When Patrice Lawrence was a teen, she created an illustrated story for her younger sibling. It was about a child that looks like him, who goes on an adventure, riding a big carrot with a giant purple rabbit. “There were no books about Italian-Trinidadian kids, so I decided to write one for my brother,” she tells Young Post.
She realised this was also an issue that young black people in London faced, and so the British writer decided to become a voice for black teenagers like her.
Still, finding her own voice took more time and courage than simply making up a story for her little brother. “There were no books about black teenagers in Britain … and I didn’t think I could write one because they weren’t there,” says Lawrence.
“It was not until I was in my 30s, when I started seeing a few black writers writing about black teenagers in Britain, that I began to know what I wanted to say and how I could say it.”
The award-winning writer has published two young adult novels so far. Her first, Orangeboy, won both The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2017 and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Children 2017.
Both set in Hackney, London, her novels feature black and mixed-race characters brought up in non-traditional families – like her own.
“I’ve never lived with a family where we’re all of the same colour,” Lawrence says. “For the first four years of my life, I was looked after by a lovely white family, when my [single] mother, who came from Trinidad to England, was training to be a nurse to make a living.”
Then, Lawrence went back to live with her mum, who met Lawrence’s Italian stepdad, which is why she has two Italian-Trinidadian half-brothers.
Lawrence has spent 20 years working in organisations and charities supporting children, families, and prisoners. They have also shaped her stories, which deal with teen issues and heavy subjects like bullying, gang violence, death, and the grief that follows.
“I’ve worked with families who have lost their children to the care system, whose children were brought up by their grandparents, trying to understand what it’s like to be a child not living in a traditional family,” she says. “For me and a lot of families in London, it is really normal … I’ve met so many of them, but I never saw that in books, which was why I think those are the families I have in my books.”
Lawrence, whose biological father died when she was in her 20s, understands how difficult it is to speak about death. “I hope young people [who’ve had similar experiences] can read my stories and know that somebody cares about them.”
Lawrence wants young aspiring writers to follow in her footsteps – to forget what’s going on in the literary scene, and to write about the things they love and care about instead.
“Just think about the sort of things you enjoy, and think about that as the way you’d like to write. It doesn’t have to be books,” she says.
“Take myself as an example, I aim to write stories that are like Korean dramas … rather than Charles Dickens’,” Lawrence says, adding that she is a fan of K-drama Goblin. Those shows, she explains, are usually funded by outside companies, so writers have to keep viewers coming back to keep their funding. They do this by building characters and storylines the audience will care about.
Lawrence has used all of these elements to create urban thriller page-turners with characters her readers feel like they can relate to.
“If you have a scene that you’re burning to write about, write it now and make changes later,” she says. Your first drafts will probably look rough, she adds, but you shouldn’t worry because first drafts never look polished – that’s why they are drafts.
Another piece of advice she has for young writers is to not force themselves to start a story at the beginning and finish at the end.
“I write my endings long before I finish the stories,” she says.
She adds students should write in different genres, and enter as many writing competitions as possible. “It gives you a deadline and, even if you don’t win it, you end up with a piece of writing that you could use later.”
And if you haven’t seen yourself represented in literature, and are hesitant to write about your experiences, Lawrence says there’s no time like the present – write them now. “It takes a while to be content in our own identity and have the confidence to think that you can write about it,” she says. “But think about the book you would have loved to read as a child, and write that book. [Write what] you would’ve cared about.”