This is my Blog. I'll try to update it with interesting snippets much as I can. Thank you for reading...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Hello. Anita Handa asked such good questions for her Children's Literature assignment that I thought I'd share them with you:

1) Why didn't you illustrate Lucy Willow yourself?
Because I have somewhat given up on illustration due to the fact there are too many books I wish to write and it takes me too long to illustrate a book. I am a slower illustrator than I am a writer and a terrible perfectionist and very rarely was I satisfied with the drawings I did. Whereas a writer I feel the pictures I can create with words more closely represent what I was trying to achieve with my drawings.
How do you choose an illustrator for your books?
That’s difficult to answer - you have to love their work and hope that they’re sympathetic to your writing. As I was an illustrator I am very fortunate in knowing what I’m looking for in other people’s work. A good illustration illustrates the slipstream of a story - the illustration adds or even gives where the words haven’t completed the image. The boring ones are those that are already written ie. words: horse jumps over the moon / illustration: horse jumps over the moon. The interesting illustrations would be the one before or after the horse had jumped over the moon, because that propels the story - illustrations should be an engine to take the story forward.

2) Lucy Willow seems to have all the conventions of a fairy tale...is it?
All my stories use fairytales. Fairytales have always fascinated me. I think they really have the soul of humanity to them, they understand our darkest secrets and do not judge us. I think for me as a writer I feel more able to deal with difficult issues if they’re once removed from the real world, although the world I write about in MC resembles ours, it’s still distant. To illustrate my idea - if you were to tell a child who was living in a towerblock, who’s mother was a single parent and a drug addict, a story about her and her life in all it’s graphic details it would give no escape, it would just confirm the locked door of her exsisnts . Whereas if you told that child the story of Rapunzel she would see in it a way out of the tower.

3) There seems to be a theme in many of your books about children being ignored or not being taken seriously especially at school. How much of this is related to your own experience at school and do you think schools still ignore the extraordinary child?
Every writer, and I don’t think I’m any exception, writes about what they know and the experiences they’ve had in their lives. I am not much interested in Autobiography, Biography, or anything else to do with my mother hit me with a kipper. But I do know from my experience of education, and as a dyslexic person, that what I see today in schools is not much removed from what I experienced as a child, there is still too much pressure on academic achievement, so that the school’s ratings may stand high in the Sunday Times. The consequences of that are that the daydreamer, the one who lives in herself, who invents stories, is often overlooked in favour of her more academic peer. Ironically, in the end the one thing our society values and needs more than gold dust is imagination and the one thing that education is set on doing is crushing imagination with tests, examinations and making the extraordinary into the ordinary of us all.

4) You seem to place as much value on listening to stories as reading stories, does this affect your writing style? (Do you deliberately write stories that are good to be read aloud?)
Heaven help all my friends or anyone who pops in for a cup of coffee. They are forced, tied to kitchen chairs, bribed by glasses of champagne to listen to my rewrites - not once, not twice, but again and again. I see writing like music - it may well look good on the page but what does it sound like? Hence I do write my books with the view to them being read aloud. I’m a great supporter of audio books. When I was little there was no library for the blind, or not one that my parents where aware of. Because of dyslexia I didn’t read until I was 14. My fantasy was to have an actor living in my wardrobe, so that every night he could jump out to read me stories. In England today, there is no need for any child to be deprived of a good book the way I was. Unabridged listening books are wonderful - they can light the fire that will lead a child to become a life long reader. I make a big effort to support audiobooks because there’s such snobbery around it. But it isn’t a second rate activity to the reading of a book. If you’ve heard a book, you’ve read a book. Both demand a set of skills that not everybody has. For me, the spoken word becomes the written word in my head.

5) There seems to be a theme of exploitation in Lucy Willow, the Sparks exploit the school, parents and children as well as the Peppercorns and the American billionaire having no regard for tradition and exploiting the Willows. How much of your own values do you incorporate into your books?
I don’t consciously try to give any values, especially not moral lessons. I think with writing for younger children you have to make a clear distinction between villains and heroes as it’s harder for younger readers to grasp the understanding of the grey ground in between things, the sludge that is in everyone. But I don’t feel life’s fair and I feel I’m being honest when I portray corrupt adults rather than perfect ones.

6) Some of your characters have chaotic families, others have weak parents and there is often an abandonment in your books. Lucy Willow finds it difficult to accept a new sibling. Is this an element of the fairy tale or a comment on modern families?
All fairytales, from the beginning of time, deal with dysfunctional families. They start with a once upon a time and they end with a happy ever after. In between those two lines lives the chaos. I believe the notion of ‘happy families’ only lies in pack of playing cards. The reality more often than not is that things don’t turn out quite as we expect when we say ‘I do’; and ‘happily ever after’ is only a beginning. Children are must better psychiatrists and philosophers than most adults ever give them credit for. Children understand the world in a more perceptive way. They are very quick to realise that they didn’t quite live up to the expectations of their parents, that they’ve been ousted by a sibling or they feel responsible for the breakdown of a family and in that they feel lost and abandoned. Abandonment happens in many formats, it can happen in very subtle ways. Yes, these are experiences that I grew up with, and therefore I feel able to write about them with hopefully more than a peppering of magic and humour.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Edit edit edit

I have finally handed in the first edits of my new novel The Double Shadow to my publisher. Perhaps the best way to describe The Double Shadow is as a family sci-fi saga... ? It's always rather nerve-wracking waiting to find out what your editor thinks about your manuscript edits. What more will she feel should be taken out, what more enhanced?

I think finally I’m growing in confidence enough to know the shape of the novel that I am trying to create. Consequently I am a little less terrified of the lead pencil comments that come plastered in my editor’s tiny handwriting all over the first draft. It would be great if manuscripts were edited on computer so that comments were more decipherable. In the future perhaps they will be.

It was when I worked in theatre as a set designer that I became aware that it’s always good to keep several tricks up your sleeve. So when the audience thinks they’ve seen all there is to offer, you hit them with a big surprise. It is a lesson that I learned visually and now I'm putting it into practice as a writer. I think the main thing when you work with a character or characters is not be frightened to let them rule you. I do believe if you try to control them, you end up with cardboard heroes and villains, when what you really need is the foibles of humanity.

Monday, 23 August 2010


I recently gave a speech to some prize winners at a school and it went down well - it was written for the losers as well as the winners. I thought I'd share it with you, too:

Today is a celebration for all of you prizewinners who’ve worked very hard and are being justly rewarded for pushing yourself that little bit further.

It is also about the sterling work of your teachers who have encouraged you and helped you to achieve what maybe some of you thought was impossible. Not forgetting the support and love of your proud parents, who have in many cases made great sacrifices for you to be at this excellent school.

But alas, olay, that leaves quite a few of you sitting there thinking “I have won nothing again”, and who’s parents might be wishing, “, if only you had.” What I want to say comes from personal experience,

that winning happens at different stages of our lives.

As the great scientist Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I think imagination is the key to dreaming, and dreams lead us to imagining the impossible and making it possible.

Here I have to be honest in saying I never ever once won a prize at any of the numerous schools I was sent to. The closest I have come is to have the honour of being asked to speak to you today.

If the truth be told I spent most of my education being either expelled, or politely asked to leave various educational establishments.

It wasn’t that I was naughty, well we won’t count the small matter of the missing buns, but hey-ho a girl has to make friends somehow! No, my problem was much bigger, and went unrecognized, misunderstood and undiagnosed until I was about 12, when the term WORDBLIND was first used to describe my condition – I couldn’t read, or write, my brain wasn’t like other peoples. It had been compared to a sieve a description that I liked a lot and hoped that it might be an exit pass from having to ever go to school again. I mean it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this way of learning wasn’t for me .By then I had spent five years on a reading scheme called Janet and John. They had a ball. Which I would like to assure you, they didn’t. At least not my idea of a ball with wonderful frocks, handsome princes and glass staircases… no, all Janet and John had was a hoovered lawn, one dog, one red ball and the unbearable excitement of one brown stick.

To me they looked like the dullest pair of bores, who I would never ever wish to play with. I dreamt of 50 ways of having them kidnapped possible - a genie could take them to the furthest end of the world, a witch could lock them in an ogre’s castle, strand them on desert islands, shoot them up to the moon, or into the deepest part of the sea. Except the dog, surely there was a better home waiting for him, with more interesting children to play with, who could tell a good story.

Finally the word DYSLEXIC was used to describe the fact that I couldn’t read or write. A cruel joke, considering any dyslexic worth their salt can spell such a hard word. I was then sent to a school for maladjusted children, where I was diagnosed with a reading age of 5 and writing age of 4 not great, since I was 13 at the time. Personally, I think Janet and John have got a lot to answer for.

Aged 14, on a wet day in a small hut filled with angry out of control children, I found the entire works of the Bronte sisters and started reading Wuthering Heights, letter by letter, until I found to my utter amazement I had fallen into the book. And the hut, the children, the brick walls, the dyslexia, had temporarily disappeared, and I was far away on the moors with Kathy. After that my nose, my brain, was never out of a book.

The next school I attended was for well-adjusted girls, which I can assure you made the maladjusted lot look positively normal

We were made to wear brown horsehair uniform and slippery start right shoes I hated the place so I made a deal with my mother, a gusty bird. If I got 5 O levels - GCSES to you – could I please get out of here? It was an impossible dream, but after all, dreams were what kept me going, so why stop now? I worked night and day, break time lunch time supper time, through the night in the smelly girls toilet, determined as I have never been before, to get out of there.

Miss bell my English teacher thought I didn’t stand a chance. I remember that she was shaped lie a bullet with tiny cartoon legs, sticking out from cardboard tweed skirt she told me just before taking my English exam, Susan, this was a bit baffling as it had been quite a fight to change my name from Sarah to sally on account of it being easer to spell

not to make too much noise with my pen as there were girls here going to Oxford. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was thinking – and you are going nowhere.

While waiting for my results, my mother and stepfather took me to the races. My stepfather was a wonderful, generous man who gave me 10 shillings to bet on any horse I liked. At the time this represented a small fortune .As far as I was concerned, there was only one horse in the race. The horse’s name was ‘Silly Season’ - it was I felt a horse after my own heart, as my nickname at school had always been Silly Sally. My mother was furious when she realized what we’d done – the odds were packed against the animal this horse was not a winner.

When the starter gun sounded, Silly Season was the last out of the gates. Seeing the rage on my mother’s face, I said quite calmly – you see, that horse is saving up all its energy to win. And blow me down, it did. We made a small fortune. But more important still is that the horse became a mascot for me. It stood for you can, you will.

Just to prove the point, I got five O levels and at 16 went to art school, where the doors of a world that understood me finally opened... I received a first class honours degree from the central school of art, then won an arts council scholarship, and designed my first West End show at 23.

After 15 years as a costume designer and after having three gorgeous children, I decided to do what I had always dreamt of – illustrating children’s books. Though still I kept quiet about an even bigger dream – to be a writer and tell the stories that would help and inspire other children to think outside of the box. Today, I am proud to say I am a successful novelist, with over a million books sold and many translated into foreign languages.

, Dreaming the impossible has led me to find something I love doing and make my living from.

I am in the five percent of severely Dyslexic people. It will never go away, but these days I wear it with pride.

I once asked my son, who like me is dyslexic, what kind of car are you? Without hesitation he said a Lamborghini.

I asked him have you started the engine?

No, he said.

I said, a car with out a starter motor even the most expensive car imaginable is going nowhere. No matter how much it costs, how good it looks, you need to turn the key in the ignition after all dreams are powerful engines that can take you further than even you can imagine.

What car would you be? He asked.

I replied a battered up old Morris Minor, with the best starter engine in the world.

For all you winners here today, you are on road to achieving your dreams. Well done. And that is what we are all here to celebrating. As for the rest of you, who have yet to win, you will, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but you will.

I worked on a book with Yostein Gardner, called Hello, Is anybody there? He told me this – and I would like to share it with you: every person in this world is already a winner. Because the chances of being born as you are smaller by far than the chances of winning the National Lottery jackpot.

So let’s celebrate all you who are here to receive prizes today, and, the potential in all of you. The word impossible is only a full stop that you have to get over. If you believe your in dreams they are attainable, you can and will become the winners of tomorrow.

Monday, 10 May 2010

I'm sorry I haven't blogged for so long - I've been writing constantly. Now in serious lock-down mode, all stations are go. I have to have the first draft finished by the end of this month.

I promise to blog again soon, but in the meantime, here's a piece I recently wrote for ENO. It's a retelling of Tosca, read by the exceptional Emilia Fox: http://www.eno.org/explore/opera-lit.php.

It's aiming to make opera (and its stories) more accessible. I really loved writing it and I hope you enjoy listening.

Back to the study for me...

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Double Shadow

I am on chapter twenty of the new book, which I think is going to be called THE DOUBLE SHADOW. My editor at Orion seems keen on that title and I must say I like it a lot better than the working title: The Memory Chamber.

It’s quite a challenge, all the research that needs to be done for a book set in a different time to the one we live in. The Double Shadow is set in the 1930s, which is a period that seems to me like a U-bend in the sink of history. I am struck by how distant sixty years ago seems to us now and how much the world has changed.

Take mobile phones. As witty as the Orange adds are, they have a serious point - that if mobile phones had been around, what a huge effect they would have had on the First and the Second World Wars. I was talking to a group of young people trying to explain how hard it was to get the news to all the troops in 1919 that the amnesty had happened, that they could finally stop fighting. “Why didn’t they use their mobile phones, miss?” one girl said.

In many ways it is one of the great tragedies of modern education that history is not seen as vital for young people to learn. If history isn’t studied as it should be, how will the next generation deal with events that keep coming round time and time again and always will do, for as long as humans live? How will they learn from the past, from both its soaring successes and detrimental mistakes?

I am not a teacher, I am not a historian. I am a storyteller who’s fascinated by the past.

What I have discovered is that there are many different layers on the research front, and many different ways to approach research, like there are many ways to approach history itself. What works well, for me at least, is to do a general sweep of the period I’m interested in. Then I find areas that intrigue me, normally the ones I know nothing about initially, and go in for more careful, deep research.

I’m now on the fourth novel that I’ve written in a historical setting and I think I’ve got the process a bit more sorted. The best thing to is write the story even if it’s not historically correct. Then, when you have shaped it out, and done all your research, you can go back and correct it, filling in and taking out what does and doesn’t fit with the time.

I think the one thing to avoid is becoming what I would call a time travelling tourist. You know - one of those bores who has taken every picture there is to take of their holiday and insists that you see each and every one. As fascinating as the past is, it shouldn’t wear or tear at the story, neither should it be so inaccurate that its faults trip up its credibility. History will always be seen, no matter what, through the eyes of the time we live in.

The story is everything.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

One really good bit of news. Short, shout it from the roof top news:

Dominic West has bought the film rights to my books, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade.

Very pleased indeed. Wasn't sure it was going to happen, but at last all is well and signed. I first met up with Dominic in Feb of this year to talk about the books. His daughter had been reading The Red Necklace and raving about it, so Dad read it also and wondered if the film rights were up for grabs, my agent said they were. Odd timing because without knowing that Dominic was interested, I had been watching all of The Wire, glued to screen and thoroughly loving it. Quite freaky then to suddenly find McNulty on your doorstep and speaking with an English accent.

He was thoroughly charming and bright as a proverbial button. In fact, one rather clever man. And not just because he bought the rights. Recently, my friend Judy and I went to see him in Life is A Dream at the Donmar Theatre. Without now sounding like a complete sycophantic smut - the play, the translation, his performance and the other actors just blew me away. Magical.

After the show we were supposed to meet Dominic for a drink. Regretfully, in short not to put to finer point on it, I lost my courage and Judy and I left without greeting him, thinking that after two performances in one day all the man needed was to have some sleep and he would not feel like conversing. (Here I have to stop and say in my defence that once long ago in another lifetime I worked in the Theatre and the one thing I found cringe making was all the hangers on hoping for the exhausted star to appear.) Apparently, though, I was wrong, and he had a bottle of bubbly ready to greet us! My timing can be truly terrible. Or rather my confidence just morphed into outright shyness.

Fingers crossed that one day we might just have that glass of champagne to celebrate the film opening… wouldn't that be amazing? Well, a girl can dream. Sometimes they even come true.

The actor and director Dominic West and his production company White Soup have announced the acquisition of the film and television rights to THE RED NECKLACE by Sally Gardner. Dominic West is celebrated for his portrayal of ‘Jimmy McNulty’ in THE WIRE, on which he was also a director in its award winning final season. The deal secures first options over the further books in the series, including THE SILVER BLADE, first published in the UK by Orion Books. Development will take place in the UK, where West is currently directing an episode of Jimmy McGovern’s MOVING ON for LA Productions, and where he has recently completed a sell out run in LIFE IS A DREAM at The Donmar Warehouse. In January 2010 West will be starring for Disney/Pixar in the upcoming film JOHN CARTER OF MARS directed by Andrew Stanton. Dominic West said: “I am delighted to be developing Sally’s wonderful book for film. My daughter and all her friends who raved about Harry Potter, now rave about "The Red Necklace". The book has a great spirit of adventure, which I believe will translate to make this a hugely popular family film.”

Friday, 27 November 2009

I have been struck low with what I can only describe as medieval tooth trouble, had back molar removed under sedation originally given for the yearly cleaning of the teeth. I said to the dentist before going to sleep, ”Back tooth giving me a bit of jip.” Came round to find massive hole and no back molar! Two days of moaning and groaning okay, ten days later pain becomes unspeakable. Ended up in hospital with severe jaw infection, in A&E on a drip for the afternoon. This meant a lot of waiting around. Hospitals, as I discovered, are on a different time to the rest of the planet. They’re slower and the more you become stuck the more the real world becomes only visible from a glass window.

My one consolation was my brand new toy: a Kindle from Amazon. Bought it because I’m fascinated by these new e-readers and the general fear and awe they inspire in publishers and authors alike. My first attempt was with a Sony e-reader but it wasn’t compatible with my Apple. A pity as it meant I was unable to access the hundreds of free classics that came with it. All I could do was find a program on the internet that tricked the Sony reader into thinking it was a pc. It turned out to be useful in the end to read my manuscripts off, but really for little else. I could see though that they had a place in the joy of reading. So it was with great excitement I waited for my kindle to windle its way from the US to here and light my fire.

It’s without doubt a joy to behold and very well designed - not too heavy and very easy to understand. So there I was in hospital my jaw being prodded and then being told to wait for the doctor, it seemed churlish to ask how long, so heart sunk as plastic hospital tag was attached to arm. Most probably staying in all night. Panic! I’ve brought nothing with me what do I do? Then it struck me: why don’t I put my Kindle to the test? Having already set up an account with Amazon I searched for a book recommended to me by fellow writer and friend Ian Beck, it’s called ‘Child 44’ and it’s by Tom Rob Smith. Suddenly I was no longer in the hospital but in some snowy wood in the depths of Russia.

I think this is almost the ideal travelling companion. It can store more books than even the most voracious reader could get through on a holiday and can be wiped clean and new books added as well as newspapers and magazines. All arriving into the Kindle with the greatest of ease. The typescript can be blown up to a larger scale; useful for people like me who have problems with text, especially when it starts doing acrobatics. It also has a read back program although I haven’t tried it out yet. In my humble view anything (and I mean anything) that can help people to read and love books is fine and dandy.

I don’t believe for a moment that it will replace books or bookshops or the love of owning a brand new book that no one has read before. In fact I think if you read something you love you might well want to own the paper book even more. You can’t flick through your Kindle you must read it in a linear fashion. A book is an object that asks only for the energy of your mind and rather than needing to be recharged, it will wait a lifetime for you to finish it and its battery will never be flat. Also there is that certain perfume books have, like a fine wine it gets better with age.

The e-reader’s only problem as far as I can see is that it will suffer from the same mobile phone trouble - too many and too many companies, some only working with this publishing house or that pc; rather like the Sony e-reader. Interesting to note that apparently Random House haven’t signed up to the Kindle Amazon deal and I wonder if they’re planning on bringing out there own e-reader… No doubt Apple also has something up their ever-expanding sleeve.

So in my humble opinion I think this is something to embrace and put to good use. I remember when there was all that talk that TV would stop radio. Yet it seems TV is the one wilting on the vine and it’s radio that has gone from strength to strength. So before all writers, authors and publishers out there have a heart attack, take a deep breath and try one.