I have attended all of Sally Gardner’s sessions. She rapped at the opening Gala event, she was part of the Kids are All Right panel, and I was very excited to see her in conversation with Anna Mackenzie. And Mackenzie was a really good choice of chair – in fact, I haven’t hit a bad one all weekend, I don’t think! This session started with a discussion about her Carnegie Award-winning book, Maggot Moon.
Gardner wrote Maggot Moon in a frenzy, while on a diet of “astronaut food.” Standish Treadwell, the hero of the story, is very much based on herself as a child. She is dyslexic, and she wanted to write a book where the dyslexic hero wasn’t simply hat-tipped by the way he spelled. Instead, she set out to tell it in the way he viewed the world, and the way he thought. This puts itself across through some incredible image-based metaphors, with malapropisms galore.
Listening to Gardner speak, as well as reading Maggot Moon, gave me more insight than I had ever had previously into the world of a dyslexic person. She related gleefully that the Blind Foundation in the UK now makes their recorded books available to dyslexics. She also pointed out that they had recently had a change in culture, leading to the organisation going from having 80% sighted people employed, down to more like 5%.
Maggot Moon has add-ons in some formats to help readers to understand people who are dyslexic. “They see the page turns black, and the minute we show them to teachers and parents, they say ‘oh, my word.’” Gardner mentioned in The Kids are All Right that she wishes that she could make the educational system realise that what they are creating by their ways of teaching is a row of conifers. “We should celebrate the differences in the way we learn. It would help everybody.”
The importance of “love, loyalty, and the importance of a moral core” was raised by Mackenzie as being central to Gardner’s work. Gardner agrees, saying, “The selfie sums up this generation. It’s all about “me, me, me” – which contrasts sharply with earlier generations, particularly the war-going ones.” Standish Treadwell’s power is that he has an ability to put himself aside out of love for his friend.
Gardner has written quite a lot of historical fiction mixed with magic. She says, “With a lot of dystopia I get bored by the worlds they create, there’s not enough gravitas.” Gardner uses our history because it is the map of our past, showing us how we got to this future. She is concerned that in the UK, the schools don’t teach history. It shouldn’t be up to novelists.
“I worry about our leaders, they have no knowledge of history, and I worry about them. I really do. If you don’t understand the 30-year war in Germany, then you will not understand what Napoleon got up to when he nibbled the borders of Germany, you won’t understand WW1, or then WW2. Then you will never get to the point where you will understand the Holocaust.”
Gardner says she has always been a storyteller, but for a long time she was terrified of putting her words down. But then something happened. She became an illustrator, and she started to write her junior readers. Then her husband went to New York and forgot to return. And something magical happened – outside her house one day the Wolf appeared, in the form of a bailiff.
“I realised that he could blow my house down. So I rang my agent.” Her agent told her to bring her all the writing she had hidden in her drawers, that she was afraid to show. So she did, but she says, “I cut a hole in the bag I took to Soho, thinking it was up to fate whether she ended up not being able to publish. The pages were about to fall out as I got there, but a woman chased her down the street with some, saying ‘I know what you are doing, you think you won’t have to be published if you don’t have any pages left when you get there. You must.’“
Her first longer book was I, Coriander. The opening came to her as an image of a little girl, in a white shift, on a wooden staircase. “She went into a room, to find a stranger, with a box that was glowing. She asked the man “Is that my mother’s fairy shadow?” I, Coriander melds history with the fairy realm. Coriander was her first “big writing” so she was still working on her style. She had to learn how to paint with words, and she thinks of her plots as a rhythm, especially when considering a synopsis of a story.
Gardner only began reading aged 14. “One I found I could read, I was all over everything. My favourite at that age was a book called Forever Amber. I now write for the person who never got any books as a kid.” She talked a little about the YA audience yesterday, you can find this here. To this she added, “We are not exploiters. We do things with consciousness. Some of the most philosophical notions and cleverness in books can be found in YA.”
The fifth book in her Wings & Co series will come out in June. She came up this idea because she hates pink fairies. “So I came up with this idea of a very distinguished 6ft tall cat, who was once a builder, until a spell was cast on him.” Wings & Co is a shop where the wings of all fairies are kept in drawers, until the 17 keys decide to go ahead and unlock a door, creating another fairy – sometimes rather inconveniently.
Then it was over to the Q & A, the first question of which dealt with what the favourite book she had written was. She was about to give the standard “the last one I wrote”, but decided to be more honest this time, and said I, Coriander because it won her prizes; an excellent reason. A wee girl asked her whether writing was like homework. “Oh no, I would never do it then.”
One of the most beautiful images came towards the end, when she was asked who her favourite author was as a child. “I lived in London as a child, in the inner city, and it was very foggy then. I thought that the fog was made up of all the people from the past.” Her favourite author was Charles Dickens, because he used to work in the building she lived in. Once she realised he was dead (her parents read her his stories) she thought “Well, when I go out in the fog, and I put my hand out so it disappears into the fog, I will touch him.” She adored him.
As I spoke to a few of my friends as we exited, we all agreed that we had been present for something special. It was a writer’s week session that I will remember. Thank you for bringing this author to my attention, Kathryn Carmody!
Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster
11am, Sunday, 13 March at The Embassy
NZ Festival Writer’s Week
by Sally Gardner, illustrated by Daid Roberts
Published by Orion Books
by Sally Gardner
Published by Orion Books