A Baptism of Fire
Frances Kay interviewed by Alan Kelly.
Micka is the brutal, uncompromising and unforgettable debut novel from playwright Frances Kay. A dark mesmerising tale of innocence lost to a fractured world, of childhood lived without love, somewhere where children cold-bloodedly plot to murder other children; it could well prove to be a place closer to home than any of us would ever dare admit to ourselves. Her writing had a visceral impact which stunned and unsettled and disturbed me, raising questions on the nature/nurture debate, the casual neglect of children and how society often turns a blind to young victims of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, and the media’s reaction to the murder of Jamie Bulger and his killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Micka is the kind of book which comes along once and offers you an insight, however vicious, however disturbed, however bleak, into the damaged minds of two young boys.
3:AM: What triggered your motivation to explore this kind of crime, was it out of any particular personal issues or were you just generally upset that these children get demonised without anyone ever taking into account what made them that way?
Frances Kay: What made me start writing was the way the Jamie Bulger story was told in the media and the reactions of people to the two boys. I had heard of crimes like this before, in Birmingham and Newcastle upon Tyne, and during my life I had met children like this, but I needed to create for myself two imaginary boys who might be so lacking in compassion that they could contemplate hurting other children, seemingly without conscience.
3:AM: It’s interesting how you contrast Micka’s upbringing with Laurie’s to show it’s not just class or lack of money that traumatises children, but shit parenting and abuse at home. That is one thing that no one in Britain, or Ireland, seems to want to stand up and say: it’s always blame the teachers, blame the social workers – never blame the selfish, ignorant cunts who drag up their children this way. You’re a very brave writer to tackle subject matter like this in such an unflinching and brutally honest way. Could you tell me about some of your own experiences of working with children like Micka and Laurie, the seeds which became the characters?
FK: I grew up in a rough area of Notting Hill in the fifties and it was a baptism of fire as I had very strict parents and, thanks to my mother who went to RADA, I spoke beautiful English, which made me an obvious target. I learned to recognise the dangerous characters and keep out of their way. Later on, I worked in adventure playgrounds, traveller sites, youth clubs and all kinds of schools and I gradually came to appreciate for myself just how much or how little some kids are born with, and how the ones at the bottom adapt and realise very young that this is what they’ve got and they had better get on with it. I can’t help seeing their parents as being the products of exactly the same lack of love and right kind of attention, grown up and given responsibilities they probably didn’t ask for and can’t cope with. So I don’t accuse or blame them. I knew some of them, and they were needy, damaged people who never had a chance. I would love to know how to break this vicious circle.
3:AM: You’ve worked as a scriptwriter and this is your first novel. I can see how the ‘birth’ of this kind of story could prove difficult, did it take a long time to finish or did it pour out in one creative purge?
FK: It’s taken about ten years to write, rewrite, mull it over, send it out, get it back, forget about it, get it out of the drawer again, etc etc. Persisting in trying to get it published has been my weak point. I was always busy with scripts, and the novel seemed like a bit of a luxury. Finally I made the commitment, but even after I found a brilliant agent and a wonderful editor at Picador, there was still more rewriting to do. I guess you have to really love the process.
3:AM: Some of my favourite characters in the novel are the travellers and Micka’s friend Blue, who sort of offered Micka a world to escape to for a little while. The travelling community are often unfairly represented in the press. Was this something you where always conscious of while writing this book, did you feel the need to write them in as frank a way as you could? You really capture the spirit of a close-knit community, people who genuinely take care of each other, unlike Micka and Laurine’s families.
FK: Well, I would love to hear what a real life traveller thinks of those sections of the book. Remember we are only seeing them through Micka’s eyes, and he loves being there and loves Blue. He doesn’t see the way the adults behave as irresponsible, he doesn’t judge them. But he is only ten. He doesn’t know more than the surface of their lives. I had to give Micka a good place he could go sometimes, otherwise his life would have been unrelieved misery. Some people might think I have idealised the travellers. My experience of them is that they are a multi-layered society like settled people – some are wonderful, strong, generous and caring, others feckless and selfish – just like all of us. I wasn’t trying to make a point about real life gypsies, they appear as they do because they are part of Micka’s story.
3:AM: We witness the violations of both boys in some of the book’s most disturbing scenes – Micka is violently raped by his older brother Lee, while his middle brother eats chips in the next room and does nothing to help him; Laurie’s mother plays unnervingly suggestive games with him as he’s taking a bath. Was getting the balance right, in writing between the subtle and sadistic cruelties, very hard?
FK: Wow. Had to think about this one. If I had stopped to think too much, I couldn’t have written those scenes. Rewriting was hard. Creating them was about letting go and letting the worst imaginable things happen. I had to be less cognitive and more visceral. I think I was well inside those characters’ heads and bodies when I wrote. Those moments had to be there, but it wasn’t easy.
3:AM: There are parallels in the lives of Laurie and Micka with Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, and the events in the novel mirror the events leading up to the death of Jamie Bulger, to a certain extent. What are your thoughts on the press and public’s reaction to this crime and the subsequent press-coverage which hyper focused on the two boys?
FK: The death of that little boy was horrific. I can’t forget the image of him on the CCTV, trustingly holding his killer’s hand. So of course I can understand the fury that trial roused in adults who would never commit a similar act of cruelty. I was left wondering how much we all needed to know about the trial and the lives of the two boys who killed him. I avoided reading about it and didn’t want to know about them in such detail. There was so much anger around at the time and that, it seems, has never gone away. How could the situation could have been handled better? I don’t have the answers, I wish I did.
3:AM: You tap into the power of a child’s imagination with Laurie and Micka, both creating these ‘protective’ bubbles around themselves. Was this because these boys couldn’t fully understand the language of their worlds?
FK: If by protective bubbles you mean their take on the world, I think that is an unconscious thing that children do. From babyhood, it’s all about learning what is real and what is pretend or a dream or a story. The world is so big they can’t take it all in. Some of the time they make up things to fill in the gaps. Sometimes adults lie to them. And if you ask two siblings to remember a traumatic childhood event, you will very likely get two completely different accounts of what happened. Both are true in the way they have affected the child. Neither is objectively true.
3:AM: What are your thoughts on the nature versus nurture debate in relation to your characters? I got the impression there existed an inherent brutality in Laurie and Micka was a child suffering terrible deprivation and possessed of a dreadful desperation to be loved: a good example of this is when Blue gives him a puppy and he lacks the ability to take care of it properly, his behaviour mimicking his older brother Lee.
FK: That I leave for the reader to judge. Did you know boys like this? Were you a child like this, even to a small degree? This is the kind of territory I find fascinating, and I hope the reader does too.
3:AM: Would you adapt Micka for the stage? Do you think that it could be as effective a play as it is a novel?
FK: I wouldn’t like to attempt it. I can’t see how it could be done as a play – or a film – without some terrible exploitation of very young child actors. And the voices are most effective when you hear them talking in your head.
3:AM: What other kind of characters and situations are you planning on exploring next?
FK: I’m just about to go into rehearsal with a new play about Franciscan friars. Set in the fourteenth century, it’s based on a true account, but I am making up the personalities of the two men entirely. For my next novel, I don’t want to say more than this: I would like the voice to be female. Watch this space.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 25th, 2010.