Petworth author inspired by murdered student

Petworth author Nicola Garrard is in print with 29 Locks (HopeRoad, £8.99), a book she wrote after teaching poverty- and gang-affected teenagers in a London comprehensive school for 15 years.

Nicola Garrard
Nicola Garrard

“Having moved back home to West Sussex and worked at a rural comprehensive school from 2017, I wondered what would happen if a poor boy from London was fostered far from home and became best friends with a wealthy girl from the countryside,” explains Nicola, aged 47.

“I began writing it after one of my favourite students in London was tragically murdered so the concerns in the novel include knife crime, grooming by gangs and the repressive role of drugs in society. So it’s an emotional book for me, written from the heart. I call it a love letter to the teenagers I had the privilege to teach in London. I’m so full of admiration for their resilience and humour in difficult circumstances and wanted to celebrate that in a story. I hope it will appeal to young people. It’s a fast-paced adventure, but with a serious look at racism and poverty in contemporary Britain.

“I was inspired by YA (Young Adult) writers such as Nikesh Shukla who reflect teenage experience and deal with difficult social issues. I wrote the book for teenage readers, but many reviewers have come back saying adults should read it too. I found writing it emotionally hard, especially the violent scenes that reflect the experiences of children I had taught. There’s one scene that still makes me cry each time I read it, even after multiple edits and revisions. I was new to writing fiction when I started writing 29 Locks, so I had to teach myself using writing-craft books and detailed online guides written by authors such as Emma Darwin. The starting point for the book is my experience of teaching in London, both in a secondary school and on a year-long secondment to one of its feeder primary schools. I wrote myself a short cameo role in one scene where I show a teacher making a huge mistake when dealing with the hero, Donny, at a time in his life when he is vulnerable and needed compassion.

“In 2002, as a young teacher from rural West Sussex, I had no idea about the realities of city life. I hope young people will recognise themselves in the book, but also that adults will read it and learn about the challenges many teenagers must overcome.

“At the moment it is a stand-alone, although my publisher has asked me to write a sequel so watch this space!

“I’ve had poetry published, and was lucky to win a prize in the Poetry Book Society/Mslexia Poetry Competition, judged by Carol Ann Duffy, but 29 Locks is my debut novel. 29 Locks was shortlisted in the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition which helped me find a literary agent and bring the book to publication.

“I started writing as a teenager and won a poetry prize in the Chichester Observer when I was 16.

“My secondary school, Bishop Luffa, published a literary anthology every year which inspired me to write. My parents still keep all the copies of Knight Life featuring my poems and short stories while I was at school. I also won’t forget my brilliant English teachers at Bishop Luffa including Joan Seacombe, Clive Maybanks and Gabrielle Kimm, who encouraged my poetry and valued creative writing. It’s inspiring for young people to be taught English by teachers who are themselves writers.”