Friday 17 October 2014

The Write Way with Sita Brahmachari

Today, I am really pleased to have Sita Brahmachari on the blog to discuss her new book, Red Leaves and to tell us some of her writing secrets.
1) Your new novel, Red Leaves, has just been published. What kind of reception are you getting for it?
So far the response has been very heart-felt. The world as we live in it at the moment can appear to be a very confusing, divided and cruel place. In ‘Red Leaves’ I take my young characters out of the noise of the world so that they can find a sense of community and re-connect with what it is to feel and care for another human being no matter how different they may be from ourselves.
My three young characters Zak, Iona and Aisha lead readers into the story and the feedback that I have had is that each of the characters and their stories evoke a powerful emotional response to a universal human need …. for young people to feel protected and safe wherever they may have come from. I am very proud that Amnesty International UK has said this about the novel:
"We are proud to endorse 'Red Leaves' because of its sensitive depiction of diversity and the human need for somewhere to call home. It's a novel that encourages readers' empathy, which is a big step towards understanding, tolerance and kindness - all values that help us to uphold human rights."
Nicky Parker (Publisher. Amnesty International UK)
I am also delighted that an increasing number of teachers and librarians are contacting me to say that they think the book would make a great year 7/8 class reader because it offers opportunities to discuss some of the really difficult divisions and conflicts that affect young people living in a diverse society.
2) What is the main theme of the story?
Although the characters are from very diverse backgrounds.
Aisha is a Somali Refugee
Iona is a homeless girl from Scotland
Zak is a boy of wealthy background whose parents are going through a divorce
They share one thing in common – each is searching for a safe and secure place to call home… a place where they feel respected and loved.
3) What kind of research did you need to carry out before writing Red Leaves?
I read testimonies by young and old homeless people of their experience of living on the streets. I am a regular reader of ‘The Big Issue’ magazine and there are wonderful art works and writings by homeless people in that. I would urge everyone to read it. I read an article by the Big Issue’s founder John Bird about how homeless people feel invisible and this led me to the character of Iona – the young seventeen year old homeless girl and artist who no one is looking for in the story.
Aisha is a Somali refugee. I interviewed a young refugee girl as part of my research for my theatre script of ‘The Arrival’ by Tamasha Theatre Company (co-created by Kristine Landon Smith-based on Shaun Tan’s graphic novel) At that time I decided then that I would like to write a story with an unaccompanied refugee child as a central character.
Aisha comes from Somalia and to make sure that I was accurate in the cultural and religious references in the story I showed an early manuscript to some Somali girls in a London school. Without this young research group I could not have fully found Aisha’s voice.
I interviewed a foster mother about her experience of looking after children who have come from traumatic backgrounds and she became the character of Liliana in ‘Red Leaves’.
I am a keen follower of world news and the Civil war in Syria and the sight of so many refugee children fleeing their homes has had a huge impact on the story and this led me to believe that Zak’s mother is a war journalist in Syria.
4) I found the book trailer for Red Leaves extremely moving. What was your reaction to it when you first saw it?
The young artist Grace Manning designed a touring exhibition around my last novel ‘Kite Spirit’ for the Pop Up festival last year. She was then a student at Central St Martin’s. She has now graduated and I asked if she would be interested in working on an animated trailer for ‘Red Leaves.’ I gave her the book to read and we discussed a small number of scenes and atmospheres we would like to create. We both knew that ‘Red’ the beautiful dog who plays a central role in the story must be part of the animation. I also said that in my imagination the street artist Iona might one day be responsible for creating wonderful imaginative art work like this trailer.
Grace came back to me with a book of drawings which she turned into the thirty second animation you see. It’s a hard task making a trailer because you want to give a taste of the story and set the tone but you don’t want to give too much away. I have worked on trailers for ‘Jasmine Skies’ and ‘Kite Spirit’ and realise that it require a very specific and disciplined approach.
Once Grace gave me the beautiful animation I had to decide what words from the book I would choose… the imagery is so lyrical, and the book does play with the reworking of some old rhymes like ‘Lady Bird Lady Bird Fly Away Home,’ that I felt that a song was required and I could imagine Iona singing it as she also busks to make money so I ended up stepping into Iona’s shoes again and singing ‘Lady bird, Lady bird fly away home, your house is on fire your children all roam’. All three young people in my story dream of flying away home so it seems fitting… I imagined Iona strumming away on her guitar as she sang around the camp fire in the wood… and Aisha’s thoughts breaking through.
‘I wish I could make them understand how it feels when one day a bomb falls into the middle of your world and explodes, leaving a crater in your heart.’ ( Aisha – Red Leaves)
I feel the trailer really captures the essence of the story and I have been lucky to work with such wonderful artists on it.
5) Being an experienced writer, do you find the process gets easier with each book you write?
I don’t know if you ever feel ‘experienced.’ Every book you write there are always doubts and there’s always a moment before you start a new story that feels like it’s the first time you have ever tried to do it! But some things get easier. I have learned that I can work with a broad plan, whereas I used to believe that I couldn’t plan at all. I have settled down into a full time rhythm for my work. So that I come to it every day even when it feels like nothing will come.
Writing a book is a big undertaking. Some days you come to your desk overflowing with ideas and when you start to write it’s hard to focus on which ideas you should follow. Other days you feel like you have nothing much to say, or you’re struggling with a character or plot line and then, through the practice of writing, you find something that illuminates. The day I discovered the artichoke charm in ‘Artichoke Hearts’ was one such moment, just as the day I discovered that the ancient old lady in ‘Red Leaves’ is collecting children’s names on a leaf wreath she keeps in her den.
These moment only come when you fully immerse yourself in the story that you are writing, and quite often they come at the time you feel the most lost. If the process felt easy I think I might start to feel worried that the layers of the story were not being fully explored
6) Do you edit as you go along or do you wait until the first draft is finished?
I write many drafts of the story. In ‘Red Leaves’ the ancient old lady Elder takes clothes out of the Oxfam clothed bank and piles on layer after layer, without taking the last layer of clothing off. The first draft of my stories look like ‘an eclectic collection of leaf layers.’ Messy and ragged but as I write that first draft, pretty much letting my imagination and thoughts have free reign, I know that there is something in these layers even if I don’t consciously understand what that is yet.
The first draft is often both overwritten and underwritten at the same time but if I manage to write a first draft to the end I know that the guts and heart of the story are intact. The feeling of relief at that point is overwhelming. I study this draft carefully to try and work out where the story lies, what works and what needs to be stripped back. Venetia Gosling my editor for ‘Red Leaves’ read an early draft and we walked through the woods where the novel is set together and through discussing various scenes in the book she was able help me to begin the process of stripping back the layers and honing and tightening the story. In all subsequent drafts I am concentrate on keeping the layers that the reader will need to strip back to go on their journey of finding the heart of the story. In some ways you want the discoveries that your characters have made and maybe discoveries that go beyond what you or they have imagined, to be your readers discoveries too.
7) What are you working on right now?
I have just completed a short story about the plight of children who care for their relatives for an anthology for Amnesty International UK to be published next year by Walker Books. I am also working on the synopsis for two very different kinds of books. In one of them there’s possibly an opportunity to meet some characters that you may have met in my early novels.
8) What advice would you give unpublished authors?
I can only share with you how I do it. I am sure there are as many ways as there are authors. But this is my method. Firstly READ everything and anything. Read things especially that speak to you and try to work out why they have a powerful effect on you. If you love to express yourself in writing, don’t limit yourself or edit too early and don’t be afraid of a messy first draft. If you feel an excitement inside to tell a story or write a poem or song there is usually a powerful force behind that instinct. Go with that in the first place BUT realise this is only a rough sketch and if you care enough about the story to spend days, weeks, months and even years honing your work then you are well on your way to being a published author. It can be a winding process… a little like getting lost in the woods as my characters do in ‘Red Leaves,’ but if you manage to find your way out and have your readers drawn to follow the paths of your story, then being a writer is the best job in the world.

Red Leaves was published by Macmillan Children’s Books in September 2014
Book Summary
Aisha is a thirteen-year-old refugee living in London. Happy for the first time since leaving her war-torn home, she is devastated when her foster mother announces that a new family has been found for her and she will be moving on. Feeling rejected and abandoned, Aisha packs her bags and runs away, seeking shelter in the nearby woods.
Meanwhile, a few doors down, twelve-year-old Zak is trying to cope with his parents' divorce. Living in a near-building site while the new house is being refurbished, he feels unsettled and alone. Discovering a piece of rubble with the original builder's signature set into it, he starts researching the history behind his home - and in doing so finds a connection with a young soldier from the past, which leads him to an old air-raid shelter in the same woods.
Both children, previously unknown to each other, meet in the heart of the ancient city woodland as they come into the orbit of Elder, a strange homeless woman who lives amongst the trees - and, as helicopters hover overhead and newspapers fill with pictures of the two lost children, unexpected bonds are formed and lives changed forever . . .
To find out more about Sita Brahmachari:

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