A photograph of Karla Neblett, collaged next to the cover of her book, King of Rabbits

Karla Neblett. Image: Sophie Davidson/Penguin/Alicia Fernandes

The opening page of Karla Neblett’s debut novel King of Rabbits introduces us to Kai, a teenager contemplating ending his own life. As the story unfolds, we're given an insight into the moments that lead him to such a drastic place. 

Through the perspective of five-year-old Kai, we see a different boy: one who finds freedom in the woods around him and idolises his petty-criminal father, who is being pulled down into the throes of addiction.

Neblett, who has worked extensively with young people, was determined to write a book that her brothers and father, who is semi-literate, could read, “with simple language and characters and an environment that they would recognise and that would resonate with them.”

Here, she talks about where the idea for her first novel came from, and how she ushered it into being.

Where did the idea for King of Rabbits come from?

Years ago, one of my brother’s best friends killed himself. The tragedy of it is something that is impossible to shake. Although I wasn’t close to him, I always remembered how lovely he was when he turned up at our house. He had these gorgeous freckles, a contagious grin and a mischievous spirit. When the news came it was shocking, terrible and so sad. My brother is forever changed by losing him. It was something that played on my mind for years. I kept thinking that it could have been one of my brothers. It felt very close. With this tragedy strongly in my mind, I kept hearing and reading the stats for young men who take their own lives, and it’s too high.

I’ve always found teenagers so inspiring. It’s a period in your life that is transformative. There’s a special energy; a mixture of hope, anger, yearning, a strong sense of injustice, before the adult years settle in and do their numbing thing. I wanted to capture that spirit and make people think about how a young boy might get to that point, and I wanted to honour those who have made that choice. I wanted to force readers to give them a moment.

Another thing that really interests me are the repercussions and impact of addiction. This has affected many people I know and have known. Something that was really important to me was to demonstrate how an addiction doesn’t make up the whole person. I wanted to show that a parent with an addiction still loves their child. But an addiction is a type of demon that possesses a person. This possession often takes away choice.

Was there a particular moment that inspired you to write the book?

I spent a long time avoiding writing about these things, although whatever I would write would unconsciously return to having a focus on addiction. I knew it was going to be hard and painful, but then someone very close to me died, my violin teacher, Nina. She was someone who taught me a lot about courage and creativity. I met her when I was 29 and she made me look at life in a new way. I realised life is too short not to be brave and face things, so I started writing King of Rabbits.

A month later, my dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I also lived with my grandparents and my nan was suffering from Alzheimer's. It was difficult. I was having to be very strong. In hindsight, I realise that this was a time where I slipped into “fight or flight” mode, which would last for three years – and the whole time I was writing King of Rabbits. During experiences like that you don’t think or function in a familiar way.

It’s interesting how as a writer your deepest desires come through in your writing whether consciously and obviously or subconsciously and discreetly. It seems blatant when I think about the scene where Kai’s asking his dad to stop smoking that really it was me asking my dad, who continued to smoke, to stop.

Writing was, however, a lifeline. Writing was also the only place where I could safely think about the future because the thought of my dad dying took my desire to meet the future away.

Did you refer to other books or sources of inspiration?

In terms of structure, I had no idea about plot. Lucky for me, I’d had a conversation with Hellie Ogden from Janklow & Nesbit who told me to read Pigeon English to get an idea about plot. One weekend I sat down in my friend’s caravan while she went to work and picked apart Pigeon English while plotting King of Rabbits. It was a game-changer.

I’m greedy when it comes to devouring anything that might make my writing better. It can also put me in situations that are unusual for me. I’m not a person who goes out, but I had to for King of Rabbits because of how much time Kai spends in the woods.

I also read anything with a young protagonist. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many adult books with young children as the main character. The books I did find had harrowing plots and events, which was also helpful to see how authors write terrible things that happen to and around small children. I read Room by Emma Donoghue, Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn, and Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates, amongst others. These three books are horrifying in places.

How did you form the character of Kai?

Writing the mind and world of a five-year-old boy was, especially at the start, my biggest stylistic challenge and I was petrified of getting it wrong.I called my friend and asked if I could come and hang out with her daughter who was around the same age as Kai. I spent some time asking her questions to try and make sense of the trail of thoughts that children have. I took advantage of spending time with other people I knew who had small children and I kept asking all my Facebook friends various things like, “What would your four-year-old child want if they were allowed a tattoo?”

I also watched a lot of The Secret Life of 4, 5, and 6-year-olds. This was actually brilliant as it made me realise that just like teenagers and adults, young children are individuals and you might get some who are highly imaginative and creative, while others might be more logical and practical. It made me feel secure in writing Kai just the way he needed to be.

In terms of the rest of the community and characters in my book, I totally rinsed my brothers, their friends, my friends, neighbours, and people down the local pub for dialogue, jokes, mannerisms, and clothes! I find real people fascinating and a joy to watch - then I steal from them, formulating all their little quirks and curiosities into words.

  • King of Rabbits

  • 'A brilliant debut; vivid and compelling.' JENNI FAGAN

    'You won't be able to predict the outcome of King Of Rabbits ... It's a powerful and tragic read, making a profound statement about how important access to opportunities can be, and how much of an impact your childhood and background can have on your future ... It's a brilliantly crafted story about class and race, and the failure of society to catch children who fall through the cracks.' Independent

    'Neblett has drawn a really interesting character in Kai ... there was never a point when I didn't want to keep reading' Bookmunch

    Chosen as Book of the Month by Afrori Books
    Featured on BBC Radio 4: Open Book
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    Kai lives in a mixed-race family on a rural council estate in Somerset where he and his three older sisters have three different dads, and his mum is being led into crack addiction by his petty-thief father. He idolises his dad, adores his friend Saffie and the school rabbit Flopsy, and is full of ambition to be the fastest runner in Middledown Primary. He and Saffie build a secret world of friendship in the school garden.

    But Kai's natural optimism, imagination and energy run up against adult behaviour he doesn't understand: his parents' on-and-off romance, his dad's increasing addiction and the limitations of poverty. Despite the people who try to look out for him, notably his loving Nanny Sheila and his big sister Leah, Kai's life drifts towards a tragedy from which it is hard for him to recover. The refuge he seeks in his love of nature, and the wild rabbits who have made their burrows in the woods, may not be refuge enough.

    King of Rabbits is a beautiful, painful, at times funny novel about how a little boy perceives the world, and how his environment leads him on a path to manhood he doesn't want to follow; it is a story of class, race, and how our society fails working-class boys.
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