Last night we were privileged to have the award-winning author Malorie Blackman OBE join us for an entertaining, thought-provoking and hugely inspirational September masterclass.
Claudia-Liza Armah, a TV Presenter and journalist on Sky News and This Morning, interviewed Malorie in front of a 150-strong audience in the fabulous Wellcome Trust building in Euston.
Malorie began by telling the audience how and why she had become a writer. As a child she was a voracious reader, living in her local library. Yet she never encountered characters in the books she read which were like her, saying “in the world of literature I was non-existent”.
Malorie told us that her careers advisor at school had quashed her dreams of become an educator, saying “black people don’t become teachers” and that Malorie would never pass her English A Level. She advised Malorie to study Business. After just one term studying a Business degree, Malorie was bored senseless by lectures on price elasticity and in-elasticity and gave up her place. She got a job working in technology and found to her surprise that she loved it.
In her mid-20’s, she took numerous creative writing courses, but didn’t find her vocation until she joined a children’s writing course. Within a couple of weeks she “knew this was it.” An early tutor, who saw Malorie’s initial reluctance to show her original work, said to her “you got to shit, or get off the pot” and Malorie stills lives by that mantra – “if you’re going to do something, just do it.” She also advised “if someone gets in your way, don’t let them stop you, find a way to get round them.”
She knew it was time to pursue writing when she began to have abnormal euphoric feelings every Friday and found that something was always going wrong with her on a Sunday night, whether it was a headache, sneezing, or something else! At this point she had been in technology almost ten years.
Malorie and her husband (her then partner) decided that she would take a year off work to try and make it as a writer. They agreed that if this didn’t work, she would have to return to work because they couldn’t afford to live on just one salary. In that first year she made £800, but was the happiest she had been.
It took two years, eight books and 89 rejections before Malorie had her first book published. Malorie has now published over 80 children and young adult novels, picture books, short stories; television scripts, original TV dramas and a stage play, The Amazing Birthday. Malorie said “she doesn’t even start a book until the characters are speaking to her” and that they need to “pull her in” to the book.
Malorie came under pressure to write about race and ethnicity, but for her, “having a black child on the front cover” made more of a political statement. She was told by booksellers and publishers, that she would sell more books if her books featured white children on the covers. Yet after writing 49 books which didn’t focus on race, Malorie said “I remember watching a documentary about how Stephen Lawrence’s family were treated by the police and then I knew what I wanted to write about.” Malorie’s fiftieth book was the multi award-winning Noughts & Crosses which focus on the frustrated love affair between a black girl, Sephy, and a white boy, Callum. Malorie said that a number of things that happen to Callum in the novel, had happened to her as a child. Writing the book was both a painful and a cathartic experience for her.
Malorie spoke about the process of adapting books for television and stage. Having had her fingers burnt more than once, she is confident that the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Noughts & Crosses is in safe hands and we are all super excited to see it on screen.
The audience were able to address questions to Malorie, which included asking which authors she most enjoyed reading. These include Philip Pullman, Zadie Smith, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore. Malorie said that the first novel she ever read by a black writer, was The Colour Purple by Alice Walker, which she read when she was 21 years old.
Njoki Mahaiani, a current intern at the BBC had met Malorie when she was 11 when the author had visited her school. Njoki asked about her inspiration for the science fiction and medical stories she wrote which explore social and ethical issues. Malorie has always had a love for science and almost did chemistry as an A Level (before changing to English).
Aoife Hayes, a Creative Access intern at Heyday films thanked Malorie for representing black women in her books. Malorie responded saying “the women I write about are all women I can identify with in my life.” She wants to challenge stereotypes, asking “why are we as black women, supposed to be strong? Why can’t we be vulnerable?”
Malorie was kind enough to sign books and take dozens of selfies with our interns – no doubt some of her biggest ever fans! We are so grateful to Malorie for joining us, to Claudia-Liza for conducting a brilliant interview and to the Wellcome Trust for hosting us for the evening.
You can catch the first ten minutes of the interview on video on our Facebook page.