'I want to write books that have hope in them': Patrice Lawrence on tackling heavy themes with light

Published on: 15 April 2019 Author: Olivia Danso

Author Patrice Lawrence has definitely got range. Her brilliant books for teens have touched on racism and crime; more recently, she's written about flying toads for younger children. She tells us what motivates and inspires her.  

Toad Attack is your first book published for a much younger audience. How did the writing process compare to writing YA? Where did the idea for flying toads come from?

I think with writing for younger children, I had to think about the books that I would have liked to have read to my daughter when she was younger. Actually, Toad Attack! was inspired by a Simpsons episode where Springfield was taken over by lizards. I just imagined what would happen if you walked out of your house and a toad landed on your head? And created the story from there.

It’s also from Barrington Stoke, which are a dyslexia-friendly publisher. I thought a lot about the language that I used but I also knew that it was going to be edited by editors who are going to look for words that will make children with dyslexia stumble. I knew it was going to be much more of a collaborative process than it would normally be when writing for an older age group. It’s good fun. The toad is called Twerky and I just wondered how many teachers are going to be a bit taken aback by that fact, and the town is called Dab so suddenly all these children are going to be dabbing, and I just hope that there’s not going to be any class twerking!

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The opening chapter of Orangeboy is shell-shocking and really sets a grim scene for what’s to come – was that always the way you wanted to open the book?

The book was an accident; I didn’t actually set out to write the book. I’d tried writing for children, and I’d had an agent, and I’d tried writing books for middle grade. I tried about four different books; four lots of 75,000 words. And all of them just weren’t good enough to be published. I just thought 'I can’t do this.'

So, my plan was to write adult crime and I had a whole series of books set out, set in 1940s Trinidad with a protagonist who happened to be a woman in her 40s. I’d done so much research on this and I went to a week-long crime writing course. As part of the course, they gave everybody a prompt, an individual prompt. They said that when you write crime you have to hide clues, so you hide this prompt as a clue. My prompt was 'He woke up dreaming of yellow'. So, you think, apocalypse in The Simpsons? No idea. And then I just remembered there being a teacher strike two weeks before, and being a really good responsible parent, I’d taken my then Year 7 daughter to Hyde Park Winter Wonderland and we’d spent the whole day walking around complaining about how expensive everything was. It was great; really good mother-daughter bonding, complaining about everything being expensive. We managed to get enough money together for a hot dog and suddenly I thought of this 16-year-old boy with a girl who is way above his league, buying him a hot dog and putting mustard on it. He hates mustard, but he likes that girl more, so he would eat that hot dog.

Marlon [from Orangeboy] came to me then and I wrote that scene. And because it’s a crime book, they said a crime has got to happen. I think "OK, girl dies at the end", and I never thought I would write that book but when I wrote that chapter, I really wanted to know why. I really wanted to know about Marlon, why was he with her, why did she die, who was she. I free-wote the next chapter, so suddenly there was an older brother who had been a bad boy but was in supported housing. I had no idea why and so it literally just came out of this one exercise, this book that I never knew I had in me and ended up writing.

Marlon Sunday is an out-of-place teenager, seemingly out of step with most of his peers, not unlike Bailey in Indigo Donut. What attracts you to writing characters, specifically teenage boys in this way – ones that are always observing but are never quite inside the bubble?

I think I just wanted to write lovely young men; I wanted to write lovely young men of colour. With Orangeboy, I wanted to explore what makes lovely people do not very nice things. I think the heart of that initially was thinking about growing up in Sussex in the 70s/ 80s and being one of the few young people of colour in my school, in the street and in the town.

It was a time when people were very explicit in racism: would shout things at you out of cars, but if someone said something to me, it wasn’t such an issue because I had a sense of my own identity. But as soon as someone said something to my younger brothers, I twisted arms, I shouted.

I remember once, when my youngest brother was about 7, some of his friends bringing him back to our house crying because a neighbour, a grown man had called him a name. My mum, so much a Trinidadian lady, had wafted out of the house in her kaftan, smelling of Chanel No.5, and knocked on the door to say: 'Did you call my son a whatever?' The grown man said yeah. And there was blood. 

There’s that’s sense of when people you care for are under attack and need protecting, it changes you into a different person, so I was interested in exploring that with Marlon but also that sense of how young men who pick up knives are dehumanised in a way, they become a statistic or a promising footballer or a promising rapper. If nothing else, [I was] really interested in that dynamic.

With Bailey in Indigo Donut, I really wanted to write a middle class, mixed race family, right-on Guardian reading, campaigning against Apartheid (which is how his parents met but not in the book). I was really interested in writing that kind of dynamic, about the young men that I know who are caring, sensitive, self-aware and I wanted to put them in both books.

What inspired you to write Snap for World Book Day in particular?

There are two characters in Indigo Donut: Soraya, whose dad is really strict; Mischa, like me, she’s an older sister; and Austin, who is Nigerian Muslim because there are obviously not enough Nigerian Muslims in YA these days and he’s got a bit of a mouth on him, as an East London guy. In Indigo Donut, they’re already a couple. I’m quite interested to know why Soraya got together with Austin, but also what goes on locally. There’s quite a big church near to where I live and quite often there are funerals there for young people who have died of knife crime or violence. It’s predominantly black, working class people going to a funeral there. I wanted to explore that dynamic. What’s it like being at the other end of that crime.

The other thing is that I have a slight obsession with scaffolding and I think it’s because in Hackney, wherever you go, there is so much development everywhere: what’s it like if you climb that scaffolding and sit there looking at the rest of the world? So I think all my books are a weird conglomeration of different ideas that eventually gel into some kind of narrative.

Win signed copies of Snap, Indigo Donut and Orangeboy

Most of your stories are set in London and there’s lots of reference to what it’s like to travel in the city – why did you choose London as your setting for your books?

I think it’s because I’m not from London but I’ve been here now half my life so you’re both a resident and a tourist still, and I just think part of it is a vexation that in a lot of the exports around London (for instance, Richard Curtis films), there’s nobody like me and it’s just strolling randomly past a stall in Notting Hill market; so I wanted to put back the fantastic variety of young people that for instance my daughter might have round. The young people I see in schools every day, the young people who are never exported in the films and TV series about England overseas. Also, London appeals to a really nerdy side of me around the whole psycho-geography of it, the layers of history that you see every day, the different stories everywhere and there’s so much to discover. Also, the locations, museums, rooms full of stuffed animals, Covent Garden at night… London is such an amazing place to set stories.

Tell us about your new book Diver’s Daughter?

OK, Diver’s Daughter, it’s quite interesting. I was approached by Tony Bradman who had seen the UK Black History series by David Olusoga. He felt there was so much in our curriculum and that one of the ways of raising the profile of UK Black and Asian history was by getting it into fiction. He said to me, do I want to write Romans or do I want to write Tudors? Three weeks before I’d brought a copy of Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors, £17.99 hardback: sorted. 'Yeah, I’m doing Tudors.' It had a story of Jack Francis who had come as a African diver who had been assembled with a team by Venetian merchants to help raise the Mary Rose and other war ships in the mid-16th century in Southampton.

I was probably in my thirties before I really knew that there had been black people in the UK before the 1940s or 1930s, and I’m thinking 16th century. I grew up around Sussex, so I remember when the Mary Rose was raised in the 80s. I wish I’d had that connection, knew the involvement in that part of history in time and known that was a story that had to be told. Also, Jack Francis was the first recorded man of African descent to give evidence in an English law court. So that is all expunged from history in a sense, but the problem is if you’re writing for children, I didn’t want to write the biography of a man, I wanted to write something from a child’s point of view. So, I fictionalised a young woman of mixed heritage: her mum had been taken by the Portuguese from the isle of Mozambique, come from enslavement and ended up in Southwark. She can dive as well, because she grew up on an island where she learnt to dive. She hears that there is treasure that might be in the ships, and she’s had to find Jack Francis to find out where it is… It’s a fictionalised story but bringing in real history.

You explore quite heavy themes in your work; grief, drug use, adultery, being orphaned, abuse, bullying, criminal activity, etc. Why do you feel it’s important for young people to read about these topics?

I think I write about them because some things have impacted on my life: I’ve never lived with my biological father though I certainly knew him, but he died when he was younger than I am now. He was a man who did a degree in philosophy, he was a big reader, he was a musician, but he had a breakdown in his 40s, spent a month in prison for forging a cheque. That meant he couldn’t work. He became homeless and an alcoholic and died in a fire. It took me quite a long time to process, and I suppose I still am; the grief of it but also his experience.

But also I know that if I talk in a hall of young people, there are going to be lots of young people hiding a bit of themselves away because I suppose there are some things like grief and loss that are very hard to talk about to other people, because you’re dealing with other people’s reactions so you just don’t talk about it. In a sense, when you write about these things, you want to know that people have got your back. If you can’t talk to people, you find your friends in books.

I want to write books that have got hope in them and what’s been really interesting was with Indigo Donut, I did a school event at Hay Festival last year and an organisation from Wales brought some care experience young people. At the end of the signing, we talked about the sense of how you rebuild the relationship with your family, about trying to find out who you are, so they invited me to come and speak at their big "be proud of who you are" day this year.

So for me, those stories resonate and I think also just wider, in terms of being a young person and a teenager, you’re still trying to work out who you are; there are so many people trying to shape you, whether it’s school or news or social media – there are wider things that young people take from it as well.

What effect does it have on children in general to have an author come into their school, and particularly for a child of colour to meet an author or illustrator of colour? 

I’ve just come back from doing some school visits in Hong Kong and actually, what was really interesting was that young people in Hong Kong are just the same as young people in London, really. What’s really interesting is about certain global influences. A picture I put up was a picture from a Korean drama which my daughter got me into, so actually, for me, I always say to young people that you can tell your story, you can write, that if you’re a writer it doesn’t matter about your spelling, that’s what spell check is there for. 

When we talk or when we write, we don’t write in sentences, we don’t care about the grammatical makeup and what they mean and what the different parts are. I talk about how my daughter got me into Korean dramas – very, very reluctantly. It’s sponsored so they have to write really good characterisation, really good arcs within each episode and overarching arcs across the series. No matter how preposterous the concept is, they’ve got to have characters that you engage with and really are rooting for. I want to write like Korean drama, getting at that popular culture. I always write young people of mixed heritage in my books because virtually everyone – my brother’s dad’s Italian, daughter’s dad’s white, my dad was Indian heritage, my mum African... I’ve never lived in a family where we’re all the same colour; I’ve never lived in a family with my mum and my dad. In my books I write a lot of different family structures and a lot of young people engage with that.

Those little details of seeing yourself reflected, where you think the author so gets it, is so important for young people, they see themselves and think, "Yeah". I didn’t write a person of colour into my stories until I was 32. I’ve been writing since I was little, sending off poems and short stories. I once sent a short story to True Romances and it got published! Had a mixed-race protagonist, a boy, only because I’d read a short in a magazine before which had a boy who was mixed race, I thought nobody does that ever.

Did you ever see anyone like you in a book or authoring a book when you were growing up? And what was the first book you read that made you think, “I could do that, I could be an author”?

I’d just had my daughter and I was sitting there in December in Hackney, with wind and drizzle hitting the window thinking, “What do I do with this thing?” And I turned on the telly and it was the BBC adaptation of Pig Heart Boy. I turned on this programme and it was a black family, a UK black family, recognised as actors. It was about ethics, it was about family, friendship, loyalty. It was utterly amazing for me to see and then I read that it was from a book by Malorie Blackman. It was like a door was open, a blink of light and you walking through thinking, "Now I’ve found my voice, I can write about people I know…" Something about a UK black family going about their usual business, I’d never seen it.

For me to be able to go into schools and say to all those young people from all different backgrounds that their voice matters, they can tell their stories, there’ll be fantastic stories... Just don’t wait until you’re 32.

Are there any books out right now by authors of colour that you’re excited about?

I’m really quite excited about the performance poet Dean Atta; he’s got a book coming out called Black Flamingo, which is about sexuality, race and drag. It’s a verse story and I’ve been lucky enough to read an early draft of that. It’s also set in Brighton and London, my favourite places. It’s an English take on something that we rarely ever get. How many books come over with a US, African American perspective, but we get so few UK books about it? I think about all of the young people that book will resonate with and I think it’s so exciting.

I think Alexandra Sheppard’s book Oh My Gods, a book about the gods set in Holloway, is great because all these classic myths have been so white. You can look at them, but you know you can’t be part of them, so to actually put ourselves in those stories is really exciting. 

Another one is the Mallory Towers collection. For me to put a black young woman into Mallory Towers and to bring the stories to make them relevant for a whole new audience, I think is actually a fantastic thing as well. 

I liked Muhammad Khan’s new book Kick the Moon about what if you’re a little Muslim boy and you can’t be superman because you’re brown, so you will write your own comic books. It deals with some quite tough subjects as well. 

I think there’s some really interesting anthologies. Stripes did A Change is Gonna Come and how the new writers who were commissioned like Yasmin Rahman whose book is going to come out. I’ve got a copy of Not About the Burkha, edited by Miriam Khan, and waiting to delve into as I think Miriam is fantastic. And Safe, an anthology about young black British men and the space they occupy. Even though they’re not young adult books, I think teenagers can read those books and resonate because they’ll be reflecting personal experiences. 

I’m really proud to be part of this booklet, Breaking New Ground, with 104 writers and illustrators of colour based in the UK. It’s great that we get the US writers but actually there’s no excuse not to promote, not to explore, to look at the wealth of UK based writers and illustrators. It’s part of a collaboration between Speaking Volumes and BookTrust, it’s free, so go on the website and have a look at it

What advice do you have for writers and illustrators who want to be published but don’t know where to start?

Well, firstly... It’s just, write. You don’t have to write every day; you don’t have to write whole pieces; just get your words down there.

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Once you start to feel good about your writing, there are several different routes you can take. You can look up in your particular area the Writing Development Organisation. In London, it’s Spread the Word, in the south it’s New Writing South, then it’s Writing West Midlands and so on. Look on their websites for critique, for classes, courses and free stuff. Another suggestion which has really helped me is joining a critique group. I would not have gotten published without them because certainly, in Orangeboy, there was a terrible sub-plot about a dodgy internet guy. My writing group was saying get rid of the dodgy internet guy; 'No, no, he’s part of the plot.' Luckily, before I gave it to my agent, I got rid of dodgy internet guy.

Look at competitions as well; and there’s so many of them now so if you’re younger. There’s the 500-words one in BBC, there’s the Next Step Up for 13- to 18-year-olds, there’s a short story competition with the BBC, the Young Muslim Writers Award, which covers lots of different genres. Write whatever: write fan fiction; write spoken word poetry and perform it on video.

There are so many different platforms that you can write for; try lots of different things so you can find your thing but just try them. Also, just read, read and read: it doesn’t matter if it’s manga, graphic novels, fan fiction, poetry... Just read so you can really understand how far words can take you.

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