Luke Palmer: Grow

Luke Palmer’s tense and timely debut YA novel Grow tackles relationships, teenage radicalisation and the solace of the natural world. Grow was published in July, 2021.

Hi Luke! Congratulations on the publication this month of your debut novel Grow! What plans do you have to promote your novel, especially in schools, and what do your students think of Grow?

Thank you! To be honest, the marketing side of things is something that’s all very new to me at the moment, so I’m very much learning on the job. Firefly have been brilliant in getting the book to some very influential people, and it’s appeared on some lists of vital books for schools. They even secured some funding to put a copy into every secondary school in Wales, which will happen in September, which is brilliant because word of mouth is the best publicity you can get, I think, and the more young readers that the book gets to, the better. I think it’s picking up traction; Grow was Children’s Book of the Week in The Sunday Times on 18 July, and I’m doing some events for YALC and Camp YA over the summer. So it’s a whole host of smallish things that all help with how visible the book is.
I definitely wrote Grow with at least half an eye on it being used in schools, so yes, I’d love to get into classrooms and talk about it – either virtually or in real life, depending on how things are this autumn with the coronavirus situation. I’m definitely bookable so far as that’s concerned! In terms of my own students’ excitement, I think they’re in two minds – they’re kind of impressed (in as much as they’d show me!) but I’m still their teacher, so anything I do is clearly uncool by default. I did use them as guinea pigs for a few parts of the book though, styling a few sections of the draft as GCSE practice papers to see if the underlying themes were coming through. It was probably the most useful feedback I got. They didn’t know I’d written it, so they were ruthlessly honest and threw up some great pointers; one student asked if the book was set in the distant past because one of the characters has a VHS player in their house!
Where did the inspiration for Grow come from, and why did you decide to write a YA novel?

The idea for Grow came some time in 2015 or 2016. I work in a school with a very low proportion of non-white British students, and I was having lots of conversations with students – mostly boys – at around the time of the Brexit vote. These were conversations about sovereignty and pride in a national identity – all the buzzwords that were doing the rounds across all media – but also about the mass movement of people, and the refugee crisis, and about immigration. There was a lot of anger among young men, and it was being pointed at this ‘other’ that the media were latching onto. And this in an area where a tiny fraction of the population – about a third of the national average – identified as non-British. Most of the boys I spoke to were reasonable and rational and we talked through why their anger might be misplaced or based on dubious information, but there were a few whose ideas were more intractable. And the more I was trying to counter their anger and animosity – often with facts or perspectives that we’d look up together – the angrier and more entrenched their ideas seemed to become. I was also sitting through annual Prevent strategy training in my teaching role, and was wondering why radicalisation was constantly being presented as another problem with the ‘other’ in society; terrorism was seen as something that happens ‘to’ Britain, rather than British people being equally susceptible to radicalisation, when I was having all these encounters with angry young men, looking for a reason to justify this weird sense of threat they seemed to be suffering with. So I wondered what would happen if one of these young men had a specific reason to believe in the nastier, more toxic end of the media spin that was being put on the Brexit arguments. Would he be able to resist that pull? And what would be necessary to pull him back from that ideology?

The sections in Grow which focus on radicalisation, racism and the far-right agenda are challenging and, at times, really uncomfortable to read. How difficult did you find it to write these episodes, and how important was it to you to get the language and tone correct?

There were definitely sections of the book that were very difficult to write. In my initial research, I barely scraped the surface of the far-right propaganda available on the internet, and it was a horrible experience. The amount of hatred out there is terrifying. Putting those words and ideas into the minds and the mouths of characters on the page was very hard, and I spoke often and at length to Penny (my editor at Firefly Press) about how to get these parts right; how to balance the integrity of the characters and story against the use of problematic and triggering language, especially given the position of whiteness that I’m writing from. Right from the contract negotiation stage, we were both keen to invest in a few rounds of sensitivity readings, and they were very valuable in helping on this issue. At one point, the manuscript came back from a sensitivity reading by a Syrian reader (Ahmed, the character who becomes the focus for Josh’s racism at points in the book, is Syrian), and her thoughts were that the language wasn’t pushing hard enough. At that point, we knew we had to be authentic in the racial slurs that the characters use. But I was very aware of the need to balance that with an overall perspective which doesn’t even remotely condone that language or those actions. Which, as you said, was very difficult to achieve. It’s the aspect of the book that’s most kept me up at night. On many occasions, actually.

And on to Josh – what a character! Open and honest from the very first page, his vulnerable and direct teenage voice never wavers, even as his world is unravelling around him. How did you go about creating and developing Josh as a character, and did you miss him once you’d finished writing Grow?

Josh arrived along with the idea for the book. It was a package deal, I think; there was never any possibility of changing his character or shifting the perspective of the narrative. Josh is Grow, and Grow is Josh. I guess the age-old advice to ‘write what you know’ holds up here. I’ve been working with boys like Josh for 15 years now, and I was one, once, so he emerged pretty much fully formed onto the page from the first draft. Following his reactions and responses through the many events and turns of the book, watching his character develop, became the most exciting thing about writing the story, and hopefully that translates for the reader as well. There were times when I didn’t know how Josh was going to react to certain things – I’d planned the major plot points, but gave myself a lot of room in how to link them together, trusting that Josh would pull things through. And he did! It’s useful advice, I think, to trust your characters and not try to control them too much. In terms of missing him, he’s not gone yet, I don’t think. He’s still up there, in my head, living his life. But I’ve got a lot to thank him for. He’s even in the acknowledgements of the novel!
We loved the themes of the natural world and the hidden garden which allow Josh and Dana to grow up and develop their friendship – why did you choose these as a means of escape from the escalating violence and drama around them?

All the way through the book, Josh needs nurturing. He’s been pretty much left to deal with a hugely traumatic event on his own, and his grief has overwhelmed him even before the start of the novel. The metaphor of the natural world slotted alongside this really well, and it was part of the initial idea for the story right from the start: by tending to a garden, Josh discovers his own ability to heal. Or at least he realises what he really needs in order to get better. Writing YA can be difficult at times; there’s a line to be walked between being too opaque and too instructive in how the world around your main characters reflects back on them and the central action. The garden is part of that negotiation. It’s also a place where the anger and aggression caused by artificial distinctions drawn between groups of people has no place at all. The natural world doesn’t care about that stuff. In fact, it would probably prefer it if we humans got out of the way altogether. So the garden is the place where Josh and Dana are free to be the most honest, the most ‘themselves’, at any point in the novel; they put down all their baggage when they walk through that gate, or – in Josh’s case – climb over that wall.
What was the best advice you were given as you began writing your debut novel, and can you tell us a bit about how you secured your agent, Jane Finigan at Lutyens & Rubinstein Literary Agency?

I enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University back in 2016, and specialised in poetry, so I had relatively little advice on how to approach a novel. I had written one before, in my second year of my undergraduate degree, about a pigeon who becomes telepathically connected with a furniture salesman, but that was rubbish so not much help. I was told, in one workshop, to avoid anything in your writing that ‘smears the glass’ through which your reader is viewing the novel. It’s another way of saying that, as a writer, you should get out of the way of your story. It was hard to follow, because as a poet the glass is always pretty smeary, but in the case of Grow it was good advice. Grow is Josh’s story, so I had to get myself out of the way and let him tell it.

The MA was also invaluable in finding Jane. We shared the launch of our end-of-year Anthology with the MA in Writing for Young People; it’s an event where hundreds of agents and publishers come along, having read the anthologies, to try to find new talent. As a poet, there was little point in me attending the launch and trying to promote my poetry career – poetry doesn’t really work that way, with agents and cheese-and-wine receptions – so I scanned the invites list that the Writing for Young People cohort had put together and thought I’d pitch this YA manuscript to them as best I could. In the end though, I just had lots of really nice chats with lots of lovely people. I distinctly remember the talk I had with Susannah Godman from Lutyens & Rubinstein, who handles their submissions. We didn’t talk about Grow at all, or publishing. When I reached out a few days after the event, back in ’work-mode’, she asked to read the manuscript then passed it on to Jane. Things went from there, and I’m so glad they did. Jane has been a champion of Josh and the novel from the start, and was as invested as I was in getting the story told right before it went on to publishers. Her passion for the book was the first hint that I got that there was something in this story that readers might respond to.

How did your novel-writing process differ from your poetry writing, and which aspects did you find most satisfying? And as both published poet and now novelist, what are you planning for your next project?

Poetry makes you a better editor, I think. I’m pretty good at killing my darlings and realising when I’ve gone off on one, and even though hitting delete on a few thousand words at a time still hurts, I know it’s for the good of the whole, which is a very important thing to bear in mind. Part of my process for writing poetry is in stripping back a first draft until I’m left with the bare minimum the poem needs to survive on. Writing prose isn’t exactly like that, but you still need those spaces, that air and light, to exist in the work. If you try to pin everything down with description, there’s no place for your reader to get into the scene. I also think the constant process of submission and rejection that you experience in poetry certainly hardened my skin for the several rounds of rejection and re-editing that Grow went through. You have to believe that the work will find its best home in its own time. And that was true of Grow. With Firefly, I found another group of people who absolutely got what I was trying to do with the book from day one. It found its best home.

In terms of what’s next, I’m finishing up the second novel at the moment. It’s not a sequel to Grow, but it’s in the same universe, drawing on the same themes of how masculinity is constructed for a small group of young men. But there’s always another couple of projects on the go. I started a modern version of the Anabasis during lockdown that I’d like to go back to, perhaps as a collaboration with an illustrator friend. And I’ve got a sequence of poems written from the perspective of a homunculus – the preformationist child of a 16th-century alchemist – if anyone wants to publish those…?!

Which YA novelists inspired your writing, and why?

I think Patrick Ness is just about the zenith of the YA world. He’s able to write across MG and YA with ease, and his ability to balance an awareness of his own craft and role against his completely believable characters is mind-bending. A Monster Calls and More Than This, for example, are both stories about storytelling as much as they are about anything. I thought Muhammad Khan’s I Am Thunder was a necessary and brilliant book that Grow, in some respects, is a direct response to. And I also really enjoyed Naomi Alderman’s The Power in terms of how she boldly places characters in scenarios and sacrifices everything to the narrative; this is true in life as well as fiction, I think – we can sometimes become victims of the bigger forces and operations of our societies and cultures.

In your other career as a secondary-school English teacher, what novels do you encourage your students to read (not necessarily the ones on the curriculum!)?

We’re always putting book lists together for students, and I’m by no means the most knowledgeable in my department about what’s going on in the world of YA fiction at the moment. But the book I most often point students towards is probably Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. I first read it in secondary school, and it pushed me down an avenue of reading for the love of language itself, rather than plot or even character. It’s a gateway book for poetry, I think, and from there I devoured Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and got into a bit of Ted Hughes, too. I’ve since re-read Cider with Rosie many times, and my interpretation changes every time, which is the sign of a great book. His voice is a perfect mix of childish wonder (which, from reading his other work, I don’t think Laurie Lee ever really lost) and adult awareness of how the world works. It’s a book that makes you newly aware of your childhood self, and able to appreciate the fleeting magic of being young. And it’s completely immersive – a sensory overload in places. In short, it’s brilliant and everyone should read it.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

It probably sounds a little simplistic, but my best advice would be to just go for it; get that manuscript out there! What I’ve learnt over the last few years is that writing novels isn’t a solo pursuit. You need people around you to help bring whatever sparked you to write your novel in the first place to a full flame. Things like the Caledonia Novel Award are a great place to find those people who will wholeheartedly get behind your novel and your ideas and bring the best out of you as a writer. If there’s something authentic, honest and worthy in your writing, it will be found. And the labour of bringing that part of your writing to the surface is much easier when it’s shared. Secondary to that, don’t forget that writing is hard work. You know what they say: a work of art is never finished, only abandoned. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that typing ‘The End’ is ever the end of the process – no matter how many times you write it. That’s how we keep getting better, and moving forwards.
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