Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Sarah Mussi started out with every intention of following a carer as an artist; that did not turn out to be what happened, and now she is now an award-winning and critically acclaimed YA author - as well as being a teacher. Here she talks to Graham Marks about her fascinating and well-travelled life, and the story behind her latest novel, Siege…
Before we get onto your new book, Siege, some background…you went to art school, and not just any old art school because you did a post-graduate degree at the Royal College Art (RCA).
That’s right, I did.
What were you studying?
Two things, really. I got accepted into the Painting department, which at that time was quite a prestigious place to be, because of the David Hockney legacy, and it was run by a guy call Peter De Francia. But I didn’t really get on there very well as they were more into flat canvas art and I was doing 3D work. So I actually changed to the Tapestry department – would you believe they had a Tapestry department – which is also like a Fine Art department, but more modern, halfway between painting and sculpture, really. They were very forward-thinking, which suited me because the Painting department was a little bit set in its ways in terms of what it expected you to come up with.
What happened to the art career?
Well, after the RCA I won a scholarship, a Sanderson scholarship, from the big wallpaper people. I went to west Africa…they do a lot of work there with different media, baskets and beads. First of all, though, as part of my degree, I’d been to Ife [E-fay] University in Nigeria where they were doing huge murals, and then I came back, put in for the scholarship, packed my little bag and went off into darkest Cameroon to study, particularly the Bamileke people and the Foumban Palace.
Is this where you started teaching?
Yes, I ran out of money from the scholarship…I spent it all, having too much fun!
You typical student, you!
I thought, Oops! I’d better finish this project that I’d said I’d do, and [try to] get a job. But seeing as they’re all such seriously brilliant artists over there, there wasn’t a lot of call for anyone who did painting and tapestry, so I taught English instead. They all speak French, you see, so it was a useful thing to do.
So how long did you do that?
About two years. Then I got into music a bit and I decided to travel around with a band, led by someone called Prince Nico Mbarga; he wanted me to keep on painting portraits of him for his club, so I did…he got to be quite famous in west Africa. That was rather fun and I had ambitions of being one of those girls singing ‘Sha-na-na-na-na-na-na’ in the background, a back-up singer; they did actually let me, as a favour, but probably faded me out.
So when did the urge to begin storytelling start knocking on your door?
Ah, well, storytelling…I’m glad you said that, storytelling as a opposed to writing, because I never was very hot on writing, but I was quite good at storytelling.
I guess I told stories right from very early age; I had to share a bedroom with my sister, you see. My father wrote critical anthologies, he was a literary critic, and we weren’t ever allowed to read anything normal, like Enid Blyton, we had to start off with Jane Eyre, at the age of seven, which was a bit tedious, but we’d go just off and tell stories to each other. We created imaginary animals and had them doing imaginary things, and we did it for years.
My father was quite a crusty old chap, and he didn’t think I’d be any good at writing, in fact he told me not to do any writing as ‘Only the gods write’; but he thought art would be OK, so I was allowed to do that.
Do you think you could you have written Siege if you hadn’t had all your experiences and insights as a teacher - at the coalface, so to speak?
No, not really - but I might have written something else better, though!
I think all one’s experiences get somehow reworked and the reality in them gets redefined - and I do agree with my father on that point, that it’s only through the workings of literature that you can actually show what reality is really like. Because in real life you’re so preoccupied with the moment to moment that you don’t see the bigger picture of where all these events are going. You have to take it all in and reflect.
Actually, with Siege, I woke up in the middle of the night, bolt upright, and I just knew that this gang of Year 9’s had burst in and were holding the school hostage. But I think this story had been a long time coming. I’d been working in troubled schools in south London and we’d actually had somebody hiding in the roof of a school [I was at]. And it all came together, and turned into a story – or turned into an idea, not a story, because you then have to interview the idea, so to speak, and find out who’s behind it all.
Oh, that’s an interesting concept – you’re absolutely right, you do sit there and ask your ideas questions. And as you were saying before, stories allow us to focus on what we find important, as writers.
Reality is too packed with miscellaneous things, and there is no pattern in reality; much as we might like to think there is, there kind of isn’t. It’s only when you rework reality and give it a shape that you can discover what’s underneath it all – at least discover one person’s perspective about what might be underneath it all.
As I was reading Siege it seemed to me that you feel Leah is the kind of person who is completely able to rise above the expectations of her background.
I don’t know that any child limits themselves to the expectations of their background…I think the only limitations imposed on them are from outside, I think most children feel they have an unlimited ability to do things.
Is Leah’s brother, Connor, then, the type of child who has given up on that thought.
He’s quite a troubled person, isn’t he? I think boys often have it harder than the girls. That’s my experience: young men are much more lost than young women, they’ve got to make a huge contribution to society but they don’t know what it expects of them and they don’t feel equal to the task. I don’t know, perhaps they’ve got bigger egos, or maybe they feel they ought to have.
And I can imagine, for someone like Connor, as the only boy in a single-parent, all-female family, that he felt quite strangled, and made impotent, perhaps, by this capable older sister who was bright and clever and self-sacrificing – I mean there’s nothing more disgusting than having someone sacrificing themselves for you, is there? You’d hate them…I can imagine lots of resentment and anger building up there.
Anger and also searching for a place where he can be himself…
I don’t think Connor’s as bright as Leah, or, if he is, he’s decided that being dumb is cleverer.
Leah has a very strong, very positive voice; this book is Leah, it’s told entirely through her and she grabs us and takes us thought it - where did she come from?
You know something, writing Siege was actually quite easy, but it had been brewing for quite a long time in my head…I’d been hearing Leah chatting to me for quite a while before I started.
From a writer’s point of view, I wanted to examine a notion of survival and what that meant, and so I set up two characters who had very different ideas of what it meant: Leah and Anton. His idea of survival is just the physical survival of the self…you shut up and keep quiet until they rescue you, and you survive; but hers reaches way beyond that because of her background, because she’s been taking care of her family for so long. For Leah, survival of the self isn’t paramount anymore, it’s about the survival of the group. I was examining that and once I got inside that mind set it was easy to know what she’d do next.
Is that a general belief in human nature, the ‘survival of the group’ scenario?
No, I think it’s probably more an internal debate: Do we go for the greater good, or do we look after Ms Mussi? Sometimes it’s pertinent to look after yourself - you have to, to a point, to be able to look after other people.
Siege is a pretty heavy book, in terms of storyline; there is quite a lot of violence, but no swearing – your choice? Or did you have to censor yourself at all, were you ever asked to tone things down?
Um…[pauses]…I don’t really know how to answer that – do you think there should be swearing in it?
I think this is a real problem when you’re writing YA books – do you try and reflect the actual language of the people you’re writing about, or not? It’s a difficult choice, not a question of whether there should be…
…I always think that we shouldn’t let reality get in the way of a good story – just because kids swear, it doesn’t mean we have to reflect that.
A very good point…so you weren’t ever censoring yourself?
No, I don’t think Leah would do a lot of swearing.
The story is just a little under ten hours long, in the real-time structure you’ve used; was that structure there from the start of the project?
Well, initially, I was going to have the story last even longer, over the course of a weekend, but I can’t quite remember now why I made it shorter. I think it was probably the practicalities of story crafting – figuring out where characters will eat and sleep – which made me decide to make it over the duration of one day, which I quite liked, the idea of a-day-in–the-life. The Before time, the Time and the After time, you know, and that one day can actually change everything.
Did you work the story out, minute by minute, hour by hour?
I did take time to make sure that the timings were pretty spot-on with how long to would take you to climb out of a ceiling and run down a corridor, have a conversation on the phone or drag your friend into a cupboard. I did try to keep it pretty much as time-correct as you can.
Were you running around your present school with a stopwatch, timing yourself?
Yes, I kind of did…the geography of the place is pretty much the same, but that’s all.
And did this structure – in that way some ideas do - ever create any problems you had to solve, or did it all work really well?
Oh no, no books ever work very well! You go though that stage of saying ‘I’ve got this really fantastic idea…’ and you think it all through, writing yourself lots of notes, and then you get to a certain point and it all falls apart. Which of course it did with Siege. I didn’t quite know what was going to happen [at a very important part of the book], until I figured out the bigger picture; I almost abandoned the story when all it looked like it was going to be was some random story about somebody who gets involved in a shooting and escapes. But then I realised that there was nothing random about it all, that it was meaningful…which is a bit post-modern, isn’t it, with me making sense out of what’s happening inside a reality I’ve created.
I did wonder how much of the backstory – the politics, the socio-economics, the whole world you’ve set it in – you had worked out before you started writing.
Not so much, I don’t think. I just kept interviewing the situation as it went along, as I came up with it; I had to keep asking myself Why? and How? I had to come up with feasible answers, and luckily they were all out there.
Do you know when in the timeline this story takes place? Is it weeks, months or years in the future?
At first it was about 2030, but then I kind of bought to down to 2018 [in my head]…I wanted it to have this very just-about-to-happen feeling.
At any point when you were writing did you ever plan to tell us more about the bad guys?
No, no plans to tell you much more about them…interestingly, I grew up in Cheltenham and went to an all-girls’ grammar school; a lot of the students I was there with, their fathers worked at GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters], which is huge government intelligence centre. There was always a feeling of secrecy…you’d go to their houses and you couldn’t really ask straight questions to their families…they didn’t give you answers. I met these quite personable Dads, and I suppose they’d all signed the Official Secrets Act, but they had this shadiness about them and you did wonder if they went off to work and condemned people to death with the press of a button. They did in my imagination at the time, anyway.
At one point Leah says ‘Someone’s always got something to lose, even if it’s tomorrow’, which I thought was a really pivotal moment in the book. Did you plan that, or did she just say it?
She just said it…one of her insightful comments. And maybe it was something of an adult reflection on loss, and how much of what we’ve got, or think we’ve got, we’re prepared to lose.
Did you do any research for the book?
Yes, yes, I did…I did loads of research. I read all the transcriptions of the Beslan school shootings [in Russia]…read through all the articles about the Columbine shootings [in the USA] and of course the book We Need to Talk About Kevin…as well as watching [some films] and a whole range of other things.
Did all the research have any effect on you, was it tough?
No, I found it quite interesting, partly because I’ve worked in very troubled schools and have seen a lot of young people acting out. It’s a very thin line they have to hold onto - how far to act out and what reality is – [especially] when you consider that a lot of these young people are going home and killing thousands of graphic images in Call of Duty, and how fragile their sense of self is. I find it interesting, in an academic way, if that doesn’t sound too cold, that some young people don’t actually hold the line, and step over it and these terrible things happen.
Is one of the prime messages here: education, education, education?
I guess I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t believe that education is really the key – and I mean education, not necessarily teaching. We spend a heck of a lot of time teaching to exams, but children have to be truly educated, allowed to be inquisitive and questioning about why the world is like it is, and [we have to try] to provide if not answers at least more questions that will take them to the next level. That’s really important, otherwise worlds close down and you get disenfranchised and disillusioned youngsters.