Tough Luck

He walked on, head down into the swirl of snow, and didn’t stop until he could see the school gates. His stomach tightened with cold misery.

I wrote Tough Luck with the help of a class of thirteen/fourteen year-olds when I was on a writers’ residency at Hall Cross school in Doncaster. It was the children’s decision that the subject of the novel should be ‘us’. Together we invented a school that could have been theirs; teachers who might have taught them, children who were a bit like themselves. None of the story is true, but it could have been. It all takes place in one term, but in that time a lot has been discovered.

I proposed that the three main characters, Nasim, Sprat and Twagger, should all have something in common, though they themselves don’t know it. It was the real class who suggested overwhelmingly what this common link might be, and it is that all three live with just one parent. The change in the structure of family life is very relevant and obviously very important to young people today, and Sprat’s confused loyalties between his father and his absent mother represented much of what the class expressed.

But it wasn’t the only theme that I was encouraged to explore. Several of the children came from Asian families, and they wanted to make sure that their culture should be represented. With their help I developed Nasim. Her storyline, arising from the conflict between European and Islamic values, was suggested by them.

The children also wanted to explore the theme of isolation, and Twagger was developed as a child who failed to fit in at school because of emotional problems in his home life. He became the outsider, and the whole class unites against him until Sprat and Caroline begin to realise that not everything is his fault.

The enthusiasm of the class was a major inspiration in the writing of Tough Luck. They saw themselves and their friends in the characters, and they recognised school as a backdrop, sometimes a sanctuary, for intense personal dramas.

The children from Hall Cross School, DoncasterHow did I write it? During the residency I visited the school eleven times, and spent just a total of eleven hours with that class. In our first meeting we talked about friendship, bullying, pocket money, music, holidays, love, dreams, families, school – and I began to have a strong idea of what it was like to be 13–14. I divided the class into small groups and each of them had a character to think about. I asked them questions like – what is the character’s favourite food, music, clothes – what are their bedrooms like, do they have any special things that they never want to lose etc. I would invent a scene and ask the groups to write it and I would write my version. Then we would read them out to each other and compare notes. By the end of the residency we had a fifty-page book which we called Twagger, printed out on the school computer. I developed it then on my own, building up the plot and the characters, visiting the mosque and speaking to the Imam, trying to bring together all the different threads that we had explored in the classroom. In the end, only one person can write a book, but I kept in touch with the class and when the new book, Tough Luck, was published we had a big launch party at the school. The press and television came, and all the children tasted fame that day! The class and their teacher were photographed for the back of the hardback, and all their names are printed inside the book, and every year I send a fixed sum, to a charity called Action Aid, on behalf of Hall Cross School.

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