Courttia Newland is fast becoming one of the most significant voices in Black British writing. His work includes the novels The Scholar (1998) and Snakeskin (2002), collections of short stories - Society Within (1999) and Music for the Off-Key: Twelve Macabre Short Stories (2006), as well as the critically acclaimed plays, The Far Side, about the murder of a young black man by a white youth, and Mother's Day, which premiered at the Lyric Studio Hammersmith in autumn of 2002. Newland has also edited IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000) and is currently writing the screenplay to a film adaptation of The Scholar.
In an interview that took place in July, Courttia Newland spoke about his writing and his new book.
When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
Although I had been writing for many years as a "hobby," I only turned to serious writing when I was 21. I had tried various avenues for making money and none of them had worked. I really wanted to build a music studio, so I decided to write a book and sell it, and then build my studio from the proceeds. As you can see, I had no idea what a writer's life was like. Luckily for me I enjoyed writing the book so much I gave up on music.
Who would you say influenced you the most?
On a personal level, my grandfather. He taught me a lot about the world and strengthened my political views with an emphasis on being black in this country (the U.K.). In a literary sense, Chester Himes - his books convinced me I could write about working class black people without having to apologize about it.
Most of your novels, short stories, and plays have black people as main or major characters. Is there a particular reason for this?
I write about people who have been left out of mainstream fiction. When I was first published I felt that these people had no voice, so I wanted to try and capture that. I write to tell stories, to validate and chronicle our untold lives.
How did you come up with the title of your latest book, Music For the Off-Key: Twelve Macabre Short Stories?
In my part of London (west) the word "off-key" has been floating around for a while. It means when something or someone is weird or a little unusual. I wanted a title reminiscent of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, so I came up with Music For The Off-Key. It's funny because it sounds strange to most people, but working class Londoners tend to get it right away!
How long did it take you to come up with the 12 stories that make up the collection?
A long time — I've been writing different collections since I published The Scholar — Music is just the latest version. I had the stories for Music together back in 2002, but publishers have been slow to pick this one up and so I swapped a few of the stories around and wrote a few new ones. This lineup has only been in existence since last year.
Which would you say was the most difficult to write? Why was this so?
They all flowed quite easily. "Gold" took the longest because I was working so much, but they were all quite painless.
Which did you enjoy working on most? Why do you think this was so?
"The Double Room." Even when I was writing it, it came out exactly as I imagined it. That's quite rare for me.
What would you say sets Music For the Off-Key apart from the other books you have written?
The characters are all subversive, along with their stories. I tried to stay away from any restrictions I might place on myself and push the boundaries for these people, taking them away from the everyday and placing them in abnormal situations.
I suppose I got tired of having to be "authentic." It's a terrible burden to place on a writer. Sometimes we just want to imagine. [To] create.
In what way is it similar to the others?
It's Black Britain, but not as we know it! I tried to make these characters inhabit the same world as the one in my previous books — so The Dying Wish, a novella starring Ervine James of Snakeskin, crosses over with "Suicide Note," the first story in Music For The Off-Key. I'm still writing about inner-city London, but from a new angle.
As a writer, what would you say are the major challenges that you face and how do you deal with these?
Tying money to creativity. Finding time to write. Breaking the limitations placed on me by the outside world and sometimes myself. The fight between instinct and the intellect.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement so far? And how did you get there?
Five books and counting! It's all about the work, I think. I've just put my head down and told stories.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
More books and a larger bank account!