An incestuous Chinese King, polishing pearls and three Govian boys: An Interview with Sally Gardner

Karen J. Hart
I was nervous about meeting one of my heroes. Sally Gardner, who gave the first Pulse keynote speech at the conference this weekend. She comes garlanded with prizes, awards and accolades. I've been a huge fan ever since her spellbinding YA novel I, Cor-iander was published, wept uncontrollably over Maggot Moon and have introduced lots of little reader relatives to the cool magical detectives of Wings & Co. I certainly didn't need to be nervous: talking to Sally was like meeting an old friend for a long and laughter-filled chat, with lovely writing insights as a bonus. 

CS Lewis had the picture of a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood come to him and spark the Narnia stories. You’re a writer, an illustrator and a writer/illustrator: I wondered how you decide to be creative with images that spark your imagination.

The PC world of publishing wouldn’t let it happen now! Four children, with an uncle in a big house; a little girl who goes into a wardrobe with fur coats; bare-chested Mr Tumnus – a paedophile in the making … I feel as though we are walking with searchlights, in the dark, dark forest of imagination, accompanied by social workers and police.

With I, Coriander, I was walking along a street I often walk to think and I just saw her: a little girl, nine years old, by a wooden oak staircase with a very ornate banister curled at different ends. She’s very frightened. There’s rain and wind against a bottle glass window. She’s coming down the stairs with a light going out in the sitting room. I go in and find a man at the desk. She asks him if it’s my mother's fairy shadow in the box and he SLAMS it shut.

I feel as though we are walking with searchlights, in the dark, dark forest of imagination, accompanied by social workers and police.

[KJH: I’ve stopped taking notes at this point, absolutely hypnotised by how Sally describes the scene she saw and is seeing again – interchanging ‘she’ and ‘I’ and ‘her’ and ‘my’ as she’s completely inside the head of her character, Coriander. The ‘SLAMS’ is accompanied by her hand brought down hard and loud against the table, which makes me jump and brings me back to my notes again.]

It’s completely visual. I saw the story right down to where Coriander is locked into the chest. But when I opened it up, into the woods and magic, it lost its tautness. So I went back to the beginning and found the answer. It often happens, if you just go back and look.

Do you have a writing routine?

Yes: I write a thousand words a day, on computer. I’ve written 510 words of my new book ‘The Carpet Thief’ for the Wings & Co series today and I’ll go back to finish the thousand. Sometimes I have to throw them away and start again.

You’ve written for young adults, middle grade, and early readers. Do you have a preferred age range to write for?

No but I prefer writing for the over fives. [Under-fives] … that’s not where my heart is.

Who’s your ideal reader: the one you write for?

It’s always me. A little girl, sitting in a glass dome – not very happy because she can’t read. I write for her. She’s me: that little girl who couldn’t read the books. I was born with a headful of stories.

Lydia Corry illustrated I, Coriander and the Magical Children books. What was it like working with your daughter as your illustrator?

I loved working with my daughter! She was still a student at Glasgow School of Art. I bought her some very expensive paints. When I got the pictures for Coriander, there was hardly any green: that all turned up in her degree show! I absolutely loved what she did with the drawings. They make it a very special book.

When I first wrote, I had the thought that I could always go back to illustration. Something happened that altered my life. It was quite simple. I had a dream I had never voiced to anyone: I wanted to be a writer. I had never told a soul. [After writing] it was like, well, this is it: I can make better pictures with my pen than with my brush. Sally points to a large bowl of red apples. I could sit here for hours, wondering and writing how they look so autumnal, so rich, imagining their silk feel …

I saw a lovely quote in a review which I thought describes your writing well: you have ‘a wondrous, almost wizardly way with words.’ How much rewriting and redrafting do you do?

How I write is very particular; it’s very me. I see it like a necklace and each chapter is a pearl, and I polish it and polish it and polish it and then I join them together in the necklace. So the first draft is polished. I’m incredibly lucky. These images come to me. I have always thought in images.

My parents divorced when I was five; my brother was two and a half. I was just a little girl but I told them that they were on two different sides of a valley: to try to help them. I was far too young to do that. I love fairy tales because I’m a visual thinker.

How I write is very particular; it’s very me. I see it like a necklace and each chapter is a pearl, and I polish it and polish it and polish it and then I join them together in the necklace. 

[Listening to fairy tales] … a child can go far into the forest, as far as they want and come out again. The first one we all know is Hansel and Gretel. Happy children see a gingerbread house and their parents rescue them. The child who’s miserable touches the gingerbread. Those children who needed to be in the gingerbread house - I count myself among them, children whose parents didn’t come – ended up for the rest of our lives with a witch’s curse. I think you’re probably one too.

[Fairy tales weren’t written for children] … they were for girls going into puberty: a rite of passage. Ask any little girl, they’ll tell you Cinderella is a princess. They’re right and everyone else is wrong. The original story started in China – think of foot binding and the Ugly Sisters and glass slipper. It travelled the world and when it got to Europe, it had a king whose wife is dying. She takes her ring off and says you may marry who this fits. He searches for years, then puts it on his daughter’s finger and says he will change the law and marry her …

If there’s a child who lives in a tower block, whose mother is an alcoholic with a boyfriend who’s a drug dealer: give that child a realistic story and she has no way out. Give her Rapunzel – there’s a way to let your hair down and get out.

What’s on your reading list?

I’ve just finished The Goldfinch, which was simply wonderful, and Hot Key’s The Head of the Saint, by Brazilian writer Socorro Acioli. I’m reading Holly Black, who I absolutely adore. And I’m reading a lot for research, for the adult book I’m about to write: an erotic fantasy set in the 18th century.

Can you tell us about your latest novel?

It seems to have taken for ever! I started it after Maggot Moon. People were waiting for my next one; there’s been a lot of pressure. A Door That Led to Where is coming out on January 1st next year. It has a contemporary setting and is about three Govian boys [school students while Michael Gove headed education for the government] failed by the system. AJ Flynn is a clever boy but he’s only got one GCSE: an A* in English.

I wondered what if – all my stories begin with ‘What If?

I ran my idea past a clerk in Gray’s Inn, where I grew up [Sally’s parents were barristers.] I asked James Shortall, at 29 Bedford Square: ‘If this 16-year-old - down on his luck, lived in a library reading Dickens – came to you to be a clerk, would you ever consider him?’ He said, ‘He’d go to the top of the pile. I’d want to know why his only A* was in English’. It’s still an open door, for clerks.

I wondered what if – all my stories begin with ‘What If? - those three boys went back to 1830? Would they fare better – with all its barbarity and illness – than they would here? Here, we mummify our young men and don’t let them grow up. A 17-year-old then was a man, having to earn his money. It’s something we don’t do here now.

I loved the research. I went around the back of the Phoenix Car park in Clerkenwell – Fagin’s area - and found the lintel of a door, with buddleia growing on it – just where the door of the house in the story is.

Some writers say each new book is as hard as the one before: it never gets any easier.

It does. It’s a craft. If you apply yourself again and again and again. But you have always to be naked and vulnerable to be prepared to take on your story. I don’t mean literally sitting naked at your computer of course! If you go in with your armour on, you won’t write anything worth reading. Most writers are not good with their own fences. I have to learn to put mine back up again after I finish my book. A lot of writers don’t actually enjoy the process of writing. Maybe I’m a freak. I absolutely love it.

What’s happening with your dyslexia campaigning?

If I only do one thing, I want it to be a Richter Scale for dyslexia. If you’re at a certain level: let’s say seven, you should be guaranteed educational help. At different stages in your education and at different times in your life, you will be at different points on the Richter Scale: it’s not set in stone. You may need retesting. With me, something clicked in my brain when I was 14 and I was able to read.

If I only do one thing, I want it to be a Richter Scale for dyslexia.

A director with dyslexia is adapting Maggot Moon: I’d like to see it in theatres. Today October 31st is the last day for workshops at the Tricycle Theatre

Your Pulse keynote speech was to SCBWI’s Published  members. Have you any advice for unpublished writers?

  • Remember that the world has seen many people with manuscripts but it has never seen yours before. Be versatile. You have to have openness of heart. Jump in at the deep end, taking your book with you.
  • With research, it can’t all go into a book with an historical setting. You go on holiday and take loads of pictures but what you don’t want to do is to show ALL of those pictures. You may be fascinated by ink being made in the medieval times but your friends aren’t.
  • Ask yourself one question: what height is your character? It’s a question lots of people don’t ask. If she’s nine years old, she’s not seeing the world as a 22-year-old does. If you’re five, you’re seeing knees. It’s very important to remember but it’s often forgotten. If a child sees the king’s head chopped off, it’s interesting; they don’t have the analytical brain of an adult or see the world as you see it.
  • Get inside your characters and you’ll be surprised by what they might do. When I wrote the scene with Mr Gunnell in Maggot Moon, where he kills Little Eric: I saw him and I knew what he was going to do. There was part of me that thought I should pull back but I went for it, hammer and tongs. The same with Standish and Hector [where the boys kiss] - I just knew it was going to happen. I could see how they were sitting and laying: it’s not salacious. It was all the passion in their lives.

Where do your characters' names come from?

Standish started as Ezra but it wasn’t right. Then someone said they’d been to Standish Treadwell in the Lake District. I’ve never been able to find it. Hector Lush – a taxi driver told me about a family called the Lushes. Otto Hundebiss was from a historian – that’s Dog Bite. Coriander – the name had to have a saint’s name in it – Ann. Then I had to check it was right for the period and it fitted. Thankless was the name of Pepys’ tailor.

[My notes wander off again at this point as Sally throws herself into a description of how the character of Hester in I, Coriander was meant to be horrible, with just one line, but how she insisted on being lovely!]

Can you recommend a book for Hallowe’en?
[Ed's note: As you can see, Karen interviewed Sally pre Halloween but this was too good to edit!]

Yes! My Matchbox Mysteries, from the Wings & Co series. It’s essential for children to be scared. I was read Brothers Grimm – no holds barred. What is it in the wild, wild wood? It’s death. I used to believe that everyone died on the same day and a new batch of people was born. You’re looking at your own end in these stories. In my beginning is my end.

Karen Hart has worked in Journalism and PR for over 30 years, she curates the Write Idea Festival Fringe has one teenage daughter, one husband, two cats, and seven half siblings in Sweden. She has recently become Assistant Regional Adviser for SCBWI British Isles with a special responsibility for member services


  1. Fabulous interview, Karen, and thank you so much Sally. I was so sad to miss the Pulse keynote. This makes up for it beautifully!

  2. Thank you so much. I hope some of Sally's warmth, charm and utter genius comes through. She is truly spell-binding! Candy Gourlay made the brilliant point that not reading Coriander and Maggot Moon is missing half of children's lit.

  3. Fab interview Karen, and for those who weren't able to make it to the conference this captures beautifully the key themes of her keynote. (Could be enhanced by a picture of her fab shoes though :-) )

    1. Oh dear, repeated words (fab), good job this wasn't a submission.x

  4. Fantastic interview but argh - massive Maggot Moon spoilers!!

  5. thank you Karen & Sally - what an amazing interview - delighted to catch up here as I was unable to go to the conference. Looking forward to January now :) (oh and 4' 6" - thanks for reminding me!).

  6. Thanks, Sue and Marie. Gail - honestly, they won't spoil Maggot Moon for you. SCBWI promise :)

  7. Thank you Karen for putting in writing so well the inspiration that is Sally Gardner. I will never look at fairy tales in the same way again...

  8. Really enjoyed this Karen and I wish you all the best in your dyslexia campaigning, great advice about characters height too!! Personally I love to take photos from kneeling or even laying down which is great for getting a small persons view!


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