Interview with Sarah Benwell

Sarah Benwell / Photo credit Jess Howley-Wells

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Sarah is a YA author, creative writing mentor, and an advocate for diversity.

Sarah runs the Trowbridge Young Writers Squad, is the founder of The Variety Shelves – a series of events highlighting diversity in literature, throughout 2015 – and one half of the team running DiversifYA.com

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SWritesBooks

Luna: I am SO excited to welcome Sarah on my blog today *lays out a smorgasbord of Japanese mochi and treats*.

Why did you want to write The Last Leaves Falling?
It started out as a very different book, following a conversation about suicide in Japan. Hovering at roughly 30,000 per year, Japan’s suicide rate is about 60% higher than the world average. It’s the second highest causes of death in young people and still the leading cause in women age 15-34. That’s horrifying.

Last Leaves started out exploring why. In the original, Sora was one of three teenagers forming a suicide pact. But it turns out the story was all wrong for the characters in my head. I was forcing them to make desperate, irreversible decisions in the name of plot, and ultimately I couldn’t go through with it. So I relinquished control to the characters and the story’s focus shifted. To choice, control, and dignity.

The moral and legal debates surrounding end of life choices and the right to die are – correctly – impassioned. We’re all connected to it. Whether we’ve watched someone fight or languish, or have simply wondered what if this were me? Whether we’re for or against it or somewhere in between. Of course we are all passionate. It affects us all.

Debating is good. The issues are complex and the potential for harm if we get it wrong is very, very real.

Last Leaves offers one perspective – the voice of one, lone, fictional teenager – but I hope that it’s done in such a way that readers can approach the issues and explore them safely, and make up their own minds.

Best thing about being a writer?
So I look at my bookshelves, and this is what I see…


Worlds. And struggles. Triumphs.
Beauty and pain and injustices righted.
And ideas – deep, wide, soul-changing ideas.
And dear old friends.

To be a part of that – to be able to offer up worlds and ideas and comforts to readers… that’s the greatest privilege and biggest joy I can imagine.

Luna: Sorry, can I move in and just read for a bit please? *pretty books*

And the worst?
OMG, the self doubt. ‘Can I do this?’ ‘Was last time a fluke?’ ‘A trampled mollusk could do this better.’  ‘What if I get this wrong and offend lots of people?’ So. Much. Insecurity.

I KNOW I’m not alone in this. As writers we take these giant balls of thought and feeling and experience which live and grow inside us and we turn them into words. It’s as hard and painful as it is beautiful. Most of us love what we do. We care. We take risks to make ourselves and our stories better and to get them out into the world. We make ourselves vulnerable.

But what that does, for me, is it makes me think deeply about what I’m trying to do. It makes me aim for work which is as true and fair and well written as it can be. It makes me better, and I’m grateful for it.

What do you think are the differences between UK and US YA?
There are many, many differences, rooted in demographics and publishing structures, the ways books reach readers and a thousand other things.

My first instinct was to answer this in complete terms, looking at tone and content and diversity, publishing houses and gatekeepers and audiences. But I feel like I shouldn’t launch into that without careful thought, detailed, structured arguments, and more sources than I have to hand (#geekyacademic #fairrep). Perhaps I’ll write that essay sometime.

I will say that there’s an edge to UK YA that is absent from a lot of the US YA we see. It’s… darker. I like the edge. I believe that books allow us to experience and explore difficult things, safely; that they can help us figure out the world and ourselves. But then, I grew up with the edge, and perhaps I’d feel differently if I hadn’t.

The UK and US editions of THE LAST LEAVES FALLING ended up quite different from one another. But somehow, they both feel right. I love them, equally. And I don’t think either one suffers from those differences. They’re simply that: different.

How do you feel about the different covers for the book, do you prefer one?
I love them both, actually.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Yuko Shimizu’s work, so having her art on the US cover is a bit surreal and very, very wonderful. But I also love how bright and bold the UK cover is. That red is gorgeous. And I’m totally flattered by the nod towards the latest Murakami covers.

I love love love how much time and thought went into getting them both exactly right. I totally lucked out in the cover department.

Tell us something about yourself that not many people know.
I was once detained for a horrendously long time at a border crossing, under suspicion of being a terrorist spy. Because, largely, of a penny whistle.

You’re one of the founders of DiversifYA, tell us more about it.
I can’t take that credit. Marieke Nijkamp started the whole beautiful thing. I am, however, one half of the current team.

DiversifYA is a blog/ twitter account which serves as an introduction to diversity, set up because the world is so much richer than the one we often read about in books. Diversity is reality. We try to illustrate that through varied interviews and discussions.

I love it. It’s incredible to read so many awesome people’s stories, to be able give so many different perspectives the space to shine.

I’m giving you a free platform to talk about anything – GO:
I’m resisting the urge to rant about Lord Freud, or the stack of (unrelated) death certificates sitting on my desk (research is hard, y’all). But can we just talk about diversity as a whole, because I’m so sick of this stuff.

Not everyone you encounter is going to be the same as you. Unless you live in a weird place full of creepy clones, and we’ve all seen the movies, that never ends well. The sooner the world accepts that and stops being creeped out or disgusted or threatened by it, the better. Difference is good.

I want to see that difference on my bookshelves. For all the reasons people are yelling about – because we can’t all find ourselves: even if you can, other people can’t. Because the world isn’t full of creepy clones. Because ignorance breeds intolerance and fear and hatred and resentment, and representation can help fix that. Because that ‘neutral’ choice, it isn’t neutral, it’s choosing to represent only a majority.

I don’t want to live in this world of exclusion and ignorance.

Things are looking up. #WNDB is doing magnificent things and encouraging people to make positive change. As have many others. As are many others. But we’re all in this together.
If you want to see more diversity, join the conversation. Show your support. Seek out diverse authors and stories; buy them, borrow them from libraries, and recommend the ones you love.

And if you’re a writer, and your characters are not diverse, maybe you should look around you and ask yourself why.

Please. I’m tired of living in a world where I have news-rage every day and there’s a stack of death certificates upon my desk.

What happens next? 
Um. Last Leaves is out in January (WHAT? HOW?). In the meantime I’m working on the next book – set in a South African township, with a whole cast of queer characters – and a secret MG project.
Marieke and I have been working on some very exciting diversity stuff. 2015 is going to be a year of CHANGE. Change and awesomeness. We’re planning events. A whole, year-long calendar of events, culminating in a 3-day festival! We’re still in relatively early stages, but we have some INCREDIBLE people on board. That’s probably all I can say for now, but more details will follow very, very soon, I promise. (FESTIVAL! Dedicated to diverse kidlit! EEEEE!)

Can you pick 5 books you’d recommend? 
Argh? Five? Really?

Luna: Actually Marieke ended up with way more (click here to see them), so you know just go for it. 😉

The only way I can do this is by limiting it. So. Since I’ve been talking about LAST LEAVES, here are 5 wonderful books with a Japanese link:

Zoe Marriott’s SHADOWS ON THE MOON. I love this book. It’s beautiful and complex and I want to walk around in that world forever.
Lian Hearn’s OTORI books – It’s a while since I’ve read these, but they’re incredible. Somehow these books manage to be thrilling and meditative both at once. They definitely shaped my early thoughts on aspects of Last Leaves.
Furuya Usamaru’s JISATSU CIRCLE is not for the faint of heart. But it is kind of fascinating if you can stomach it. (I had less luck with the movie. The opening sequence is just… **shudder**)
Banana Yoshimoto’s KITCHEN actually gets a spotlight in TLLF.
And I can’t write this list without mentioning Murakami. Something weird happens to my perspective for a few days after I read one of his books. I see things differently, as though I’m not looking at anything directly, but rather, seeing the world through a macro lens. AFTER DARK was my first Murakami, and it’s probably my favourite for that reason.

If Japan isn’t your thing, how about 5 recs which broach mortality?

I’m betting TFioS is already on everyone’s radar, so I’m leaving that one out. Because I love that book, but there is so much more. The first, I read when I was eight. I lost my copy in a house move, aged eleven and I’ve yet to replace it. It may not stand up to the test of time, I don’t know, but eight year old me totally crushed on Jean and I don’t think I ever stopped, and Christine Marion Fraser’s BEYOND THE RAINBOW broke my heart.
Patrick Ness’ A MONSTER CALLS is spectacular. It destroyed me, in the best of ways. Pick up the illustrated version if you can.
Crystal Chan’s BIRD is one of those books I really, really wish I’d written (even though I couldn’t have). It’s a gorgeous melting pot of loss, friendship, cultural heritage, the supernatural and our connection with the universe. Did I mention that it’s fricking gorgeous?
Jandy Nelson’s THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE is… poetry. Pure, simple, wonderful poetry, wrapped up in a novel. God, I love that book.
There are so, so many more that I could pick. Clare Furniss’ THE YEAR OF THE RAT; Sally Nicholls’ WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER; FLYING FOR FRANKIE; RED INK; BLINK ONCE; BEFORE I DIE… But no. Not this time.
THE KING OF THE COPPER MOUNTAINS isn’t what you’d expect to see on this list at all. But the king is dying, and the only thing that keeps him alive are these stories. It’s the first time that baby Sarah came across the idea of how powerful stories can be; the first illustration I had of how words can keep us alive. And although there’s no literal truth in that, the writer in me really, really hopes that in some way it might just be true.

I could recommend books to you forever. I could give you my favourite SA books (so far – I’m looking for more, hit me up if you have recs) or QUILTBAG books or Gave-Me-Feels or Places-I-Want-To-Explore books. But I won’t because we’d be here forever. I WILL however, tell you that there is some wonderful diverse kid lit coming your way in 2015. Check out this awesome Goodreads list of thirty – yes, thirty – debut titles from the Diversity League: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/73646.Diverse_YA_and_MG_Debuts_in_2015 I cannot WAIT to display each and every one of those books on my shelves, and to press them into people’s hands.

There’s also Liz Kessler’s long awaited READ ME LIKE A BOOK, and the third NAME OF THE BLADE book, which OMG I NEED IT ALREADY.
C’mon, 2015!

QUICKFIRE Round

What word describes you best?
Stubborn, probably.

Tea or coffee?
Oh God. Don’t make me choooose! (Coffee. Sorry, tea)

I say sushi, you say = Gimme.

When no one is watching do you dance?
No. But when no one’s listening, I sing.

Do you ever re-arrange book displays in bookshops?
Not often. I’d like to but I’m too much of a scaredy cat. But I will start random flaily conversations with strangers recommending the books I’d like to place face-out.

What super/magic power would you like?
Speed reading. Like, super speed. There just isn’t enough time to read everything, so I’d like to be able to flick through a book and take in every word. Although the emotional punch of a whole book in one moment might be… intense.

You’re at the airport with a free pass to get on any plane – where would you go?
Right now? Back to Nkhata Bay, Malawi. But that changes almost hourly. Can I have a round-the-world ticket, please?

What book have you read the most?
I read and re-read everything I owned as a kid. As a teen I’d read the Discworld books or Gaiman again and again and again. Recently, not much gets a reread, but there’s an ms by one of my CPs which I think has hit 6, maybe 7 reads. And honestly, I’d read it again tomorrow. You guys are going to LOVE that book.

The perfect cure to a bad day?
Words. Writing them. It doesn’t cure exactly, but it definitely helps.

And finally, what is the question you wish people would ask and never do?
Would you please step into the TARDIS?

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“And these are they. My final moments. They say a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this…”

Japanese teenager, Sora, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.

You can read my review of The Last Leaves Falling by clicking the link HERE but basically I LOVED it. SO MUCH. 😀

Expected publication:
29th January 2015
by Definitions (Random House Children’s Publishers)

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Sarah Benwell

  1. Pingback: Sarah Benwall – Interview Update | Luna’s Little Library

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