Robert Swindells combines hard-hitting subject matter (homelessness, racial intolerance, nuclear war) with page-turning storytelling in his powerful novels for teenagers. He was won major awards and established himself as one of the most reliable but consistently surprising writers for young people.
Born: Bradford, March 20th 1939
Jobs: Copyholder, Shop Assistant, Clerk, Printer, Engineer, Teacher, Author
Lives: West Yorkshire
First Book for young people: When Darkness Comes, 1973
Robert Swindells was born in Bradford, the eldest of five children, on the eve of the Second World War. Although at school he showed a flair for descriptive and narrative writing, Robert failed his 11-plus. He left school at the age of 15 to become a copyholder on a local newspaper – “reading aloud from the original copy while the proof reader checked it”.
Robert’s first ambition was to become an RAF Spitfire pilot and he did indeed join the RAF, aged 17, but found himself a clerk “on the ground”. Following his discharge from national service in 1960, he had a variety of jobs (see above). In 1969, at the age of thirty, he decided to train as a teacher. He taught for eight years before becoming a full-time writer.
Robert’s first book When Darkness Comes was a historical novel which he began as part of his teacher training course. Robert writes for 7 to 17 year-olds. Puffin is the main publisher of Robert’s teenage fiction - some of the most compelling and challenging writing around for young people.
Swindells has won fans amongst both young readers and critics. He has won numerous awards and is one of only four authors to have won the prestigious Children’s Book Award twice (for Brother in the Land and Room 13).
Robert Swindells' characters inhabit a real and familiar world. The setting is frequently Yorkshire and the issues are utterly contemporary. “I keep up with slang and what interests (young people),” he says. Robert respects the maturity of his young readers, offering them compelling imaginative experiences in language which is both potent and easily accessible.
Often the impetus to write has been anger – about nuclear weapons or homelessness for instance. Robert’s passionate beliefs have not always made for an easy life. In June 1987, he was jailed for seven days for taking part in CND’s ‘Snowball’ campaign.
When Stone Cold won the 1994 Carnegie Medal, Robert had to contend with controversy and outcry as well as widespread acclaim. “What are we doing to our children?” moaned Rosemary Anne Sisson in the Daily Mail. “What are the panel of librarians who chose it thinking of?” raged Christina Hardyment in The Independent. The vast majority of critics, however, concurred with Nicolette Jones who wrote in the Sunday Times: “It is a novel that deserves its award, and it will make teenagers look into occupied doorways and think.”
Robert researched Stone Cold by sleeping rough in London for three nights. “My exile from society was brief,” Swindells says modestly, “I had friends’ phone numbers on my arm in biro in case of an emergency. So I do not claim to know what it’s like.”
Robert continues to address tough contemporary realities, including fundamentalist religious sects (Unbeliever), racial intolerance (Smash!), and racketeering (Dosh). He has also contributed to Puffin’s Surfers series for less able/committed readers with Last Bus – a gripping adventure story about a nightmare bus journey. Robert’s books have been translated into 21 languages, including Serbo-Croat, Catalan and Innuit.
What does he like best about being a writer? “The freedom…I needn’t rush from one task to another. Like my hero Thoreau, I can inspect storms. I can stand and stare and call it work! It’s the best job in the world.”
WHAT HE SAYS...
“(As a child) I read everything from Sunny Stories to archaeology… my great grandfather… was an amateur archaeologist and I inherited his books and picked up quite a bit of knowledge from him. I still read everything – except romance and westerns.”
“The novelist’s first duty must be to produce a book which gives pleasure and keeps children reading. It can be interesting, gripping, frightening as long as it keeps children reading.”
" I am dedicated to the idea that we are all responsible for one another, and that we ought to conduct ourselves accordingly, doing no harm to any being. My work reflects this belief."
“I don’t think the subjects are too strong for a children’s book, because they’re true. I know I’ll get a lot of flack for dealing with issues like these, but it’s so important to confront the truth, even if it’s frightening sometimes.”
“It’s not a good idea to keep things from young people. They should know what’s happening out there, that some of their contemporaries live less privileged lives than they do, to bear this in mind and perhaps do something about it one day.”
“Brother in the Land came out of my own anger and frustration… I’ve always been strongly against nuclear weapons. I’m not a pacifist but you can’t kill selectively with nuclear weapons, you wipe out millions of people…I think that the actual scenario that book is about is gone now – although there are still far too many nuclear weapons around the world.”
“There is absolutely no reason for homelessness to happen in Britain. It’s needless; it’s being done deliberately, and that really is what Stone Cold is all about. It was originally called Leaving the Opera because of a comment by our (then) Housing Minister, Sir George Young, who said ‘the homeless are the sort of people you step over when you come out of the opera’. My anger about that triggered the book.”
“It was the thought that in two, three or four years’ time some of the children reading it now could be sleeping on the streets of London that made me write it.”
“If you think sleeping rough’s just a matter of finding a dry spot where the fuzz won’t move you on, you’re wrong… It was very hard. I wore three layers of old clothes. I was smelly, unshaven and terrified… you don’t really sleep, you get bruised all over lying on concrete and you’re permanently frightened.”
“I decided to write Smash! In the wake of riots in Bradford… which involved Muslim fundamentalists and British Nazis: both groups with a vested interest in sowing disharmony.”
“No matter how fantastic the story may be, the background must be accurate if the reader is to be carried along.”
“I’d love to see peace and justice in the world, and Bradford City win the F. A. Cup again (last time 1911).”
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT ROBERT SWINDELLS...
“He is a natural story-teller, inventive and mesmerising.” Good Housekeeping
“Only a few novelists can induce that coiled-spring mode of reading – the can’t-put-it-down absorption which most adults wistfully glimpse a long way over our shoulders. Robert Swindells is such a writer.” Times Educational Supplement
“He is still astounding publishers, delighting librarians and young readers with the clarity of his voice, his ability to speak to all age groups, to address grown-up values.” Times Educational Supplement
“He is the least angst-ridden writer imaginable, although he does own up to the occasional moorland ramble for a bit of ‘lateral thinking’ to untangle a tricky characterisation.” Carousel
“A hard-hitting and compelling story that captures the magic of human emotions.” Books For Your Children on Brother in the Land
“A chilling, believable tale.” Daily Telegraph on Brother in the Land
“A book that needed to be written, and if recent trends are to be checked, needs to be read too. As significant in its own way as Orwell’s 1984.” Books For Your Children on Daz 4 Zoe
“Here is a teenage novel with everything: love, loyalty, nail-biting suspense, some excellent writing, and a huge moral poser about where our Two Nations society will end.” Independent on Sunday on Daz 4 Zoe
“In every way this is a fine yarn, full of humour, insight and well-observed detail.” Times Educational Supplement on Follow A Shadow
“This wonderful book… makes adolescent problems real, the Brontës human, and book reading delightful, in a style which is sustaining, intriguing, yet easy and memorable.” School Librarian on Follow A Shadow
“Swindells’ craftsmanship is demonstrated in the successful intertwining of dual stories.” Viewpoint on Follow A Shadow
“A magical – and chilling – adventure.” Young Telegraph on Ice Palace
“A splendidly grabbing read.” The Independent on A Serpent’s Tooth
“An exciting, timely and complex story.” Independent on Sunday on Smash!
“A vivid yarn.” Philip Pullman, The Guardian on Smash!
“Should be on the reading curriculum of every secondary school.” Sunday Telegraph on Smash!
“A forceful teenage novel… a page-turner and it carries conviction.” The Scotsman on Smash!
“This book should be included in every children’s library.” The Big Issue on Stone Cold
“A page turner which addresses an issue teenagers should contemplate.” Daily Telegraph on Stone Cold
“A gripping, haunting tale.” Publishing News on Stone Cold
“Stylistically, the book is clear and accomplished, and the violence is treated with tactful ellipsis. But perhaps its greatest strength is the vividness with which it describes the harsh particularities of living rough – how sleeping on concrete gives you bruises, how difficult it is to protect yourself and your belongings, how hard it is to endure the cold. It is a novel that deserves its award, and it will make teenagers look into occupied doorways and think.” Sunday Times on Stone Cold
“A realistic portrait of a boy living rough in London… a powerful story.” Time Out on Stone Cold
“Swindells as always writes at a fine pace and maintains a state of high excitement until the last page.” The Independent on Unbeliever
“Robert Swindells keeps up a conversational urgency.” The Observer on Unbeliever
“We are accustomed to heartwrenching accounts of parents attempting to rescue their brainwashed offspring from the clutches of arcane sects. Swindells neatly turns the cliché on its head; it is the parent who has gone astray.” Jan Mark, Times Educational Supplement on Unbeliever
The Other Award 1984 for Brother in the Land
The Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Children’s Book Award 1985 for Brother in the Land
Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal 1984 for Brother in the Land
Shortlisted for the Children’s Books of the Year Choice 1988 for A Serpent’s Tooth
Shortlisted for the Earthworm Award 1989 for A Serpent’s Tooth
The Carnegie Medal 1993 for Stone Cold
Category Winner in the Sheffield Children’s Book Award 1994 for Stone Cold
Shortlisted for the Lancashire County Library/Nat West Children’s Book of the Year 1996 for Unbeliever
Category Winner in the Sheffield Children’s Book Award 1996 for Unbeliever
Angus Book Award 1998 for Unbeliever
Shortlisted for the Sheffield Children’s Book Award 1998 for Smash!
PLACE AND DATE OF BIRTH:
Bradford; 20 March 1939
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
MOST TREASURED POSSESSION:
The Carnegie Medal
'Voi che sapete' by Mozart
Gandhi, Brassed Off
When did you start writing?
Depends what you mean. I started writing stories, poems and essays at school when I was about seven. My teachers reckoned I wasn't bad. When I was fourteen I won an essay competition run by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. At work I wrote rude verses about the boss and stuck them on the notice-board - unsigned, of course. My workmates thought I was a genius. In the Air Force I wrote similar rhymes about my officers. I didn't write my first book till I was thirty-one. This was published in 1973 as When Darkness Comes.
Where do you get your ideas?
Anywhere. Everywhere. Bits I read in newspapers and magazines. TV documentaries - especially those dealing with ghosts, real-life mysteries and the occult. Snatches of other people's conversations. What you do is, you take some fairly ordinary event and bend it into a hook to hang a story on. Stephen King calls it 'making skyhooks about of old coathangers'.
Can you give your top three tips to becoming a successful author?
Oh dear! I can really only say what every writer says:
1. Make your characters like the sort of people you know. I don't mean use actual people - that can get you in trouble. I mean, don't write about the lives of airline pilots or spies or brain surgeons if you don't know any, because you'll make loads of mistakes and nobody'll want to publish your story. If you're at school, use schoolkid characters with the odd teacher thrown in (especially if your story's got a shark pool in it). If you need an adult in your story, base her/him on your mum or your uncle Brian. Everybody's life is an old coathanger, and can be bent into a skyhook once you know the trick.
2. Write for people your own age or younger. If you're a kid, write for kids.
3. Practise. Don't be put off. Many successful writers were called rubbish when they were trying to get started. Loads of publishers rejected Watership Down, but it became one of the greatest hits of all time.
My favourite memory is of setting out at the age of twenty-nine to be interviewed for a place at teacher-training college. I went on the bus. I was a factory hand on the outward journey and a student teacher on the return trip. I was filled with such joy I felt I might burst. My whole life had turned on that moment and I knew it.
Favourite place in the world and why?
I've been to twenty-nine countries, and my favourite place is - the one I'm in as I write this - the loft workroom of my house in Oxenhope, West Yorkshire. This is because it is home, because my wife is pottering about two floors below me, because my children and grandchildren are all just a few miles away, and because I love my work and this is where it gets done. There are lots of interesting places in the world, and many lovely people, but this is my place and these are my people, and that's what counts.
What are your hobbies?
I love to read - always have. I enjoy the cinema and live theatre. I walk the countryside, paint with watercolours and eat Indian food. I like to travel, and to get back home. Writing is a hobby, even though it's my job.
If you hadn't been a writer, what do you think you would have been?
If I wasn't a writer I guess I'd be what I was before - a primary school teacher. I enjoyed that, though for various reasons the job was more fun then than it is now. If I wasn't a writer and could be anything I wanted, I'd be a drummer in a rock band.