Malorie Blackman strides past me as I step out of the elevator on the fifth floor of the big bookshop on Piccadilly. I don’t ask her if she has walked up all those stairs, but she isn’t out of breath, so perhaps not. She very politely lets me choose our table in the café, and patiently puts up with facing the sun for the next hour. Malorie coughs a little, and apologises for having a cold. She looks very good, wearing a pillar-box-red, fluffy jumper with a polo neck, though she pulls at it a little, saying that she has dressed too warmly, considering how warm it’s become. This is the first time here for both of us, and we’re not sure if we are allowed to order just drinks, as it’s lunch time, but we get away with it.
I mention having met her once before, with my children, and she immediately asks about them, their ages, and what stages they are at. I guess that Malorie’s daughter is younger than mine, and she tells me she’s thirteen, and we compare notes on things like GCSE options.
Reading Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series has made me realise quite how racially prejudiced I am, despite always believing that I’m anything but. I tell Malorie this, and she roars with laughter. I say how much I admire the way she has turned everything upside down in her imaginary, but very real world, forcing the reader to stop and think much more than is often the case with teen fiction.
So much in Malorie’s writing is about being black, so although her books would count as remarkable without any race issues at all, it seems as if all the obvious questions are about colour. This, too, makes me feel prejudiced, but I can’t help myself, so launch into a series of “black questions”.
Thinking back to when she was growing up, Malorie remembers her geology teacher on a field trip describing a rock as flesh coloured, with her pointing out it’s “not my flesh colour”. Malorie says she found it “very interesting that that was the norm” for the teacher. Life is full of oddly named colours, with the world of lingerie resorting to descriptions like skin coloured, or tan. She says “it’s one of those things you feel, either if you’re not the majority, or have it pointed out to you.” In the 1970s when she complained to friends about make-up colours being limited to pale skins, they asked ”why are you moaning, because it wouldn’t show up on your face anyway.”
I find need to visualise a book’s characters in my mind when I read, so have often wondered how many of Malorie’s characters are black. I know that the protagonists always are, but I want to know if most of the others in her stories are also black, but she says characters tend to be an ordinary mix of backgrounds; black, white, Asian, and so on. The old style book covers used to show her black characters, but the new covers are more stylised, so aren’t as informative. Malorie laughs heartily again, as she says “maybe you shouldn’t worry about it so much”. Maybe.
Malorie feels it’s important for her readers to see children of other backgrounds (than their own) as well. “It needs to be balanced, and I don’t think we have that in literature. It’s better now, but we still have a long way to go on that front.” She gives as an example “the wilds of Scotland” where they have very few black faces, and it’s important that they do get books featuring black protagonists. It’s a way of opening their eyes.
Each year during Black History Month Malorie does school visits and talks, though this year she has cut down a little, with her new book Double Cross launching in November, and “I can’t do everything”. She gets booked up to a year in advance, and she goes into schools to speak of her role as a black writer, and where she gets her ideas and inspiration from, and so forth. “I talk about my life and how I got into writing in the first place. I’m keen to point out that if I can do it, anybody can. You can be anything, even President of America, you know.”
We talk about this momentous news, and Malorie says the weight on Obama’s shoulders is vast, “but I think his shoulders are strong enough to cope. After all, whatever he does, it couldn’t be any worse”, she says and laughs. “It’s all incredibly positive. I thought we would get a black president, but I didn’t think it would be in my lifetime. Americans are more ready for change than I actually gave them credit for. It’s brilliant. We can all sort of move forward and embrace change. It’s so positive, so exciting. It’s made young people interested in politics.”
Back to the subject of black writing, Malorie points out we “need not just more black characters in books, but black writers, too. More Asians, more ethnically diverse writers.” What’s important is to get as many perspectives as possible on issues. She feels the history books are all written a particular way, and we never get “the other side”, from another point of view. It’s imperative for her to go into schools to say that there are black writers out there, and “I’m one of them”.
When Malorie herself was at school, the creative professions were never cited. Her careers teacher told her she couldn’t be a teacher of English. She told Malorie that she was the one who wrote the university references, and she couldn’t give her a good one to study English. Malorie feels there has to be a multicultural approach to careers. We need black doctors and teachers, and it’s not all about sport. “I was bloody useless at sport, you know. All doors should be open to you. You can be anything. You really can be anything.”
The importance of parents reading to their children mustn’t be overlooked. “I read to my girl from when she was three weeks old. Finding picture books that reflected her background was incredibly difficult. I imported books from America. You either import, or go without, and I didn’t want her to go without.”
I compare this with my own need for bilingual books and videos, and wonder whether Malorie was able to get useful books from Barbados, where her parents came from. “Not particularly. Barbados is kind of more influenced by America than here. It was important to have a black British experience in the books, which is different from black Americans. I wanted things set in this country. It’s very important, otherwise it’s like people are invisible. In Barbados they read mostly American.”
As she is the child of immigrant parents, I ask if Malorie feels half British, half Barbadian. “No, Britain is my home and I’m British. Barbados is my heritage. Obviously my Mum would cook food that was Barbadian, so I know about that, and she’d talk about it. But my roots are in this country.”
Malorie was awarded an OBE in the summer, and I try to find out what it was like, but she hasn’t yet received it. It’s the week after our meeting. “My Mum and my husband and my daughter will be there.” I ask if she’s had any specific instructions on what to do, but it’s mainly “where to park. How to get there. I assume they’ll tell us there. I’m hoping I don’t trip up. Anytime I go anywhere I tend to trip.” She says “it’s really nice and it was a surprise. When my agent phoned, I was kind of ‘are you winding me up?’, to be honest. The things that make me carry on, are my readers, and when I get letters from readers saying they didn’t like reading, and they’ve read one of my books, and now they’ve started reading. That to me is a bit more real. Trying to instil a love of reading.”
She feels that views on children’s books have changed over the last ten years, partly due to Harry Potter, and also through writers like Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman. “People have woken up to children’s literature. Certainly there’s more recognition now. I’ve been writing for 18 years now, and when I started, people would ask ‘when are you going to write adult books?’. Writing children’s books is harder than it looks. A lot of people don’t realise there is an art to writing a book and keeping a child engaged. A child isn’t going to be polite and stick with a boring book. I do think there is more to it than maybe people think.”
On the “oh, I’m a celebrity, let me write a children’s book” trend, Malorie regrets all the column inches given to celebrity books. “I think it’s a shame that they don’t write about books on merit. Now books don’t get long enough to make it. At least when I started, books were given a shelf life of two, three, four years. Now you’ve got six months to a year.” She reckons publishers feel they can’t afford to let a writer’s potential grow slowly. They need an instant winner. “I look at some of my early books and think ‘my God, I wish I could rewrite them’. At least I was allowed to get better. At the moment you’ve got to hit the mark now. They (new writers) often don’t get the chance they deserve. Publishers need to recognise that people need to be nurtured. Some small publishers may still do that. Give them a three book contract or something, and they can then get better. That’s what I would do.”
This sounds like a plan for the future, so I ask if Malorie might go into publishing. She laughs. “If I could squeeze myself into being several people. My hands are full of writing, but if the writing dried up, I’d still want to do something with books. Be an agent, or whatever. I think I’m quite good at reading things and getting to the heart of what works, though obviously it’s hard to see that with your own writing.”
I want to know if there really is a new trilogy on the way, as I’d seen some mention of this. “No, I was thinking that if I did a new trilogy I would plan it better than I did Noughts & Crosses. Now if I felt I had an idea for a trilogy, I’d know how to plan it out in a better way, rather than going about it organically.”
On whether she is writing anything new at the moment, Malorie says “I am. I’m writing something for younger children, but I don’t want to tell anyone what I’m writing on. Something completely different,” she says, sounding pleased. In-between each book in the Noughts & Crosses sequence Malorie wrote another, younger, book. One, called Cloud Busting, which won the Smarties Silver Award, was written in the form of poetry. “I was very lucky with that one. Some of the chapters are free verse, other chapters are blank verse, and others are limericks, and so on. It kind of suited the story, about the power of imagination, and being different. It was important for my sanity that I do something really different.”
More recently the in-between book was The Stuff of Nightmares, which “again was something completely different. I always learn something from it. And I do things to improve my writing, because when I was writing Double Cross, I really felt the writing of that one had moved on from Noughts & Crosses. So, it’s all for the good. I want to challenge myself, and I’m very lucky that my publishers are supportive of what I want to do. I’m very lucky. I know I am. They don’t take everything, but I can tell them an idea, and they’ll decide on merit. Of the poetry they said it’s hard to sell, ‘but if that’s what you want to do, then fair enough’. It sold quite well.”
Wanting to find out if Malorie is one of the garden shed brigade, I ask where she does her writing. “I have an attic. I’ve got lots of books in it, and there is a door leading up to the attic. I never shut it, but it’s there.” She pauses to ask the hovering waiter, “Could I have more mint tea, please?”
“I try to write regularly. This month has been tricky, and I’ve also had a hell of a cold, so it kind of knocked me out a bit. I don’t set myself a target of so many words, but I do try to write a certain amount every day.” Malorie breaks off and starts picking at her jumper, “I’m moulting. Sorry”, and she laughs uproariously, “maybe I should put it in the freezer.”
Will there be more of Noughts & Crosses on the stage? “I hope so. I mean, they are talking about bringing it out at the end of next year, or maybe the year after. It’s still to be decided. Once again, it’s one of these things, that when you give it away, you never know how it’s going to turn out. And of course, you are giving it away, and then it’s no longer yours. But to be honest, when I first met Dominic (Cooke, the director at the RSC), I felt the script was in good hands. He’s brilliant.” Malorie and I both agree that there was nothing missing in the play, despite having been much shortened. Malorie sounds really happy with it.
Malorie’s writing style is a perfect match for Swedish reading tastes, so I’m puzzled as to why there are no books available in translation. “I think I have one early picture book, and that’s it. I’ve just been published in Germany and am doing really well.” I mention my young friend in Sweden who requires books to be sad and dismal, and who absolutely loved Noughts & Crosses, because it ticked every box, and Malorie laughs heartily. I also mention my daughter’s upset over Callum when we saw the stage play of Noughts & Crosses, asking ‘did he really die?’. This makes Malorie laugh even more, telling me “I’ve had so many letters saying ‘couldn’t you bring him back?’ No, the man is dead. People have really taken to the character.” She’s even been asked if she could write a prequel.
I admit to having found his brother Jude quite likeable in Knife Edge, and Malorie reckons that “every evil person I’ve read about, has always had to be charismatic, or they’d have been locked away from childhood. That’s why a number of serial killers have gone on for so long. Very few people are wholly evil or wholly good. Most are somewhere in-between. It’s important to show where Jude was coming from. It was partly his nature and partly circumstance. Callum and Jude are similar, but Callum felt he had to shut off a part of himself to do it (the terrorism). It’s very easy to label people as psychopaths. It’s a bit of nature and a bit of nurture.”
Does Malorie ever get stopped in the street by fans? “Oh, no. I think it’s only happened twice in my entire career, and both of those times because I’d been on TV the day before. I’m happy with that. I don’t want people trailing me and following me around.” So, who are her fans? Some are adults who have grown up with her books, and continue reading them. Quite a few boys, “which my publishers are pleased about. I get invited to a number of boys’ schools, so I find that quite interesting. But then I identify with boys. To be honest, I like writing something where the protagonist is a man or a boy. I have three brothers, and I always find it easier to talk to men than women, so I just find it very easy to write from a male perspective.” Someone like Tobey in Double Cross is a typical boy, not wanting to watch a love film because it might be soppy. Malorie says the boys on MySpace tell her they really identify with her characters.
I wonder if Malorie is planning to change over from her website to exclusively using MySpace. She says she loves her website, which was created specially for her, but it’s so hard to update. She has to go via the people who designed it. “I can do MySpace myself. I need the website redesigned. It’s a bit dated now and needs another look, and needs to be fully upgradeable and updateable by me.”
How many fans contact Malorie? “I get a batch from my publishers once a week, up to about thirty letters. Then some direct from people who have my address. The majority come via MySpace now. If you’re in a hurry, you need to go on MySpace. There was a boy from Belgium in my chatbox this morning. He said ‘you’re probably the secretary’, and I said, ‘no, it’s really me’. It was so funny, because he didn’t believe me.”
Some of the facts in Malorie’s “computer” mysteries have dated rather quickly, which is an obvious hazard for this kind of topic, so I ask if she thinks they are still a good idea. “I think there are still a lot of stories to be told. The internet is a great thing, the way we are all connected together. There are definitely lots of stories in that. Mobile phones; you can take them anywhere. Things move on so quickly now, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re not close to having some sort of chip installed in your body. It gets you through the airport, it gets you health care. There’s information on the chip, and it’d be part of you. Things are moving on at such a pace, today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science facts.
I do get very worried about all the CCTV cameras today, and the way you can’t walk for long without some sort of camera monitoring you. We let the Government get away with so much, and people are not vigilant about it. When they take away your freedom, you can’t say ‘I want it back now’. It doesn’t work that way, and we’re on a kind of slippery slope here. My husband says he’s got nothing to hide. He’d rather have that and feel safe, but I just think there are some things fundamentally wrong when the Government monitor everybody remotely. What’s the alternative? I love technology, but … we have to be careful with this; how much of our freedom is taken away. We have to be careful we don’t have the mentality that everyone is your enemy. We have to see that people have so many similarities, no matter what your culture, colour, religion. We are all human beings. We mustn’t think everyone is our enemy.” I briefly outline my own experience as an alien, and Malorie laughs out loud.
To finish on a lighter note, I mention I’ve checked some of her likes on MySpace, and we agree that Galaxy Quest is a very funny film, but I query her fondness for Midsomer Murders. “I don’t have to switch my brain on. I don’t watch soaps or anything, but I love it. They’re all barking.” She roars with laughter again.