Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team is one of the most widely discussed and critically acclaimed Scottish debut novels of recent times. SNACK caught up with Graeme to find out more.
Can you tell us how, and why, you became a writer?
The ‘how’ is probably best summed up as a war of attrition. In 2009, I scraped into the University of Stirling to read English Studies as an undergraduate. I followed this with a Masters’ in Creative Writing, under the tutelage of poet Kathleen Jamie and Janice Galloway, who would mentor me later. I began writing my own novel in 2013 in my first days of drug withdrawal. The process took seven years and roughly 300 rejections.
The ‘why’ was a purge of my old life on paper. Was it cathartic? Almost certainly. Challenging my past in literary form held the key to a different future. There was no plan B.
How much does The Young Team draw on your own experiences?
The Young Team is a work of fiction, first and foremost. However, all the characters and action within the novel are inspired by my real lived experience of young team gang culture in Airdrie and Coatbridge. Fictional characters revolve in the fictional world I have created. Azzy [the lead character] and I share most experiences, especially those dealing with mental health and addiction.
The exposure to serious violence (including murder), suicide and trauma is first-hand. I was very careful not to include real gang names and only use the physical locale of Airdrie as a template for my world. The last thing I wanted was to create a shrine to our culture or to glorify violence. It’s a realistic fictional portrait of how it was then, told in the high definition which lived experience affords.
Have you had feedback from anyone who shared those experiences? If so, how has the novel been received?
I have had some great interactions with readers. One young man messaged within the first few weeks to tell me he was inspired to stop using drugs after reading. A woman from Lanarkshire told me she and her brother, who was serving a prison sentence, discussed it at length. She was sure it would change his life as she felt the energy of my transformation. I was very sad indeed to learn that on his release he took a fatal accidental overdose of street Valium.
Unlike fiction, there’s not always happy endings here. Many young men and women have messaged to say they feel seen and represented. Some message to tell me this is the first book they have ever read. I cannot convey how this makes me feel. It feels like vindication. It feels…beautiful.
The language just flows off the page. It’s written in dialect, which can be hard to get right. How did you approach the writing, and did you find it came easily or not?
The dialect is a true representation of my daily speech and thought. People often say it is written in ‘Scots’ or ‘slang’ – which, of course, it isn’t. It’s written in the vernacular dialect of North Lanarkshire. This is, without doubt, one of the most controversial elements of the novel. Commercially, it’s less attractive and was one of the main rejection themes from many agents and publishers.
It is very important politically and morally for working-class voices not to sanitise themselves. If I was to, what message does that give to my community? Our voice and truth aren’t worth hearing?
It is a privilege to represent my community in a literary work. That carries linguistic responsibility and I take that seriously. Voice is attached to self-worth. Mine is intact. Theirs should be too.
You deal with addiction and mental health issues through your protagonist Azzy Williams. Did you find those difficult to address?
There is a barrier in sharing both emotions and suffering. It isn’t stoic, boys. It causes the high number of male suicides which we see in blackspots around Scotland – including one of the worst in Lanarkshire. I have lost several friends and know countless more young men who have taken their own lives. It was a huge responsibility to represent suicide and mental health and get it right.
Young men confide in me that they have had similar untold experiences. Finding language to communicate the rush of sensations of a panic attack is tough. It’s hard, even for me, to be honest around mental health, but it’s incredibly worthwhile. It can save other’s lives. It can save your own.
You also write quite beautifully about the importance of music and clubbing in Azzy’s life. How important were they to you growing up, and does music still influence you now?
If anything, I think it’s understated in the novel. Azzy and the gang go to two raves in the novel. We went to around twenty. Scottish rave culture experienced a renaissance in the mid-00s. Ecstasy use exploded and was a fundamental part of our drugs landscape. I try to capture the effect of the Class A drug on human consciousness, while not glorifying it.
In the second rave scene in the novel we see the darker side, as it all goes Pete Tong. I underestimated the power of music in The Young Team. Lots of people mention it to me. It’s culturally emblematic and takes readers back to a specific place and time. Music is a huge part of my next project. Its nostalgic energy is massive.
I have significantly mellowed. A friend put it, ‘Yeev swapped hardcore beats fur armchair seats.’ A younger one said, ‘Yi cannae handle the scandal, eld yin.’ I’d call it re-entry after the stratospheric 00s. I’m at peace with it. I’m seven years drug-free, and four teetotal.
How do you feel about how The Young Team has been received? Do you think people have got what you were trying to do?
I think both the literary and drug prevention communities see the value of my lived experience on the page. I am very pleased the ‘literariness’ of the novel is turning heads too. The rich interior life of the Scottish ‘ned’ has never really been explored. The exterior ‘hard shell’ of our young men (tracksuits, Berghaus jackets and cultural camouflage included) is often a product of the tough environments of modern poverty. If The Young Team allows people to see beneath this on a human level, then I have achieved what I set out to do. It often exceeds expectations. Maybe I do too.
People expect a violent gang story. It is that, but it tackles much more delicate themes. I think people get that.
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