Q & A: Yvvette Edwards
Yvvette Edwards answers a few questions on her new novel, The Mother, the titular character of which is a mother desperate to discover the truth behind her son’s killing. Edwards' debut novel was the highly-regarded A Cupboard Full of Coats, which also deals with the aftermath of violence. Here the author discusses what it is like to write about such dark subect matter:
1. What inspired you to tackle the issue of knife crime in The Mother?
A number of things happened which took me in this direction. The most significant was my stepson being stabbed, randomly, after going to the cinema and Nandos with a few of his friends. The arbitrariness of that incident, the fact he had to undergo emergency surgery with the possibility of having a life-changing outcome - fortunately, it wasn’t life-changing; he made a full recovery - made me look at young people and knife crime with less detachment than I had previously. Soon after, we had the terrible, astonishing riots of 2011. At that point, I was seriously interested in young people, knife crime and disaffection, genuinely trying to understand what on earth was going on with our youth. My writing always comes from a place of being unhappy with my comprehension of a particular issue, and the actual process allows me the opportunity to explore the issue.
2. How important was research for you when writing the novel?
I had the idea for the novel, but no real knowledge or working experience of young people and (knife)crime, or the judicial system, or court processes, or the experience of families of victims of serious crime, or the resources available to them. I spoke with people who worked with young people, including Yvonne Lawson, whose son was a stabbing fatality victim, and who now runs the Godwin Lawson Foundation, tackling youth crime and violence. I met with reformed gang members. I sat in on murder trials at the Old Bailey. I was able to discuss The Mother with a barrister and a family liaison officer. I read, a lot, watched documentaries, did masses of research online. To sum up, everything I needed to know to be able to write The Mother had to be researched. Everything.
3. You must have had to inhabit a dark place whilst writing these characters. How was this experience for you?
I work very hard at getting into the heads of my characters, inhabiting the reality of their world. It is the only place from which I can write their stories authentically. It does involve entering uncomfortable spaces. I don’t know a way around this. I don’t suppose it’s that different to being a counsellor as a profession, or a paramedic or social worker. What pulls you through is a notion of some ultimate good resulting from your efforts. And of course, with writing, it’s only for a fixed time. Unlike the people who have actually experienced what I write about, I’m only in that place temporarily. Then I get to recommence my life, find ways to return to brighter spaces. It makes me much more appreciative of what I have, when I do, more observant of beauty and opportunities for joy I might otherwise take for granted.
4. Why do you think it’s important to tell Marcia’s side of the story?
I think there are so many teenage stabbing fatalities in the news and papers that we have become desensitised to them, each new story on the verge of becoming ‘yet another one.’ Sometimes these stories are presented in the news and press statistically, with comparisons being made to the second or third quarter of the year, or the same period last year. It is easy perhaps not to remember or even think about the ripple effect of each of these deaths, the families left devastated, friends and witnesses left traumatised, people still living whose lives have been changed forever. I wanted to present the human face of that experience, to move as far as possible away from the analytics, to the emotional fallout.
I also wanted to write from the perspective of a character, in this case, the victim’s mother, who has the same questions I do about why so many of these stabbings are occurring, how the perpetrators are being shaped, and whether there is anything we, as a society, could be doing to arrest this trend.
5. How did you become a writer?
I find it as difficult to answer this as if I were trying to explain how I became female. I’ve always loved stories and I’ve always read lots of them and written stories of my own. My writing has always been an emotional outlet, a kind of therapy I suppose, and the process has always been cathartic. I grew up seeped in oral stories as a child, listening to my family’s nostalgic recollection of Montserrat, their years spent growing up there. It’s entirely possible that storytelling is in my DNA!
In the year leading up to my 40th birthday, I had strong words with myself, because I was playing around with the idea of being a professional writer, but not actually doing it seriously, and at the same time, I hadn’t carved out an alternative career as a fall-back. That was the year I realised I could not give up writing. The only alternative was to do the writing properly, (including editing it afterwards, something I’d never done before, and which I have discovered I love). Shortly after that, I wrote A Cupboard Full of Coats. The rest is history.
6. What’s the book you wish you’d written?
Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is such a complex, profound, lyrical, heartbreakingly beautiful novel, a book for re-reading. Every time I re-read Beloved, my understanding of the novel increases and I discover in the writing something else to admire. It is a magnificent achievement that will forever stand the test of time. If I had written Beloved, I would probably have spent the rest of my life laughing aloud and patting myself on the back.
7. Where do you like to write?
I usually work on my laptop, which means I can write almost anywhere. In the winter, or when the weather is dark, cold, or rainy, I’m likely to be found in the living room, wrapped up on the sofa with my laptop on my lap. When the sun is out, even if it’s a bit chilly, you’ll find me in the garden. I think that’s probably my favourite writing place. We’ve been working on our garden for almost a decade and a half and it’s still a work in progress. But it’s a very green and peaceful place that frees my mind to be creative.