Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sleepwalking - An interview with YA author, Nicola Morgan

Control vs Freedom

Following on last week’s interview with YA author, Nicola Morgan, this week I speak to Nicola about Sleepwalking, the second story in her double ebook.

150 years in the future, and the Citizens drift contentedly in a world without wonder, where every emotion is regulated. There is no pain, no suffering, no evil. And no freedom. Just safety and drug-induced happiness. But a small group, the Outsiders, crave real emotion, real freedom, even suffering. To them, the power of ideas and language cannot die – or there is no point in being human. And they have a plan. For years, a group of young people have been raised to have the strength and knowledge to overthrow the system. Now, when a deadly virus strikes, four of these teenagers, Livia, Cassandra, Marcus and Tavius, must act quickly to infiltrate the sinister headquarters of the Governators and corrupt the system. But their plan carries enormous risk. If they can’t discover the chilling secret behind this saccharine dystopia, and overcome it, they will surely die.

Winner of Scottish Children’s Book of the Year in 2005, Sleepwalking is a dystopian novel which was way ahead of its time in YA literature.  It is a gritty, intelligent book full of depth and resonates with multiple provocative themes.  A coming of age novel, it questions control, the power of story, hope and the very nature of our humanity.  I’m not a lover of dystopian fiction, so it was with some trepidation that I started reading Sleepwalking.  However, I soon found myself pulled in by the character of Livia, the principal protagonist, and from there, I was swept along.  Sleepwalking is a superb and thought-provoking novel that lingers long after the story is finished, and I have far more questions that I’d like to put to Nicola than we have space for here.  But we have to start somewhere… 

So I’ll pour the fizz – or coffee if you’d prefer - and we can begin.

Fizz or coffee? Fizz or coffee? FIZZ!

Given the genre in which Sleepwalking is written, it is a forward looking book, yet, one of the key themes - from the names of characters, to various story references, to the unfolding of the story - deals with the nature and power of historical stories and story per se,  and its impact upon people. Terry Pratchett in Witches Abroad says, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around." What is your view of the role of story in our lives and the extent to which people may or should be influenced by story and history?

YA Author, Nicola Morgan
We constantly and usually unthinkingly tell stories about ourselves. We need these stories in order to make sense of ourselves. We need to believe them, though we should be aware that some may not be entirely “true” because they are based on memories or things people have told us. They are very unreliable, yet we rely on them. Part of my self-story is that I was born in a school and went to all boys’ schools till I was nearly 12. That  (unless I’ve been royally deceived) is true, but the details of it may not be, because I’ve filled in blanks in order to make sense, and that filling in is affected by what I already believe or remember. Our stories colour our behaviour because they are our memories (even when false) and without our memories how do we know we are the same person who went to sleep last night? There’s no “should” about whether or not we are influenced, though – we just are.  However, it’s not necessarily a good thing that we become our stories about ourselves. For example, if part of our self-story is “I’m not clever” or “I’m a shy person” or “I’m not good at…” then they can seem to become self-fulfilling prophecies and we may not see ways of escaping our stories.

As in The Passion Flower Massacre so in Sleepwalking, we have teenagers who are controlled by “crazy” adults impassioned by visions for a better future.  Was there a particular message you wanted to convey to teen readers about the nature of adulthood and the world views of some adults?

No, not at all. I’m just giving the central roles to teenagers because I write for them. And teenagers (and children) are usually relatively powerless, the underdogs, so they make the best central characters.

In both The Passion Flower Massacre and Sleepwalking drugs are used as a means of control. In The Passion Flower Massacre, aside from the narcotic effect of the passion flower nectar there is the reality of religion as the opiate of the masses.  In Sleepwalking it is the ordered state and its mechanisms that is the opiate.  What is your view on the susceptibility of humanity to mass opiates – be it reality TV, religion, the cult of celebrity, charismatic political leaders etc?  Why do you think it is so easy for people to succumb and, in direct reference to Sleepwalking, why do you believe is it so critical that we be free thinkers?

“No man is an island.” Humans have evolved as social creatures and part of that means buying into the ethics and mores of whichever group we seek to be part of. Being part of a group, knowing who we are and that we are supported by the group (even if the group is a diaspora, fluid, inconcrete) is reassuring and important. And I think this goes some way to explaining why we get group behaviours (including group hysteria) and why some people rely very strongly on such things as religion or the other things you’ve mentioned as being opiates. It’s vital to be able to think critically about all such things and to understand that appearances and feelings are often deceptive; vital to try hard to engage reason and be open-minded, to protect ourselves from wrong or muddled thinking, which very often aren’t be disastrous but at their worst can be catastrophic – as in The Passionflower Massacre and Sleepwalking. 

Sleepwalking offers two very different worlds in one.  The world of the Outsiders - free thinkers, lovers of poetry and story - and the world of the Citizens - mindless, drugged denizens of an ordered, entertainment-filled world who don’t and can’t think for themselves.  Some might say that the Citizens have the best of everything – they don’t need to think, their lives are comfortable, predictable and easy.  Yet the Oustiders, while fighting for survival and from whom the protagonists of the story spring, stand against this.  Playing devil’s advocate, let me ask if the world of the Citizens so very wrong? Would a world like that not in fact work for very many people in today’s world? And if so, what does that say about humanity in its present form?

The world of the Citizens is full of wonderful things, in the same way as a box of chocolates is full of wonderful things, or that plate of amazing patisserie I seem to remember enjoying with you recently. It consists of constant pleasure and no pain, bitterness, fear, suffering. However, their lives also contain no choice, ambition, knowledge, ability for self-expression, freedom or anything to allow them properly to experience the pleasure that surrounds them or to value it in contract to pain and suffering. They are slaves. The things that humans have fought for – art, language, expression, freedom, power, ambition, choice – all these are denied them. A novel set in the future is usually not about the future but contains a warning based on an observation about the present and in this case it is this: in seeking after perpetual pleasure, be careful what you wish for.

Given the questions I’ve posed above, it is clear that the themes of control vs freedom are very important to you.  Were there particular things you encountered in the world that inspired the creation of these stories?

You mean personally? No, I don’t think so. Though I think we all experience issues of control and freedom. I’m just interested in these ideas, and in freewill, particularly.

Both The Passion Flower Massacre and Sleepwalking deal with loss and suffering by one person (or group of people) and control practiced by someone else.  It is an almost yin yang balance (or imbalance).  Again, what was it you particularly wanted to convey, and to such an extent that you wrote two stories dealing with that particular issue?

I hadn’t thought about it! I guess these are just perennial themes, and, as per my last answer, they are things we all come up against in some way, or at least can see going on around us. My stories all start with a series of “what ifs”. I never start by thinking, “I want to write a story which says A, B or C.” Any apparent message is a side-effect. The story is the thing.

Livia physically hurts herself to take away emotional pain – this is something you touch on, but don’t dwell on.  Was there a particular reason in creating her character that you didn’t explore the issue of self-harming more deeply?

I just didn’t want this to be “a book about a girl who self-harms”. I didn’t intend for her to do it but right from the start her voice was so full of pain underneath her vibrant exterior, and she is so trying to control this pain, that she began to self-harm. She just did and I had to be honest to that. It’s not a big part of who she is, but is more a side-effect of her anger. So, from my point of view, she just did it and I let her do it because it felt like what she would do. I understood her utterly. No one ever finds out, and she leaves no scars; the process reflects what’s happening to her and her lack of control over everything else in her life.

Unlike Matilda who, in The Passion Flower Massacre, walks into danger, Livia in Sleepwalking is forced into it.  Can you comment on the reality of choice vs no choice faced by the two protagonists?

Honestly, just two different stories and two different characters. I don’t think I can analyse it further but it would make a great essay question – for someone else to answer J Though I do have this abiding view that we all have less control than we would like to think we do over our lives. We are all, relatively, opportunists. Hooray!

You portray a variety of powerful emotions in the Outsiders in Sleepwalking – fear, love, loss, pain.  These are emotions that the Citizens don’t feel, or take drugs to avoid feeling. Would you agree that it is our ability to feel that makes us truly human, and yet, in the same breath, is it not also our emotions that can give rise to our terrible destructiveness?  Where to do you see the balance?

YES! The balance is wherever it is in each person. I guess when the balance is too often wrong you may get mental illness. When it’s only occasionally wrong, you just get a bad day!

Finally, two writing questions:  how important do you feel it is to writers to focus on big issues and do you feel there are any topics that YA writers should not tackle and; each of your stories ends with hope – how critical do you feel hope is in the conclusion of any story for Young Adults?

That’s three questions!
1. I don’t think all writers have to focus on big issues, as long as some do. It’s important to me but I won’t impose that on everyone, because all readers are different and so are all writers. Many teenagers (the ones I write for) love big issues, so it’s important that some books tackle them.

2. Yes, YA writers should never under any circumstances tackle issues that young adult readers are not interested in!

3. I think it’s usually very important. Some people say essential but that seems too prescriptive. For example, there is a very brilliant, very recent UKYA novel which abandons hope. I can’t say what it is because by even mentioning it I will be giving away something about the ending! But it’s brilliant and yet leaves no hope. The orthodoxy is that you must retain hope in books for young people and I thought I agreed until I read that book, but great writers can get away with pretty much anything.

Nicola, with what remains of the cake after a recent visit to Cape Town!

Again, many thanks to Nicola Morgan for giving Absolute Vanilla readers a greater insight into her truly excellent novel.

And enormous thanks again to you, Nicky! I hope your readers will choose to read these books. I want readers to read for pleasure. That’s what it’s all about. Curl up and dive in. Question, wonder, think, be inspired. Don’t sleepwalk through life.


To learn more about Nicola Morgan, including where to buy The Passionflower Massacre and Sleepwalking, please go to Nicola’s website.  

To buy the books, please follow this LINK 

You can follow Nicola Morgan on Twitter at @nicolamorgan

And you can "Like" her on Facebook


Sue Hyams said...

Fascinating interview - thanks to both of you. Lots to think about and also, books to buy! They sound excellent!

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Sue, and huge thanks to Nicky - she put such a lot of time into reading the books in order to ask such deep questions. :)

(Word verification was euarapane!)