It’s almost 10 years now since your very first novel, Slated, won the North East Teen Book Award. Did you imagine that your books would be so successful? How do you think your writing has changed in that time?
A: I’ll never forgot the NETBA – it was the first shortlisting and first win for Slated. It was published in the spring of 2012 and this was on a snowy day in January 2013, so quite a while after publication. It was the first inkling I had how much readers loved Slated. It’s hard to predict why some books take off like this and some don’t; the story, characters, luck and timing all have something to do with it. I’m not sure if my writing has changed over the ten years? There are things I’ve got better at, like using multiple viewpoints. The first time I tried that – in Book of Lies – it was a struggle to get my head around how to make it work.
Your books often seem to develop in threes! Black Night Falling feels incredibly tightly-plotted. Did you have all three books in the trilogy planned out from the very start or did the plotline change along the way?
A: I love writing when I don’t quite know where I’m going, so detailed plotting isn’t my way. I do generally have an overall shape of the story and where it will end up, but how things get from A to B to C and who the characters are, inside, develop as I go. I do a bit more plotting now than I used to – when I have a deadline, I don’t have the time to let the story go wrong and rewrite.
How much research did you have to do into the climate science underpinning Black Night Falling? How did you manage to balance this with the fantasy world-building of Undersea and The Circle?
A: How much research I have to do to write and how much I actually do aren’t the same. I love doing research! I read piles of books on climate change and took online courses on and around the subject (OpenLearn is brilliant for this), as well as finding weird and wacky theories and conspiracies online. It’s not so much that I need the detail for the story, as that I need it to feel like I have anything reasonable to say about the subject. That’s also probably why I did a research MA on dystopian fiction when I was writing Slated and spent the better part of a year learning about quantum physics for Contagion. For the current series I also read loads about dolphins, water pressure and what you’d have to change in a human to make them withstand it and live in the water. Undersea was good fun to flex my fantasy muscles, though there is such a fine line between SF and fantasy. There are things scientists can do now that would have sounded like fantasy 100 years ago.
How did real life events like COP26 and the Extinction Rebellion protests, happening as you were writing the trilogy, influence the development of the books?
A: I was keeping up with all the news and the amazing Greta Thunberg. I was also reading things like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. I’m not convinced we can rely on our governments to tackle this in a meaningful way, or that isolated protest groups can achieve much without much wider support from the population at large. It’ll take extreme voter pressure to make governments act.
In Black Night Falling, Tabby, Denzi and Hayden all tell their side of the story. How did you juggle their viewpoints without making it confusing for the reader?
A: I really like writing multiple viewpoints – it’s such a great way to advance plot and skip over the boring things that one of them is doing by going to something exciting with another character. I started out in Dark Blue Rising with just one, Tabby; added Denzi in book 2 and then Hayden in book 3. Hayden surprised me: I didn’t originally mean to have her in the mix, but she kept shouting in my head to be heard. Plus, I realised I needed to have someone outside of the Chosen so readers could see what was happening in the world at large. I did debate between Hayden and Apple for this role, but Hayden made more sense as she was based in London (plus, all the shouting). Keeping different viewpoints straight for readers is mostly about knowing who the characters are and being in their head when writing their part.
Dialogue is hugely important in Black Night Falling as the stories and motivations of the characters emerge. How do you manage to make the dialogue sound so authentic?
A: Thank you! It’s difficult to answer that because writing dialogue has always come very naturally to me, even more so the more that I write. There are a few things I need to remind myself now and then, though. When I’m trying to get to a particular place in a plot – for example, if one character has to find out something from another character – for it to come across as natural there has to be a reason why they tell them what they do. Also, if a character is going to be logically thinking or upset about something else, then that has to come first or it won’t make much sense. Overall, it’s probably mostly about thinking who the characters are and what they want and need and how that comes across in both what they say, and what they choose to hide.
Black Night Falling tackles some huge issues - global warming, the sixth mass extinction, dishonest and greedy governments, corrupt corporations…. how important was it to you to inject some hope too?
A: SO important! And also, so very tricky. These issues are hugely complex. I need for there to be hope – for my readers and for me, too – but it couldn’t come across like there was a quick, easy fix. There isn’t a simple answer or a single answer. Also, there is a disturbing trend with climate change deniers. They started out saying climate change doesn’t exist (some still say this), moved on to saying things like, ok maybe it does exist, but there’s nothing we can do about it (no hope, so don’t bother), or we don’t need to do anything about it because our clever scientists will find a way to solve it and fix things in the future (futile hope?). I really didn’t want my books to be read like the latter.
You’ve tackled some hugely important, real world themes in your writing which have turned out to be scarily prophetic - corrupt governments/Brexit in Slated, a lethal pandemic in Contagion, environmental disaster in this latest trilogy….what’s the attraction for you - and what are you going to tackle next?!
A: Mostly I write about things I’m worried about and/or obsessed with – for example, with Slated I was worrying about terrorism and increasing monitoring and government control, but I’m also obsessed with memory, dreams and how our brains work. Likewise in the new trilogy, I’m worried about climate change and what scientists might be doing even now in hidden places with genetic engineering, and I’m obsessed with the sea. But my next novel – Scare Me – is a ghost story. It should be out in July 2023.