Writer's Retreat - Interview with Award Winning Author Sally Nicholls


Award winning author Sally Nicholls is leading the SCBWI Writer’s Retreat on 8th May – 11th May 2015. 

In anticipation of this exciting and productive event, Rowena House catches up with Sally… 

ROWENA: One thing that really struck me when I was reading your books for this interview was the authenticity of your young narrators’ voices. In Ways to Live Forever and Close Your Pretty Eyes, for example, you bounce us straight into the heads of your 11-year-old narrators even though they’re dealing with some dark and sophisticated psychological issues. How do you achieve that balance between a difficult subject matter and a young voice? 

SALLY: Mostly it’s just remembering. When I wrote Ways to Live Forever, which is the one I wrote on the (Bath Spa University) MA, about a little boy with leukaemia, a lot my fellow students were quite frightened of dying. I remember thinking: Well, I don’t think I would have been frightened of dying if I’d had a terminal illness when I was eleven. I wouldn’t have wanted it, of course, but I just couldn’t image that I would have been frightened because you have quite a simplistic view of death as a child. So I talked to some nurses at a local hospital and they said, No, you’re not frightened at eleven. The parents are frightened, but the kids aren’t. 

I think it’s about trusting your memory. My instinct – and I could be wrong about this – is that children’s writers are drawn to the periods of the childhood for which they have the strongest memories. 

ROWENA: So what drew you to writing for 9-14 years old in particular? 

SALLY: I don’t know. When I look back on my childhood, those are the bits that I remember clearest. I’ve never forgotten hearing Nicola Davies describing in detail a really clear memory of being three and lying in a field, and knowing that she was going to die. I don’t have anything as vivid as that from that age. 

ROWENA: So how did you mould the voice of, say, Olivia in Close Your Pretty Eyes, in a book for young people? 

SALLY: To some extent I think I failed a bit. This word “crossover” is thrown around and it’s meant as a compliment, but I’m never quite sure whether to take it as a compliment or not. I wrote that book intending it to be for 10-13 year olds, but Scholastic said it’s 12+. And the same with Ways to Live Forever – that aged up as well. People said, Oh, this is wonderful; this is a book which adults can read. But I was trying to write a book for children. 

ROWENA: And yet, to me at least, Olivia seems an entirely authentic 11-year-old. How did you get inside her head? 

SALLY: Olivia has complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which is a form of PTSD you get if you suffer chronic abuse in the first three years of your life. She’s tense all the time – hyper-aware. 

You know that feeling you get when you walk down a dark alleyway on your own late at night, and there’s nobody around for miles, and you’re completely alone, you haven’t got a phone, and you hear footsteps coming down the road after you? Well, a child with complex PTSD feels like that all the time. The reason Olivia can’t concentrate is that she’s frightened all the time. So when she’s sitting there, trying to do maths, every time there’s a noise in the classroom, it’s a threat. It’s not an obvious thing to know about a child who’s been abused, but once you know that, it changes the whole way that you can write her story. 

ROWENA: So do you think there’s something special about writing for young people from a child’s point-of-view? 

SALLY: One of the things I find most interesting about writing for young people is this idea that you can’t make the same assumptions that you would make in an adult novel. You can’t blithely say, Oh, I’m writing books for intelligent people; if you don’t get my book, don’t read it! I like the challenge of writing about complicated subjects in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. Milan Kundera, I think, said the only questions worth asking are the ones that a child would understand ... I like the challenge of saying: 

OK, how do I ask these questions in a way that a child could understand, and how do I answer them? 

ROWENA: I can see that in your work. In Ways to Live Forever, I love the way Sam has his lists and his logical questions. But it’s a quirky, childlike kind of logic. 

SALLY: A lot of those questions (in Ways to Live Forever) were questions that children really asked. I’m a big fan of research, and I found a list of questions on the internet that children with terminal illnesses had asked. A lot of them were obvious ones, like where do we go to after we die, but some of them weren’t obvious. I think ‘How do you know that you’re dead?’ is one that only a child would ask. 

ROWENA: Despite these deep, disturbing themes, your books have a lot of humour in them. Do you think a child’s viewpoint is a good medium through which to explore deep subjects? 

SALLY: I think childhood is hopeful by its nature because it’s impermanent. Yes, you can have a really awful situation, but it’s going to change. You can be living in an abusive family, but at some point the character’s not going to be sixteen anymore, and they’re going to move out. The situation is still obviously going to affect them, but there’s something about being a child that has a hopefulness built in. 

ROWENA: You’ve written books set in the past as well as the present day - one in the Middle Ages and one in the early 20th century. Do you have a different approach to writing young historical characters to the way you create modern characters? 

Chaucer - The Wife of Bath
SALLY: You do have to be aware of the underlying assumptions of historical characters ... but you don’t have to conform to them because people don’t always conform. Somebody looking at 21st century Britain could say we’re all about chucking immigrants out because that’s what you see in the newspapers, but that doesn’t mean that any individual character in 2015 will hate immigrants. People are people, and you only have to read contemporary books to realise the range of personalities and ideas there are today. It’s the same for historical characters. You don’t have to think my character lives in the 14th century so she must be quiet, meek and well-behaved. She’s a person and there’s as much variety in people at any point in history as there is now. 

For every meek and mild person (in the 14th century) you’re going to have a Wife of Bath. 

ROWENA: On your website you say you wrote Ways to Live Forever in a non-linear, episodic way. Is that still how you write? 

SALLY: Yes, I think that goes back to way I used to tell stories when I was a little girl. I always had a story in my head, but it wouldn’t be a finished story, it would just be me on the bus, coming up with a kind of scene. That’s one of the things I had to learn for myself: it’s not enough to have a character and a situation, you have to have a story as well. A lot of beginner writers will say: Oh, I’ve got this great idea but I’m stuck on Chapter 1, and I say, yes, that’s because you don’t have a plot. Since I’ve been writing for a living, I’ve become much more disciplined about sitting down and saying so what’s the plot before I start writing anything. Where are we going to end up that is different from where we started? But I don’t write consecutively. 

ROWENA: Doesn’t that make editing harder? 

SALLY: Oh, yes! My first draft will be a complete mess. It will be a bunch of episodes. Some of it will just be laying down the foundations of the (story) world, and won’t end up in the book. 

Whenever I tell a group of writers how I work, if I’ve got a room of thirty writers, I’ll have 28 writers staring at me in absolute horror and two writers saying, ‘Oh my God, I’d no idea anyone else wrote like that!’ 

It’s a very individual way of writing. It means at the beginning I can write the fun scenes, and find out about the characters through writing them. By the time I get to the end of the book, I’ve got much more of a sense of who my main character is and how she’s going to respond to things. 

 A lot of scenes (in the first draft) won’t make sense, but that’s why you do the plotting first. 

I don’t have a very detailed plan, normally I have something like a two-page synopsis, and yes, things totally change, but this way of writing does have its advantages. My books don’t have boring scenes – at least I hope they don’t – because I simply don’t write them. You don’t waste time moving the story forward either. You come in at the end (of a dull time period) and put in the bare minimum necessary to keep things moving forward. 

ROWENA HOUSE: So how many drafts do you write these days? Still three like with Ways to Live Forever? 

SALLY: Now I have deadlines, so it’s a bit harder. Ideally, it would normally be the third draft that my editor sees because the first draft doesn’t make any sense, the second draft fixes the big problems, and the third draft fixes all the problems that come out of that. When I started the MA, I had this idea that you wrote the first draft and then went back over it, and corrected spelling and grammar and moved a few words around, but not that you had to make these big, structural changes to it to make it work. I hadn’t realised that that was the level of engagement you actually had to have, that this was the level of editing that was going to have to happen. 

ROWENA: Your latest novel, AN ISLAND OF OUR OWN, seems something of a departure for you – more optimistic, for example. 

SALLY: My latest character is a complete optimist. She’s got no money and no parents, and all sorts of terrible things in her life, but she’s just completely cheerful all the time. She’s being raised by her 19 year old brother, and they have to go off and find this jewellery they’ve been left in a will by a great aunt. 

It’s got a modern feel, and it’s about modern children, but there’s an old-fashioned adventure story feel about it as well. 

ROWENA: Will your writing stay cheerful for a while, do you think, or will you go back to deeper, darker themes? 

SALLY: One of things I love about children’s literature is that I can write a whole load of different things which can all live next to each other on the shelf. OK, if you want to make a living as a writer, it’s a sensible career move to write books that are very similar to each other. But my ideas are very different from each other, so I suspect I will write pessimistic books and cheerful books ... 

Some people say nobody knows what a Sally Nicholls’ book is, but I know what a Sally Nicholls’ book is – it’s about families who love each other facing incredible trauma - and surviving! 

For more information and to book your place on the Writer’s Retreat with Sally Nicholls: 



Sally Nicholls wrote 'Ways to Live Forever' during her MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. She achieved a distinction and was quickly snapped up by her agent. Sally Nicholls is author of 'An Island of Our Own’, 'Season of Secrets', 'All Fall Down', and other books which are published by Marion Lloyd Books at Scholastic. In 2008, Sally won the Luchs des Jahres and the Glen Dimplex New Writer of the year, other awards include the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize in 2008. Sally now lives in a little house in Oxford, writing stories, and trying to believe her luck. http://www.sallynicholls.com/ 

 Born in London, Rowena is a journalist as well as a writer. She lived and worked in France, Africa and Brussels as a Reuter’s foreign correspondent before returning to England to start a family. In 2013 she won the Bath Spa-Andersen Press WWI short story competition with ‘The Marshalling of Angélique’s Geese’, which was published in War Girls, a collection of First World War stories seen through the eyes of young women (Andersen Press, 2014). The Butterfly’s Wing - her novelisation of that short story - gained her a distinction on Bath Spa University’s MA in writing for young people.


  1. Thanks so much Rowena and Sally - a fascinating, insightful interview - really looking forward to the retreat now!

    1. Thanks, Tania! Can't wait to meet you & Sally again, and meet other lovely retreaters.

  2. Fantastic interview Rowena - thanks Sally for your time and inspirational words!


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