Graeme Armstrong, hailing from the industrial towns of Scotland’s central belt, has proved the novel form is still alive and kicking. Armstrong’s experiences of gang culture in central Scotland, and the brutality of poverty, addiction, and violence, informed his debut novel The Young Team, which has gone on to win the Betty Trask Award, a Somerset Maugham Award, and secured him a place on the coveted, once-in-a-decade list of the most accomplished British novelists under forty, published by Granta, who’s previous nominees include Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro.
And it is easy to see why - The Young Team, written in a distinctive North Lanarkshire dialect, combines both an astonishing, radical linguistic creativity with an unfaltering commitment to recording the realities of working class life. Its success has made Armstrong something of a genuine literary phenomenon - or a big man, as we might call him up in Scotland.

Indeed, Armstrong is that rare thing, a writer whose work has become a tangible part of a social material, as has Armstrong himself. This writing is not a secretive alchemy, performed in private, but almost a public pursuit - these sentences are figuratively enmeshed in the very brickwork of communities, echoed in the mouths of their inhabitants. Armstrong’s work is taught in schools, prisons and community workshops, where he regularly visits to speak with readers, and he has been invited to give keynote speeches to policymakers in Scottish Government conferences - very few contemporary authors, if any, could claim this kind of political and social influence. As Armstrong notes, seeing your language, your community, your life, so searingly represented on the page has been a genuinely transformative experience for readers. This is truly the kind of literature that changes lives, even saves them. It easily puts him on par with Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, whom Armstrong credits with this same leverage - now Armstrong is doing likewise.

Ahead of his appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where he will be in conversation with Booker Prize winner James Kelman - a fellow legend of Scottish literature - and some of the other nominees on the Granta list, Graeme was generous enough to share some of the experiences behind The Young Team, and the power of language, realism and lived experience in composing such a powerful, metamorphic narrative.
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I’d love to begin by congratulating you on being chosen as one of the Best British Novelists for this decade’s Granta list - a monumental achievement. How has it felt being nominated for such a huge accolade?
It’s a strange feeling as most of my peers have never heard of Granta (or any other literary awards). Writers become fluent in industry language and speaking around accolades after a while, but it really is an elite insider’s world. That said, it’s a massive deal, regardless of any negativity and critique surrounding this list or lists in general. The cohort are all really good people, as well as talented writers. We have obviously lived different lives. You need to get used to that in this game. While I’m one of the only working class writers on the list, I was made to feel welcome and particularly by Granta themselves, who realised my offering for the issue involved serious violence and tragedy from my own community.
Would I be right in saying the work you submitted for the issue, The Cloud Factory, veers closer to memoir or autofiction than The Young Team? Even though The Young Team uses inspiration from your own experience, how was it working without the compositional veneer of someone like Azzy Williams, your previous fictional mouthpiece in The Young Team?
The Cloud Factory is one hundred per cent memoir. I’m currently doing a PhD at the University of Strathclyde and the forthcoming memoir is my thesis. I’ve been trying to write The Cloud Factory for years and always stopped short. It was a tough one emotionally, let alone trying to condense a decade of madness and its conclusion into such a short form. Fiction is a great shield for difficult lived experience and trauma. The Young Team, while closely resembling my own experience, operates and breathes as fiction. The cavalry always turns up when they’re meant to. Real life has more cul-de-sacs than convenient fictional avenues to go down. Things just happen, for long periods nothing happens, and people die without any great revelations or redemptive arcs. Trying to find my own voice has been difficult as well. It naturally leans towards a creative fiction style, but in memoir you need to consider vantage points, my opinion now of my thoughts then as that mad kid. I’m not finding it so easy and it’s definitely darker.
Certainly in light of this, would you be comfortable sharing the journey that produced The Young Team? How has it accompanied you in a way we might see reflected in The Cloud Factory?
Writing The Young Team was an absolute mission, start to finish. I was only days off drugs, aged 21 and in a mad spiral of withdrawal, loneliness and frustration trying to work out where the previous ten years had gone. I started writing furiously, going back to the beginning in our hang out, the Mansion and the first days of experiencing Scottish gang culture first hand. The Young Team was the result. It became a constant companion and kept those depressed longings post a decade of addiction and violence at bay. I was in the last six months of my undergraduate degree and absolutely making an arse of it, student by name only really. I used the novel for my dissertation and it pulled me into a 2:1. Teachers told me in school there was ‘too much reading in university for somebody like me’ so it was some turnaround. The University of Stirling asked me back to study a Masters, and I kept grafting on the project with years of rejections. I worked in retail stores, then as a car salesman in Glasgow and North and West London to survive. All in, the novel took 7 years and was rejected roughly 300 times before eventual publication with Picador in 2020.
Most refusals were due to the novel being written in West Central Scots, which is quite Anglicised as it goes but still pretty heavy for those outwith Scotland. That lexicon I built then has stayed consistent in my style, if anything it’s become more so. Being 31 now, I’m more settled in my ways and craft so I feel less preoccupied with style and more so with the actual content of the memoir: where does it start and end, what should I omit and technically how to zoom in and out of my perspectives then and now. I have the benefit of having a hard stop: my PhD ends in just over two years so that’s my time limit. I feel like I’ve spent enough time in my past too. This will probably be the last foray into the bad old days for my own sanity.
Has your relationship to your own identity, or your past perhaps  - national, personal or creative - changed since using it so scrupulously in your work, fiction and memoir, which now has a wide public audience?
Gangs become your identity. It’s trying to find out who you are after them that’s the hard bit.
As I got older, I was left with this profound sense of wasted time I just couldn’t shake. This bleeds into my work frequently. Lost youth is probably what I’d say The Young Team is really all about. I’m not in any rush to get old or more adult. I realise I’m still trying to make up for that lost time. Ironically, I’ve spent the following ten years after leaving gangs memorialising them, so it’s a vicious cycle. Eventually you need to let go and stop living in a past, culturally, musically – every way. I still feel like I have a lot of unanswered questions about my own life trajectory. It was no mistake the novel ends ambiguously. People ask me often where Azzy goes and I never really have a satisfying answer. The point was that escape from these small industrial towns is difficult, often impossible. They become labyrinth-like to many young people here and we revolve forever with no fucking clue how to get out, then look back at a life half lived. I often feel like a student of my own life, not yet a master. That said, I’m more confident about the space I occupy as an artist and where I’ve come from. Where I belong is a different matter
When I was reading The Young Team and The Cloud Factory, I was reminded of a quote by Alasdair Gray in Lanark, talking of Glasgow, ‘if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.’ Works like The Young Team are giving narrative propulsion and structure to experiences that have been hitherto excluded, even from a nation or a community's literature. How has your experience been as a writer working with material so rarely presented so credibly; gang culture, drug addiction, street violence? Was it a kind of freedom, or did it present specific difficulties?
I think that idea definitely applies here. Throughout the writing and my career, I’ve always realised that you are breaking the ice for others to follow, as James Kelman, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh and Tom Leonard did for us. The closest thing I read to my own experience was Trainspotting and, without labouring the point, it was set before I was even born. It’s so rare that real lived experience of working-class themes actually makes it through the layers of classism and exclusion that are present in UK publishing and broadcasting. Only a fraction of the true texture of what it means to live in the UK today is ever seen and it’s always viewed through a lens of privilege. Most times when people in Scotland - or in other working class communities outwith the south east - see their lives, they’re gross caricatures supposed to represent a sort of ultra-realism. Being made to feel like an exhibit is never good. It leaves many feeling totally unsatisfied with our cultural landscape, myself included. Scotland has a further layer of exclusion as our art needs to be granted permission to exist by people to whom it is totally alien and foreign. I lived in London for two years and could barely believe that most people there haven’t ever set foot north of the border. It makes home feel like beyond the wall in Game of Thrones or something. Scotland, a tartan cultural wasteland where only the odd story is other enough or ticks the right boxes to be allowed through. The UK dynamic where everything is London biased and the rest of us are forgotten is complete shite. Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – they all suffer the same fate as us. They don’t [quote unquote] speak right either. The Young Team might be one of the rare few which makes a dent, but there are many unseen British lives and stories here that never make it to the page or screen, and I hate that. No taxation without representation should apply culturally. I think it will eventually, with the rise of streaming and the decline of traditional media, television and publishing consumption. We need more everyday heroes in our art, from all four corners of our land.
The Young Team itself has initiated, or certainly reignited, a lot of these discussions on literary classism and privilege, which would be worth remaining with a bit longer. I think you’re working against the notion that realism has to be palatable or digestible to a certain class or school of critique to be legitimate, to which your writing has possessed a particularly radical energy. Is this something you feel you’ve encountered often? You’ve written before about dialect being ‘essential fur access’ - do you believe literary classism still exists in the conversations we continue to have, or certainly regarding representation?
The fact remains, publishing and broadcasting are incredibly privileged spaces. Young working class men who occupy my novels are almost never found there. Our lived experience is always other and judged, silently or loudly, by people who don’t understand us and the lives we lead. Combine this with the British class system, private education and prejudice against working class people and it’s a lethal mix. So many novels now are millennial fluff, or based around the accepted protected categories to make these privileged realms look with it and/or sympathetic to anyone bar themselves. True working class authors barely get a look in. It’s also very rare to hear anyone here talk so passionately about homelessness, child poverty or drug fatalities. These challenges in our society are conveniently forgotten as they confront privilege even to mention them. I have absolutely no doubt my work/ accent/ class/ country are unpalatable to many. It’s not even anything as meaningful as contempt, it’s mostly just disregard you’re fighting and the idea that you are insignificant, uneducated and unworthy of your space in this artistic world. The cruel irony is we’ve had to overcome so many more challenges in our life just to sit at the foot of this table. Someone said a very kind thing to me once, ‘Your lack of ease has served you incredibly well’. I hold that close, especially when the lack of equity is so obvious and it’s easy to become frustrated. My work in the community keeps me going, as I truly believe you can make a difference getting in front of young people and show them that even their wildest aspirations might bear fruit with enough effort and commitment. Among this increasing sense of creative isolation, I’m pushed towards a strong nationalistic sentiment. London may hold the strings, but we have a rich and proud tradition in Scottish literature and we will not be silenced or pushed into a corner. Many of our great writers are proof of this.
What I love particularly about The Young Team is how the narration dances between a committed realism but augmented by a kind of surrealism in the wild and giddy voice of Azzy. What is your relationship like to realism as a writer?
Realism is crucial to representing lives here accurately and respectfully. The term social realism feels like shorthand for lives unlike the purveyors of culture, with unsightly themes that are difficult to palate or relate to for them. Often, the true lived experiences which inspire my work defy the norm. Living a life embedded in gangs, alongside serious substance abuse in these dead-end towns was a surreal experience. Life and death were so close together. I think I did a reasonable job of capturing the concrete of our tangible experience: the urban decline and the forgottenness of North Lanarkshire, Scotland’s former industrial heartland, but also the intangible: years spent flying through the stratosphere every weekend on ecstasy to escape the greyness around us and the internal sufferings of mental health, years of anxiety due to chronic stress, the hypervigilance that violence creates and the struggle of living with addiction. Fundamentally, trying to express this all honestly as and to men who struggle to speak about any feeling. These experiences were often beyond words and worlds, unspoken, experienced silently behind that tough exoskeleton of Scottish masculinity. That is a total pressure cooker for so many here. Surrealism becomes the only realm where this makes a bit of sense. Azzy often spills into scheme poetry describing the natural landscapes of his youth: the Scottish mountains which are a backdrop to our urban territory and his friend’s grandmother’s garden which offers gentle sanctuary in the flames of panic. These experiences were authentic and real to my own life. They were where I went to remember a life before the horror emerged, friends hanging themselves or dying of overdoses and that constant and pervasive fear of dying violently on the street or having to kill to survive. The feeling of being hunted and watching over your shoulder never leaves you. Life here seemed entirely hopeless at points so you take refuge wherever you can – in the real or unreal.
Your writing is having an unprecedented impact both in the lofty heights of the literary establishment, but also at this fundamental grassroots level - The Young Team is now being taught in schools and prisons, is a key part of conversations around gang culture and masculinity in Scotland, and you as an author have a high profile as a speaker, presenter and academic. Do you think writing has a kind of social duty, or is this something you resist? Personally, I still think the idea of a cultural social duty is too often measured against working class writers, but the impact of The Young Team is yet undeniable.
There is no obligation to take upon yourself a social duty, but for me that sense of responsibility was always present. The keystone of my own eventual recovery was finding faith and the idea of redemption is an important one for me. It’s become a fuel to run on these last ten years of mad graft, the feeling of paying back a debt. A few older people said to me ‘Someone is looking after you up there,’ maybe they were right. Honestly, viewing my past through the lens of faith simplified my life and gave it meaning. It took away a lingering terror of certain death, which no doubt was a legacy of my father dying in my formative years. To know the sufferings of my past have become a tool for change in schools and prisons is a blessing. Having your writing used in a school curriculum is a rare privilege. Already this year I’ve visited over 20 schools, talking to young people at risk or actively involved with gangs, and working class kids who aspire of going to university to change their destinies and those of their families. Make no mistake, in communities like Airdrie, Coatbridge, Drumchapel or Clydebank reaching further education is not only a big deal, but also life-changing and sometimes lifesaving. If you can help a few kids do that – well, that feels like redemption to me. More recently, I’ve being given opportunities to influence policy and decision makers. This month I spoke at two Scottish Government events, and last year for almost every head teacher in Scotland at their national conference. I started on the streets as a gang member in a tracksuit drinking Buckfast, now I’m wearing suit and tie and speaking in front of people who can really affect change in the lives of kids in Scotland. That’s progress.
Quite a lot of interviewers and critics have focused on the anxieties you might have experienced in rendering a phonetic, localised dialect in your writing, and how readers outwith Scotland might engage with it - something James Kelman famously had to retaliate against when he won the Booker Prize. I’d like to ask you instead - what have been the positive experiences you’ve had from readers who’ve recognized themselves in this language? How intimately do you position language and realism together?
Writing in Scots was the main barrier to publication for me and was seen as massively anti-commercial. For me, it wasn’t a bitter nationalistic sentiment, but an act of love and cherishing my own spoken language. My voice, the one I speak with daily and my internal monologue, is West Central Scots – not Standard English. Why should any authentic voice be transmuted into something other? I understand its use in novels is more exclusionary and requires more effort to read for those outwith the central belt of Scotland, but to me it’s home, it’s family and fundamental to my art. I would struggle to write a novel using SE. It feels flat and empty to me, and inauthentic. I need to use SE for academic writing and replying to these sorts of articles, but with creative writing it’s a very different thing. The social conformity of Scots speakers means we need to be bilingual to get on. This fact is drilled into us early by teachers and parents. Its harsh reception is almost certainly anti-Scottish and based in accentism and classism. In schools and especially the prison estate, people feel excluded and judged by literature, they are literally frightened of it. Going into a bookstore can be a big deal for former gang members or other working class men. It’s not a space where they typically occupy or are made feel welcome. When they open the page feeling this way and see their own tongue reflecting their lives, this is a powerful and sometimes transformative experience. One kid in a secure unit said, ‘It’s just like your pal telling you a story’. That sums up any arguments about the importance of linguistic representation for access. It has impact and genuinely reaches people who are hard to reach.
My life was changed and saved by Trainspotting. Without that spark of recognition about my friends who died of heroin overdoses, the working classness, the Scottishness - I wouldn’t have made it to uni and likely wouldn’t have survived my past. Anyone who’s seen the pictures on my Insta from Christmas day 2005 and 2009 will know they speak for themselves about what a bad mess I was in. Readers of my work have fed similar experiences back. Some have stopped taking drugs, joined education schemes in prison, sought counselling for mental health struggles or turned away from violence. The stakes for never seeing your life reflected are high. It creates a sense of unbelonging and worthlessness. Worth is the engine room of change and perhaps the most potent remedy to that lethal absence of hope that fuels violence and substance abuse which lead to the premature deaths of so many of my countrymen and women. It can create a sense of immense value in people who otherwise feel less than. That alone is life-saving sometimes. Can art save lives? It did for me.
The Young Team and The Cloud Factory have placed you at the vanguard of a community of writers and thinkers who work to present a version of Scottish realism, which is intimately linked to language - Irvine Welsh, Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur, Janice Galloway, James Kelman, David Keenan, Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens, Tom Leonard, and more recently the likes of Douglas Stuart and Peter Bennett. You’ve spoken before about your connection to Welsh’s Trainspotting - where do you see your work sitting in relation to other writers of this kind? Are there particular works The Young Team has a creative affinity with?
This is kind to say and appreciated, but I know I’m a young pretender without any delusions of grandeur. You need to stand on the shoulders of your own giants. I’ve made my own mark representing my life and community, I’m totally happy with that. Outwith David Keenan’s hypnotic and hallucinogenic Airdrie and Des Dillon’s Coatbridge novels – I’ve never seen a modern North Lanarkshire represented. If anything, I hope I’ve supported a cultural autonomy for non-city based Scottish stories, where they can press the rights of their own identity and not be pensioned off to or absorbed by the closest city to market them to outsiders. The small places have their own heart and soul, ticks and tells and linguistic portraits which should be respected. I looked up a lot to Jenni Fagan and Kerry Hudson as a young writer. Kerry spent time living in my community too. Otherwise, Ken Loach’s film Sweet Sixteen, Martin Compston’s breakthrough role as Liam - a young heroin dealer from Greenock, was really similar to our lives culturally and visually. I remember watching it as a young gang member in total awe. The cocktail of mad Scottish patter, inevitability and ultimately, tragedy mixed together feels so familiar to life here. There is a real energy of community present that’s so rare to find. Characters aren’t just puppets to be manipulated into miserable social themes for the amusement and wonder of a middle class audience. The language is never sanitised either. That’s fundamental to me.
To finish off, can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment? I’ve heard rumours of a novel called Raveheart in the works, which must be the most hardcore title going at the moment…
We’re still working on the tv adaptation of The Young Team, it’s a long process but there’s definitely progress being made. I’ve just finished filming a BBC series on gangs that’s due to air later in 2023. I had the opportunity to dig into my own past, as well as explore the Scottish drill scene that’s been imported from London cultural influences, bringing with it the trademark violence and knife carrying that we’re all too accustomed to in Scotland. I’m hosting Scottish literary legend James Kelman at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August too, and appearing there myself with the Granta gang again.
My second novel Raveheart is almost done: it’s a dystopian rave story, and half written as a play. Raveheart is more comedic in tone and it’s been a nice departure from the heavy stuff for a minute (been on it for almost 7 years too, and it’s massive). A new fascist party takes over the UK and implements a range of nefarious policies, one being cultural cleansing and a total electronica ban. Scottish rave paramilitaries fight back. Think of 1984 versus Human Traffic – that’s my elevator pitch. It’s been fun to write and the tunes are banging.
Thank you so much, Graeme.
‘The Young Team’ is published in the UK by Picador, and by Automática Editorial in Spain. Graeme will be in conversation with James Kelman at Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 2th of August. Graeme will also appear with Natasha Brown, Derek Owusu and Olivia Sudjic on August the 24th, for a Granta Best of Young British Novelists Event.