Award-winning writer Sally Gardner is joined by debut novelist Sophie Cameron in a discussion of their latest books which explore themes of death, grief, chronic and mental illness, and sexual identity.
Gardener’s My Side of the Diamond and Cameron’s Out of the Blue, feature aliens and angels respectively and are magical-realist books for young adults. On discussing their character influences, Cameron revealed hers “reflect young people in the real world who feel screwed over by older people – just look at US gun violence and Brexit.” Cameron wanted “the teenagers to be the moral compass of the book.” Whilst Gardner, talking about her character not being believed by her community, said “There is no one truth. I find that idea obnoxious.”
When questioned about the moral implications of featuring characters of ethnic minorities in their books, Gardener revealed her fear of over-policing. “I loathe having to label ourselves. There is a rainbow of diversity – we should be able to write about it. The recent morality clauses in publishing strike me with terror. We are left very vulnerable.”
Cameron identified that “there is a danger of taking over people. But diversity can be secondary. The essence of the story doesn’t change if you change the ethnicities.” She also identified that “certain stories must be written by the minorities that are the focus of the book – Black Lives Matter for example – these books are best written by the people from these communities.” Gardner concluded that “Characters of colour should and are not a replacement for writers of colour. We need to make sure writers of colour are published and translated.”
On sexual identity, Cameron thinks things are “Getting better, more for lesbian and gay identities than trans etc. I’d like to see characters where it’s incidental and not the focus of the book; like Cat Clarke’s We Are Young. Hopefully this would see a wider readership and encourage acceptance among young people.”
When asked about the issue of boys not reading books with female protagonists, Gardner’s responded “If JK Rowling had written Henrietta Potter, she’d be sitting here with us now. But she didn’t. She wrote Harry. Men should be reading about women. Women: stop all this boy business; ‘my little darling can only read Biggles’.”
The authors advocated that change and acceptance are driven by the best stories, with Gardner saying, “I knew when I killed little Eric that it wouldn’t get published. When I made two boys kiss, I knew it wouldn’t get published. I was told to put it in a drawer. And then it did get published. I think that when the message of the story is strong enough – that changes things.”