John Lucas: Getting gritty
Published on: 2 Awst 2012 Author: Iman Qureshi
John Lucas chats to Iman Qureshi about his debut novel Turf - a hard-hitting chronicle of East London's Blake Street Boyz.
Published on the first anniversary of the London riots, the novel takes Lucas' own experience of growing up in Hackney to tell the story of gang culture and the lives of many inner-city teens living in London today.
You grew up in Hackney. Where were you in the food chain of gangs?
I wasn't anywhere on the gang food chain. A lot of us used to pretend we were living this kind of edgy life, but it was never anything serious. I took a knife into school, but I doubt I would've even known what to do with it. The problem is at that age it can be hard to distinguish between what's pretending and what's real. It's like Milk wanting to go to prison. It's all a game to Milk, but at the same time it's a game he takes very seriously.
Muzza? Milk? Shads? Did you have a nickname?
Not anything flattering or polite. And not anything I'd like to share! Let's just say I'm very glad I'll never be a kid again.
Shads says, 'People like us ... we're born with handcuffs on.' How can we sympathise with Shads?
With someone like Shads it's difficult. He doesn't have many redeeming features and he actively tries hard not to have. When I was trying to nail Shads's character down I was influenced by stories in the press of young people committing such blatant, brazen crimes, it was like they were actively trying to get caught, trying to get locked up for as long as possible, just so they could throw their lives away. It was completely self-destructive.
How and to whom do you apportion the blame?
I think we get the blame the wrong way around. We live in such an interconnected world that labels such as good and bad and right and wrong are just too simplistic. There's a whole long chain of events that leads to kids thinking that being in a gang is a good life choice. And much of that chain has little to do with them - as Jay says, he's just playing the hand he's been dealt. It's easy to blame the kids directly involved and obviously you have to, to a degree, but the problem's never going to be solved if that's all you do.
What kind of research did you do for the book? Do you 'know people'?
I didn't do a great deal of specific research. I've read too many books where the storyline and characters feel unconvincing and the writer has tried to make up for it by going to town on very specific and clearly researched details. For me it was all about getting a feel for what I wanted to write. I spent a lot of time walking around Hackney soaking in the atmosphere, picking up scraps of conversation. I also took a lot from my own upbringing and from stories in the press. I tend to use real events as a springboard and then tweak them and play around with them to turn them into fiction.
You were stabbed recently. Why? What was it like, and what influence did it have on the book?
It was before I'd even thought about writing Turf. It was just some random nutcase sticking a knife in my back one night. It wasn't that bad; and there wasn't much I could do about it - which actually made it easier to deal with. It certainly made me feel I could write about stabbings with a degree of confidence.
Have you come across many other YA books that deal with similar content? It's quite gritty.
No, not really. When I wrote it I didn't think about the age group or the market it was going to be aimed at - I just followed my nose. I've found reading books that are too similar to what I'm trying to write tends to muddy my thinking, so I try to read things that are completely different. I was quite surprised when no one asked me to tone any of it down!
Turf is pretty male-centred - where do girls fit in to it all?
I think it's a pretty male-centred issue. Although, I would say the two strongest characters emotionally in the book are Hannah and Marsha - they're Jay's two brightest beacons of hope. It's just a shame they're reduced to talking sense from the side lines.
If you were Prime Minister, what would be your five-step plan to getting these gangs off the streets and into something a little more productive?
It's such a deep-rooted problem, but I'm an optimist. It's all got to start with education, but not just a dry bombardment of facts and figures; more the kind of education where people are made to feel an integral part of society. What I was trying to get at with Jay and his whole Milky Way thing, was that there was a time when he felt the equal of anyone - and we do when we're little. It's a level playing field. But as we get older, especially if you're at the poorer end of society, so many doors start to close. A lot of people don't understand the kind of drip-drip corrosive effect that has on your sense of worth and belonging.
Is there a place for reading and writing do you think? What advice do you as a writer have for teenage boys interested in writing?
Well, I didn't get interested in writing until my twenties. I don't think, when you're a teenager, it's a hugely appealing pastime. It can seem quite passive and boring. But what I would say is it's a very good way of untangling your thoughts and feelings - and these are probably at their most mixed-up in your teenage years. What is also really satisfying is taking your own experiences - good or bad - and doing something creative with them. I've tried all kinds of art forms, but for me writing is the most cathartic. Taking a bad life experience and using it to create a positive, creative piece of writing, which people respond well to, is a really beautiful thing.
Finally, what's your favourite chocolate bar, and how would you be judged for it?
I could never stick with one particular favourite - that's why Jay has such a hard time deciding. I remember when I was really little there was a chocolate bar called a Cobana (I think!). It was like a Bounty bar but with added pieces of cherry. If I'd rocked up to secondary school eating one of those I wouldn't have lasted five minutes. It's a shame - they were very tasty.
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