and well-meaning whiff of pure, unthought-through idealism in the move towards integration. I think it was very much a case of people wanting to right wrongs and set things on the right course as quickly as possible. I also suspect that there were quite a few individuals who would—shall we say?—consider it a good career move, politically. (Is my cynicism showing?)
Naturally, as is so often the way, it didn’t quite work the way I’m sure those involved originally envisaged. That sense of something revolutionary occurring was pretty short lived, and the cracks—both ideologically and almost literally—started to show quite quickly. It was, I think, a period when a lot of lessons could have been learned. And, to a degree, they were—though many still seem to forget them and have to learn them all over again.
I wanted to write it primarily because of this, I think. For me, the experience of the child has to be paramount where such considerations are concerned. Especially when you’re dealing with children who are already starting life at something of a disadvantage. Also, I wanted to revisit those times. The novel is heavily autobiographical, and the idea of revisiting old friends and old adventures was very appealing. Apart from the obvious fun in this, it also enabled me to give those old friends (some, sadly, no longer with us) a voice they otherwise would not have had.
Looking back, was, for want of a better expression, this integration was a social and educational experiment, in your opinion did it work?
Well, let me put it this way: I dread to think where I would have been without it. There were, you know, many, many failings. This was inevitable, I suppose. New things were being tried and it would be pretty unreasonable to expect a 100% success rate. Children of my generation were amongst the first and whilst some were let down, it’s undeniable that even in that they were much more fortunate than they once might have been. Just ten, twenty years previously, the very notion of educating children with disabilities was very much a token, if that. And there was I, sitting in my rather smart school uniform, one of two disabled children in a class of thirty “normal” kids, learning about Pythagoras and the square on his bloody hypotenuse. We can’t ignore just how much of a huge leap forward that actually was. Granted, it wasn’t perfect. Mistakes were made and—especially when I went on to sixth form college—the support I got wasn’t ideal, to say the least. It was a first step, and as such, whatever its failings, it achieved a great deal.
Have we built on that sufficiently? Generally, I don’t think so. Thirty, going on forty years later, we still have significant problems in education for children with disabilities—in education general, for that matter. In some cases, we have near perfect examples of what it should be like. Then you head a few miles down the road and… different story entirely.
So, in a nutshell, I think a great deal has been achieved. Do I think it’s enough? Absolutely not.
With your novel Children of the Resolution, we follow the story of integration, of this changing educational system through the eyes of acutely aware child with a disability named Carl, albeit retrospectively. How important did you feel it was to expand and explore this evolution of education from an insider child’s viewpoint?
The novel is actually kind of retrospective. It’s very much about the adult Carl looking back at his childhood experiences, trying to present them as truthfully as possible. So I’d probably shy away from saying that it’s completely from the child’s point of view. When I was writing it, I was very aware that I was interpreting those times from an adult perspective and trying to present it in a form that wouldn’t be off-putting for adult readers.
That said, however, I did try to remain as faithful to the child as possible. You know, when I lived through those times myself, I distinctly remember intuiting “undercurrents” between certain teachers. But I wasn’t sure just how much I could trust these feelings. Because of this, I actually hunted down one of my teachers from those times (Mrs Shires in the novel) and discussed this with her. As it turned out, my childhood intuition had been bang on the button—and once I realized that I found it much easier to trust the child, so to speak.
And I think there’s a really important lesson in this. Not just for novelists! Children are smart. Yes, even disabled children! They may not be smart in the same way that adults are, but they have a really keen, true perspective. They may not always share the stuff they know with us, but they know it.
Children Of The Resolution is obviously a personal story, but how autobiographical is it?
Very. As far as the childhood aspect of the story is concerned, I’d say it’s about 90% autobiographical. Naturally, the detail differs. It’s hard to remember word for word conversations you had when you were seven, for example. But in scene development, individual characters (even though some of them are composites) and narrative progression, it’s very solidly based in reality.
As it is such a personal story, was there much research involved in creating the book?
Very little. That’s the beauty of autobiographical novels! Most of it was just there in my head. As already mentioned, however, I did chat with one of my teachers from that period—just to ensure that those childhood feelings had been accurate. Once I had this confirmed, however, and had gathered a little more background info from her, I didn’t look much further. Like I say, I didn’t want to impose too much. It had to be about the child/children first and foremost.
Whilst Gary takes us on journey within the pages of Children Of The Resolution of a child being integrated, I saw the changing scape from the other side. For back then, I was a gawky child going to a small town middle school chosen to be one of those in which to commence the integration. My middle school years lasted from 1976 to 1981 and during that time I saw first hand the changes in education that Gary William Murning covers it so wonderfully well in his book. It was a period of rapid change, at the time, it’s objectives where as alien to me a Latin or French passive verbs, all I knew was that during the school holidays they completely transformed two classrooms at the end of the main block in my small Surrey school. My mother worked at the school, so I had pretty much unrestricted access, yes even during the school holidays. Special toilets with loads of bars were put in, doorways widened, new floors put down, a kitchen area created, a strange bed area with what looked like a crane and all sorts of other things was put in where once there had been a store cupboard.
Autumn term started and ‘they’ came. Those kids with disabilities, the handicap kids as we called them at the time, probably worse too, as you’d expect for ten and eleven year olds, whom for the most part had never had any contact with any forms of disability. I’m not sure why, maybe it was interest, intrigue or the fact that I really liked the teacher leading the new ‘handicap unit’ but I volunteered to help out from time to time.
I can’t remember what individual illnesses, disabilities or difficulty each kid had, there was quite a few, plus they all had long names, the disabilities I mean, not the kids, whose names were quite short, like Gary, Oliver and Roddy. More boys than girls I seem to remember. Some had strange strappy leg things, that I’d never seen before, however, I soon learned were calipers. Others were in wheelchairs (always pushing ones). You know recollecting those days, I really couldn’t say who was the most scared – them or us? Probably both the same, I’d hazard a guess, for ten and eleven year-olds it was an amazing experience, a steep learning curve, of which the effects have lasted a lifetime.
As for the actual craft, how long did the actual writing and editing take?
It usually takes me about a month to write twenty thousand words, so the actual writing was probably six or seven months, with a couple of months for outlining. I did two or three editorial passes on it, which probably totalled a couple of months work. So, all in all, somewhere in the region of ten months—though this, especially in the editorial stages, was spread over a couple of years.
Your first novel ‘If I Never’ was published by a mainstream company, but you chose a different route with Children of the Resolution, what made you make that choice?
Well, to cut a long story short, my current publisher had a few understandable concerns regarding marketability. It’s not as solidly aimed at the popular market as my first published novel, If I Never, was. I was therefore faced with the prospect of submitting it to other publishers, which didn’t really appeal to me; given the current climate, I was pretty certain that the riskiness of the material would work against it. I didn’t want to just sit on it, though, and the ease with which writers can now publish their own material, at virtually negligible initial cost, it just seemed the obvious thing to do. Many traditionally published novelists are now trying this approach—either self publishing in tandem with their mainstream work or, in some cases, actually walking away from mainstream publishing altogether. Exciting and scary, but my experience of it so far has been pretty good. It’s nice having complete control over a project.
So has publishing changed recently? Do you feel it’s easier or harder to get published these days?
It’s changed radically. And I think it’s fair to say it both harder and easier. Getting a mainstream contract is much more difficult, I feel, than it once was. There are far more writers out there trying for publication, now, and there is in many quarters a real aversion to risk. It’s much more a numbers game, these days, I think. Editors are much more answerable to accountants than they once were!
That said, the growth of print on demand publishing, electronic media etc has opened everything up. To the point where mainstream publishers are now having to rethink their business plans. Exciting times but also extremely competitive in the market. There’s a lot of stuff out there, some of it not very good, some of it simply amazing—and getting the attention of readers is tougher than ever.
How do you feel about the new revolution of electronic media – is it the future?
You know, I was little skeptical. I’d heard how Kindle sales in the US were skyrocketing, outselling paperbacks, I believe, but I was really unsure of just how that would translate to the UK. And then Amazon released their UK version of the Kindle and you could see the change starting to happen. I went from having hardly any Kindle readers to selling more Kindle versions than paperbacks in the space of two or three months. From the writer’s point of view, it’s pretty amazing, really. The ease of buying is a real bonus! And, of course, the product price can be kept incredibly low (especially if you’re self publishing) without damaging the author’s cut too severely. The profit margin on Kindle books is far, far better than paperbacks!
You’re working on a third novel at the moment, can I twist your arm a little to share a bit about that, what’s it about?
No. Oh, all right, then. You’ve persuaded me. I’ve actually been working on a new novel called The Legacy of Lorna Lovelost—have just finished the first draft, in fact. Probably isn’t going to be my third (published) novel, though; I have another couple very nearly ready to go (the next is likely to be In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, penciled in for early summer next year, and it will be the first published by my recently set up publishing company GWM Publications).
The Legacy of Lorna Lovelost, however, is a novel about—briefly—a woman who discovers she is dying and decides to fix up her husband with a new wife before she pops her clogs. It’s very much a tragicomedy in the vein of writers like John Irving, with dark humor and a suitable amount of pathos. Also a nice sprinkling of sex, which always helps.
So a major step away from Children of the Resolution then?
I’d say so, yes—though I do think most of my work tends to have common elements, if you look closely enough. I have a fondness for dark, irreverent humor and I think (don’t know whether you’d agree) even Children has that.
Yes, I certainly do agree, now as we come to the end of our time, how about you share a little secret…
This is tough. I don’t want to just make something up but I don’t want to incriminate myself, either! So… let me see… my first chat up line was, when I was about seven, “show me your knickers and I’ll teach you how to play solitaire”. And I’m still using it today. (Not really—but it’s terribly tempting, sometimes!)
My sincere thanks for Gary for the interview, his moving, thought provoking and compelling book Children Of The Resolution is available from all good bookstores, online and high street and available to buy on Amazon.