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Find more The Booklist Top of the List Interview
Kevin Brooks’ Bunker Diary is a masterpiece of slowly dawning terror. Linus, 16, wakes up in a sealed bunker and is soon joined by five others. There is no reason they’ve been kidnapped. There is no exit. Their unseen captor rewards them, or punishes them, or feeds them, or starves them. What results is a free-fall into the depths of hope and fear, and as we narrowed down our Top of the List choices, it gradually become clear that we editors, too, were heading toward a strange and unusual choice, but one that, just like Linus’, felt inevitable.
BROOKS: Yes, a massive challenge. I actually wrote the original version of the book more than 10 years ago. It was supposed to be my third published novel, but when I submitted it to my publisher at the time, he thought it was too dark, too lacking in hope for young readers. I didn’t agree with him, partly because I don’t think YA fiction has to have some hope in it, no matter how dark it is, but also because I think the book does have hope in it, just not in an obvious way.
Anyway, I accepted my publisher’s decision not to publish it (there wasn’t much else I could do) and set about writing something else. But I kept working on it between other books—rewriting it, paring it down, making it as perfect as possible. When I changed publishers, I tried to persuade them to publish it, but the answer was still the same. Eventually though—after years of incessant pleading—my editor at Penguin UK, Sarah Hughes, finally agreed to publish it, followed by Carolrhoda/Lab in the U.S.
KRAUS: There was controversy when it won the UK’s Carnegie Medal, but have actual readers complained at all?
BROOKS: Most of the feedback I’ve had about the book has been really positive, but, unfortunately, it’s the tiny percentage of sensationally negative reviews/critiques that make the news. The only complaints I’ve had from actual readers has always come from adult readers, whose main complaint is that it isn’t suitable for young readers. The young readers themselves are absolutely fine with it, as I always knew they would be. Some of them have told me they found the book very disturbing/unsettling, but it has to be disturbing—it’s a story about a really disturbing experience—and kids understand that.
KRAUS: Did you ever have concerns or self-doubt about going too far?
BROOKS: No, none at all.
KRAUS: Linus’ psychiatrist urges him to get past fear. But two pages later, Linus says that “fear keeps us alive,” which ties into what Fred says: “We’re all animals.” This is actually rather empowering: to fear is to be alive. Do you personally find the book inspiring or depressing?
BROOKS: To me it’s sad and depressing and inspiring, which is one of the things the book’s all about. You described it as “fatalistic,” and I agree. But, in a sense, that’s what life is. We’re all going to die. It’s undeniable, inevitable, and, of course, it can be sad and depressing—but once we accept it, and realize that this life is all we’ve got, so we might as well make the most of it, then everything about our lives—the good and the bad—really can be inspiring.
KRAUS: One fascinating aspect of the book is that there is no surprise where the story is heading. When we’re so used to plot twists, do you think the ultimate plot twist is having no twist at all?
BROOKS: There was never any question of a plot twist in this book. I knew from the beginning that it had to end how it does—the story demanded it. And this was actually one of the reasons the book took so long to get published. I could have got it published a lot earlier if I’d agreed with various publishers to change the ending (among other things). But to me that would have made it a completely different story, a story that I had no interest in writing.
KRAUS: Would you like to hear my theory on this book?
BROOKS: I’d love to hear your theory!
KRAUS: It’s about God and religion. We have a cross section of humans stuck in rooms with nothing but a Bible. They’re instructed by an inscrutable force known as “He” or “the Man Upstairs” to obey His arbitrary rules for potential reward or punishment. He speaks of “My word“ and the characters call His communications “covenants.” This is not a charitable look at religion. In the end, none of it matters—whether you believe or disbelieve, it’s like Russell says: “We’re all dying. Get used to it.” And then, as a bonus, Linus eats the Bible!
BROOKS: Yeah, I like it a lot. And it’s dead right . . . just as any other theory is dead right.
A story—like any other art form—means whatever you think it means, or want it to mean, because once you’ve read it, once it’s come alive in your head, it’s yours. The story belongs to you, it’s become part of you, so it can be whatever you want it to be. For me, it’s this process—when the words on the page become 1,000 different stories—that turns the book into a story.
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