Sally Gardner Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sally Gardner

Sally Gardner

An interview with Sally Gardner

Meet Sally Gardner, a successful children's author who, due to severe dyslexia, didn't read her first book, Wuthering Heights, until she was fourteen, and was labeled unteachable - but since then hasn't been able to put books down!

Why did you choose to write the novel in one hundred short chapters? What kind of impact do you hope this format will have on the reader?
We live in a day and age where things happen so quickly, where information comes to us in small fragments — so it's almost the best way to keep people's attention. Also, this story is being told in thought, in Standish's head, and my thoughts come in short, sharp moments, so the short chapters more closely reflect someone who is retelling the past in his head.

Maggot Moon includes some really provocative black-and-white illustrations that also work as a flip book throughout. How does adding this kind of art change or add to the story
As a former illustrator, I often think the best pictures are those that represent the abstract thought behind the story — the essence of it — but not a literal interpretation. The bold pictures in Maggot Moon work in what I call the "slipstream" of the writing, and I'm thrilled with Julian's work. His illustrations really enhance the narrative, the idea of the cycle. I've always admired him as an artist.

Can you tell us about Maggot Moon's main character, Standish Treadwell? What role does his dyslexia play in the story
Standish has been very lovingly brought up, and he's a loving young man, a sensitive young man. He was a joy to write. Standish's dyslexia is vital to him — it's his whole being. Dyslexia is a way of thinking. As a severely dyslexic person myself, I wanted to try to show what dyslexia is like without the use of bad spelling, as it so often is portrayed. I wanted to show through Standish how a dyslexic person thinks and perceives the world. Bad spelling is not what dyslexia is; it's only a tiny part of it. Hector is not dyslexic in any way, and he's very clever, but he lacks Standish's imagination and vision, and he's aware of that. Standish knows he sees things differently from most people, but he doesn't know he has the immense courage in him to do what he does. My grandfather, who fought in the First World War, told me that many men who spoke like lions about what they were going to do turned into shaking jelly, frozen when the order arrived to go over the parapet. Those who had been fearful that they wouldn't be able to do it, shaking beforehand, turned out to be unbelievably brave when the order came. My grandfather said you never know until you're there whether you can do it. I want that to be very much the case with Standish.

As someone who grew up with dyslexia, in what ways does Standish's story mirror your own?
Very much so in the sense of being overlooked, misunderstood by the school system — the students and the teachers — and suffering from bullying and being thought of as stupid. In my case, the nickname was "Silly Sally."

Standish is very canny, as he's worked out that to look bright in Zone 7 would be a mistake. He's clever to have survived as long as he has. I think this reflects what happens to lots of dyslexic people; they manage to hide it away at school and through life. Standish lives in his head when he's at school, and that is something I also did to survive. I told myself huge, complicated stories when I couldn't read or write (which, in turn, helped me to become a writer). The difference is that Standish's story comes to a reality that he's faced with, a brutal one he cannot escape. I have been much luckier.

What are some of the key components of the Motherland? Where did you get your inspiration for this type of dystopian universe?
I did a lot of research on the Second World War for a book I was writing called The Double Shadow. I became fascinated with the "what if?" histories I found. What if things had been different? Winston Churchill was hit by a car on Fifth Avenue in New York. What if he hadn't survived? Or what if Hitler hadn't survived when he was hit by a car driven by Englishman John Scott-Ellis? This planted the seed for writing an alternative history — a fable — if you like. The Motherland is essentially any tyrannical dictatorship the reader chooses to make it. It doesn't, in my humble opinion, take long for any political system to turn oppressive. The essence of it is that it is fueled by fear, by the regime's using divisions, zones, work camps, surveillance, and propaganda so that it becomes a place where people are too scared to ask questions.

What do you hope readers will learn by accompanying Standish on his journey to the other side of the wall?
I never really want anyone to learn anything from my books. If they do, that is wonderful. I'm not out to preach; I'm out to tell a good story, a story that asks questions, and I hope that it becomes an engine for more questions. It would be fantastic if Standish helped people to look at dyslexia in a different light. That is something I hope this book can achieve in some way. But really I just want it to encourage people to ask more questions, to remember that we need to be vigilant about democracy, not complacent about it, because it is so easy to destroy it. The question is king; the answer is just an engine for another question.

Sally Gardner talks about how she was labelled as unteachable because dyslexia prevented her from learning to read until she was fourteen years old

When did you start writing?
I wrote my first picture book for Orion called The Little Nut Tree in 1993. It had more pictures in it than words, but the word that really struck a chord was the one written on the contract, and it said "Author." I have been really lucky to have in my publishing life an editor, Judith Elliott, who believed The Little Nut Tree was only the start. And I'm delighted to say she was right.

Who were your favorite authors as a child and who are your favorite authors now?
Charles Dickens, E. Nesbit, [Rachel Compton,] Jane Austen. The first book I ever read was Wuthering Heights. I only started to read when I was fourteen due to severe dyslexia, so a lot of childhood books I only enjoyed later. One of my most favorite author/illustrators now, and has been since my teens, is Edward Gorey. Everything by him is just a slice of heaven. Also in the best beloved section: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alain-Fournier.

What is the one book that has influenced you most throughout your life?
Great Expectations. I simply love it; it has light and dark in spades and is full of wonderful characters and lots more besides. And every time I read it, it feels as if I'm reading it for the first time.

What would you like young readers to learn from I, Coriander?
Oh, I don't know. That is very hard. I hope they find it a good read. If you enjoy something, you learn without noticing it. I would love to be the kindling that sparks a child's interest in history. It is very important for all of us to know and learn about the past, for it holds a key to our future.

Which of Coriander's characteristics would you most like to have and why?
Her determination not to be put down, and her bravery for carrying on and standing up for herself no matter what.

What was your favorite book growing up?
A book about a frog that helped make Father Christmas better after a wicked witch had put a spell on him. Haven't a clue what it was called; I just loved the pictures and the story. Then there is The Wind in the Willows. It was read to me when small, which is a very happy memory. After being able to read, I simply loved books. In fact I couldn't get enough of them.

What are you reading now?
I have just finished reading Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, which I hugely enjoyed, and I'm about to start The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Have you started working on your next book?
Not in the sitting down and click-clacking on the laptop sort of way. But in walking the dog on Hampstead Heath and thinking about it, most definitely.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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