One Sunday morning, I came back from a walk with my husband and son to find a man in our home, stealing my computer.
You never know how you’ll react to finding a burglar in your home, but mine was to fight him. I had a new novel (only partly saved) and a child to protect, and instant rage made me fearless. Although the thief was fit, young and well over six feet and I am none of these things, I was somehow able to fight him all the way from my study into the hall, where I pinned him against the banisters, shouting for my husband to help and my son to call the police.
Although the burglar escaped through the window he’d removed to gain entry, the police were able to trace him through the DNA on the T-shirt we tore off him. A month later, I identified his photograph at a police station, and he went to prison.
Anyone would be shaken up after such an encounter, and I went on thinking about the thief – and his accomplice – for a long time. Like many authors, I have been invited into prisons and learnt how many inmates struggle with reading and writing. For me, the revelation was that my recovered laptop’s search history showed that the thief was functionally illiterate.
“If I had my way, I’d put burglars in a pit with a hungry lion,” said the police detective who handled the case, and my own feelings were not too different when I considered what might have happened to someone less lucky or robust. Yet the more I thought about what it must be like to grow up, trapped in semi-literacy, the more I wanted to write about that world.
For five long minutes, I’d been hand to hand and skin to skin with the thief, and he’d reminded me of a wild beast. What would it be like to be him? Worse, what would it be like to be someone who wanted to learn but was, like Stephen Lawrence, a target for gang violence because of this?
When Cathy Renzenbrink asked me to write a Quick Read novella for World Book Night what particularly interested me was that she mentioned how Quick Reads tend to be read not only by people of all ages who have lost confidence in reading, but by young offenders in prison. I knew that “my” burglar must be long out of prison (and I hoped a reformed character), and yet I still wanted to write a story not only about the world he was from.
I knew something about gangs and sink estates; my former sister-in-law Harriet Sergeant had written a brilliant account, Among the Hoods, about the attitudes and experiences of the lost boys she befriended. All my novels have recurring characters who grow and age, and I had already created a deprived child called Billy in my third novel, A Vicious Circle, who would now be a teenager. I wondered if Billy might be my new hero.
One thing in particular haunted me: on the way back from the police station where I’d made my identification, the detective and I had discussed the lack of empathy in criminals.
“I’ve know people who have died from the shock of burglary,” he said. “Thieves just can’t imagine what it’s like to have your home violated.”
To read is to develop empathy, because you can’t be inside characters’ hearts and minds without dilating your own. There is a terrible irony in the fact that despite English literature, from Shakespeare to JK Rowling being the most famous in the world, and English the most dominant language, one in six adults are functionally illiterate. Too many grow up in bookless homes. Our country frequently appears at the bottom of international rankings for literacy.
This is the most colossal waste – and if you love reading, it’s heart-breaking to know that millions of people are shut out not only from jobs but also from pleasure, information and emotional enlightenment.
Quick Reads, now run by The Reading Agency, aims to address the reading deficit trap by publishing short books of 20,000 words, and together with its partners, push against a deprivation which is estimated to cost the UK £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending. The initiative has published over 100 titles, sold or distributed more than 4.8 million copies and enabled over 4.6 million library loans (PLR) since it was founded in 2006. Each book costs just £1.
The roll-call of authors who have contributed to the annual challenge is as varied as it is excellent, and includes Roddy Doyle, Malala and Lynda La Plante. The payment is minimal, but the fun enormous. Though we are asked to use simpler language and shorter sentences than might be usual, the voices must be our own, and the stories gripping enough to keep the most reluctant reader going.
This year, my own contribution is joined by best-sellers like Rowan Coleman, Dreda Say Michell, Jenny Colgan, Susan Jeffers and a crime collection, Dead Simple, by Peter James, Mark Billingham Jane Casey and Clare Macintosh. The stories that have come out of readers’ experiences are touching: new readers have told how the books they encounter have helped them through bereavement or crippling lack of self-confidence.
Books are such humble, flimsy things and yet stories have the power, a power which Dickens above all used, to make the haves see the have-nots as people. My Will is not a beast, but a person. My burglar was also a person.
We live in a world whose luxuries were unimaginable a hundred years ago, but whose suffering and cruelty remains acute. Next to food and shelter, work and dignity, we need stories. Quick Reads are the cheapest stories to give or buy, but anyone who finds their way to reading for pleasure gets a key with which to unlock the world
Amanda Craig’s novella, The Other Side of You (Little Brown) is published alongside five other Quick Reads titles, all of which retail at £1.
Her new novel, The Lie of the Land, is out on June 15.
Quick Reads is an annual initiative run by The Reading Agency whose mission is to inspire more people to read more.