Carolyn Marsden, whose The White Zone, in the Not Our War series, is being published by Duckbill, interviewed by Paro Anand, author of Weed and No Guns at My Son’s Funeral, among others.
PA: One of the questions that I get asked a lot is why I write on such difficult, serious, violent subjects for children/young adults–why not keep them in a happier place in fiction at least? your feelings on this?
CM: There is definitely a need for “happy” fiction. However, we shouldn’t underestimate children and their capacity to learn about and reflect upon life’s darker and more complex aspects.
PA: When you pick on a subject as specific as the Shiite Sunni conflict in Iraq in the backdrop of the American occupation, how do you research the subject and how do you prevent your work from becoming too documentary–especially since you’re writing for younger readers?
CM: I did research by watching films, reading articles, and by consulting long hours with my Iraqi gatekeeper, Shak Hanish. Several of my books are set against large historical/political backdrops. I always try to keep the child’s story in the forefront, making sure that the obstacles that he/she overcomes are child-sized. I try to place the importance on the relationships between people rather than on the exterior situation.
PA: Because you’re writing for young people, and subjects of conflict, are there some taboos that you impose on yourself?
CM: I never think in terms of taboos. Personally, I’m squeamish when it comes to violence—-I don’t like violent films, for example—-and so don’t tend to enter that territory.
PA: How do you think writing for young adults differ from writing for adults or a general audience?
CM: In writing for young adults, it’s important that the main character grow and change within the story, something that isn’t as important in books written for adults. Young adult writing also requires a quicker pace and emphasis on showing, not telling.
PA: You’ve written so many different kinds of books. do you have a favourite genre?
CM: I’ve developed the genre of the very short, literary, multicultural/historical novel. That’s what comes naturally to me. Currently, I’m stretching out into fantasy and sci fi—and finding both very challenging!
PA: Does a subject pick you or do you hunt down a story on a subject that’s niggling at you?
CM: Normally, the subject comes to me. In the past, this was often in the form of a person who had lived a fascinating childhood in another country. If I hear something that interests me, I move on it, even if I have a lot of other projects going. In terms of The White Zone, I read a newspaper article on the unusual snowfall in Baghdad in January 2008. Right away, my mind started spinning a story.
PA: The Shiite Sunni conflict is a complex one and perhaps very little understood outside the Muslim world. Do you worry that a wider audience may not may not ‘get’ what its about?
CM: I don’t worry that my readers won’t understand that conflict, though I hope that they do. In any case, I wasn’t trying to get across that whole, larger complex subject, but rather the quarrel between the two cousins which arose from that conflict.
PA: You’ve written The White Zone about a particular problem at a particular time, but you have achieved a universality to the story that is very remarkable. In the sense, its so rooted, yet so universal, is there any advise you could give to young writers on how to do this?
CM: I advise young readers to focus on the relationships between the characters. That is the heart of the story. The feelings that come out of those relationships will be universal, no matter what the outer situation.
PA: Is there a book out there that you wish you’d written?
CM: There are many books that take my breath away. Of course I wish I had written them! My favourite author is Rumer Godden, who lived in India and wrote for both children and adults. I love her writing because of her gorgeous prose and because her characters and situations are very nuanced.
PA: is there a book or a subject that you’re dying to get your teeth into and yet its evading you?
CM: Currently, I’m working on a YA sci fi in collaboration with Andrea Zimmerman. It is very difficult, both in terms of world building and in terms of the motivations of the characters. Often we feel as though the plot is evading us!
PA: Much is said about the fact that teens stop reading, yet young adult fiction is one of the genres that is the biggest growing market–what’s your view, are they reading or not?
CM: Paro—I really have no idea on this one!
PA: Conflict is a universal truth. Do you really believe in white zones?
CM: I do believe in white zones. They are happening in little and big ways all around us. I never write with a message in mind, but perhaps The White Zone can help readers believe in white zones and in our ability to make them happen.