INTERVIEW: Sammy Wright on mimesis, misery porn and ‘Fit’

Photo credit: Clare Bowes

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Sammy Wright on the research process behind his novel Fit (And Other Stories, 2021).

I feel as though your experiences as a schoolteacher must have been key in aiming for the quality of verisimilitude that Fit achieves. I’m curious to know how those experiences fed into your narrative, and how you handled your understanding of children and young people in relation to both your creative process and its supporting ethical considerations.

I’m going to answer the last part of the question first, as it’s so important. As a working teacher, there cannot be any sense in which you’re exploiting or representing the young people in your care without their consent – and my feeling is that I am a teacher first and a writer second. But, having said that, there’s no doubt that I have mined my experience pretty heavily. In earlier attempts at writing about young people, I sometimes got this wrong, I think. I was teaching in London at the time and my writing was very obviously set in the place that I worked. It meant that I started to become afraid of the reader a little – afraid that I’d misrepresent. In addition, by the time I wrote Fit, I was not only teaching but in quite a public leadership role, and later, in a semi-political role too with the Social Mobility Commission. So I made a very conscious decision that I would create a fictional place that was absolutely not recognisable as Sunderland, where I work. It freed me up to concentrate on the characters, rather than on their surface, and to be certain that I could detach my general observations about kids from the actual kids I knew.

Having said all this, there are roots for the strands of the story and the characters that lie in specific things I have encountered. The levels of neglect that you see in schools are at times truly horrific, and I have seen on several occasions situations like those in the novel. I’d go so far as to say I’ve toned it down – I don’t like misery porn, and I think you have to treat your characters with dignity, rather than peering into the darkest corners of all the things that might have happened to them. For example, it was important to me that I knew in my mind exactly what had happened to Rose and Aaron, but that it wasn’t just plonked into the story for the sake of it. I’m not interested in the traumatic events themselves – I can’t bear it, really. I’m interested in how the child responds and develops in the wake of something like that.

Cycling back to the theme of versimilitude for just a moment, I’d like to hone in a little on your approach to dialogue. In my recent conversation with author Jonathan Taylor, we discussed the process of creating authentic dialogue for younger characters. Naturally, your experience as a teacher will feed into this, but I’m curious to know what challenges you found in recreating authentic speech. How did you use dialogue to characterise your younger characters effectively, without allowing stereotypes or quasi-adult syntax to creep in?

Dialogue is really tricky. I’ve always had an ear for how people speak, but that in itself isn’t always helpful. Dialogue isn’t about recreating speech – in fact, when I have recreated speech accurately, my editors and other assorted readers have often picked up on it and complained about a phrase repeated too much, or rambling discussions that don’t really go anywhere. At first I’d insist that yes, kids do swear like that, and that it’s perfectly realistic for them to say OK fifteen times in a row. But that misses the point. If I can go a bit highbrow, it’s about Aristotelian mimesis – not blindly copying reality, but creating an imitation of reality that focuses on the salient parts.

One of the choices I made in this book was to avoid any kind of signals of dialect. This was for several reasons,  including the need to anonymise the setting, but primarily it was about reflecting how kids think they speak, and showing their language from the inside, as it were. The reader can’t be given any kind of block between them and the character – too much slang, or too many apostrophes and phonetic spellings, only serves to distance the reader and make the characters like specimens to be watched and examined. You need to feel like it could be you speaking.

The other key choice was about showing the tricks of thought that come to light in the language we use. This wasn’t just in dialogue, by the way – sometimes it is in the language that characters use in a passage of close third writing – but wherever it happens it can be very powerful. An example that I had to defend in the editing process was a cigarette butt being ‘flicked perfectly’. My editor asked in what way the flicking was perfect, and I said that the whole point was that it reflected Dillon’s general sense that everything about the act was perfect – the imprecision of the language reflected the imprecision of his childish view of the world. You see this a lot in Rose and Jack, with phrases like ‘do you think they’re all rich?’.

I should add as well that a really straightforward thing in the text is that these particular teenagers are not overly verbal. I didn’t want to write yet another version of the hyper-articulate teen. None of them can articulate much about themselves – which is exactly my memory of being that age – and so there is very little explicit meaning carried in anything they say. 90% of it is subtext and inference out of very flat statements.

Yes, I feel like that flatness is, counter-intuitively perhaps, part of the key to the novel’s feeling of authenticity. For me, one of the most immanent themes of Fit is the impact of social media on young people, something we’re still coming to terms with as a society. The narrative scrutinises the influence of Instagram on social life, and touches on the pervasive danger of image-based abuse. I wonder if you feel literature can play a part in helping us understanding and manage these phenomena. Do we have, or are we need of, a new set of narratives to help us deal with this societal changes?

I’m a teacher of literature, and as such I’m both overly aware of the history of how literature has influenced culture, and very cynical about the impact it has on actual kids now. One of my dearest wishes about this book is that kids would read it. Someone asked me my ideal reader, and I said ‘Rose’ – or at least her real life counterpart. While that is pretty unlikely, to be honest, I do love the idea that someone might choose to teach it in school, perhaps, and as such that might be a way of introducing discussion of the value and use of images.

Tied in with that perhaps, and certainly another theme that feels especially pertinent, is your treatment of how young boys develop violent behaviours. From a creative perspective, I wonder if you feel that the representation of boys and men in both literature and the wider arts might contribute to how boys see themselves as they grow up. Again, are we in need of new narratives?

Absolutely. As a parent of two boys as well as a teacher, I find it shocking how narrow the depiction of men can be in mainstream culture. I think the issue I worried about in this book is about the archetypal roles men are shown in, rather than the specific diversities of sexuality and ethnicity. Why are men not rescued? Why are they not broody? Why are they not insecure about their weight and body shape in ways that are not simply mined for laughs?

The thing is, this is one of those instances where representation really matters. If you watch kids on the playground, they are like a little moving collage of everything they’ve seen and taken in – a phrase here, an action there. Some of this is from parents, but a lot is from culture. We’ve just had the Ofsted report on sexual harassment in schools, and there’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the press about the shock of it. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Anyone who remembers their teenage years with any clarity will remember a time when romance was a pretty blunt instrument – and that comes from young people seeing films and stories and quite reasonably inferring that this is OK.

While we’re skirting around issues of intertextuality, I’d like to close by examining what is one of the key – in fact one of the only – explicit intertextual forces in Fit. The novel is replete with references to fairytales, most pertinently to Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as to analogous themes of image, transformation and consequence. I’d like to ask in a broad sense why fairytales still hold such a dominant hold over the literary imagination, and why they might still be a useful intertextual tool for contemporary writers. Might there be a key, within that sphere of imagination, to understanding and managing some of the themes we’ve been discussing?

Before I answer that it’s important to say that in this book I wanted to write something that was readable, story-based, and direct. It wasn’t intended as a literary game. But the architecture of it is designed around both fairytale archetypes in general, and three specific fairy tales in particular – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Beauty and the Beast. I’m interested in narrative theory, and I thought that one way of avoiding the inevitability of the arc of a particular story type was by colliding it with another contrasting story and letting the roles blur and switch. Is Rose Gretel or Cinderella – and does that make Titch the Fairy Godmother or the wicked witch. In that way, by leaning into the pull that story archetypes have on us, you can break free.

In terms of the use of the fairytale narrative for the particular characters I had, and the story I wanted to tell, there were several other key elements. The original prompt for the book was that I read Philip Pullman’s retelling of Grimm at the same time as I was dealing with a very difficult case where some young people had experienced such serious neglect that they stole from bins, and it seemed to me that the sheer brutality of a world that could produce that was a very good fit for a fairytale. And as I wrote, it came together with the language I wanted to use, whereby the young people in the story expressed themselves in this blunt, flat way, because the world they saw was one stripped back to its basics. And as the characters came into focus, I kept thinking about the way in which one sees oneself in very absolute terms at that age – as a hero, as put-upon, as struggling to make your way – and that at the same time, because everything is so new, you accept it all with the flatness of the hero of a fairytale who, when he sees a gingerbread house, rather than considering how unstable the building materials are and how difficult it might be to get a mortgage, just thinks “yum”.

And when we think in particular about notions of masculinity and femininity, it seems to me like fairytales are still just about the most influential stories we have. If anything, they have only grown in importance in the age of Disney. I include superhero films in that, by the way – while not strictly fairytales, they are certainly fables. And even when we have the twists and meta-textual winks we have come to expect from Marvel and Pixar, they never subvert that far – or at least not in a way that truly challenges the archetypal roles. One of the most depressing things to me is that the only Marvel film where female heroes are allowed to escape a narrow vision of “sexiness” is Black Panther – so that all the while you cheer the positivity of the representation, you also have a queasy feeling that this might be because Black women are not allowed to be “sexy” in the same way as Black Widow.

Sorry. I digress. But fairytales are the basis of all other stories, so whether they are acknowledged or not, they remain a key tool for writers.

Sammy Wright is a teacher. He was brought up in Edinburgh, worked in London for twelve years, and now lives in Newcastle. He has served on the Social Mobility Commission and is currently vice principal of a large secondary school in Sunderland. His short stories have been published in a variety of anthologies and his novel Fit, which won the 2020 Northern Book Prize, is his first book-length publication.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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