The Penguin Q&A: Sally Green

The YA author discusses the influences behind her Half Bad trilogy and how she draws on formidable characters for her fantasy worlds

Sally Green
'Ernest Hemingway is the author who amazes me most' – Sally Green

What is your earliest reading memory?

Janet And John books. I’m not sure that’s a good memory and they certainly didn’t inspire me to want to write (or indeed read).

When did you know you wanted to write?

About five years ago (June 2010).

What are your influences/inspirations?

Like many writers, I’m sure, I’m influenced by a range of things: books, films, items in the news, things I experience. For the Half Bad trilogy, the relationship between John Steinbeck and his close friend Ed Ricketts made a deep impression on me and inspired me. I love snappy dialogue and so films like Pulp Fiction or Annie Hall probably are an influence; also I love the mix of styles of storytelling in Annie Hall. I was hillwalking a lot when I was writing Half Bad and was inspired by the landscape; I imagined being Nathan, roaming the hills of north Wales.

Books and authors I’ve loved include:

Ernest Hemingway is the author who amazes me most; his writing is clever but not cocky and I find it beautiful but it’s his short stories that I love rather than his novels. My favourite is Big Two-Hearted River. Of contemporary writers, I love Kate Atkinson and David Mitchell and for YA I’m nuts about Andrew Smith.

What are you reading (or re-reading) at the moment?

I’ve just read Voltaire’s Candide and am about to dive into Andrew Smith’s Stand-Off.

Who is your favourite fictional character (one you didn’t write) and why?

Heathcliff. When I reread Wuthering Heights a few years ago I was appalled at how cruel and unpleasant he was and yet still he’s totally magnetic.

Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with and why?

Nick Adams, the character who appears in a number of Hemingway’s short stories. He really is Hemingway and I’m sure he’ll be an equally hard drinker.

Which fictional location would you most like to visit and why?

Diagon Alley [from the Harry Potter novels]. I normally hate shopping but I think that would be fun.

Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…

I can sail a dinghy well enough.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I’m not confessing anything here.

What do you always carry with you?

Phone (horrible to admit that). Sunglasses for travel.

What moment in history would you have wanted to be present at and why?

Anything where I could see Elizabeth I. I think she would be amazing.

How do you prefer to write – by hand, typing?

Typing. I can touch type and think this should be taught in schools. My handwriting is virtually illegible.

Can you tell us about a problem you hit with one of your works and how you got around it?

I don’t plan my writing very much and for Half Bad I planned nothing, though I had a vague idea of the story arc and how it would end, but about three quarters of the way through I came to a halt. I knew Nathan, the hero, would have to meet the evil witch Mercury, but I couldn’t make the meeting easy or straightforward and couldn’t think how to do it. I spent about two weeks trying to plan it out, drawing up flow charts, all of which looked ridiculous. In the end I just wrote. I knew it was better to write something and change it than not write. As it happened it worked beautifully as I thought I’d introduce a new character and that was Gabriel and he became a key part of the trilogy.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Coffee helps, and silence.

How would you define the “role of the writer” in society?

Undervalued. There are so many writers we take them for granted, from authors to scriptwriters to journalists to bloggers and copywriters. In literature, our role is to give the reader an opportunity to step into the point of view of someone else and see the world through their eyes, and also escape for a short time from our own world.

What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?

For any scene – come in late, leave early.

The greatest sentence you’ve written so far?

Well of course it’s very bad form to laugh at my own writing etc, but someone just posted that they loved: “Ivan Denisovich’s full name is Ivan Denisovich Shukhov which is a killer name, though Denisovich means son of Denis which spoils it a bit but shows he’s just an ordinary guy, I suppose.” Let’s say I’m hoping my greatest work is yet to come.

How do you celebrate finishing a book?

It rarely feels finished. There seems to be a never-ending stream of edits and then, when I’m not allowed to tweak anything more, I feel sick knowing that I’ll find something else I have to change but can’t. When it’s published then there is champagne.

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