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!