A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
So, I’m sitting here rather chuffed and pleased with myself. For getting the chance not only to read Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan before its launch today, but to interview the extremely talented Ms Sheehan herself. The Carnegie-nominated author of Who Framed Klaris Cliff? and Swan Boy.
Goodnight, Boy is a tale of two very different worlds, both shattered by the loss of loved ones. Locked inside a kennel by his adoptive father, JC starts to tell his dog Boy about how he came to this country: his family; the orphanage and the Haitian earthquake that swept everything away. And so begins a stunning story of a boy, a dog and their journey to freedom.
Introductions over, on with the interview. . .
Hello, Nikki! Firstly, huge congratulations on writing such a hauntingly beautiful, enchanting, evocative (and surely, soon to be award-winning) story. Could you start by sharing a little of what inspired you to write Goodnight, Boy?
Thank you! I’m never really very sure where my books come from, but I was thinking about friendship, and its power in situations of hardship. At the same time I’d read about a child who was kept in a kennel as a punishment, and I wanted to write a dog story, so I suppose I put all three together!
Dogs. They feature heavily in the story, not only with main canine character. Boy. Was this something you always intended to include, to examine relationships and attachments?
Yes, I think the friendship between a dog and a child is an extraordinarily pure one, and a really good template for future relationships. This is especially so for a child who has been consistently let down by, or separated from, all of his important humans. In the book my main character, JC, experiences the sort of unconditional love and psychological support that allows him to survive, and even grow emotionally, while being held captive. I have three kids, and I’ve often said to other parent friends considering getting a pet that I believe a dog to be the only thing you can buy a child that will really improve their quality of life (well, OK, I’ll concede that cats can be pretty great too), and I stick by that.
Are dogs close to your own heart? Oh yes! I have two, mother and daughter labradoodles called Tinker and Coco. But I also make doggy friends wherever I go. I’m on a retreat in the south of France at the moment, and this is my newest friend, Rory. When I arrived I was so astonished to see him because he’s exactly like the dog in Goodnight, Boy. It feels like a very strange and magical synchronicity.
JC has a unique voice – what kind of background work did you have to do to inject authenticity into a child who’s grown up the way he has? It was hard to access anyone who had been in exactly his position but I did talk to a former social worker with experience of children who were caught up in the Haiti earthquake. In common with children who have been traumatised and have attachment problems, he’s learnt to be very tolerant of intolerable situations, and to appear outwardly happy even, but when he blows, he really blows, and I hope that this comes across.
Writing about both a personal as well as a public tragedy, that must seriously zap your emotional reserves as a writer. How did you manage to navigate such dark areas and maintain such a sense of hope within the narrative?
Yes, it really did exhaust me emotionally. I cried a lot. I’m a bit of a ‘method writer’, but I always think that if I don’t feel something how can my reader? So, yes, I did find the darkness difficult. But I’m actually very Pollyanna, and usually able to find positivity and humour within awfulness, so that’s probably what allowed me to write the very buoyant side to JC, and what hopefully makes his story bearable. His situation is grim, but he has a friend, and he has hope, so he feels that he is genuinely lucky.
The narrative style is written partly in verse. To me this suited the story perfectly, emphasising its lyrical, fairy-tale qualities. But I’d love to know more about your reason for choosing to write in this form and if it was something you chose instinctively, or did it take a while to work out?
I always intended it as an extended monologue – something that is traditionally done as poetry. But I was actually inspired by the book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is written as a dialogue in second person, a technique that makes the reader almost become the Westerner in the story. In Goodnight, Boy I wanted the reader to become the dog, so that they could really live with and travel through JC’s experience with him. I wanted them to empathise with him, not feel sorry for him, and to do that they needed to also be in the dog house. The format developed from there, with the parts where he’s talking directly to the dog as fragmented text, with lots of half sentences and unreliable punctuation, which emphasises the emptiness and boredom of their situation. I also used a lot of big line drops and almost empty pages to give a sense of the passing of time and to reflect the emptiness physically. It also makes it really quick and easy to read, which I hope is also a good thing for teens who may be daunted by dense text.
You’ve written for children previously, what prompted a switch to YA?
I’m not very good at targeting age ranges/genres, I just follow my story. My previous books – Who Framed Klaris Cliff, and Swan Boy – also had a lot of sadness in them, as well as humour, but Goodnight, Boy, which is, on one level an abuse story, is definitely more hard-hitting, so was always going to be for an older audience. But I’m so glad I have made the jump because YA/adult offers me more freedom and allows me to go deeper as a writer. It’s also nice to be able to swear occasionally!
And lastly, after this magnificent storytelling achievement, may I ask what’s next on the horizon for you, more YA, back to children’s, or something entirely different. . . ?!
I’m working on another darkish YA in an unusual format. Oh, and I’ve also done a poetry collection for teens. So, hopefully one of those will follow fairly soon…
Thank you, Nikki! And to all potential readers out there – you will devour this, it is ace. Dramatic, poignant, heart-breaking and a feat of literary genius, all in one. Read it!
Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist and went to a convent school in Cambridge where she was taught by real nuns in habits. Her writing was first published when she was seven and her teacher sent a poem she had written into a magazine. She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but, for some reason she can’t remember she did a degree in linguistics followed by psychology. Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then retrained as a journalist and wrote features about child psychology for parenting magazines and the national press. Continue reading…
Books: WHO FRAMED KLARIS CLIFF? | SWAN BOY
“. . . a wonderful, magical tale that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.” — Rachel Hamilton, author of The Case of the Exploding Loo for Who Framed Klaris Cliff?
Alex Campbell announced she was going to be an author at the age of eight. But no one took much notice. Which was generally how life developed thereafter. After a nomadic school career in back row daydreaming, and one English degree later, she moved into the world of PR and copywriting where she got other people and products noticed instead. Now, living near Bath with one husband, two children, and many abandoned manuscripts, she can’t stop smiling that her eight year old self has finally been heard and the kind people at Hot Key Books are publishing not one but two of her YA fiction novels. Continue reading…
Books: LAND | CLOUD 9
“Packed with twists and dilemmas, the pace never slackens, pulling you towards to its enthralling conclusion. Highly recommended.” — Emma Haughton, author of Now You See Me for Land