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INTERVIEWS

Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward



It's now six years on since we last interviewed you. Your profile has grown enormously since then, helped along by the televisation of Pig-Heart Boy (the novel that formed the 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?

No, 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.

The 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.

     

In 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?

In 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 and 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 given 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.

Sephy's song lyrics are another device that you put to increasing use as the book nears its dramatic conclusion. Was this planned?

The 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 book.

You 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?

The 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.

Your 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?

I 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.

I 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?

I 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.

You're 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?

I’m 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 white’. 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 Edge and continuing in the last book of the trilogy, Checkmate. Basically, Sephy is forced to grow up throughout the series of books. In Knife Edge she 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.

Of the 'voices' used in Knife Edge, which was the easiest and which the most difficult to write?

Sephy’s 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.

A further six years on from now, what new avenues (subject or audience-wise) do you hope to have explored?

Six 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

Malorie, 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?

Pig-Heart 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.

As 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?

I 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.

Sticking 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?

I 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.

I'm 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?

Not 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.

The opening of Thief! is so uncomfortably believable. Is it based on any remembered incidents from your own schooldays?

There 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.

You once said that you aimed to write three books a year. Is that still your schedule?

Are 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.

Many 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 audience?

Well, 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.

Your background is in computer programing. How has this affected the way you manage your writing?

It 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.

Can you give an idea of your average working day?

Take 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.

As an author what use do you make of the Internet?

It's 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.

On 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?

Absolutely. 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.

You 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 a book?

Where 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.

Having 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 'literacy hour'?

My 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 the pictures.

What do you read? And how else do you relax?

I 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!

If 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?

II 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

Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
©ACHUKA 1997-2012