Sarah Mussi was born in Gloucestershire. After her education at a girl’s school in Cheltenham, she completed a post graduate degree at the Royal College of Art before leaving the UK for West Africa. She lived in Ghana, West Africa for over eighteen years, marrying a Ghanaian and teaching in Accra. Sarah now lives in Brixton and teaches in Lewisham, splitting her holidays between England and Ghana.
Siege, Riot and Breakdown are all set in the near future. Each of these futures is terrifying to me (I think because they are so plausible) for example: forced population control, the school system in Siege. Where does the inspiration come from?
I think the inspiration for my books – at least the ones that you mention – comes from working with young people and seeing the world through their eyes. Being around teenagers practically everyday (teaching is the day job!) – you would have to be very insensitive not to see the very many worries they have – the biggest one of which is what the future holds for them. This worry encompasses: how they will make their mark /be successful/become the people they want to be and be happy and fulfilled and possibly rich too. They are naturally concerned about the dangers that lie ahead of them – and being teenagers they are beset with all sorts of other anxieties too – which they do not always know how to respond to – and sometimes cannot always put a finger on, or a name to. I think they are apprehensive of growing up and of taking up their place in a society that hasn’t happened yet and seems so changeable and so alien – and – yes, let’s be truthful, is often very unwelcoming to young adults.
Teenagers have to accept a lot of bad press and are rarely championed as being the solutions to the past – or the great hope of the future. The teenagers I work with also often seem rather cast down to me, sad maybe at losing the carefree nature of childhood and their earlier visions of a fantastic world out there waiting for them. So that when I begin to see The World through their eyes – it seems a very dark and forbidding place filled with very many troubles. I think that the settings I create in my novels reflect this, and I suppose I am always trying to find a happy or at least hopeful or workable solution to the possible darkness I sense they feel is lying ahead for them.
On the back on that I’m giving you a free platform to talk about anything – GO:
Well on that point (the darkness – I mean – as above)- I guess I am always trying to create a utopia out of the possible many dystopias that await young people. I feel that one of the most important things I want to do is to empower female heroines to be able to make meaningful social change. I guess at heart I’m The Original Feminist – though I have learned to shut up a bit on that front (!) But I want to create heroines who take up a clear position (often at some personal cost) vis-à-vis the establishment: for example in SIEGE: the education system, in RIOT; the political system, in BREAKDOWN: corruption and apathy and excess – anyway I then want to have these heroines fight for themselves – but also for others – kids who perhaps have no voice or are too bound up with the Here and Now to be able to see the bigger picture. Don’t get me wrong, not that I want my heroines to have an elevated/worthy position (yuk) or be trying to change social outcomes from a worthy point of view (double yuk) I want them to be very much grass roots and down with the peeps, so that even though in a book like RIOT, my protagonist, Tia, who comes from a moneyed background, does not have access to the avenues of power that her family have – and must fight against the impending future outlined for her and her peers in the same way as any other person. I guess I want to see the triumph of the everyday character. I want Bambi to take on Tyrannosaurus Rex and win.
Your books have strong characters, which of these would you say is closest to you?
In many ways I think I am like all of my characters, or at least there is a part of me in all of them. For example like Leah in SIEGE, I’m concerned about responsibilities between family members and how our actions affect other people close to us; like Tia in RIOT I want to right the wrongs that I see around me and correct injustices and fight for everyone to have a better future. And like Melissa in BREAKDOWN, I am quite determined. I don’t think many things stop me once I’ve set my mind on my goal. I want to carry on going until I get there. I think I possibly – actually even put bits of myself into all of my characters – not just my protagonists – even into the bad guys! When creating my villains there are elements of me that I have drawn on to give them life, give them something a bit more realistic than just moustache twirling villainy.
So why did you want to write Bomb?
BOMB is one of those dark futures out there waiting for the unsuspecting. It is one of the darkest shades of darkness that has haunted me the most. Recent events in schools in London – in the UK – seriously spooked me – so I wrote BOMB to highlight a growing problem – but writing a book takes a lot longer that it does for days and weeks to speed by – and the darkness that I was grappling with in BOMB suddenly and terrifyingly mushroomed into a horrible reality. As I was writing the novel – events turned fiction into fact, and I’ve been left with a very weird sense of literary deja vu and of not really having managed to lay the demons that drove me to write BOMB to rest at all.
If you could only pick one of your books to recommend, which would be and why? (Yes I’m mean.)
Well it would have to be BOMB – because that deals with the darkness around us right now – but I think SIEGE was my best – because it is really uncompromising and BREAKDOWN my fave – because it has such a beautiful resolution.
Best & worst things about being a writer?
One of the best things about being a writer is that you can go on research trips (I’m on a research trip right now) and do lots of writing with lots of details and description – and you don’t have to actually sit down and do the hard work of Writing. In short you do all the fun bits of driving around, taking photos, dictating notes and imagining outcomes. TOTAL BLISS. The next favourite thing is talking through plotlines – I LOVE that !!! I love sitting around a table with other writers and plotting out stories and suddenly inventing marvellous and magnificent scenes and plot twists and metaphors for reality!
I think one of the worst bits about writing is when things don’t appear on the page as you envisage them when on those amazing research trips, and when having those conversations around those writerly tables, after a glass of wine! You can’t get the idea to be on the page in the way that is in your brain -and you feel so clumsy as a writer – the words aren’t there -the meaning isn’t there – and you get very dispirited. Another of the worst things about being a writer is sometimes working to a deadline and there is never enough time. I get to sometimes what I call the Muesli Stage of writing – which means I’m just stuck to the laptop (however sunny it is outside/ whatever treats others offer me) and all I’ve got is a box of muesli next to me and a jug of water – and I just have to just keep going eating handfuls of dry cereal stuff to keep me going until it’s all done – terribly bad for your health and it makes a horrible mess too. SHEER HELL.
Changing the subject, apart from writing what do you love doing?
Apart from writing what I love doing most is walking. I like walking mostly through the countryside – though I’m not terribly keen on it when it’s wet – and I’m not a fast walker or a mountain climber or anything very elite in that sort of way. I just like to plod along with my earphones in listening to a book that I might have downloaded from Audible or perhaps an old classic that I got as a freebie from Librivox. I like sitting on park benches and musing about the things around me too – after I’ve done two or three miles.
What do you think are the differences between UK and US YA?
I’m not sure I’m very qualified to talk about the differences between YA in the US and UK. But if pushed I’d say – I think all YA is absolutely fascinating and important and wonderful – and I think the strands of the genre are possibly quite inter-changeable between the two countries. The only thing that they have of course in the US is a much bigger audience pool.
And what happens now?
What happens now is that I finish this amazing trilogy that I’m writing about Welsh Dragons! It’s based on legends from the Mabinogion which are spliced into the genre of the supernatural and ROMANCE. Yes ! I’m going to come out as a ROMANTIC – and shout about LOVE and DRAGONS and MAGIC and totally indulge myself and escape from the darkness for a bit …! Something to help me get over BOMB. (But don’t worry all you readers out there – I will also keep on writing about DARK FUTURES and TERRIFYING SITUATIONS too – in fact I am also working on a really scary book RIGHT NOW called KILL CAMP ….. more on that soon ….)
However at this VERY moment I’m about to go off to Cadair Idris to investigate the myths and mystery behind the giant, Idris Gawr. I’m going to FIND A GIANT, and see if he can be fallen in love with – sound good?
Tea or coffee?
When no one is watching do you dance?
No, I don’t dance but I make up a lot of very silly rhymes. I just sing them to myself as I’m plodding along.
You can have one superpower, what would you like?
What do you do when you see your books in shops?
Favourite dish, that you can actually cook?
The book you’ve read the most?
Lord of the Rings!
Last film you saw at the cinema?
What’s the perfect cure to a bad day?
Gin & a good book.
And finally, what is the question you wish people would ask and never do?
Oh I don’t know something easy to answer and something that doesn’t make me sound all pretentious and things – something fun and silly and good for a laugh!
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