Sarah Moore Fitzgerald's beautiful Back to Blackbrick has just been published in Dutch as De geheimzinnige sleutel (The Mysterious Key) by The House of Books. What better time to ask her some questions? Hello Sarah, thank you so much for agreeing to this Q&A!
I’m so excited about the Dutch translation – thank you for being the person to bring ‘De Geheimzinnige Sleutel’ to a new set of readers in Holland!
Which age group did you have in mind for this novel? (Orion published it as a children's book, but isn't it more Middle Grade or even Young Adult?)
I started out with no idea what age group I was writing for, but when I spoke to the publishers, their sense was that the story is one for young adults. It’s recommended for 12+ in the UK, and I think that’s just about right, but it’s also a book that many adults have told me they’ve enjoyed too. It definitely deals with some themes that would be too grown-up for children younger than 12.
Cosmo is not your average protagonist. We're not even told how old he is exactly . What can you tell us about him? What makes him so different?
Cosmo is thirteen, though you’re right, his age is deliberately vague. He’s in that very interesting in between time – not a little kid any more, and not a grown up. I think this stage of life is full of important turning points and possibility, when you have a unique and fantastic view of the world and often very creative ways of looking at things. Cosmo is flawed and struggling in lots of ways, but he has all the right instincts about keeping promises and doing the right thing and working hard to protect the people he loves.
How trustworthy is Cosmo as a narrator?
I’ve always believed that you need to trust the person who is telling the story, because it is his story and to him everything that happens is completely real.
The novel has a certain magical realism: it's all real to Cosmo, of course, and the narrative works in such a way that we hardly question his tale. But how real is everything and how much of the story is simply Cosmo's way of trying to cope?
Aha, well as I say, the whole story is real to him, but as you wisely say, the fantastical journey can of course be seen simply as his imaginary way of making sense of all the things that are happening in his life.
Did you always plan to leave some questions unanswered (the strange coincidences and memories, for instance), or did the story shape itself along the way?
I had planned some aspects of the story, but other things just appeared in front of me as the story unfolded. Writing feels like magic to me. I never quite know what’s going to happen.
What would you like your readers to take away from the book?
The importance of family, definitely, and that we should make the most of the present, but also that so many things in the past shape us, whether we know it or not.
Are you a fulltime author? How long did it take you to write Back to Blackbrick?
I am an academic with a full time job, and a parent with three kids. I usually only get to write late at night when my children are asleep. Normally I only write for about an hour every day, and then every so often I take a few days away to make more intensive progress on whatever I’m working on. It took me years to write Back to Blackbrick but I did lots of drafting and redrafting, and there were times when I’d put it away for months on end, but something always made me go back to it – which I’m very glad about now that it’s been published!
Was it difficult to write this book after having witnessed someone close to you suffer from Alzheimer's? Or is that what gave you the idea to write this book?
I didn’t plan to write about memory loss, but that important part of the story bubbled to the surface as I began to write. As many writers say, you don’t really choose the subjects you’re going to write about, - it’s more as if the subject chooses you. My lovely Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s around the time I started writing. So, just as Cosmo used his journey to cope with what was happening in his life, I guess I used the writing of the story to do the same for me. That’s another of the wonderful things about writing – it helps you to make sense of things that feel unbearable.
What do you think of the "Write What You Know" principle? Does it apply in this case?
I think it’s useful to start with experiences and things you know about but this can be a springboard to help you explore things unknown and unfamiliar as well.
Are you a writer who just starts writing or did you plan the plot in advance?
Some ideas I plan in advance, but it always changes as I begin to write.
Does the finished book still resemble your first draft?
No – the first draft was very messy, and almost twice as long as the book is now. A lot of the redrafting involved paring down the story and getting rid of extraneous characters and subplots.
Are there any more novels forthcoming?
Yes! My next book is called ‘The Apple Tart of Hope’ and it should be out next summer. It’s a story about friendship and first love, and not giving up on the things you hope for.