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Philip Gross (1952-) Biography - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

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(Philip John Gross)

Personal

Born 1952, in Delabole, Cornwall, England; Ethnicity: "White/British/Estonian." Education: University of Sussex, B.A. (with honors), 1973; Polytechnic of North London, diploma in librarianship, 1977.

Career

Collier Macmillan Ltd., London, England, editorial assistant, 1973–76; Croydon Public Libraries, Croydon, England, librarian, 1976–84; freelance writer and tutor of creative writing, 1984–; Bath Spa University College, lecturer in creative studies, 1991–2004; Glamorgan University, Glammorgan, Wales, professor of creative writing, 2004–.

Honors Awards

Eric Gregory Award, Society of Authors, 1981; National Poetry Competition first prize, 1982, for "The Ice Factory"; West of England Playwriting Competition joint first prize, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1986, for radio play Internal Affairs; Poetry Book Society choice, 1988, for The Air Mines of Mistila; Arts Council grant, 1989, for work for young people; Signal Poetry Award, 1994, for The All-Nite Café; Peterloo Open Poetry Competition first prize, 1998; Whitbread Prize shortlist, 1998, for The Wasting Game; D.Litt from University of Glamorgan, 2005.

Writings

POEMS

Familiars, Harry Chambers (Liskeard, England), 1983.

The Ice Factory, Faber (Boston, MA), 1984.

Cat's Whisker, Faber (Boston, MA), 1987.

(With Sylvia Kantaris) The Air Mines of Mistila (verse fable), Dufour Editions (Chester Springs, PA), 1988.

The Son of the Duke of Nowhere (poems), Faber (Boston, MA), 1991.

I.D. (poems), Faber (Boston, MA), 1994.

Coniunctio: A Spell, illustrated by Vance Gerry, Prospero Poets, 1995.

Nature Studies, illustrated by Ros Cuthbert, Yellow Fox Press 1995.

A Cast of Stones, illustrated by John Eaves and F. J. Kennedy, Digging Deeper Press (Avebury, England), 1996.

The Wasting Game, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1998.

Changes of Address: Poems, 1980–1998, Bloodaxe Books (Tarset, Northumberland, England), 2001.

Mappa Mundi, Dufour Editions (Chester Springs, PA), 2003.

The Egg of Zero, Bloodaxe Books (Tarset, Northumberland, England), 2006.

FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

Manifold Manor (poems), illustrated by Chris Riddell, Faber (London, England), 1989.

The Song of Gail and Fludd (novel), Faber (Boston, MA), 1991.

The All-Nite Café (poems), Faber (London, England), 1993.

Plex (novel), Scholastic (London, England), 1994.

The Wind Gate (novel), Scholastic (London, England), 1995.

Scratch City (poems), Faber (London, England), 1995.

Transformer (novel), Scholastic (London, England), 1996.

Psylicon Beach (science-fiction novel), Scholastic (London, England), 1998.

Facetaker, Scholastic (London, England), 1999.

Going for Stone (novel), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2002, published as Turn to Stone, Dial (New York, NY), 2005.

The Lastling, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2003.

Marginaliens (middle-grade novel), illustrated by Stephen Hanson, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2003.

The Storm Garden (novel), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2006.

Contributor of short fiction to anthologies, including 13 Murder Mysteries, Scholastic (London, England), 1996; and Thirteen Again, Scholastic, 1995.

OTHER

Also author of radio plays, including Internal Affairs, 1986; Enough Said, 1993, In Deep, 2002; Touching Estonia, 2002; and Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards, 2005. Author of stage play Rising Star, produced in Bristol, England, 1996; opera Snail Dreaming, music by Glyn Evans, produced in Cambridge, England, 1997; and (with Medea Mahdavi) dance drama Dancing the Knife, produced in Bristol, England, 2002.

Sidelights

Philip Gross had already established himself as a poet of note by the time he penned his first children's book, the 1989 poetry collection Manifold Manor. Like his works for adults, Manifold Manor and the more recent poetry collections The All-Nite Café and Scratch City feature a strong narrative line, clever word play, and an eye for detail. Most importantly, many critics have noted, Gross does not write down to younger readers, but instead creates collections that can be shared by readers of all ages. In addition to verse, Gross has gained a following among teens for novels such as The Wind Gate, Going for Stone, and The Lastling, which combine mystery and coming-of-age angst with a sense of looming dread that some critics have described as unsettling. Gross's poetry for adults also draws on the ups and downs of adolescence: His The Wasting Game, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Whitbread Prize for poetry, explores an internal menace, anorexia, as it shows the damage this disorder can cause to one teen's family.

Gross once described himself as "an east-west hybrid." "My father is a refugee from Estonia, and my mother was born and bred in Cornwall," he explained. "Origins and a sense of where home is matter to me, but seem complicated and not to be taken for granted." In one of his volumes of poetry for adults, The Son of the Duke of Nowhere, Gross examines this hybrid nature and looks back to his youth in Cornwall, where one of his great escapes was listening to the short-wave radio. Gross went on to attend the University of Sussex and graduated with honors in 1973, then took a job as an editorial assistant in London. In 1976, he was married and also changed his profession to librarian. All the while he was writing poetry, and his work was finally recognized in 1981 with a prestigious Gregory Award from the British Society of Authors. His 1982 poem "The Ice Factory," earned first prize in the National Poetry Competition of that year and was later collected in his second book of poetry.

Gross, well known in his native Great Britain as a poet, expresses a father's reaction to a daughter's battle with anorexia nervosa in this sensitive 1998 poetry collection. (Cover photograph by Ruth Netherwood.)

After Gross began raising a family of his own, he started to think back upon his youth in Cornwall. He had a "mixed feeling" about these recollections from his youth, "a mix of strangeness and affection. Responsibility for the everyday care of a small son and daughter brought back a great deal that I'd half forgotten." In addition to prompting him to reflect on his own childhood, fatherhood inspired Gross to focus his own writing toward a younger audience. "Having the care of two small 'soft targets' also makes me very aware of threats to our lives, both individual and collective, and challenges me to try to think and write about them with as much clarity and craft as possible," the author once explained.

The poems collected in Manifold Manor range from the mysterious to the humorous as they unfold the episodic story of the various legends and inhabitants of Manifold Manor. "The sign says PRIVATE / Tall scrolled-iron gates / are rusted shut / Nobody comes here, but …," the first lines of the book proclaim, setting a mysterious tone. Full of wordplay and subterfuge, Manifold Manor was described by Dennis Hamley in School Librarian as "a truly Gothic journey through a deserted house with a Dantesque jackdaw as guide." Hamley further commented that the book, with its author's afterword—or "Tailpiece," as Gross terms it—incorporates intriguing word games as well as a wealth of resources for budding writers. In a Times Educational Supplement review, John Mole called the book "crafty and mysterious", and commended Gross for not talking down to younger readers, while a Junior Bookshelf declared Manifold Manor to be "one of the most unusual and technically accomplished collections … to have appeared for some time."

Containing both rhyming couplets and free verse, the award-winning collection The All-Nite Café presents themes which range from fear and anxiety to humor and wit, and here Gross employs ghosts, dreams, and twilight as subject matter. The poet explores inner landscapes within many of the poems included, but also confronts controversial social issues, as in the poem "History Lesson," which reads: "… they want to scratch. You are the itch. / A thousand years stand by, hissing Witch! / Nigger! Yid! / With surrounding on-lookers 'learning not to see'."

Several reviewers commented on Gross's rhythmic use of language in The All-Nite Café, some citing the book for echoing the strong, relentless rhythm of rap music, while others praised the immediacy of his imagery. Andy Sawyer, writing in School Librarian, called the collection "haunting," and concluded that the work would appeal to "older children in search of something creepy but not horrific." Nicholas Bielby, writing in the Times Educational Supplement, noted that by honestly exploring his own childhood with its remembered disquiets, the author is able to "genuinely speak" to his teen readership. In addition to more serious issues, Gross's verses also feature a lighter side, displaying Recalling the medieval world, where unexplained phenomena inspired colorful legends and a belief in the supernatural, Gross's 2003 poetry collection casts the modern world in that same fantastical light. (Cover photograph by Sally Mundy.)"the sort of off-beat vision of the world and quirky humor which children find so appealing," as Cathryn Crowe commented in Magpies. The poet weaves a similarly off-kilter spell in Scratch City, which draws on the less-romantic aspects of city life—such as trash, abandoned cars, and street people—to mirror adolescent angst.

Gross's first prose work for young readers, The Song of Gail and Fludd, follows a pampered girl named Abigail, who finds herself alone in a land wracked by civil war. Meeting up with a boy named Frankie Fludd, she searches for a place where she can live in peace. The names of the two protagonists provide the first clue that the book concerns something elemental and forceful: Gail—short for Abigail—is an unhappy girl who, prior to the war, was raised by an overprotective but emotionally distant mother, spending much of her time in the isolation of a large old house. Fludd is a strange boy who says little, and the picaresque adventures the pair encounter while on their quest through out the countryside in search of serenity and understanding bring them into contact with a host of unusual characters, including a pair of somewhat sinister clowns named Dumbgast and Flabberfound. The epic journey serves as a collective metaphor for the pains of growing up, "a brilliantly inventive variation on the Rites of Passage novel," according to Mole in a Times Educational Supplement review. A Junior Bookshelf reviewer dubbed the novel "most remarkable," and Mole praised Gross as "a skilled artificer."

Gross's more recent young-adult novels, such as Plex, The Wind Gate, Going for Stone, and The Lastling, have taken an increasingly dark view of civilized society, as their teen characters are confronted by a menacing power. The Wind Gate, in which a teen is drawn out onto desolate Dartmoor and into his own haunted nightmares, is a novel that Times Educational Supplement contributor Tom Deveson advised should "be read at a gulp for its excitement and then again slowly to savour its thoughtfulness." Legends come to life in The Lastling, as Paris joins her uncle Franklin on a trip to the Himalayas, where Franklin becomes irrationally drawn into the search for a mythical creature that may bode harm.

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In Going for Stone—published in the United States as Turn to Stone—runaway teen Nick falls meets a girl named Swan who is learning to be a human statue: a performance artist who maintains such stillness that he or she can be mistaken for a statue or mannequin. Nick attempts the challenge, and soon he and Swan are spotted by master mime Antonin and brought into a select group of teens under the tutelage of wealthy art dealer Domenic. Slowly recognizing that all is not right with his new benefactors, Nick rethinks his choice of career when a fellow performer winds up dead and Antonin's violent past is revealed. Reviewing the novel in Kliatt, Michele Winship noted that Gross's story sustains "an eerie and Gothic-inspired atmosphere, perfectly suited to his unique subject," while a Kirkus reviewer dubbed Turn to Stone "good bedside reading." In a review for the London Guardian, Adèle Geras praised Gross's plot for its multilayered themes and elements imbued with "considerable metaphorical weigh," adding that Going for Stone is "a wonderfully scary and unusual novel."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Gross, Philip, Manifold Manor, Faber (Boston, MA), 1989.

Gross, Philip, The All-Nite Café, Faber (Boston, MA), 1993.

PERIODICALS

Books & Bookmen, August, 1984, Derek Stanford, review of The Ice Factory.

British Book News, November, 1983, pp. 705-706; July, 1987, p. 446.

Guardian (London, England), December 14, 2002, Adèle Geras, review of Going for Stone.

Junior Bookshelf, October, 1989, review of Manifold Manor, p. 238; June, 1991, review of The Song of Gail and Fludd, pp. 125-126.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2005, review of Turned to Stone, p. 417.

Kliatt, May, 2005, Michele Winship, review of Turned to Stone, p. 12.

London Review of Books, October 13, 1988, pp. 15-17; January 9, 1992, pp. 22-23.

Magpies, July, 1994, Cathryn Crowe, review of The All-Nite Café, p. 39.

New Statesman, November 6, 1987, p. 31.

Observer (London, England), October 23, 1988, p. 42.

School Librarian, November, 1989, Dennis Hamley, review of Manifold Manor, p. 157; May, 1993, Andy Sawyer, review of The All-Nite Café, p. 70; February, 1995, p. 31; May, 1996, review of Scratch City, p. 70; February, 1997, review of Transformer, p. 49; spring, 1999, review of Psylicon Beach, p. 44; summer, 1999, review of The Wasting Game, p. 108; winter, 1999, review of Facetaker, p. 209; spring, 2003, review of Going for Stone, p. 44; winter, 2003, review of The Lastling, p. 210.

Times Educational Supplement, July 28, 1989, John Mole, review of Manifold Manor, p. 21; July 19, 1991, John Mole, review of The Song of Gail and Fludd, p. 23; March 26, 1993, Nicholas Bielby, review of The All-Nite Café, section 2, p. 12; March 10, 1995, review of Plex, p. R3; July 7, 1995, Tom Deveson, review of The Wind Gate, p. 8; December 15, 1995, review of Scratch City, p. 35.

Times Literary Supplement, January 8-14, 1988, Mark Ford, "Careful Incisions," p. 39; December 16-22, 1988; August 30, 1991, Mark Wormald, review of The Son of the Duke of Nowhere, p. 22; December 18, 1998, Michael O'Neill, review of The Wasting Game, p. 24; March 15, 2002, John Greening, review of Changes of Address, p. 27.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 2005, Rebecca Hogue Wojahn, review of Turned to Stone, p. 39.

ONLINE

Philip Gross Web site, http://www.philipgross.co.uk (September 17, 2005).

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