An interview with Malorie Blackman

Questions by L6 Literary Events group: Katie, Olivia, Elisabeth and Rhiannon
Answers by Malorie Blackman

In how much detail do you plan your books before writing them?

I always plan them out in advance. Some writers can just see where the story takes them: I am not one of those. So I’ll kind of do my story-arc, have my general plot. But I don’t like the planning of too much detail, because I like to be surprised while I’m writing. After that I  do a biography for all my major characters, and to try to make sure they become three-dimensional people: so I know what kind of music they are into, and what kind of food they like, as well as physical characteristics. And things about their personality – if they have siblings, what their parents do etc. – so I really get to know them before I start. So, though I get my plots first, I spend the majority of time with my characters.

Obviously you spend so long writing one book, and once it’s done you start another one. How hard is the transition from one book to a completely different one?

The transition is actually fine, because I always have about five books in my head. So as soon as I finish one, I’m dying to start the next one. But I try to have about a fortnight’s break, so I can clear my head of the old story and the old characters, before I start working on the new one. And the thing that gets me into the current book is because I think, “Oh, I want to do that now! I want to do that one!” So it is quite an easy transition and, for me, first draft is easy. The reworking – that is where the real work comes in, and the editing, going through it and going through it. I do that about eight or nine times before I even let my editor see it, and then they come back with comments etc. So it’s a lot of reworking – but I do love doing the first draft.

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A lot of your books are based on either political or racial issues. Are there any of them that were based on either your own experience, or things you found interesting in the news?

Well Pig Heart Boy was based on a newspaper article I read, about the shortage of human donors, and how we’d have to start using animal organs: I thought that was a really interesting idea. But when I was working on it I heard that somebody else was writing a similar thing, because they read the same article. So it was, “Oh my God! I have to get mine finished first, or they might think I’m copying!” So I wrote Pig Heart Boy in about six months, which was quite quick for me.

As far as my other books are concerned, a book like Noughts and Crosses, for example, has got some incidents based on real things that happened to me. Some of my other books have been inspired by something from my past, or some are pure imagination. So it really does depend on the book. I try and vary it.

I think nothing is ever wasted: some things that happened to me that I hated I’ve used – the good and the bad and the ugly – but obviously I make sure that I fictionalise things. If it involved somebody else then I will make sure I fictionalise it and make it my own: I would never dream of writing about someone else’s life experiences. That is not my job; I am a fiction writer. It would really be horrible for someone to suddenly read something and say, “That’s my story!”

You write a quite lot about ultimate situations [does this make sense?]. How did that start?

I am really lucky because I can write whatever I want now. When I wrote Hacker, then Operation Gadget, Thief and a few others for Random House, I was supposed to do another adventure story; but I said actually I wanted to write a story about a boy who gets a heart from a genetically-modified pig. They were really good, and said, ‘If that is what you want to do then go for it’. I’m really lucky because I’ve got an editor who trusts me and her feeling is, she knows how I work. We have been working together now for over twenty years, and she knows I have to be enthusiastic about something that I have to pour my whole heart and soul into. She trusts me to deliver a story. Which is not to say that she will take everything I write, because if she doesn’t like it, she’ll say so, which is good, which is what I want! But she is very good at telling me what works and what doesn’t work quite so well, and I really value that.

People say I write a lot of ‘issue’ books, but I don’t actually. I’ve written 61 books now and only about seven of them are to do with race or noble conflicts to do with wars, etc. The others are what I hope are adventure stories or mysteries, whodunnits  and so on. This year I wrote a Doctor Who story. I’m very lucky that I can turn my hand to whatever I fancy.

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How much was Noble Conflict influenced by terrorism today in the news?

It was hugely influenced by that. I wanted to write something about what we do in the name of war, for example Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange: can I just ask, how many here think that they were right in what they did?

Edward Snowden, in particular: I know what he did and I think that was terrifying but I think it was the right thing.

You think that was the right thing, so we all know that our e-mails and telephone calls and so forth are being monitored? But how many people think what they did was wrong, and put people’s lives in jeopardy? That’s precisely why I like to write books that raise topics of debate and discussion. I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘this is right’ and ‘this is wrong’. What I’m doing is putting someone in a situation and letting you make up your own mind. I specially remember, when I was your age I hated people telling me how to think. I hated that! I certainly don’t try and do that in my books, but I do like to raise these topics, and some of them people find quite uncomfortable. For example, water-boarding, or where they put towels on suspects’ heads and pour water on them so they actually feel as if they’re drowning: they use this as way of getting information, and they say they have averted over thirty terrorist incidents in this country. Now it’s a question of how they got this information; I think most of us, including me, would rather not know. So you think, does the end justify the means? This is the kind of thing I discuss in Noble Conflicts.

The story between Kasper and Rhea didn’t follow the expected route. Did you know from the start that that was going to happen?

Yes I did. As I said, I like to have my story arc. I also I like the idea of who owns history, and how much can you believe history books? That’s why I have the excerpts going through the book, telling you that particular part of ‘history’ was actually lies, or rather, it was all from a certain point of view. It reminded me: when I was younger my mum used to love double Western bills every Saturday, and I was sitting there bored rigid as I was never that keen on Westerns. But what I found fascinating about them was the way that the native Americans were always presented as baddies, always the ‘savages’, and it was only decades later that Westerns started becoming a bit more balanced. Before, it was Hollywood making the films, so we never got the native American point of view.

Whoever is recording history, what is their agenda? When you’re reading history books, ask yourself ‘Whose point of view am I getting here, and why am I getting that point of view?’ It’s the same when you read a new story: ‘Who is telling this, why are they telling this?’ Don’t believe everything you read just because it happens to be in print. I just think that’s really, really important.

Thanks, Malorie!