Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Richard Adams Interview

I was very sad to learn that the great Richard Adams passed away recently. Watership Down was a book that changed my life; as I've written before, there would be no Varjak Paw without Watership Down.


I had the pleasure of meeting Adams in 2002, to interview him for an article I was writing. When I heard he'd passed away, I re-read the transcript of our interview, and found some fascinating material I hadn't been able to use at the time. We talked about how inspiring he found the work of mythology scholar Joseph Campbell; discovered an unexpected connection between Watership Down and Star Wars (another big influence for me); and discussed his views on writers including Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman. So as a tribute to Richard Adams, I've decided to publish this material now.

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SFS: How did the idea of the rabbits having a mythology begin?

RA: Well, one of the happiest things that has happened to me is my friendship with Joseph Campbell. I think it was the proudest moment in my life when I was invited to New York to speak at Joseph's 80th birthday. That really chuffed me. I had a lot of talks with him; sometimes he would take me to the Museum of Mankind and show me war canoes and totem poles.

SFS: How did you meet him? One of the epigraphs in Watership Down quotes his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces; had you met him already when you wrote it?


RA: I'd bought The Hero With A Thousand Faces when it came out in 1949, and I read it straight through twice, and on and off ever since. Then, when I was in New York and had a day or two to spare, I discovered Joseph Campbell's address; he lived in Greenwich. I just went and rang the doorbell and told him who I was. He couldn't have been more friendly. We spent the whole day together, although he'd never met me before, and we had a splendid dinner at his club at the end of the day. I told him how much I'd enjoyed it, and I told him all about Watership Down.

SFS: What did he think of it?

RA: Of course it's very like some of Joseph Campbell's stories; it was very much up his street. He thought it was marvellous! What he specialised in was folk tales, he knew all about folk tales. There's a 3-volume work, The Masks Of God, it's wonderful. He was by far the most interesting person I think that I've met in the course of my life.

SFS: Campbell was also a mentor for George Lucas, who made Star Wars.

RA: I know. Well, there were three speakers at that dinner, and they put me first. So I thought, "I'll do something special." And I did, although I say it myself! I gave a marvellous speech; I was in tears when I sat down, and so were several other people. I finished up by saying, "That's why I've travelled 5,000 miles to be here tonight, and that's why I'm enormously glad to be speaking at this dinner. Really, there's only one thing that I've come to say, and I say it now with all the force at my command and all the sincerity of which I'm capable: thank you, Joseph, thank you." And with that I sat down.

SFS: Who were the other speakers?

RA: One was a lady teacher at a university. But the third speaker, and very bad he was, was the director of Star Wars.

SFS: George Lucas?!

RA: Yes. He obviously hadn't prepared a speech at all – it was full of ers and ums. My speech was much the best, if I say it myself.


SFS: Watership Down and Star Wars were two of the biggest phenomena of their time – and they were both made by people who were avid Joseph Campbell readers.

RA: Yes, I suppose so. Well, The Hero With A Thousand Faces hit me like a bomb when I read it. I was in a great muddle at the time about my religious ideas, and trying to make sense of the cosmos. The Hero just sorted that out for me. Religious ideas made sense now; you could see how they occurred in similar format in all nations and all races. And the conception of the cosmos for the first time in my life made sense. Oh, it was a wonderful thing to know Joseph Campbell, and I re-read that book every now and then.

SFS: Did it also influence the main narrative of Watership Down – the way in which Hazel becomes a rabbit hero; the way Fiver is really a shaman?

RA: Yes, of course, it's closely modelled on the ideas of The Hero. Hazel, and Bigwig of course becomes very important as the book goes on – well they all do, Blackberry, Dandelion… Yes, I certainly owe that to Joseph Campbell.

SFS: Around the same time that you were writing Watership Down, in the 1960s, writers like Alan Garner were also using mythology in their work.


RA: I've got a great respect for Alan Garner. I think he's a marvellous writer. I've got all his books.

SFS: There was a whole wave of children's literature that was very ambitious in that way – Ursula Le Guin, too.

RA: Ursula Le Guin is a great friend of mine. I've got all her books, and I've corresponded with her frequently all along. I've got a very high opinion of Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness: I think that's marvellous work. And the Earthsea trilogy. Another big influence is Mary Renault. The Mask of Apollo, The Last of The Wine. The best one I think is the one about Theseus: The King Must Die. Although she is not widely known and popular as she ought to be.


SFS: How about more recent authors? I heard you'd enjoyed Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife? They have that mythic feel, too.

RA: Yes, they certainly do. The highest ability that a novelist can show, in my opinion, is quite simply the power of invention. A novelist who can invent things like you'd never think of for yourself – and carry the story along because you become so fixed on the marvellous powers of invention – well, that's one reason why I'm so much in favour of Ursula Le Guin. Her power of invention is very strong.

SFS: How about JK Rowling – have you read any Harry Potter?

RA: I've never read a Harry Potter book. I ought to have, oughtn't I? I haven't really had the time for Harry Potter, but I wish the lady well. Anybody who can get a book published, I wish them well!

Richard Adams, 1920-2016

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

New blogs by SF Said!

I've been writing some blogs to go with the publication of PHOENIX in North America by Candlewick Press.  I thought my readers might be interested in them.


The first blog I wrote was for KidsReads, and it was about collaborating with my brilliant illustrator, Dave McKean.  Dave and I have been working together since he illustrated Varjak Paw, nearly a decade and a half ago, and for me, his artwork is a vital part of my books.  Here's a little bit of the blog:
"By the time I was working on PHOENIX, we'd become friends and collaborators.  We'd spent a lot of time together trying to make a VARJAK PAW movie, with many adventures in Hollywood and beyond.  As I was writing PHOENIX, I was telling him things like: "I'm writing a great big space epic about a human boy and an alien girl who have to save the galaxy!  It's full of stars, black holes, dark matter – and also all the gods and goddesses of all the ancient mythological pantheons!"

The next blog was for the Children's Book Council Diversity Blog, and it was about how I think the books we read when we're young are the most important books of all.  Here's a little bit of that blog:
"I write children’s books because I believe they’re the books that change people’s lives.  My favorite book as a child was Watership Down by Richard Adams.  I re-read it as an adult, trying to understand why I’d loved it so much.  More than a thrilling adventure story about rabbits, I saw it was a story about the big questions of human life: Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where do we belong?  How should we live?" 

And the most recent blog, which I wrote for KidLitFrenzy, was all about my love of science fiction, and how seeing the first Star Wars film as a wide-eyed 10 year-old eventually led me to write Phoenix.  Here's a little bit of that blog:
"I was 10 years old when the first Star Wars film came out.  It was a life-changing moment for me, as for many of my generation.  As I looked up in awe at that first starship filling the screen, I remember thinking that I wanted to write a story as big as that one day.  I wanted to see a sci-fi space epic for young readers – so I finally sat down and wrote one myself."


I hope you enjoy reading these blogs – and I hope you enjoy the Candlewick edition of Phoenix too!  I'd love to hear from readers in the US and Canada – so if you have already read Phoenix, please leave me a comment below!

You can also WIN A FREE COPY OF PHOENIX – there's a giveaway on YA Books Central this month that anyone in the US can enter!  

Sunday, 27 November 2016

PHOENIX USA!

I am absolutely delighted to announce that my new book PHOENIX is now available in North America!


It's published by the wonderful Candlewick Press, who have produced a beautiful edition that uses all of Dave McKean's fantastic original artwork for the book.  You can order it from them, or from any good bookshop or website.  You can find the publishers' page for Phoenix by clicking this link, and you can watch a special US version of Dave McKean's Phoenix book trailer right here:


You can also WIN A FREE COPY OF PHOENIX!  There's a giveaway on YA Books Central this month that anyone in the US can enter.  I've written a piece to go with it all about the book's inspirations.  

I hope you enjoy it, and I would love to hear from readers in North America – so if you've read Phoenix, please leave me a comment below and let me know how you enjoyed flying among the stars with Lucky and Bixa!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Year 8

I believe all writers are readers, and all readers can be writers – something I've written about elsewhere recently.  So as Patron Of Reading at Fortismere School, I decided with brilliant librarian Gillian Ward to focus on reading with Year 7, and writing with Year 8.  And it was a pleasure last week to spend time working with two Year 8 classes on creative writing.


I talked them through the three main stages of the writing process: getting an idea, writing a first draft, and then editing it to make it as good as it can be.  I asked them to think of ideas for stories they would want to read themselves, and then to write drafts and edit them.  We only had an hour, but in that time, they produced some amazing work, and I'm delighted to share some of it here:

Lois
The sun shone through the windows, the light bouncing off the plastic coated covers and labels. The book sat on the shelf, the top shelf, above the others. The book had been there all day. All week. Before the sun arrived on the shelf, there had been darkness; a cramped, dusty darkness that had shadowed its pages and words and story. A story that had been told to the first person to open the book. And the second. And the third.

Jai
He woke up in a frivolous mood and clambered up to the deck of the ship. He saw the moon’s pockmarked surface through the plexiglass windows and sighed to himself. Back on Jupiter he knew his family would be moving to the secret base in the ocean in preparation for the war. He stood, gazing out at the atmosphere studded with giant balls of blazing gas and wondered if he would make it back to his home planet alive. Silently behind him, Will shuffled out of the sleeping quarters and made himself tea: rooibos, a rare plant scavenged from the remains of earth.

Issei
Sam loves books. He spends all his breaks in the school library. This separates him from the others. Even though the librarians praise him, his friends don’t. Well, he can’t really call them friends now. He started to prefer books to his mates and one by one they left him. Now, the only friends he has are books. He’s even become friends with Harry Potter!


It was a pleasure working with these students – some of their ideas just blew me away.  I hope they continue to work on their writing, because if they do, before too long, I think they'll be publishing books of their own!  Here's a link to some writing tips I've done on this blog that might be helpful with that – and if anyone from Year 8 has any questions or would like to leave me a comment, this is the place to do it!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Year 7

I was delighted to return to Fortismere School last week for the start of my second year as their Patron Of Reading.  Patron Of Reading is a brilliant scheme in which authors don't just visit a school once, but return several times to help spread the love of reading.  I was invited to do this last year by Fortimsere's fantastic librarian Gill Ward, and you can read about all the things we did last year in these blog posts.


We started my second year's activities with the new Year 7, who I had the pleasure of meeting last week.  They gave me a wonderful welcome, and I was excited to see that they're already brilliant readers.  When I asked what their favourite books were, it was great to hear so many different favourites, from classics like The Lord Of The Rings to books like this year's Carnegie Medal winner, Sarah Crossan's One.


I talked to them about the books that were my favourites when I was at school, like Watership Down by Richard Adams.  (If anyone would like to know more about that book, I wrote a whole blog post about it here.)  I also talked to them about my favourite films, like the original Star Wars (and I've just written a blog about seeing that film back when I was 10!)


We went on to talk about how you go from being a reader to being a writer, and how stories like Watership Down influenced Varjak Paw, and how Star Wars influenced Phoenix.  I really do believe that every writer is a reader, and every reader can be a writer.  A writer is really just a reader who's taken the next step, and decided to write the story they want to read themselves!


We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone at Fortimsere has another question, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.  And I look forward to returning to Fortismere next week to talk to Year 8 about creative writing, and then returning next term to talk more about our favourite books with Year 7!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Author Visits: Bishop's Stortford College

I'd like to say a big thank you to the brilliant librarian Rosie Pike for inviting me to visit Bishop's Stortford College last month – and to everyone I met there for the wonderful welcome they gave me!


I really enjoyed talking to the school book club about Varjak Paw, which they're currently reading.  I heard some amazing questions and observations about the book, and was really impressed with how thoughtfully they'd read it, as well as the work some of them had made around it!


It was then a pleasure to talk to Years 7, 6 and 5 about reading and writing, and to sign their books at the end.  We didn't quite have enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone from Bishop's Stortford would like to ask anything else, or to say anything about the visit or the books, just leave me a comment below!


Many thanks to College photographer Ian Taylor for the pictures – you can see more in this fantastic blog about my visit on the school website!

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Author Visits: Beckford Primary School

I'd like to say a big thank you to everyone at Beckford Primary School in West Hampstead for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!


I first visited Beckford back in 2013, and it was a pleasure to return and be greeted by this inspiring tiger again.  (If you want to know why I'm inspired by tigers, see this blog post!)  Year 4 at Beckford are currently reading Varjak Paw, and Year 5 read it last year.  Many of them had also read The Outlaw Varjak Paw, but only a few had read Phoenix so far, so I showed them Dave McKean's fantastic Phoenix book trailer.


So many people wanted to read Phoenix after watching the trailer, the local bookseller West End Lane Books completely sold out of copies!  They said they would return with more copies the next day, and I signed book plates for everyone who said they wanted one – but if there's anyone at Beckford who wanted a signed book plate for their copy of Phoenix and didn't get one, just let me know and I'll send it over.


It was really inspiring for me to see so much enthusiasm for books and reading, and to be asked so many brilliant questions!  If anyone from Beckford has any more questions, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.  And if you'd like to see more pictures from the visit, there are lots more on this page on the school's website!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Author Visits: Springwell Junior School

I'd like to say a huge thank you to Dom Hughes and to everyone at Springwell Junior School for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!


Springwell have just opened a fantastic new school library, and it was an absolute honour and a pleasure for me to open it for them!


There's a wonderful video of the moment we opened the library, which you can see by clicking this link.  At that moment, and throughout the day as I talked to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about writing and books, it was inspiring for me as a writer to see the genuine excitement in that school around reading.


We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone from Springwell would like to ask me another question, or if you just want to say something about the visit or my books – leave me a message below!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

"Will There Ever Be A Third Varjak Paw Book?"

For everyone who wants to know the answer to this question, I've just written about it for The Guardian, as part of a feature in which they asked authors about their fictional characters growing up.  Here's the full text of what I wrote, with some additional illustrations...



When I first read Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, they were a trilogy about a hero in his prime. In A Wizard Of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs Of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972), she told the story of Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, as he grew from Gontish goat-herd to world-saving wizard: a classic children's book narrative.

That seemed to be the end of it. But then she found new stories to tell. In Tehanu (1990), she showed Ged living a life without magic, learning to take satisfaction in the pleasures and pains of an ordinary existence with Tenar, the priestess who shared his greatest adventure. The book follows her story as much as Ged's. 


Then in The Other Wind (2001), Le Guin showed Ged near the end of his days: still wise, but almost an absence now, reconciled to his irrelevance. The story was about other characters finding their way without him. 


Le Guin wrote a new story whenever she had something new to say. That seems to me exactly right. I've never wanted to give my own characters new adventures in which nothing changes. Repetition seems to me a much bigger risk than letting them grow. 



So in my first book, Varjak Paw (2003), Varjak is a kitten: a very young character who learns a secret martial art from very ancient cats. In The Outlaw Varjak Paw (2005), he is a grown-up cat, and the questions he faces are grown-up questions about law and justice, politics and morality.




I stopped there, because I didn't have another story to tell about him. And I had other things on my mind, such as my space epic, Phoenix (2013), and my current work in progress, Tyger, both of which are about young characters finding their way. But the one question I've heard more than any other since 2005 is: "Will there ever be a third Varjak Paw book?"



To my surprise, now a decade has gone by, I find myself thinking more and more about Varjak. He seems to be ageing with me. I now feel sure there will be a third book, in which the story comes full circle. Varjak will now be an old cat himself, teaching the secret martial art to much younger kittens: passing it on. That makes sense to me as the shape of a trilogy, and the shape of a life.

But to write a story about an old character, perhaps you should be old yourself, to know what it feels like. I'm getting there faster than I thought possible, but I'm not quite ready yet. I am keeping notes, though, making plans, gathering material for that time. 

It's comforting to know that far greater writers have made this journey. I look at Le Guin's example. As she recently said of Earthsea: "Authors and wizards learn to be patient while the magic works." I just hope readers can be patient too.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Years 7 & 8

I've been honoured and excited this year to take on a new role as Fortismere School's Patron Of Reading.  This is a scheme in which authors develop a special relationship with a school, and visit many times to help spread the love of reading.  I was invited to do this by Fortismere's fantastic librarian, Gill Ward, and our first year's activities came to a wonderful conclusion this month.


First of all, I spent an afternoon with Fortismere's Year 8 Carnegie Shadowers.  The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Medals run an amazing Shadowing scheme, in which young people all over the country are invited to read and review the shortlisted books every year.  As I was involved in judging the Amnesty CILIP Honour this year, which is connected to the Carnegie, I'd read the shortlisted books myself, so I thought it would be interesting to discuss them with Fortismere's Shadowers.


We had a very open and lively discussion about all eight books, in which one great truth became clear: everyone reads differently.  Everyone's experience of a book is unique.  Books are collaborations between writers and readers, and each reader brings as much to it as the writer does.  There was no single book that everyone loved, and there was no single book that everyone disliked.  Each book had supporters and detractors.  But there was a book for everyone in there, and as a writer, I found that incredibly inspiring.

A similar theme emerged in the evening, when I had the pleasure of attending the final of Fortismere's Inter-College Reading Competition.  This is an idea that Gill Ward and I developed this year, in which Year 7s were asked to make presentations championing their favourite books.  It was a fantastic occasion, attended by many parents and staff, as well as the brilliant young readers themselves!


They made presentations on an impressive range of books: RJ Palacio's Wonder, George Orwell's 1984, JK Rowling's Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, James Dashner's The Maze Runner, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, and Sarah J Maas's Throne Of Glass.

It was fantastic to see such enthusiasm being expressed so eloquently.  These champions were genuinely passionate about their books, and again, for a writer, there is nothing more inspiring to witness.  I'm really looking forward to working with these Year 7s next year in Year 8 on their creative writing – and to welcoming a whole new intake of Year 7s into Fortismere School!

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Phoenix Wins Haringey Children's Book Of The Year!

Amazing news: Phoenix has won the Haringey Children's Book Of The Year Award!


This is a fantastic book prize organised by brilliant school librarians and voted for by young readers in schools all over Haringey, North London.  I was honoured when Phoenix was included on an incredibly strong shortlist with books by great writers like Shirley Hughes, Philip Womack, Polly Ho-Yen and Katherine Rundell.


Some stunning Phoenix-inspired artwork then appeared in the window of local bookshop, Pickled Pepper Books, created by some of the students who had read it for the prize!


The day itself was amazing.  It was hosted by Heartlands High School, whose fantastic librarian Helen Swinyard organised the awards.  First I did a creative writing workshop with Year 7s from Highgate Wood School, sponsored by local arts organisation Collage Arts.  The Year 7s produced some seriously brilliant work, like this short story; you can read more in this wonderful blog on their school website.


After the creative writing workshops, Philip Womack, Polly Ho-Yen and myself did a Q&A session with students from all the schools involved, and were joined on stage by local MP Catherine West.  I was particularly delighted to see some students there from Fortismere School, where I am Patron Of Reading, accompanied by their brilliant librarian Gillian Ward.


Then it was announced that Phoenix had won, and I was presented with the award by last year's winner, Gill Lewis!


You can see the moment itself in this video clip, posted by North Haringey School!  It was amazing to see all the enthusiasm for books out there.  It really meant a lot for me, especially because Phoenix was largely written in Haringey Libraries.  So a huge thank you to everyone involved – it took me seven years to write Phoenix, but moments like this make all the hard work worthwhile!


Photos from Jordan Kouame Hart of Collage Arts



Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Author Visits: Watercliffe Meadow

I'd like to say a very big thank you to Steve Smith and all the brilliant pupils and teachers I met when I visited Watercliffe Meadow last month!


They gave me a fantastic welcome, and it was an absolute pleasure to talk to Years 4, 5 & 6 about reading and books.  Many of them had already read Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw and Phoenix, and a few had left me some wonderful messages on this site before the visit, so I knew they would be asking brilliant questions!


It was also a pleasure to do a creative writing workshop with Year 6.  In just an hour, they produced some absolutely fantastic stories.  I was blown away by some of the writing they produced.


There's a great blog about the visit on the school website, with some more photos and some examples of Year 6's creative writing.  Thanks again to everyone involved for an unforgettable day!


Friday, 1 April 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Year 7

On World Book Day, I had the great pleasure of visiting Fortismere School again, to talk to Year 7 as their Patron Of Reading.  Year 7 are taking part in an Inter-College Reading Competition, organised by their brilliant librarian Gill Ward, in which they are reading and championing some great books.  So I thought I'd talk to them about the many ways in which we can share our experiences of books.


The classic way is by writing a book review.  I showed them this review I wrote for The Guardian about Philip Reeve's book Railhead, which I very much enjoyed and would recommend to anyone who liked Phoenix!  I think the best book reviews do this; as the film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, the job of the critic is "to transmit knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others."


But what if words aren't your strongest suit?  What if you're more comfortable with pictures?  In that case, a blog might be a better form for you to talk about books.  I showed them an example of a blog that a brilliant book blogger called Tygertale had made about the same book; one that uses lots of pictures, as well as links, videos and even music to share his experience of Railhead.


Perhaps you'd rather be more spontaneous, and just talk about a book.  In which case, you might consider filming yourself talking about it straight to camera.  Many people now make video reviews of books and post them online; there's a whole BookTubing community out there on YouTube!  Here's one I showed them by booksandquills, of Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children.


Some people don't like to be on camera themselves, but still enjoy making videos. Such people might consider making a book trailer – a short film that gives a flavour of the book.  This is a form that has taken off in the last few years, and there are some fantastic book trailers out there for inspiration.  I showed them Dave McKean's brilliant Phoenix book trailer last term, so this time, I showed them a trailer for Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co:


The great thing about book trailers is that you can take any approach to them at all.  Here's a very different trailer that I showed them, for Lu Hersey's Deep Water:


In the end, all of these are just different ways of sharing our experiences of books.  And there is nothing nicer than sharing books with your friends!  So I'm really looking forward to coming back to Fortismere in June to see Year 7 championing their books.  In the meantime, if anyone has any questions or if there is anything I can help with, just leave me a comment below!



Thursday, 31 March 2016

Author Visits: Brecknock Primary

I'd like to say a very big thank you to Az Naeem and everyone I met at Brecknock Primary for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them to talk about my books!


It was brilliant to see so much enthusiasm for reading and books in Brecknock!  There were lots of fantastic questions, and I heard some truly inspiring stories from the children.


It was amazing to be presented at the end with some of the brilliant work they'd done with my books.  If anyone from Brecknock has a question that we didn't have time to cover during the visit, just leave me a comment below.  And if you'd like to see more about the visit, the school has written a lovely blog about it – with lots more pictures!