British author Sally Green took the publishing world by storm with the release of her internationally successful Half Bad trilogy. Set in an alternate-reality England, the story follows Nathan Byrn—a teenager who is half White Witch, half Black Witch, and caught between the two warring factions. Now Green is at work on a new YA fantasy trilogy. Book one, The Smoke Thieves, which releases this month, focuses on five teenagers from different walks of life whose fates are linked by an illicit substance with mystical properties. PW spoke with Green about her process, her latest novel, and the joy of reading.
You were an unpublished writer when you wrote Half Bad; now you’re an international bestselling author. Has your process changed? Has your success made sitting down at the keyboard easier, or more daunting?
Gosh, I don’t think so, no. I still don’t plan—that’s never been part of my process. I start with a character, an idea, and try to work things out—what the characters would do. I go very much from the character point of view.
I suppose I’ve gained a huge amount of confidence in that I do believe that it will all work out: “Just keep going, just keep going—don’t give up.” I’m never afraid just to put ideas down, and if they go in the bin, I don’t see that as a waste—I just try to be really positive about it: “Okay, well, that’s one avenue that didn’t work in the story, but it’s still a learning process for me, in terms of my writing.”
I think the hardest thing with The Smoke Thieves was the technical side of it. Writing from five different viewpoints is really hard. Don’t do it, is my advice! And I hadn’t realized how complicated it is, and especially because I don’t plan. I’m trying to keep all of these things in my head and it’s like this horrible 3D puzzle, trying to work out which bit should go next. Or, you know, I want to tell this bit of the story, but which character should tell it? Oh, it was driving me mad at times. But basically, I still sit down, try to be positive, try to write. The same two questions always start the process: What will my character do next? What’s my character’s attitude, and what’re they going to do about it? That’s it.
To be honest, a slight worry is that now I do have readers, and I do have people who love Half Bad, and The Smoke Thieves is quite different. So I am nervous about how they’re going to react to it, but you know—I can’t do very much about that. But you still want everyone to love it!
When you initially conceived of The Smoke Thieves, did you intend for it to be the first in a three-book arc? What made you decide to tackle another trilogy so soon on the heels of your last?
I have been known to say that I would never write another trilogy. And in fact, I actually said, this isn’t a trilogy—it’s a series that happens to have three books in it at the moment. But it might have four!
I think the hard thing is—well, writing fantasy in one book is quite hard, anyway; I think to come up with the world and to get the story over is quite difficult. And I’m just rubbish at writing short stories—I can’t do it. In one book? How can you tell a whole story in a book? I think that I get so carried away with the characters, and possibly because I don’t plan ahead, I just have this idea of, oh, they’re gonna do this, and what they’re gonna do next, and it’s never-ending. You know, I could write a hundred books. It’s the nature of the way I work.
There are challenges with writing a trilogy. The awful thing is that you have to remind the reader in the second book of what’s gone before, and it can be quite clumsy if you’re not careful, but I’m more relaxed about that [now]. Certainly, I’ve got much bigger problems in terms of this five-narrative system that I’ve got going, which is giving me a different headache. But I actually love [world-building]. I’m writing the second book at the moment and the story’s moved on quite a bit. I’m doing a lot more in the demon world, so I’m giving myself different aspects to play around with, which is really good fun.
The Smoke Thieves is populated with teenagers being manipulated by adults, and the characters’ stories all highlight the importance of charting one’s own path and letting go of prior generations’ hang-ups and prejudices. Was this a theme from inception, or did it evolve as the story took shape?
I started off with this idea of a father-and-son demon-hunting duo, which I thought, “Ooh, that sounds great.” And I struggled for a few months, actually, trying to write. It just never got going. And I realized after that, the big problem was, I’d done father and son with Half Bad, and I really didn’t have very much more to say about that. I also realized, to my shock and horror, that I wasn’t that interested in demons—or in demon-hunting, even. That was a bit of a problem. So I thought, “Right, but I still like this idea. What are you interested in, Sally? Come on.”
What I really wanted to write was a strong female character—my strong female character. Because I read some in fiction that are supposedly strong and I don’t think they’re that strong. So I really wanted somebody who was ambitious, who was really gonna go for it, and so I changed the father and son to Tash and Gravell. [Tash is] this feisty girl, so she was great, but I still wanted more than that, so then I came up with Princess Catherine. Elizabeth the First, Catherine the Great are these figures who were really influencing me, who were ambitious, who from the start said, “No, I can rule better than these guys. These guys are idiots. I can do better.” So I wanted [Catherine] to evolve and gradually realize, “Actually, you know what? I think I can do this better than these guys.” That was really my starting point—and obviously, I have male characters, as well, and they have different issues, but really it’s Catherine that drives the story for me, and once I got her, then it all just came together. She’s manipulated, she’s a pawn in the game—in her father’s game—but she’s beginning to fight back, and that’s definitely going to continue in the future books.
Why do you think it’s important for young adults to read fiction? Does writing for young adults come with an added degree of responsibility for you?
Because there’s so much in there, I suppose. There’s so much you can learn about different people, but also about emotions—much more than through nonfiction. And [reading] should be fun. I suppose that’s my overriding answer: it should be fun. If you go in a bookshop, there’s plenty in there to choose from, so there should be something for you: demons, or witches, or princesses, or soldiers, or lovers, or—I don’t know. There’s so much! I think the thing that worries me is that it’s made out to be good for you, and I think it should be fun. It should be something you enjoy. I look at books as pleasure; I don’t read them because I should. I just wish kids could get that pleasure, and I think they do when they’re younger.
I do feel there is a certain responsibility, but—God, as if I haven’t got enough pressure on my shoulders without that! I think my main responsibility is just to try and write as honestly as I can and not to pull any punches. I think that’s the thing with books—people get things out of stories that you can’t even imagine, because they’re influenced by their own views of the world. So you just have to do your bit, hand it over as honestly as you can, and let them take from it what they’re going to.
The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green. Viking, $18.99 May ISBN 978-0-425-29021-7