Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
One of the things I love most about doing this interview series is getting a little sideways glimpse of the incredible people behind the books I love. In order to figure out what questions I want to ask I read a lot of background material–blog posts, interviews, speeches, reviews and such–and I try and read a lot of their work, if I haven’t already. The whole process is very indulgent, and often quite fun in and of itself. And then I send off the interview and am further rewarded with lovely answers to my questions and often the additional treat of trading a handful of emails or whatnot in the process. This is not a terrible gig, that’s for sure.
As usual, I’ve just inhaled half a dozen books, along with years of blog posts and interviews and all sort of other bits and pieces found online, and it’s truly been a strange and wonderful couple of weeks. I’d read a handful of these books before, and sort of knew what I was getting into, but immersing myself in the language, the ideas, the characters and stories turned out to be a bit of a revelatory experience and one I’d highly recommend. White Crow. Midwinterblood. Revolver. These books are not easy to shake, and I don’t really want to. But honestly, the sideways glimpse I’ve been given of the man behind the words, patched together from correspondence and interviews and blog posts, is going to stick with me just as long; being familiar with his books didn’t really prepare me for just how generous and gracious and engaging he is, and I certainly wasn’t aware of his amazing ability to bend time, his excellent taste in music, or his passion for comics.
It’s been one year since the first One Thing Leads to Another post appeared on The Hub, and I feel remarkably honored to start year two, interview 13, with 2014 Michael L. Printz Award Winner Marcus Sedgwick. Thank you so much, Marcus, for your willingness to share the painful details, for showing us what determination can accomplish, and for indulging my ’80s music obsession.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Oh God, do I have to? Shy, quiet, introspective, shy, gawky, spotty, shy, timid, scared, shy, nervous and did I mention that I was shy..?
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was a teenager. That worried me I think — I had no idea what life was about, what it could be about, what I wanted, what there even was to think about doing. I found the thought of the adult world very frightening, and still do, in many ways. I had no idea about how things work; things like jobs, money, insurance, mortgages, etc. etc. The adult world seemed so complicated but to be honest, I was just struggling with being a teenager to worry too much about the years to come.
What were your high school years like?
High school was pretty traumatic. I went to a type of English school called a Grammar School. These are typically old establishments — mine was founded in 1563 (and that’s by no means the oldest), and very often in the ’80s, when I was there, they were still stuck in the past. Violence came from not just the other boys (it was a single sex school) but from the masters too. And though being beaten up or hit with a hockey stick was bad, it was the psychological torture that was worse. The school seemed to almost condone such matters. We were told it was “character building,” but it certainly didn’t work for a timid, shy (did I mention that already?), weak young boy. Sorry, this is turning into a therapy session! The whole thing was pretty rough with the exception of two teachers who made life tolerable, so my mental energies were pointed in the direction of home, where I was much, much happier. I am lucky to have come from a truly loving family.
What were some of your passions during that time?
As an older teenager, music began to be really important to me. I was a first generation Goth — I think because it felt more real to me than the commercial pap of the mainstream. Plus the music was great. And the look. My first ever gig wasn’t goth though, but The Smiths, and that probably was a major boost to me — it set me on a course of going to loads of concerts. I was also, and still am, very much into classical music — it was Mozart and Wagner back then. Wagner became Mahler as I grew older, and nowadays, it’s Richard Strauss, who I believe has composed the most sublime music of all time, with the possible exception of Chopin. I did little sport as a teenager, but I read a lot. I was one of those teens who didn’t cause their parents any problems — I sat in my room, listening to music and reading — the most important book of my life then was the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. That certainly changed my life, and I have my Dad to thank for introducing them to me.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Oh, whoops, it looks like I did that already! See above… Which is not one specific incident, but rather the accumulated painful experiences of High School. It left me as a very worried individual, but there was the seed of something positive about me, and that thing was…
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
…determination. It’s almost the only quality of myself that I am proud of. I am very determined, so on the very day that I arrived at University, I decided that I couldn’t go on being so shy (did I talk about that? Maybe I haven’t spelled out exactly how painful, how disabling, my shyness was — it stopped me from doing almost anything, from answering the phone to making friends to speaking to girls etc. etc). On that day, as I arrived at University, I decided that I would pretend I wasn’t shy. No one knew me. I could reinvent myself. So I did. And after about three months went by, I realized I was no longer shy. I was normal — which is to say, shy sometimes, confident others, sad then happy then calm then excited. But no longer was I permanently disabled by shyness.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
I would like to be able to give myself lots of advice. Like: stop worrying so much; it will be okay. You won’t be spotty forever. You’re not as ugly as you think you are. You will one day not only be able to talk to girls but will actually go out with them too. I would have listened, but I’m not sure I would have believed any of it. And if I had told myself that one day I would be able to give a presentation to several hundred people for an hour or so without feeling nervous, I would have been sure I was lying.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
It’s a shame that I was so timid. But it was me, and it was the way things were. I could have had more fun perhaps, but I think it does mean I won’t ever become too arrogant towards other people, because I know what it is to feel scared.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
My Dad. He died when I was just 20, and apart from him, you can keep my teenage years. But I do miss not having to worry about money/jobs/cars/houses/insurance/mortgages, and all that other deeply dull stuff that adults have invented for themselves.
Every Day I Write the Book
Your new book, She Is Not Invisible, is about coincidences and you’ve noted that you’ve had some “pretty weird ones happen” to you over the years. Would you be willing to share some of the weird ones? How did the idea of “coincidence” – rather than any particular coincidence in itself — come to fascinate you and what drew you to the idea of writing a whole book about it?
The weirdest thing that ever happened to me, by far, is the coincidence that happens to the writer, Jack Peak, in the book. The thing with the book on the train, the German lady etc. etc. This coincidence is so weird that most people don’t believe me when I tell them, and I have told very few people as a result. So I stopped telling people and decided to put it in the book instead, but actually my interest in coincidences goes back years before that — I didn’t want to write about one single coincidence because, for various reasons, coincidences are very hard to write about. On the one hand, they are what bad writers use to make their plots work. On the other, people aren’t interested in minor coincidences, and, as I found, they don’t believe the major ones. So I thought it would be better to tackle the subject sideways, through the eyes of a writer who is himself obsessed by the subject.
Critics have highlighted various themes in your work — love, loss, and sacrifice, among them — but I’m particularly interested in the things you yourself have had to say about the power of “belief.” You’ve written that Dark Satanic Mills, the graphic novel you wrote with your brother, was heavily influenced by William Blake and that “our message, if we have one, is Blake’s: create your own system of belief, or be enslaved by another man’s.” In other words, “believe what you want to believe, not what you are told to believe.” Your YA novel White Crow also deals explicitly with the ideas of belief and conscience, especially the consequences of questioning beliefs. Could you talk about the power and consequences of belief and how you explore those ideas in your work and in your interaction with readers?
We live in interesting times, and they are times of change in terms of what belief means. The impression I get of the UK and the US is that to a greater or lesser extent, much of the nation is becoming less “religious”, while certain sections of it are finding more extreme versions of religion to believe in. The US may well be a little different from the UK, so I shouldn’t speak about what I don’t know about, but in the UK although we are still a nominally Christian country, report after report shows that most people are at most agnostic now, and go to church once a year for Christmas, out of habit, if at all.
But this does not mean that people have stopped needing to believe in things, and so I see many people turning to alternative forms of belief and worship. And all of those are fine by me as long as no one tries to force their beliefs on anyone else. That’s when the problems start. If you take a look at a book like White Crow, its antihero, Ferelith, is obsessed with the matter of life after death, and yet she herself is not religious per se. I wanted to portray a young adult, who I see very often; someone who wants to believe in something, and yet is being offered nothing by the modern pop culture around them. We worship celebrities now, sports stars and film stars, and people with no talent but for making people gossip about them. I think there are lots of people, and among them many teenagers, who feel shortchanged by the vapidity of all of that, and would like something that speaks to them. That was what was at the heart of White Crow.
In a recent interview you explained that folk and fairy tales “are almost my favourite kind of story, and so, ever since I became a writer, I have always tried to find ways of working elements of folklore into my books. How? By using iconic images, words with deep resonance, patterns of storytelling and certain motifs which remind us, subconsciously at least, of those dark stories we all heard at a tender age.” Could you talk a bit more about this? What tales were you drawn to growing up and have they changed over the years? Do you have any favorites? Do you consciously look for ways to work elements into your stories or is it a more subtle process? And finally, in the same interview you say, “if I can’t get away with writing new fairy tales, at least I can enjoy plundering our literary heritage to populate my books,” which leaves me wondering why you don’t think you can get away with writing a new fairy tale, and whether you might change your mind someday?
Yes, I love fairy tales, and folk tales of all kinds, from all cultures and all times. I think they have deep resonance for us, and I have always worked, both explicitly and more subconsciously, to incorporate their rhythms and tropes into my work. There are rich veins of story to be mined, and adapted and plundered! I loved Russian fairy tales as a kid, and Greek and Norse myth. I have read many more varieties of story now, from Sweden to England to North America, and they all have their own special quality and power.
The only reason I said I can’t get away with writing new ones is because I wouldn’t be able to find a publisher for them — publishers will tell you such things don’t sell, and they may be right, but I’d love to find out some time. The closest some people have come is to adapt old stories and recast them in modern clothes, as I did with Cassandra in The Foreshadowing in fact. And yet, in certain countries, eg Slovenia where I was recently, their most famous modern author wrote dozens of new fairy tales that are loved and revered.
Not only do you write and draw, you also play the drums and are clearly an avid music lover. You’ve said that music has inspired many parts of your books, including the chapter titles in White Crow, and “much of the Book of Dead Days [which] was inspired by Schubert’s epic song cycle, Winterreise.” The 2014 Printz Award-winning Midwinterblood includes “lines by Nick Drake and Led Zeppelin…tucked away in the text, but the most significant source for the book is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which is probably the piece that made me fall in love with classical music, as well as modern music. I first heard it at the age of around 14 and as the saying goes, it blew my tiny mind. More energy than the Sex Pistols, freakier than Hendrix.” Could you describe your relationship with music over the years and how it colors or inspires your writing? Do you have a sense of why particular songs or bands or musicians or composers resonate for you? And since it sounds like our late teen musical tastes overlap, I have to ask you about your goth days and those early concerts — any memorable moments you’d be willing to share?
Music is something I love almost more than I love words. It’s a close fight between the two. But rather than let it be a fight, I have tried to let music into my head to colour my imagination and to stir my thoughts. I love (almost) all forms of music. It is my belief that the very best of any genre is worth listening to, and as to what it is that resonates for me — it has to be something that is authentic. So I can’t listen to mass-produced chart pap, although I can listen very happily to great pop music if it has something in its heart that is true. I tend to like slightly more obscure pieces of music than the mainstream as a result, but that’s not deliberate — as I say, if a piece of pop music is great, I will happily listen to it as well as the weirdest thing on my iPhone.
I don’t understand why people delineate between the genres they listen to and the ones they don’t. Maybe it’s fear or ignorance that does that, but actually I think we live in much more enlightened and all-embracing times than when I was young. Because what makes two pieces of music similar is not if they are from the same country or genre or year and so on. It’s not even so much about the key signature or the notes or the melody. It’s about emotion, and feeling. So this is how a piece of music like Winterreise by Schubert (some of the bleakest and most beautiful music ever written) can share something of the feel of a mournful ballad by Nick Cave. And it’s those emotions that music creates that are what we listen to it for, and that’s why it has a direct correlation to writing — we read to experience emotion too. So when I’m writing, I play the music that feels like what I am trying to put down on paper, whether that’s happiness or melancholy.
Yes, I was a first generation Goth, and I loved it — the music was intense and the lyrics were dark, and it actually (for all its pretentiousness ) meant something. I have great memories of gigs by Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sisters of Mercy and so on. The first band I ever saw however, and still one of the best gigs of all time for me, was The Smiths, in their first year of success. It was a mind-changing evening.
Just Can’t Get Enough
This question comes from Laini Taylor: “Hi Marcus! Reading about your process, I was struck by two things in particular: your notebooks and your maps. I keep notebooks too, and refer to them often for the same reason you do. I like the way you put it, about making connections between things lurking in your unconscious. That’s it exactly! Are your notebooks a catch-all for stray thoughts, or organized by project? Is there a method to it? And can you explain your maps, and at what point in the writing process you make them, and how you use them? This is fascinating to me, since I feel the need to visualize my structure, but have never tried anything like this. Thank you Marcus, and belated congratulations on the Printz Medal!
Thanks Laini, lovely question. (And thanks for the congratulations — very kind of you!)
Yes, I have some method to the madness in my notebooks, and that is this: I work in them from the front and the back simultaneously — in the front I put ideas/thoughts/notes for the book or project that I am currently working on, and in the back I put ideas for future books. However, these two things are sometimes not clear, and therefore page by page there may be an utter mess of what idea belongs to what project. This is deliberate, however, because I like my ideas to cross pollinate in the notebooks, because sometimes when they do, you come up with things you’d never ever though of. So the notebook fills up as I do my research.
I agree with you entirely that a book has a shape! I love that idea and sometimes it’s not even something you can put into words but it does seem to help make the whole business of writing a book a little bit easier. The maps may have started as small doodles in the notebook, but at some point towards the end of the thinking/research stage, I will start to experiment on large sheets of paper with a map for the book itself. They are in pencil. They change. I may reject two or three until I find the right form. Some are almost purely geographical maps, some are more esoteric. (I blogged about the maps here.) I have to find the right structure for each book, so each map is different, but when I have (most) of it as I want it, I will finally sit down, chapter one, line one, and begin to write…
Marcus has contributed a question for the next author in the series, E. Lockhart. Watch for an interview with her coming soon!
Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South-east of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge, England, and a remote house in the French Alps. Alongside a 16 year career in publishing he established himself as a widely-admired writer of YA fiction; he is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Michael L. Printz Award for 2014, for his novel Midwinterblood. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (four times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor.
Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and teaches creative writing at the Arvon Foundation and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and other graphic novels with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. His first title for adults, A Love Like Blood, was published in March 2014 in the UK; US publication will follow in early 2014. His most recent YA novel, She Is Not Invisible, was published in April 2014.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading iZombie Vol. 4 by Chris Roberson & Michael Allred and Saga Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples