Malorie Blackman needs no introduction, but here’s a fact that sums up her prowess as a children’s and YA writer: Chasing the Stars, is her 69th book. That 69th book is based on Othello and set in space, but how did Malorie get to that idea?
“I call sci-fi the fiction of the possible.”
“I love Shakespeare’s plays,” she explains. “Othello was the first time I encountered a black character in literature. I always thought one day I’d want to write my own version.” It’s not the first Shakespearean influence on her books – Noughts & Crosses was her own Romeo and Juliet. This book was originally set in a boarding school, but it wasn’t working. Her lead kept appearing in her head saying “I’m in space!” and when she listened, it all fell into place.
“If I’m going to be inspired by something, I want to make it my own,” she continues. It was never about copying Othello plot point for plot point; it stays true, but not restrictively so. She liked toying with love, shifting Othello from being an older man, to Olivia being a teen girl – it’s interesting to explore broken hearts, jealousy and anger through that lens. “Love is the only thing where other people can turn you inside out.”
Malorie is a big sci-fi fan, think went-to-a-Star-Trek-movie-marathon-in-uniform when one of the new movies came out, so to her it was a no brainer to write sci-fi at some point, and great fun. “I call sci-fi the fiction of the possible,” she notes. It’s about going, “But what if this happens? I love playing games with that.”
“Nobody writes in a vacuum,” explains Malorie. She’s aware of issues the world over as she writes and they can influence the story. The new book is raunchy, but she’s read studies and stories about teen consumption of porn and how that impacts their view of sex. She wanted to show sex in the context of a loving relationship as a counterview; it’s a safe space for teens to explore the topic, as all books are.
“Children rise to your expectations.”
Syrian refugees were also a strong influence. The rhetoric of cockroaches swarming “was just so disgusting.” In Chasing the Stars is more about class than race, but the appearance of the Drones – with no money and no prospects, looking for a better world – forces her lead to reeducate her thinking. There’s a lot of challenging perceptions in her books: age, class, race.
When audience questions come, Noughts & Crosses is discussed in depth. Malorie poured her heart and soul into it, “it was a very painful book to write.” She thought she had dealt with stuff and let it go, but it burned deeper than she thought, putting it into these books was a cathartic experience.
She asked a history teacher why they didn’t talk about any black scientists, for example, to be told “there aren’t any”. The first time she rode first class on a train she was accused of stealing a ticket. She said to her careers teacher she wanted to be an English teacher to be told, “Black people don’t become teachers, why don’t you become a secretary instead?”
“I think children rise to your expectations,” she says. “If you expect nothing, that’s what you get.”
But Malorie is proof that people can be wrong; in fact, those experiences taught her that if you can always find a way to follow where you want to go. She got offered a place at where she wanted to study what she wanted – she turned it down but, despite what she’d been told, she could do it. She kept that in mind when she received 82 rejection letters before a publisher said yes to her books, and it’s what everyone could, and probably should, take away from her own story: “Do not let them stop you, you find a way to go around them.”