Sally Nicholls Interview
Posted on 24 April 2007. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to debut novelist Sally Nicholls about her first book, out early next year
Tell us something about your background.
My first novel, Ways To Live Forever, is going to be published by Marion Lloyd Books at Scholastic in January 2008. Itís structured as a scrapbook written by an eleven-year-old with terminal leukaemia, full of things like pictures, lists, questions, stories and definitions. Running along behind them is Samís own story about everything thatís happening to him in the last three months of his life. Scholastic UK are marketing it at teens and adults and Scholastic America are marketing it at nine-to-twelves and adults.
Iím currently working on a second childrenís novel, working title The Green Man, based around the pagan myth of the summer god who dies in winter and is reborn in the spring. The rebirth story is mirrored in the grief narrative of Molly, a nine-year-old whose mother has just died.
I work three mornings a week as an administrator for a little charity in the LSE. I donít do it for the money, but because everyone I live with has nine-to-five jobs. We donít have Internet in the flat and if I was stuck at home with nobody but a laptop to talk to, I would actually go insane.
I also find that when I write for long stretches Iíll do loads of work on the first day, a fair bit on the second, about three hundred words on the third and by the fourth day Iíll spend twelve hours playing FreeCell. I need a break.
How did you start writing?
When I was three years old I wanted to be a builder. By the time I was five I realised that Iíd make an appalling builder and decided to be a writer instead. Iíve never changed my mind.
I love stories. I see the world in stories Ė my boyfriend remembers directions as a sort of spatial map, I remember them as a story Ė ďwe turned right at the pub with the hairy barman, then left at the statue where we were having that conversation about baked beans, then ÖĒ Iíve written stories in my head ever since I was a lonely little girl walking around the school playground. (Iíve also been giving imaginary interviews since then, so itís very exciting to be able to do it for real). I started writing seriously last year, when I did an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I love childrenís books; thatís one reason why I write for kids. I love Hilary McKay Ė especially Saffyís Angel Ė Frank Cotrell Boyce, Lucy Boston, Mary Norton, Noel Streatfield, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rudyard Kipling Ė particularly The Jungle Book and Puck of Pookís Hill Ė Watership Down, Skellig, The Eagle of the Ninth Ö My top five childrenís books are The Secret Garden, The Little Prince, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Borrowers and Ballet Shoes.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
The literary agency PFD offer a prize of £500 and a meal with an agent for the most promising childrenís writing on my MA, which I won. The agent was initially doubtful as to whether anyone would buy a childrenís novel about a dying child, but she agreed to read the manuscript anyway. Three days later she rang me up saying she wanted to represent me. I put down the phone, shrieked, rang all my friends at work and then spent an hour telling a family friend (who was painting our door) exactly why having an agent was so exciting.
When she sent the manuscript out, I had five offers from five different childrenís publishers. It just goes to show that you should always write the book you want to write Ö
What's the worst thing about writing?
With Ways to Live Forever it felt like Iíd solve one problem and six more would appear. I wrote the book in lots of disparate scenes. This was wonderfully liberating when I started, because Iíd think ďThere should be a scene about snow and it should go somewhere near the endĒ or ďSam would like that story, that will go somewhere in the middleĒ and then Iíd just write it without worrying. The problem came when I tried to sew them all together with something approximating narrative thread. I think I wrote twelve entirely different opening scenes, for example, before I found one that I liked. Other problems included getting the tone light enough to appeal to children without trivialising the issue, getting all the medical details right and having it address all the philosophical and emotional questions that I wanted it to address, while keeping it funny and interesting.
And the best?
The best bit for me is when I first start writing a story and I donít have to worry about where itís going, I can just write what I want to write and enjoy it. And the last three months when people have been saying nice things about the book and things like translation deals keep happening have been the most exciting of my life.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
Ways to Live Forever makes everyone cry! And Iím not just talking about my boyfriend and my mum, it makes whole publishing houses cry. Thatís pretty exciting. As far as I know, no children have read it yet though, and thatís the real test.
Comments by other Members