04th Feb2013

Interview with Courttia Newland

by Lloyd Paige


Courttia Newland is the author of books such as The Scholar, Society Within, and Snakeskin, as well as a number of plays. His most recent book, The Gospel According To Cane, is out now and I wanted to hear just what an experienced author like Courttia had to say about a whole host of things bookish.

1. How much do you think that you and your writing have changed since you first wrote The Scholar?

Society Within (the 2nd novel) was the first story where I matched what was in my head to what I wrote. It’s strange because I can’t say I haven’t changed but obviously I have and my writing’s changed. Stylistically, I’d like to think that at least I’ve matured and line by line, my writing’s got better.

I think I was more on the instinctive side of things where writing was concerned and also myself. Where now, I’m more concentrating on the fact I am actually a writer in my personality and in my writing .

2. You appear to have a certain amount of artistic freedom with your writing. Your previous book, The Book of Blues, was an energetic collection of stories with a deep rooted look at relationships, while The Gospel According To Cane offers up a harrowing story with a mystery crime element. You’re also working on a collection of Sci-Fi shorts. Why do you think you are allowed to do this?

If you look at the journey I’ve taken, I’ve gone through quite a few different publishing companies *he laughs* so I don’t think allowed is really what it is. I just decided that’s just the type of writer I am. I always wanted to do this from when I began and knew I wouldn’t be writing the same book over again. I knew I wanted to change regularly but that’s difficult for all sorts of publishers. They may like one book but they may not like that you’ve changed completely to do something else. I’ve had a journey where I’ve had to take my work to other publishers and keep pushing for what I have as a whole artistic vision in the sense that, I want to write a body of work and want to be able to cover lots of different aspects of being Black British. So it’s essential for me then to be able to write in different genres, different styles, different voices, even different forms, because I write plays as well. I have a lot less security as a writer because I generally take my work to different places. But ultimately, I’m looking for a home with a publishing company where I can just be diverse in what I write, and every book I write I treat as a step to that. It’s more a case of me forcing that on agents, publishers and editors, rather than being given a free reign.

3. Was there pressure from Agents and Publishers to keep a constant style?

Yes after Snakeskin, I handed in a Sci-Fi novel. They were confused about why as it dealt with a lot of African Cosmology.

4. The Gospel According To Cane is about a woman whose young son is snatched, only for a man to turn up years later claiming to be him. What influenced you to make that the central plot line?

I was watching a TV show and saw an adaptation of a book which had quite a big factual element. It’s quite a good trick and I liked that, taking something that happened and fictionalising it. So the obvious thing was, what if he (the main character’s alleged son) came back. Essentially I wanted to use it as a way of talking about the generation gap for post colonial diaspora people, but I also look at the class divide as well.

5. Which Character in the book did you get the most satisfaction from creating and were there any which you had difficulty with?

Good question, to be honest with you I really got the most satisfaction from the main character. I feel I kind of pulled off a whole novel written from the point of view of a middle-aged, middle-class woman. I wasn’t sure whether I could do it before and I feel that I’ve managed that. But there’s a lot of other characters. There’s a character named Seth, a policeman who stayed friends with the main character over the twenty years since her son’s been away. He’s not really in it that much but he’s very in it when he’s there. And a character named Vicky, who’s a really close school friend of the boy. I got to that scene (where she’s first introduced) and she appeared like she was supposed to be there, so I wrote one other scene with her in. She’s a strong character.

6. As I understand, Telegram Books will publish The Gospel According To Cane in England and Akashic Books, based in New York, will publish it in North America. Are you planning to promote it on both sides of the Atlantic?

Askashic actually got it first so I’m going to New York in February and when I come back, I’ll promote it here as well.

7. How important is the whole process of promotion for you after a book’s been released?

Infinitely important. I think some writers feel the book is just out there and they shouldn’t do readings. I basically try and do as much as I can, wherever I can, and I’ve kinda’ always had that attitude. You can’t complain that your book is not selling if you’re not letting people know it’s out there. It’s like being a musician, you have an album out and you have a gig. It’s all part of it. So I always factor that into my head once I know the publication date and even in the mean time, if I don’t have a book out, I’ll probably do a few readings promoting the last book or whatever short stories I’m working on.

8. Music has been a big influence in your life. Do you think there’s a link between music and writing and if so why?

I think there’s a strong link. I think a lot of writers either wanted to be musicians or were musicians. Now what you’re finding is that a lot of musicians are writing novels or screenplays, Nick Cave for example. I’m reading a few books by people that used to be in rock bands and Toby Litt did the book, ‘I Play the Drums In A Band Called Okay’ because I know he had a fantasy of being a rock star at some point in his career. It links because in songs you have lyrics which are a form of poetry or prose, so they link together that way. But also when you write a book, or poetry, or even a play, there has to be some form of music driving it, some sort of rhythm. There’s got to be a rhythm to the sentences and the voices you hear in your head. And you create a sort of rhythm to the tone and mood. That’s why it’s so easy for me to be able to read and this guy to play the sax (in reference to a previous public reading) because we’re working in the same area.

9. You’ve written a number of plays. How does that compare to writing a story of fiction and which of the two gives you the biggest buzz?

In some ways it’s not comparable at all, I mean a play is a play. In other ways you’ve got dialogue so it compares to that aspect of writing a novel. The biggest buzz? Neither of them, they both serve different purposes. I like writing plays because they’re completely different to writing novels and I like writing novels because they’re completely different to writing plays. So if one’s irritating me or I have an idea that doesn’t fit into a novel, I can do it as a play or vice versa. It gives me more scope to try out different ideas that wouldn’t necessarily fit in each form.

10. Have you got a special place to write or can you write anywhere?

I teach a little bit and I say to people get out of, ‘I need to be here to write,’ because if you don’t have it then you’re stuck, and you don’t want that to contribute to your (writer’s) block. I try to write anywhere, any country. I remember writing some of Snakeskin in Miami, I wrote a story called His Healing Hands in Prague, and I wrote some of a novel called Minx in Kenya.

11. When you’ve finish writing a novel what does the overall length tend to be?

At the moment I’m in small novel mode. If I can, I want to crack 160 – 180 pages and I was hoping I’d hit it with this one. The other novels tended to be around 300 pages. Gospel (According To Cain) is about 272 pages but I don’t really have a set length.

12. Do you still carry the same enthusiasm for writing as you did when you first started out?

I think I feel more enthusiastic. I think I’ve discovered so many different things, so many different styles. I’m reading a lot more non-fiction and a lot of science fiction, just getting really excited by the idea that there’s so much potential out there and so many things that can be done which haven’t been done before.

13. You’re on the judging panel for Fiction Uncovered 2013. What do you think can be done to stop a slew of good books and talented authors slipping through the net?

I think there’s a kind of literary hierarchy and I’m not calling by any means for its removal, but I just think the space needs to be opened up a bit more. People are saying there’s not enough space, there’s too many books being published. I said, ‘Why would you keep promoting the same writers over and over again, some of whom don’t need any promotion because they’ve been promoted for twenty years or so, maybe even more?’ Invite a wider selection of people to the festivals. Get more people coming into the universities. Get more academic criticism written about these new exciting writers out there. As a writer you’re kind of left to your own devices, it’s sink or swim and nobody really helps you and I think that’s really frightening for a first time novelist. They think, once I’ve written the book, it gets published then they’ll be interested in what I’ve written and guide me.
The fact of the matter is the industry’s too busy. There’s too many books being published, they have to make money, they’re not going to concentrate on the books that aren’t immediately successful. There needs to be more of a literary community which actually appreciates art and a channelling of the people that are out there. Take them to universities, schools, and festivals.

14. You’ve been a writer, you’ve taught creative writing, you’ve been nominated for awards as well. What are the main things that you think writers need in order to have a long career?

You need to have a vision but you don’t have to have it at the start. It needs to go over and above, ‘I just want to get published.’

1. What is it you are trying to say?
2. What is it you talk about?
3. What kind of writing do you want to do?
4. Where do you see yourself going?

Then you’ve got to be really determined. One thing that really kills writers is the idea we know everything. In my mind what makes great writers are the ones that say actually, I don’t know anything but I’d like to learn and I’m going to try and work this out, I’m going to do that on the page. That makes for a more interesting writer for me, keeping that curiosity alive and real and not becoming jaded and be engaged in the art.

15. What’s next in the pipeline for you?

The science fiction short stories and then I’ll try and write another novel.

The Gospel According To Cane


Beverley Cottrell had a dream life: a prestigious job, a beautiful husband and new baby boy. But then, one winter afternoon, when her son was barely a few weeks old, Malakay was kidnapped from a parked car. Despite a media campaign, a full police investigation and the offer of a reward, he was never found. Two decades later, Beverley starts to believe that she has finally pieced her life together – until a young man starts to appear wherever she goes. One dark evening the stalker gets past her security door and calls through her letterbox. He tells her not to be scared. He tells her that he is Malakay, her son.


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