(And Other Stroies)
(And Other Stroies)
In his debut novel, secondary-school teacher Sammy Wright takes a sharp look at poverty and class difference in Britain today. Rose and her brother Aaron are teenagers growing up in foster care in a northern town, but through a chance meeting and an Instagram post Rose is dropped into a dazzling new life as a London model. Fit charts the impact of this rags to riches tale on Rose, her brother, their friends and the adults around them. Winner of the 2020 Northern Book Prize, Fit is an unsettling modern-day fairytale full of tragedy and hope.
What roles do fairytales play in this book?
The germ of the story was in thinking that the neglect and hunger we increasingly see in our country have begun to have the feel of the grimmest of fairytale narratives. A story like Hansel and Gretel has its roots in famine and fear, and I felt an echo of that in our most deprived communities today. But then, as I wrote, I found myself also seeing something hopeful in the fairytale archetypes – something about the rawness and unfiltered intensity of teenage life, and how that maps on to the vivid, spare nature of fairytale. A kid of 16 is stepping into a world where everything is felt for the first time, and where people’s roles are bright and immediate – a fairy godmother, an evil witch – and where the motivating forces behind things are often obscure, hidden to the point of feeling magical. Of course, the world has its own complexity no matter how naive you are, and the judgements we make as teenagers are often pretty far from accurate. So in writing I tried to find a balance between the hope of a happy end, the genuine presence of horror and transformation, and the slippery nuance and compromise of real life sitting behind it all.
What did you want to explore about social media, its relationship with young people and their sense of identity and self-worth?
What terrifies me is the way that the tendency of young people towards a bit of callous teasing without empathy is weaponised by social media. And the anxiety I feel around Twitter, and the buzz I get from likes and retweets, makes me fear for the impact on a kid with no frame of reference or family stability around them. To be honest, though, in terms of the book, the thing that is most difficult about social media is the pace of it – the suddenness with which it can pitch you into a new life, and with no preparation.
The book is written from a variety of viewpoints, rather than just sticking to one or two protagonists. Why did you choose to do this?
The book is very much about perception – how we see each other and how we see ourselves. As such, it was pretty essential to show characters from the inside and the outside. But it was also part of the design to try to show a community. I wanted to tell quite a sparse story, as befitted the fairytale architecture, but to be able to use the gaps between narratives, the loose ends of multiple characters, to suggest a whole world beyond. Sometimes novels can prioritise a kind of heroic narrative, even when it’s antiheroic, that lets us see the protagonist as special somehow, above the characters around them. This can often happen in stories of deprivation – the hero is talented, or different, and so rises above their circumstances, or is unfairly dragged down. In Fit, Rose is seen as special, but that’s part of the problem I try and explore. I want the reader to feel instead that everyone they meet has value, and that there are dozens of untold stories just out of sight. I had some criticism from one person that there was a very serious event for a minor character that was glimpsed briefly but then not dealt with again – but this is exactly the design. Everyone has stories. The narrative doesn’t judge – it’s like a train passing through.
You capture the voices and experiences of young people really well in the book. How much of the came from students you have taught?
This is a book that comes from the experience of teaching, so it is fundamentally observational, by which I mean the behaviour I describe is very much in the present moment. I’m not telling the narrative of Rose and Aaron’s abuse – I’m showing how they act in the aftermath. As such, I’m drawing on what I see day in day out. But I always have to stress that in no way have I used specific students I have taught – that would feel so unethical. What I have done is use the situations I know they faced. I’ve taught many students who’ve lost a parent, for example. And, like Dillon does, another character in the book, I’ve often noticed that they box that feeling away and can’t acknowledge it. But Dillon himself is probably me at 16 more than anything else – even though I never had to deal with even a fraction of what he faces. And of course, the deprivation at the heart of Rose and Aaron’s story is something that anyone who works in the pastoral side of schools knows is an everyday truth in Britain today.
You explain in the acknowledgements that the publication of this book followed on from six failed novels. How did you keep going and what advice would you give to writers in similar position?
Don’t be afraid to ditch the shit ones and start again! I’m being flippant, because failed isn’t the same as shit. In all honesty, I know I wrote some good stuff, but writing is about readers as much as writers, and you have to find them. You can do this by changing in response to what they say, or you can do it by looking exhaustively until you find your niche. I did a bit of both, and then had some luck.
Until recently you were a member of the Social Mobility Commission. Tell us a bit about that.
I’m immensely proud of what we’ve done. Some of our research has been integral to the growing realisation of the depth of regional inequality, and the pervasive issues with class and progression in many careers – and the commission’s existence is undoubtedly a force for good in drawing attention to the key inequalities in our society. But I have to be honest – it is a surprisingly small organisation that sits in an uneasy advisory relationship with government that means it can, and often has been, ignored. If one was designing a body to really address social mobility, with the intention of actually changing things, you’d give it the power to legislate, or at least to compel government to answer its case in Parliament. I’d go further, actually – if you really wanted to have better social mobility, you’d tax wealth, invest in green energy and manufacturing across the most deprived regions, build a new social contract based on deep and consistent social care from cradle to grave, and pay people properly. But maybe that’s just me.