David Burton is an award-winning writer from Brisbane. He has written over thirty professionally produced theatrical works, including several pieces for the youth and education sector, and directed productions for the Queensland Music Festival. His memoir, How to Be Happy, won the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing in 2014. The Man in the Water is David’s first novel.
Today, he’s on the blog to talk about writing young adult literature for boys. Read on!
Boys today. Too busy playing Fortnite while binge eating smashed avocado to read a book. Back in my day I was …wishing I was that cool, actually. I read more than average because I was hiding in the school library from a kid called Cameron who liked to belt me. Luckily, Cameron didn’t know what a library was. Illiteracy really is an obstacle to getting what you want.
Don’t get me wrong, I was a normal boy in other ways. I played video games into the early hours of the morning. I drank way too much soft drink. I had a shameful, irrepressible desire to have sex with something and spent most of my time trying to hide it. Overall though, I was doing my best to queer the masculine paradigm – as much as any fifteen year old with knee-high socks and a cheap haircut in a Catholic school can. All my best friends were women. Still are. In truth, I didn’t understand my young male peers. They frightened me.
I struggle to think of any other demographic of our culture that all of us are more permanently afraid of than young men. We project onto them a potential for violence, an anxious competitive streak, and an untamed sexuality. In truth, some young men are like that. But it is not the entirety of the culture. Just as young women face a barrage of cruel and bizarre societal pressures, young men do too. Just as young women’s taste is often dismissed in pop culture as somehow ‘lesser than’ or disposable (One Direction, the Twilight series), young male culture is often reduced to corrupting violence (video games will destroy the world!), sweat-drenched athleticism and competition (also drenched in Lynx ‘Africa’) and an emotionless sexuality (don’t look at my browser history, Mum!).
My masculinity has never looked like that, and in my first book, How to Be Happy, I did my best to tell the truth about growing up as a young man. Mental health was a huge issue for me, as it is for so many, and it was partly my internalised concept of ‘strength’ that prevented me from getting help when I really needed it. That mistake nearly proved fatal. I’m not being hyperbolic. I almost died.
Since that time, I’ve spent many years working in outback communities, particularly with young people. The boys I used to shy away from as a teen looked different to me as an adult. I heard stories that I wasn’t used to hearing. Young men with a profound sense of romance, a desperate and often clumsy desire to please, and an aggressive push to be seen as ‘the best’ – at something, anything. In their personal lives, they wanted to be admired. All the boys wanted to be heroes.
In video games, they can be heroes. Wins and losses are clearly defined binaries. In superhero films and comics, too, the surreal expression of masculinity speaks straight to them. Genre fiction, bound by plot formulae and a ceaseless momentum, particularly resonates.
When I was fifteen, I spent my time reading science fiction and fantasy. Douglas Adams and Doctor Who took up most of my bandwidth. I adored Tomorrow When the War Began, racing through chapters to get to the next action scene. I wanted situations where characters had the opportunity to be heroes.
I was sketching mindlessly in a notebook one day when I invented Shaun: exactly the type of kid I would’ve been afraid of as a teen. Shaun doesn’t care that much about good grades. He just wants to win the affection of his crush, Megan, and relieve some pressure from his single mum. He finds a dead body in a lake. He’s freaked out for a second, but then he realises that this is his moment. He can be a hero. He can solve this mystery.
That’s The Man In The Water. I wanted to write something that fifteen-year-old boys could read. Something that pulled them forward through cliffhangers. I also wanted to write about the intimate connection Shaun has with his best mate. I wanted to write about his lusty but romantic connection with Megan.
‘Boys don’t read’ is a perennial problem. It’s ‘perennial’ because it can’t be solved. It can’t be solved because I don’t actually think that it’s real. Boys do read. They read the stories that appeal to them. There are countless success stories of authors who find a way to speak to young men. While the film and video game genre has a much bigger audience, their success proves that young men are literate. They are readers just like the rest of us: they’re just looking for the right story.
— David Burton
The Man in the Water
When 16-year-old Shaun discovers a dead body in the lake of a quiet mining town in outback Queensland, he immediately reports it to the police. But when he returns to the site with the constable, the body is gone.
Shaun's father drowned a few years ago, and now his mum and the authorities questions whether he saw a body at all. Determined to show the town the truth, Shaun and his best friend, Will, open their own investigation. But what they discover is far more sinister than a mining mishap...