Today's Feature Friday is very special to me due to the author involved. I have always said that here on Bookish Treasures we will feature books that are YA and up with exceptions made for particularly fantastic MG titles. Now this is one of those special exceptions. Back when I was about 10 years old (12 years ago now wow!) I read a fantastic book that quickly became a firm favourite of mine and to this day I still have it on my bookshelves as it is one of the only childhood books I cannot bear to part with (alongside Harry Potter and The Chronicles Of Narnia, with Watership Down being in my house somewhere). I am very happy today to welcome SF Said to Bookish Treasures to talk about this amazing book, Varjak Paw, and his newest release Phoenix.
Phoenix by SF Said
A BOY WITH THE POWER OF A STAR . . .
Lucky thinks he's an ordinary Human boy. But one night, he dreams that the stars are singing to him, and wakes to find an uncontrollable power rising inside him.
Now he's on the run, racing through space, searching for answers. In a galaxy at war, where Humans and Aliens are deadly enemies, the only people who can help him are an Alien starship crew – and an Alien warrior girl, with neon needles in her hair . . .
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Check out Phoenix's book trailer!
Interview with SF Said
Why did you decide to become an author?
Stories have always been my favourite things, as long as I can remember. The books I read when I was young shaped the way I saw the world, and they've stayed with me through my life.
I always knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, and make stories of my own. But I never found literary fiction very satisfying. Then, when I was at university, I read and re-read lots of books for young readers, like Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels, and the amazing mythic stories written by Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.
These were exactly the kinds of books I wanted to write: hugely powerful and page-turning stories with brilliant characters, richly-imagined worlds, and above all, big ideas about life and how it should be lived. Books with a lot of depth and levels, that could be read at different ages in different ways. So that was what I set out to do.
What made you decide to write for children?
I honestly believe that children's and YA fiction is where the richest, deepest and most imaginative writing happens. It's where I find the books I most want to read. And I think the best writing advice is to write the books you want to read yourself.
Varjak Paw is a story about a cat who dreams of being a great warrior, and learns a secret martial art known only to cats. That kind of thing just wouldn't be allowed in adult literature! But in a children's book, it's fine. And I wanted to read that story, so I had to write it myself.
Phoenix is an epic myth about a human boy who has the power of a star inside him, and an alien girl who's the greatest warrior in the galaxy. Again, it's hard to imagine something like that on a Booker Prize list. But I think children's literature can accommodate infinite possibilities; its imaginative space is just bigger.
I also love the idea that children's literature can be read by anyone of any age at any time in their lives. So I think of myself of writing books for everyone. It's always great to hear from adults who've read my work; and the nicest thing of all is when an adult tells me they enjoyed my books as a child, kept them, and still enjoy them now. So thank you for saying that about Varjak Paw – you have no idea how much it means!
What are your favourite books?
Watership Down is probably my all-time favourite. The Earthsea books still have a special place in my heart, as do all of Le Guin's books. For classic children's literature, my list includes Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books, E Nesbit's The Story Of The Treasure Seekers and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. Of more recent books for young readers, I think Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials sets the bar in terms of what imaginative fiction can do.
As far as adult literary fiction goes, I'm a huge fan of Virginia Woolf, and the way she puts words and sentences together. Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse are incredible novels. But for me, there aren't that many writers working at that level. Whereas the history of children's literature is just full of incredible authors, and there are more coming through all the time.
Your books are very unique in terms of both the worlds and storylines, where do you get the ideas for them?
Thank you! Phoenix started with me looking up at the stars. Stars are amazing, and the more we learn about them, the more amazing they seem. Everything that exists, including every single atom in our bodies, originated in the heart of a dying star. I think that's incredible. Stars are part of an endless cycle of life, death and rebirth, and that's one reason why I called the book Phoenix. But the book also connects space science with ancient mythology. It goes back to all the mythic pantheons – Greek gods, Roman, Norse, Egyptian and so on – and tries to see if they have a shared common origin, and what that might be.
By contrast, Varjak Paw started with something very small: me watching my own kitten as he climbed the garden wall and went out into the world on his own for the first time. I found his adventures fascinating, as he met gangs of street cats, and of course dogs. I think the lives of cats in cities are full of drama, and even though the scale is small, the drama is huge.
What is next from the brilliant mind of SF Said?
I've been working for the last two and half years on a new book called TYGER. I can't say too much about it, as my books always change a lot as I work on them, and no-one else has yet seen a word of it… but let's just say there's a tyger in it – as in William Blake's brilliant poem The Tyger, which is a huge inspiration to me.
What would you say makes your books unique and worth reading?
I put everything I know and everything I love into my books. I don't think of them in terms of age or genre. While they may be shelved in MG or YA, and while they may have sci-fi or fantasy or animal story elements, I just think of them as my books. They're places where I can put anything I find interesting or meaningful or magical. I know that no writer can please every reader – but I hope that whoever you are, however old you are, and whatever kind of story you think you like, you'll at least find something of interest in there.
Who is your favourite character from either Varjak Paw or Phoenix?
That's really hard for me to say. In each book, I put a lot of thought into trying to create a diverse range of characters of different genders, ages, backgrounds and so on. I hope this means that everyone can find someone to identify with, so I love the fact that readers always give me such different answers to this question.
With the Varjak Paw books, people don't just say their favourite character is Varjak. Lots of people say it's Holly or Tam, or Cludge, or Razor, or even Sally Bones… And the same seems to be happening with Phoenix. Lots of people say they like Lucky, the human boy; but just as many say they like Bixa Quicksilver, the alien warrior girl. That makes me feel I must be doing something right.
What is your favourite thing about being an author?
I have to be honest, I don't enjoy everything about it. In fact, it's much harder work than I ever dreamed it would be. Varjak Paw took 17 drafts. Those 17 drafts took five years of my life. Phoenix took even longer: seven years! As you can imagine, there've been many times when writing has felt very hard, and I've wanted to give up more than once. But I'm glad I persevered, because when I look at those books now, I don't see anything I want to change. They're as good as I could possibly make them. And all that hard work feels worthwhile when I hear from people who've read them and enjoyed them.
So that's my favourite thing about being an author! It means so much to hear that something you wrote meant something to someone else, too.
How do you balance writing with other things in your life?
I think every writer works differently, so the best advice I can give anyone interested in writing is to find what works for you, and do that. It may be different to what works for anyone else. You can only find it by writing yourself.
Having said that: the thing that works best for me is having a daily routine. I like to go to my local library first thing in the morning, and write till lunchtime. I usually get a good amount of work done that way. Then in the afternoon, I either do another session if I'm free, or I do all the other work-related things I do that are not writing: visiting schools and meeting readers, updating my blog and twitter, doing interviews, and so on. I try to keep evenings free for relaxing, though my idea of relaxing often involves reading a book, and that always feeds back into the writing!
If you could meet any one author (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Ursula Le Guin, because I'd like to thank her for her incredible books, and her inspirational example. I think she's a model of how to be a writer. Even now in her 80s, she's still producing work of the highest quality. Every single one of her books is worth reading: full of amazing ideas and characters and worlds.
What is your favourite food?
Chocolate. So I was delighted when Varjak Paw won the Smarties Prize for Children's Literature. I thought a free lifetime supply would surely follow. I still can't get over the fact that it didn't!
You can find out more about SF Said and his writing over on his website.