AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Sally Gardner

    Sally Gardner

    MY SIDE OF THE DIAMOND

    HOT KEY BOOKS

    OCTOBER 2017


    MY SIDE OF THE DIAMOND by Carnegie-winning author Sally Gardner is the story of UFOs and close encounters, friendship, and above all, love in all its forms.

    The story, which is aimed at readers aged 14+, is told through multiple narratives. The focus is Jazmin Little, the main witness to the events that lead up to her best friend Becky and her boyfriend, Icarus, jumping from a tower. Their bodies were never found.

    Several different witnesses give their version of events, in retrospect, to the person interviewing them in turn, and gradually, the events that led to Becky and Icarus jumping are uncovered.

    We asked SALLY GARDNER to tell us more about her new book, MY SIDE OF THE DIAMOND:


    Q: What was the initial inspiration for My Side of the Diamond?

    A: What I was really interested in was a big question about our race. We are such a violent people and seem so keen to destroy all we have been given. I started to wonder about all these stories we have of UFO sightings; given our nature, what on earth would they want to come here for?

    I suppose what struck me was the cliche of Love, Absolutely - seeing people falling in love, or the genuine, heartfelt love of seeing your family, and I thought - if aliens wanted to learn something from us, that is the emotion they would come for.

    Love gives us extraordinary abilities, it gives us our art and beauty and poetry, but it also gives us war and destruction. It's a nuclear bomb, really. So I thought I would explore that.



    Q: Why did you decide to frame your exploration of love around an alien experience?

    A: Because I needed to look at what we might be without love. What if we were all very nice to each other, pleasant and kind, but we couldn't love?

    In the end, we wouldn't have children. Why would you bother if you have no emotions for your child, nothing to connect to it? Ultimately, even if everything seemed wonderful for a time, without love our whole planet would be in danger of extinction.



    Q: The story is set around a UFO incident and alien contact at Rendlesham Forest; did you research UFO encounters?

    A: I drew on accounts of an actual UFO sighting at Rendlesham in the 1980's, which is often described as 'Britain's Roswell'. A lot of people have never heard of it but it is a UFO sighting they have never been able to explain.

    Over two nights, people saw strange lights in the sky and some claimed to have seen aliens, but then the 'men in black' turned up and afterwards, the people who were questioned realised they had very little memory of what had actually happened during these meetings. Many of the reports about the incident suggest that a lot has been covered up.



    Q: Why did you want to have several narrators telling this story?

    A: I felt that you couldn't really explore the question of love from one angle; if you're going to talk about all these different emotions associated with love, it needs to be seen through many people's eyes.

    If you take Jazmin's friend, Becky Burns, looking at her from the outside, it appears that she has the perfect family but what she really lacks is love. Her parents are interested in her exam results more than her, they are socialists so they send her to a comprehensive which she hates, and she becomes a successful writer at a very young age. That is what her parents actually see; they don't see her.

    Jazmin's mother was a wash-out, and hopeless, but you do have the sense that she had a grain of love for her daughter, and honesty; she admits that she can't look after Jazmin, not with the life she has been dealt.

    Then there is all the sadness around Skye, the child made of clay, and the hopeless heartbreak of all that, and the artist who loved his brother and who has never recovered from his loss.

    There are so many variations of love.



    Q: You include painters, sculptors and writers in the story, all of whom create something extraordinary. Is this another consequence of love?

    A: Yes, the painting of Icarus by Rex Muller - the artist who lost his brother - is so powerful that it has an incredible effect on people who see it. Becky's first print run of her book is in the millions. There is also a statue that comes to life.

    Through the painting of Icarus, we see that from love comes creativity; without that we are doomed and this is what the story is about. But there is also the opposite of this in Doubleday, a terrible cyborg who had been one of the aliens. He was wonderful but the humans weren't able to leave him alone. They damaged him and he became this cyborg. Man focuses on the beast being the killer, not the beast being the beauty. We need rage and curiosity, but we need to harness it for good, not evil.



    Q: The witnesses tell their stories to 'Mr Jones', and for each of them it becomes a cathartic process. Are you also reflecting on the power of the story?

    A: Mr Jones listens, and that is a rare quality. Not many people listen and he does. On of my favourite plays is When An Inspector Calls. I love the idea of this quiet person asking a few pertinent questions and from that comes this whole bag of awfulness.

    No one in this story has anyone to listen to them; everything they have tried to say has been dismissed, so this is a confessional for them and it is cathartic.

    For Jazmin, there was only one young man - Alex - who saw her as she really was right from the start. She is so crippled from the loss of him and the feeling that she is in some way to blame. She is a very honest narrator and she talks her way to a closure, or conclusion.

    Hopefully, the story will speak to the reader, too. Reading can also be cathartic.



    Q: How did you decide on the title for the story?

    A: As Jazmin tells Mr Jones, 'I want to tell my tale, I want to tell my side of the diamond'. A diamond is cut into many different facets and each face reflects a different side of the diamond, just like the history of this story and the families in it.

    Jazmin wants to show her side of the diamond and - although she has been treated as an unreliable witness - she has a right to her story, as do the others. It takes many cuts to make a diamond and she has an absolute right to this side of hers.



    Q: The novel is illustrated by Nat Barlex, did you want it to be illustrated?

    A: I think the illustrations are outstanding and I'm thrilled with them. I would also like adult books to be illustrated. The moment I see a book that is well spaced or illustrated, that's a book for me. I think we underestimate how important a book's layout is to the reader.



    Q: If there was one thing you could change in the world around you, what would it be?

    A: I am very troubled by what we do to children and by our education system that crushes children's imagination. Why will we accept diversity in people's appearance but not in people's brain or in allowing a different way of teaching? I think that the government needs to get out of education and to leave children alone. The education of children by politicians becomes a political issue and parents need to wake up to that and to understand this, we are too passive.

    We need to let our children play! Where will the next great imagination come from if there is no time to play? There is a school near me, the playground is like a brickyard of a prison and when the children come out to play, they just scream and scream.

    We have to stop testing and parents need to demand that their children have time to play. We need to nuture a love of words and imagination and play time. The fuel of a nation is its children and its wealth is children's imagination.

    I am dyslexic and I have recently started a charity called NUword (NUword.org) to open up a debate about dyslexia and we have been going into prisons and art schools to explore dyslexia and creativity, which hasn't been researched enough. In this country, the highest proportion of dyslexic students are found in the St Martins School of Art and in Her Majesty's Prisons. That says everything about what is wrong with this country. We need to find new ways to educate our children - that is what I would change.





    MAGGOT MOON

    PUBLISHED BY HOT KEY BOOKS

    WINNER OF THE 2013 CILIP CARNEGIE MEDAL

    Sally Gardner spoke to ReadingZone about winning the Carnegie Medal for Maggot Moon:


    Sally Gardner said she "honestly didn't think" that Maggot Moon would win the Carnegie Medal but to have won it is "phenomenal". "It's a bit like winning the Booker prize for adult books, it's the most prestigious prize out there and I thought it would never happen, and now it has."

    She added, "In winning the Carnegie Medal, you join some of the greatest writers and illustrators this country has known, it's phenomenal, and especially as I have found writing and spelling very difficult because I am dyslexic."

    Gardner believes that planned changes to the educational system and to our exam regime will exclude children like her from education. "Yet dyslexic children have so much to teach us. We are seeing new technologies emerging that are beyond our wildest fantasy, we live in a magical age, and in this world of magicians it's the seers that will inherit the world.

    "Dyslexic children have that in abundance, that ability to see in 3D. Michael Gove (the Education Minister) doesn't have it, he's trying to educate accountants, but people like me see in a 3D way and our vision is absolutely how the world is going - yet we are not going to be allowed an education because we can't spell!"

    She adds, "I am very concerned about what we are doing with young people and education and I would like to see a divorce between the state and education. Its time for them to get out of our schools, they are a bad parent and their involvement is really damaging children. I don't care which party it is, they all do it for their own political gain; they all want to be the best head teacher the country ever had."

    The exam regime we have in place, and the forthcoming changes, are "examining children into failure", she added. "We're not encouraging imagination and yet imagination is the greatest resource a country has. If we crush it and make sheep of us all, where will we end up? It's so out of key with what is happening in technology and the world around us, with our technological advances to which children are so open."

    Gardner also fears for what this means for our democracy. She says, "My book, Maggot Moon, is like a 'what if' for any time. It's about democracy and I believe that democracy is a very fragile thing, it's not strong; a true democracy is a very gentle thing, and if we stop questioning those who threaten it, then we will find ourselves in a dictatorship. It's such a subtle change to shift from asking 'why', to being told 'you don't need to ask because we know the answer'.

    "Our democracy is being eaten away and schools are a watermark of this, they show where it's going, but it's happening in a lot of areas and people are not questioning it. We have governments that are getting away with murder and people arent questioning them. The opposition parties aren't doing it and we aren't doing it.

    "It's time we all stood up and said something and that is what I did today. People like me, we have a different way of thinking and seeing, and we will be totally ostracised by the changes that are happening in education today. The government's obsession for correct spelling is so redundant, there is so much technology available now to do things like check our spelling, and this preoccupation is devaluing our imaginations."

    Gardner wrote Maggot Moon thinking it would not be published and says, "I am so pleased that this particular novel won the Carnegie because it is so 'me', I wrote it out of contract, I didn't have a publisher for it, and I started to write it in anger (I was on a diet and very hungry and cross) and then this beautiful voice emerged, Standish Treadwell my narrator. I knew he was very angry underneath it but that he would express that anger in a lovely way."

    She adds, "This is a boy who thought he could never do anything to alter his world, but he takes this one stand and he does it, he realises that he does have the courage in him. It's a slow build, his courage, he just gently and determinedly goes about it and he has a lot of luck, too."

    Gardner has recently delivered her next book, Tinder, to her publisher Orion, and it will be published in November and is described as "a dark retelling of The Tinder Box story". She is also writing The Door That Led to Where for Hot Key Books "which I am very excited about".

    An app has been created for Maggot Moon and for Gardner, the feature that stands out is the ability to show people what it is like to be dyslexic. She explains, "I was at a school in Dublin and a boy came up to me and said, 'That's what I see miss', and his teacher wrote me a letter after the event and said my one hour visit had achieved what they hadn't been able to do in a year - he took Maggot Moon home and read it cover to cover because finally someone had shown what we see in our heads.

    "I get so sick of hearing people say, 'If you get glasses you'll fix the problem' but there isn't a cure for dyslexia, this is what it is a we have to work really hard to make those words on a page stable so we can read them. For some people it's not as bad and for others, it's worse."

    Gardner writes using a "fabulous dyslexia font" and works on a computer with triple spacing and in colour if she needs it. Gardner adds, "Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple) has made it possible for me to write because he has given me the tools I need to do it - so why are we now trying to make these backward steps with spelling and testing?"











    MAGGOT MOON,
    HOT KEY BOOKS
    SEPTEMBER 2012

    OPERATION BUNNY (WINGS & CO),
    ORION CHILDREN'S BOOKS
    OCTOBER 2012

    Sally Gardner's two books published this autumn span ages from seven to 14 years. Maggot Moon (Hot Key Books), is set in an alternate reality in the past in which a regime, likened to the Nazis, has defeated and now ruthlessly occupies another territory. Operation Bunny (Orion Children's Books), for younger readers, features an orphan girl who inherits a shop that stocks fairy wings.


    In MAGGOT MOON, the narrator, 15 year-old Standish Treadwell, lives in Zone 7 of the occupied territory and is dyslexic. After his best friend, Hector, disappears along with his parents, Standish uncovers a plot by the occupying regime to trick the rest of the world into thinking they have landed men on the Moon. Maggot Moon is also a love story about the relationship between Standish and Hector.

    Gardner says she chose a dyslexic narrator because he would be best placed to describe the world she was creating. "I wanted to focus on oppression of all people in the world today, but to put it back in time and felt that the only way I could present this world was through the eyes of a dyslexic boy.

    "The world I created was quite confusing and I felt that if my narrator, Standish, wasn't dyslexic, he would start to ask questions that would make the story harder to write. A dyslexic child would see straight through it all, so I felt his view was essential to this story."

    Gardner drew on her own experiences as a dyslexic child to give some startling insights into everyday life for dyslexics. In the story, for example, a bullying teacher undoes Standish's tie before sending him to the headmaster; they both know that Standish cannot be seen with his tie undone.

    Gardner says, "It happened to me. I wasn't allowed to leave the school grounds until I had my tie done up, but I couldn't even tie my shoe laces. If this is taken to the extreme, for Standish it would mean the hangman's rope." The tie represents all the neat patterns of society that Gardner feels she and other dyslexics don't easily fit into.

    The publisher, Hot Key Books, has created an interactive app (6.99) that provides a more sensory experience of the book, including a page of text that has been designed to show how a dyslexic reader may see a page of text. "I thought it would be good to show people what it's like," says Gardner. "Once you've seen the words dancing up and down you can see how hard it is for a dyslexic child to read, and yet somehow they manage it."

    She adds, "Dyslexic children are still being failed by our education system today. We need more education centred on the right side of our brain, rather than the left brain. Outside school children are using the visual side of their brain with computers and gaming and DVD's while in school, they are made to listen and watch, meaning that almost all dyslexic children will fail. This is what is demanded by politicians and it's not done on the basis of real education or how children learn, it's a propaganda package and it's failing our children."

    The plot in Maggot Moon hinges around the regime's faked Moon landing which Hector unwittingly learns about prior to the event, putting himself and his family in great danger. When Hector and his family disappear, taken by the authorities, Standish determines to take a stand against the regime.

    Gardner says, "I knew that the plot would involve the Moon landing. Over the years I have seen masses of conspiracy theories about the Moon landing in 1967, some more interesting than others, and the idea of a conspiracy worked for the story. I used some of the theories, for example that there wasn't enough dust on the Moon following the landing, also that the astronaut stumbled and the footprint in the sand didn't match where his foot was."

    While Gardner doesn't reveal her own views about the US Moon landing, she says, "What I am suggesting, like all these things, is for people to question what they are being told and what we are told in history."

    There is a pivotal point in the story when Standish witnesses an appalling act of cruelty and Gardner doesn't hold back from portraying the mindless cruelty of the occupying regime. "You're not shown what is actually happening in some real regimes today," she says. "Compared to what is happening now in Palestine and Syria, this is a walk in the park. We need to be vigilant about regimes like this and not to pretend it's not happening."


    Writing OPERATION BUNNY was, says Gardner, a very different experience. "It was like a wonderful setting free, the story is great fun and very theatrical." Operation Bunny is the first in a series in which an orphan, Emily Vole, decides to open her own fairy detective agency.

    Gardner's plot began with the idea of a detective agency but it wasn't until she was in Edinburgh and saw an old shop with lots of cabinets and drawers - and she wondered whether they stocked fairy wings - that the concept of a fairy detective agency was born.

    In this story, the evil Harpella is trying to destroy all fairies. In order to protect themselves, the fairies willingly lock away their wings in a magical shop called Wings & Co but when the original locksmith disappears, the fairies have to wait hundreds of years until Emily comes along and awakens the keys that can unlock the wings.

    Gardner says, "I had the idea that the characters wouldn't have been able to use their wings for many years so when they do get them back, they are slightly inconvenient." One of the fairies, for example, is by now a detective working for Scotland Yard; regaining his wings makes doing his job a little awkward.

    Like earlier stories by Gardner, the world of magic, witches and talking cats in Operation Bunny sit comfortably alongside everyday realities such as laundry and washing up. Gardner says it is her everyday life that inspires her to think about magic. "It's an extraordinary world that we live in, it's magical, it's a world that makes my writing possible with computers and the internet, and I also believe there are indeed magical creatures in it."

    Were she able to visit Wings & Co herself, Gardner chuckles that her wings "would need to be very long if I am to fly" but maybe not too big so that she could fold them away to look like an innocent rucksack on her back.

    The range of characters in Operation Bunny includes the deliciously bad and downright evil as well as those who are wonderfully eccentric or down to earth. They are brought to life through David Roberts' wonderful illustrations - the three 'zombie toddlers' is one of our favourites.

    While she enjoyed creating characters like Fidget the magical talking cat, who helps protect Emily and who becomes her family, Gardner says she had just as much fun in creating the 'baddies' such as Emily's vacuous step mother, who puts Emily into a blond wig and makes her wear blue contact lenses in order to fit in with the family colouring.

    Gardner now plans to take Emily through many more adventures with the fairy detective agency, including introducing Emily at some stage to her still living but very incompetent parents. Her next book is set in Blackpool by the sea and will have the backdrop of the circus and Blackpool pier. It will involve a murder, an elf called Elvis, a tailor, lots of snow and naturally, more delicious villains.





    THE DOUBLE SHADOW

    INDIGO

    November 2011


    In 'The Double Shadow', Sally Gardner's latest novel, Arnold wants to protect his daughter Amaryllis from harm so he creates a 'memory machine' to build a world for her where only the good memories remain. However, his plans go wrong and Amaryllis becomes stuck in a 'no-man's land', desperate to escape. The content of this book is for older readers aged 14 years plus.



    Q: 'The Double Shadow' explores the idea of building a 'memory machine' to create a perfect world out of selected memories. What made you so interested in memories?

    A:I became very fascinated by this area because I knew someone who got Alzheimers and it made me think about memory and I found it interesting - what is retained, what is lost - and how memories can trip us up so that when we are happy, we can become sad by a sad memory being triggered.

    Arnold decides to make a machine that can steal memory. He wants to right a wrong by editing the memories but he never questions what that means. He thinks he is right to take the memories of his daughter for his memory machine.

    He is a brilliant man but is naive about what would happen if his machine fell into the wrong hands and even gives a public speech about the machine. If you think about it, a nation is is an agreed memory of the past but if that is used wrongly, our past could be lost.



    Q: Inside the memory machine, you have a landscape that looks like a warzone. Why did you decide to create the memory machine to look like that?

    A: I discovered the landscape inside the memory machine when I listened to Ted Hughes' reading of The Wasteland and I thought, that is the memory machine. It's that kind of world where things get swept in and out and people remember the same event differently.

    Some of the people inside the memory machine have no shadow and that means they are only a memory; they have no connection to time now. For those with 'double shadows', they are real people whose two shadows work together; they are a footprint of the world. The one shadow is the past, the other is the person in the present, and I like the idea of older person seeing what her younger self is going through.



    Q: Are any of your theories of the memory machine based in science?

    A: I asked a scientist about the science I was using in my book and he said, whatever you can imagine, it's stranger in science.

    One of the theories in the book is meteorological constants, which is about the speed of light; is light constant, or not?

    Einstein's Theory of Relativity was that light travelled at a constant speed. Today scientists debate whether the speed of light fluctuates; people are saying that the speed of light does vary and that interested me greatly. If you could stop time, where would you be?

    The machine is in a world where there is no time. In a way it's a magical thing as well. But I like things to be rooted in reality.



    Q: The book deals with some difficult emotions and events and is also very complex. Did you find it hard to write?

    A: This book is the hardest it has ever been for me to write. Normally when I write, its like snorkelling for the story but writing this was more like diving down to see the Titanic - and knowing you needed to go as far as down as you could and look in all the corridors and the bedrooms. I felt like I came up with the bends, it was so complex a book to write and to bring together all the strands.

    When I began writing the book I didn't know where it was going, I didn't realise what had happened to Amaryllis until I had written the first chapter on her: leaving school, being expelled from boarding school. She was sitting in the car being driven home and trying not to think about it, but hurt it did, and that's when I realised what had happened to her. I had to be true to that trauma and the effect it had had on her.

    I was also interested in describing how people were affected by the war. I had both wars in my family. My father's father was so traumatised by his experiences in WW1 that he sat in his chair and gave up on life aged 50. I wanted to reverse it for him, to give him the Victoria Cross medal in the story although in reality it was my other grandfather who got the military cross on the battlefield - they didn't think he'd make it home.

    People suffered from the war, the war past or the war coming, and Amaryllis was the victim of a lack of care and education. She was vulnerable and neglected. You have to go deep to explore that.



    Q: This is set in the 1930's, how did you get the 'feel' of the era?

    A: Watching films helped me with things like the characters' speech. I watched endless 1930's and 1940's films and listened to the staccato way people used to speak, and I read people like Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. The historian Juliet Gardiner also writes about the period and her books are good on getting the atmosphere.

    That era is presented as a very glamorous time but for people who were not rich, they had the war coming up and the effects of the depression and poverty; that was the other side of the coin.

    I also got lots of ideas for the book from film. As I child I loved the Saturday cinema club, the itchy seats, not knowing the end of serialised films like the Severed Hand.

    In the story the memory machine is disguised as a building that looks like a 'picture palace' from the 1930's. I searched until I found the picture palace I wanted, it emerged out of a rundown row of shops in the US with this extraordinary film centre rising up in the middle, and as soon as I saw it I thought, that's my picture palace.



    Q: You are dyslexic and have talked about that being an advantage as a writer - in what way do you think being dyslexic has helped you?

    A: I used to tell people I'm dyslexic rather shyly but now I say it with pride. It's a gift and it's not spotted early enough or celebrated enough. Instead it's seen as a problem and labelled as 'special needs'. If it was seen as a positive, more could be gained than lost.

    The positive side of dyslexia is the visual imagination it gives you. It enables you to see in three dimensions and gives you an emotional intelligence and an artistic intelligence but schools concentrate on academia and children are crushed because they have other kinds of intelligences. Plus we test and make sick too many children because the educational system is not keeping up with the changes that are happening.



    Q: You used to write and illustrate picture books, how big a change was it to begin writing novels for older readers?

    A: It was a huge jump for me from writing picture books to writing my first novel. I have always lived in my head and had masses of stories going on and I was lucky in that my publisher never saw my dyslexia as a problem: the question she asked was, 'have you got a voice?'.

    I was amazed with the outcome, I, Coriander, and so was she! I really loved writing and began to see what you could do with words, what you could do with a story, how you could create pictures from words.

    I have stopped illustrating completely, I haven't done any for eight years; I always felt I worked very slowly on the pictures and that they weren't very good.

    I hope people will carry on reading my words, I love words and how you can paint with them, get something , really dance with it. I love the imagery you can make work and so full of colours.



    AN EARLIER AUTHOR Q&A:

    Who's your favourite author and favourite book?

    Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Holes by Louis Sachar & The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

    What is first book you remember reading?

    Wuthering Heights by Emily Bront.

    Where were you born and where do you live now?

    I was born in Birmingham, near the Cadbury's factory in Bournville, and I live in Stoke Newington.

    Where and how do you write? (computer/pen??)

    I use my Apple G4 laptop and have been writing in the pub whilst I've had builders in the house. I will also have a studio in the garden when it's finished!

    Who is your favourite literary character?

    Paddington Bear.

    Do you have any children?

    I have grown-up children: Two daughters, Freya and Lydia, and one son, Dominic. Lydia is doing the illustrations for I, CORIANDER.

    Do you have any pets?

    I have a sausage dog, Oscar, with diminished legs, but a large heart! I also have two huge cats: Woody is a bully and Pushka is more than a hundred years old.

    Where is your favourite holiday destination?

    Seste la Vanti, Italy.

    Describe yourself in 3 words

    I've been described as a giant fairy.

    What is your favourite food?

    Chocolate raisins.

    What music do you like?

    I have eclectic taste: Classical, jazz and Maroon 5.

    What is your favourite film?

    Casablanca.

    Did you always want to be an author if not, what did you want to be when you were little?

    I always wanted to illustrate children's books and I always told stories, but I honestly never thought it would be possible to write because of my dyslexia.

    What do you do when you are not writing what are your hobbies?

    Walking Oscar, visiting galleries, going to exhibitions and watching films.

    Where do you get your ideas from? Are your characters based on real people?

    I get my ideas from everywhere. I love the surrealism of life and CORIANDER came from being in Morocco.

    What 3 things would you take if you were stranded on a desert island?

    A mermaid tail so that I could swim away, pink dye for my hair and a great frock!

    What would you rescue from your house if it was on fire?

    My children, my animals and my laptop.

    How long does it take you to write a book?

    It took about one and a half years to write CORIANDER, a couple of months to write each MAGICAL CHILDREN novel and about a year to write a picture book.

    Do you get to choose the cover and the illustrator?

    I do both!

    Any writing tips for budding young novelists?

    Story is king. Keep telling a good story.