Erik’s mum is juggling the challenge of two small babies, plus the recent death of her husband due to COVID-19. Both these factors affect teenage Erik too. When the difficulties at home affect Erik’s behaviour at school and he gets in with the wrong crowd, Erik is tempted to earn some easy money. . . But this kind of money is never truly easy to earn and comes with a terrible cost. We had the honour of chatting with Tia Fisher on her novel-in-verse, Crossing the Line.
This is such a powerful debut. What made you decide to tell this story in verse?
I wrote in narrative verse before Crossing the Line and it feels like a very natural form for me, perhaps because I used to write a lot of poetry and love listening to it performed. Verse novels speak themselves inside our heads: words are slooooowed or speeded up, whispered or SHOUTED! I’m also a very visual person – you have to explain pretty much anything to me via a diagram, so having the words appeal to the eye and the ear is really important.
Verse was the only way to tell Erik’s story because it had to be as accessible as possible. Verse novels are great for people who find big blocks of text off-putting. All that white space helps you breathe. The stories seem to crack along with no effort, and there’s so much playful stuff like different media and concrete poems (look out for the gun and the locker!). Reading is fun.
I find the voice really comes alive: it’s so immediate because you’ve got to strip everything down to the essence of your character. You can offer these little nuggets of imagery and you’ve always got the end lines of a poem to cut across everything that came before, like a sucker punch.
It’s such an amazing format! If you enjoy Crossing the Line, why not try some other novels in verse? There’s Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, Sarah Crossan’s Toffee, Lucy Cuthew’s Blood Moon, Manjeet Mann’s The Crossing, Reynolds’ Long Way Down, Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo, Louisa Reid’s The Activist . . .
The spaces and the positioning of the words on the page carry such weight and importance. How did you decide on the spacing and how the verses are presented? And did you decide after the whole book was written or did it come to you while you were writing?
I wrote much of it in first draft, but developed it in edits. I worked out things like how to attribute speech and how the indents would work with the phrasing (there are actual rules in force there – see if you can spot them!) The stanzas and the breaks between poems kind of write themselves – like paragraphing does in prose. You hear it in your head, and then you just work out how you can make other people hear it like that too.
I won’t lie though – there were times however when I regretted playing with the formatting so much. My wonderful copy-editor at Hot Key and I spent two whole days sitting next to each other at the same desk going through it. I think she still has nightmares about it . . .
Crossing the Line explores the domino effect and Erik feels like he has to keep lying to cover up his previous lies. Do you think children and adults in general are both equally terrified when they are caught up in lies? What about the way they deal with this situation? Are they any different?
What an interesting question. I think children are more accustomed to the possibility of being caught in a lie: I’m not sure it carries the same shame as for an adult.
As for the lies piling up . . . adults have more experience, can foresee the consequences better, so you’d think they wouldn’t get into the same mess – but of course that’s not the case. Our screens and bookshelves are full of adults who weave webs so stickily tangled, they’re trapped like flies. We watch their struggles with horrified fascination. Think of Breaking Bad.
Parents like Erik’s mum often feel guilty that they did not spot these situations sooner. How do you think parents can feel less guilt about this?
I felt this was best answered by the county lines parent who read my book for authenticity. I asked her, and this is what she said:
“It’s a huge trauma, for you and your child – and like any trauma, time helps (I hope). Rebuilding the relationship with your child – if that’s possible for you – and supporting their small steps (or failures) towards a different life – that’s huge I think.
“Therapy is great if it’s affordable/accessible. Otherwise, try to find some compassion for yourself. Imagine saying to someone else the cruel things you say to yourself about your mistakes, about your ‘not noticing the signs’. It’s shocking to do that and can be revelatory.
“It’s a very emotionally isolating thing to go through – so even just recognising that other parents feel the way I do, helps me to feel less judgemental about myself. Because I feel so much sympathy for them. So maybe awareness and solidarity are key – knowing you’re not alone in this experience.”
I also spoke to Erik’s real-life mum. She was helped by her son’s forgiveness, his understanding as an adult that there was little she could have done to swerve his course even if she’d not been in denial.
Just to add that in my research I came across an organisation called PACE (Parents Against Child Exploitation) at paceuk.info: they have a lot of resources on their website.
The Children’s Society helps teenagers like Erik and provides them with support, giving them a second chance. However, society still often views these teenagers as criminals rather than victims. What do you think still needs to be done for society to change this view eventually?
We need more awareness and understanding, more coverage of the ruined lives behind the county lines headlines, of the way that children – such young children – come to be manipulated. Young people don’t have the resources to resist in the same way an adult might. They can’t see what’s going to cause them harm.
We need more organisations like The Children’s Society, which has been instrumental in bringing about better public awareness of modern slavery, and improvements in law enforcement. Thanks to this charity, police now recognise young people caught in county lines as victims, and instead of charging, protect them.
We also need more fiction to create empathy. When I started Crossing the Line, there was almost nothing about county lines specifically – and there still isn’t much. Writers in this sphere, like Alex Wheatle and Patrice Lawrence, create amazing books which help you realise why their characters make the decisions they do. I hope I’ve done that too. Maybe we need to have more books like this for adults? That’s where books are so amazing – not even a film can put you inside a person’s head the way a book does.
You consulted the Children’s Society while writing this book. Please share with us about the experience and what you learned from working with them.
I ran away from this project for nearly a year. I wanted to tell the story but it was such a responsibility: such a long way outside my lived experience. When Hot Key said they were interested, I had to take a deep breath and get on with it. I read reports, watched documentaries and trawled though news clips. I spent a long time talking to person I based Erik on (actually the son of a close friend) and listening to others who have worked with, or are parents of, young victims.
I approached The Children’s Society because they are one of the leading charities working with county lines. They’d also consulted on a Hollyoaks story line, so I felt they’d be sympathetic to my request, which they were. At that point I wasn’t signed, so I was especially grateful for their time, because there was no guarantee I’d get published.
I talked to one of their case workers and we discussed my ideas. He told me more about typical grooming scenarios and how organisations like his could work with victims. I really wanted to give Erik light at the end of the tunnel, and together we were able to work out a credible, yet hopeful, ending. When the whole book was drafted, he read it for authenticity. Then the charity kindly agreed to contribute to the ‘Help’ section at the back of the book.
What I learned is how desperately such youth workers are needed. Given enough time and resource, they can help people rebuild their lives. Empower them to make good decisions.
Crossing the Line by Tia Fisher is out 30th March 2023, published by Hot Key Books