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Why Everyone Should Read Junk, The Bright Green Teenage Book About Heroin

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When I was 13 I fell in love with a 15-year-old heroin addict called Lily who wore nothing but a black string vest. And with the 42-year-old British man, Melvin Burgess, who wrote her character in the original Young Adult book Junk, published 20 years ago by Andersen Press.

After an English literature degree and an eight year-long career in journalism, it's still one of my favourite books. That battered, bright green cover with the yellow dandelion syringe standing cooler than any of the classics or new releases on my shelf.

Junk was to me and other teenagers of the time, what Skins became a few years later, and, to some degree, what Vice became after that: a relatable account of youth culture.

It was a love story. Me, Gemma and junk. I thought it was going to last forever. It was the biggest adventure of my life.

Melvin Burgess, Junk
Burgess (interviewed below) set the book in Bristol, where he lived for a period, in the early to mid '80s. In his author’s note, he writes: “All the major events have happened, are happening and will no doubt continue to happen. I saw many of them myself […] The book isn’t fact; it isn’t even fiction. But it’s all true, every word.”

Junk (U.S. title Smack) is a story told from 10 different perspectives, by 10 characters – some of whom are based on real people Burgess knew in the Bristol days, and still knows. The opening chapter is Gemma (a slightly annoying, typically excitable teenage girl) and Tar (a tortured, sensitive teenage boy) innocently eating cheese rolls with Branston pickle together in the back of a Volvo estate – not having sex. Over the next 325 pages, they both change beyond recognition.

We’re introduced to Lily, the heroin addict in aforementioned black string vest, who smells like trouble, as Gemma observes her at a party – a scene Burgess tells me is actually based on his own first memory of the real life Lily. Gemma stares at Lily, and says this thing that so artfully encapsulates the teenage experience:

“Did you ever see someone and think straight away, I want to be that person? I want to look like her and think like her and have the same effect as she does. […] She was more herself than anyone else ever was and as soon as I clapped eyes on her I knew I wanted to be myself just as much as she was herself.”

Now 62, Burgess lives the life every aspiring writer dreams of in a quiet town up north, spending his mornings writing, his afternoons socialising and walking the dog, and his evenings cooking. His seminal book that lit up my boring 13-year-old existence is being re-published for the 20th anniversary with a new, slightly less bright green cover – as though darkened by 20 years of teenagers obsessively reading it.

As a fan to an idol, I asked Burgess every question I’ve ever had about Junk – what happened to the real Gemma? The real Lily? The real Tar? What was fact, what was fiction, and is it still the truth?

So I’ve read Junk about 20 times…
Oh right! Fair dos, you probably remember it better than I do then.

Do you ever feel emotional reading it back?
Yeah, I suppose. The funny thing is that once you’ve finished it and you’ve left it alone a while, you can come back to it as a reader.

Why did you write it for teenagers, not adults? It’s still so relevant for adults…
Well I started off writing what I thought were books for children and I was told they were books for teenagers. Nobody wrote for teenagers when I was a kid, there was no such thing as YA.

My publisher suggested I do a book about drugs, and I had been thinking for a while how absolutely ludicrous it is that you can get books on potty training and being a grandad and absolutely everything in between, but the one bit where there’s no books published directly for you is at that seminal time when you’re a teenager. I was living in Bristol and I knew all these people... It didn’t all happen to me but I saw it, I was around it, and I was a part of it, so I thought, okay, I’ll write the book that I would have liked to read when I was 16.

When I was coming up to that age, people were selling hash in the playground and the Beatles and the Stones all seemed to be having a good time on drugs but at that time, the police and the authorities were telling us what an evil monstrosity it was, so you were completely surrounded by misinformation and nonsense, so I thought I'd just write something authentic, that didn’t try to moralise. I felt it was a book that should have been there.

Did you ask the people you wrote the book about (either loosely or directly) their permission before writing their stories?
I told them I was doing it, and I’m still in touch with the character I based Gemma on and I gave her the book to read, to check up, you know [laughs]. And I gave it to the character of Sally. It was interesting because they had really lost a big slice of their lives to addiction, so they were quite keen to treat it as rather more educational than I wanted it to be. I remember them saying to me, ‘there should be more deaths’ and I was like, 'why, none of you died’ and they said, ‘so that people will learn from our mistakes.' I didn’t do it though because I wanted it to be authentic and I didn’t want to make things worse than they were because certainly at that time, there weren’t actually many deaths from heroin, it did happen from time to time, but the damage it did was of a different kind.

There is a bit in the book where Alan and Helen, who are dealers, die through an overdose. This does happen. For some reason, some much cleaner and stronger heroin comes on the market and people take their normal amount and they can overdose, because the quality of it is black market so it just goes up and down like a yoyo. I wanted to put them in to show what happens and how it does happen. In the original version, I had Gemma and Tar going in to get the gear and being frightened to take it in case it killed them, but the people I gave the book to said, “no, no, we were straight in there.” So I was able to change details like that [after showing it to them.]

I always felt it was so unfair that Gemma is ok in the end, and in real life she went back and did her A-levels – and eventually a PhD. Whereas Tar – the more likeable character in the beginning, who gets dragged in, to some extent, by Gemma – ends up a wreck. Did you feel that sense of injustice?
Tar was a mixture of characters: Gemma’s real life boyfriend – who sadly ended up dying on the streets – and my brother, who had a heroin problem, and died not from drugs, but from Hodgkin Disease, just as he was getting clean. Tar was a bit more of a concoction – a bit more fictive, and the real life Tar didn’t come from a violent background.

What’s with the dandelion theme?
When you pick something symbolic in that way, it takes on a life of its own. When I lived in Bristol, and it was a poor part of Bristol, every little scrap of waste ground at the right time of year was covered with dandelions and they’re great because they’re weeds so they grow anywhere but they’re actually very beautiful. So I felt it was appropriate for Tar to want to draw that – and that it had that strength as an image of something that grows out between the cracks of pavements and which everyone despises but is in fact very beautiful. And my girlfriend at the time did a drawing of a dandelion.

Is Lily based on a real character?
Lily was based on a real character. I didn’t know her so well, but she was very charismatic and very much at the centre of the group. She did do things extremely; she was extreme. I think she stayed on the game for a long time, but the last I heard she was getting better, and doing ok. Her story carried on being painful for a long time, but she got out of it in the end. And she did actually go to parties wearing that black string vest; the first time I met her she was wearing that black string vest. The scene at the party is based on my experience when I went round there and this girl emerged. She was so much herself. But it was a very fragile self.

How old were you when Junk was published?
About 42.

Then how did you write so well as a teenage girl, as Gemma?
If you’re a novelist you have to enter into the minds of your characters and I didn’t find it so difficult really. That passion for life and enthusiasm and wanting to have a good time and be outgoing isn’t confined just to teenage girls! Or else I just have a teenage girl lurking inside me…

I read you quit journalism to “be a writer” – isn’t journalism writing?
What I was doing was writing brief news stories and that wasn’t really writing, in my view. Fiction is different from journalism, which is more about real life. Back in the day, in journalism, they were always saying ‘find the story’, ‘find the story’, and ‘the story’ wasn’t actually necessarily what was really going on and I was quite disturbed by that at 18 and I thought, ‘actually you’re not digging around for the truth at all, you’re just looking for ways of presenting’. And of course, they were desperate that we didn’t offend our advertisers. I thought it was bollocks.

How did you fund your writing in the early days?
I was only 20, 21 or something and my dad, who was a teacher and an editor, was really proud of me for wanting to be a writer so he was very supportive…. So my parents looked after me for a bit while I wrote my first book. My mum was quite put out by it because of course all their mates were saying “he’s 21, he should be contributing” and I was just sitting at home writing at 2 o’clock in the morning. And my dad said “Melvin has got a job, he just hasn’t been paid yet.” Which was pretty cool really. And I don’t think he realised I wasn’t going to get paid for the next 15 years or something! [laughs]

I was a bus conductor for a while. And then a bricklayer, a very bad bricklayer. And I signed on a lot to be honest. People who have a full time job and manage to write novels, I don’t know how they do it, but I was lucky, you could just sign on and people would leave you to it back in the day. So I had my apprenticeship on the State. So thank you, State.

You’ve said you never did heroin but did “quite a bit of other stuff” – do you think the other stuff affected you?
I don’t know really, you can’t tell, can you? I remember someone saying to me not so long ago that they felt ‘strange’ quite often and I asked why and they said ‘well you can’t take all the drugs I took without coming out of it with some… thing, you know? Feeling strange… I don’t have any idea whether it’s true or not. I did get addicted to tobacco, I smoked, and that’s murder. And I’ve got quite an excitable nervous system so a lot of the time when I was smoking weed, it would make me feel quite anxious, and any of those excitable drugs like amphetamines tend to make me feel anxious, and maybe that had an effect on me, but who can tell? Of course there are people who have real mental health issues from drugs and it does do a lot of damage to some people, but I don’t think it’s given me any major psychological issues that have stopped me functioning.

Do you think people and the media are having honest conversations about drugs now?
The conversation has always been really hampered by criminalisation because what you should really have is a pamphlet about what’s safe and how to take it – that’s what would be right. A lot of the dangers are caused by the fact it’s all black market, so there’s no consistency. It should be regulated… There was that dreadful case about those 12-year-old girls who took MDMA. Ecstasy might be quite a safe drug if it was made properly.

The whole drugs policy is “just say no” and I think, well, what about the people who say yes? They’re the ones who actually need the information.

I can’t believe you’ve never been on Desert Island Discs
No, I never have. I did a local one in Leeds once...

Can you give me a few songs that you’d take so we can get the scoop?
Desert Islands Discs is such a bastard isn’t it because you have to decide whether to take what you’re listening to now, or something with a historical point. I’d take some Bach, I love Baroque music. I’d probably take the "Concerto for Two Violins". I might take some Philip Glass – "Akhnaten" – that’s my favourite modern opera. I would take some Captain Beefheart. I’d have some fun stuff as well, probably, some Electric Light Orchestra to cheer me up and to dance around to. Hang on, let me just have a quick look [leaves…] Oh no, it’s taking too long to load, you’ll have to stick with that.

What’s your new book about?
My editor at Andersen Press is very keen on witches and I thought ‘oh god, witches, everyone’s done witches’ but then I thought about it, and I like this idea of animism and shamanism, and this idea that there’s a spirit in everything. So I thought, supposing it were true and that as you grew up, you started seeing these things, started being connected with this hidden world that’s all around us, of spirits.

Do you believe in spirits?
No, personally I don’t.

I do.
Well, you’ll like my new book then.
Junk, the 20th anniversary edition, published by Andersen Press is available to buy here.
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