Culture

'Readers Are Supposed to Feel Horrified' – Gabriel Krauze Talks About His Debut Novel

'Who They Was' is rooted in the "non-stop" violence the writer grew up around in South Kilburn, London.
04 September 2020, 3:45pm
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Gabriel Krauze. Photo courtesy of the author.

You have to ask Gabriel Krauze about his “Times photographer” story. I’ll tell it, but I’ll tell it really badly. Last week, after an interview with the broadsheet, Gabriel and his boys were posing for photos on his South Kilburn estate. After a few clicks, an ominous car pulls up with a screech.

Read Who They Was – Krauze’s debut work of autofiction, which is long-listed for the Booker Prize – and you’ll notice a running theme: in those tiny moments before extreme violence, all of the air and noise is sucked out of the moment – even birds don’t dare to cheep. So now you’ve got a stand-off: a car with blacked out windows; a gang of serious men in their best Rolexes, hands halfway down their pockets; and, in the middle, history’s most terrified Times photographer.

"So [the driver] jumps out and he's like, 'Rah, what are you lot doing here?” Gabriel tells me, as I interview him (safely, indoors) at his home. “He’s checking us, innit? And as he walks up, I start saying, 'Rah, man's doing a photo shoot for this book that I wrote,’ and then the whole tone just changed. He goes, ‘Ah! You're the guy who did that trailer! That's heavy, bruv. That's heavy.’ I was like: shit. One of the top guys from South Kilburn had sent him the video, and he just posted it on his Snapchat.” 

They should be into it. Gabriel’s debut book is raw and real and, often, like receiving a pure adrenaline shot for 300 pages straight. It unapologetically deals with the period of his life between the ages of 18 and 22, when he balanced armed robbery with his university degree, and though it’s studded throughout with the constant menace of violence (and the effect that violence has on both the people who suffer it and the people who have to suffer him after he’s committed it), there’s rarely any glory.

The first time I read it, I texted Gabriel, “You slept on sofas a lot in those years, huh?’” and he had to sheepishly agree with me that, yes, for a man with a home to go to, he did spend an awful lot of time on a camp bed, sleeping in his jeans. It’s a story about being stretched thin, about being reckless, about stealing moments of comfort for yourself by smoking a joint off a balcony. It’s about looking over your shoulder and waking up in darkness, and about the infinite tedium of days spent in prison. And it’s a story about London: the hidden city that lives within this city, the cause of the violent headlines we all skip over, the complex reality of thousands of people living on a dwindling number of blocks. 

But it’s a literary work, too. As well as being a man who once had “a favourite shank”, Gabriel’s a to-the-core book bro. In his house, he offers me a glass of water, and when I say yes he brings it to me in a pasta jar – Sacla, I think, though it could have been Loyd Grossman – because he’s been reading a lot of Steinbeck lately. “Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row. All the characters drink out of these jars yeah,” he tells me. But they were in a great depression, Gabriel. And he just does a hand gesture, as if to say, “And we’re not?”

I’ve known Gabriel since one of his short stories came across my desk at VICE four years ago. Since then – depending on if he’s lost his phone and got a new one, and remembered my number or not; or whether he’s in one of his reclusive writing periods, where he goes silent for about 11 months (he writes by hand, then types it up afterwards – his original manuscript was 150,000 words, so he essentially wrote the same book four times) – we’ve stayed friends.

I hopped over to west London to talk to him about his book – the themes, the realities, the people it’s about, the person he was before he wrote it – and ended up speaking near-constantly for two hours. For everyone’s sake, this interview has been condensed and edited down. 

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Gabriel Krauze. Photo courtesy of the author.

VICE: Despite having your parents’ house to go to, there’s this real feeling of homelessness in the book – your character is, spiritually at least, quite anchorless. Where’s home to you?  Gabriel Krauze: I moved into South Kilburn when when I was 17 years old, and then lived there for about about six or seven years. Between living there and moving back in 2017, I've lived in loads of different places – east London, Brixton, Nunhead. But in terms of a concrete place, South Kilburn is familiar to me, in that I’ve got love for that area because it's got a lot of memories. I mean, it's got a lot of bad memories, but it's also got a lot of just memories of place.

What's weird about that is, I feel like once they – they're knocking down South Kilburn estate, building by building, block by block – and I feel like once they knock down Blake Court, the block I used to live in, and probably the two massive blocks on either side of it, that will be it. It won't be home anymore. It will just be like... it will be a familiar area, because the streets around it will be the same. But home is in that block.

How did that block shape you? How did it shape the people you were with?  It's strange, because there's this whole social aspect to how people grow up in certain environments. Talking about the book, and how people end up in these kind of lifestyles, of course my experience is very individual to me – but the book is also about reflecting on the lives of others and immortalising the experiences of other people, and those people's experiences are relatable to people in south London, in east London, in Liverpool and Manchester – Paris, even, in the suburbs there. It’s universal. 

So people ask me about the book: why was... Gotti, for example, why was he so ruthless? [Gotti is a character in the book. He is: especially ruthless] Why did he always want to just rob rich people? And, in a way, it's like: if you'd have come to see me in South Kilburn, you'd see it for yourself straight away. Like, you go into the block: it's disgusting. Human beings shouldn't live in those kind of environments. If you don’t know, and you’re going into that block for the first time, you will step into a puddle of piss there, because you're not preparing yourself. When I get round the stairwell, I remember to stretch my leg forward, because I know there's gonna be piss in it.

The lifts are always broken, consistently broken, and the council doesn't come and fix them the same day – it can take a week, or two weeks. That’s just the standard of living. But then you can jump on a bus and, in 15 minutes, you can be on Oxford Street. Forget Oxford Street – you come out of South Kilburn estate, you bust left and you walk down the road for ten minutes and you're in Maida Vale – huge houses. And what you're going to feel at that point, if you're a certain type of person with a certain type of instinct, you're going to walk onto that street and start looking at the houses, and thinking, ‘Can I break into that house?’ Like, ‘Does it look like the people are away?’

It creates this sense of resentment towards wealth. And it creates a sense of: you don’t think about people – or potential victims of crime – as victims, because you already feel victimised in terms of how marginalised you are, and how you feel forgotten, and how you feel ignored. And how you feel this lack of opportunity. You walk from the block to Maida Vale and you feel like shit is unfair.

There’s this feeling of a “separate London”, that you live in and I don’t.
You learn different things. You learn how to exist in certain dangerous environments. And it can be very frustrating if, for example, you were to invite somebody around to your home and they don't know the codes. You have to be like, bruv keep your voice down. Let's say if I were to bring someone around who's not from that environment, and he's making a big joke and laughing out loud as we’re getting in the lift. I'd be like, “Stop. Keep your mouth down, and just be quiet. We're gonna go on the balcony. Just walk down the balcony, don't make noise and get into some loud animated conversation with me until we're indoors.”

Me, personally, I never have to worry about those situations, because I know how to read the situation now – I know when to behave a certain way. Whereas there are some people with this mad carefree attitude. And this is because they've lived in an environment – their version of London – that has been very safe. It gives them a certain type of confidence that they don't realise can actually bring them into a very different, dangerous situation, just because they don't feel intimidated by the environment. I think London is full of those realities: different versions of the same city. 

How much have you been talking about violence in interviews?
I mean, everyone covers it. Yeah. Everyone talks about it, because the book’s very violent. One of the things is: the character is not a fictional character, it's me. Like, the character of Snoops is me. Of course there are aspects of it that have been fictionalised – but it’s real. 

This is the most important and significant thing about the violence in the book: if someone were to write a fictional book about this world, what they would do – and it would be completely written from behind the comfort of a desk – is they would set the scene of the world, they'd introduce the characters, they’d introduce the conflicts the characters are in, then there would be this build-up to this one major dramatic incident, and it would be a mess. That major dramatic incident of violence would have repercussions, then it all ends in some kind of redemption.

The reality of this world is that the violence is non-stop, and constant. And it's not that you have one violent incident every six months or something – it’s that you have violent incidents going non-stop, non-stop, non-stop, and it's relentless. It’s relentless. And then you meet up with other friends who maybe you haven't seen for a few weeks, and the first things you generally get into talking about are violent incidents that they've experienced recently. “Have you heard this person got shot?” “Have you heard that person got stabbed by that person?” “Have you heard how he went to prison for this time?” It's constant. It's repetitive. 

And you're not supposed to like it. You're not supposed to read my book and be like, this is great. No, you're supposed to feel horrified. I want to give people adrenaline rushes when they're reading my book – the type of adrenaline rush you get when something bad is about to happen, when you get those butterflies that make you feel sick. The association I have with butterflies is not to do with love, or the anticipation and excitement of love, or whatever. To me, the concept of butterflies is when your body is preparing itself for violence, for something bad to happen.

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Gabriel Krauze. Photo courtesy of the author.

How important is it that it’s true, then?  The biggest concern I have in terms of writing this book is to tell the truth, and to reveal the truth. Not to be too boasty with it or anything, but there's this amazing line that Heidegger, this German philosopher, said about art. It's a shame he was a Nazi, but it doesn't detract from the fact he made some amazing points about art. He said, “The nature of art would then be this: the truth of being setting itself to work.” The point was about this Van Gogh painting of peasant shoes – they’re not literal peasant shoes, but the Van Gogh painting is truer than if we could literally see and touch the peasant shoes, because of the framing of them as art. It doesn’t just convey the shoes, it conveys the environment in which the shoes sit. 

And the truth of your book is… violence?  Because that's what this world is like, this world is too much. There's too much going on. It's constant, constant, constant. And I never thought about this at the time, because – in terms of toxic masculinity – one of the aspects of toxic masculinity is the refusal to acknowledge trauma, and the refusal to be like: “I'm traumatised.” You know: “No, I'm not traumatised. I'm fine, I'm fine. It was just another incident.” Yeah, I was.

Somebody will be like, “I heard somebody pulled knives out on you.” And then I'd be like, “Yeah, just a bit of a mad incident, innit.” You always downplay your own experiences of violence. You always downplay what you're going through, because you feel that acknowledging that you're getting to that point, where you're finding it hard to cope, or that it’s taken a toll on your mental health, is to admit some kind of weakness. And the focus is: do not admit any weakness. No exposing oneself. So I think there was a cathartic element of writing the book at one point, when I started to get into moments of vulnerability where I almost didn't want to write about them, but I was like: if I don't, I'm not telling the whole truth.

Were there parts of writing this book where you realised that you'd experience more trauma than you previously thought?
Yeah, I mean, of course. The other aspect of it is my dreams [a running theme in the book is Snoops starting to experience vivid, violent dreams that scare him more than the actual day-to-day violence of his world does]. When I started writing the book in earnest, I stopped smoking weed. And when I stopped smoking weed, I started dreaming, and my dreams were so fucking disturbing. At one point my dreams were so intense that I was waking up exhausted, and I felt like I hadn't had a night's sleep at all, and I actually went to my GP because it had been 20, 30 days of going to sleep and waking up shattered. I was like, ‘Is there something wrong with me? Like, biologically, almost?’ The GP did the blood test, very healthy, whatever. And then he was like, “Have you been having nightmares?” I was a bit caught out by it, but I was like, “Yeah, I have. Violent stuff.” I described some of them, and he was like, “That's not normal.”

He said it sounded like PTSD. And I was like, "‘Rah, that’s fucked up, I got PTSD,’ and just left – ‘Whatever, I'm not engaging with this.’ So yeah, I think there's obviously some kind of mental trauma there. I finished writing the book in January, 2018, so I finished when I was 31. Straight away, I stopped having those kind of dreams. And I realised: shit, I was going through some kind of mental trauma. 

But have you ever done anything to repair or confront that?  No.

Would you ever?
It’s weird. I don't think I need it, to some extent. I think, because I managed to get through it and come out alright, it's OK. Maybe I would feel differently if I was scared to leave the house. I mean, I don't like crowds, because I'm always on the alert. I couldn't go out with someone and feel calm and relaxed in certain environments, as I’d be looking around the room and feeling on edge. I'd be like, ‘I want to leave,’ because I can read a situation in a totally different way to a person who's just innocently come to a place to have fun.

But you do you not think that's a bit odd, that a confident, healthy young man is always in alert mode in a crowd?
Yeah, of course, of course. It's completely abnormal. There’s a chapter in the book where I’m describing that thing of being constantly alert, and it’s exhausting mentally – that you're constantly alert, that you're constantly prepared for something bad to happen. It’s definitely not normal. But the thing is, it's not a few individuals who are experiencing this – it's huge numbers of young men, particularly young men. It's huge numbers of them who are experiencing it, and it takes a big toll on the body. And a lot of people smoke weed because they just want to sleep and relax and chill out, and that can have a double effect where, if you start bunning too much, you get paranoid and you start overthinking shit and start worrying, and you get an excess of anxiety. So yeah, people get fucked up in all sorts of ways.

I mean, that's basically a massive, unspoken mental health crisis.
Yeah, it's a massive one. Yeah. 

One thing I noticed is there are these intense male friendships – this idea of “brotherhood”, being a step far above just being close friends with someone, almost a blood bond thing – but also they can be quite transient: you’ll be extremely close friends with someone for a year, and then one event, and boom, it’s over.  That feeling of brotherhood is: when you go through a really extreme situation with someone, you feel way more bonded to them than someone you meet in a casual context. Prison, for instance: prison friendships are formed very intensely, because you’re spending 24 hours a day with your cellmate, and if you get along with them you become friends very quickly. In Bullingdon [Prison] I quickly became very close friends with my cellmate, Brutus – RIP, Brutus – because I spent 72 hours with him. For another person who I might meet and have drinks with for two, three hours to hit that, we’d have to meet up 30 times or something. You’re in this close space, and you’re sharing shit, and then you start talking about your families – talking about what brought you here, that’s one of the first conversations you have. It creates this intense closeness. 

But the outlaw lifestyle does it, too. When you do something with someone – “Shall we rob that brer?” “Come den” – boom! Bonding experience. It sounds fucked, but it’s an intense bonding experience. There’s a chapter in the book about this: our bredrin Mazey was having a kid, and we were like, “Come rob the bookies.” It was like we were giving him a stag-do. The idea of, “Come, let’s do a robbery and we’ll make sure you get mad Ps for it” is an intense bonding experience! 

The first word of the book is “and” – then you’re immediately dragged into the story. Before you really know it, you’ve attempted a robbery and broken a woman’s finger and burnt your clothes down with petrol. I was wondering if there was an overriding idea you had when you were writing it: that the story is being narrated, or if you’re telling it to someone ten years later, or on the phone telling it out of prison, or—
It’s me. It’s me talking to the reader. Every person who reads it is supposed to feel as if I’m there telling them. And they’re supposed to feel as if they haven’t had the chance to arrive at the very very beginning of where it all began, they’ve just managed to come in the middle of it, and now they’re here for the ride. And it’s my voice. I’m not telling a story with objectivity, or something – no, you’re just in the room with me, and it’s not like I’ve gently welcomed you in, sat you down – naw. I’ve grabbed you by the front of your shirt— boom, sit down, listen. The way I would describe the book is it’s a confrontation. It’s a confrontation with the reader. And one of the biggest confrontations is understanding morality: understanding how morality is not this black-and-white simple thing of good and evil. It’s much more complex than that, and even understanding this complex thing comes from – in terms of how we learn it and how we— you know, morality is only relative to the level of danger in which you live, innit, and that’s the confrontation.

Your character doesn’t apologise for the things he does. There’s a hint of redemption towards the end – shying away from the lifestyle, at least – but he never turns to the reader and says, “Sorry about all the stabbing.” Why?
The book is meant to show the reality of a young man between 18 and 22 who is heavily involved in criminality, and when I was writing it I wanted to add a much wiser world view, but I had to stop myself and cross it out: “No, that’s how you think now._” I found a piece I’d written when I was in Feltham [Young Offender Institution], this nihilistic rant about how people are the sheep and we are the wolves, and I was like… this is so fucking sinister. I remember reading it and being like, “Rah! What is _wrong with you!”

But I’m a grown man now, and I think completely differently. I don’t think it’s OK to rip people’s watches off, or stab them up, but that’s OK: that’s the world I came from, that’s the world I existed in, viscerally and intensively, so if I were to put in the book that I feel remorse and I feel regret, that would completely nullify the truth of that world. I wouldn’t want people to read it and think, ‘Oh, so all these characters are having redemptive thoughts, and the ones doing the stabbings are just pure psychos.’ No. They’re not. The ones doing the stabbings also have hopes and dreams, and have the potential to fall in love and feel loss and feel longing and have worries: they just hide it more deeply within them. 

‘Who They Was’ is out now in hardback and audiobook_. You can read more of Gabriel Krauze’s work here._

@joelgolby