A Howling Cur Takes Over 'Mr Dog Bites'

The young adult novel, When Mr Dog Bites, is full of curse words and caused a stir when it was released in the U.K. NPR's Scott Simon talks to author Brian Conaghan.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dylan Mint is 16 and he wants to impress Michelle Malloy. Now he's funny, bright and loves wordplay, but while trying to ask her to a Halloween disco dance, Dylan breaks out with the profanity so coarse, it might shock a Royal Marine. It's Mr. Dog bursting through - a howling dog that overtakes Dylan Mint whenever he gets stressed. Dylan Mint has Tourette syndrome. He's a smooth talker in his own Cockney, Joycean, hip-hop style, and he's about to confront the challenge of his life.

"When Mr. Dog Bites" is a new novel for young adults, and there's a special edition for older adults too - both, by Brian Conaghan, a former schoolteacher in Ireland. Brian Conaghan joins us from the studios of RTE in Dublin. Thanks much for being with us.

BRIAN CONAGHAN: It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Contrary to what a lot of us think, Tourette's just doesn't make someone swear a lot, does it?

CONAGHAN: It doesn't, actually. I think between 10 and 15 percent of Tourette's sufferers have what we call coprolalia, which is the uncontrollable desire or urge to swear and use profanity. And that's what the main character in my book, Dylan Mint, has.

SIMON: What are some of the other things though that go into this package of Tourette's?

CONAGHAN: Well, I mean, it's a broad spectrum, but some of the more common things would be severe motor tics, hitting, slapping, punching, throat clearing, grunting, blinking, tapping your legs, banging your feet against the ground. There's a lot of physicalness about it.

SIMON: And may I ask how much of you is in Dylan Mint?

CONAGHAN: Well, I think a lot of writers are told to write what we know, and I'm no different. So I was diagnosed with mild Tourette's a few years ago, and my level of Tourette's is more physical than vocal. I don't suffer the coprolalia. I'm not in that 10 to 15 percent scale. I'm in the opposite end of the spectrum.

And I would tic and I would grunt and I would clear my throat. I would slap, hit myself, things like that, but just at times of great stress similar to Dylan. So I came to that book with a little bit of knowledge about Tourette's syndrome and the stresses and the frustrations that you have when you live with Tourette's syndrome.

SIMON: Help us appreciate that. What does Dylan have to do just to get through a day?

CONAGHAN: I think take himself out of stressful situations and concentration, relaxation. But as a teenager, you know that it's fraught with anxiety, with hormones, with stress, with constant mini battles that you face throughout the day - just your average typical high school kid. I suppose that he has to endure that teenage life coupled with trying to suppress all this other stuff that's going on in his life - namely the Tourette syndrome.

SIMON: I've read that you weren't diagnosed until you were 37.

CONAGHAN: Yeah.

SIMON: Do you wish you'd been diagnosed earlier, or did it spare you from growing up with a label?

CONAGHAN: It spared me from growing up with a label. And I don't wish I was diagnosed early because if I had, I would have probably defined myself by it, and others would have defined me by it. And I don't - to this day - I don't define myself by it. So I'm glad that I was diagnosed later in life. And at the time, you know, during my preteen years and my teen years, I didn't really know much about it. I didn't know what the term was, and I certainly didn't know the characteristics of it.

SIMON: I gather you concealed it from your wife?

CONAGHAN: I concealed it from everybody. You know, when I was diagnosed, I told my wife. But before that, when I was going through the processes of being diagnosed, which was a year and a half, I concealed it from my wife. But that was probably just until it was clarified. I mean, Tourette's is a pretty embarrassing syndrome to have at times. And I became pretty good at concealing it and concealing the tics - looking for little triggers, what I knew that I would start ticking and I would start hitting myself or blinking or jerking my head. I knew those signs so I could take myself away from certain situations. I knew how to do that.

SIMON: Yeah. Is there sometimes a Mr. Dog in you?

CONAGHAN: Absolutely, but, I mean, again, it's about knowing the triggers and knowing how to suppress it. You know, I was a school teacher for many years.

SIMON: Yeah.

CONAGHAN: So people would say that I would be an awful fidget. I would be moving constantly, continuously. And again, that was just - that was me suppressing it physically.

SIMON: I have to ask you about the profanity in the book.

CONAGHAN: Sure.

SIMON: Now I'll stipulate it's obviously necessary to tell Dylan Mint's story to use this profanity.

CONAGHAN: Yeah.

SIMON: But I wonder if it was necessary to make this a novel for young adults?

CONAGHAN: It was a decision that wasn't taken lightly on my part. And there's one thing I dislike is gratuitous swearing in books, but I was writing from the perspective of teenagers. I was writing about the town I grew up in. I was writing about a specific environment. And I know that environment, and I know that town and I know those teenagers very, very well. And having spent a large part of my working life working with and around teenagers, I think, in my reality, it would have been misrepresenting them if I didn't put me a truthfulness in their voice.

SIMON: You know, I'm struck by how much is piled on Dylan's thin shoulders and how goodhearted he is. What puts that in Dylan Mint?

CONAGHAN: He's got a very good mother. He's got very good friends - close friends. He feels secure within his friendships. And he feels secure to a certain degree within his family unit. And also, Dylan's an inquiring, interested young lad. I think compassion is a big thing for Dylan. He sees the wrongs in society. He can, perhaps at times, understand it fully and he can't vocalize that but he understands certainly the ills of society, and that builds his compassion.

SIMON: Brian Conaghan, his new book, "When Mr. Dog Bites" will be on shelves here in the United States next week. Mr. Conaghan, good to talk to you.

CONAGHAN: Scott, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

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