now six years on since we last interviewed you.
Your profile has grown enormously since then,
along by the televisation
focus of the previous ACHUKA interview), by the reader-reception of
Noughts & Crosses and now by lots of well-deserved media attention
surrounding the publication of its sequel Knife
Edge. In hindsight
it appears to have been a steady cranking-up of success. Is that the
way it's felt to you?
not at all. Most of the time it feels like I’m running to stand
still. Since Pig Heart Boy, I’ve published books which I’ve
really enjoyed writing, but which came and went and no one said a word
about them and they barely got reviewed. Then there are other books of
mine which I found totally frustrating to write and which didn’t
work the way I’d hoped, but they’ve gone on to do reasonably
well. That’s the interesting thing about this writing business,
you never know what’s going to take and what isn’t. It reminds
me of William Goldman’s adage – nobody knows nothing! It’s
totally unpredictable. That’s what makes it exciting. In my case
I feel my writing and my profile have been progressing in fits and starts
but I hope the overall direction is forward.
failure of Noughts & Crosses thus far to sell into the American
market has been attributed to 9/11 and the US sensibility about fiction
- particularly young people's fiction - that features terrorism. But
do you think it might also be something to do with the very British
backdrop to the political situation described in the novel?
I’m not sure the British backdrop had that much to do with it,
to be honest. There are other factors which I believe made American publishers
far more wary. For example, it’s an inter-racial love story, plus
whilst the book is never sympathetic towards terrorism, it does ask the
reader to empathise with Callum’s reasons for joining the Liberation
Militia – a terrorist organisation. I think after 9/11, that was
a message many American publishers didn’t want to hear or be seen
to be supporting in any way. But that said, I’ve had a very positive
response from a number of American teenagers and reviewers (see www.readerville.com)
who can’t understand why it hasn’t been published in America
yet. So I live in hope.
Knife Edge you make particularly clever use of the Daily Shouter
newspaper columns that introduce new sections. What main novelistic
purpose did you have in mind here?
Noughts and Crosses, I was deliberately playing with people's
assumptions about which characters were black and which ones were white.
But in Knife
Edge I wanted to make it very clear, whilst giving a backdrop to
the story to give it context for those who may not have read Noughts
Crosses. Plus, it seems to me that vast numbers of the population
believe that ‘if it’s in the newspaper, it must be true’.
They read nonsense like asylum seekers coming to this country and being
thousands of pounds before they’ve barely stepped off the plane
or train, and they absolutely believe it. How else could the BNP have
18 council seats up and down the country? I wanted to show that newspaper
articles, like books, reviews, TV programmes, films, etc are all biased.
They can never be truly objective because people can’t be truly
objective. I wanted to highlight the various agendas being served by
the stories, both by what the media choose to report and by the very
way the stories are written. I must admit, in the first draft of Knife
Edge I had a couple of newspaper articles, but one of my editors – the
fabulous Sue Cook at Random House children’s books – suggested
that I make up a few more as they seemed to be working well.
song lyrics are another device that you put to increasing use as
the book nears its dramatic conclusion. Was this planned?
lyrics were used throughout the book, but Sue, my editor, suggested limiting
their use especially at the beginning, so that the pace of the
story didn’t slow down too much. And I wanted the lyrics to work
hand in hand with the plot. The lyrics for Rainbow Child are given in
full at the end of the book, but I believe they would’ve lost some
of their energy if I’d used them in full at the beginning of the
book as well, as was originally written. I think they work much better
when presented in their entirety just before the last chapter of the
told me recently that your first writing was poetry, and that your
next novel (due before the Noughts And Crosses trilogy is completed)
is a verse-narrative. Can you give us some idea of what to expect?
book is called Cloud Busting and it comes out in September 2004. It’s
aimed at the 8-plus age range. It’s about a boy called
Davey, who has his own way of looking at the world and a boy called Sam
who reluctantly becomes his friend once Davey saves his life. Davey teaches
Sam how to pay attention to details in the world around him and to see
things in a different way. I wanted the very structure of the story to
illustrate that difference, hence the reason I wrote it in verse. I did
try the first couple of chapters as prose, but it didn’t work.
As soon as I started writing in verse, it clicked in my head.
hallmark as a novelist is the directness of your style and the force
with which a reader is made to identify with your characters' various
predicaments. There is no fancy distancing with metaphor and simile.
Indeed, the only time I can recall making any negative comment about
one of your books as a reviewer was when I felt you were over-reaching
for a figurative language that wasn't a part of your natural prose
style. It's interesting that Sephy's songs have sort of prepared me
for reading a verse-novel by you. Though if I'd been asked which UK
children's author might be one of the first to publish a verse novel
(there have been lots of American ones) your name would not have come
straight to mind. Do you find that strange?
don’t find that strange at all. (Your comments made me laugh
though!) From the time I was six or seven I used to write stories and
poems for my own amusement. As a teenager, I wrote poetry all the time – especially
after my parents split up. I loved the freedom the form gave you but
the discipline required in giving some kind of structure to the piece.
Definitely the best of both worlds when it’s working and the worst
of both worlds when it’s not. I’m not known for being a poet,
but that doesn’t stop me from writing poetry. Nor should it. And
you’re absolutely right – I don’t spend fifteen pages
describing a sunset because quite frankly that kind of narrative self-indulgence
bores me – both to read and to write. I’ve always believed
that writing is about communicating - about sharing stories and ideas
and stimulating the reader’s imagination. Writing for me isn’t
about showing off how I can sling a noun and an obscure adjective together.
However, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to challenge myself
or take risks by writing in different ways and with different voices.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but that doesn’t
stop me trying.
asked you last time - what is your view of the way schools introduce
children to books and reading; and do you have a view on the proposed
'literacy hour'? - and you responded that as your daughter was only
2 you had a limited knowledge of how schools operated. Your daughter
must now have experienced several years at school, so how would you
respond to that question now?
think teachers do a fantastic job within a very prescriptive framework.
Encouraging children to read for FUN has taken a back seat to getting
children to read analytically so they can pick out the different parts
of speech and narrative forms on each page. I personally believe reading
for fun should come first and then the rest follows on naturally. Dissecting
a text without appreciating that text for the ideas, emotions, characters
and plot it presents, turns children off reading, which is the last thing
any teacher wants. But in my experience, teachers are so bogged down
with achieving good SATS scores for acceptable league table results,
that there is very little time for teaching the creative side of reading – which
begins with reading for fun.
successful and popular enough to be able to shrug it off when a review
says that your writing "sometimes lacks grace and Blackman too
often relies on trite sentences or naive rhetoric to make a point..." although
it must rankle a bit when it comes, as it did in this case, from another
children's author. Has there been any form of reader response which
was not so easy to shrug off?
not going to lie about it, the review did rankle. That particular author
admitted that she didn’t particularly like the first book
in the trilogy, so I thought it strange that she was sent the second
to review. Some adults have levelled the criticism that the world I created
in Noughts and Crosses was too simple, too ‘black and
The world is presented as black and white because most children and young
adults view the world in those terms, with precious few shades of grey.
Things are either right or wrong. A person is either good or bad and
so on. As Sephy gets older, she begins to realise that things aren’t
that simple and I wanted to show that process beginning towards the end
of Noughts and Crosses, taking root and shape throughout Knife
continuing in the last book of the trilogy, Checkmate. Basically,
Sephy is forced to grow up throughout the series of books. In Knife
still doesn’t know who she is. She’s still between two worlds,
that of childhood and adulthood – with all the confusions that
presents. I do read all my reviews and letters – good and bad – and
try to learn from them where I feel the comments are justified. That
way, I hope my own writing always improves. But 99% of the reader responses
I’ve had to Noughts and Crosses and Knife Edge have been incredibly
positive and complimentary – for which I’m very grateful.
the 'voices' used in Knife Edge, which was the easiest and which the
most difficult to write?
voice was the hardest to write, especially after she turns in on herself
once she receives Callum’s letter. Sephy’s
voice went very quiet when I was writing Knife Edge. I had to strain
to hear her. Jude was the easiest to write. He demanded to be heard.
And some of the things he did in Knife Edge really chilled me as I was
writing them but they were very, very clear in my head.
further six years on from now, what new avenues (subject or audience-wise)
do you hope to have explored?
years from now, I hope to have written at least one adult novel, more
verse novels, more film and TV scripts, more books. Just more basically!
© ACHUKA 2004
THE ORIGINAL 1998 INTERVIEW
your latest book, Pig-heart Boy, challenges the reader to consider
the issue of cross-species organ transplants. How long did the book
take to research?
Boy took me about three or four months to research. I read a lot of books
on operations, heart transplant procedures, xenotransplantation, etc.
I also used the Internet for a lot of my research.
with all your books, the central character's predicament is so vividly
presented that the reader cannot help but identify with the decisions
that have to be made. Is this a natural trademark of your style, or
do you have to make a conscious effort to achieve this effect?
try to present real people with real choices to make. Choices that always
have consequences as in real life. For me that is what makes a character
interesting, the things they get right and the things they get wrong
and the thought processes and actions that lead to their decisions. I
don't know how to write characters any other way.
with Pig-heart Boy: After the operation, the hardest thing for the
boy in the story to accept is the change in attitude towards him, and
especially the reduction in sympathy. Is this something gleaned from
talking to actual transplant patients?
read a number of case studies in different books and used my imagination
for the rest. We writers are squirrels, storing away a conversation here,
a fact there, a feeling here, just for the moment when they may be needed.
a very squeamish reader and as a child might not have chosen to read
a book about transplants. Did your editor/publisher/agent have any
reservations about the subject-matter?
at all. Transworld Publishers were very supportive and totally behind
me when I said I wanted to write a book about a boy who receives a heart
transplant from a genetically altered pig. But that said, the book certainly
doesn't go into the nitty-gritty of transplants. I wasn't trying to write
a medical textbook. I hope the subject matter wouldn't put anyone off,
because at the end of the day the book is about a boy called Cameron
who has to make some important decisions regarding the quality of his
life and the consequences of those decisions.
opening of Thief! is so uncomfortably believable. Is it based on any
remembered incidents from your own schooldays?
was an incident in my primary school where I was bullied (although the
circumstances were entirely different to those in the book) and I used
the thoughts and feelings I had at the time in the book. I really believe
nothing is ever wasted. The worst times in my life have provided me with
some of my best material.
once said that you aimed to write three books a year. Is that still
you kidding? I count myself lucky if I can manage one these days. Looking
after a two year old daughter takes up an awful lot of my time - and
rightly so. My daughter is and always will be my first priority.
children's authors try--sometimes less than successfully--to cater
for all age ranges, producing everything from picture books to the
teenage novel. Do you see any particular age-group as your natural
I've written 37 books to date for all age ranges and I don't see this
as a problem at all. If a story pops into my head, I write it and I don't
worry about the age range until afterwards. I've written 3 picture books,
2 books for teenagers, a number of early reader/first chapter books,
books for confident readers and novels. The novels for the 8-plus age
range tend to do better than most of the other books but I think there
are a number of reasons for this.
background is in computer programing. How has this affected the way
you manage your writing?
hasn't affected the way I manage my writing one jot. However, my computing
background has allowed me the luxury of knowing what I'm talking about
(I hope!) when I write computer thrillers. It means that for books like
Hacker and Antidote, I haven't had to do that much research.
you give an idea of your average working day?
my daughter to nursery, work, collect my daughter from nursery, spend
the evening with my family until Lizzie goes to bed, work, bed. A good
hour each morning is taken up with correspondence, phone calls, etc -
the admin stuff. If I'm lucky I'll get in maybe four or five hours of
writing time in a day.
an author what use do you make of the Internet?
a brilliant place for up-to-date research and just to find out about
anything of interest. And a great place to chat to people.
World Book Day in April all schoolchildren will be given a £1
voucher. Do you feel promotional events of this sort are important
for raising the profile of children's books?
Reading is essential to the growth of the human spirit. The world of
knowledge opened up by being able to read is just mind-blowing. And children's
literature is just the place to nurture a life long love of books.
set out as an author to provide black children with characters they
would be able to identify with. Is this still a factor when you conceive
my books feature a child protagonist, that protagonist is always black.
Just as Anne Fine, Gillian Cross, Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis etc always
have white protagonists. When I think about a story, I think about the
plot and the characters in the story and who they are and their likes
and dislikes, their loves and hates, their strengths and weaknesses.
My characters are black because that's who and what I am. It's not a
big deal. It just is.
a young child of your own, what is your view of the way schools introduce
children to books and reading; and do you have a view on the proposed
daughter is only two so to be honest, I don't know how schools introduce
children to books and reading these days. I do know that Lizzie loves
to be read to and loves reading and loves books because I started reading
to her when she was about three weeks old. We'd both lie on the bed and
I'd hold a picture book above our heads and read the text and talk about
do you read? And how else do you relax?
mostly read children's books because they are so brilliant. There is
such a wealth of talent when it comes to writers of children's books
in this country - we are really lucky. To relax I play games on my PC
or Playstation. I also like to play my piano or my saxophone - very badly.
I just make a lot of noise but I find it soothing!
you could give just one of your books to any well-known person, and
be assured that it would be read, which would it be, and to whom?
would give a copy of Thief! to Oprah Winfrey because I'd love for her
to read it and tell me what she thought. I think Oprah Winfrey is amazing!
© ACHUKA 1998