Inside the Brain of... Awarding winning author Alex Wheatle

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by Helen Dugdale

Jan 2017

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Inside the brain of…is where we catch up with a creative-head doing great things to inspire the next generation. This month, Kelly Beckett did an exclusive interview with Alex Wheatle, MBE, author of the Crongton Trilogy including Liccle BitCrongton Knights and the forthcoming Straight Outta Crongton set for release in April 2017. Winner of the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2016.

It was soooo good, we've had to split in two-parts. Alex gives us the low down on his writing, where he gets his inspiration and what he hopes to achieve.

Why is Young Adult Fiction such an exciting genre?

I feel so much more influential writing for young adults than I did writing adult fiction. That’s not to put it any lower but I just felt that when your mind’s forming, when they’re forming their moral boundaries, rights and wrongs and their moral compass, we as writers produce a lot of that form-making in our stories. I might describe something hellish or something insufferable but I still try to have a moral compass, especially with the main protagonist. There are children who feel it difficult to approach a teacher, a guardian or even parents, to talk about what they’re going through, what they’re suffering, what they’re experiencing, so fiction can be that bridge. I’m encouraged by the likes of Juno Dawson, Sarah Crossan and writers like that because nothing seems to be off limits. You can write about anybody and you find your readership, which is, I think, showing the way to all the genres out there, whether it’s crime or adult literature. Young Adult fiction is showing how to be more diverse. 

Alex Wheatle

Tell us about the Crongton Trilogy.

The idea of Crongton was always in my mind as a trilogy. The next edition is called ‘Straight Outta Crongton’ and it’s going to be published in the beginning of April, I believe. Hopefully I can come up with more Crongton Tales and build a whole world there - I want to stay in Crongton for as long as I can, for as long as readers are receiving the books really well. I think there are so many possibilities so I’m sure I can go many ways, with different narratives and different characters like Terry Pratchett did with his world. I want to try and match Tolkein, Why not! Just in terms of the collative world. He created Middle Earth, and in a strange way, I’ve created Crongton – it’s a different genre but I think it’s the same creative process. We had to invent words authentic to the worlds we created. It’s what any author is striving for.

What else influences your writing?

Most of my influences, especially when I was a teenager, came from the reggae scene and the Sound System scene. It was full of these incredible, talented DJs who could really write well and could write something completely new every night. I used to go to the dances and expect great things from them because they were so lyrical. Sometimes they would come up with words that you’d never heard before. What I’ve done in Crongton is more linked to that world than anything else. I tried to be a budding MC-DJ back when I was a teenager, I wasn’t a very good one but I just loved the world; creating lyrics, creating phrases. In the first case, I had so much angst in me, so much anger and bitterness about my childhood and it had to come out some way. Lucky for me, I could create with words and so it came out in lyrics and short stories and then finally a novel. We need more working class narratives, I think that’s what’s missing today in children’s fiction but it’s getting better. It’s a lot better than it was.

Crongton Knights

Crongton Knights

How will you use your title of Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize Winner as a platform for expressing your views and beliefs – how will you use your influence?

Already I’ve lent my name to trying to save Sutton Coldfield libraries and I’m expecting to do much more of that and much more speaking out about it. It’s ridiculous. Living in London, where my own council, in my formative years, Lambeth Council, are proposing to shut down five libraries out of the ten libraries they have which is scandalous. Especially when you can go into the City of London and you see tall buildings going up almost every day of the week. These corporate, global companies spending millions upon millions of pounds and euros and you can’t even save a library. To me there’s extreme imbalance here. For me they are places of learning. There’s still so many families who don’t have the money to spend on books, things that people might view as luxuries. Several governments have said they have to count how many people use libraries – but you could go in there to read a newspaper or use it as a meeting hub.

How can reading change or save lives?

I try to use my own personal story about how books have helped me out. How reading opened a world for me. Reading books makes you learn empathy. I think that’s so important, especially as children are growing up. Sometimes they live in households where there is no empathy but they can access that through books and that’s a great thing. You hear about these terrible knife crimes and so on in the city, and not just in the city but elsewhere, and I’m convinced that if these young people who are committing these crimes, actually read a great deal I think it would be less likely that they would take up a knife and take someone else’s life. Through reading and learning empathy, you learn the value of life.

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The importance of reading for pleasure

That is so important. There’s one of two schools that I have visited and the teachers actually have story time and the end of the day they read for half an hour, even to 13, 14, 15 year olds. Its human nature, kids enjoy being told stories. The school is in Dulwich, one of the Harris Academies, and they read for half an hour and the kids just really enjoy it. Kids are kids, they all need that closeness, they still need time, they still need to interact. I think the education system in this country is missing a trick here. They want students to be involved, they want students to learn empathy, they want students to read and write well - well one of the best ways is by reading to them and making them read for pleasure. If you’ve got a very good English teacher with very good diction, cadence, adding dramatic pauses – it adds so much. It’s much easier to love English if you love the written word and you love stories.

The final part of the interview will be published in February.