For Books’ Sake Talks To: Polly Courtney

17th Jul 2013

Polly Courtney by Hannah Palmer
Polly Courtney’s not what you’d call a shrinking violet...

Her latest book is no exception in her risk-taking career. Feral Youth is a novel about a young south Londoner, Alesha, in the summer of 2011. On the brink of leaving home and school, the poverty of opportunity leaves her vulnerable to the feverish events of the London riots.

But given that Courtney wasn’t involved in the riots herself, and the mainstream media gave a shallow account of the reasons behind the riots, it was a huge challenge to create a fictional narrative that really reflected the untold story.

Even more challenging was Polly Courtney’s decision to write the book in the first person, told in south London slang.

Feral Youth is set in a world that we don’t hear about in the mainstream media...a world that most of us like to pretend doesn’t exist.She began thinking about the riots while volunteering for a young people’s charity, and then started to research by talking to local south London communities affected by them.

‘I spent several months hanging out in Peckham, listening to angry teenagers, meeting youth workers, teachers, social workers and charity leaders and eavesdropping on buses,’ Courtney recalls.

‘I did everything I could to get under Alesha’s skin. I could feel her anger. I even slipped into ‘Alesha speak’ as I went about my life, which was pretty weird – I suppose you could call it ‘method acting’ for writers.’

But she admits, if she hadn’t spent time talking and listening to young people, she would never have been able to write the book. She remembers feeling particularly embarrassed to find she had some preconceptions about girls like her protagonist that she only corrected during research.

‘For example,’ she says, ‘I had no idea how strongly many young people felt politically. They wouldn’t call it “politics” and it didn’t always manifest itself in the most articulate way, but they had really firm opinions on government and policies that affected them, which surprised me.’

Polly Courtney wondered why she had prejudices about that particular community – and realised that if she had made assumptions, so had many others. She realised there was little voice for women like her protagonist.

Feral Youth is set in a world that we don’t hear about in the mainstream media,’ she explains. ‘In fact, it’s a world that most of us like to pretend doesn’t exist. We hear a lot about youth crime, gang culture, racial profiling and so on, but it’s nearly always reported from a male perspective. True, many of the issues affect young men more visibly (stop and search, knife crime) but there are just as many young women out there who, like Alesha, suffer in silence.’

‘I think most active feminists know that women are suffering more than men as a result of austerity, but given that most of the impact is being felt at the ‘bottom end’ of society (the poor, the young and the low social grades), this isn’t something our mainstream media is bothering to pick up on. This is a pretty depressing message and I didn’t want to ram it down readers’ throats, but I felt that by weaving it into the story, I could get people thinking differently.’

Now self-publishing, Courtney doesn’t regret breaking with Harper Collins. She recollects it feeling like a big decision at the time, but was happy to ‘burn bridges’ to avoid being pigeonholed as a woman writer.

But she adds: ‘I don’t regret my decision for a moment because my latest book would never have been published if I’d stayed with a mainstream publisher and Feral Youth is by far the best book I have written.’

She notes she’s happy with the way it’s been packaged and marketed, and readers will be glad to have been spared a publisher’s attempt at an ‘urban’ jacket.

She advises young writers to question their publisher at an early stage in terms of what kind of a future they see for you: ‘I didn’t do this – I was blinded by the bright lights of the publishing deal, flattered by their interest. If I had asked some basic questions right at the start (“Have you read my previous books?” for example) then I would have realised that there was a massive disconnect between my vision and theirs.’

‘It may seem arrogant for an author to question their publisher, but in my view, the partnership should be exactly that. Contractually, it’s the publisher who holds the power, so if you’re not aligned in your thinking from day one then you will certainly encounter problems down the line.’

For now though, Polly Courtney’s working on another novel and a feature film adaptation of Feral Youth.  Published last month by Matador, Feral Youth is out now from Foyles, Amazon or your local indie bookshop.


  • Dan Holloway says:

    I love Polly’s writing, and I think she’s fabulous. This sounds brilliant – trying to think of pegs on which to hang it, the closest I came was the writing of Sapphire. I don’t know if Polly’s answering comments here, but I’d really like to ask her how she addressed in her head the questions of privilege that would inevitably arise as someone from a background in investment banking writing about/on behalf of some of the most suppressed voices in society – how did she go about ensuring it was their voices being heard and not her voice being heard on their behalf?

    • I certainly am taking questions… and what a good one. Thanks for asking.

      You’re quite right. I’m a middle-class Cambridge graduate; what right do I have to write such a story? And how could I possibly get into the head of an impoverished, disenfranchised, mixed-race 15-year-old girl? Those are questions I knew I’d be asked.

      I knew as soon as I’d decided to write the novel that I risked coming under fire from readers (or rather, non-readers who have heard about the book) for not sharing Alesha’s background. For that reason, I had to make sure it was as authentic as I could possibly make it – not just in terms of Alesha’s voice, but her emotions, relationships and actions.

      I did this by talking to lots of young people. I went into schools and youth groups, hung out in Peckham, picked the brains of charity workers, social workers and teachers and basically spent several months listening to what they had to say. I was really honest about my motives; I told people what I intended to do and generally they opened up, happy that someone was listening to them (for a change). When I had the themes and plot in my head, I tested it on the people who’d been involved in my research. In the first draft, I probably did have too much of my own preconceptions in there about what the issues were, but the acid test was putting it in front of cynical young people. It was an iterative process.

      Post-launch, I’ve had feedback from young people and youth organisations and so far, nobody’s said “you’ve got it wrong”… but these are big issues and very divisive ones, so I’m aware that there will be people out there who disagree. For me, the important thing was giving a voice to the Aleshas out there and starting a debate.

      PS Good point about Sapphire – I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself. I struggle when people ask about literary cousins… it really isn’t like many other things out there, but Sapphire is definitely close.

      • Dan Holloway says:

        Thanks so much. It’s always interestomg to hear how people deal with this question. It’s something I’ve had to think about a lot as a writer as I rarely write characters who share my background, and I hear that voice going round in my head “what right?” all the time. Very good point about being honest about what you’re doing when you first approach people