‘For me it’s a rollercoaster of emotions that I’m trying to manipulate the reader into’ - Alex Wheatle on fictional world building, creating new language and seeing yourself in a book
Published on: 15 April 2019 Author: Emily Drabble
Alex Wheatle tells Emily Drabble how he built a new fictional world and language to create his multi-award winning Crongton series.
Tell us about the world of Crongton, the setting for all of your children's books Liccle Bit, Crongton Knights, Straight Outta Crongton, Kerb-Stain Boys and now your latest book Home Girl?
Well here's a confession, the actual name Crongton came from Croydon and Brixton, two areas of London I know very well. But I wanted to make it fictional because at one point in my career I wrote a book called The Dirty South. I was promoting that in a south London school, in Brixton where the book was set. And I thought that I had the language and so on on point but not so. It didn't impress this very intelligent girl in the front row. She said: "Alex, we don't chat like that any more". So when I sat down to write the Crongton series I thought, you know what, it might be better if I try to make the place fictional so I can get away with my language and so on. I don't have to keep up with current trends, I can invent stuff when I need to.
So that was my first thought, to create a fictional place that's kind of deprived. And then I wanted to populate it with everybody, so it's not just black people living there, it's not just working class English people living there, it's a mixture of everyone,so I've got a nice canvas to work on and I can really build a narrative on any perspective that I wish to, which is great! It's fictional so I can do that.
Can you explain how you created the Crongton dialect?
I do take some inspiration from my youth club days, from when I used to work in a youth club in Streatham. The language bouncing around the place was so exciting. So I do dip into that now and again. But I also dip into dance hall and reggae culture. I dip into hip hop. I dip into film noir, I love the language of film noir especially Humphrey Bogart films, Cary Grant films. And all those crime dramas going on from the late 40s, early 50s which I take inspiration from as well.
I travel quite widely as an author and I'm privileged to go to places as far flung as Inverness down to Lands End. And so on my school visits I always have my ear tuned into the banter. Especially school dining area. And sometimes I pick up some marvellous phrases, and think ah! Yes! I'm going to steal that and put that in. Children can really be inventive in their language and dialogue with each other, the way they interplay and discourse. I really enjoy it, it's really entertaining and so I just wanted to bring that energy to the Crongton series.
Is the language and world still evolving in the Crongton series?
Yes. It's evolving all the time. If you notice from Liccle Bit to Home Girl, you can see the marked changes. And it's just me playing with words and new phrases and whatever I can get away with, that I can imagine these kids to be speaking. That way I can make sure the books can be really fresh. I always want the reader to pick up my books, read a couple of phrases and think: ah! I've never come across this kind of language before. And that's what I want, I want that originality and creativity to always be present.
I guess that most young people that I know don't want to read a narrative that's full of 'BBC News reading' language if you like. You'd probably have to be almost perfect to do that, to make the reader go along with you to the end of the story. So to keep them excited, to keep them flicking over the page, I think you have to be playful with language, or at least try and portray how young people might speak today. And honestly that's very much different to 'BBC News reading' English, because they are creative, they do want to be cool and express themselves in their own way, so I try to capture that.
So do you always carry a little notepad to write down that you hear?
Yes I do, I keep it in here (points to bag) I'm not going to show you but I have a little pencil and notepad in there just in case. When I'm walking from Clapham Junction to BookTrust offices, who knows what phrase or cool saying I'll come across. I bank that or I write it down in my little notepad!
How important is humour in your novels?
Very important because I don't believe you can carry someone along with you on a narrative if you just keep hitting them with bricks and bleakness. Sometimes you've got to liven it up and sometimes in these desperate situations that I describe, you need a break! Just like in any good film. You can't just be gritty all the time, you need a break. Whhen I'm watching a gritty narrative or film you want a break. You want to go, oh yeah, that was funny. And I believe readers are like that also.
I think it's a reflection on me as I like to laugh and be humorous, for me my books are an entertainment package. I want to entertain whoever picks up my book, I'm going to take you into low places, I'm going to take you to high places, I'm going to try and make you cry, I'm going to try and make you think, I'm going to try and make you smile, I'm going to try and make you laugh out loud and then I might bring you down again. For me it's a rollercoaster of emotions that I'm trying to manipulate the reader into and I think if you do that you can take them along with you right to the end.
How much of yourself do you bring into these characters, is there any of your characters you are particularly like or is particularly like you?
I think all of them. There's part of me in Lemar (from Liccle Bit), in McKay (from Crongton Knights), I guess what maybe binds them all together is that sense of helplessness at some stages of the story. Lemar has that, McKay has that. He's alone in his flat as his brother and dad are working at night. That was me basically as a kid I felt alone and isolated, I felt helplessness. Just like most of my leading characters to, so I think that ties them all in.
So yes, there are definitely elements of my character bursting out of my fictional characters. I think as a writer you can't help but do that. The subconscious takes over, and fills your characters with your personality that you're sometimes even unaware of. Naomi (from Home Girl) and her anger and her rage being in the care system. She has some of that from me. And the fact that she thinks she's grown up, because she's 14, because she looks after her alcoholic dad. And when I was 14 and 15 I felt that I was grown up, I could take on responsibility. But in other ways, just like Naomi, I was a child. I didn't know about the outside world. I didn't know what barriers there were to contend with. I wasn't emotionally mature just like Naomi. Maybe like Mo as well (from Straight Outta Crongton). These themes tie all my characters in. You cannot help give away something of yourself in your characters. I guess my childhood is in my mind and the way I cope with it because my childhood was very traumatic.
I grew up in a brutal children's home village so those memories never go away. For me my coping mechanism at first was to write song lyrics and poetry, becoming a DJ in my youth in Brixton. But now I can cope with it by creating these characters where I can vent the emotions that I felt back then. We have to remember that as a teenager (and this is where I think my books might be very helpful) you find it hard to express your emotions. You might be in a peer group that might frown on that or might think you're not cool to express those kind of vulnerabilities but in books and poetry and written word, I can do that. Even as a grown man, I'm in my 50s now, it's still helpful for anybody to express themselves emotionally in any kind of art form. And that's what I do, so from the age of 5, 6, 7 I still remember those feelings vividly in my head.
Sometimes it keeps me awake at night, and that's okay because sometimes being British we have to maintain the stiff upper lip, but it's okay to feel that at times because you're getting in touch with your younger self and you're processing the pain of your younger years. When I hear people say you must not dwell on that I think that's wrong. Sometimes we have to look at those instances of our younger life, process the pain and hurt in a healthy way. So I'm always doing that with my books and my characters. It's a long journey, I'm able to talk about it freely today because I've done that work and that processing in my poetry and so forth, when I was a teenager and up to the present day when I'm writing characters such as Mo and Naomi, because part of me is in them.
What would it have been like for you to have books like the Crongton series when you were a child?
I think I could have processed my pain maybe quicker. I really do. I was quite an avid reader, especially when I was 7,8, 9 and then cricket took over and football took over as well. I didn't come back to reading fiction until my late teens. But I definitely think if I'd found narratives that I could relate to in that vulnerable age of 8 to 15, maybe I might have found writing a lot earlier, or I might have gone on a different path, who knows. Because I definitely needed to process my emotions at that point.
But I really don't think institutions like where I was, or the schools that I attended were fully equipped to deal with children like myself who had these great emotional needs and pain and so on. I don't think they had any idea. Maybe today they do. I really think, and this is why I'm a champion of children's books and YA books, I really think it could be a way where damaged children who have issues can deal with what has gone on in their lives.
Today we have a variety of narratives and different perspectives. It's very diverse now. We've been talking about diversity for a number of years but I think we're getting there now. So really if we see a troubled young person in a school now, a very good librarian can say: try reading this. This might help you get over whichever issue you're contending with and I think that's a great place to be right now. I think YA and children's books are on the march on this, I think they're in front of adult literature which can sway away from these issues. In fact now I've been immersed in children's writing and young adult narratives I find it very difficult to get into adult literature. For me, it's too slow, the plot doesn't get going, and I can find it very hard to engage with what the author's trying to do or say. Again I think that evade and avoid the issues of today, issues that children have to go through.
Sometimes I think the term YA or children is tricky. If Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist today, would you categorise it YA? I wouldn't. I think that would be for everybody. So that's my belief. I really think the narratives written today by so many good writers, Patrick Ness, Sarah Crossan, Patrice Lawrence, I think to call them YA does their work a bit of a disservice because I think these stories are for everybody. Adults, I say to them, weren't you 13 once, weren't you 14 once? Don't you remember the emotions, the agonies of being a teenager. We were all there once upon a time, so why can't adults read about that?
Like Naomi Brisset in Home Girl, you were brought up in the care system, how important is it for looked after children to have access to books, and their own books (and by extension their own dreams for their own future)?
For me it's crucial for young people to have their own books, something they can treasure, read. I really believe that reading leads to empathy and understanding of other. Other than your own particularly social circle if you like. If we can add to that understanding, we're serving society by doing this. So especially young vulnerable people who might not necessarily have a bookshelf in their home. So I think BookTrust is offering a crucial service. I'll see this on camera. It should get government backing and all kinds of backing for a service like that because it will only improve society. It's crucial.
Do you think there are enough books depicting working class life eg with council estate settings?
There could be more books that depict deprived living, or young people living on the margins, council estates and their struggles. There could be more. I like what Kit de Waal's doing with her anthology of working class short stories and essays. Hopefully in children's fiction and YA that will grow too and I feel encouraged by what I'm seeing in the last two or three years. It can only get better!
How important do you think it is for children to see someone at least bit like them or coming from a bit like the same background as them in a book?
This is very important if you're sitting in a school trying to encourage reading, especially reluctant readers and so I think the way to get them engaged in reading is to offer them a book and say try this. And if they can read about characters that they recognise, they're familiar with, that they can engage with, that might describe their social world, that's crucial to get them in the habit of reading. And if not then they're going to feel like an outsider.Certainly I felt like an outsider at points in my life when I was young, 7, 8, 9 and I was looking for books that represented me but they weren't really there, maybe that's why the cricket and football took over.
It's crucial in the development of any young person in the educational system, at least at some point to come across a narrative where at least at some point they say oh right, I know this world, I know these characters and I can engage, I can go with this story right to the end. Because this is me this is someone I know. This is a great benefit. They might not be aware of it, but once they're engaged in a narrative they are actually increasing their vocabulary skills, their empathy, their English grammar. It's got so many benefits. I had to make do with comics. One of my favourite comic was Billy's Boots that used to be in Shoot magazine, I'm going back to the early 70s here. I would close my eyes thinking I was drawn on that comic strip. I would close my eyes just imagining that I was playing football with Billy. So that's what I had to do to imagine myself being included in the narrative. But now, there are so many narratives out there which is very healthy.
How important is it to have windows into different worlds?
It's crucial. We see how the world is today, with lots of hate going on, lots of misunderstanding, lots of people with opposing views screaming and shouting at each other and not giving eachother time to understand each other's point of view. But books help... it's not the final solution, it's not that if you give someone a book, they'll totally understand each other's point of view but at least it will help other people sympathise or empathise with someone who's not from your world, or your social world. The more children read of other, the more empathy and understanding they'll have of other.
What effect does it have on children to have an author come into their school - and particularly for a child of colour to meet an author or illustrator of colour?
I can only speak for myself, when I enter a school it might be more BAME populated than white working class or whatever, the children look at me with open eyes. You're a writer, you write those books? I say: yeah. So for me the very presence in the school opens up, not necessarily a writing career but for a child to believe in themselves. So Alex Wheatle came to my school and he's a writer. Maybe I could be that sculptor, that scientist, that whatever. I really think it broadens their horizons when they see people of colour coming in being successful in a particular field. For me it really helps when young people, especially working class children are exposed to all kinds of careers and they can see themselves in that career in terms of whoever is coming into the school reflecting themselves. It's a great thing for them to see and be exposed to.
What advice do you have for writers and illustrators who want to be published but don't know where to start?
If they've got something they've written to make sure they work hard on those first chapters, there's a book called The Writer and Illustrators' handbook, that's always a good book. There's a list of every publisher, every literary agent so that's a good source to start with, so you can be advised where to send your work. But also I'd advise to try to get people to read your work who are not going to be your mum or dad who'll think it fantastic! Try to get some good critique. Try to join a writer's group , you can go onto the BookTrust Represents website that has loads of information about groups and so forth you can research, look on and investigate. It's essential that you get that feedback. That's what really helped my evolution; feedback from particularly people who did the same thing I did!
The Crongton series, Liccle Bit, Crongton Knights, Straight Outta Crongton, Kerb-Stain Boys, and Home Girl is published by Atom Books.