Alex Wheatle is the author of the new young adult novel Home Girl. His other books include Brixton Rock and the Crongton series. He lives in London.
Q: You note that your own experience in a children's home village "has influenced my writing career..." How did you create your character Naomi?
A: The character Naomi first appears in my novel Straight Outta Crongton where she was one of Mo Baker’s friends.
I was in care myself as you know so I really wanted to explore what being in care was like for today’s generation of young people.
Working as a youth worker and speaking to young people in care, I soon created Naomi in my head. She’s frustrated, traumatised, angry, vulnerable, impressionable but kind, sweet and full of love – she’s basically all the things I meet in young people.
Q: You write, "I wanted to write a modern-day Oliver Twist narrative where the focus is on contemporary issues that young people in care must face every day." How do you see Home Girl following in the tradition of Oliver Twist?
A: The real parallel with Oliver Twist is Naomi’s search for a happy home. It’s what I wanted too when I was in care and most of the young people who grew up with me there. It’s a primal thing for someone young – to feel safe and loved.
Sometimes, because of the trauma, at the time we’re not even aware of these needs.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: Yes, I did have a vague ending in my head as I wrote the first chapter. I wanted the ending to be authentic and not sweeten it too much.
Q: What do you think the novel says about the British foster care system?
A: From speaking to young people in the care system in the UK, they want the same thing as Naomi wants – to find a home where they are loved and for that home to offer them stability. So many young people have told me of the constant moves they have had to make from foster home to foster home.
Also, social workers in the care system are overstretched and sometimes physically and emotionally exhausted. We need more people going into social care for young children.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a slave revolt narrative based on a real uprising in Jamaica 1760.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There is a “brother” to Home Girl: Home Boys, which is based on some of my experiences growing up in a cruel children’s home village in 1970s England.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb