STORYTELLING | We talk to author Alex Wheatle about his book The Humiliations of Welton Blake, ranging from writing for young people to the titles that impacted him as a young boy, and revisiting the school days within which the book is set.
Can you tell readers a bit more about The Humiliations of Welton Blake?
Welton Blake is based on all of the awkward, dramatic and hilarious moments that I and friends of mine experienced at school. It includes crushes on the opposite sex, problems with parents, bullying, pranks, jokes and peer pressure. At its heart, is an anxiety that many of us have experienced, when first love comes knocking…
What drew you to tell this story?
After writing Cane Warriors, which dealt with a serious subject matter in a slave uprising, I really needed to uplift my spirits again. I wanted to pen a narrative that made me laugh and have fun. My own school days were filled with many embarrassing and awkward moments so I leaned on my own experiences to inform Welton Blake. Many young people had a tough time during Covid and lockdown so I wanted to offer a story that would make them smile.
“This is the engine that drives my storytelling – real life experiences.”
At the start of the book, you acknowledge writers of The Beano, Whizzer and Chips, The Dandy and Shoot! “who kept this young boy’s spirits up when it was most needed”. What was it about these titles that made such an impact for you?
Comics like The Beano, Whizzer and Chips, The Dandy and others kept me going as a child. Happy times were few and far between growing up in care but the above magazines would remind me that fun was there in the world.
Our monthly theme is storytelling, and so we wondered what draws you to write for teens? How do you find writing for younger age groups different?
In my first few works of fiction, my main characters were aged between 14 to 18, so writing for a younger audience wasn’t too far away for me. I guess because my own teenage years were so full of drama, incident and trauma, I had a lot to work on. I remember too well the emotions I had as a teenager. Sometimes adults forget the intensity of emotion we feel as teenagers.
You took a lot from reading when you were younger, as noted; how much does the idea of what readers could take factor in as you write? Or do you just focus on the characters and their story and try to blur out external thoughts?
What informs my writing, and what I factor in are the emotions I felt as a teenager and a young person. Also, I was a youth worker for many years and on occasion, young people wanted to share their experiences with me. This is the engine that drives my storytelling – real life experiences. For example, in my Crongton series, I know of families just like Liccle Bit’s, Jonah’s, Naomi’s, etc.
“At its heart, is an anxiety that many of us have experienced, when first love comes knocking…”
There are a lot of pop culture references throughout where characters either process or express feelings, or bond; what do you think it is about the culture we love (e.g. Star Wars) that offers us something more personal that exists beyond the screen?
With so much drama around these days on so many platforms (when I was growing up there were only three TV stations) young people are bound to invest in and like to be associated with characters they adore on their devices, TV screens, etc. As a writer I cannot deny that – certain characters in my storytelling will have that association with a film franchise or TV series.
What do you hope readers, particularly teens, take from your books?
What I hope that young readers will take from my fiction is that they will recognise at least one character in one of my novels that they can identify with or feel familiar about a certain family experience or situation. And even if they do not identify with any of my characters, I hope they can build an empathy for the characters I write about.