Q&A with Mitch Johnson

Just Imagine: Congratulations on winning the 2018 Branford Boase Award for your debut novel “Kick”. After working in the book industry yourself & seeing so many other stories being published, did you ever give up hope that your own book would make it onto the shelves

Mitch Johnson: Working as a bookseller certainly makes you appreciate how competitive publishing is, but I think the amount of new titles released each year should give aspiring writers hope: it demonstrates that publishers are always looking for new talent. And as an unpublished author, that’s exactly what you are.

There was a point – not long before I found representation – that I began to think Kick might never be published. Quite a few literary agents were showing an interest (something that hadn’t happened with earlier projects), but ultimately they all rejected the manuscript. This was especially disheartening because I’d already revised the novel several times and was confident that it was about as good as I could get it. But I believed in the story, and I was passionate about highlighting the issues at its heart, so I probably wouldn’t have given up until I’d contacted every agency in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Fortunately, an agent agreed to represent me soon after these rejections, and within a couple of months I’d signed a two-book deal with Usborne.

 

JI: Where did you get the inspiration for the story from?

MJ: Kick began life with a piece of rubbish in a shoebox back in 2013. I was working as a sales assistant in a sport shop when I found a discarded energy gel sachet – covered in Asiatic branding – between a pair of brand-new football boots. The discovery made me think of the person who had made the boots, and how exhausting their work must be. The idea crystallized a few weeks later while I was channel-hopping between Match of the Day and a programme protesting the use of sweatshop labour, and Budi’s character was born.

 

JI: Kick is endorsed by Amnesty International; have you always had a strong interest in social injustice & the work Amnesty does?

MJ: I’ve tried to work out whether there’s a specific reason why I react the way I do to injustice. I’ve always been a stickler for the rules, because to me rules are a way of keeping things fair. At school, the thought of classmates cheating during exams used to infuriate me. Robin Hood was one of my childhood heroes, so to grow up and realize I lived in a world where the rich steal from the poor was something of a shock. I think perhaps I’m still chasing the ideals I learned in childhood, and writing is just the form of activism that I find most effective.

When I learned that Amnesty wanted to endorse Kick I was delighted. Human rights – and especially children’s rights – are central to Kick, and to know that there are organizations committed to eradicating the exploitative practices detailed in novel is a heartening, humbling thought. I think the relationship between charities and storytelling is incredibly important, as it creates a space where two forms of idealism can interact and evolve.

 

JI: How have children in schools reacted to your events about the book? Have you enjoyed this part of being an author?

MJ: To begin with, the thought of school events terrified me. I am quite a private, introverted person (as I’m sure many writers are), so speaking to large groups of schoolchildren didn’t seem like something I’d be comfortable doing. However, I’ve really enjoyed meeting young readers and developing an event that is interactive, fun, and informative. The response has been really positive, and I’m always amazed by the energy and enthusiasm I encounter in schools.

 

JI: Are you currently working on anything new?

MJ: My next book is about a boy called Oscar, whose father returns from a warzone and struggles to adjust to civilian life. Oscar’s great-grandfather was also affected by his time as a soldier – returning from the Second World War unable to speak – and Oscar believes that breaking this silence could hold the key to his father’s recovery. He follows a series of clues into his great-grandfather’s past, uncovering a terrible secret in the process… It’s a book about the legacy of war, and the hidden wounds that often refuse to heal.