Courttia Newland: ‘We’re battering down barricades’

The novelist and screenwriter on working on the BBC drama series Small Axe, why rejection is an inevitable rite of passage, and what he’s reading to his kids

Courttia Newland, 47, grew up in west London and published his first novel, The Scholar: A West-Side Story, aged 23, earning critical praise for his portrayal of a teenager’s life in the inner city. Since then he’s written seven more books and eight plays, winning numerous awards for work that ranges from detective fiction to Greek tragedy. In 2000, he co-edited the anthology IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain and, as a screenwriter, he recently collaborated with film-maker Steve McQueen on two acclaimed episodes of the BBC drama series Small Axe. He’s now preparing for the publication of two new works of speculative fiction: A River Called Time, a novel, and Cosmogramma, a collection of short stories, both to be published by Canongate in 2021.

What inspired you to write a book about astral projection?
It sounds bizarre but I’ll just say it. When I was growing up I used to have these episodes where you wake up and feel like you can’t breathe, you can’t see, you’re almost having a seizure, a dreaming seizure. I’d fight it and try to wake up – but this one time, around 1997, I didn’t fight it and I had an out of body experience, like I actually rose from my body. I could see somebody in the room sitting next to the bed. The experience stuck in my head and I thought, “Let me find out what’s been happening.” I found all these books saying it was astral projection. And that was it. I knew I wanted to write about astral projection. I actually started the book in 2002.

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