The Big Idea: Jayne Cowie
There is profit to be made off of violence. What if there was a way to profit off of preventing violence, as well? Author Jayne Cowie takes us into the world of her new novel, One of the Boys, to show us how violence is a treatable, fixable thing there. Read on to see the details of predicting and preventing violence within her world.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called Curfew, about a near future Britain in which all men are electronically tagged and not allowed out after 7 p.m. When I told people what I was working on, women laughed, and men went a bit pale and tended not to say anything at all. The difference in responses fascinated me. After all, we all agree that male violence is a problem. We pretty much all agree that women should be safe in public spaces, and in their own homes. What we can’t agree on is how to achieve it.
Trying to answer that question took me from a curfew to the idea behind my latest book, One of the Boys. Ever since Rosalind Franklin took her first X-Ray of DNA, we’ve been fascinated by the idea that what and who we are is all down to our genes. And thanks to the Human Genome project and sites like Ancestry.com, we’re linking genes to traits on what seems like an almost daily basis. We love the idea that we were born this way. No-one can criticize you for things that are beyond your control. It’s not your fault; it’s your genes.
But what about negative traits? What about aggression and violence? If we insist that being untidy and bad at maths is innate, then it follows that we have to accept that maybe these are, too. But maybe that’s a good thing. If serial killers are genetically different to the rest of us, maybe we can identify them before they start.
Picture this: a geneticist studying men who end up in prison for violent crime finds that they all have a particular gene in common. It doesn’t seem to occur in men with no history of violent behaviour. Two years later, you’re in hospital, looking down at your precious newborn son, so young, so innocent, and a doctor walks in and asks you if you’d like to have him tested for this particular gene.
What do you say?
The sharp conflict of born versus made runs through the heart of One of the Boys. If you have a fixed idea of what a boy is from when he’s only a few days old, you’re going to judge everything he does. You’re going to read things into normal behaviour – tantrums, aggression, losing his temper – and perhaps see them as worse than they really are. Other people will treat him differently. He’ll be excluded and pushed out. You could argue that those people are right to do so. They have to protect their own children, after all. That’s part of parenthood. We don’t let our children play with matches or knives. It follows that we shouldn’t let them play with a child who might hurt them, either.
And yet . . what if that child is your son? How do you deal with a boy that has the potential to be violent, but hasn’t yet done anything wrong? You can’t stand back and do nothing, waiting until he does harm before you intervene. That’s basically the situation we have now. But you also have a duty to protect him from those who see him as other and less, because again, he’s done nothing wrong, and may never do anything wrong.
The idea that one day soon we may be able to identify the young boys who are on this road and guide them in a different direction seems simple on the face of it. But what society would do with this information isn’t simple, though it’s predictable. When I was worldbuilding for One of the Boys, I looked into the history of other medical technologies, like IVF, amniocentesis and the contraceptive pill. I watched documentaries on Ritalin and looked at posts on parenting forums where mother’s to be discussed prenatal testing.
Where there’s muck, there’s brass, as my grandmother used to say. (Brass, for those not from the north of England, means money). It was immediately obvious that there would be drug treatments and that they would be expensive. There would be parenting classes, and books, and vitamins and supplements, and YouTube channels and TV programmes. And on the flipside, private schools and nurseries that offered a guaranteed ‘safe’ experience for your daughter or negative son. The test would be big business. That would become a reason to keep it going, even as it split society in two.
And then, as the boys hit adulthood, aging out of school and into the workplace, things would shift again, and the long-term effects would become clear: a disposable workforce, with minimal protection in law, and few other options. Capitalism thrives on workers like these.
I like stories that live in the grey, that can see both sides, the good and the bad. Life is complicated. I want to write things that reflect that. I decided to write about 3 mothers – one with a negative son, one with a positive, and one who doesn’t know. Weaving their stories together was tough. I think One of the Boys was the most challenging book I’ve written so far, not just because I had Covid in the middle, but because there were so many threads to weave together. And it was written in a way I’d not done before – I was actually deep into a different book but it wasn’t working. I had to come up with something else and quickly. I started with half a dozen elevator pitches, then a detailed outline, and then several drafts followed by 4 rounds of editorial revisions. There were pieces I couldn’t make fit until the very last attempt. But I think it was worth the effort, and I hope you do too.
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