Every week, YAPS! kidnaps a gifted author or artist and straps them to the Hot Seat, a blistering steel throne assembled from cursed Ikea flat-pack furniture (we were trying to build a book shelf.) This week we interrogate Sarah Singleton, the acclaimed YA author of ‘Century’, ‘The Amethyst Child’ and ‘The Island’. For more information, visit Sarah at her web-site and look out for her most recent book, ‘The Stranger’, which is available in all good book-shops.
1) In 2005 you won the Booktrust Teenage Prize for ‘Century‘, a hypnotic gothic fantasy about a house forever rotting. How much does gothic storytelling influence your writing, and was it something that influenced you growing up?
I’ve always loved gothic stories, even before I knew the term ‘gothic.’ Aged eleven, I discovered the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes and loved them, as well as The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, and the wonderful novels of Leon Garfield, set in a mysterious 19th century London. Darkly atmospheric mansions and landscapes, secrets and mysteries… they have a strong appeal for many of us I think. As I grew up, this developed into a liking for the gothic culture in fashion and music too – a Dark Romanticism – and it’s an interest I’ve never lost. I enjoy exploring the psychological and philosophical aspects of the genre too.
2) Your most recent novel, ‘The Island‘, deals with three friends holidaying in an Indian paradise, a holiday that takes a nightmarish turn after a body washes up on the beach. You’ve done a lot of travelling in your life. How important has it been to shaping the kind of person you are, and the kind of stories you tell?
As a young person I found India fascinating – it is a country with a rich, ancient culture and a beautiful, varied landscape. I spent three months travelling in India in my twenties, and I’d always wanted to write about it. Did it shape me as a person? To an extent, yes. Stepping outside the Western World is enlightening and confronting. It does give you another perspective. The Island gave me a perfect opportunity to describe the country as seen through the eyes of three young, inexperienced visitors. I think travelling is a brilliant source of inspiration – but you don’t have to travel to find that: you can visit to the most exotic places in the world and keep your mind closed. I think it’s just as important, perhaps more so, to try and see your familiar environment and regular surroundings with new eyes – to see the strangeness in the ordinary.
3) The roots of horror, fantasy and supernatural fiction are gnarled up in the works of women like Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe, however it can often seem like womens’ contribution to horror is overlooked. There’s a perception sometimes that horror is a ‘boys club’. How would you respond to this?
An interesting question! I am wary of generalisations about gender, but it seems to be true that most horror novels are written and read by men these days (though I don’t have figures to back that up, so it be an erroneous perception. One of my daughters used to be a big reader of Darren Shan for example.) As you say, many of the key figures in the horror / fantasy writing world have been and are women. Of course Anne Rice, and more recently, Stephanie Meyer, have brought crowds of women readers into dark fiction – by making their vampires into romantic figures. And JK Rowling, a woman writer of fantasy, was popular with boys and girls, not to mention men and women. So maybe the boys’ club idea is a little more complicated, when I think about it. One thing that does disappoint me is the increasing tendency to package books as boys’ books or girls’ books – with very gender specific covers. One librarian suggested to me she’d like them all to have brown covers so boys and girls would feel happy reading a wide range of books: while I can see marketing is never going to allow that to happen I endorse her point of view. Recently I read ‘Rich and Mad’ by William Nicholson – a wonderful, thoughtful sensitive novel for teens about relationships. I think it would be much appreciated and enjoyed by boys in particular but I can’t see many boys being brave enough to pick it up – which is a great pity. We still seem to put a lot of pressure on young people to adhere to certain gender roles.
4) Young Adult literature has never been so popular and its readers are made up of both adults and teenagers. What is it that’s attracting people, and what attracted you to write it?
I think, simply, there are so many brilliant young adult writers and books around at the moment. For me, a good book is a good book, regardless of where you find it in the bookshop. When my own children were starting secondary school, they brought home Skellig by David Almond and Holes by Louis Sacher. These are both extra-ordinary, moving, beautifully written books with engaging characters – regardless of the ages of the protagonists. It was reading these (particularly Skellig with its darkness and strangeness) that made me reassess the potential of YA novels and prompted me to try writing one myself.
5) Do you believe in ghosts?
Ghosts? Well I’ve never seen one but I have an open mind about the issue.
6) ‘The Poison Garden’ is a potpourri of different genres, such as historical, mystery and horror. Do you think younger people are more open and able to handle a story that crosses genre boundaries than adults?
Perhaps younger readers have fewer preconceptions about what a novel should be like, what boundaries may or may not be crossed? Perhaps they are more open to trying something new, because they are less set in their taste and opinions? Again that is a generalisation and there will be many adults who would be interested and intrigued by boundary crossing too.
7) In Britain at the moment, over 400 libraries face the prospect of closing down as the government expects councils to make savings of 6.5 billion pounds over the next two years. If these closures go ahead, what impact do you think this will have on the literacy and creativity of British teenagers?
The closures would be a disaster for readers of all ages. Libraries are a great resource for all of us. I order books from my library often, and when my children were very young, used to visit pretty much every week. It was part of our routine to look at, read and borrow books and I hope that encouraged them to read, as well as being a great pleasure. Libraries are part of our national heritage and culture, a vital source of education for everyone.
8 ) Are you working on anything at the moment?
I have a new novel out now, The Stranger, which is a sequel to The Island, and follows the adventures of Otto, Jen and Charlotte in India. I feel very proud of this book and I hope people buy and enjoy it. I’ve also just completed a contemporary gothic romance (not sure on the title yet) set on the south coast of England.
For more information, visit Sarah at www.crowmaiden.plus.com!