“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
Neil Gaiman

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Meet British Author Marcus Sedgwick

Photography © Kate Christer



Among the many authors I met while at ALA in New Orleans this past summer, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the dashingly handsome and utterly charming Marcus Sedgwick who won a Printz Honor for his YA novel Revolver.  I had a short chat with Marcus as he signed my copy of Revolver and then was able to chat with him further at the Printz Awards Reception later in the conference.  Marcus immediately draws you in as you speak to him with his soft-spoken British accent and a warm intensity that shows he is clearly listening to you.  He graciously agreed to do an e-mail interview with me and it is in the second half of this posting.

Prior to doing my interview, I read through Marcus’s blog .  (http://marcussedgwick.blogspot.com/)  When you read his blog, you get a good sense of Marcus as an author with a great deal of intelligence and a quick wit.  It doesn’t get mired down in heavy details about his personal life, but does talk a bit about his passion for music and art, also evident as you read his novels.  He doesn’t blog constantly, but seems to write when the mood strikes him or when he gets the time in his hectic schedule (hmmmm, I know that feeling!).

In addition to reading his blog, I read more of his novels.  I loved Revolver and wanted to see how some of his other novels fared in comparison.  What I discovered is that Marcus Sedgwick is one of the finest YA authors writing today.  I anticipate that as more American teachers become familiar with his work, he will be added to middle school and high school English curriculum.  What I like about Marcus’s writing is that he is a consistently good storyteller, he is clearly well-read in classic literature, he uses strong vocabulary and writing structure, his books are not all the same (and yet I have loved every one I’ve read), and he is able to fit in “quotable moments” so that they fit naturally with his story.

One of the examples I love of a “quotable moment” is from Blood Red Snow White. 
“There was tragedy all across Europe.Tragedy in the shape of war.If you looked at the family trees of the royal houses of Europe, you would find more threads between them than in a busy spider’s web.  The Tsar had a cousin who was a king of another country.  His name was George.  Nicholas, the Tsar, and George had another cousin, William, the Kaiser, who had gone to war against Nicholas and George’s countries.  It made no sense, but then when has a war made sense?” 
The quote fits perfectly with the storyline, but even when taken out of the context of the story as a whole maintains a deeper commentary on war and peace.  I am guessing that Marcus would probably be toting a peace sign rather than pushing the red button to send everyone off to fight the cause.   The book is a fantastic read.  It is a historical fiction novel about the Russian Revolution and I couldn’t put it down until I had it finished.

In addition the Blood Red Snow White, I read The Dark Horse, a novel about a native tribe that finds a young girl in a cave of wolves and takes her into their tribe.  The story is riveting and not nearly as straightforward as you might think it would be.  Marcus Sedgwick doesn’t seem to tell tales that don’t have surprises hidden somewhere!  In White Crow, he tells a fascinating story of a girl who moves to a small town with her police detective father after he is accused of negligence that has led to a young girl’s death.  The story is told in multiple voices, one of which hails from the small town’s past.  Finally, with my penchant for vampire tales, I couldn’t resist reading Marcus’s take on vampires.  In My Swordhand is Singing, Marcus tells an old vampire tale that is creepy and wonderful.  His monsters do not sparkle in sunlight or have wonderful deep emotional lives.  They are horrible dead things that come out of their graves and need to be put back for good.  It’s a terrific story and sits proudly in my vampire collection.

In my interview, Marcus mentions some upcoming projects.  I am truly looking forward to reading more from this talented author.  I hope many of you will pick up some of his books and give him a try – you won’t be disappointed!


SB
First of all, I have to say that I love reading your blog.  It’s got great quotes, commentary, and is often quite funny.  It clearly reflects your personality.  My first two questions are actually in regard to quotes I found on your blog…

“Оцелелелите.Те са онези,които не бих искала да поглеждам,макар че в много случаи нямам избор.Аз умишлено съзерцавам цветовете,за да отвличам ума си,но от време на време зървам как някои от тях рухват сред разпокъсания пъзел на осъзнаването,отчаянието и почудата.Те имат спукани сърца.И смазани бели дробове.”

I found this quote on your blog and am just dying to know what it actually says!

MS
I have no idea what that piece in a foreign tongue is! Google tells me it's Bulgarian but I have no idea where it came from or what it says! Odd!

SB
Hilarious answer Marcus!  Now you know you can't say that to a librarian without sending us off on a wild quest to find out what the answer is…  That's why we sit through classes called "reference" which involve hours upon hours of torture trying to find answers to patron questions that are seemingly impossible.  It's all training for things like this, puzzles that librarians live for.  Questions unanswered can never just sit there unanswered.

MS
Yes I tried to look it up on Google translate but have to say the results bore little relation to anything I've ever said, and quite possibly to anything anyone's ever said….

SB
I’ll be sure to pass on the answer when I eventually find it…even if it’s 2 years from now…  And it is Bulgarian by the way.

From Marcus Sedgwick’s Blog…
“There were vampire novels before Dracula, there have been many since, and there will undoubtedly be more to come in the future, but I doubt Dracula will ever be bettered. Why? Largely because it's a product of the time it was written, and the man who wrote it - Bram Stoker, a member of high society in Victorian Dublin. Stoker is the epitome of Victorian society - clearly a rather repressed and oppressed individual on the surface, his fiction betrays a rather different character, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, full of sexualities of dubious natures. And this is at the heart of why Dracula was, and is, so successful - it strikes to the very core of the contradiction that is the vampire - the attraction to something potentially fatal, not just to your mortal self, but your immortal soul as well. True, the charisma of the vampire had been set up by Polidori's allusions to Byron, and another Dubliner, Sheridan Lefanu had already thrown Lesbian vampires into the mix in Carmilla, but Stoker worked these themes, and more, up into a slow burn of a novel that arrives in a final frenzy of blood-letting. Along the way it uses multiple narratives, a relatively novel technique at the time, to weave a story of obsession, lust, menace and the supernatural. It is one of the few books I have read several times, and every time I do, I enjoy it more, and it horrifies me more, not just as a reader, but as a writer too, because nothing else that Stoker wrote, before or after Dracula, comes close. He worked for years on the book that was to become his masterpiece, and it's a frightening thought for a writer to fear that real creativity might abandon you altogether.”

I am a huge fan of the vampire myth and enjoyed your post on your blog about the classic Bram Stoker Dracula and why you view it as the best.  I have an entire shelf full of various vampire stories, including the Stoker version, and always thought it would be great fun to host a book club just to read and debate about various versions of the myth.  My Swordhand is Singing is one of the newest additions to my collection and a wonderful take on the myth.  What started your interest in Dracula and are there other supernatural/monster stories that interest you?

MS
I got into vampires from screenings of early movies like the Bela Lugosi Dracula and Nosferatu by F W Murnau. Then I grew up a bit and started to read the classic vampire novels. I like lots of other things too, but I think vampires have a timeless fascination for us since they are both attractive (these days) and dangerous. I don't find other monsters as interesting, the only other thing would be ghosts, which are often very similar to vampires in the original folklore.

SB
Those movies were great!  Ghosts do have that awesome scary appeal.  I think one of the greatest scary books written recently was Rick Yancy's The Monstrumologist.  It was really creepy and very evocative of Poe to me.  I do find the whole zombie thing that's taken off very funny though and I like to have a good laugh with the whole monster thing.  One of my favorite short story books recently written in the YA genre is Zombies vs. Unicorns.  I took the unicorn side.

MS
I've not become a zombie fan myself but I do quite like a couple of funny zombie movies - Zombieland and of course Shaun of the Dead. I agree about humour and I think it's the best way to go with zombies - there's not the psychological depth in there to make it worthwhile as serious stuff, in my very humble opinion. Yes, it makes good scary fiction, but without the depth that a moody vampire can give you!

SB
I quite agree!  Shaun of the Dead is excellent mindless humor!  (All puns intended...)  That’s why I take the unicorn side… I think they fool you with their pretty nature, but demons likely lurk beneath that beautiful exterior.  Besides, it’s so much fun to pit them against something so ridiculous as a zombie!

Having now read multiple books of yours in addition to Revolver, which won a Printz Honor Award last year from YALSA, I am a true Marcus Sedgwick fan.  You are a consistently good writer.  The Dark Horse, Blood Red Snow White, My Swordhand is Singing and White Crow are all on my bookshelf and I can hardly wait to read more of your work.  What are your favorite books that you’ve written and why?

MS
Oooh, I don't really have favourites of my own books - it's a bit like choosing favourite children! But if I had to pick, I would say I'm fond of Revolver, because it was the first time that the book that was in my head before I started was what came out on the paper when I'd finished! I also like My Swordhand is Singing, because it's sold the most copies (!) And I am pleased with my new book, Midwinterblood (not out in the US for a while yet) It was an ambitious book to write in some ways, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. 

SB
Ooh!  Can you tell us a little bit about Midwinterblood?

MS
Wellllll okay then, since you ask! Deep breath: it's a novel set in seven times, from the future to the ancient past, with two protagonists who become seven different pairs of people, i.e. 14 protagonists in all. All the stories happen in the same place - a strange island where it appears people have begun to live forever. Though what the book is really about is two things: love (in all senses of the word) and sacrifice (ditto) - the novel was inspired by a few different things, one of them being this painting:

which I saw on a trip to Stockholm 5 or 6 years ago. It's awesome. An overused and therefore, spoiled word, but for once, appropriate, because awe is what I felt when I first saw it. And still do.

Carl Larsson    Midvinterblot, Sacrifice at the Winter Solstice    1915

SB
OK Marcus, I’m hooked.  I’ll be in line for an autographed copy and I’m reasonably certain it will have my vote for a slew of awards.

I recently read an article in an educational journal that talked about the importance of the literary cannon to curriculum development and urged teachers to defend the classics rather than the more recent trend to move away from them.  I tend to move toward more of a blended curriculum myself, but obviously as someone with an English degree have a solid background in classics and can see both sides of the argument.  As a writer, you are clearly well read in the classics. When I read your work, I am often reminded of the work of Honoré de Balzac and John Steinbeck.  I know that seems odd since Balzac was French and Steinbeck American, but it is more the way that you write and the substance of your writing.  You are an incredibly solid writer and an excellent storyteller!  That being said, who do you see as your greatest influences and what are your thoughts on how we should teach kids to read and write today?

MS
Thanks for those very kind words  - I'm flattered. I have a few big influences - and one that might seem surprising is Hemingway. I love the simplicity and directness of his writing. No pointless florid nonsense there! And yet at the same time I love Moby Dick because of the beauty of the prose, which is so poetic in many places. Other influences include Mervyn Peake (British author, sadly a bit underrated still) and Dickens. As for teaching reading and writing - the best and most powerful thing you can do is to help a child become a lover of books, which means finding what's right for them - the right book at the right time, and helping them believe that books are for them, even if they haven't found the right stuff yet. if you get them to fall in love with reading then the rest follows easily. It means hard work and individual attention on the part of the educator however.

SB
Actually I'm not surprised at all that you say Hemingway and Dickens.  Your writing has a very strong tone of someone who is well read and knows how to tell a story.  You also have a very solid use of descriptive language.  I can't agree with you more about getting children to fall in love with reading.  I believe it's essential.  It's not an easy task if we don't work with children as individuals from the very beginning.  Do you have any personal experiences from your childhood that you can remember that made reading special for you?

MS
I do - one positive and one negative: the good thing was that my Dad loved reading and because books had been so precious to him when he was a boy, he made sure that my brother and I always had books for Christmas and birthdays. It was a rule of his. So we became readers. The negative memory is from school, where I was made to sit by myself in a hallway to read. I thought I'd done something bad for years, until eventually I found out that it was because I was reading too well and it was bothering the other children.

SB
Oh stab me in the heart Marcus!  I pledge upon my teacher’s certification never to make that mistake!  My goal is to get a book into every child’s hand that they enjoy reading…even if they don’t think it’s possible.

Most of your books have a historical fiction basis to the storyline, so I am assuming you have some interest in history.  How do you go about the research process for that aspect of your stories and how is it that you seem to be able to create such suspense-filled historical tales?

MS
I love doing the research for my books, though many of them have less research than you might imagine, simply because I am interested in various periods anyway, and also because, at the end of the day, they are fictional, mostly. Research comes in many forms, from visiting far off places, to private libraries, to the internet. The trick is knowing when to stop researching and when to start writing, and also never to put a piece of research into a book just because you like it - it has to belong to the plot or people will notice!

SB
So how do you make the decision between fact and fiction so that the story sounds natural and not contrived?  For example, Blood Red Snow White flows beautifully and it is almost impossible to tell which is which.  How do you determine what to cut out and what to leave in and what to change to suit your own story?

MS
These are just the skills of the writer, I guess. That juicy fact you've just found can only go into the book if it's integral to the story. So if you really like it, you need to base the plot around it. If you don't do that, then you just need to accept that it doesn't belong in your book, as painful as that might be.  As for changing things, I don't have an issue with that in general - books are fiction. That's kind of the point! And what matters in a story is that you tell a good story that tells the 'truth' about life, not that what you say is actually true. The exceptions to this are matters of physics and so on - unless you're writing fantasy I can't accept novels that get things like this wrong. As great as Lord of the Flies is, it's always bugged me that Piggy's glasses are for short sight, and you can't use such spectacles to focus the sun's rays into light fires, as they do in the book.

SB
Those sorts of mistakes annoy me too.  It tells me an author didn’t bother to talk to a librarian…You have been a very successful award-winning author in the United Kingdom.  Why has it taken so long for us to get wind of you in the United States?

MS
Well! That's a hard one to answer. There are many big authors on both sides of the pond who for whatever reason take a while to get noticed - it's understandable since we both have VERY strong domestic traditions in children' literature. I changed publisher a year or two back to the wonderful Roaring Brook - they've done a really good job at getting my books noticed more in the US, which is wonderful.

SB
It's true, Roaring Brook has done a wonderful job because Revolver won the Printz Honor and YALSA has their eye on you now.  You are on the US radar for good!  I'm a new librarian, but have already been doing committee work for YALSA.  It's the group that you want to know your name as an author.  I am certainly one librarian who will be following you as an avid reader!

MS
I'm very pleased to hear it, and will do my best to send interesting novels across the water.

SB
What do you have brewing next for readers as you cloister yourself away at your writing tables in Cambridge and Switzerland?

MS
I'm thinking about five different projects at the moment - a novel or two, some younger readers, a film with my brother, a comic with a friend… The hard thing is finding the time to devote to the writing!

SB
Ach!  You ARE a busy man!  But that is way too short and way too exciting of an answer!  Five different projects!  Can you tell us more?  What are the general ideas for the upcoming novels?  Have you ever worked on a comic before?   Have you ever worked with your brother before?  What does your brother do?  Have you ever done a film before?  I see on your blog that in addition to writing, you draw and paint, and I read The Dark Horse, for which you apparently did the artwork.  Are some of these projects a way to culminate your love of art with your love of writing?  (I have a minor in fine arts myself, so I can understand the need to feed the artist.)

MS
Well, like many writers, I have silly superstitions about talking about unwritten books, so I'll have to be irritatingly mysterious about the novels. However, the graphic novel is at illustration stage, so I can tell you about that: I've co written it with my brother Julian. It's called Dark Satanic Mills (after Blake) and is a story about the perils of fundamentalism, in all its forms, even the fundamentalism of atheism… It's one part Wizard of Oz, one part V for Vendetta, and one part William Blake. We have a great artist working on it - John Higgins - and it should be out early next year. The film we're working on together too is 'fun' - it's about death, and our attitudes to it. It's set in Manhattan and is about a cultural anthropologist who's mounting a show at the Met on Death Ritual. I can't say much more as our producer might kill me!

SB
Taking on fundamentalism and calling the subject of death “fun”?  I, for one, am definitely looking forward to seeing what those projects are all about.  You have me completely intrigued.  Thank you for sharing with the Suburban Barnyard and we all look forward to not only reading your next book, but the others in the works, your upcoming comic, and your film! 

MS
Thanks so much! It's been a pleasure and thanks for the nice questions. And the flattery! All the best to you and your readers.

“A story has its purpose and its path.  It must be told correctly for it to be understood.”  From My Swordhand is Singing



Me & Marcus at ALA in New Orleans
































1 comment:

Fryer Drew said...

"The trick is knowing when to stop researching and when to start writing, and also never to put a piece of research into a book just because you like it - it has to belong to the plot or people will notice!"

Also true of sermons, I think. Showing folks how smart you are, is, I have come to discover, a mistake. Great interview!