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Interview: Polly Courtney (Feral Youth)

1st July 2013

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Two years ago next month anger erupted into violence on the streets of London. The aftermath of the Riots spurred author Polly Courtney into asking what had happened to society that allowed such events to take place.

The result was Feral Youth, a succinct and troubling novel that has been compared to Trainspotting for its ‘life-affirming’ qualities.

Following a summer in the life of 15-year-old Peckham girl Alesha, Feral Youth tells the story of a group of teenagers who have fallen from public view, but are still often demonised by many quarters.

The National Student spoke to Polly about the novel, the Riots, and why politicians have failed to tackle the issues it raised head on.

I imagine it was quite difficult to get Alesha’s voice. How did you go about it?

I just went and spoke to as many people as I could. Like youth workers, and they put me on with young people and anyone who worked with young people. But it mainly was the actual young people directly, speaking to them and just hearing their thoughts and just getting used to the way they spoke was the primary thing.

Also I went into a couple of schools and in one of them I did a creative session and got them to write some things in a really frenetic way. And that was actually really amazing; they came up with some really great stuff. You know, kind of their everyday situations - like stop and search, and getting hassled by security guards.

Where was that?

It was a girls’ college in South London, Croydon. It was very local to where the book was set.

Obviously that process helped quite a lot. Did you still find it a challenge?

Weirdly it sort of started just flowing after a while. The first draft of the first few chapters was a bit rough around the edges, and I showed it to a few people who would know. And they pretty much said, you’ve not got it right, you know, you’re using a mix of slang and not slang.

I knew that if I hadn’t got, that if I couldn’t get it, then the whole thing wouldn’t seem authentic. But after a while it really felt as though I was slipping into Alesha’s feet and like she was in my head, and getting annoyed at things. And I was getting frustrated, so it flowed after a while.

Why did you feel like you wanted to tell this story particularly?

It was a mixture of reasons. In the aftermath of the riots I just felt that media and politicians had got it so wrong, in terms of what they were blaming the riots on. I felt angry. The more people just said “ah, it’s all because of bad parenting”, or whatever, the more I just thought “God!” There’s really more to it than that, and the more I looked into it the more complicated it got.

Also at the same time I started mentoring for a charity that helps support young vulnerable children in London called ‘Kids Company.’ I’d hate anyone to think that Alesha was my mentoring, but just the kind of stories that they gave us, and getting immersed in the world of some of the kids that are held by the charity, I just realised that there was so much overlap in those teens that meet the kind of frustrations that were coming out around the riots.

What does the charity do?

A lot of the kids are self referred and they’ve got like loads of serious (not some of them) problems. Like they’ve either been abused or just fallen through the system, dropped out of education... so before the stage of getting them right back on track and into jobs and things, it’s a bit of therapeutic support and a bit of guidance and being there for them. Because in a lot of cases they just haven’t had anyone, you know - adult or anyone really.

Do you think the book provides any kind of solution to questions about the riots?

I think that there are probably answers, but they’re complicated, so I think that’s why it probably doesn’t work for politicians to stand up and say one thing about the cause. But actually it does work in a fiction book because you can take time to explain those things - all the influences on a young person. It’s not just one; it’s not simple.

Do you think there’s a silence about talking about things like that?

Yeah there was definitely a bit of a silence. Talking to people was quite difficult generally, especially to begin with when if it was someone I didn’t know directly then they’d either not turn up... just getting hold of people was difficult. But then once I spoke to them, I knew there’d be a bit of suspicion. I didn’t have the background myself so they’d probably think, “what is this middle class woman doing delving into our business?”

It definitely took a while with in each case for them to actually open up if at all, but about the riots themselves, they were quite open about their frustrations. Quite a lot of them were explaining that, “my friend was involved” ... But no one I spoke to actually admitted to directly being involved. They all knew people that had.

People have called you, with regards to your books, a champion of the underdog. Would you say that’s an accurate way to describe your writing?

Champion kind of sounds as though I’ve succeeded at doing what I want to do. But definitely I do like to delve into worlds that people haven’t really thought about enough, and maybe try and change perceptions, especially when it’s a prejudice against someone who doesn’t have a voice. And this is a prime example of it, because you know, young people generally but particularly this group of young people don’t get a chance to speak out for themselves.

One critic compared the book to Trainspotting and called it “life- affirming.” That’s pretty high praise. How do you feel about that?

I was actually quite surprised ‘oh wow!’ I wasn’t expecting that, I really wasn’t. I’d love it to have massive reach like Trainspotting has because I do think the issue affects so many people.

Alesha and her peers - would they be whom you’d want your book to be aimed at?

I think there are two sort of targets, both very different ones. One is the kind of mainstream book reading public who read all sorts of books, and I’m hoping they’ll be interested in this and it’ll be something a bit different from what they’re used to reading.

But then secondary, I really hope young people. We’re hoping like in the next year or two we’ll get a movie out of it as well, but in the mean time there are definitely young people who read. They might  not pick up a kind of heavy book, but might get into this more.

Feral Youth is out now and can purchased on Amazon. Read our review here

Visit the Kids Company website here:

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