Author SF Said talks about writing for young people, the wonders of stars, Pixar, Rio Bravo and space adventures in his new book Phoenix.
DS: Where did the story of Phoenix come from?
SF Said: I’ve always been fascinated by space and the stars. As a kid, I went camping in Jordan with my dad, and the sky there is so clear, you can see the stars so much better than in London. Out in the desert, the whole sky is burning with stars, and I would stay up all night looking at them. To me, stars have this sense of wonder and transcendence, and I’ve always been interested in the idea of extraterrestrial life. I’ve also always been interestes in space stories. I grew up watching Star Trek and Doctor Who; I was 10 years old when Star Wars came out, so it was a huge transformative moment, when you were seeing spaceships so vast that they were making the whole cinema shake. I remember looking up at things like that, and thinking I wanted to make stories like that one day. But there weren’t a huge amount of space stories written specifically for young readers back then, you really had to seek them out. And it’s been amazing to me in the past 15 years, writing fiction for children and young adults, that space is just not a territory that has been explored. Every now and then there is a book that has elements of space, but the kind of grand space epics that I love, that lots of young readers love such as in film, aren’t written in books.
My last books, the Varjak Paw series, were set in the city, with cats as the main characters, in a small, intimate space, so I wanted to do something different. SO why not go to the biggest scale imaginable, go across a whole star systems, visit lots of planets, and that idea got me really excited. So Phoenix gradually developed in my mind, and the writing process took about seven years. It evolved a lot in that time, but the origin was the epic quest of one person across a whole galaxy.
DS: Space is big, and can be scary, it’s not necessarily a place we want to imagine a child such as Lucky being in, lost and alone.
SFS: Yes, Lucky is a young person, lost, maybe in the beginning slightly useless, and in the process of the story has to discover abilities and powers within himself that he had no idea he had. And he has to built an alternative family, of other characters who help him. There is no way he could do these things alone, he is not a lone hero, he relies on friends and allies. Alliances are built, it doesn’t come easy. Across this galaxy, where humans and the aliens, the Axxa, are at war, Lucky has grown up thinking he’s an ordinary human boy. But he ends up falling in with the crew of an alien starship, and finds that more in common with them than he was lead to believe. I think that theme us and them, making alliances across these divides, is something I’m drawn to.
DS: Your father lived in Jordan, and you spent a lot of time there, so you have this sort of cultural divide that you had to bridge, growing up.
SFS: It’s a lot about the family you make, not just the family you’re born in. I’m very keen on the films of Howard Hawks. In ones like Rio Bravo and Bringing up Baby, characters build these quirky alternative families, ones that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. They meet and fulfill needs in each other. I always found that kind of moving; in Rio Bravo, John Wayne is this lone gunman figure, but he can’t survive on his own, so his family is a drunkard, a one-eyed old man and a kid. I think that kind of family is more common now, the nuclear family is fractured, people don’t necessarily grow up where they were born, or live where they grew up. When I was growing up in London in the 1970s, I was pretty unusual, first for being a child of divorce, and often for being the only non-English person in the class. But now, it’s common; when I visit schools around the UK, it’s amazing to see how much that’s changed. To me, it’s wonderful to see the diversity.
It’s always been evident to me, as someone who comes from a background like that, that there is more than one to do anything. Different cultures approach different things in different ways, it doesn’t mean that they’re scary or hostile. Fundamentally, we’re all people, and I grew up with that as a given, and it feels like the world is hopefully more to that kind of thinking.
DS: Your first description of the Axxa is fascinating. My first thought was that they look like Tim Curry’s devil character from the movie Legend. I suppose more, that they looked like a certain Christian era’s idea of the devil, with horns and cloven feet. I wondered if that was a deliberate statement against how people who might be Muslim, for example, are frequently demonized in much of Western media.
SFS: Demonization is so much a feature of conflicts, that are about ‘us’ versus ‘them’. I think historically, certainly in northern Europe, Jews have often been portrayed as literally diabolical, literally having horns and hooves and tails. We see this as unbelievable now, but Muslims have portrayed in the same way in our own time, which is very sad. That kind of demonization is something that interests me as a process. The Axxa were one of the elements that took a long time to get right; my initial concept was around the idea of them as space-faring beings, so I gave them luminous skin and eyes. I liked that idea, but my editor thought they needed to be more alien, so that go me thinking about the metaphor of aliens and how they could be realized in concrete, visual terms. At a certain point, I did think about the demonization of people who are ‘other’, and that’s when the horns and hooves and flaming eyes fell into place, so to speak.
The only story I know that has that kind of alien is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, where they are slightly different, but also correspond to the traditional Christian visualization of the devil. And Clarke makes them very wise and advanced to invert that, so I’m not the first person whose aliens explore that kind of terrain. In most contemporary usage of aliens, I see a bit of a lack of ambition, they seem quite one-dimensional and charicatured. In the US, the word ‘alien’ is used in a literal way, to describe anyone who isn’t a citizen; that’s amazing, and someone could do something with that. Perhaps like what was done with the aliens in the film District 9, which I thought was great. Space and science fiction stories can do so much with these ideas.
DS: How did the illustrations come about, what was the process with incorporating them?
SFS: I worked with Dave McKean on my previous book, and I always knew I wanted to have him do more with Phoenix. We talked about it a lot during the writing process. (And actually, at the time we were also trying to see if we could get a Varjak Paw movie off the ground, we had many adventures in Hollywood, but sadly it didn’t work out). Dave has a strong sense of what it was going to be. There are two threads, one where Lucky dreams he is flying in space, through the stars, and later he goes into the alien technology that enables him to project his consciousness into space across vast distances; the second is the 12 Astraeus, they are the origins of all the Gods, sort of a pantheon of Greek and Egyptian and Norse gods, they all trace they origins back to the Astraeus, who are astral beings that can take physical form and join in different cultures. So we’re going to back to origins. These interstitial parts in the book, where the Astraeus warn about the wolf that eats the stars, I conceived this specifically as a platform for Dave. The idea was that they would run through the book, it would be another line of narrative, a poetic-suggestive one.
When you talk about Gods, it’s difficult; when you talk about it in prose, it can be very prosaic. But if you do it with illustration, it can be very evocative. I find Dave’s drawings amazing; they are ancient and weirdly futuristic at the same time. So I wanted there to be some mystery about the Astraeus, and to have the idea communicated through Dave’s illustrations was very helpful. In terms of structuring the book, the collaboration with Dave was key; the space sequences were his idea; he made the suggestion of making them a bit like comics, with short lines of text on the larger black and white image, full bleed across the page. The final images, not to give anything away, really bring together the strands of the story and the illustrations that to me is breathtaking. Dave has always been one of my heroes, and he brings so much to the process. They’re not just illustrations, they’re an integral part of the storytelling. I think it’s very cinematic, as he is also a filmmaker. Going through Phoenix with the illustrations, I really feel like I’m in space. I had a phrase that I used as a mantra while writing, the ‘whoosh and wonder of space’, so I would tell him that, give it ‘whoosh and wonder’.
DS: All of the characters are so strong. And it’s such a mix, of humans and aliens, of ages, genders, etc.
SFS: One thing that is really important to me is that there should be spread of characters in many ways. I do tend to have male protagonists, often kind of young and hapless, a little bit disfunctional. Around them tend to be strong female characters. In Varjak Paw, Varjak’s best friends are two female cats, and the leader of the mean cat street gang is Sally Bones, and the leader of the free cats is an older female cat. I think it’s the same in Phoenix as well; I grew up with a single mother, and the extended family was largely female, so I grew up with a lot of smart, independent women; I don’t see any question at all about it being a part of the fictional world, of course it should. I also think there should be a spread of ages, I find it very unrealistic to read a book when everyone is the same age and gender, it’s kind of ridiculous, that’s not the world that anybody lives in. So I like the idea that on a spaceship, there would be elders; there’s Mystica Grandax, who is kind of a grandmother, she is wise and powerful with a supernatural connection to the stars. So why shouldn’t there be a characters like that? I always feel dissatisfied when I don’t have this gender and age cross section. That kind of spread gives an anchor to your story, especially when it deals with talking to stars, and traveling across space.
DS: It really is an adventure story.
SFS: Adventure is a key thing, perhaps more than a space story or anthropomorphic animals story, I am interested in the adventure story. My characters go on these huge adventures. There are always mysteries, and things that can only be accessed by mystical means. Before any given genre, those are elements that I’m drawn to. I don’t necessarily think about any particular audience, in terms of demographics, when I’m writing, I don’t think about ages or genders. I try to write a story that anyone could enjoy, because principally, I’m trying to write a story that I would love. I like diversity of character, and I like diversity of audience, that anyone anywhere can find something to love in my stories, that there’s a point of access.
It’s the same thing with the success of Star Wars or Watership Down, those are both stories that cut across ages, genders, cultures. There are mythic stories that can appeal to everyone, like the kind of stories people in caves told to each other, or the kind we will tell each other in space stations in the future. That might be something to aspire to, that’s the kind of story I want to write, something properly mythic. There are still people discovering Varjak Paw, ten years later, so I hope it’s the same as Phoenix.
DS: A lot of people do read literature that is labelled for a younger audience. How do you keep in mind when you’re writing something like Phoenix, that adults might read it as well?
SFS: I still love to read children’s and young adult fiction. Harry Potter was the great moment when it became acceptable for adults to do that. The children’s book is almost a genre in itself, there are some things that they have in common with each other. There are things that everyone can enjoy about a well-written children’s book. To me, it has to take itself seriously as children’s literature; I find it extremely disruptive when I detect irony and winking at grown-ups. I don’t like the trend in animated films, when they don’t seem to trust the material and they have to tell the grown-ups “it’s a kid’s movie, but we know it’s not really serious”. I love the kid’s movies that have an unironic and passionate story, that loves its characters, like the early Pixar films. Those are kids’ films that have a magic that adults can discover as well. When I’m writing, I don’t necesarily think in terms of what a nine-year-old will be able to understand; I try to make everything as clear and accessible and compelling as I can. But I would do the same thing if I was writing for adults. Everyone responds to these qualities in writing. I have to make the text as irresistible as possible.
One of the things that is healthy about writing, when your first audience will be younger people, is that they are incredible honest about the work. They have no sense that they have to be polite. If a child reader doesn’t find your work entertaining, they just stop reading. But if you meet kids who like it, they leave you in no doubt that they’ve enjoyed your work. And from page one, paragraph one, line one, they want stuff to be happening. They don’t want three chapters of set-up and description, they want to be right in the action. I think that’s great, that keeps you honest as a writer. Get the reader straight into the story and make it as un-put-downable as possible, that’s the number one quality. You can add in theme and metaphor after; but begin with the story.