Sally Gardner – ‘down the U-bend of history’

I came late to reading Sally Gardner. When Daughter won a signed copy of Sally’s I, Coriander I merely looked at it. I didn’t read her books until The Red Necklace came, but after that I was hooked!

I came late to this interview, too, despite it being something I’ve vowed not to do. But London in the dark when it rains isn’t easy to traverse quickly. I eventually found the right bar, even if it wasn’t quite in the same street as I’d been told…

Safely inside, away from the rain, Sally and I begin by talking hair. She is looking fantastic, and with someone who dresses so spectacularly this slightly girly direction of conversation is hard to avoid. But then she does what the ‘boys’ normally do and admires my iPod. ‘Ann, I love it! I’m thinking of getting an iPod touch.’

Sally Gardner

I have just came down on the train from Manchester and we talk about the party for K M Peyton at Meg Rosoff’s house which I’m going to afterwards. ‘I take it you’re not going?’ Sally and Meg are friends, which is why I feel I can ask.

‘No, I don’t know her (K M Peyton) books, and ponies are not my scene, I’m afraid.’

‘I’m enjoying them. So you were never a horse book kind of girl?’

‘I wasn’t the reading kind of girl. I have to be honest, and there’s so much of literature that just didn’t hit my pan at all.’

‘I was going to ask you about that. Because you started with an adult book when you began reading, does that mean you never read children’s books at all?’

‘No, never. I read the Paddington books when I was almost grown up, and I loved him. But no; Wind in the Willows, and that was about it. Fairy stories, Grimm’s. A lot of Grimm’s.’

‘Since we’re on that topic now; you rewrite classic fairy tales, but why do you?’

She laughs at the way I put it. ‘Fairy tales push very important issues away from you, so that it gives you space, perspective to see them in a new light.’

‘Yes.’

‘For instance, if you tell a child the story of a girl stuck in a tower, with a crack heroin mother, and no way out, and abuse, and drugs, the child sees no escape, and does not wish to read it, and sees her own life reflected far too close up. Tell her the story of Rapunzel, that child has got a way out, and that’s what I like to do. I like to push things away, so they’re decades or centuries away. As long as you’re true to the past, as long as you’re not corrupting it, then I think it’s totally valid to use them.’

‘How did you learn fairy tales? Did someone read them to you?’

‘They were read to us, and I was terrified of them. I mean Grimm’s is absolutely terrifying, and the darkness… I grew up in Gray’s Inn and the darkness in the smogs and the fogs and the Grimm’s…’

We can’t help laughing at this.

‘You know, it felt very gothic. I’ve used it in Coriander, but I remember my stepmother opening the window, and this green fog made an appearance in the room, and we couldn’t get rid of it. It hung there all day and we had no central heating and it was incredibly damp every winter. I got bronchitis every winter, and it was just the air. There really were pea-soupers.’

‘Is this in the 1950s?’

‘Well, I was born in 1953, and by the time I was six there were still pea-soupers. I remember opening the door and as we went out my stepmother would go “no, we’re not going.” Because you couldn’t see, it was like an impenetrable wall of fog, and it had a tinge to it. I always thought the opening of Bleak House is the most brilliant opening. It’s about the fog, and seeing it as a Tyrannosaurus Rex walking down Theobald’s Road, and I always thought I could almost see this. Dickens was the other thing they read to us. My grandfather – he was working class – and he was obsessed with Dickens. He bought all the little books you know, when they were put together.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘And I remember how they were bound and the writing was so small, so jammed together, you couldn’t ever imagine anyone could read it. Little words stuffed together.’

‘I found an interview where you mention meeting someone whose father knew Dickens, which I thought was absolutely fascinating. I started counting backwards…’

‘Well, it was the gas-lighter. He was the last man who ever lit the lamps. It’d been in his family all the way back. And then there was the paper mill in Bleeding Heart Yard. It sold paper to artists, and you couldn’t imagine the fire regs letting this happen now. It was all open steps, and I remember the guy, sitting in the corner. He was ancient, he must have been over 90, and he remembered as a boy meeting Dickens, and the glorious moment when he’d come into Bleeding Heart Yard. It appears in one of his books. London then was so derelict in a way. It’s a phoenix of a city. I always thought it was black. I always thought all the buildings were black.’

‘Yes.’

‘I couldn’t understand why everyone always said “what colour is London brick?” I’d say black, black brick.’

‘I’d call it dirty yellow.’

‘It was black.’

‘Blacker than now.’

‘Oh, much more. I remember when they were going to knock down the Natural History Museum. You know, they were going to knock it down.’

‘Were they?’

‘Yes, they were going to build something 1960s, and it would have been “lovely” … and then they decided not to. What they didn’t realise, when they cleaned it up, there were all these colours.’

‘It scrubbed up nicely. It’s so interesting what you’ve seen.’

‘I was lucky. Gray’s Inn was an extraordinary place to be in and it was timeless. In a way it didn’t belong to the rest of the world. It was full of Dickensian characters; clerks, solicitors, young lawyers. And Dickens had worked in the building I grew up in. He felt very present to me when I was growing up, like maybe he belonged to the family somehow.’

‘Is that why you go for period settings, do you think?’

‘I think I go for period settings because of what I said earlier about fairy tales. You see, you can’t pc the past.’

‘No.’

‘You can’t make it pretty, it’s got to be true. They did smoke, they drank like fishes. They did things just as we do them, but without the police that we have around today, and you’ve got to be true to it. If you use a historical character, don’t make up stuff. Stay true to what they did. You can have your fictional characters do what they want. Don’t touch a real historical character! The minute you do that you ruin every historical research you’ve done. And I feel that very strongly.’

‘Yes.’

‘The Lancaster bomber (in The Double Shadow) was like a nightmare beyond all belief. It turned out to be nerdsville, the biggest nerdsville you could ever find. I found this amazing man, who was a bomber boy, and we had lunch, and he was absolutely brilliant. He read the chapter where Ezra was in the plane, and he corrected everything.’

‘It felt very true.’

‘The door, you couldn’t have opened the door to take a picture, it would have had to be a window. They’d have done this or they would have done that. We got it all down to a T. There are people out there who worship them.’

‘Yes.’

‘Really worship. Actually, I was living in Shingle Street in Suffolk when (Prince) William got married. They’ve got one of the biggest runways and the Lancasters took off and when they came over I burst into tears. I knew that sound from watching old films, and I just couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t believe these planes had gone up and done the things that they had done. The bravery. And the Spitfires. You look at these tiny planes and my heart goes out to them, on both sides. We were so bloody lucky.’

‘Your new book feels almost a little bit modern, despite being quite old.’

‘Good. I’m really glad you said that.’ She laughs.

‘What made you jump from the 18th century to the 1930s?’

‘I’m very interested in periods of history that are in a way contained. Every period of history I’ve written about has been contained. You know, the interim French Revolution. And in a way the U-bend between the two World Wars, is a weird, strange time, and it’s to do with a generation that actually gets lost down the U-bend of history. The most interesting thing that happens is in 1922, T S Eliot The Waste Land, and Ulysses, and then nothing particular. The Mitfords, and war, come out of it. Virginia Woolf. But in a way it represents something incredibly lost, something on the cusp of something going.’

‘Yes.’

‘And I find that really, really fascinating.’

‘Does this mean you can’t continue a book, or you wouldn’t?’

‘No.’ Sally says this quietly, but determinedly. ‘No, never. With Coriander I’ve been asked often would I write a sequel?’

‘No?’

‘No.’

‘So with the French Revolution it was really because the story wasn’t finished?’

‘It wasn’t finished, and I felt when I was writing it I couldn’t get it all in, what I wanted to do. So it needed to be two. And I loved Yann. I’d sort of fallen in love with Yann and I couldn’t really make Sido more gutsy. Everyone kept saying she should be, but I said you can’t be so untrue to the past. She wouldn’t have been, she couldn’t have been. At that time she was a Marquis’s daughter. Come on, get real, she wasn’t in the French Revolution, she wasn’t baring her breasts, or waving a flag, you know. She was stuck in a big chateau.’

‘Yes.’

‘There was nothing she could do.’

‘She was interesting because she was a lot quieter than many of the feisty heroines you get in books, who are more like 21st century heroines.’

‘And they are not real to the period.’

‘No.’

‘And it wouldn’t have been like that. Georgette Heyer does tackle it quite well, she does get a bit of feist into them, but on the whole they are stuck, they’re imprisoned in the society they are in. And Sido doesn’t stand a chance of ever breaking out. She had to stick with him (her father). Even when he says “I don’t love you,” she stays true to him, and I think that’s true about lots of abusive parents and children.’

‘Yes.’

‘Children still love their parents, regardless of what has happened to them.’

Sally Gardner

‘Yes.’ I remember something Sally told me when I first visited her. ‘Was it your grandmother who did the turning round three times of the teapot?’

Sally laughs. ‘Yes, she used to do that.’

‘Did you put anybody else in?’

‘I used my grandfather. In a lot of ways this is about trauma, and he was deeply traumatised by the First World War, and he gave up living at fifty. He sat in an armchair and he used to make his tea so sweet you could stand the teaspoon up in it.’

‘Yeah.’

‘It would only stand for a second.’

‘I was going to ask if that’s actually possible.’

‘Yes it is possible, but it doesn’t stay for very long, obviously. He used to shove it (the sugar) in and if the spoon was upright, the tea was sweet enough. He only ate mashed potatoes and eggs. Very creamy mashed potato and fried egg, and sweet tea that you could stand the spoon up in, and he lived to be 94.’

‘Goodness.’

‘It never varied. Oh, he had pea soup on Fridays. I had two grandfathers, one had a good war and one had a bad war, and I switched it, because I wanted it to look like he’d (Noel) had a very bad war, but he’d won this medal. Bert had had a good war but was a coward, he had been saved by Noel, who had always been a very honourable man. And that thing with Bert and Nancy is good too. I was determined to let Bert have a say.’

‘Now, my “nerdy” husband complained that “Sally mentions television in the book.”’

‘Yes, your husband is perfectly right. The first televisions were in use at that period, but not for everybody, and I thought with Arnold being who he was, it worked.’

‘That’s what I was thinking.’

‘It wouldn’t have been for everybody, it was really infantile, the whole concept. These televisions are more the flickering light that will mesmerise, put on for people to watch, and they are made completely still by this light, and it sort of sucks all their memories out. In a way I think television does that too, because we waste days and hours watching vacuous programmes, staring into the light, and we’re lost. I thought that was an interesting idea about time being taken from us…’

‘Yes.’

‘And I like the idea that two people come out of it all right; the televisions and the green light worked for two of them, but doesn’t work for everybody. I love the idea of Ezra going in the wrong way so the machine becomes sick, and he’s ill and he can’t rescue her. He’s coming for her, action man with the glasses, he’ll win, and then he can’t.’

‘Would you write a book without the fantasy element, or is that too important?’

Sally thinks long and hard about this; ‘No, I think on the whole I will always work on the fairy tale element. I think what I’m trying to say, I just like to create a world.’

‘Yeah.’

‘It’s world creating. I don’t like magic when it’s just given. I’m not very keen on when  suddenly you can levitate. Why? Why should you levitate? Why now? I like it to be rooted, to have some earth to it, and then I don’t mind where it goes. As long as it feels as if it’s got earth in it, I can do it.’

‘What are you writing now?’

‘For eight-year-olds again. I’m doing it before I get on to the next, which will be for this age group (YA) as well. But I need a break before I go that deep again.’ Sally laughs, making herself sound like an explorer, catching her breath before risking life and limb.

‘The way your name has been listed with Orion’s Indigo brand, sort of leading it, I wondered whether you had to stick with YA?’

‘I feel very happy writing for Orion. I had to slightly tone down the Necklace and Silver Blade, to make it go a little lower than I wanted. I wanted it a tad higher, but couldn’t because I was worried when I saw eight-year-olds buying my books. It was very hard, because it’s a subject that is incredibly violent. With this (The Double Shadow) I’ve been able to go where I wanted to go.’

‘You’ve got the sex and the drugs.’

‘And I feel right about it because it’s got a ‘fence’ around it and no eight-year-old is going to buy it.’

‘I was almost taken aback by the early scene when she comes back to the school and vomits over him, and considering the period that was almost a bit daring. If it was set now, though, you wouldn’t think twice about it.’

‘But it happened it those days, and the whole point I want to make – not that I want to make a point, really – is we haven’t made that big a journey, if you think about girls now on a Friday night and how legless they get. You just think, where have we come?’

‘You explain Proust in your book. Are you hoping to persuade your readers to take an interest?’

‘I don’t advocate anyone taking an interest in anything, but I think Proust is an amazing writer. He writes about memory. I’m writing about memory, so in a way I wanted something to echo that. The Madeleine is important. I think this explains very well what the Madeleine does, and it doesn’t matter if you never read Proust, but maybe you’ll think, “oh, that’s what it’s about” when people mention it.’

‘Yes.’

‘Like The Waste Land. It doesn’t matter if anyone reads it or doesn’t, but that was my influence, what really got me cracking.’

‘So not H G Wells?’

‘No. I read the beginning of The Time Machine, and thought it was unbelievably clever and amazing. It was all brilliant stuff. Also the music of Pierre Boulez. He did a wonderful thing (in French it was called the double shadow) between a cello and a computer.’

‘Did you read to your children? Or did you make up stories?’

‘I read to them, and made up stories, and they listened to a lot of tapes. And they still to this day will often say “let’s put on some Agatha Christie and do some drawing.”’ She laughs.

‘It’s amazing what you think back to. It was your brother that you made up stories for, when you were young, wasn’t it?

‘Yes.’

‘I just wondered if you had continued that with your children.’

‘I used to have the whole world in my head, so I made up stories about a little monkey called Tiddlywinks, that my brother – alas he’s dead now – loved, and stories became a way for me to make sense of the world. People who bullied me or said I was stupid; in my head I made everything turn out different, better for myself, and in a funny kind of way I got a lot of courage by doing that. Quiet courage, to think “one day I’ll show you.”

I used to love going for a walk and when I’d got to a really good bit everything would fade away.’

‘Do you still do any illustrating?’

‘I think I paint with words now, and I’m very happy painting with words. It’s a huge palette. I never thought my drawings were very great or good, and feel the images I’m creating in words are what I want to do.’

‘The insides of your hardbacks, this one is rather nice with the red, and the French ones, and Coriander were very special. Did you have any input in that?’

‘Yes I did. My daughter did the drawings for Coriander and that was my image that I came up with for The Double Shadow (cover picture), and it’s from a German expressionist film. I really love that image, and it had everything I wanted to say about The Double Shadow. I just didn’t want another book with another girl’s face on it, looking out of a window or lost in the distance.’

‘If you weren’t writing, what would you do?’

‘Be totally unemployable, and probably in a madhouse,’ she laughs.

‘OK, if you were very, very rich and you didn’t have to worry about where your next dinner was coming from..?’

‘I’d still write. Nothing will stop me now. Even if I didn’t get published, I’d write. Don’t know what else to do really, I just want to tell my story.’

‘People want to read them because they are real stories, the old-fashioned kind of story, which makes them stand out.’

‘Beginning, middle and end.’

‘And just the fact that this is not the beginning of a trilogy.’

‘I couldn’t, you know. I like them complicated, but I couldn’t imagine carrying on that complication. You’ve got to untie it, and you’ve got to tie it up. You’ve got to dot somewhere. I don’t know how people do it, I’d be terrified to know that was part of a six book deal.’

‘Your publishers don’t suggest that you do?’

‘No. They were very pleased when I did the second after The Red Necklace. But my publishers are amazing. They never say “oh, we want the same again.” They always say “you are an original, do what you want,” so I’m very lucky. There’s too much going on in my head, Ann, to do a whole trilogy of things. I want to do the next, and I like open-ended worlds. I like leaving them something, I like people to work a bit with what they would like afterwards.’

‘Yeah.’

‘People say “Coriander, I know what happens next,” and I think “great, you make that story up, you set yourself up a Coriander and go, I’m not going to tell you.”’

‘Yes, with this one I can decide what they go on to do.’

‘Exactly.’

‘You describe that you see everything in your head, and that this might be unusual.’

‘I don’t know if it’s unusual. I don’t know whether people do it. I thought everybody did.’

‘I do, and I find it interesting that maybe it is rarer than I believed.’

‘I think it is. I used to think everyone did,’ she sounds incredulous, ‘I remember feeling absolutely appalled that people were visually blind. I couldn’t understand that when you told a story you didn’t see it like a film. I mean it runs like a film in my head. I need to know what a kitchen looks like, I need to feel the windows that Olive looks out of. I need to see it, and if I can’t, I’m not interested. I can’t write it. I’ve no desire to go back there. When I was illustrating I always used to have to think which radio play I’d been listening to, to get back into the illustration. Now I just read, “oh, there I am,” and if I’m not, I start again. I don’t know if it’s rare and I don’t know who can, but I know it’s one of the things I do.’

‘Yes.’

‘My experience has been that there are a lot of people who just don’t see.’

‘Do you find that you get asked specially to talk in schools and at other events because of your dyslexia?’

‘I talk a lot about dyslexia. I can become quite militant about it, and I’m so fed up with people’s feeling defeatist about it.’

‘You work with the exact thing you’re supposed not to be able to do.’

‘Yeah, I do. I fall between two stools. The non-dyslexic world can’t understand I’m a writer, and the dyslexic world don’t believe I am dyslexic, because I am a writer.’

‘You can’t please anyone.’

‘Absolutely flat between the two. You can’t be a real writer, it’s such an extraordinary thing.’

‘It must be good for others to have someone like you as a role model.’

‘Yes, I know the struggle, and I’ve struggled to get here, and I know it’s not put on, I know it’s been me since I was born, so I don’t care what anyone says about it. It’s my world and I’m pleased with it, thank you!’

‘Do you mind having turned into a spokeswoman?’

‘No, I think it’s about time someone stands up and is proud to be it, and stops feeling browbeaten by people, or lists things one might have done wrong as a cause. Leave us alone! We have more to offer. We’re breeding a generation of sick children and disenfranchise kids for what? For an education system that’s dead in the water. It’s medieval!’

‘I agree.’

‘Someone has got to stand up there and be positive and proud, and the amount of teachers that come up to me afterwards to say “I’m really dyslexic,” and “why aren’t you saying that to your students?” “They might laugh at me…” It’s hopeless, so someone’s got to stand up up there and the more I’ve written and the more I know I can do, the more I feel I don’t care. I’m going to say it.

When you think of visual, emotional intelligence and there is no value. It’s all academia. And when you look at attention deficit, which I think is a totally made up problem, because all around us is overstimulated life; computers, iPhones, you’ve got this, you’ve got that, you’ve got thousands of things around you, and it’s exciting and we’re in it every moment. And we are expecting children to sit in front of a teacher. It’s over, that way of learning is dead in the water. No politician’s grabbed it. They all go “children are failing education.” Well, why? Maybe education is failing children.’

‘Oh it is.’

‘I always think one thing, get a child interested in a button and show them the world. Don’t teach them the world and show them a button.’

I end our chat before we both decide to take on the government and their education policies, although all that happens is that the recorder might be off, but we continue setting the world of education to rights.

5 responses to “Sally Gardner – ‘down the U-bend of history’

  1. What a fantastic interview! Lots of food for thought! I love Sally Gardner’s books and can’t wait to read this one. Thank you.

  2. Love this interview! And loved Double Shadow and will be reviewing it on December 4th on Abba reviews. Sally is fascinating and what she says about fairy tales etc is SO TRUE! Thanks Bookwitch for a marvellous read.

  3. Wonderful interview. Having interviewed her myself for the Times I know how rich and fascinating her mind is, and here at least you can shopw more of it. The Double Shadow superb (I hadn’t realised the title comes from Boulez either).

  4. You’re right, Amanda. I felt I got so much more than I could have imagined, and I could have gone on forever if that had been an option.

  5. Pingback: What the Strindberg are we celebrating? | Bookwitch

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