My partner knows a coroner. I never saw that coming. (Notes from a debut YA author.)

Yah!  I have a two-book deal with Hodder!  I have signed on the dotted line for my first young adult novel as well as another stand alone one to follow.   I am actually being paid money for this.  Yay, again!  Last Man Standing, will be published in March 2016, Indigo Donut, (title may change…) in March 2017. This is good news.

Actually, it’s amazingly excellent news.  Such good news that it  made our local paper, as well as The Voice newspaper, the website of a prolific local blogger and our local freebie. I was even interviewed on Colourful Radio, sitting in the corner of a north London park, on a bench between the goats and the deer, on my way to work.

And I have wanted to be a writer since.  Just since.

So, how did this deal come about?  I researched the young adult market – that is, loitered with intent in Charing Cross Road Foyles and scanned my daughter’s shelves.  She’s into manga.  Not helpful.  I also started planning a crime novel set in 1940s Port of Pain, a society still facing up to the impact of the second world war, colonial rule and a programme of de-slumming and emigration.  If you’ve seen Errol John’s play ‘Moon On A Rainbow Shawl’, you know what I mean.  A setting ripe for drama and random poisoning.

I took my collection of ideas to an Arvon crime-writing course, tutored by Dreda Say Mitchell and Frances Fyfield.  About halfway through the week, we were given an exercise to help us hide information – a sentence that had to be embedded within a paragraph or so.  The rest of the group had to guess the sentence.  I was presented with ‘He woke up dreaming of yellow’.  So – what was on my mind?

The obvious.  Mustard.

A few weeks earlier, my daughter and I had used the day of a teachers’ strike to check out Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.  Everything was so pricey that after a couple of rides – her, not me, I’m a coward – we only had money left for one hot dog to share. So – what if?  What if two young people are at a fairground? It’s their first date and the boy is a bit uncertain.  He hates mustard but he’s going to eat that hot dog the girl’s just bought him because it’s a sign.  She’s claiming him.  The date’s going well and then what’s the very worst thing that can happen?  After I wrote that, I just carried on writing.

There was no plan.  Characters emerged from a murky subconscious and vicarious wish fulfillment.  The mother I’d like to be, the 15-year-old I wish I’d been, the big brother I wanted, were all there on the page.  And what was at the core?  The press release mentions gangs, drugs and guns, but that wasn’t what really interested me.  I wanted my protagonist, Marlon, to be a lovely young man, a bit quiet, a bit geeky and with an enduring love for vinyl records.  I was fascinated by what would tip a boy like that over.  Why would Marlon Sunday, who can name every Earth, Wind and Fire album in order, risk destroying his family and his future?

First draft done, after a thorough critique from my writing group, priceless mentoring and the complete removal of a subplot, I was getting there. The book had always been like a jigsaw, but now I had the right number of pieces.  I had to keep trying until the picture looked right.

Caroline Sheldon, my agent, sent it to a number of publishers. My first meeting with Hodder was in an office with a wonderful view and premium biscuits.  I fell in love and eventually it was requited.

So what have I learnt from this so far?

1. My partner knows a coroner.  I honestly never saw that coming.

2. Local newspapers really like good news. So –

3. It’s good to have a couple of decent hi res pics to send off.  My hair is its own lifeform.  In the photos you will see it trying to escape.

4. I somehow have to balance shameless and modest self-publicity.  Haven’t quite worked out that one yet.  However, promotion is vital.

5. The joy of getting to the 300th edit.  There will be more polishing, but I feel that we’re nearly there.  (Aren’t we?  Say ‘yes’!)

6. How pleased and encouraging my friends are!

7. I have a full time job, a teenage daughter, a needy cat and a heavy clad allotment.  I should learn to multitask.

I’ll (try and) keep you posted about book cover selection, promotion and all those new experiences as as we edge towards publication. Px

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

Don Warrington is definitely doing justice to Sam Selvon’s book!  Sir Galahad, Tante and the journalist, Brixton…  Yes, it was a struggle for families coming from the Caribbean, but this book is very funny and Don Warrington’s accents and voices brings out the humour.

And with a spot of Lord Kitch bookending it too.  Great!

Hackney hood rat tells it like it is – but do I want to hear? Book review.

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I thought I’d struck gold with Robyn Travis’s ‘Prisoner to the Streets’, and in some ways, I had.  I’ve been researching for a late draft of the young adult novel I’m finishing and I wanted to get in to the mind of the protagonist.  My book is set in Hackney – I’ve lived there since 1997 and know the terrain well.  As I was doing the slightly lazy Amazon search thing, I found this book, an ‘ex-bad bwoy’ memoir set in these very streets.  Thanks, Amazon algorithms.  Just what I needed.

The author, Robyn Travis, promises ‘NO FRONTING. Just honesty’.  And to some extent, this is true.  Travis doesn’t try and make himself look good in this.

‘Prisoner’ starts with a chase – Travis and his mate, Darker, pursued through the streets by ‘Boi-dem’, the police.  Both boys are carrying guns.  He wonders how he gets himself into this – again.  We then head back to his early childhood on the borders of Hackney and Tottenham.  These time seem relatively happy in spite of extreme poverty, his father disappearing and apparently faking his own death and harassment from racists.  His mother toughens him and his older brother up by insisting they fight with anyone that wrongs them and ‘she would ‘dish out’ beatings like it was slavery times’.  Along with shoes and a belt called ‘johnny’, a curtain wire with a hook and eye was also a handy weapon of chastisement.  As Travis says, ‘Mum didn’t ramp when it comes to licks’.

Throughout the book, Travis talks about ‘the switch’, the blind anger that surrounds his violence, but rather frustrating for me, this feels like the only insight he has into his behaviour.  He and his brother are both eventually permanently excluded from school; his brother becomes a ‘dream chaser’ – a drug dealer – while Travis refuses that route.  At various times he tries different manual jobs to earn money, but always with the fierce allegiance to his friends.  He carries a knife and is stabbed and hospitalised.  He starts carrying a gun.  His mum is evicted and the vulnerable fifteen-year-old is rehoused in adult homeless hostels amongst drug addicts and those with serious mental health difficulties.  He sleeps with a gun under his pillow and people he knows are killed.  His mother marries a crack smoker.  His beloved grandmother dies from a heart attack shortly after Travis is involved in a knife fight by her house…

Yes.  It is a difficult read. Much of the tale supports the findings of some of the more sensitive and thoughtful gang journalists and commentators – these are not the organised gangs beloved of the sensational press.  These are loose and constantly changing allegiances of young men whose lives are shaped by ‘beefs’, ‘ride or die’, revenge and reputation.  Surprisingly quickly, life becomes cheap.

One touch I enjoyed was the occasional voices from other people.   Travis’s mother has a section, likewise a couple of primary school teachers.  The most emotional contribution is from the mother of a young man that Travis stabs.

I wanted more of this.  I am pretty liberal, but I spent so much time yelling at this book ‘ Take responsibility!’  (Best not do that in a crowded bus.)  ‘How can you complain that the police harass you when you behave that way?’  ‘Do you know what it’s like sitting in a bus with your young child, adrenalin revving because you think something’s going to kick off with the boys who’ve just got on?’  ‘Do you know how many London mothers are terrified that their sons are getting drawn into that crap or they’re going to get shot?’   There are no descriptions of the times he spent in a police cell.  What was the first time like – was a line crossed?  Or much acknowledgement of the people who tried to intervene – the school coach, the solicitor and maybe others who would have been constantly let down.

And what about other people trying to live their lives without all that random violence and aggression going on?  The people in Holly Street and London Fields, terrified of getting caught in the crossfire.  Last year, I was walking through London Fields early on a winter’s evening.  The woman walking in front of me stopped dead so quickly I almost slapped in to her back.  A group of young black guys on bikes were riding towards her.  They rode straight past – but just the possibility of them being local gang boys made her freeze solid.  In 2007, Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba was stabbed to death outside his home in Holly Street after asking ‘gang’ members to quieten down.  Is that what it’s all about?

Travis is a father, son, brother, neighbour.  He has turned his life round and is trying to stop others following path.  But after reading 254 pages, I still didn’t understand Travis’s choices, or why it was so easy to go back to your room, change into your tracksuit, pick up your weapon and get ready to kill a man.

Prisoner to the Streets is published by The X Press http://www.prisonerofthestreets.com

One’s for posing, two’s for the parents…

Come on!  You have to do it, don’t you…

The publisher usually sends five free copies.  I kept one, sent one to my Aunty in Trinidad and gave one to my husband’s parents, my parents and my best friend’s mum. Which leaves… Damn!  Where’s that gone, then?  I’ve always wondered what other writers do with their freebies.

 

One's for posing, two's for the parents...

Should Jamie Oliver read Alice Walker?

Should Jamie Oliver read Alice Walker?

Jamie Oliver’s dyslexia is not a secret, but his recent comment about not reading books all the way through gained much comment.  My beloved Flavourwire compiled this list.  I was seriously underwhelmed.  I love Toni Morrison, but you need to be the right type of person in the right frame of mind to make it through ‘Beloved’.  It’s heavy.

My new book – Wild Papa Woods

I’m a proud mother.  Okay, the book doesn’t play Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’ on the ukulele or Cat Stevens on the acoustic.

But it’s mine. all mine.wild papa woods

Two tales – one based on an old Trinidad folk tale of Papa Bois, the guardian of the woods.  The other story is inspired by a couple of trips to Lamu, the island off the coast of Kenya, populated by people, donkeys and cats.   (The last time we were there, we were on a dhow sailing out into the lagoon at sunset.  Some cliches are worth it.)

Twelve-year old twins Liani (never without her camera) and Cyril (”outside world – noooo!”) face down hunters, sniff out crapaux and set Spiderface on the path to a long and happy life.

Enough said.