A Conversation With Alex Wheatle

Born in 1963 to Jamaican parents living in Brixton, Alex Wheatle spent most of his childhood in a Surrey children’s home. He returned to Brixton in 1977 where he founded the Crucial Rocker sound system and performed his own songs and lyrics under the name of Yardman Irie. He spent a short stint in prison following the Brixton uprising of 1981. Following his release from prison he continued to write poems and lyrics and became known as the Brixtonbard.

Alex’s first novel, Brixton Rock, was published to critical acclaim in 1999. Many more novels have followed including East of Acre Lane, The Seven Sisters, Island Songs, Checkers, and The Dirty South, and more recently Home Girl, and Cane Warriors, all highly praised.

His books are on school reading lists, Alex takes part in Black History Month every year, works with Booktrust and the Children’s Discovery Centre to promote reading. He is representing English PEN. He teaches in various places including Lambeth College, holds workshops in prisons and is frequently invited to schools to speak to students, inspiring in them with his own story a passion for literature.

Alex also appears regularly on BBC1’s The One Show and on radio. He wrote and performed his own one-man autobiographical show for Tara Arts, Uprising, and took the performance on tour in October 2012 and in 2013 all over the country. His play, Shame and Scandal, was performed at the Albany Theatre. Brixton Rock was turned into a short film and also a play performed by young care leavers with the Big House Theatre.  Crongton Knights was on virtual tour! Alex has appeared at many festivals including Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, Hay Festival, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Edinburgh Book Festival and some years ago at the Finchley Literary Festival.

Noel Clarke of Unstoppable Films is adapting the Crongton series into a TV series. In Autumn 2020, Steve McQueen based one episode in his six-part SMALL AXE series for BBC on Alex’s life.

A new stage adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s Home Girl is to be staged at Derby Theatre through a “unique and exciting co-creation and collaboration” between Wheatle, the theatre, Derby’s Cultural Education Partnership, professional writers, care-experienced young people and other young theatre-makers.

He was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to literature in 2008. A favourite of reading groups and libraries, he is the UK’s most read Black British author.

Awards include:

2020 – Shorlisted for the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature
2017 – Winner of the Renaissance Quiz Writers’ Choice Award for Crongton Knights.
2016 – Winner of the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Award for Crongton Knights.
2008 – MBE for services to literature.
1999 – London Arts Board New Writers Award for Brixton Rock.

He lives with his family in London.

The following conversation first appeared via Greenacre Writers in 2016:

  1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

My journey as a writer began in my mid teens when I used to write lyrics for performances on reggae sound systems. I dreamed of becoming the next Bob Marley, Barrington Levy or Dennis Brown!  The discipline I gained from producing something every week for performance moulded and honed me into the writer I am today. From a sound system MC, I progressed to poetry and short stories. I performed my work at poetry jams and venues like the Brixton Brasserie and Under The Arches near Brixton train station.  My first novel, Brixton Rock, was published by Black Amber Books in 1999. For the themes in my debut work I used much of my own real lived experiences and those of my friends too.  I repeated the trick with my second novel, East of Acre Lane.

  1. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

Primarily, I see my role as a writer to tell a good story and entertain. If within that story I can educate, show readers a narrative and a slice of life that they are unfamiliar with, bring a certain truth to the setting and theme of a story and make people reflect about the characters in my tale that might challenge their preconceived views, I’ll take that as a bonus. I really don’t see myself as any different from the story-telling sound MCs of my youth or the griots of my ancestral past to what I create today.

  1. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I created Noel in The Dirty South who initially I disliked. He had a foul mouth, was rude to women and could be very violent. As my story developed I became very fond of him.  He had aggressive traits but possessed a tender core. He was very loyal to those close to him. In the end he simply craved his mother’s love.

  1. Last October, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

The diversity debate has been raging on both sides of the Atlantic with the furore about the Oscars are so white controversy and the writers of colour I know who feel excluded from the major literature festivals within these shores. When I was a kid one of my heroes was Mark Lester who played Oliver Twist in Carol Reed’s multi award-winning film musical. I cried on his low points and cheered on his successes. Although Oliver Twist was white I could totally engage with the character and I was desperate for him to consider myself as his friend. My point is (and this is for any film, drama and fiction gatekeepers out there) all we writers of colour are asking is for you to love, appreciate and value our narratives, themes, characters, heroes and villains as much as we love, value and appreciate yours.

  1. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I have been very fortunate to have developed ideas for novels in the South of France (a beautiful place called Vauvert near the Carmargue) Jamaica, Washington DC and Miami.  I’d love to write somewhere like Hawaii – one because of its people and culture and two because I was a huge fan of Magnum, the series starring Tom Selleck and three because I’d get away every day with wearing Hawaiian shirts, three-quarter pants and sandals! I probably wouldn’t get any work done!

  1. What is the one book you wish you had written?

The book I’d have loved to have written is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, a phenomenal author and essayist. In fact I’d be extremely proud to have written any of his work.

  1. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

My advice for aspiring novelists is to try and produce something every week – even if it’s a page or so. Develop your discipline not just to create but to edit and improve. My next tip is to write the book that you want to buy – be passionate about your subject matter.

You can listen to Alex Wheatle speaking with Nihal Arthanayake, via The Penguin Podcast. In this episode, Alex chats to Nihal about his latest YA book ‘Cane Warriors’, based on the true story of Tacky, a slave who led an uprising on the plantations of Jamaica in the 18th Century.

You can follow Alex on Twitter: @brixtonbard

 

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1 Response to A Conversation With Alex Wheatle

  1. Jacqui Adams says:

    How lucky you are to have interviewed Alex Wheatle. I saw the episode based on Alex’s life on TV this year and it moved me. I found his advice for would be aspiring novelists excellent and I should really do this. However, I think i’ll be reading some more of his books.

    Liked by 1 person

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