Time-travel and new worlds: an interview with Sherryl Jordan
Sherryl Jordan is one of our best-loved YA authors here at Hooked on NZ Books, with her books being constantly requested by our readers and reviewers.
Since we re-launched the site late last year, we’ve published reviews of The Anger of Angels (Zahra), Wynter’s Thief (Ashika) and The King’s Nightingale (Amber and Natalya) and we have more in the works!
Natalya loved The King’s Nightingale, and in her review describes it as an ‘’emotionally binding read.” Thanks to Sherryl’s publisher Scholastic, Natalya had the opportunity to ask the author some wider questions about her work. Natalya says:
“When I was given the opportunity to interview Sherryl Jordan, the author of The King’s Nightingale and many other incredible books, I could not help but accept!
After reading and reviewing The King’s Nightingale I had many questions, and I could not pass up the opportunity to discover a little more about Sherryl and her writing process.
I decided on questions that could grow and develop on their own. I admire writers who can build enthralling worlds whilst bringing characters to life in a way that stays with readers, so my goal with these questions was to trigger deep thinking and questioning.”
Which parts of The King’s Nightingale did you most enjoy writing and which parts did you struggle with?
I loved writing all of it, but the parts I most enjoyed were the scenes of Elowen’s life in the palace. I’m used to writing books set in Medieval times, and the palace was a glorious change from thatched cottages. As the book was set in a mythical Ottoman Empire, I did a lot of research into Islamic art, architecture, tiles, etc, and was inspired by the beauty and grandeur of those things. I especially loved the courtyard gardens. By the time I had finished the story, I felt I had lived in the palace with Elowen.
The difficult parts to write were the scenes of the pirate raid and the journey in the ship. These scenes were inspired by real accounts recorded from the 17th century on, by white slaves who had been taken in pirate slaving ships to the coast of North Africa, to be sold in the slave markets there. Their accounts had made harrowing reading. It was hard to put myself in those places, to suffer with Elowen, knowing I was writing of real events that had happened to real people. I was also thinking of the black slaves, and the horrendous conditions they suffered in the transport ships, and in their lives afterwards. It was a lot of human misery to hold in my heart and in my imagination, as I wrote.
All slavery, of every kind, is a crime against humanity; and although I wrote of the white slave trade, the book is my cry against all kinds of slavery, regardless of the colour of the enslaved people. Also, we still have slavery today, and although the book is based in history, its message remains extremely relevant.
What is your favourite season to write in and why?
I love writing in all seasons, every day. However, winter is best. Rainy days are the best days for ducks and writers! Closing myself off from wet, wild weather outside is marvellous, like being secluded in the bubble of a different world. However, whatever the weather or season in this world, the real time and place for me is the world of my book.
If you were to write a spin-off about one of the side characters of The King’s Nightingale, whose story would you want to explore and why?
If I wrote a spin-off or sequel, it would be about Mahasena and his life before he was taken into slavery. He had a wonderful life in Anavrin, which he spoke of briefly to Elowen. I feel as if I’ve seen a fleeting movie of his life in a beautiful and mountainous land. However, I don’t think I’ll be writing his story. I’ve said all I wanted to say about Elowen’s world.
But sometimes minor characters from a novel stand up and demand to have their stories told, too. If Mahasena did that, I’d have to write his story. I learned long ago that you can’t argue with these people.
To you, what does it mean to live a good life?
What a profound question! I’m thinking a lot about this one. I suppose the short answer would be, to leave the world a better place because we were in it. It’s easy to think of heroes; people who do great things, who fight injustice or prejudice, or win freedom for others. People like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, and hundreds like them. Though their lives were fraught with pain and sacrifice, what they accomplished transformed hearts and made the world a better place.
On the other hand, a good life might be one that, on the outside, seems not to accomplish much at all. Years ago I nursed a woman who was totally paralysed. She could move only her head, and even speaking was difficult for her. She was one of the happiest people I knew; always laughing, telling jokes, always grateful and loving and ready with kind words. She taught us all what courage was. She lived a good life. Having said all that, I suppose we each have an idea of what it means to live a good life, and I’m sure most of us strive hard to do that. I think the supreme ingredient of a good life is love.
Of all your books, which of them has your favourite cover design?
There isn’t just one book cover that stands out for me above all the rest. I suppose my top favourites would be the cover of Ransomwood because it is so perfect for that story; The Juniper Game has a stunning cover; the cover of the Dutch edition of Secret Sacrament is gorgeous, and exactly as I had imagined the main characters; and I love the cover of the 25th Anniversary edition of Winter of Fire, as it corrects several errors that were on the cover of the original edition, which had been designed in the United States. There are others I could mention … I have 20 novels published, not counting books for younger readers, so it’s hard to choose my favourite cover. They are all special to me.
Which scene, character or plotline changed the most from first draft to published book?
The book which changed most from the first draft to the last was The Anger of Angels.
I spent four years writing the book, and it went through many rewrites and major plot changes. The book was rejected by several publishers before it was accepted by Walker Books in Australia.
The final draft was very long, and the publishers had a word limit of 80,000 for a Young Adult novel. To meet the word count, I agreed to cut off the final 8 chapters, intending to put them in a sequel. However, I hadn’t got far into the sequel when I realised that it also was going to be far too long, so I abandoned it. I’ve always been sad that the book was published incomplete, as many threads and themes begun in the published version are brought to fruition only in the final chapters that remain unpublished.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I do believe in it, though I think it happens when the story is itself blocked in some way and needs a change of view, scene, or direction. I find that standing back awhile, going for a walk or taking some other kind of time out sets the mind (and therefore the story) off in the right direction.
To you, what is the most important aspect of a book?
To me, the characters are the heart and soul of a story, and the most vital aspect of the story is to see their change and growth as they journey through their world, struggling with their challenges and conflicts.
Often I see the main characters long before their story comes to me, and although I may know the kind of battles they will fight, sometimes their actual world takes a while to form in my mind. By the time I begin writing, the characters are as real to me as friends I have known all my life.
What comes first; plot, setting or characters?
Usually, the main character comes to me first, as a real, complete person. Later, as I get to know them, their story comes to me, with the plot and the setting. Sometimes when I first see the main character, I see them within their setting and know the world they are from, whether it’s a desert place, or ancient, or a tiny village or huge city.
When I first saw Gabriel, of Secret Sacrament, he was standing by beautiful white pillars, something like the marble temples of Ancient Greece or Rome. It was a year later that I created his world, the great Navoran Empire, based on Ancient Rome.
With The King’s Nightingale, I knew the plot first, as it came to me through the research I had done for The Freedom Merchants when I read that some women taken into slavery did not want to return home when the opportunity came; they had made new lives for themselves as slaves and chose to stay in their new country. I knew I wanted to write of such a woman four years before I began Elowen’s story.
What drives you to write?
The sheer love of writing is what drives me. There is joy in creating another world, in living with people I know only in my imagination, in sharing their journey.
Perhaps it’s simply the bliss of sublime escapism – but if it is, then so is reading. Reading takes us to other worlds, other lives, experiences we might never otherwise know.
Reading gives us huge emotions, fear and grief, triumph and horror, all in a safe way, but in a way that is real at the time, therefore in a way that may help to prepare us for challenges in real life. I think it was C S Lewis who said, “We read to know we are not alone.” Reading gifts us with companions who may inspire and encourage us, and that is a glorious thing.
This is true for me of writing as well. Also, when I am writing, the world in my head is far more real than this world. I see the world of the story, smell it, hear it, experience it in profound ways. Writing Elowen’s story was to time-travel to the Ottoman Empire. I hope it is like that for readers.
What is the importance of creating art?
Now that’s another great question! Wait a week or ten, while I write a book about that… I think that the ability to create is one of our greatest gifts as human beings. It is using our imagination. Everything ever created by human beings exists first in the imagination.
To create art, whether with words or paint or clay or fabric or food, or glass and concrete, or plants, or whatever, is to express and share a joy we might not know in any other way. There is something uniquely and supremely satisfying in the act of creating art. And art is created to be shared.
The artist creates, and the person who shares it is equally important in the creative process. A story is not complete until it is heard or read – until it is shared. This is true of all art. The receiver is equal to the giver.
I suppose art is communicating the best that is in us. The beautiful thing about art is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be valued, just created with love and reverence. Anyone who has been given a drawing by a child will know the truth of that.
When life gets tough, is there anything particular that comforts you?
My love for God, and the faithful revelation of His love for me, has sustained me through everything, the joys and the pains, throughout the whole of my life.
Also, the love of family and friends has been and still is, an encouragement, joy and strength to me. I think we can endure anything if we know we are truly loved.
Thank you, Sherryl, and thank you, Natalya, for your time and words! Find Sherryl’s books at your local or school library, and get in touch if you’d like to be first in line to review her next novel.