Ravine and Marianne were best friends. They practised handstands together, raced slugs and went into the woods to play. Ten years later Marianne is gone and Ravine lies in a bed plagued by chronic pain syndrome. The Things We Thought We Knew (Doubleday, £12.99) is an intriguing debut which gives a voice to the marginalised and comes from an author whom the odds were stacked against.
You were just 16 when you drafted The Things We Thought We Knew. Where did the inspiration for it come from?
I had a collection of characters mulling around my mind for a while. I knew they lived on a council estate (as I did at the time) and I knew they had a big event happen to them that affected their lives dramatically. One day I just began the novel and let the writing lead the way. There were many things that didn’t work with that first draft but when I came back to it in my thirties I was still excited by it. I’d say that, even though a lot of the novel changed, the heart of it remained the same.
The book features a character suffering chronic pain. Does there need to be better support for people with hidden illnesses such as this?
I think there are more people than we know who have chronic illnesses who just quietly get on with their lives. More awareness would help as well as more support to help these people talk about their issues. I think psychological support is just as important as physical support for chronic illnesses. It’s easy to think of mental and physical health as separate but they are deeply integrated. This is definitely the case for the central character of the novel whose inability to get over the past is affecting her ability to cope with the pain she has in the present.
Ravine’s mother encourages her to get out of bed to vote. Were you heartened to see so many young people come out to vote on 8 June? And how do you think we can engage more young people, especially from working-class and poor backgrounds?
I think it’s always heartening to hear that different groups are becoming more engaged with wider society. Ravine has a couple of people in her life who are passionate about voting so to have people like this in different communities is vital. But using the platforms young people engage on, such as blogs and social media, is also a great way of bringing more attention to the importance of voting. It’s easy to get disheartened with politics when you see all the contradictions, and sometimes barefaced lies, that appear in the media from different parties. I can see why people can feel apathetic. But it’s people from poor, working-class backgrounds who are often hit the worst by public policies so it’s vital they are drawn into the debate.
Publishing your novel coincided with your pregnancy and birth. Were there parallels between the two?
You could probably see parallels in terms of gestation periods and giving birth to a new creation but for me the two were very separate life-changing experiences that happened at the same time! Writing a novel is a creative and intellectual endeavour, while having a baby is a physical and emotional rollercoaster. On reflection, it was great to have both happen at the same time as it meant I didn’t get too obsessed with either.
Do you feel more or less pressure to keep writing alongside the expectations of motherhood?
Writing has been a part of my life since I was a child so to not write now would feel like a part of me was missing. Having said that, motherhood has a way of completely taking over your life in a way I hadn’t anticipated! I’ve had to carve out time for my writing and I’m still finding my feet striking the balance but I do think it’s doable – especially if you have a lot of support, which I’m fortunate enough to say I do.
As a young, Asian, female, working-class and dyslexic writer the odds were stacked against you in the publishing world. How did you overcome them?
Persistence. Like I said, I’ve been writing since I was a child so a long time before I realised that the odds were stacked against me. I wrote because I loved stories. And when you write for the pure joy of it, it’s really hard to stop. As I got older I entered my work to everything I could, went on courses, read books about writing, studied the writing I loved and just kept going. I think if you try and improve your craft and are persistent then eventually your work will find the right person. That’s not to say it’s not difficult if you come from a certain background or that there isn’t discrimination, but if you don’t try then you never know what could have been.
You benefited from prizes from competitions for women and minority writers. How vital do you think these are in ensuring diversity in literature?
It’s easy to think that if the writing is good enough anyone could get picked up by an agent or publisher. But I’ve heard stories of how writers have been sidelined or dismissed because they come from a particular background or ethnicity. I think there’s a lot of subconscious discrimination, which of course is hard to deal with because people can’t see their own blindspots. The more opportunities you can put out there for under-represented groups the more people will see these people are writing and that their writing is of a good quality. It’s also encouraging for people from those groups to see prizes open to them. It’s like saying: “Look, we need diversity and your voice is a valuable one we want to hear from.” I know I felt encouraged and I’m so glad I entered those prizes as I don’t think this book would have made it to publication otherwise.