A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
(Plus a giveaway: leave a comment to enter your name in the draw…)
Sally Nicholls’ first novel Ways to Live Forever is about Sam, an intelligent and likeable eleven-year-old boy who’s interested in science and dreams of riding in an airship… and also happens to be dying of leukaemia. The novel is structured as Sam’s own notebook, a scrapbook and journal of his last months, peppered with questions about death, drawings, lists of fascinating facts and things he’d like to do before he dies. In the course of the novel Sam, his best friend (who is also terminally ill), his parents and sister all need to come to terms with death in their own ways.
I picked up the book with a hard heart, as I’m generally a tough audience for this kind of thing. Old Yeller or The Lion King can make me cry; stories of dying children usually make me feel I’m being manipulated. An opera critic once said that any soprano can make you cry at the end of Traviata, but it takes a Maria Callas to make you cry in the middle of it. I am both proud and slightly embarrassed to say I was already sniffling by page 10 of Ways to Live Forever. Impending death brings an urgency to every small detail of life, and the most notable thing about this novel is that it isn’t gloomy at all – it is full of the bittersweet joy of being alive, which makes the book all the more moving without mawkishness. This is a children’s book with emotional punch and understated elegance: I have no idea whether a child reading it would bawl his eyes out as I did, but I do think it’s a great read for grown-ups as well, and I’m not surprised the publishers are treating it as a crossover novel.
Rosy read the book too (it is not common knowledge whether she was weeping by page 10, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was) and we sent off a few questions to this young Callas of children’s literature…
Leena: You’re now an award-winning debut novelist, with more books in the pipeline – and it’s amazing to think you’re still so very young. Of course, success always seems sudden when you look at it from the outside, and in reality writing is slow and hard work; but all the same, there must be a difference. Has all this seemed sudden to you at all, and how have you adjusted to being a successful author now?
Sally: Well, I had a year to get used to the idea while the book was coming out, which helped, but it was very odd at the beginning. I thoroughly expected Ways to Live Forever to be a very quiet, non-commercial book, so it was quite a surprise when Scholastic put so much support behind it.
I feel very, very lucky to have had such a positive experience of being published. It does feel like a lot to live up to, but I’m excited about the book I’m writing now, and I feel confident that it can be as good, if not better.
Rosy: I was very impressed with the way you handled the emotion in the book. There was a danger that it could have been melodramatic or mawkish, but I found it very moving. I noticed that a lot of the emotion was in the parents, but filtered through the main character – who being so young himself didn’t have the life experience to understand adult emotions or the full enormity of losing a child for a parent. I wondered – was this something you thought a lot about (how to communicate the emotion)? Did you deliberately choose a more dispassionate, pragmatic child character or was it your experience that children in those situations ARE more dispassionate and pragmatic about their illness?
Sally: No, that was deliberate. I was very aware of easily the book could turn into a long angsty moan about how the main character would never grow up, never have children etc. I know that’s the sort of book I would have written if I’d had cancer at about thirteen. So I deliberately decided to have a younger, less emotional narrator, on the basis that the emotional background didn’t need to be spelt out.
I also wanted him to be able to explore the philosophical questions surrounding death, so I needed him to be able to look it straight in the eye. But I’ve since had feedback from parents who’ve said that the black humour and the openness is very characteristic of sick children.
Rosy: In this respect, I saw similarities with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” where a lot of the dramatic emotional arc is carried almost off-stage by the mature adult emotions filtered through a more dispassionate, naive gaze of a teenager with Aspergers. Was this book an influence on “Ways to Live Forever “at all? And do you think that, like “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, that “Ways to Live Forever” could be for adults as well as children – or do you see it very firmly as a children’s book?
Sally: Well, I wrote it as a children’s book, but Scholastic definitely think it’s crossover, and it’s published as a adult novel in France and Spain.
I don’t think Sam is as dispassionate as Christopher in Curious Incident – he cares very much about his family and friends, he just doesn’t want to have to deal with all that adult emotion. What I did steal from Mark Haddon is the structure, where a chapter of narrative alternates with a chapter of something else.
Leena: You mention on your website that most books on the subject of death are about grief rather than mortality, and I think that’s very true. It could be that more people are afraid of loss than of their own death – I know I was, and am… or perhaps we can’t just bear to think about it. To a healthy person, Ways to Live Forever is an eye-opener, but do you think children who are themselves dangerously ill would walk away with something else from the book? Have you had any feedback from young patients?
Sally: I did have a comment on my website from a girl with leukaemia who was going to read it, but I don’t know what she thought of it.
One of the books I read as research was a study of dying children who would ask for Charlotte’s Web to be read to them over and over, particularly the chapter when Charlotte dies. I admit that I wrote the story with those children in mind – although I think it’s a book that a child would have to ask for themselves rather than have forced upon them.
Dying children do ask the questions that Sam asks. If any ill children have read the book, I hope that it’s helped to answer them.
Rosy: Death is such a huge unknowable thing and one of the themes of “Ways to Live Forever” was about how one comes to terms with it. One of the main strands is how the main character is curious and wants to ask questions which his parents don’t want to answer. In a way, these are questions we all ask and can’t answer. How did you tackle the idea of trying to answer those enormous questions for your main character and for your readers? I noticed, for example, you mentioned alongside the possibility of heaven, the possibility of hell – a notion I found very frightening as a child. Did you feel you had certain responsibilities to present points of view and different beliefs, or did you just treat it more instinctually?
Sally: There are so many books that use the death of a child to promote the author’s religious belief – whether that belief is Christian or atheist or something else. I wanted to write one which gave children a range of stories and allowed them to make up their own mind.
Hell is something that most children are aware of – I didn’t feel like I could leave it off that list, any more than I could leave out the possibility that we just go to sleep and never wake up. But I hope that it’s obvious that Sam is hopeful about what happens next.
Leena: I gather you had a good experience with a Creative Writing MA. Can you tell us a little about that?
Sally: Oh, my MA was fab. I don’t think I would finished Ways to Live Forever if I hadn’t that support and that year of dedicated writing time. Doing an MA doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get published, and it certainly won’t teach you how to write. But what it will do is introduce you to lots of other passionate writers, show you that writing professionally is more than just a pipe-dream and give you the space you need to find your own way of writing a book and the encouragement to finish it.
And mine was the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa, which was just for kid’s writers and so even better than that.
Leena: When is your next book coming out, and what is it about? Are you working on anything right now?
Sally: The next book (which doesn’t have a title yet) is coming out in January. It’s based on the pagan myth of the green man and it’s about a girl called Molly and her relationship with the green man figure, who is a summer god and a symbol for all sorts of other things.
I’ve just started a third book, which I’m really enjoying writing. It’s in a similar vein to Ways to Live Forever, but the subject matter is even more controversial, if that’s possible!
Leena: Please recommend five books and tell us a little about the choices.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – I’ve just reread this and have been raving about it to everyone. It’s funny, wonderfully evocative, and is set in a castle. What more could you want?
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – I used to know whole sections of this off by heart when I was about ten …
Jane Eyre – It’s beautifully plotted, and I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Mr Rochester.
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – I love Linda’s mad, chaotic family, and would be perfectly happy to spend my life ‘chatting’, conducting love affairs with Parisian dukes and running away to fight in Spanish civil wars.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – Because it has everything you could want in a children’s book – mystery, death, magic, elephants, gardens, people with Yorkshire accents …
Also, we’ve got one copy of Ways to Live Forever to give away to commenters, so pipe up before next Tuesday if you’d like to be included in the draw! (As usual, my fellow foxes aren’t eligible… not even with false moustaches and dodgy foreign accents.)
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