The Week Of YA: SF Said Interview

As part of our Week Of YA here at The Big Book Project, Megan and Paula got to chat to SF Said, author of Varjak Paw! Here’s what he had to say…

Megan’s questions:

You and Dave McKean have collaborated on three books now (amazing, beautiful books)
– are there any more projects in the works?

Thank you so much!  Dave McKean is my favourite artist, so collaborating with him
is an incredible experience.   He brings so much to the books.  

Our process has evolved over time.  With Varjak Paw, I was a bit in awe of him, so
I just gave him the text, and it came back looking like it does in the finished book.

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By
the time we were doing Phoenix, we’d worked together a lot (trying to
make a Varjak
Paw film as well our books), so it was more collaborative.  I gave him
tons of material that was relevant to the story, from Hubble Space
Telescope photography of stars and nebulae, to images of ancient
astrolabes and mythological figures.  I also gave him
a CD of Sigur Rós music, as this is how I imagine the stars might sound when they’re singing!

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Right
now, I’m writing my next book, and I’ve already discussed ideas for
illustration
with Dave.  The book is called TYGER, and I think it will be our best
one yet when it’s done!  I’m excited about the illustration
possibilities as well as the story itself.  I can’t say too much at this
stage, as my books always change a lot as they develop,
but let’s just say I’m collecting a lot of images of tigers!

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In Phoenix, Lucky dreams of the stars and flying in a starship.  When you were
little, what did you dream of most?

What
a great question!  My dreams have always been to do with stories,
because stories
have always been my favourite things.  For as long as I can remember,
I’ve always wanted to make stories of my own.  I remember reading
Watership Down when I was 8, and realising that I wanted to dedicate
myself to writing something that was even half as good
as that.  So that’s always been my dream. 

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Phoenix approaches the notion of Aliens, stars and the future in such unique ways.
But if there are aliens out there, what do you think they will be like – will they be like the Axxa? 

I
have to admit, the aliens in Phoenix weren’t always as they are now,
with the horns
and hooves and flaming eyes.  They were much more human-looking, but had
silvery skin that shone like the stars.  I remember my editor telling
me, “You need to make your aliens more alien.”  I thought this was a
ridiculous thing to say, until I thought about
the idea of alienness, and what it means.  Human history is full of
examples of people who’ve been demonised and treated as not fully human,
just because they look a little different.  I thought that giving my
aliens horns and hooves would be a great way of
dealing with this idea of demonisation and otherness.  So that’s how the
aliens in Phoenix came about.

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But
if I’m being really scientific about it, my guess is that
extra-terrestrial life
will not resemble humanity at all.  There’s no particular reason why it
should, because it would have evolved in very different
environments.  And there’s no reason to think we’d be able to achieve
meaningful communication with aliens, or even recognise them
as intelligent life.  We can’t really communicate with chimpanzees, with
whom we share over 98% of our DNA, or with whales and dolphins, or even
with each other most of the time!

The mythology in Phoenix is beautiful and so different.  How did you come up with
the Twelve Astraeus – and how hard was it to create their story?

Thank
you!  I’ve always been interested in world mythology, and couldn’t help
noticing
how the same myths and characters seem to keep coming up again and again
in different cultures.  I’ve always wondered if all mythologies have
some kind of common origin,
and that’s where the idea of the Twelve Astraeus began.

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Early drafts of Phoenix had lots of material about
the Astraeus, explaining
the alien belief that they’re the origins of all the gods and goddesses
of the ancient pantheons.  But those parts of the book never quite
worked, somehow; I never felt the words were powerful enough.

Then I had the idea of
describing them through illustrations and song fragments rather than
prose.  I gave Dave McKean a list of the Twelve Astraeus, with their
names and attributes
in all the different mythologies.  I also wrote song fragments to go
with the illustrations, which give you hints about the mythology.  So
when readers encounter the Astraeus of the Sea, for example, they can
work out for themselves that this character was
called Poseidon by the Greeks, Neptune by the Romans, and so on. I think
that’s more powerful than prose could ever be!

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What advice do you have for young aspiring authors reading this?

First
of all, read.  Read as much and as widely as you can.  Every author I
know is
a fanatical reader.  In fact, a writer is really just a reader who’s
taken the next step, and started writing the stories they want to read –
the ones that don’t exist yet.

So
rather than thinking of yourself as well as a writer, think of yourself
as a reader.  As
a reader, ask yourself what story you would most want to read, if you
could have any story about absolutely anything at all.  Then you just
sit down and shamelessly write that story yourself.   (I got this advice
from JD Salinger, by the way.)

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You
should be prepared to do as many drafts as it takes to make the story
as good
as it can possibly be.  Don’t settle for less.  Phoenix took me 13
drafts over 7 years.  I can’t pretend this was fun, or easy.  But it was
worth it, because when I look at the book now, I don’t see anything I
want to change.  It’s as good as I could make it,
and that’s all a writer can do.  So don’t give up.  Whatever happens: DO
NOT GIVE UP!
 

So that’s what Megan had to ask, but what did Paula want to know?

What are your main influences? 

As far as novels go, some big ones for me
include the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin, The
Jungle
Books by Rudyard Kipling, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.  Le
Guin in particular is a huge inspiration; I wrote a bit about her
here!

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I’m
also very influenced by films, TV, comics,
music, art, photography… all kinds of things. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr
Who, Firefly and Buffy have as much to do with the origins of Phoenix as
any books; in fact, I’d say Joss Whedon and George Lucas are as
important for me as any writers! 

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I should also mention non-fiction.  I’m
very
interested in politics and philosophy, and I think a lot of that has
found its way into my books, though it might not be immediately obvious.

What books did you read in childhood?

The Cat In The Hat is the first book I remember coming across.  My uncle read it to
me when I was 3, and I fell in love with books and stories right there.  

The Little Prince was the first book I read on my own.  I still re-read it every year
or two, and it still amazes me.  And it still makes me cry, every time.  

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I
think that publishers are starting to lose faith in the ability of
children to
have an attention span lasting longer than a few sentences. Authors are
encouraged to dive straight into the story in order to hook form the
very first paragraph, and the emphasis on showing not telling keeps up
the rapid and relentless feel of many modern
books. Obviously there are exceptions with writers like Pullman and John
Dickinson. How do you feel about this? Do you agree or disagree? When
you writes are you aware of the fact that you may be competing with
electrical devices for a child’s attention or
do you just write from the heart?
.

I think every writer approaches their work differently, so I can only speak about
my own experience.  Personally, I don’t think about audiences when I write.  I just try to write the books I want to read.   

I like books that are compelling and that grab me from page one, but that also stay
with me and resonate long after I finish reading.  Books that have substance and depth, with things going on beneath the surface
that I might only notice on re-reading.  I like books that have all sorts of elements: action, mystery, humour, thought-provoking ideas, memorable characters, beautiful
prose, interesting worlds…  

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And so I try to fill my books with all those things.  I know that not every reader
is going to like what I do, but I hope there will be enough to persuade publishers to keep publishing my work!

Varjak
Paw is fast becoming a modern classic and has a mixture of everything
that
children love. Do you have a love of cats and animals in general? As a
little girl, I cried many tears over Black Beauty and Watership Down. I
also loved Dodie Smith’s books and the animals in Masefield’s Midnight
Folk. What were your favourite animal stories
and what inspired Varjak Paw?

Thank you so much! I love Watership Down
too, and Masefield, and Dodie Smith.  Those are great choices, and I
would definitely number them among my favourite animal stories.  I
think Paws And Whiskers, the anthology that Jacqueline Wilson edited,
has some
really incredible ones.  It was such an honour to see Varjak Paw
included in there!

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Of course, I love animals, and cats in particular. I
wrote a bit about a cat who inspired Varjak Paw here!

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Phoenix is young adult sci-fi – do you prefer to write for older or younger children
and is there any genre that specifically appeals to you?

I
don’t think about ages when I write, or publishing categories like YA
and MG.  I’m just trying to write the books I want to read.  Anyone else
who wants to read them is welcome,
however old they are, whoever they are, wherever in the world they might
be.  I don’t mind if a reader is 6 or 16 or 66.  And it’s been amazing
to hear from readers of all ages that they’ve enjoyed my work.  

I don’t think about genres,
either.  I like all genres.  I probably read more fantastical fiction
than anything else (sci-fi, fantasy, mythology, etc), but I do also read
realist fiction,
historical, romance, crime – all sorts.  What I like is a good story.  I
don’t mind what kind of story; I just want it to be good!

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So
I think my books mix all those elements up.  If I had to put a label on
them, I’d say they were mythic.  I’m trying to write modern myths: the
kinds of stories people might have
told 30,000 years ago around campfires, or might tell 30,000 years in
the future on space stations.   

Unfortunately, ‘mythic’ is not
a publishing category, but maybe it should be!  I think many of my
favourite books are mythic, including Watership Down, Le Guin, and
Pullman.  So if
you want to read more, here’s a blog I wrote about mythology, and
William Blake, and my next book, TYGER
.

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Everyone at The Big Book Project wishes to thank SF for doing this interview for us. All images were supplied by SF himself, just in case you were wondering. To find about more about SF and his books, a great starting place would be his blog, which you can find by clicking here! Happy Week Of YA!

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