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3am Interview





A LITTLE BIT MORE UPSTAIRS: AN INTERVIEW WITH COURTTIA NEWLAND



"We've got just as much shit going on as in America. A friend of mine came over from New York and I was taking her around: she was just amazed. Luckily, she didn't have the view of a lot of Americans that we have drinks of beer at 4 o clock and bowler hats. She knew it was a multicultural city. We were sitting in Soho and this guy came up to us saying 'I'm a prostitute, I'm a prostitute, I'm a prostitute' and she was amazed and I'm saying that this is the real city. This is the real version. And I love the real version."

Richard Marshall interviews Courttia Newland

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


CN: How I got started. There's a long story and a short story. The short story is that I was twenty one and I thought to myself: I've got this idea for a book, I should write it. I was at my wit's end -- unemployed -- I'd been working as a studio engineer for a while but it wasn't really working. So I thought I should try and write this book. I sent the story to all my mates and they were all saying I should do it. And then I got on with it. I met a guy who became my mentor, a film maker, he'd done some stuff at Cannes. I met him at Ladbroke Grove and he got me a computer. I didn't have one. This was about 95. He said go off and write. Eight months later I had my first book, Scholar. Through him I got an agent and a publisher.

The long story is that I've always been writing. When I was a little kid I used to write short stories for myself. I knew I could write books. But I thought that no one really writes books , no one like me writes books. I like books but no one else really likes books. I read avidly. I'd read Lord Of The Rings before I reached secondary school. I knew I had an interest. But I thought I'd write when I became an old man. Then once I got going at 21 I actually got to like writing. The whole process of writing. Rather than doing it as a get-rich-quick type of thing. Which was initially what I was doing it for. From then I just carried on. When I'd finished Scholar I carried on with short stories. I wrote another novel.

Sitting in a little room with a computer: most of the time that's what it is. I deal with it by writing for the theatre as well. Every year with the same band of actors -- I've been doing it for six years -- that's where I do my social writing. But I need my isolation, like today I had a spare two hours. I'm working on another novel. I did a little bit of writing. It was quite nice actually. Sometimes the theatre writing becomes too much and I come back to writing the novel. Both serve different needs. Snakeskin came out a couple of weeks ago to mixed reviews. Everyone's saying something different. Completely different. All I have to go on is the sense that I like this book! I don't really care after that. I know what I was trying to do and what I was trying to achieve. Some people are saying: why isn't he doing that? And it's because I didn't want to do that! Even with people on the street people might say 'Oh, when you said this, you clearly meant that' and one person actually said this so you have to be doing it for yourself first and foremost. This is a debate that goes on. Some other writers they don't agree with me. They say once the book has gone out into the world they own it and I say 'bollocks'! You can have an opinion of what I've written but you don't know what's going on in me. So how can you have a really informed opinion on what I was trying to do? The first thing I do with writers when I work in surgeries and stuff is ask them what they were trying to achieve. And then I tell them whether they did it or not. I don't tell them to write like me. They might have different ideas.

3AM: I got aware of what you're up to through a couple of teenage girls, Grace and Deseray, who told me I had to read your novels. One of them, Society Within, it had a CD attached. How did that happen?

CN: It was an idea I had. I'm still deeply into the music so I just thought it would be good, especially for young people, you know, there's all this stuff about young people don't read and all that, so I thought it would be nice and nice for me too -- I mean, I'd like it as a reader if I had a CD on the front of my book, with the kind of music I enjoy, talking in a way that you can recognise. I'm not that young any more -- I'm 28 -- and I'm getting used to feeling old, although I still think I'm the same as when I was in my early twenties but it's streaming away from me slowly. So when I go into schools they remind me that I'm getting old, I never felt that way before, I'm realising there's a gap now. . . . A lot of people will not be able to get it. I'm aware of that. But that's fine. But the people here living in Ladbroke Grove in council estates they get it. I'm not saying you have to live here to get it but either you want to know about that sort of stuff or you don't. The same way as I used to have no interest in fat middle-class women. They might be perfectly nice people but they're boring to me. So I'm not going to read any of that stuff. So if you don't want to read my stuff that's ok. But I think there's a lot of people who do want to read about this stuff. I think it should be given equal footing with the stuff for fat middle class women.

3AM: Interesting. Writing can be seen as quite a middle class, and white, game.

CN: I'm still trying to negotiate my space. I don't want to come off as 'woe is me' because I'm not doing so badly considering. But I do think that the machinery is hindering me rather than helping me. I think it's a little unfair. Writers in the past they had to work hard to get to the stage they're at. Everybody who has gone before me, they had to do it. Even those who I don't like. I have respect for them because they got published and every black writer who got published managed to take things just a little bit further. It's undeniable. From the days of Sam Selvin, Lovelace and the Windrush people and those who were there before George Lamming, they were saying we're going to write English better than the English, to later generations -- Merle Collins -- and all those books were about coming from somewhere else but residing here even though they were black people, even though they were born here, there was something about that second generation experience. . . . Now we can write how we like. It's given us that freedom, which is good. I get some stick for using dialect. Now, you know it exists. Working with these girls you know, you know it exists. But so many people don't know girls like that. They say that I'm making it up. I'm trying to be street wise! Trying to be cool! Making words up, whatever! They don't realise that it's authentic. It'll take a long long time before people realise just how authentic the book is. There isn't another book that chronicles London in the last century - turn of the century - more realistically. I was expecting after Scholar that more would come out, the floodgates would open, loads of realistic books would come out in London but it never happened. I'm a bit disappointed by that. I know that there are people out there with different stories in the same environment. That's what I was waiting to see.

3AM: It's refreshing to have an authentic black British voice.

CN: Yes. We've got just as much shit going on as in America. A friend of mine came over from New York and I was taking her around: she was just amazed. Luckily, she didn't have the view of a lot of Americans that we have drinks of beer at 4 o clock and bowler hats. She knew it was a multicultural city. We were sitting in Soho and this guy came up to us saying 'I'm a prostitute, I'm a prostitute, I'm a prostitute' and she was amazed and I'm saying that this is the real city. This is the real version. And I love the real version.

3AM: So tell us a little about the new book Snakeskin.

CN: It's a detective thriller. A guy called Irvin James is a private investigator. He gets hired to find the killer of a Labour MP's daughter. Her dad reckons she's been killed by a far-right political party called The Foundation and so Irvin wanders around London looking to solve it. The similarities between this and the other books are that it's set in the same world. If it was in a timeline it would be in now. 2001. In the same world as Scholar and Society Within. Scholar came out round about 97. Society was about 98. He's the older brother of a character who appears in Scholar. I think I'm going to link all the books. All of them will be linked somehow. The same world.

3AM: Interesting that you are very much a London writer. In that way you link with other writers such as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Stewart Home.

CN: Absolutely. Yes. I'm aware of it but I don't feel any link towards those guys because the world they're writing about isn't my world. I don't recognise that world. I don't see that. I don't know man, it's a very strange perspective.

3AM: It's a west London world.

CN: Oh yes. Definitely different from the East End, North London. The whole of London is like that. The way people speak, even the way they dress, you can tell where they're from. It's good to know those things. I do think these things are not respected enough in the music, radio, you don't get these kind of things, you get everyone trying to be American . I hate that. Hate it.

3AM: Is the music thing any part of your work at the moment?

CN: No. I can't be bothered with it. I take too much time just doing my writing. I really don't give a damn.

3AM: Do you see America as a potential market for your writing? Do you go to America? How do they read it?

CN: I don't sell in America a great deal. If you want to read it get on to Amazon. I get distributed out there. I do readings out there. It's always gone really well. Which makes me think that the American publishing industry must be worried about us coming over there. They won't publish us. Won't publish any of us. They're worried we'll come over. They're having a hard enough time with the market at the minute. They're worried. They say people won't be able to understand it and I've done readings out there and the people have come up to me and said 'You don't need to explain that part, we're from New York' or whatever. But they love us. British authors. Especially black British authors.

3AM: Culture seems all to do with the market now. Are things bad at the moment?

CN: I've a lot of reservations about the situation. A lot of reservations. I think that it's going well in that they are publishing a lot of people of colour and people of different culture. I'd like to see that continue. Not just people of colour, I like to know about everyone. Other people. I want to learn about other people. I find it strange that other industry people don't have that same curiosity. And not have it as a writer as well. How can you not be curious about what surrounds you? But I think the only people publishing are those who agree with the party line already. That's commercialism for you. Now I've created a niche, I want to write out of it. I never wrote in a particular genre anyway but I'm trying to do something different and it's frowned upon by the industry. They want you to keep on doing what you've done before. Even if they haven't read me yet. One guy said to me 'I think you should stick to writing detective novels' and then a couple of days later he sent me an e-mail asking me for a copy of Snakeskin. He hadn't even read it! Closed minded. You wouldn't expect that from such an open-minded community. It's closing down. Definitely closing down.

3AM: Young people like your books. We hear a lot of negative things about young readers -- i.e. they don't read. My experience is that it's not true.

CN: It's not true. I don't recognise that. What they don't have is stuff that interests them. They're not going to read that Bridget Jones shit. So why should they have to read it? It's like Big Brother. You must watch this. If you don't like it you're wrong. Or like they sneer at you. Oh, you're a So Solid type are you? Now, I don't sneer at So Solid -- what I really like about So Solid is that they validated what I was writing about. Five or six years later they come out with these people who talk just like I write. That's brilliant. They're intelligent guys. You don't get to number one without having a little bit more upstairs. It's really funny really. They keep putting out these myths. Things that aren't true.

3AM: Who are your heroes?

CN: There's no one I'd like to be rather than me. I respect Marcus Garvey. Writing wise the list is endless, I could just go on and on. All the black writers. My mum gave me a lot of stuff. Especially when I got to teenage. That's when she started to hit me with the black literature. There wasn't much British black literature then. There was some, but not much. Most of the stuff that was out she'd read by that time. School -- my English teacher came in with a big box of books, my school was about 90% black and it was all black writers. Some I had read like Toni Morrison; others were black British books -- there were some from some independent press -- I wish I could remember who they were. This teacher just brought them in. I think they were her books. They weren't on the curriculum. That's how I got to know about Chester Himes. We read his stuff in her English lessons. This was the point when I started thinking that this was different. It wasn't all about being gentle. I have no problem with things being gentle but my life at that time wasn't gentle. I didn't relate to gentle. And then Himes came along. There were things he described I've seen then and since. He wasn't exaggerating. He was a real working-class writer. And I'd never seen that before. I real working-class writer. I thought yes, I get that. I see myself as a working-class writer.

3AM: You see yourself as that as well as being black?

CN: Yes. I've got so many things working against me! Good job I'm not a woman or I'd be in real trouble! But that's the thing. When I read the reviews I can see that they just don't understand. It's a fairy tale to them. If you're living in a world where these things don't happen. And I'm living in a world where these things do happen.

3AM: It's like being a reporter from some front line.

CN: I just want people to respect the fact that you don't have to copycat people in order to be good. Doing your own thing and being original is just as good. There's this thing that you have to write in this way and use these words and this structure and this style. I think in America there's a little more freedom where this stuff is concerned. Writing in different genres is more accepted over there. Not totally. But more than here. That's why they have Chester Himes. Even in the Paul Auster and people like that -- they don't write in great big words you can't understand. He writes not big books but thin ones and tells nice stories. I see myself as that sort of writer. More than being a black writer. More than being a working-class writer. I see myself as a storyteller. I just want to tell my stories. I couldn't care a toss about big words. My audience are the young people who have these experiences and know the stories from the inside. That's the audience I care about. Because I grew up in the same way.

3AM: The anthology you did. What was all that about?

CN: Someone asked me to put it together, the reaction to that was one of the first times I realised that there's a lot of people telling you how to conform. When I did IC3 people were upset about the name and the content of the writers. I'm very proud of who we selected. But people said it wasn't intellectual enough and why are we talking about race again? And I was thinking -- I'm an editor, why am I going to tell people what to write about? This is what they wanted to write about. My only thing was, is this writer a good writer? It was really enjoyable. I'm really pleased and proud of the book. The only thing I'd say was that it was let down by the publishers. Again. I felt it was a liberal action by the publishers. Put it out and then fuck it. I didn't receive any advertising money. Nothing was spent on it as far as I know to publicise it. Hamish Hamilton. There were no adverts. It sold about 5,000 on the first print run. The paperback run had great reviews. We're on the curriculum at Howard University. They're teaching it so it must be alright!

3AM: So what's the next project?

CN: I've a play on in September called Mother's Day. About mixed-race relationships. I'm five chapters into a book I'm writing, but will it go anywhere? I don't know. So far I've shown it round and everyone says yes. But what will happen? This is not a good year. I don't have any other job. This is a bad year for money. But people need free minds. People mustn't be dictated to by anyone. Rupert Thompson is one of my favourite authors in the UK. What happened to him is a crying shame. No one knows that he exists. Put everything on an equal footing and let the people decide.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Marshall is a talented writer and acts as an editor for 3am.





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