About The Author
Anna Whitwham was born in 1981 in London, where she still lives. She studied Drama and English at the University of California, Los Angeles, Queens University Belfast and at Royal Holloway, London.
Her first novel is Boxer Handsome, set in around a boxing club in the East End of London, Clapton Bow Boys Club. Bobby is the pride of the club, following in the footsteps of his Irish father, from whom he gets his striking good looks, and his Jewish grandfather. His upcoming fight sees him pitted against Conor, from the local Gyspy community, a grudge match heightened by a street fight between the two over Theresa. Is Bobby a champion or is his destiny to be similar to that of his father, a now broken alcoholic estranged from his wife? Meeting Chloe, a teaching assistant, whose world is very different from the macho culture in which Bobby has been raised, may change everything for him.
In this interview for Foyles, Anna talks about alcohol and masculinity, the ongoing place of boxing clubs at the heart of local communities and why Theresa might get her own novel.
Questions & Answers
Your grandfather managed to put a life of poverty and street violence behind him by joining Hoxton's Crown & Manor Boys Club. Is his story exception or has this been a route to redemption for many young men?
He was from a loving family who cared enough to take him to the club and give him the opportunity to thrive there. He had a chance to develop his education and made lifelong friends. Boys Clubs and boxing clubs are still valuable safety nets for some communities and I am sure there are many lives owing a lot to those East End boys' clubs. They offer a vital space to breathe and grow in.
Do you think anger and hatred are essential aspects of an effective boxing mentality?
Not at all. It seems historically and typically to have been a sport dominated by poor, or immigrant poor men, not violent and angry men. Boxers have been products of hostile and impoverished environments and boxing can be a way to earn money. Sugar Ray Robinson famously said 'I ain't never liked violence.' There might be the theatrics before a big fight, with big mouths and bravado, but anger is more likely to be found in brawls and street violence. With some exceptions, boxing in the ring is about discipline and tactics, not loose, chaotic anger.
Bobby's alcoholic father Joe, once a talented boxer himself, is a show of the man he once was. Do you think alcohol plays the role primary antagonist in Boxer Handsome?
It's definitely a symptom of an ailing masculinity. Drink is used when Joe and Bobby can't communicate with the world. Alcohol acts as a numbing agent for Joe, who can't function in a world without the definition boxing offers.
Is the hostility between the various ethnic communities that orbit Bobby's boxing club anything more than the disenfranchised lashing out those who different?
It's a shared imagination stifled by having nothing and characters kick out for space. The environment becomes full of folk tales and rivalries.
As part of your research you spoke to trainers at boxing clubs. Do they still feel that the clubs have a central role in their local communities?
Very much so. Especially at Crown and Manor. Maureen, who has worked there for many years, has talked about the care and development the club gives to young lives in the area. It's socially nurturing too, friends are made and structures put in place. It's a home away from home and matters as much now as it ever did.
Did you find it difficult to write about women whose fortunes were so often controlled by feckless men?
There were aspects that were challenging, but the novel presents a corner of the world that doesn't share my values. It's not my book, it's theirs. What I did try to ensure was that the female characters had interior lives and voices and were instrumental to the narrative, not outside it.
Have you ever considered stepping into the ring yourself?
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be writing next?
Theresa keeps coming into my head. I am very fond of her and feel she and Bobby were too big for the same book. It feels like there might be another story born from this landscape. She probably deserves a narrative of her own. I'd like her to survive.
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