Thursday, 17 October 2013

Polly Courtney, author of Feral Youth, in conversation with Catriona Troth

This month’s guest on BookClub is Polly Courtney, author of the remarkable novel, Feral Youth, written in response to the riots that broke out across Britain's cities in the summer of 2011.  

Feral Youth is the story of Alesha – a fifteen year old from Peckham in South London, living under the radar, dodging social services, gang violence and her alcoholic mother. It's the story of why so many young British kids took the streets, of why they were so angry.

Here she talks to Catriona Troth about the origins of the book, the young people who helped to inspire her, and how the book has been received.

Polly, where were you when the riots broke out in August 2011?  Did you have direct experience of them or like most of us, were you watching them unfold on your television screens?
I was at home in west London, glued to my Twitter feed, smelling the burning police cars in Ealing. I wanted to head into town and see it first-hand but things seemed to be moving quite quickly and I knew I’d be too late to catch the action, so I headed into town the next day. It was devastating; charity shops and family stores had been reduced to burnt-out shells.

When did you first start to think, there is a side to this story that no one is thinking about?
I watched and read the news, avidly, in the days and weeks that followed the riots. Everyone was talking about harsh punishments and blame, with many people focusing on the story of Mark Duggan, whose death at the hands of the police had initiated the protest that sparked the riots… but it felt as though nobody was asking why. WHY did so many young people take to the streets across the country? I don’t mean the looters, who inevitably took advantage of the mayhem in order to get their hands on free stuff; I mean the people who stood in the street, brazenly facing a line of police, chucking things, burning things, yelling obscenities. Why were they so angry? And even if many of them were just after a new pair of trainers, why were they willing to break the law and go to such lengths to get it? It felt as though there was something deeply wrong with society and nobody was talking about the real problems.

Tell us about the research you did before you began writing the novel.  Did you already have any contact with groups like Kids’ Company, or was this an entirely new world for you?
When the riots broke out, I was already looking into becoming a mentor for a young person at Kids Company. I had heard a lot about the support they give vulnerable children and I’d read Camila Batmanghelidjh’s heart-breaking book, Shattered Lives (recommended reading for anyone working with or bringing up children), but the training and matching process takes time, so it was only later when I actually started mentoring. One of the key pieces of research I undertook was going into schools and youth groups and small charities, talking and workshopping with young people about the way they lived their lives, their frustrations and their attitudes. I learned so much more than I’d bargained for – not just about the kids but about myself too. I was horrified to realise that I’d gone in with some preconceptions of my own, presumably borne out of media stereotypes and spin. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to the teenagers who helped me to shape Alesha’s view of the world.

What you found about the lives of these young people is profoundly shocking. To me, Alesha seemed closer to some of Dickens’ characters (like Tom the crossing sweeper in Bleak House) than anything I would expect to encounter in 21st Century London.  But this is all grounded in reality, isn’t it? What was your reaction to what you discovered?
I was horrified at what I discovered. Politicians talk as though we are ‘one big community’, an empowered nation with a highly functioning society, but we’re not. There are people who fall through the gaps and some of them have no safety net – or if they do, they often don’t know where to find it. Homelessness is a massive problem, but not in the way most people think. It’s not all about ex-military servicemen on the streets around Waterloo (although that is a huge problem too); it’s about kids who sofa-surf, existing below the radar, living one day to the next with nothing more than the £2 in their pocket and nobody looking out for them. Some sleep on night buses to keep warm. I couldn’t believe the problem was so profound and so widespread.

You originally came into writing from the world of investment banking – which is about as far from the Alesha’s world as you can get.  What do you think now of a city that can spawn two such very different modes of existence? And what do you think we need to do to change things for Alesha?
I lived a grotesquely lavish life in the City. I got cabs everywhere, I ate expensive meals and I enjoyed all sorts of ‘perks’ from my employer. We lived in a ‘bubble’; the square mile was insulated from the rest of the world by money and we really didn’t have a clue how ordinary people lived – let alone those living in poverty. I’ve only realised the extent of the problem at the other end of the wealth spectrum in the last few years, so I can’t tell whether the wealth divide has widened, but it certainly feels as though most policies being put through by the coalition favour the already-wealthy and make life very hard for those at the bottom. I don’t think it’s a party-political issue, either. It’s just that the wealthy can speak up for themselves and therefore tend to control the agenda. The poor and vulnerable typically don’t have a voice in the mainstream media or society, so they are natural victims. Something I wanted to do with Feral Youth was to give the Aleshas of the world a voice.

I believe your agent didn’t take very kindly to your idea for a new novel.  Can you tell us about how [he/she] reacted when you first suggested it?
I believe my agent’s words were: “I don’t think it’s got commercial potential. I wouldn’t be able to sell it [to a publisher]. But I have a feeling you’re going to write it anyway.”
She was right; I wrote it regardless. I’m so pleased I did.

Were you still with Harper Collins at this stage, or had you already left your publisher?
I’d walked out a few months before, but I was already a long way into planning the novel that would become Feral Youth. The riots happened around the time I left HarperCollins, so I guess you could say I was feeling reckless… or maybe I was just desperate to do things on my own terms
Alesha’s voice in Feral Youth is incredibly strong, and it feels utterly authentic.  But it’s quite unlike yours and quite unlike the voice in any of your previous novels.  How did you achieve that and how difficult was it to sustain?
For real, blud! Yes, it took a while to get into Alesha’s head and learn her voice and I couldn’t have done it without a bunch of south London teenagers, who had a good laugh at my expense. It wasn’t just her language I wanted to get right though; it was her attitude and all the little things: where she hung out, what she thought of politicians, teachers, social workers… what made her smile, occasionally.

How big a risk do you think it was to take on a character so far from your own experience? And what would you say now to a novelist contemplating taking a similar leap?
They say you should ‘write what you know’. Well, I guess I broke that rule, but as soon as I knew there were real-life Aleshas out there, I was desperate to share her story with the world. I wanted people to care. I’m not sure I’m qualified to advise other writers, but I would say that the most important thing you can do is to write what you care about, even if it requires some research to get it right. Authenticity is critical.

How has Feral Youth been received so far?  Are you pleased with how things have gone?
I’ve been humbled. I was truly expecting a backlash, or rather, multiple backlashes: people telling me I had no right to write Alesha’s story, people saying I’d got it wrong, people disagreeing with the political implications. In fact, I’ve seen very little of that. The most emotional I’ve felt in a long time was a week ago, when I received a message (via a charity) from a 15-year-old girl from a not dissimilar situation from Alesha, telling me that the book had left her in tears and that it was the first book she’d read cover-to-cover.

And no regrets at your decision to go indie?
Not one. I’m back in control and it has never felt better. The audiobook has just come out and my next little project is Feral Youth the movie…

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