An Interview

So, who are you?

My name is Sally Nicholls. I'm twenty-four years old. I was born in Stockton and I now live with three friends in a little flat in London. I've written two books - Ways to Live Forever, which is published by Marion Lloyd Books at Scholastic, and Season of Secrets, which is coming out in 2009. Ways to Live Forever is about a boy with leukaemia and Season of Secrets is based on the pagan myth of the green man.

How did you become an author?

I've wanted to write for as long as I can remember and when I finished my degree I decided to see if I could do it professionally. I did a masters in Writing for Young People at the University of Bath Spa, where I wrote Ways to Live Forever. The literary agency PFD offered a prize for the writer on the MA with the most potential, which I won. Through that I got my agent. She sent the manuscript out, and a month later I had a publisher.

Why did you want to write a book about a child who was dying?

It was something that had been at the back of my mind for a while - I had a friend whose mother died, and a couple of other friends who were ill. There are a lot of books written about death, but most of them are about grief, not mortality. I wanted to explore what it would be like to be a young person and know that you only had a few months left to live.

I started doing some research about children with terminal illnesses, and the more stories I read, the more I realised that theirs was a story I really had to tell.

Where did Sam's character come from?

I'd been writing a lot about girls and I wanted to try writing as a boy. I knew that if I was going to look at dying, I wanted to cover some of the philosophical issues surrounding it, so I needed a main character who was able to look death straight in the eye. I decided he was probably a very factual, scientific person. I didn't want him to be totally unemotional though - I wanted him to care about his family and friends. And I wanted there to be funny bits, so I needed him to have a sense of humour. Sam emerged when I put all those characteristics together.

How much research did you do?

I read as many books as I could find about what it feels like to be dying and I read what fiction there is written from the point of view of dying children. Some of the best of these are listed at the back of Ways to Live Forever. Then I went and talked to CLIC nurses, hospice nurses and social workers at my local hospitals - people like Annie who work with children with cancer. They answered a lot of my practical questions.

I also did some fun things as research. I read the books I wrote when I was eleven. I watched 'The Exorcist' on my own late at night. And I ran up the down escalator at my local shopping centre - and got some very odd looks from passers-by!

What made you want to write a book that looks at such philosophical questions?

When my best friend's mother died I remember being astounded at how people just accepted it. I kept wanting to say "But where's she gone? What's happened to her? This is going to happen to you! Don't you want to know?"

I also knew that one reason why these questions are so frightening is that no one answers them. I wanted to write a book that would say, "Okay, there are no easy answers, but here are some of the possibilities." A lot of the books out there are written by people with very clear ideas on God and the afterlife. I wanted to write something that would allow my readers to make up their own minds.

Do you believe in God and what do you think happens to people after they die?

I believe in something, but I don't know what it is. I'm a Quaker, which is a very experience-based religion. Quakers don't tell you what to believe - like Sam they expect you to work it out for yourself.

I also don't know what happens after we die. My logical side thinks that nothing does - but the rest of me refuses to believe that I'll just disappear.

Where did you get the idea for the scrapbook narrative?

I was doing an MA in Writing for Young People and one exercise we had to do was to write about ourselves as a child. One of the things that came out of my piece was how much I liked to structure the world into lists and definite statements. I gave it to my classmates, who all said what an interesting voice this would be for a novel. When I decided to use a similar sort of character for Ways to Live Forever I thought, 'Ooh, this will be fun. He can write lots of lists,' and then I started thinking about all the other things he could put in, like pictures and stories.

I found writing a scrapbook novel wonderfully liberating. I worked out the basic plot and then just thought 'Let's have a scene about snow somewhere near the end,' or 'Let's have a list of favourite things somewhere in the middle.' Then I'd write that scene. The problems came when I had to stick them all together.

Who did you like reading as a child?

I liked lots of people - Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ursula Le Guin, C S Lewis, Arthur Ransome, Mary Norton, Richard Adams, Lucy Boston. When I was a teenager I read a lot of science fiction - Terry Pratchett, Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffrey.

Who do you like reading now?

Still a lot of children's books - and I've found some new authors now like Philip Pullman, Hilary McKay, Frank Cottrell Boyce, J K Rowling. Now I'm an adult, I find I have more favourite books than favourite authors - Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Wives and Daughters, The Pursuit of Love, I Capture the Castle, David Copperfield, Rebecca. And I still like Terry Pratchett.

Describe a day in the life of an author.

At the moment I work three mornings a week as an administrator, which gives me two full days for writing. I aim to write 1000 words a day and if I don't manage it, I have to catch up in the evenings or weekends. One of the nice things about writing is that I can get up as late as I want. One of the not-so-nice things is that if I'm having a bad day, I'll wake up at half past five and realise I've spent seven hours playing spider solitaire and surfing the internet.

What would you put on a Things I Want to Do list? Have you managed to do any of them?

Some of my ambitions are the same as Sam's. I'd like to see the Earth from space and I'd always wanted to run up down escalators. My biggest ambition was to have a novel published and my weirdest is to sail across the Pacific in a balsa wood raft - I've wanted to do that ever since I read a book called The Kon Tiki Expedition.

I'd like to see the Northern Lights. I'd like to go to the Last Night of the Proms in the Albert Hall. I'd like to have a child someday. I'd like to learn to juggle. I'd like to win the Booker, the Carneigie and the Nobel Prize for Literature. I'd like, twenty years from now, to meet people at parties and have them say 'Wow! You're Sally Nicholls! I loved your books as a kid!'