A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Book Birthday Interview – Zoe Marriott interviews Sarah Benwell about The Last Leaves Falling

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Sarah, welcome to your very first Book Birthday interview as an Author Allsort!


1) I read your debut novel THE LAST LEAVES FALLING, last year, and I found it profoundly moving and beautiful – in fact, it caused me to have a thoroughly cathartic cry, which I really needed at the time. In your own words, would you describe what the story is about?


Aww, thank you! That’s so nice to hear.


The Last Leaves Falling follows Japanese teenager, Sora, as he comes to terms with a diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and everything that means for him and for those he loves. It’s a story about life and death, hope vs hopelessness, the things we want and the choices we make.



2) I read in another interview that your novel was originally intended to be about a suicide pact between a group of teenage friends, but that the characters wouldn’t cooperate. Can you tell us a bit more about what you first intended and how the book progressed to something quite different?


It was, yes! I initially wanted to explore suicide within both personal and societal contexts, I guess. To look at why, on an individual level, but I don’t think you can ever do that without also examining external forces. The whole concept came out of a long, winding conversation about the horrible suicide statistics in Japan, tremendous pressures on Japanese youth today, the complex historical context surrounding death and honour, and the modern trend towards online suicide pacts.


I’m not sure I could really tell you how that changed, except that I got about 13,000 words in and I just couldn’t write any more. I’d try, and I’d get this is until suddenly I realized that my characters were unhappy in ways I hadn’t meant for them to be, and that I was forcing them to walk into an ending they didn’t want or need, like some kind of awful dictator.


We sat and talked until we came to an understanding, and the book became something both the trio and I were much more comfortable living in/with.


3) Your novel is set in a very grounded, very well realised modern Japan. What inspired you to chose this setting and why do you feel it works so well?


My brain works better in contemporary, I guess. People and cultures and intersections all interest me, and I don’t see enough of that on my shelves.


What I love about this particular setting though, is that it’s so integral to the story – the place and time, the contemporary parts and the history of it, and the spaces where these meet, inform everything. We can’t escape our pasts, even as we make strides, even as we leave our own marks on the world and impact others. It’s particularly evident in Japan, and I was glad to be able to play with that idea, given the nature of Sora’s story.



4) Your main character, Sora, has ALS, a condition which has received a great deal of publicity lately due to the Ice Bucket Challenge, but which I frankly had never heard of before reading THE LAST LEAVES FALLING. What brought ALS to your attention and how did you research it in order to make Sora’s day to day life so real and nuanced?


Honestly, it started as an ‘I know Sora’s in this situation, what fits?’ thing. Having a medical diagnostician friend was useful for figuring that out. Once I knew what he was dealing with, I read everything I could – medical journals, research papers, firsthand accounts, court cases. And with a base knowledge, turning to people who really know: it felt very important to portray things fairly. It will never, ever be 100% the way everyone experiences these things because no two experiences are the same, but I sought out the voices of people with ALS. And I talked to friends who use a wheelchair, or have limited mobility, friends who’ve dealt with the uncertainty, the pain, the meds. I asked questions. I asked them to read my work and pull me up on anything I got horribly wrong.
Beyond that, I guess alot of it is about imagining what it would feel like to deal with the pain and physical constraints and not-knowing – taking whatever experience you have and applying or multiplying that. It’s method-acting of the mind. It’s empathy.


5) Sora’s emotional journey towards acceptance is punctuated by haiku – short Japanese poetry – written by Samurai. What does this poetry mean to you and how did you go about integrating it into your narrative so smoothly?


It’s kind of impossible to properly explain the form, purpose, nuance and history of these poems without a decent essay. But essentially, they’re a distillation of everything I hope the book does, as a final mark upon the world.


6) Are there any questions about the book that you expected to get, but didn’t? Or is there a question you’ve wanted to be asked, but no one has so far?


I‘ve tried to leave everything open, to let readers make their own minds up about the issues the book explores – suicide and assisted death – but I keep expecting to have to defend a lot of the difficult choices Sora makes. So far, though, everyone seems to embrace it as the exploration/ discussion starter I would like it to be.


7)  Are you working on another novel right now Sarah (I hope it’s a yes!), and if so, what is it about?

Yes! I just finished the first draft of an LGBTQ SA-township book. There is music! And f/f kissing! And heartbreak! (I love it a lot and I really hope other people do too.)


And here, as a bonus, is my review of the book:

Beautifully written and brimming with evocative imagery and memorable characters, THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is a poignant, affecting, and unsentimental story of terminal illness written from the point of view of a Japanese teenager. Facing a slow death from the rare degenerative disease ALS – a condition which has recently catapulted into the public’s awareness due to the ubiquitous Ice Bucket Challenge – Sora seeks to understand the true meaning of life, and to take control of his eventual death with dignity and honour. I read this book very shortly after my own father’s death and it was both a cathartic and healing experience.

The thoughtful, at times rawly emotional story of Sora’s journey through the end of his life – and how that life is entwined with the stories of his two friends, Mai and Kaito, and that of his beloved mother – is made accessible to teens with simple yet exquisitely lovely prose, and a deftly sketched, unforgettable main character who I know will live on in my memory for a very long time to come. Fragments of online messages, emails and newspaper articles firmly ground the narrative in the modern world, but the book, and its messages of striving to connect with others and live a meaningful life, are ultimately timeless.

In my opinion THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is a very important book – something like The Boy in the Bubble for the twenty-first century. I’m urging everyone I know to run out and buy it this week!


Sarah Benwell Author Photo credit Jess Howley-Wells

Sarah is a YA author, creative writing mentor, and an advocate for diversity. She runs the Trowbridge Young Writers Squad, is the founder of The Variety Shelves – an upcoming series of events for 2015, highlighting diversity in literature – and one half of the team She loves jungles and deserts and the dark, still corners where the stories live, but spends most of her time at her tiny desk in Bath, with her trusty feline sidekick.
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folk and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom and a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon. In July 2013 The Night Itself, the start of an epic new urban fantasy trilogy, was unleashed onto the world in a tide of Kitsune, Kami and katanas, with the second book, Darkness Hidden, releasing last year . Zoë is proudly represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literacy Agency.




This entry was posted on January 29, 2015 by .

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