The word on the street

Interview with "Q": He claims to care little for fame or power, yet his debut novel is already an underground sensation. A walking one-man hype machine, or the voice of a new literary generation?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
His debut novel is Dead Meat. His signature is a pair of wooden glasses - wrapped round his face with two narrow slits across each eye. Standing well over 6ft in Reeboks, grey track-pants and baseball cap, multi-media writer Q is unnerving. Walking to the Cyber Cafe in Portobello with Q is like tracking a panther in his lair. Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Market are Q country. With the confidence and ease of Ladbroke Grove's most popular son, Q name-checks at least 20 people before we are finally shown to a private booth in The Portobello Gold.

Q's publisher, Sceptre, heralds him as, "A modern day Dickens. He writes about what he knows, the rhythms of the street." The pre-publication hype, in nightclubs, on flyposters and the Internet, have made Q one of the most high-profile debut novelists of the decade. Dead Meat is ostensibly a Nineties, black, London, street novel about a Cyber Vigilante tracking paedophiles via the Internet. The protagonist, ex-con Clarkie, is faced with the moral dilemma of whether to expose the identity of the Vigilante.

But mention "black", "street" or "London" to Q and his expression hardens. "In certain cultures, it's easy to be seen as dead meat. The police could be driving through Ladbroke Grove and see a group of black kids and say, 'F***ing crack sellers.' Those kids could be talking about football. That's how society thinks. I'm not accepting that."

Publishing is about risk and profit and there is no doubt that Q is marketable. Whether his profile alienates audiences from the broader themes of the novel is another matter. "Dead Meat is a metaphor for universal themes," he says. "The Internet is lawless. Right? It can be used to create, it can also be used to destroy. When there is no law, somebody like the Cyber Vigilante takes it upon himself to enforce a kind of rough justice. These are the tensions I'm exploring in Dead Meat."

Q wrote a first draft of Dead Meat in the early Nineties, sold it in London clubs, then experimented with video, CD and Internet multi-media formats. After almost six years as an underground success, the book is finally being published in paperback original next month. Written in Jamaican patois, street slang and drum 'n' bass chants, it has been designed and laid out in Q's original format. On the page, its hypnotic drum 'n' bass lyrics are, at first, difficult to read. When Q recites an extract, the novel comes alive.

If eyes are the windows of the soul, then Q has drawn the blinds. He is equally elusive when asked about his age (late 20s), race (born in London), past history (an actor) and family (an only child). "Irrelevant," he says. "People are programmed to judge by colour and age rather than talent or merit." You end up playing a game of cat and mouse for biographical detail. Q lets slip, "I'm not going to be known as the writer who was in prison." So, was he? "Maybe." You can judge Q's evasions as an admirable refusal to be categorised or an extension of his slick self-marketing.

The tag "Q" can be traced back to his acting days and, Q claims, even his parents know him by that cipher. In 1990, he had just appeared in Mr Johnson, a film directed by Bruce (Driving Miss Daisy) Beresford. He had acted successfully for five years. "I just didn't like the way the industry was structured or the kind of jobs I was being offered. I was not prepared to play muggers. Someone else could do that. You stay too long, get old and find that you haven't done anything," he says.

In 1990, Q was introduced to the William Morris agency in New York by Beresford. "Bruce told me I had three choices: find a book you like and buy the rights, write the book yourself and try to get it made into a film, or just keep going. I chose to quit the business and start writing."

Q used savings from Mr Johnson and, later, dole payments to finance the first draft of Dead Meat. He used computers at The Portobello Business Centre (a free office space for residents). While working on the screen, he met young designer Ozwald Boateng, who was planning to launch his own Savile Row tailoring label. Jungle DJ Goldie was another of the Portobello posse trying to make the break at that time.

Instead of going the conventional route - heaven forbid - of approaching publishers, Q became a one-man promotional and publishing machine. "If a publisher turns down your idea, you either go to bed and cry or you find a way. There is always a way." Targeting a receptive audience, Q went to the London clubs - three a night, seven days a week - selling chapters of Dead Meat. The bouncers, promoters and club crowd got to know him. "Some of the clubs asked me to read from it. Then people would come and tell me how they thought the story should progress. So, it was interactive even then."

Q became - for want of a better word - a cult figure in clubland. Dead Meat leapt from the page into performance art, video, CD Rom and onto its own Internet Web Site. "I'd carry copies in this little bag to the clubs," says Q, "and people would come up and ask if they could buy drugs. I'd say, 'No, but I've got a book you may like'."

Whether you believe the hype or not, Q is a smooth operator. When he says, "I'm not doing this for fame or exposure, I had that five years ago in the clubs," you can cynically shake your head in disbelief or allow yourself to be carried on Q's tidal wave of self-assurance.

With a new US agent, The Writer's House, Q is adamant that Dead Meat: The Movie will follow. "I know it will happen," he says, "maybe not this year, maybe not in the next five years, but I'm in no hurry. I am mentally prepared for the movie. In fact, I'm mentally prepared for the next 10 years."

As the interview draws to a close, Ozwald Boateng's French art director swishes into The Portobello Gold. "Suzy, c'est toi?" says Q with perfect pronunciation. After a brief conversation with her, Q takes off the glasses - to reveal deep brown eyes - and smiles. "See, I'm not just a little street thing here."

Dead Meat by Q will be published on 15 May by Sceptre, price pounds 6.

Comments