The Youth Libraries Group are delighted to be included on Patrice Lawrence's blog tour for her latest incredibly young adult novel, Eight Pieces of Silva, we are delighted to have had the opportunity to interview Patrice about her new novel and about her life and writing.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your writing?
I was born in Brighton and spent the first half of my life in Sussex. I was always a big reader. My first home was in a private foster arrangement because my mother was single and unmarried with no family in England. She needed to finish her nursing training so she could work and find somewhere for us to live. My foster mum, Aunty Phyliss, signed me up for the library straight away and actively encouraged my reading, learning and writing.
My mother too is a massive reader and loved books - older classics such as The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, The Wind in the Willows – and would read books first so she could discuss them with me afterwards. (Sadly, I could never get on with the Walter Scotts.) My biological father lived in a basement flat crammed with books, everything from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Star Trek novelisations. He tried to direct my reading. I loved the Asimovs but nope to Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf remains unread on my bookshelf more than 30 years later.
I was surrounded by stories, but paradoxically, the more I read, the stronger the reinforcement of the belief that black people didn’t write books or belong between the pages. Even though I’d always enjoyed writing – poems, stories, even a 1980s reworking of The Wizard of Oz for a sixth form production – all my characters were white. It wasn’t until I saw the BBC adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Pig Heart Boy that it occurred to me that I could write about black British people. It was like I’d finally found my voice.
Many congratulations on the publication of Eight Pieces of Silva please could you introduce our readers to the book?
Thank you. Becks is sixteen and grew up with her mum. Her dad left when Becks was very young then ended up in prison. Becks’ mum has been with her new partner, Justin, fora while and they have recently married. Justin’s daughter, Silva, who is two years older than Becks, lives with them too. The two sisters have a good relationship, but at the start of the book, Silva has disappeared. Becks has to go into the forbidden territory of her sister’s bedroom to find clues to Silva’s secret life.
I wanted to write about a noisy, loving, working class multi-ethnic family. Becks has always been attracted to girls and didn’t come out because she was never in. She has a strong friendship group, a cool love interest and a cat called Azog the Defiler. I also wanted to explore how even in the most loving families, young people can be unhappy and no one notices.
I also wanted to explore the lasting impact of grief. My father died when I was in my 20s and I still have what I call bereavement blips – moments of unexpected grief. (There seriously is a disproportionate number of deceased parents in my books!) How does our grief, in whatever form it takes, impact on our other relationships?
As ever with you writing, the voice of your characters is incredibly strong. How do you set about creating such distinctive 'voices'?
I grew up in a household with a first generation Trinidadian and a first generation Italian! When I returned to live with my mother when I was four, I had a strong working class Brighton accent. When I moved to London, my daughter’s father – white, working class east-Londoner – sometimes used words and phrases I’d never heard in my life before, a melding of the communities and cultures that lived on the estates where he grew up. Different resonances, rhythms (and swear words) have always been part of my life.
I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time listening to young people talking to each other, often on London buses. I imagine the character telling me the story, thinking about their points of references and early years. If they used an analogy, what would they use for a comparison? (I do have to test some things out on my daughter.)
I’m also influenced by Jenny Downham (Before I Die, Unbecoming, Furious Thing). I joined the critique group where she has been a long-term member. She’s incredibly generous and supported me through the early drafts of Orangeboy. Her characters all have a very strong voice, so I thought that’s how it’s meant to be!
There's a clever balancing between the pace and progress of the mystery and some really thoughtful explorations around relationships - healthy and toxic - families, sexuality and race. Were there challenges in interweaving so many threads?
No, because for me, character comes first and then I follow. I knew Becks well from the beginning, inspired by a student who asked me if I intended to write a LGBT character. I also knew the situation. I’d read the true-life case book The Incurable Romanic by Frank Tallis and was interested in the ways that love can be destructive. I also wanted to write a proper mystery with clues.
It did take a while to get the balance right. I wanted Silva to have agency, even if it was directed in the wrong place. I wanted Logan to be manipulative, but not coercive. I didn’t want the story to be about Becks being a lesbian, but she also lives in a world where straightness is assumed and racism and homophobia can catalyse violence. She knows this and it would always be part of her internal world.
Most books are about ‘race’, but because whiteness is invisible, it goes unregistered. I imagine that if Anne of Green Gables was bi-racial, she would have had a very different experience! There are subtle differences when you are a person of colour and I like to include those so young people can see their own experiences reflected. I’m also interested in how others project a racial identity on you. My heritage is mixed African Caribbean and south Asian Caribbean. (My father’s surname was Singh and he was brought up by his Indian mother.) My Indian heritage goes unnoticed in the UK, but in Trinidad, people who are of mixed Indian and African descent have a separate ethnic classification. There is so much to explore about how others’ perception of our identity impact on our sense of belonging.
Each blog as part of your tour features a clue to tie with the book and its themes, how can readers get involved?
The clues are relatively mundane and inspired by my own memories – the green counters at Waitrose to drop down a chute and choose money for charity, my joy in red dresses, loving Black Panther, walking through the Middlesex water filter beds in Hackney Marshes to the football pitches… I would love readers to turn their own memories into clues too and write or draw their own pieces.
You won the the YA Book Prize and the Waterstones Children's Prize older category. How did it feel to win these with your debut novel and how important do you feel prizes are?
There were many things happening in my life at that time, so it’s hard to say. I was working full time as well as writing, so I was juggling that as well as being a parent and trying to write Indigo Donut. However, collecting the Waterstones Prize for Older Fiction with my daughter watching was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was also important to me as no other publisher wanted Orangeboy and it was a real testament to the belief and tenacity of my editor, Emma Roberts, who passionately believed that a book about a black young man from London would win prizes if it was published!
The combined prize money gave me a small financial cushion that enabled me to leave my previous job and focus on the job of children’s writer. The prizes also raised my profile with booksellers, publishers, literary festivals and librarians which meant new commissions, more school events and even arts reviewing on Radio 4!
I’m writing this on the day that the Waterstones 2020 winners have been announced. As well as Liz Ryder’s distinct and unique Bearmouth winning the Older Readers category, three black writers/illustrators – Sharna Jackson, Dapo Adeola and Nathan Bryon – have won the other two. Dapo and Nathan’s picture book Look Up! has won the overall prize. These books will now be so visible in shops and libraries – such a boost for black writers and independent publishers.
Alongside your young adult books, you've written middle grade titles like Granny Ting Ting and Toad Attack and have also written a Tudor Story about Eve Cartwright Diver's Daughter do you have a preferred form or age-range and are there other's you'd be keen to try?
I’m also writing a picture book for Nosy Crow inspired by the arrival of the Empire Windrush! I’ve never thought that I’m writing for different age groups as such, just books with different-aged characters. For me, I just love exploring many ways of telling stories.
What are you working on next?
A YA that encompasses roses, Queen, childhood friendship, a road trip and the vulnerability of young woman caught up in ‘county lines’ drug dealing.
And, also… But that would be telling!
Thank you to Patrice Lawrence for her time and insights through the interview. Thank you too to Hachette for the opportunity.