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Moral Ambiguity And Coffee In London With Laura Canning – OpEd

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I didn’t plan or expect to meet Laura this time when I was in London, in fact I didn’t plan my second trip to London within a week anyway. Considering what is happening in the political circles in UK (and broadly, Europe) planning seemed to me an exercise in futility.  So when I met her in the holga-ish Cafe Nero in Buckingham Palace road after two whole days of covering the coronation of the new UK PM, I was distinctly under-dressed as a classic political correspondent with shabby army green t-shirt, jacket, scarf and jeans, increasingly aware of the uncomfortable dark moist growing patch near my armpit. Thankfully I had deospray in my laptop bag, as the person who greeted me with a copy of her first published novel was in a proper burgundy dress, smelling fresh and soinding Oirish; capable of giving a seven hour Sun-dried man enough complex for the rest of the day. We proceeded, appropriately in my opinion, to talk about her novel and lead character Lisa (a working class, domestically abused, societally neglected early teen, on her way to drugs, larceny, prostitution and “freedom”), on a day Britain had her second Conservative female Prime Minister.

Her debut novel “Taste the Bright Lights” (which I read in the next twenty four hours on my way back to Nottingham) is contemporary urban drama, tracing fourteen year old Lisa “growing up” in Northern Ireland. Imagine Chetan Bhagat’s early writing, meeting “This is England”, just more gritty, grimy, and grainy…a jarring experience, like watching a slow quaint mutiny unfolding, being shot in sepia lens. It shares occasional debut novel characteristics, like overuse of certain typical urban colloquial words, and it’s not an easy read, and not only because of the sheer powerful narrative force, but because of the moral ambiguity that reigns within.

It is in spirit of that moral ambiguity, I asked Laura these questions, published below unaltered and unabridged.


lWhat’s your next book about, and when’s it going to be published?

I finished my second book in December 2015 and it’s currently with agents. It follows Lisa five years on from the events in Taste the Bright Lights, but is intended to be a standalone book rather than a sequel. It’s about what can happen to vulnerable young girls in care, something that is only now beginning to enter the public consciousness with stories like the grooming cases in Rotherham. Its title is Maybe Thursday You Can Sleep and it’s set in Belfast.

What made you tackle urban dramas as subjects?

I didn’t decide to write ‘urban’ fiction as such, but when I write fiction, or journalism, my starting point is always to highlight an issue. I wanted to show the lottery of life in the different upbringing between Lisa and her best friend Nicola, and I set it on a council estate in a Northern Irish town because that’s where I grew up. I think I’ll always write about ‘issues’ when writing fiction, although I do the opposite of that in my professional writing which is quite humorous.

You seemed to keep the novel (the first book) on a morally ambivalent tone. Where do you personally stand on the issue of freedom? Is a life of prostitution, even though free of societal pressures, good? How much is morality important to you?

The book could be said to be morally ambivalent, and I think that’s a big part of why traditional publishers shied away from it. One big publishing house said it was ‘extremely well-written’ but added that they could never sell it in schools [a big part of the YA market] because of the sex and drugs parts of the storyline. Lisa doesn’t die the first time she takes E – she feels great and she does it again any chance she gets. I once refused to answer questions about drugs from an author who was writing a novel about a teenager taking E – who of course died in his story. More people die in police custody than die from taking E. It might be morally ambivalent to say I just want people to be able to do whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. Morals aren’t the law and vice versa. I live my life according to my own moral code  – I suppose morality is important to me, but only the (to me) obvious things like honesty, courage and kindness.

I’ve never been sure where I stand on the issue of prostitution. On the one hand, grown adult women can work as escorts and fully choose to do so (and I know a couple of them); on the other, the great majority of women working as prostitutes have been abused as girls or young women. All I can say in relation to Taste the Bright Lights is that Lisa’s situation is the absolute antithesis of free and informed consent, and that of course is repugnant. Not from Lisa’s point of view, but from the men who take fully knowledgeable advantage.

How much of your personal experiences, friends, family, youth, etc influenced you in writing this?

The first question everyone asks me after reading TTBL is ‘Is it based on your own story?’ (I’m always kind of shocked people would ask me that directly, given the graphic nature of some of the themes and scenes.) But while what happens to Lisa didn’t happen to me, the inside of her head is similar to mine at fourteen. The lonely and insecure nature of being a teenager, particularly a girl deemed unattractive in a world that values women mostly for how they look, is something that almost everyone can relate to, and something that a lot of positive feedback and reader reviews for the book has centred on. Nicola is based on my best friend at school. Like most writers, the rest of the characters are bits and pieces of people I knew when I was writing it. The character that’s most true to life is Kelly, who’s based on a girl who picked on me at school when I was about Lisa’s age.

Any advice for writers?

Stephen King says that if you want to write, you have to read. I agree – I’d advise people to read as much as they can so that their mind is always primed for storytelling, even if work or personal circumstances or anything else means they can’t actually write for a while. I’d also advise potential writers to get feedback as soon as possible so they know it’s worth going on. A creative writing class rather than a group is better I think as you’re more likely to get honest feedback. Have a plan – keep a diary or spreadsheet of what you’ve done that day to further your goal of being a writer, even if it’s just emailing an editor or writing down a short story idea.

This article was published at Bombs and Dollars.


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Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. He spends way too much time on Twitter, @MrMaitra

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