Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Ali Sparkes

Ali SparkesAli Sparkes is a British children's author. Her books include The Shapeshifter series, Out of this World, Unleashed, Dark Summer, Frozen in Time, Wishful Thinking, the Monster Makers series, and S.W.I.T.C.H.

When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

Sometimes I haven't the faintest idea. Sometimes I've got a rough idea. Sometimes (actually rarely) I'm certain. I tend to write books in a very random way, just going with the flow and seeing what happens as I go along. Seems to work for me most of the time, although it's a quite unnerving way to go on. There have been some books where I've been so unsure about where it's all going that I see myself as Gromit in that scene in The Wrong Trousers, where he's on a speeding train and throwing out railway line and sleepers in front of him at breathtaking speed just to have something to travel on.

But I do get some very clear scenes in my head, a bit like those scenes you see in trailers for high octane movies. These scenes are the things I am most certain of. Right back at the beginning of my first series - The Shapeshifter - I could see a scene on an oil rig in the North Sea at the end of the fifth and final book. And I was always completely certain that this was how it would all come to its finale. And it did.

Do you base your characters on real people?

Yes. Quite a lot. I love to put friends and family into my stories - or elements of them. Polly and Freddy in Frozen In Time are partly based on my mum and dad, who were aged 12 and 13 in 1956 when Freddy and Polly are cryonically frozen. My sons, Jacob and Alex, are in The Shapeshifter as minor characters and get a full book to themselves in the follow on series of spin off adventures - Unleashed: Speak Evil series. Mia and Lisa from both these series are based on friends and a few baddies are based on people I've known too. And I have a book out next year which features a real, living pop star. And his music. What's more, he knows and he's colluded! It'll probably be my undoing. I'll most likely get sued one day...

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

Rarely. I don't have much of a problem with ideas but occasionally I'll hit a tricky bit of plot and may have to step away from the laptop for a while and go for a walk or a run and clear my head. This seems to work most of the time. The solution usually pops into my brain when I'm not chasing it. The only other time I'm thwarted is when I really need to do more research and I can't confidently press on until I have. I'm in
that phase at the moment and realising that I'll probably not be able to crack on with my current story for another couple of weeks until that vital research is done. *sigh*

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

Finding peace, quiet, time and good research resources! And it can be very insular at times - but I have lots of author buddies and we support each other well and meet up occasionally to talk about our weird lives. I suppose I should also add that the occasional bad review sometimes stings very badly, too, but over time I'm worrying less about those. They're pretty rare and you can't please 'em all...

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Increasingly I'm loving the performance side of things. I do about 80-90 events a year, in schools, festivals etc, and travelling the country and Europe to do it is exciting and enlightening. I've had a number of people ask me if I do stand up recently and, as a comedy writer when I started out, that pleases enormously. Also, the chance to
help out with things I care about - like the charity I'm a patron of - Southampton Friends of PICU. At their last charity ball I auctioned off my services as a comic poem writer and quite a substantial sum was raised. That gives me such a buzz.

What inspired you to write?

The books I loved to read, I guess. Along with all the people who encouraged me in my peculiar wordiness as I was growing up - Mum and Dad and siblings, of course, and teachers at school as well as friends. Reading is such an escape - and for me, writing is too.

Do you follow the same process each time you write?

I suppose so. Early stages, lots of daydreaming and a bit of research, mid stages, lots of running around the local common, followed by a chapter or so. Late stages, panicky booking into a hotel so I can be left in peace to clear four, five or six thousand words a day, so I'll hit my deadline. Final stage - deliver to editor. And then feel strangely grumpy and weird for a few hours. Next day - start to fret that this is the one where you get found out for being a bit rubbish after all...

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

I use a laptop to write everything. I've been using a keyboard for about 25 years so I don't even think about it. It's involved at every stage, really, from pitching the idea to my editor to hitting that final sentence. But I probably spend far more time daydreaming my story than actually writing it down. I'm quite fast at the typing end of things.

How much does your editor change what you write?

Not a great deal. And she wouldn't just wade in and change it, anyway. She just gives me notes on things she thinks I might change to improve it, and leaves it to me to sort it out. I would say on average that about 90% of my first draft remains in nearly all my books. The usual tweaks are in the interests of getting to something a bit quicker, or cutting scenes that may slow down part of the story - sometimes giving a character a bit more depth so we understand their motivation...  Famously (for me, anyway) the book that was 99% unchanged - 1% being a few continuity issues - is Dark Summer. Pretty much straight out of my head, first time, that one.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

A radio presenter. That's what I was heading towards at the BBC and I loved it very much. Still miss radio and love dropping in to do a bit from time to time when I'm promoting a book. But being an author is just - marginally - better!

What is your attitude to ebooks?

I think they have their place. I do worry about the impact on bookshops because bookshops are very dear to me and I would hate to see them go. I love to browse and hold an actual book in my hand - smell its pages... I read e-books on my iPad from time to time and it's great to be able to buy one immediately at any time of the day or night. But I prefer the tangibility of the real thing. I'm looking forward to e-books which
offer slightly more, mind you. Maybe a bit of animation on the cover or some scene setting music. Purists won't go for that, of course, and I can see their point too... but with Destination Earth, out next June, there's a strong involvement with music and it would be fantastic to have it available to listen to at certain points in the story. I guess it's because I have a broadcasting background that this idea tickles me...

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

Lots! The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken, the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, What Katy Did, the Famous Five... the list really does go on and on...

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read a lot. And write a lot. And then keep going...

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