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A conversation about The Mother

“When we hear about stabbing fatalities, it’s a purely male issue… there’s an almost complete absence of female voices… women who are absolutely devastated.”
YE: So, the idea for the novel came from a real-life experience. My stepson, who was 19 at the time, went out one evening with some of his friends to the cinema, and for chicken and chips after, and he was stabbed – it was the most random thing – by a group of boys. They weren’t in an argument or anything like that. He was stabbed by some young boy who was part of the group. He was knocked onto the floor. The group were telling this young boy to ‘shank him’, or whatever. And this young boy stabbed him – just the most random thing. So the police said that it might have been like a gang initiation thing. Anyway, when we got the call, my husband and I – to say that he’d been stabbed, and he’d been rushed to the hospital – my husband went to the hospital, and I was waiting to hear back.

The mortal terror, the absolute terror of waiting for him to call. Because you’re reading constantly, and you’re hearing constantly, about stabbings in the news. So many of them fatal. I was in complete shock. I felt like I wasn’t prepared in any way for that to be a part of his life, even though I know that it’s very difficult raising boys, and that mums are worried about, their families are worried about, their boys all the time. I know people who have moved to parts of the country that are safer, specifically for their boys to grow up. Even though I knew all of that, I still felt like I was completely unprepared for this to ever enter our life. And I think it’s because he’s such a lovely, sensible young man, and so maybe I thought that because of that, because he wasn’t hanging around with the wrong sort of people, or because he wasn’t doing the wrong sorts of things, that that offered some insulation. And it didn’t.

He’s fine, and he’s fully recovered. He says that he’s fully recovered. He needed to have surgery and there was a possibility, because the blade had nicked his spleen, that he could end up, if the operation didn’t go very well, he could end up with a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. And I was thinking, How’s this possible? How is it possible for a young boy who’s doing all the right things to go out for an evening with his friends, and to end up with a colostomy bag? Because of that experience, the shock of it… I felt like up until then I knew that knife crime was an issue – it’s impossible for you to not know that knife crime has been an issue for the last couple of decades – but I felt like I wasn’t actually paying attention to it, that it was happening. I was switched off, and then I was switched on from that moment.

I kept trying to understand why knife crime was happening. And also I had a kind of obsession, really, with trying to understand people who commit knife crime. Because sometimes it’s like the most silly… young people were dying in fatal stabbings where the perpetrators made no effort to conceal their faces, to employ subterfuge, to avoid getting caught. Sometimes the entire thing would be captured on CCTV cameras and these young people, really young people, were going to prison at an age where they should be living their best life, enjoying their youth to the fullness. I was trying to understand what that said about how they perceived their lives and the quality of their lives. Going to prison for a couple of decades – that they wouldn’t even go to the trouble of trying to disguise themselves sufficiently, so that wouldn’t happen to them. Trying to understand all of that, psychology. I was obsessed with that. I was reading up about knife crime, so I was paying attention.

My writing, it doesn’t come from a place of having answers to anything. It comes from a place of having lots and lots of questions. And I had lots and lots of questions. Once I knew that I would be writing about it… because that’s how it is for me, my process, that something occupies my mind, and I cannot exorcise it through any other way but to explore it through writing, so I knew that I was going to write about the issue… For a while, I thought about exploring it from the perspective of the young person or a couple of the young people who were involved. But I felt that they would not have the questions that I had, that they would not have the maturity of perspective to entertain the questions that I was entertaining. I wanted to explore those questions that I had in my head. So it felt natural and right that I write it from the perspective of somebody closer to me in age, who has lost a child. Then I would get the opportunity to work through my questions, basically, through writing the novel.

PK: I did think of how, at the ‘schlock’ end of crime fiction there can be a glamorization of violence, of crime, of this kind of tainted heroics of action, of affecting the world violently but to win out. I guess The Godfather series is the one that everyone knows in film. I thought that The Mother was a brilliant – I don’t know why I’m using a football metaphor but – a brilliant shimmy to elude that, to hold up and investigate in a different way without that glorification, without being sucked into the magnetism of that dynamic of glorification of violence.

Marcia’s son dies. Would you say Marcia is a victim, too? I have in mind the French critics who wrote about victims in crime: ‘One is not a victim because one is hunted and directly threatened. One becomes a victim as soon as one is present at events whose definitive meaning one is unable to decipher, becomes a trap as soon as everyday life is turned upside down …. The crime story, instead of signalling the triumph of logic, has then to consecrate the failure of rational thought.’ I felt that Marcia as a character, there’s a great exploration of the psychological landscape of that state she was in when her son dies. Would you care to enlarge on that in any way?

YE: Yes, she’s definitely a victim of what’s happened, by association. I was particularly interested in exploring the issue from her perspective, because I think that when we speak, read about and hear about knife crime and stabbing fatalities, it almost seems as though it’s a purely male issue – that the people who are doing it and the people who are dying and injured are men. There’s an almost complete absence of female voices, or any even idea that actually there are women who are absolutely devastated, and yet still having to continue with their lives, to raise children in the absence of fathers, in the knowledge that their fathers will never be part of their lives ever, whether that’s because they’ve died or they’re in prison and mums – mums and dads, but always mums – who are absolutely devastated, who have spent so many years in all that investment of love and care and energy…. I speak for myself as a parent. My objective is to get the children to adulthood safely so that they can stand independently and take their place in society and soar and fulfil their potential.

PK: I’m always curious about – this is a kind of writerly thing – whether you just went on and wrote from [Marcia’s] perspective, or wrote out her consciousness intuitively or instinctively, or whether you went through somebody’s ‘five stages of grief’. I think that part of the fascination and brilliance of the novel is that psychologically it rings true.

YE: Yes, I had to. The idea began with my experience. I was then very focused on looking, reading, watching, and listening to stuff around knife crimes. I spoke to a couple of mums who had lost their sons violently, and both of whom had gone on to create charities. In one case, Yvonne Lawson, who set up and runs the Godwin Lawson Foundation, which aims to break down postcode barriers by getting football teams from different areas and taking them out of their area so that they can play sports with each other, and to recognize, I suppose, that they have more in common than differences. They also do a lot of stuff going into schools and talking to children, about young people, about knife crimes. And the JAGS [James Andre Godfrey Smartt-Ford] Foundation, set up by Tracey Ford who lost her son in the most random way. He went to an ice-skating birthday party, and was killed on the ice, and no one’s ever been convicted for that. I found it astonishing speaking to them, because I felt like if we weren’t so fortunate for our experience to have ended well, to have not ended badly. I don’t know how I would have dealt with that.

So when I was talking to Yvonne, she was saying to me that when she went to the court case for the boys that were charged with her son’s murder, she was so filled with rage and so much anger at the beginning. And then, as she listened to their life stories unfolding, she felt sympathy for their circumstances. I think that’s a strength beyond a strength that I can even imagine. That something amazing and so beneficial to so many other people, could come out of such a terrible tragedy.

I’m always interested in people’s internal processes, in how you go from being just angry to looking at things no longer from just your own perspective, but from the perspective of a community, and what might you be able to do to save other people’s children, save young people that you don’t even know or have a relationship with. That was amazing to me.

There are organisations where people who have had that experience can come together and commemorate their loved ones, but also talk about the experience, because when people say, ‘Oh, how are you?’ Nobody wants you to say ‘actually, my grief is overwhelming, and I just don’t know how to continue with my life.’ In those groups, people can be really honest about their feelings. So I know of those groups because I’ve spoken to those two mums. But there are also other online forums that you can just go on and be part of. So I did a lot of looking at those online forums, there’s just so much tragedy, but also so much strength. And all of these people giving support to one another when actually they’re suffering terribly themselves. So yeah, I had to feel around and look around all of that.

PK: That was one of the standout moments in the book. I’m so glad that you’ve covered that in a little detail: the ‘family day’. I think I wrote in my notes that I’d never come across such a scene before in a novel. It was so moving, it brought me to tears. It’s also so well structured, the scene, and the tones or the notes are just right? And I thought, yeah, you know, this is what needs to be written about and you found a way to do it. There is a genre that is loosely called domestic noir, and they say that it centres on the family and the female experience. In terms of your own novel, there are certainly moving cadences between Marcia and Lloydie.

YE: Yeah, so I think that often women provide support to other women. We learn from a very young age that girls talk about stuff, and they talk about their feelings, whereas boys are sometimes toughened up a bit, and they’re expected to ‘not be a girl’, or act ‘like a big girl’s blouse’, or to ‘man up’ and not explore their emotions quite as much. And then what often happens, I think, is that some men just don’t have the vocabulary. They don’t have the experience of speaking about how they feel or their emotions. So one of my favourite parts is the scene where Marcia observes that Lloydie didn’t do the cuddling with Ryan but he always left his dinner money on the table, and he always checked his bike tires.

And so his love is demonstrated practically instead of verbally. And that’s fine, actually, for Ryan. It would have been fine for Ryan, wonderful for him, to receive love, to know that his father loved him because of those things, and it would have been balanced by Marcia speaking to him and talking… she says that she talked about everything with him, even very tiny things that he was upset about when he was young. She discussed them very seriously with him and took them seriously. But I think that from Ryan’s perspective, those differences wouldn’t have been a big deal, but they do become a big deal in his absence where now Marcia and Lloydie need to be able to share their grief, and communicate with each other, and support each other. And Lloydie just doesn’t have the language, the experience. He just can’t do it. There’s no catharsis for him. He’s not able to unload his grief, to lay it down. He’s like a pressure cooker with all of these feelings and emotions, locked up inside him, and no way out for them. That can make communication really difficult. Again, when I was looking around the trauma that parents go through whose children who’ve been murdered, I was looking at prominent couples whose children had died in violent circumstances. A lot of those couples have split up. I think part of that may be the weight of that grief, the enormity of that trauma, it’s so big that any breakdown in the ability of the two of you to communicate is going to be magnified. When I was writing The Mother, I didn’t know whether or not by the end of the novel, Marcia and Lloydie were going to still be together. I didn’t know how they would overcome that breach in their communication. I just didn’t know how they were going to do it until they did.

PK: To turn to some of the mechanics of the novel. The novel retains the tension and the trial is part of that tension. And then again the lovely way you wrongfoot the reader in not giving the verdict. Did you do a lot of research for the trial scenes – because they all seem to roll very naturally?

YE: It’s really funny, I’m sure that you have to be a partial masochist to become a novelist in the first place. I had the idea and it just seemed so impossible because I knew nothing at all about the law around knife crimes, I knew nothing about trials. So I had to start at the absolute beginning. I did lots of reading. I read an absolutely fantastic book called Devil’s Advocate, by Iain Morley, QC. It’s basically a step-by-step guide to courtroom advocacy, and how to construct your case at trial. That was really, really useful. I read The Colour of Justice, Richard Norton-Taylor’s play based on the transcripts of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. All of the language in that is almost taken verbatim from what was said at the Inquiry. And so it’s really rich. It’s a brilliant play, but it’s really rich in courtroom dialogue. I went to the Old Bailey lots and sat in the public gallery. That’s how I ended up with my public gallery scenes because I hadn’t even thought about the public gallery scenes being part of the novel. I found it absolutely astonishing that the families of both sides would be in the public gallery; that the front benches are reserved for those families. I attended murder trials at the Old Bailey, and observed them from the public gallery, but I was also observing people in the front rows and being able to work out from their responses to the evidence which side they were they were on.

I think that is where the whole symbiotic relationship in the novel between what happens in the courtroom, and Marcia – all of the stuff that’s going on emotionally with her – I think that’s where that springs from, because I just thought it’s devastating to not just lose somebody but to go through the trial. It’s so clinical to have their deaths described like an autopsy report in the courtroom, to have to listen to what happened described over and over again; it must just be absolutely devastating, piling devastation on top of terrible trauma. And a couple of times there were fights in the public gallery as well between the two families, and then the case would come to a halt. And in one of the cases, they decided that only one family could be in the public gallery at any one time, because they just couldn’t occupy the same space without the disputes.

I went to court quite a lot. My eldest daughter has a friend who is a barrister. I spoke with a barrister and she was kind enough to read through my manuscript and to give me feedback. In fact, she found an error in the middle of my novel that was catastrophic. I had one of the characters say something on the stand that, had that happened in real life, it would have brought the trial to an end, and they would have had to begin the whole process again.

PK: I think you incorporated that moment into the novel, I think?

YE: So, the second half of the novel went in some completely different directions as a consequence of her evidence. I had to go back and change her evidence there, and then make quite substantial changes to the second half of the novel as well. I found it really interesting as a process because the novel ended up going in directions that I hadn’t anticipated at all.

PK: You pulled it off. It’s very convincing. It’s in the first-person present tense, the novel. How did that come about – was it something that you instantly did or was it something you tried experimenting with?

YE: Both my novels have been written in first person. I’ve done quite a few short stories, and the majority of them are in the first person. I think it’s because my interest is in exploring the stories of black women, and giving voice to them because their experiences are so rich, so extraordinary, and yet their stories have been absent. Lots of women’s stories have been absent, historically anyway, but in particular, even now, black women’s voices are completely under-represented. And there are so many really interesting, complex stories about their lives. I want to give voice to those stories. When I say I want to give voice to those stories, I literally want to give voice to those women. I don’t want to write about them, and what happens to them. I don’t want that distance. I literally want their voices to speak through my work, so that there’s no misunderstanding about what’s going on with them, or how they feel, about the enormity of their interior landscape. I think that’s why I tend to go for that perspective, and why I did it here as well.

PK: I think it’s that interior landscape is the thing, ultimately, that I’m most interested in when I read novels or fiction.

YE: Yeah. Me too.

PK: And I think you’ve made a valuable contribution in developing that voice. It’s lovely learning about your process. I think we all have our own curiosities around this. It’s been a very successful process for you, and it’s been lovely interviewing you. Thanks very much.

YE: Thank you. And thank you for all of your enthusiasm.

© Yvvette Edwards and Peter Kalu