Whilst promoting her debut novel Half Bad, Sally Green has found one question arising again and again…
On the first of February I arrived back home after a pre-publication tour of the US for my debut novel, Half Bad, slightly better informed but even more tired than usual; though five cities in eight nights is (apparently) fairly tame for an author’s tour. The US grand tour followed a similarly informative tour of the UK (Manchester, London, Edinburgh and Birmingham compared to Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, LA and San Francisco). Not that it made much difference where I was as I saw little of any of the cities!
There were a few differences between my UK and US tours, but one clear similarity – I was meeting booksellers in each city and they were all equally knowledgeable and equally enthusiastic (some almost fanatically nuts) about books. Most of these people had read advance copies of Half Bad and from Edinburgh to LA they had similar comments: “Jessica is wonderfully evil”, “I’m in love with Gabriel”, “There’s a strong sense of place”, but the most common was a variable of, “Did you set out to raise the issue of racism?”
I’m at the very early stage in my writing career and find feedback fascinating; whether or not I agree with it I’m curious as to what readers spot in my writing. Initially I was surprised that the issue of racism was brought up (repeatedly, with one book reviewer drawing comparisons with Roots and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Half Bad is set in a world where White Witches hate and persecute Black Witches, and Black and White must be two of the most frequently used words in the book, so maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised that magic wasn’t the only thing on readers’ minds. However, the wider subject on my mind was a more generalised battle between “Us” and “Them” and nationalism rather than racism. I’m interested in perceptions we have about others (and ourselves), which politicians and newspapers reinforce by subtle and not so subtle use of language. Why are we not more suspicious that “we” are always the good guys?
However, in San Francisco on the last evening of my tour a bookseller made a different remark – “I was reminded of John McCarthy.” I was surprised only because no one else had yet discussed imprisonment with me, and I was relieved too that someone had understood what I was trying to achieve (through a young adult novel about witches). Nathan, my teenage hero, is imprisoned in a cage at the opening of the story and is beaten and broken by the experience, though he lives on. I wanted to explore Nathan’s psychological battles as well as his physical ones. I went to a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (as does Nathan) rather than John McCarthy to see how prisoners do survive and to reassure myself that Nathan would live through his ordeal. As ever truth is more horrific than fiction and the reality of hardships endured by prisoners of the gulags seem incredible.
One of the key relationships in Half Bad is between Nathan and his jailor, Celia, a White Witch. Their relationship is close and intense; they get to know each other better than any mother and son, teacher and pupil or sergeant and private. Respect between them grows and possibly because of its intensity the relationship is a kind of love (though I have never been sure I believed in Stockholm Syndrome). Still, Celia would kill Nathan if she was told to as there would be no other choice open to her and Nathan would kill Celia as a means to escape. Nathan is a prisoner not because he did anything wrong but because of who and what he is (half Black Witch). But Celia too is a victim of circumstances, her life dictated by what she is (White Witch) and the society she lives in.
And that does bring me back to racism, slavery and the view of Solomon Northup in his book 12 Years A Slave that it “is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives”. In Half Bad, both White Witches and Black Witches range from good to evil, but the Whites’ cruelty somehow appears the worst as it stems not from their nature (as with Black Witches) but from their system. It is a system created by White Witches to protect themselves, and fear is at its root.
So, to get back to the original feedback about racism, no, when I started writing Half Bad I had the simple objective of writing the best story I could about a teenage witch called Nathan and the blurred lines between good and evil. But I’m delighted that it has caused a few people sitting round a dinner table to talk about to wider issues, and to include me in their discussions.
Sally Green, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can Reserve & Collect Half Bad from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1efiPYp), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/MYm8J4) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/1hWYshG)