…and now for something completely different.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Keith Stuart, games editor for The Guardian, to discuss his recent book, ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’. It’s a tale based on an experience close to Keith’s heart; a father and his autistic son attempting to bond over playing Minecraft together. He had just finished a book signing at the Yorkshire Games Festival after which I was able to grab him for a chat:
The book is primarily set in Bristol, is this where you were originally from?
KS: I’ve lived all over the place. Originally from Milton Keynes, and then we moved to Manchester, just long enough for me to start supporting Manchester City during their grimmest period in their history. Then we moved to Hemel Hempstead before I went to Warwick University then to Bath where I started working for Edge magazine in 1995. And I have been in the South-West of England ever since.
My wife and I decided to buy a house in Bath but it was ridiculously expensive so we decided upon Bristol instead, in an area called Totterdown. Living there we did a lot of walking around the city and surrounding areas so it does come across in the book. Lots of areas of the city, and lots of the buildings as I am really into architecture. And because A Boy Made of Blocks is about Minecraft, which is about architecture, I wanted to mention all the buildings around Bristol.
As I was reading it, I was reminded of the book ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’. Have you read this? The similarities between the father and son and mother is very apparent as they are both estranged from each other.
KS: No I’ve not read that one. I don’t know how it came about actually. I knew I needed the father away in a different location and while my wife and I are still together, it was easy for me to imagine a situation where they wouldn’t be as its incredibly stressful having a child on the autism spectrum. It’s like constantly having a tornado in the house where everything gets sucked into the drama of their lives and it’s so demanding. And everything you do, every micro-management of their lives is so difficult. For me it makes perfect sense that a family would split apart under that pressure if they’re not strong in the first place.
Obviously the book is based on the relationship between you and your son but sometimes reading it, because of the trial separation between Alex and Jody at the beginning, it felt a bit invasive, knowing the source material. How did your wife react to that?
KS: Writing A Boy Made of Blocks didn’t feel invasive. My wife was reading the book all the way through, every chapter I wrote my wife read it and would comment ‘Well this bit’s right… This bit probably isn’t. This is a bit weird… This bit probably goes too far.’ But weirdly, she never said to me ‘Oh I’m really worried now because you’ve depicted this marriage falling apart.’ Because I think we’re super strong and we talk to each other all the time about Zach and the difficulties so I think she was confident that I wasn’t trying to tell her anything through this story. But yeah, it’s really important for me to say that this is a book that’s inspired by certain things that have happened to us but this is a completely different set of characters.
It’s not explicitly said throughout the book but reading it I felt that Alex maybe had depression. What do you think?
KS: I think so yeah. It’s difficult because I think Alex is suffering from grief, undealt with grief from what’s happened to him in the past. So whether that is classic medical depression or whether it’s something else, I don’t know. But yeah, I think so because he has all the traits you would associate with depression: Disassociated, he can’t cope with things, withdrawn, he feels isolated. So it’s safe to say that in this moment [the book] that he’s suffering from depression but a lot of that is the unresolved grief.
And that’s what really resonated with me, this character showing all the classic signs of depression but almost too afraid to get it diagnosed, or deal with the grief head-on, much like I was myself. But then he found gaming as an escape tool, and it really worked for him.
KS: That was really important yeah. And in some ways that’s symbolic of depression in that he is stuck in a box of sadness and half the battle is getting out of the box and realising there are bigger things out there and that’s what Minecraft does. It opens the door. And sometimes it has to be a big surprise or a completely different tangent.
Growing up as a teenager I suddenly discovered hip-hop and discovering this whole new method of communication and culture really helped me because I was really anxious at school, found it very difficult to get on with other boys or to be alone. But two things really helped me, video games and hip-hop and I got really immersed in that culture. And because it was way outside of my remit, it just allowed me to escape. And I think that’s what Minecraft does in this book, it’s just opening another door and allowing a whole new world in.
I really enjoyed it, and I don’t want this to come across the wrong way but, sometimes it felt a bit like there was a Hollywood shine to it. And it doesn’t sound like it would work in this type of book, but it just does somehow. Does that make sense?
KS: Yeah I completely understand and people have said the same. When John Harris at The Guardian reviewed it, amazing political journalist, because his own son is on the autism spectrum as well, he said ‘yeah sometimes it’s a bit schmaltzy.’ But there’s lots of reasons I did that. One was because this was the first novel I’ve ever wrote and I had no idea how to structure it, I don’t know how to structure long form narrative. So the thing I got my idea from was the classic Hollywood three act structure. That’s basically how I planned the book because I understand that structure and all those beats, and how Hollywood movies work. So I pretty much wrote my book in my head as a Hollywood movie, not because I expect it to be made that way but that is just the structure I understand. So, for me, it was natural to have those schmaltzy moments. It’s a book that deals with grief, anxiety and a family falling apart so I really wanted these pinpricks of bright light to balance the book out. Those moments are really important to me.
It was interesting reading it as well that, as a gamer, they have such negative press a lot of the time and this book is showing that the power of Minecraft can be a really good thing and the book puts games in a really good light. Something which you yourself elude to at the end of the book.
KS: Yeah, obviously in the book it’s Minecraft and that Minecraft is good but the message I wanted to get across is that all games, or most games, have something to offer. Violent games are often discredited or worried about in the press but to me, if you are over the age rating on the front then the experience that game gives you is valid and creative. Grand Theft Auto V is a great example, when you think about it, it’s an incredibly creative game outside of the narrative. You are free to explore this incredible world created by some of the greatest artists of our generation, and that’s no less valid than a great motion picture or TV series. So I really wanted to get that idea across about video games, as I call them a ‘permissive space’ in that you can do things in them you normally wouldn’t do in real life by exploring your emotions and feelings.
One of the things I love is playing games like Destiny or Overwatch with friends because they seem like silly, violent games but when you play with your friends it gives you a place where you can talk to people. I would talk to my friends in these games about what’s happening in my life, but I couldn’t just tell them by picking up the phone because I would find that really difficult and intrusive.
It’s almost like a forced conversation
KS: Exactly. Whereas if you are playing a video game, this ridiculous, heightened, beautiful constructed world of fun and action, it makes it much easier for me to say ‘Right this is great, I’ve got my loadout ready, now here is some shit that happened to me today.’ So yeah, really important.
Minecraft for me is an important game to talk about and I really love Indie games that explore anxiety and emotions but Grand Theft Auto, Destiny, FIFA, Call of Duty are just as emancipating and freeing for other people. For me it was important to say video games are not something parents should worry about and try to administer and manage. They are something that’s ok to spend time in because some of the greatest artists today are working in video games and you are experiencing these worlds that they have built for you.
We also spoke more in-depth about Keith’s career and the plot, specifically around two important moments but as the conversation changed into a very open discussion about gaming and mental health, it felt right to focus on that as this is the core theme in the book as well. My absolutely massive thanks to Keith Stuart for allowing me to quiz him on his book, and for being such a decent bloke, making the whole situation a lot less daunting than I had built it up to be in my head.
A Boy Made of Blocks is available now at all good books stores and good old Amazon. It’s an emotional rollercoaster but a thoroughly good read, and a definite stocking filler for anyone in your family who may be sceptical about video games.