Hackney-based novelist Patrice Lawrence is “amazed” after her book Orangeboy topped the older fiction category at the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize on Thursday night.
Her debut novel tells the story of a young boy in Hackney who is forced to make a tough choice – whether or not to follow his older brother down the wrong path – in order to protect the people he loves.
Patrice picked up a cheque for £2000 and the promise of “ongoing support” from Waterstones, which means her work will be prominently displayed at stores across the country.
Speaking to the Hackney Citizen the day after her momentous win, the down-to-earth author said life had quickly gone “back to normal”.
During a break from her full-time job at writing charity Spread The Word, Patrice joked: “The train was suspended at Dalston Junction this morning, so nothing has changed.”
But she admitted her triumph hasn’t quite sunk in yet: “I’ve been nominated for a few things now but I’ve never won, so I really wasn’t expecting this at all – especially as the field was so strong.”
The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize has been championing emerging talent for thirteen years, and the awards are unique in that they are voted for solely by booksellers – a fact not lost on Patrice.
“They are incredibly knowledgeable,” she said. “So many books pass through their hands so it is fantastic to have that recognition.
“The prize money is nice but the support from Waterstones staff is more important to me. I’m a debut novelist and they really don’t owe me anything, but they’ve been incredibly helpful right from the start.”
Patrice was handed her trophy by the company’s managing director James Daunt, and she joked that it was nice to have her daughter with her “to hold my bag”.
“In all seriousness, it was great that she came along,” she added. “My daughter has been there for me during the whole writing process so it was lovely to celebrate with her.
“She grew up in Hackney, unlike me, so hearing her stories is fascinating. And a lot of what she says informs my writing.”
Patrice has lived in Lower Clapton since 1997, and used Hackney as the setting for both Orangeboy and her follow-up novel, the intriguingly titled Indigo Donut, which is set to hit shelves this summer.
She said: “Hackney is full of stories. It has layers of social history, layers of migration, and people from different backgrounds bumping up against each other.
“There’s harmony and conflict in the borough, which makes it so interesting for a writer.”
But Patrice doesn’t take kindly to people focusing on Orangeboy’s mentions of gang culture.
“The story is not about that at all,” she said. “The main character has a librarian mother and a firefighter father. And he’s really into sci-fi. I actually worried at one point that I’d included way too many references to The Matrix in the book.
“Also, I didn’t want to build on that stereotype of Hackney. The concept of ‘gangs’ feels too simplistic to me anyway, and it is not what the borough is about.
“White protagonists are never labelled with the ‘gangster’ tag, so why should black children be stereotyped in that way? The book tells the story of a family dealing with grief and loss, and a mum trying to guide her son down the right path.”
Patrice said she was heartened when a bookseller from Newcastle, a white gentleman who she guessed was in his fifties, approached her to say how much he loved the novel.
“He told me that, even though the story follows a young black boy in Hackney, it touched him because it is really about what it means to grow up into a man. It is lovely to see that sort of passion for something you’ve written,” she said.
Commenting on Patrice’s award, Waterstones’ Florentyna Martin said: “Orangeboy is a truthful and gripping novel from a fantastic new talent in young adult fiction.
“We were particularly struck by the energy and flair of the writing, and Lawrence’s gift for creating rounded, believable teen characters, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.”
We shouldn’t have to wait long. Patrice revealed that Indigo Donut is due for release on 13 July.
“As long as I can get these bloody line-edits done,” she laughed.