WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: You’ve written so many books, and they are, frankly, amazing. What do you think the purpose of writing really is? If you had to leave everything to one answer, what answer would you give to the question: “Why should someone write?”
Marcus Sedgwick: Well, I can see from your question that you know there are far too many responses to the matter of what writing is all about, so you’ve limited me to one answer. This is a low, underhand trick, so let me pull a low-down dirty trick in reply. To ‘Why should someone write?’ I would say ‘Why shouldn’t they?’
But now I look at that reply, although I have side-stepped answering your question, I think the possible answers to my reply might be able to tell us something. Although it was meant rhetorically, if you were to answer ‘why shouldn’t they write?’ with an actual answer, we could learn something from that answer. For example, if we said, ‘because you’re not good enough’, we might wonder, ‘oh yeah? Who says? And what do you define as good anyway?’ Or if we replied, ‘because you can’t make money out of being a writer’, we can wonder if we have a good motivation to try to be a writer in the first place. Or if we replied ‘Because all the good books have already been written’, we might release that every writer since writers weren’t writers but oral storytellers has probably had the same worry. And yet done it anyway. All these answers expose our fears and worries about what writing can’t be, or isn’t, and so their reverse therefore tells, frees us, to actually try.
MT: Your book deals a lot with time, and I’ve been thinking about some of my favorites of yours, and also Proust, now that I’ve reached a period in my life where I’m experiencing tremendous loss. How do you incorporate ideas of time, and being, into these great work for the youth of the world?
MS: It’s not something I consciously do for the most part. I think this is true of lots of aspects of writing, in that the stuff that really ‘means’ something to people comes along for the ride. It hitchhikes on the back of the story. The most important thing is to tell a good story (and we can argue for days over what that might be) and then, if you have done that well, you get the chance for people to read some thoughts about Being and Time, and now I sound like Heidegger. So for the most part, I trust that these things will emerge naturally from the story, though I might on occasion deliberately pull at one cord here, or push one lever there, in order to emphasize some existential thing like time. I’m talking about on the level of an individual sentence or short paragraph perhaps. That can be fun, but you mustn’t get carried away, because the story must always come first. Finally, I trust that notions of being and time willemerge naturally since I have felt a strong connection, awareness to these things since childhood; I have always questioned my/the sense of time (for example, with my own age, even when I was tiny I also felt very old) and since they are deep preoccupations, you cannot help but that they will emerge spontaneously in a book.
MT: Your books never belittle young people. You write amazingly, with style and plotting that’s sharp and near perfect. Why do you think it’s important not to somehow change books to fit into a young adult or child’s world? Do you think children and young adults are often underestimated, or what are your reasons for writing the way you do? What audience do you believe you are writing for?
MS: To take those questions in reverse order. Like many writers I know and have heard, I am not writing for any audience other than myself, and maybe simultaneously some detached observer version of myself, who might be me in other people, at a variety of ages. But basically I write to please myself, to scratch whatever itch is in the depths of the mind. Now, I am always saying that writing contains many, many contradictions, and here’s one of them, because it is possible to write simultaneously only for oneself, and yet still have thoughts about readers too. But if the White Queen can believe in six impossible things before breakfast, so can we. That’s why we’re people and not computers, we can run two pieces of conflicting software at the same time, and contradictions, even apparently mutually exclusive ones, are all part of what people are and therefore what writers are. (It’s why a computer won’t ever write a good book. I hope.)
I fully believe that we constantly underestimate children and teenagers and it mystifies me why we do. I mean, how many years really is it since we were children? Is it really so hard to remember that time when you heard something, felt something, read something that people thought you didn’t understand but you did? Why are we so quick to put childhood behind us? Or try to, because, you basically can’t. Is everyone so arrogant as to think, well, I remember being a kid and everyone thought I was dumb and they were talking in front of me like I wasn’t there but I knew what was going on, but that no one else had that experience? I can remember being pre-verbal and having a tantrum because I couldn’t explain to my mother what was wrong and what I really wanted, and she was talking back to me like I was a toddler. Because I was. I didn’t even have the words, but I knew, my thoughts were wordless, but clear. And so I always talk to teenagers, children and eve babies as if they are adults. (I even talk to adultsas if they are adults though I am not sure I’ve met many in my life.) We constantly underestimate young people for what they can understand, what they want to deal with, what they can deal with, what they are ‘ready for’ (another thing which drives me insane) and so on. All I have tried to do in my books is be true to my belief about that. I know it might sound arrogant at first sight to say writing is for me, and not for anyone else; but it isn’t arrogant. It might be selfish(and there’s another contradiction of writing – it is the most self-ishthing I can think of, and yet, if done well, it can be shared and mean enormous amounts to many other people). But what would be more arrogant would be to say, okay, I’m a 52-year-old Briton, what would a 13-year-old girl in Brazil want to read? Or a 16-year-old boy in Berlin..? And then assume you know and actually be arrogant enough to ‘write them a book’.
Finally, why all this is important is because if you don’t do these things, and if you treat your readers like idiots, then you will have an idiotic book.
MT: Short stories are a major weakness for me. I love reading them but am terrible with writing them. Many of your books aren’t literal collections, but are novels that contain something like stories, these complete visions of people and places and actions that bleed into others. What do you think the trick is to writing a great short story, and why do you write books like the ones I described earlier, the bleeding kind?
MS: I like the sound of bleeding books, in that that’s what a good book does, and what you aim for, something that forces or seeps or crawls or steals into someone’s (sub) consciousness and makes them feel and think things they weren’t expecting. If some of my books bleed in a different way – within themselves - I’m thinking Midwinterbloodor The Ghosts of Heaven, it’s because I wanted to give somewhat separate stories a unified power. I’m not sure I can say what the secret to writing great short stories is, but I do know this: whenever I have an idea for a story, I send some time looking at it, and one of the questions I ask myself is what kind of story would serve this idea best. Should it be a novel, or maybe it would be better as a radio play? Since I don’t write radio plays, I would then abandon it. Maybe it ought to be a film, or maybe the idea would be best served, given its best expression, as a short story, in which case I would put it away in a drawer for that increasingly rare day when someone invites you to write a short story. My wife just read a novel, I won’t say what, that wasn’t great, and at the end she concluded it might have been better off as a short story. So I know I’m not alone in this.
MT: What excites you most about writing a book? Have you ever disposed of a book, falling out of love with it or not wanting to write it? Have you ever come back to a book you thought you were done with?
MS: You never quite know what’s going to be exciting about a book, that in itself is one of the most exciting things about it. I don’t think I can give a short answer to that question apart from that. I have abandoned books, yes, often 10,000 words in (it’s pretty easy to put out 10,000 words without knowing what you’re doing) and a couple of times I’ve written whole books and thrown them away. That is not fun, and I try to avoid it happening. With my first ‘adult’ novel, which I wrote without contract in between other things, I wrote about half, then didn’t know whether it was worthwhile. And I had other things to do for six months or more, so I left it alone. When I came back to it I found it to be good enough for me to continue to the end.
MT: What is your dream book? Has it been written by someone else, have you written it, or is it still to be written, perhaps by you?
MS: I have several dream books; the one that means the most to me is The Magic Mountainby Thomas Mann, sadly not as widely read as it used to be, which is a shame as it still has so very much to offer. As for me, I think one of the thing about being a writer, a thing that forces you on, is the idea that one day you will write your dream book. But you never do. Or maybe, if you did, you would stop writing thereafter. But the chimerical illusion of perfection attracts you and draws you in to have another try.
MT: Who are your favorite writers living today (or perhaps deceased)? Children’s books, young adult books, new adult books, adult books, whatever—and any genre, please. I love how you mix so many genres and forms of writing, and wonder what authors you admire with new and different ways of writing.
MS: I meant to meant to say that I really appreciate your cross-genre/age notions on this site. I hate that we categorize stuff, I know we kind of have to, and it’s human nature to do so, but it’s not how a writer thinks, well not how this writer wants to think. That being said, I don’t have many favorite writers who are still alive! One or two, like Susan Cooper, Max Porter, Alan Garner, S E Lister – I would read anything they wrote. But I have trouble with a lot of more recent fiction, and by this I mean anything after about 1935 or something of that nature. Last year, someone sent me the transcript of an interview between the great Alan Garner and Aidan Chambers, an interview that took place in the 70s. In it, Garner also states he doesn’t like modern fiction for the reason that it has forgotten to say something important to the reader. It has, he says, forgotten to say ‘I love you’ to the reader. I am very touched and fascinated by this viewpoint and I guess, by extension that my problem with much modern fiction is that not only has it forgotten to say I love you but is instead saying ‘look how clever I am’. So my favorite writers at the moment are long dead: Artur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, Willa Cather, Daphne Du Maurier, David Jones and of course, my hero, Thomas Mann. The writings of all these people say ‘I love you’. (I’m guessing David Jones isn’t so well known in the US? His book In Parenthesis, is for me, the best thing ever written in the English language. Forget the fact it’s ‘about’ his experiences in the first world war; it’s simply about being a frail, very human, loving being.)
Oh, and I must mention my new love; a fantastic book called The World of Henry Orient. It was the debut novel by Nora Johnson, and it was published 64 years ago. Were it to be published today it would be published as a YA book, I feel sure, but at the time, since that category didn’t exist, it was an adult novel. This is why I hate classifications. It’s also one of the few reasons I am happy to be 52 years old, because the YA thing didn’t exist when I was its target demographic, and I firmly believe that the YA concept inhibits as many readers as it liberates. Anyway, to return to The World of Henry Orient. It is a sublime book, and wereit to be published today (which it practically could be, without a word changed) as a YA book, it would blow most of that field out of the water. It’s a small masterpiece, and yet again, it makes me wish we could dispense with categories for books, and just sort them into ‘good ones’ and ‘bad ones’, and then we could just spend our time arguing about what those terms might possibly mean.
MT: You’re a literary superstar. I really do mean this—so many people are in awe of your books, of you, so much that you’re more than a person, even more than a legend. What responsibilities do you feel come with this, and do you ever feel there are parts of your life, or your writing, or your process that you have to keep to yourself?
MS: I don’t mind sharing most of my thoughts, because, if we’re honest, they are to be found in my novels anyway. It’s all out there, so why hide it? But of course there are some things that are only for me, or my close family. Your words are very flattering but I am just someone who has enjoyed putting words together, sometimes it has been easy, sometimes hard, and along the way, you cannot help but learn stuff. A little about writing, a lot more about yourself.
MT: Which book was hardest for you to write? Which book was your favorite? And which book are you most proud of, and why?
MS: The books seem to be getting harder the longer I go on! I don’t want to sound like I am complaining, but really, most things get easier in life, the more you do them. Writing books is definitely getting harder. Some books have driven me crazy, because of plot, for example, She Is Not Invisible, which doesn’t appear to have a complex plot, but that’s because it’s all hidden underneath, invisible, in order for the ending to work. Mister Memorydoes have an on-the-surface complicated plot, and that took a lot of figuring out, over many years. Snowflake, AZwas hard to write because I had to put a lot more of myself in than usual, and I was scared.
MT: Is there a genre or type of book you haven’t written, but feel you would love to write someday?
MS: I have written lots of different things, and if there’s one thing I am proud of about my writing, it’s that if people know me at all, they probably know that every book is different. More or less. As I hinted at above, though, I don’t really like to think in terms of genre. I just like to write a book, and let publishers worry about what it is and where it goes. Having said thatthough, one thing that drives me on is the desire to write the ‘kind of book’ (whatever that is) that I haven’t yet written. With Snowflake, AZI wanted to write the sort of book where nothing much actually happens (apart from the end of the world quietly taking place in the background). I wanted the book to work because of the characters’ interactions, and not much more. And for the last few years, I have been wanting to write a funny book. I intended to before I wrote Saint Death, and then that story came along, and that’s the exact opposite of a funny book; it’s an angry book. But I keep hoping I will write a funny book, because I think genuinely funny books are very, very few, and that’s because they are very, very hard to write. If they were easy, there would be many more of them. I still would like to try, but we’ll have to see.
MT: What do you hope your readers will take away from your books? Are there any of your books—because you’re quite prolific—which you like to think affect people most, and what do you hope readers take away from these books?
MS: Oh golly, now that is a surprisingly hard question to answer. Maybe I am not the right person to answer that question, and yet I suppose no one else can answer it for me. Um. Let me just say that I get more letters about some books than others, and those books are Revolver, Midwinterbloodand The Ghosts of Heaven. I have had the nicest letters about that last book, ones that prove the point we were discussing above, that teenagers are perpetually underestimated by most of the adult world. I have letters that would make you cry with joy as a someone who promotes reading in young people, ones that would make you punch the air and say ‘yes! See what I mean?’
MT: You often write “linked stories,” and I wonder how you feel about the way people are connected in real life, since you write so often about, as described in relation to The Ghosts of Heaven, “the spiral of time.” How are we connected to the past, and what do you think, as with the nature of a book like Midwinterblood, we could and should learn from the past in order to move forward with the future? What’s so great about presenting a book like Midwinterblood to young people as well as adults?
MS: Well, in the words of that famous quote by one of your countrymen, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. It is very easy to each the conclusion that many if not all of the world’s problems are because we never fucking learn anything. Perhaps this is banal, but if so, it’s because it’s beyond cliché. People are forever being trapped by their past, the past of their families, the stories they told, the ones they didn’t tell, the words their family uses, their culture uses, their peers. And sitting inside everyone is that child they once were, who is also not dead, not even no-longer-a-child. So many people flee from their childhoods and maybe even more from teenage-hoods, and are doomed to fail because they never step out of the software that they have been running, that they were given by others, who were in turn given that programming by others. That’s why writers who do what I do are fascinated by the meaning of this time of life, and why it’s so challenging to work with, beyond what most people might imagine.
MT: Some of your books contain parts that approach horror (and fantasy, too). What books scare you most, and what scares you most in real life? You write from so many genres, but are there any genres you wouldn’t venture into?
MS: The books that scare me the most are 800 pages long and full of pretentious rubbish. As far as horror goes, I don’t tend to read horror so much these days. The creepiest thing I read in recent years would be Fever Dreamby Samanta Schweblin. That’s a good book. And it’s even modern. What scares me most in real life? That would be almost anything. I have been filling myself with real life horror for years, and I am coming to a few conclusions. One, in general, people don’t want to know about real life horror, it’s just too much. (Recently I had a professor of Societal Collapse write to me, after reading Snowflake, AZ - we got chatting over email and he ended up telling me how hard he is finding lockdown, mentally speaking. And he studies this kind of scenarios for a living!) Two, it’s extremely damaging to your physical and mental health to fill your head with the evils of Monsanto, or Bayer, or Unilever, or Nestlé, or the Koch brothers, or Facebook, or YouTube, or ExxonMobil, or BP whoever it might be, so maybe the people who don’t want to know have it right. Three, I am, therefore, trying not to be scared any more. Big ask, but I like a challenge and I only have so long left to live.
MT: What are you writing next? Is there anything you’d want to share with our readers about a work in progress, or a book which isn’t published in the US, or is currently on the way to being published now? Can you give us any teasers, information that really will help keep us satisfied until the publication of your next work?
MS: Ah, I was hoping you weren’t going to ask that, but I will answer as honestly as I can. I am not writing anything, and I am not sure why. It’s been three years now since I wrote anything that meant anything to me. I have had block in a serious way before, once for two years, and I came out of it, so I hope that will happen again. Since I always laugh at writers who have loudly and pompously declared that they will never write another book (who cares?!), only to promptly chug out a few more a year or two later, I would be a hypocrite if I did the same thing. (And anyway, who cares?!) And I understand the impulse when a writer makes this big declaration, to say this – because it really doesfeelright nowlike I will never write anything else. But this may of course quietly change one day, without fanfare or proclamation of any kind. I will be happy if it changes, but I will not die if it doesn’t.
Since that isn’t going to please any readers of mine, the best thing I can suggest since you’re US based, is that I had a short book published in the UK a couple of years ago that for long and boring reasons didn’t get published in the States. So you could hunt that down. It’s called The Monsters We Deserve, and it’s to do with creativity, the lack of it, and who owns and owes what in the creation of a book.
MT: Marcus, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed with Writers Tell All. We love your writing here, and I hope that our readers will go and pick up one or all of your books. They won’t regret a single read if it’s authored by you. Feel free to leave us with any comment or lingering thoughts or questions, or suggestions even. Thank you so much for stopping by, and we cannot wait for what you write next!
MS: Thank you so much for having me. I saw that you ask great questions on your site and you certainly did, it’s a pleasure to be given the chance to get deep into question such as these. Thanks again, all the best, and I’m not sure I have anything else to add, apart from the fact that reading is even more important than ever right now, so please keep doing what you do.