Author of East of Acre Lane, Brenton Brown, The Dirty South, Island Song and of course, what he calls his ‘baby’, Brixton Rock, it’s evident that Alex Wheatle MBE has evolved into a seasoned writer. Fresh from his Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (2016) win with novel Crongton Knights, Wheatle is awash with opportunity and a better appreciation of his standing in the literary world. Since our meeting over a decade ago, he’s demonstrated a persistent journey of writing. It’s all he knows how to do.
When we first met, Wheatle’s first novel Brixton Rock (1999) was not long published. It screamed out to be made into a gritty film, offering another cultural slice of London. It submits the story of Brenton Brown, a 16-year-old youth, festering in care-homes, fighting abandonment and nurturing anger. One day he’s given the address to the biological mother who left him and his search for her brings explosive results. As we speak, the novel is stretching its legs to be made into a short film. How is he feeling about this?
It feels like my first baby. It’s finally getting recognition; it always has a light. I feel very fortunate that after 17 years it’s still being given life by the likes of Ethosheia Hylton – director. I’ve seen the rough-cut and it’s just overwhelming seeing those characters in 3D. The performances are just incredible. Calvin Demba (Youngers) as Brenton Brown is fantastic. The scenes shot were so moving. To think this was something that I had in my head over 20 years ago; the first draft of it was written on A4 paper in biro. To think now it’s gone onto this level on the screen, with these fantastic actors taking part it’s just overwhelming; it almost moved me to tears.
The short film also stars British acting veterans Angela Wynter and Wil Johnson, with Baxter Willoughby as a young Brenton Brown. Is he surprised that the essence of woman (director, editor, producer) is behind the making of the film about a young man coming to terms with his identity?
It says to me, why aren’t these women, these fantastic self-made women not getting the breaks in the traditional ways? There’s so much talent out there, why isn’t it being utilised. TV is full of bad drama, and yet there’s so much great drama wanting to be made and not being made. Hopefully we can do this and then we can make the feature on the back of this. So talents like Ethosheia will get recognised. I feel I’ve gone on that same journey, yes I got published in 1999 but I felt that I was denied the opportunity of showcasing my work. It’s the same sort of journey in a way, whether it’s film, TV, drama; trying to get your work commissioned by theatrical companies in London, it’s so difficult.
As Wheatle talks about the challenges of the industry, didn’t he ever feel worn out by his writing journey – because it’s been a long time…?
I almost gave up. I was thinking; can I make a decent living out of it? I’m getting older now, should I concentrate on something else? Everybody in the arts has those discussions with themselves. You know you think ‘Oh my god’ maybe I should just get a boring 9-5 and maybe that’d pay the mortgage’. But my love is storytelling, I’m always pulled back in for the love of trying to tell a story. Maybe actors and filmmakers, whomever you are in the arts, maybe that always pulls them back in too – for the sheer love of it. That’s why I’m still here trying to tell stories.
The journey is wide between Brixton Rock and Wheatle’s Guardian winning novel Crongton Knights, is there a single thread or theme in his writing journey?
I think you improve as a writer as you go along – or you’re meant to anyway and hopefully I have. The core of what I do is trying to understand how the family unit works. That is as true of Brixton Rock as it is Crongton Knights. That always fascinated me especially when I came to Brixton after I left the home. I’d visit friends and their families and I’d watch what was going on (as) I didn’t have that family experience. So I’m always trying to unwrap the dynamics that consist of a family. That will always be the core of my work. Even though I might describe riots; bleak situations, it’s a family unit that gets me up in the morning and wanting to explore that.
Alex begins to describe how he felt winning the prestigious Guardian Children’s Fiction prize…
Dare I say this, but people like me [are] not supposed to win that. You know with my kinda background. So that’s why it was so overwhelming for me. I still have that essence of growing up in a home, of low self-esteem, being told that I’d never achieve much, being told that I was rubbish. I still have that in my DNA through my childhood experiences. Being told by adults who were supposed to encourage me, that I’m not going to amount to much. So when I received it [the prize], all that came back in a moment. Your mind looks back in an instant at all those rejections, all those naysayers. That’s why it was such a powerful moment. I had to do my best to not weep on the stage.
But you did when you went home?
Yes I did actually, yeah. [We laugh]
Since Wheatle’s early years after coming to London, leaving prison and carving a pathway for himself one of the ideals close to his heart is education. Especially because he took it into his own hands to educate himself. Alex details this connection…
When you have success at education it gives you great potential. When I go into schools and I ask the children ‘hands up; who admires President Obama?’ Everyone puts up their hands. Then I say to them, ‘well just think about this. If you could read every book he read you’d just be as smart as he is!’ So reading is a gateway, it’s a great leveller. When I’m talking about education I’m talking about reading and accessing knowledge hidden from us. That’s what it did for me. Sometimes when growing up and there’s no one to encourage you to read or discover about other countries or cultures, you live a very narrow-minded lifestyle. But once I started to access books, then I could compare my situation to those in South Africa, those in Russia and so on. It makes you more informed, able to join a discussion rather than sit in a corner and have nothing to say. You can come up with solutions and ideas to try and solve.
The place where Alex took his education into his own hands has been under attack for a few years now. Many councils have cut funding leaving very few formally-run libraries in place. Where possible local communities have rallied round and are operating former council-run libraries not just as a place of books and learning but as community hubs. Wheatle begins…
When I came out of prison at 18, the back end of 1981, I didn’t want to go back into (formal) education because I had such a horrible experience, going back into a school-type situation where I felt this low-esteem. So I thought best for me to study on my own and Brixton Library was my tutor. I took out books that I thought were necessary for me to learn – not just about, ancient history, but just to learn about myself, to search where I came from. Nobody had instructed me about Jamaica; the Caribbean the struggles they had in history. I had to find that out for myself. I didn’t have parents to guide me on my background, my identity. Then I went back further in time [to] find my standing in the world because when you are without identity, again this low self-esteem, it hits you.
Ah, Brixton. This little south London borough has a well-renowned history wrapped in African Caribbean culture. This relationship is contentious even today as lately it’s becomes enveloped in ‘gentrification’. Contentious because the drive to renew is displacing people who’d lived there when it wasn’t quite so…fashionable. It is removing the cultural influences of people who’d eked out livings to build long-standing businesses.
If you ever were, are you still in love with Brixton? [He laughs] …
That’s a bit unfair!
Is it a love-hate relationship?
Erm… I don’t think I was ever in love with it.
Clearly you have an emotional connection to Brixton…
Is it the same today as it was?
I guess because it was the place where I found my identity. I just wonder today if someone like me could find [his or her] identity again as it is today. I don’t love it as passionately as I did before, but I guess, don’t most love affairs go that way after many, many years?
How does Wheatle personally feel about gentrification?
There’s nothing wrong with new people moving in, I have no problem with that at all and bringing in their own flavours and cultures. What I despair of is that property has become too expensive. Because of that we’re seeing a gradual breakup of families. One thing about the 70s and the 80s to a certain extent…your granny your uncles your aunty all live almost in the same space. Now young people don’t have that. If they wanna move on they’ve gotta sometimes move right out of London to be able to afford wherever they want to live. I think that’s contributing to the looseness of families, where they’re not tight-knit anymore.
So primarily it’s that financial commercial drive which is the ugly side of gentrification?
Yeah. But otherwise, when I go up Railton Road now and I see restaurants and I see an art gallery… it’s kinda cool really. But honestly the Arches situation, I hate that; businesses that have been there for so many years have been forced out, again just greed basically. That despairs me.
The literary industry is tough at the best of times – much less when Wheatle penned his first novel in 1999. Given technology and what we’ll call ‘single-wonder’ authors whom publishers worship, how does he see the publishing landscape now?
It can become scary because you go into a bookstore and you see only J. K. Rowling (she of the Harry Potter phenomenon) and all these massive great big-hitters. So to a certain extent, your big conglomerates like Hatchette (whom Wheatle is with), your Harper Collins, Penguins and Random Houses, they’re gonna sometimes concentrate on those big-hitters to make sure their margins are always healthy. But for me, that sometimes curtails the new authors who always need to be discovered and promoted. Sometimes I think they’re [publishers] losing out greatly because of this concentration on this top end. The development of writing now is not as it was say 15 to 25 years ago. For instance, when I first went to Harper Collins with East of Acre Lane, my editor had this long gradual rise for me. He had this vision that one day; two, three novels in I’d be a household name. Now, I don’t think too many of those bigger publishers have those long-term plans for their new authors. It’s more a hit and miss rather than a gradual building up of profile. Individual editors can no longer just champion an aspiring author and bang their fists at an acquisition meeting where there’re about 20 people; marketing people, sales people, international sales people. You have to convince everybody in that room to get a project green-lit.
Doesn’t that stifle creativity?
I think so. If you have an editor like I do, who really champions you, goes to that meeting and says ‘I wanna publish Alex Wheatle’, he’s not [making] any bones about it. But that can’t be done now. It’s about numbers. It’s about international sales. It’s about marketing. It’s will this book sell in Australia, will it sell in South Africa, will it sell in the Caribbean… in all the English-speaking countries? If they’re convinced, it might be green-lit. But a story could be fantastic, but if they feel it doesn’t appeal to Australia it might get blackballed. That’s the reality today. So I fear we’re losing many fantastic authors because of that.
Technology, surely this can mitigate the ills of the industry for burgeoning authors and would-be publishers?
It’s difficult because you might self-publish really well, but to get access to those markets that the conglomerates have is extremely difficult. You have to be on the phone for the rest of your day! You can write in the morning, but you have to give access to your product and that’s the difficulty. It depends on what you’re satisfied with. Are you satisfied to print say 2000 and selling 2000? Or, do you want to conquer the world? Do you want to sell in New Zealand? Do you want to sell in South Africa? Do you want translation rights in Russia? Depends what your ambition is.
We come back to Brixton Rock, identity and messages therein. What ideals did Wheatle want to transmit through the 1999 book to younger audiences such as its main actor Calvin Demba and his generation, what does it have to say to them today?
I guess what I really wanted to say was despite all the trauma of childhood, despite all the arrows and slings you carry and all the put downs, you’re still capable of loving as strong as anybody else. I think that’s the core message. You can still find it in you to love somebody completely despite everything. That’s what I wanted to say. There’s still great passion there. Brenton, he’s had it hard, despite all that. I guess that there’s a bit of myself in there. I think that despite everything you can still love as hard as anybody else and be wounded by love as anybody else. That’s one theme I have. I guess the other theme is that sometimes love has no bounds. In other words, you can’t help who gonna love.
As indicated by Alex earlier, he has underlying challenges about identity – as many of us do. Will he ever put the identity beast to sleep?
Well, if I did I probably wouldn’t need to write so the answer’s probably ‘No’. I will struggle with it. Sometimes I think I’m an imposter, sometimes I think I’m not genuine in my black skin.
You’re not genuine in your black skin?! What does that mean?
In other words, when I first came to Brixton, I was so unlike my peers. The way I walked, the way I talked the way I wore clothes everything about me. I felt I was just tryna be like them rather than being them. Everyone no matter who you are, you wanna fit in and even me being a writer, even that sets me apart. That’s another reason why I don’t quite fit in.
When I used to tell my friends, ‘oh I’m writing a book’, they’d look at me and say ‘what?!’ They [have] me as this country bumpkin guy, a black skin trapped in a white body. I still struggle with that. Not as much as I did. You can’t define blackness by your actions – I know that now. But at the end of the day I’m still human and those things affect you in your impressionable years. I wasn’t seen as cool or black. That leaves scars. You want to embrace your blackness, you know ‘I’m one of you’. Don’t get me wrong I don’t dwell on this every day but there are moments where you’re not so confident in yourself.
A couple of months ago I read with (poet) Linton Kwesi Johnson at the Jamaican High Commission. I felt like a fish out of water. Even though I’d been invited to read with him, I still felt uncomfortable I felt, do I belong here? Am I really Jamaican? I still felt that just a few moments before I got to read. Of course, after I read my work it was all-good. But I do have those doubts recurring sometimes.
Alex’s work is blossoming into new projects. What can he tell us about them?
I’ve just finished the third in the Crongton trilogy, that’s coming out in April. I’m very proud of that. In fact there might be a fourth or a fifth you never know. I’m also adapting Brixton Rock for the stage. I’m working with a youth theatre group – The Big House, to adapt extracts of the book.
There’s a lot of interest in my Crongton series so I’m speaking with a lot of independent filmmakers so hopefully I can announce something in the next month or two regarding that. A dance company got in touch with me about my Brixton series, East of Acre Lane and Island Song. I love dance so that’d be extraordinary to see that interpretation on stage. I’m a busy bee for the next two months trying to firm up these opportunities to make sure they don’t slip me by. There’ll be different mediums accessing my work. I am excited by that because it’s all about story telling at the end of the day. I think the reasons why people still read Brixton Rock today is because of the story, and you can access it by the play, the book, the stage, it doesn’t matter to me.
As I said at the start of this interview, we need a storytelling fix and if I can be a part of this then that’s wonderful. Lives like Brenton’s need to be read and watched and told. People out there who don’t know anything about that kind of life can learn to have empathy. That’s important for me. Kids are growing up today in those kinds of situations are looked down on. People think they’re rubbish, call them trash but look at their lives before you judge. Film is great at that when used well. It’s a fantastic medium to give people access.
To keep up with Alex Wheatle and his projects: