I wrote my debut novel, Common Ground, to champion the principles of solidarity and friendship across cultural boundaries. I wanted it to be a book about the importance of sticking by people, and of finding the common ground beneath the external categorisations that society foists on us, even when those categorisations make life hard and unfair in very real ways. More literally, the novel tells the story of a friendship between two boys who grow up together in a small town in Surrey, England, in the noughties. One of them, Stan, is a child of suburbia, struggling with bullies at school. The other, Charlie, is a Romany boy with a love of indie music and a nose for local history. The second part of the book follows them into adulthood, as they try to find their ways in the savage, neoliberal landscape of 2010s London, discovering that society offers them very different sets of opportunities.
I officially started writing the book in the autumn of 2018, but as I’m sure many other writers will have found with their own projects, the whole thing actually began much earlier. After graduating in 2014, I moved to Bath, in Somerset, England, to work at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (still one of my favourite independent bookshops in the world). Bath happened to be home to a large and vibrant busking scene. I’ve always loved music, and got into the habit of spending my evenings singing folk songs at the open mic nights around the city, which led me to become friends with a few of the buskers. Busking is in itself an activity that draws attention to the issue of public space, and of who is allowed to do what, and where. It was my conversations with Bath’s buskers that first got me asking the questions that were the initial sparks of inspiration for Common Ground: why is there so little publicly-owned space in England? And why are there so few physical spaces where people can simply be, unconditionally, without having to buy something, or explain something, or stop doing something to make their continued presence on that particular piece of ground acceptable to the people who have the power to move them on?
After the UK’s 2016 Brexit Referendum, my germinating ideas and frustrations about private landownership and the lack of literal common ground in England collided with my fury at Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and everyone else who’d tapped into the poisonous forces of nativism, white nationalism and racism to further their own selfish agendas. I’d started to see where power really resides in Britain, along with who literally owns most of the land – and I began filling notebooks with the thoughts and ideas that would eventually become Common Ground’s thematic foundation.
My interest in physical space, and who those in charge allow to occupy it, also led me to become interested in learning more about Britain’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The horrifying racism I saw those communities facing – often, shockingly, from people who would count themselves as those who stood against racism in other contexts – shook me to the core.
Taking my fury and my fears and writing a book about it all seemed strangely like the obvious thing to do at the time. It’s a privilege to be able to channel your principles and convictions into your work, and I decided that since this was something I was actually able to do with writing, it would be inexcusable not to.
My path to publication is a disappointingly conventional one. I studied English at university, worked in a bookshop for a few years, and then went and did a Creative Writing MFA. The MFA helped me complete a first draft of my story collection, Escape Routes, which I sent out to agents. My agent agreed to represent me, and sold the book to Tinder Press – who I’ve been with ever since. Of course, I worked extremely hard throughout all of this, and of course I spent a staggering number of hours writing unfinished, abandoned and just not-good-enough projects that will never see the light of day, but I’m also painfully aware that I’ve been extremely lucky.
As someone who’s very new to being a professional writer, I’m not really qualified to give advice. The one thing, though, that seems to have helped me most throughout this process of becoming a published writer is actually something I happened to learn in a GCSE drama class: if you want to get anything creative done at all, you can’t worry about looking stupid. Because if you try to look poised and dignified all the time, and if you aim to always deliver perfect work, then you’ll never take the risks you need to in order to learn the craft, figure out what your voice sounds like, and discover what it is you’re really trying to say.
It’s a strange way to spend time, writing books, and I’m still miles away from figuring out how to best go about it. At this point, it honestly feels like a minor miracle that I managed to write a whole novel at all, and I have very little idea of how I’m going to be able to pull off that enormous, sprawling magic trick of a task ever again. I’m still keen to give it a go, though. In the meantime, I’m beyond excited to finally share Common Ground with you. I really, really hope you enjoy it.
(c) Naomi Ishiguro
Author photograph (c) Rosie Powell
About Common Ground:
From the acclaimed author of ESCAPE ROUTES, a bittersweet story of coming-of-age in a divided world, in the tradition of TIN MAN or BLACK SWAN GREEN.
It’s a lonely life for Stan, at a new school that feels more ordeal than fresh start, and at home where he and his mother struggle to break the silence after his father’s death. When he encounters fearless, clever Charlie on the local common, all of that begins to change. Charlie’s curiosity is infectious, and it is Charlie who teaches Stan, for the first time, to stand on his own two feet. But will their unit of two be strong enough to endure in a world that offers these boys such different prospects?
The pair part ways, until their paths cross once again, as adults in London. Now Stan is revelling in all that the city has to offer, while Charlie seems to have hit a brick wall. He needs Stan’s help, and above all his friendship, but is Stan really there for the man who once showed him the meaning of loyalty?
Order your copy online here.