Today we have a special guest joining us all the way from Europe: Marcus Sedgwick, whose 2014 novel Midwinterblood won the Printz Award. His books have been shortlisted for over forty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (six times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (four times). Marcus currently lives in the French Alps, where he is working on a graphic novel, as well as multiple film and television projects with his brother. Marcus is one of the most globally-recognized authors in YA fiction, and we are so excited that he was able to join us today!
James: Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to us! Midwinterblood is a story that defies basic categorization, largely due to the reincarnation aspect and the shifts in genre. How did you come up with the idea for such a one-of-a-kind story?
Marcus: About 6 years before I wrote the book, I came across the enormous painting after which the book is named, Midvinterbløt, by Carl Larsson, in a gallery in Stockholm, Sweden. I immediately wanted to write a book based on it in some way, but thought it was too obvious and dull just to ‘retell’ the story I imagined happening in the picture. Six years later, I took a friend to see the painting as we both happened to be in Stockholm. I was telling her that I wanted to write a book but couldn’t think quite what to do, but the following day, back at home on the island I was living on that summer, off the coast of Gothenburg, I had the idea to make it not one, but seven stories, each about love and sacrifice. That appealed to me as it meant I could write seven short stories (I love writing short stories) and try out a different genre, and style for each one, moving them across time, to try to show how universal themes of love and sacrifice are to us as human beings.
James: Your book features seven distinct mini-stories, all of which are connected by themes and characters. Which of these mini-stories was your favourite?
Marcus: They all are. I say that or I wouldn’t have written them! It was a very short, intense period when I wrote that book. I was licking by myself in a two room cabin on the island I mention above (and on which the book is set, though a fictionalised version of it, of course). I spent a note or so running thought experiments about which times to set each story and what would happen, roughly, in each one. So I like them all. I think the one that perhaps moves me the most is the middle one, about the old painter and the young girl, because it’s a story about what happens to creative people when the creativity stops. I’d just emerged from two years of writer’s block at the time - it meant a lot to me, therefore.
James: Eric and Merle have one of the most epic loves in YA literature. What makes their connection so special?
Marcus: Well, I was just trying to show a love which is so powerful it not only transcends time (as happens in other books, say The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example) it also transcends age, relationship and gender. There are many different types of love (and sacrifice) and I tried to show them in the book, as Merle and Eric become different people, but still need to find each other.
James: Midwinterblood is unique among most YA literature because it doesn't focus on teenage characters. Even without that connection, Midwinterblood still manages to fascinate teen readers. Why do you think that is?
Marcus: I could write an essay (and frequently have) about this issue of teenage protagonists, and what teenagers want to read. For me, it’s a total red herring. There is nothing wrong at all with books for young adults that have young adult protagonists. Of course not. But why, oh why, do we think for one minute that’s ALL that young adult readers want to read? If you reduce it to that statement, it’s just nonsensical. People of ALL ages like to read about ALL sorts of things, and the age/gender/race etc of the protagonist does not need to match that of the reader. From my own experience, and from talking to young adult readers today, it’s clear that the teenage mind wants to experiment, reach out, explore. It is in my view an incredibly destructive thing that is going on at the moment in this world of YA fiction, in which through a certain unwritten set of rules about what YA is, we are reducing, not enhancing the (teenage) reading experience. What do we want as teenagers? For me, it’s many things, but underlying them all is a desire to explore and understand our place in the universe. If one had to define a YA novel (and I don’t want to!) I would say it’s to answer the question ‘who will I be?’ That’s precisely what the starting point for Midwinterblood was; answering that question, or to be more precise, the related question: who else might I have been?
James: Alright, I have to ask because it's such a big theme throughout the novel--do you believe in reincarnation?
Marcus: Ha! No. In a word. I do put my hands up and say, 'okay, I get it, it’s a book about people reincarnating'. But I don’t really like to use that word because I grew up in the 70s and during that time, crystals, UFOs, pyramids, reincarnation and all that stuff were BIG. I mean really BIG. And so that word reminds me of people who like to knit their own sandals from tofu. If you see what I mean. And so what I am really trying to express is not reincarnation, but the point I make an the end of the answer above, that this is a story that wonders who else each of us might have been. Why we we born now? Why not hundreds of years ago? Why are we the height, race, sex, that we are? Why do we like what we like, know what we know? And why weren’t we born someone else? It’s those kinds of questions I’m trying to answer. Warum bin ich mich, warum bin ich nicht dich? to quote one of my favourite films.
James: In addition to Midwinterblood, you've written several other novels, including The Ghosts of Heaven, She Is Not Invisible, and Revolver. If someone just finished Midwinterblood and loved it, which of your other books should they read next?
Marcus: Maybe The Ghosts of Heaven, since it’s also in several parts. Four in this case, though they are even more loosely related.
James: What's the most meaningful compliment you've ever received from a reader?
Marcus: Well, occasionally you get an email that just blows your socks off, because a reader (and very often a perceptive young adult reader) has understood exactly what you were trying to do. The Ghosts of Heaven provoked a few responses like that; here’s the end of the most recent one of them to give you a flavour:
"It's beautifully tragic. It's however your reader perceives it.I'm still not exactly sure what I've taken away from your novel. I feel like it's something significant yet almost unfathomable. This is one of those thing that I know will come together in the end. I'll reach a point in my life where it finally makes sense. An epiphany, if you will.”
To get an email like that is truly wonderful and humbling.
James: Many of our American readers may not be aware that you are from the UK, a country with a long history of amazing children's literature. How does British YA differ from American YA?
Marcus: I’m not sure I’m well read enough to answer that question. The thing that people also may not realise is how FEW US authors are published in the UK, and vice versa. So I am delighted, and so lucky, to be published in both markets. There are some similarities, for sure, and some differences. The main thing I think is that both markets are in danger (as I ranted about above, a little, sorry) about this issue of somehow turning YA into a genre. It isn’t, as I argue here, and I feel very strongly about this. We need to be bolder, and we need publishers to be bolder, so we publish a wide range of books, as wide as possible, and not try to define some narrow formula that we think is the only thing that teenage readers want to read. Spend five minutes with a free-reading teenager and you will find that they have broad taste, and for those that don’t, we should be trying to open their eyes and broaden the range of their experience. It’s like travel, which also broadens the mind, and both extensive reading and travel make a more tolerant person, that’s obvious, and also, interestingly, proven by research the days, too.
James: What other British YA books would you recommend to our readers?
Marcus: I love David Almond’s work, amongst many other people, but I don’t really like making recommendations, because our individual tastes are so different. And that’s how they should be. I think the best of any type of book (or music for that matter) is worth the time to get to know it, but that can vary so much, I think it’s better just to encourage people to explore. Sometimes at random. That’s part of my story - every day after school I spent over an hour in the public library, waiting for my bus home, and read whatever I felt like, not what I thought I was supposed to.
James: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Marcus: Sure, I have two books coming very soon - the first is called Blood Red, Snow White and is a true story of British writer who played a significant role during the Russian revolution. And then, a book next year called Saint Death, which is set in the modern day, on the border of Mexico and the US, and concerns the lives of those who fall between the cracks of society, those who don’t have power, while drug wars, crime and issues of border control rage all around them.
That's it for today's interview with Marcus. But if you have any questions for Marcus or want to send one of those emails he mentioned, be sure to check out his website and follow him on Twitter. And be sure to come back again next week, when we'll be talking to the incredible Sarah Tomp!