I was invited to the launch event of Feral Youth in Piccadilly and used it as an opportunity to sit down for 5 minutes with the author Polly Courtney to talk about her sixth book, the inspiration behind it and to find out more about the life of an ex-investment banker.
Why did you write Feral Youth?
In the aftermath of the riots in 2011, I kept watching and listening and reading the media and waiting for answers on what the underlying causes were and what was going on, and why people were frustrated. It just felt that nothing was really coming out about it. At the same time I started mentoring a young person for a charity call Kids Company and through getting more and more involved with that and thinking about the riots and the aftermath I just couldn’t help making the connection that we weren’t really getting to this truth about what was going on in young people’s lives. We weren’t thinking about it and we weren’t bothering as a society, so I wanted to get into the head of someone like Alisha who has had a pretty disadvantaged background and has to overcome various disadvantages in her life, but everything that she does is about the decisions she makes and if we has a society support her, then she can go on and do better things but we need to provide that support.
What make Alesha so special? Why did you write her character to tell the story, why didn’t you write someone else?
Partly because I felt that we have a lot of youth culture that is very stereotyped, like guns, gangs and knifes, and it’s all very male dominated with young men. We see that a lot. I know some of it is realistic, some isn’t, but we never hear about it from the girl perspective and there are just as many girls as there are guys. Also we often hear the glamorous side as far as I could make it.
Who inspires Alesha?
No one particular person but a lot of people I spoke to in research, so I spoke to children in schools, youth groups, individuals, friends of friends, contacts and various other people.
What I meant by that question was, who inspires the character of Alesha?
Her one close person in life is JJ, her best and only friend. She hasn’t got a family network; she hasn’t got the traditional family network. She’s got ‘fam’ around her and I suppose as the book progresses, Mrs Merfield might inspire or at least influence her but it’s very different from a structure that a lot of people know.
Who inspires you?
For me, it’s my parents, I’m very fortunate to have them.
So, tell me about yourself, what was life like growing up?
I had it easy. I was always supported, cared for and given a lot of discipline and guidance but I knew that my parents, family and friends were there. I was born and brought up for a couple of years in South London and then we moved to Kent. It’s what I thought was normal but it is pretty much a middle class upbringing to be honest.
How did you get into writing?
I was an investment banker, and I hated banking so much that I felt that the world needed to know what banking was really like, this was back in the early 2000’s before everyone was writing books about it, so I wrote a book about it. I then realised I loved writing and wrote more books.
You left the relatively safe world of your publisher (HarperCollins) and you gone self-publishing, was it a good move?
It’s probably too early to tell in terms of sales, but in terms of how I feel, bloody yes! Every step of the way has been so much more fulfilling and satisfactorily then I have ever had in a traditional publishing sense.
If I told you that I wanted to write my own book, what advice would you give me?
Think about who you are writing it for and what your real purpose and goal is, because there are different routes to publishing and different ways you write it depending on what your aim is. So you need to think about that upfront.
What’s next on the horizon?
I might stick in Alesha’s world because I’m really in love with the character’s and the people and the themes but I haven’t committed, I’ve got other ideas as well, so no comment or rather no useful comment.
I also learned that Polly Courtney competes in the London Woman’s Football League and plays violin in No Strings Attached, Courtney’s semi-professional string quartet. Courtney also runs Guardian Master-classes in publishing and is a regular spokesperson on Sky News.
A little while after the interview, Courtney addressed the party to thank everyone for their support and explained how she walked away from her traditional publishing deal to take a risk in Feral Youth and write what she wanted to write, she didn’t want to write ‘chick-lit.’
Polly Courtney then introduced us to Deanna Roger, an actress who played to role of Alesha in the book trailer. Courtney first saw Deanna Roger perform line poetry at The Lyric Theatre and just knew that she had found Alesha.
Deanna Roger then performed the first two pages from the book. Her performance was spot on; I understood what Courtney meant when she said that she had found Alesha. Even when she was interrupted by someone saying that there was no sound as Deanna wasn’t using a microphone. She stayed in character and replied with a stare that said ‘don’t mess with me.’
Courtney was told by the literacy crowd and her own agent that she shouldn’t write Feral Youth because it was too niche. We were also introduced to Polly Courtney’s team of people including her editor and the director of the book trailer where she gave every one of her huge team a gift bag and showed her appreciation.
At first I thought that this book was just going to be a middle-upper class attempt at trying to engage with a world that they don’t understand so that they can pat themselves on the back and say how good they are, much like a politician does when they say that they have introduced a new scheme for young people but we never hear from them again.
Then I read it, and I was hooked, Polly Courtney gets it, she understands why things are the way they are. Courtney is able to tell the truth by doing something so simple yet so difficult, she tells the truth, and she does so through the eyes of a character that you are routing for from page one.
BY: Tom Sanderson