Orwell Youth Fellows Interviews: Ruby Alexander and Marnie McPartland

Orwell Youth Fellows Interviews: Ruby Alexander and Marnie McPartland

The 2020 Fellows have been asking the 2021 Fellows some intriguing questions about their writing process and Youth Prize pieces. With the Prize open for entries for another year, we're delighted to share the next two interviews in the series. Keep an eye on the blog, as we will be publishing more interviews with our 2021 Fellows over the coming weeks and months!

Our next interviewees are 2021 Fellows Ruby Alexander and Marnie McPartland. Read on to hear more about a new way to tackle homelessness, the value of research, writing in the form of a ‘thought experiment’, and how personal experience can connect with a more objective style of reporting...

The Orwell Youth Prize 2022 is now open for entries with a new theme: 'Coming Up For Air: Writing the Climate Crisis'. You can also find more information about this year's theme, resources and how to enter on The Orwell Youth Prize website. All this year's winners and runners-up will be invited to join the Youth Fellows, and we hope these interviews will be an inspiration to future entrants.

2020 Orwell Youth Fellows Noah Robinson and Naomi Thomas interviewed 2021 Youth Fellow, Ruby Alexander, about her Youth Prize essay ‘Mending the Safety Net’, what inspired the piece, her research and writing process.

Read the conversation here:

NOAH: When first reading your piece on the need for reform to support those experiencing homelessness, I was struck by the originality of your approach – using letters to Santa Claus to explain the underlying cause of such a vital issue. How did the idea come to mind?

RUBY: I came across the idea mentioned in passing in an interview I read as part of the earliest stages of my research before I’d even decided to focus my essay on ProxyAddress. I think the rest of the interview discussed how it was most similar to the address system used by the armed forces, but something about it really captured my imagination because I kept going back to it. I loved that I could use such a playful and familiar idea to explain something complicated, and once I realised I could also use it as a mechanism to introduce the context for why this scheme is so necessary, I knew I had to include it. Although l made lots of edits to the content and structure throughout the process, that aspect of my essay never really changed!

NAOMI: The judges commented on how much research had gone into your piece. What also always stands out to me, however, is how well-communicated this research is. And so, I was wondering, which did you find the most difficult - the background research or the actual writing of the piece?

RUBY: Although writing the piece was definitely not easy, the research was the most challenging part of the process. Not being familiar with ProxyAddress before beginning meant it took quite a long time before my understanding of it was secure enough to be able to write lucidly on the subject, and I also undertook wider research on homelessness and strategies to reduce it so that I was able to consider ProxyAddress in its wider context. Taking the time to research thoroughly made writing the essay an easier process because I really understood what I was writing about and was therefore able to focus on communicating the information and achieving the style of the essay I wanted.

I was really impressed by the clarity and accessibility of your writing style in explaining the ProxyAddress system. Do you have any advice for other young writers about how to write on complex topics in an accessible way?

RUBY: I think the most important thing is to make sure you begin with a really secure understanding of your topic, because if you’re at all confused then you’ll in all likelihood confuse the reader too! Thinking carefully about your language choice is also really helpful when making complex topics accessible because even though you might have learnt lots of technical language while researching, your reader probably hasn’t. I tried wherever possible to explain concepts in the simplest terms I could, and where appropriate found that using an analogy can also be a good strategy for doing this. As long as your language is clear, it is definitely possible to discuss a lot of the nuances in a complex topic in a way that is understandable. I’d also recommend asking a family member, teacher or friend who is unfamiliar with the topic to read your piece so you can identify any unclear areas!

Read Ruby Alexander's Orwell Youth Prize essay 'Mending the Safety Net' on the Orwell Foundation website

The 2020 Orwell Youth Fellows also interviewed 2021 Youth Fellow, Marnie McPartland, about her Youth Prize article ‘Equality in Education’. The conversation explores the unique form and style of her article, educational inequality and the impact of lockdown on education.

Read the conversation here:

2020 FELLOWS: The unique nature of the form and style of your piece strengthens its examination of access to education, as well as providing an interesting angle to address the issue from. Was there anything in particular that inspired the form of your piece and were there challenges in its construction

MARNIE: My favourite form of writing is a newspaper reporting style, and I enjoy writing in a breezy style, sometimes slightly tongue in cheek. I think the most challenging part of constructing this piece was to try to explain my idea about the new admission rules without going into too much detail or making the article too technical. I tried to make it quite snappy but tried to cover the existing problems in access and propose a solution. I thought that if I threw in a few fictional soundbites that may make the opposing arguments easier to follow.

2020 FELLOWS: Your choice of form - a thought experiment under the guise of nonfiction reportage - struck me as brilliant. How did you arrive at this particular ‘thought experiment’ - that is, the very specific idea of elite universities ‘requiring every school to produce a candidate for admission’? And how far do you think such a change would go in tackling educational inequality, were it to come true?

MARNIE: I was conscious that the pandemic had widened the learning gulf between certain groups of pupils from different backgrounds or schools. I started to think that this would affect pupils when applying to university. I wondered what would be a good way of reducing that disparity so that pupils whose learning had suffered due to the pandemic would not be disadvantaged in their future university applications. I then thought more broadly about admissions in general and outside of the pandemic. I started thinking that every pupil in every type of school is likely to be shaped by their own school environment, and that if a pupil can make it to the top of their own school (whatever the limitations or advantages of that particular school) then that pupil must have determination and talent, and I thought that this would be a more true test of who might thrive at an elite university.
I think that the idea of requiring every school to produce candidates is in theory as good as the current system! It would give real aspiration to pupils in all schools. It also might help level out the current scramble for places at high achieving schools at age 11, and it could help make schools themselves have a more even spread of talent. It would not be a perfect system though, as hard working pupils who do not make the top of their own school may lose out.

2020 FELLOWS: The issue of equality in education is one that affects so many and so deeply. While the piece is written as a purely objective form of ‘reporting’, did your personal experiences and encounters with educational inequality in any way inform the writing of this piece?

MARNIE: I was lucky enough to have had good remote learning in lockdown and a good space at home to work, and this is what started to make me think about others who did not, and how stressful that would be for those pupils. I thought about how stressful it must be to want to do well but not to have the tools to do so. It must feel so unfair. I also thought that if there becomes a set of pupils from particular backgrounds or schools who do not achieve their potential at A levels due to the pandemic, then elite universities may miss out on representation from sections of society. This would not be good for equality in general, as the knock on effect may be less representation in certain professions or politics.

Read Marnie McPartland's Orwell Youth Prize article 'Equality in Education' on the Orwell Foundation website.

The Orwell Youth Prize 2021, 'A New Direction: Starting Small', was sponsored by Rethinking Poverty: The Webb Trust.

The Orwell Youth Fellows is a project in progress, encompassing winners and runners up from the 2020 and 2021 Youth Prizes. Together, the group are forming ideas, starting conversations and developing writing that is responsive to the society we are living in and that supports engagement with the prize. Find out more here.

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