In a novel that Kirkus’ reviewer called “a graphically up-to-date coming-of-age tale,” British novelist and playwright Stephen May captures the caustic voice of Billy Smith, a teen in modern-day Essex. Billy’s mother has been abruptly killed, leaving him and his little brother Oscar on their own. Left to their own devices, Billy and Oscar teeter precariously between youthful self-indulgence and risky behaviors that raise the specter of social services’ intervention. On the eve of the book’s U.S. publication, we exchanged questions and answers by email about angst and adolescence with the author.
Life! Death! Prizes! begins with the untimely death of the narrator’s mother in a random mugging. What made you decide this would be the precipitating event for the rest of your story?
I was mugged. Two hooded kids tried to grab my laptop in Leeds one winter's night. They weren't very good at robbery, and I beat them off surprisingly easily. And I am no hero; it was instinct and adrenalin. Afterward, I thought how stupid I'd been—how I should have just handed over my bag. We've all read about the have-a-go heroes who end up stabbed and killed. And I got quite shaky at what I'd risked in fighting back. I thought about how my younger kids might deal with the fallout from that....From there, it was quite an easy step to imagine what might happen to our boys if I was a single parent.
Billy and his brother Oscar are lost boys of a sort—schedule-less, takeout-scarfing waifs. How does their lifestyle exemplify Billy’s attitudes toward his brother and their current predicament?
Billy is doing his best. But looking after small kids is hard work, and Billy has had no practice—he's learning on the job. He's also angry, grieving and increasingly desperate, mental states which aren't conducive to model parenting.
You’ve noted that you stayed 19 years old far longer than anyone you know. Does this sort of arrested development help you get inside Billy’s head to unspool his attitudes toward the world?
Not only was I 19 for several years—far longer than the measly 365 days most people get—but I also became a parent in my final year at college, which definitely helped inform Billy's view of the world. I was also a high school teacher for 10 years, and that is a great laboratory in which to see adolescence unfurl.
Our review notes that Billy has “enough sarcasm to strip paint.” What’s the key to portraying such a caustic character while keeping the humanity in him?
Jane Austen said of Emma Woodhouse, “I have created a character no one but me will much like.” I wondered if Billy would be like that. Would people be able to warm to him? But I think people recognize the desperate love he feels and his mental energy and sharp humor. Also Billy gets nearly everything wrong, which I think frustrates the reader, in a good way. They want to help him.
The cover really jumps off the shelf. What’s the significance of the title Life! Death! Prizes!
The U.K. is famous for the inventive, energetic ridiculousness of its tabloid press. And in recent years, a new category of magazine has sprung up too, what Billy calls “trauma porn,” with stories of real-life disaster like “My Father Raped Me On My Wedding Day.” The leading one—Chat—has the words “Life! Death! Prizes!” beneath the masthead, and it's a phrase that seems to sum up not only the magazines, but what the whole culture is narrowing down to. The stories generally end positively too. Even in the example I quote, the girl marries, has kids, finds happiness....I'm not sniffy about these magazines either. I like them.
Several reviews have noted the fast pace and black humor here. Did the style come easily to you?
Not easily exactly, but after a while, it was a matter of putting up the antenna and waiting for Billy's voice to come over the airwaves....It's important to me to be plain and clear and not too tricky. I also want people to turn the pages. And there are also things I've noticed about the way we live now that I want other people to notice too.
This is your second novel with an adolescent protagonist. What appeals to you about writing about young people in conflict?
I should probably have therapy. I'm probably trying to resolve all sorts of issues to do with my bullying father and my lack of scholastic achievement. But to be young is to be at risk. Young people—cute kids just months ago—are out in the world without armor and knowing few of the rules of the world they're in. One averagely unhappy adolescence provides fuel for a thousand novels, I think.
The boys’ biological fathers are either absentee landlords or unapologetic bastards, really. What does a story like Life! Death! Prizes! say about the modern family?
Trust the women. Don't rely on the men.