LUKE PALMER | AUTHOR INTERVIEW
Poet, author and teacher Luke Palmer has battled with the theme of ‘radicalised youths’ in his thought-provoking and unsettling new novel, Grow. Karla Brading finds out more about the story behind the story…
When 15-year-old Josh loses his father in a devastating terrorist attack, he becomes lost in his grief. Tentatively finding his way into a new ‘norm,’ he is pulled under the wings of fellow students – students with a dark agenda. Josh’s father was innocent: one of many fatalities on what should have been an average train ride to work. Now, white supremacists are targeting Josh because they appear to really care about his pain and the injustice. But is revenge really the answer? Will Josh decide his hate and blame are misplaced before more people get hurt?
Did Palmer feel any apprehension towards the writing of Grow – a sense of “am I doing the right thing highlighting these horrors?”, in effect? Or was he quite settled in knowing his book holds an important message that needs to be made familiar?
“Apprehension? Absolutely yes!” Palmer admits. “But the horrific aspects of our society that Grow zooms in on weren’t the issue. Those elements are already out there and in the public eye. My apprehensions were – are! – more around telling this particular story right. I’ve put some awful words into characters’ mouths, and Josh does some awful things in this book, and if anyone reading it were to take those words and actions as some kind of tacit approval or tolerance of those things, or – worse – as license to follow that example, then I’ll have failed. Completely.
“I also had wider anxieties around whether it is my place, as a white writer, to take up space in the discourse around race. But I’ve allayed that to some extent – this is a book about race in as much as it’s a book about whiteness, and how that gets constructed and weaponised. In which case, white people have to start and participate in those conversations, and they have to happen in white spaces.”
The link between character growth and the hidden beauty of a garden full of natural plant growth is woven through Grow. Does its character Dana’s love for gardening, as expressed via flowery green-fingered scenes, hold any similarities to Palmer himself?
“The garden was an integral part of the book from the start. Its role was synonymous with Josh’s journey, as much a part of Josh as his grief,” Palmer explains. “I wanted the garden to be full of plants that don’t take a whole lot of maintenance. The buddleia, for example, and the crocuses. Dana’s probably more a custodian than a gardener – she potters around, helping things along and tidying up around the edges. She doesn’t spend hours in the potting shed or planning out her colour schemes. That’s definitely my kind of gardening! I’m a rank amateur, to be honest. I just love being outside, having a kind of contact with the earth…”
Josh is very vulnerable character, even though he may not see it to begin with. Being radicalised and rooted in anger can be a slippery and dangerous slope. Often people feel completely alone with no way out. What advice would you give to any of your readers who may – heaven forbid – be in Josh’s position, or perhaps knows someone who is?
“We live in a strange world where if feels as if a single action or time in your life will brand you forever, and that feeling of inescapable consequence is especially true when you’re younger, when the future is kind of an abstract concept. But it’s rarely, if ever, the case. My advice would be to talk to someone. It sounds simple, but it’s often the hardest thing to do – to reach out and be vulnerable. There are charities, organisations and professionals who are trained in these kind of things. And they are there to help.
“Talk to an adult at school, or to one of the many helplines and listening services, like Childline, or a specialist organisation like Stop Hate UK. And if you’re in the situation where someone you know is putting themselves at risk, it’s not your job to deal with it alone. Again, there are places who are professionally trained and fully equipped to help – reach out to them.”
As Grow hits bookshelves on Thurs 1 July, Palmer is already hard at work on his next novel.
“It picks up on some of the themes of Grow, dealing with how masculinity gets constructed and the how young men interact and learn from each other. It’s not a sequel to Grow, but it’s definitely from the same universe.
“And there’s probably another one in the pipeline behind that – something about music, I think. As the saying goes, foolish is he who names the well from which he shall not drink. And, from a writing point of view, I’m always thirsty!”
Grow is published by Firefly. Price: £7.99. Info: here
words KARLA BRADING