Book Angel Booktopia is delighted to welcome Sophia McDougall today to share how reading for pleasure helped shape her childhood and inspired her career.
Author Sophia McDougall tells us how reading shaped her childhood and helped inspire her to write her exciting space-set, action-adventures Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages.
When I told people about the book I was writing – kids on Mars! A robot goldfish! Invisible aliens! – they would say: “Ooh, that sounds like a series.” “Shut up it does not,” I would reply, politely. I was pretty burned out after writing a trilogy of long books for adults. “If I ever show any signs of writing a series again – well, don’t shoot me, that would be going too far – but tie me to a chair and throw buckets of cold water over me.”
I really should have done that ice bucket challenge last year.
Mars Evacuees had been a long time in the works. I remember crouching beside the enormous slab of a hifi in my parents’ bedroom, aged nine, and preparing to compose the first draft as an audiobook. I’d already been making up stories for years – mostly about wizards and dragons and princesses – but this was going to be different. Using something that ran on electricity to tell a story seemed intriguingly modern, and this was going to be a story about the future.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that as a child I lived for stories. When I read The Neverending Story and Bastian was seduced by the promise contained in the title alone, I shuddered with recognition. I would read almost anything repeatedly, and similarly, listen even to audiobooks I didn’t particularly like (such as What Katy Did) over and over again. Letting other worlds, other lives wash over me was enough. If they were good, if they took me to a world of dark woods and strange creatures and were spoken in a thrilling voice (I can still hear Ronald Pickup’s nerve-tingling delivery of the line ‘“Dawn take you all and be stone to you!‘ from The Hobbit) that was just a bonus. At school, we’d been reading Goodnight Mr Tom, in which an abused young boy, Willy, is evacuated from blitz-torn London and blossoms under the care of a gruff old country widower. Rereading as an adult, it seems surprisingly harrowing for such young readers, but – are there any children that don’t? – I liked stories that took it for granted I could handle the tough stuff. I’d enjoyed it so much I’d read it ahead of the class (and spoiled the death of a major character to everyone else) and gone on to read Back Home, also by Michelle Magorian, in which a young girl returned to England after five years as an evacuee in America.
I was fascinated by evacuees. I lived in the countryside myself, but I’d moved there from London at five years old – seeing everything through Willy’s eyes, but with a shadow of danger lying over everything, was strange and new. And the idea of being sent away to America was impossibly exotic to me – frightening, to be parted from your family, or to come home to find them barely recognisable. But also so exciting! What if there was another war? I thought. An even bigger one? Where would you send children next?
I knew the answer from a beautiful, glossy book about the planets, full of captivating illustrations both of real objects and of the space stations and ships that might exist in the future. I’d learned that the planet Saturn’s density was so low that it would float in water, (I’d grieved for the fact that this would never actually happen), that Venus’s clouds could melt lead, and that the most similar planet to Earth was Mars.
My heroine was going to get bombed out of her house by a fighter plane of the future and she would be evacuated to Mars.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what would happened next and when I listened back to my work, I was so put off by the quackiness of my own voice that I promptly gave up.
After writing those three books of adults I knew certain things about myself as a writer. I enjoy working on a large canvas – I like to have a whole world (or several) to play with, I like the stakes to be life or death and I like there to be Angst. I still wanted all those things, but I wanted something different too. Comedy, for one. And, after loving Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, I wanted to write in the first person. And I wanted to do something for the kid I’d once been, crouched beside the hifi – the book she’d wanted all along. There are many profound and emotional things I would say to my former self if I could – stuff about how it’s okay to be weird and that things will get better and that a lot of people actually already like her and that she should make a concerted effort to get onto the housing ladder on 2005, but on this issue, I would have to add, “Great idea, kid, but why have you left out the aliens and the jokes?”
As I wrote, I came to accept that everyone I told about it was right. This was a series. Mars Evacuees leaves the characters: Alice, Carl, Noel and Josephine, on the threshold of not one but thousands of new worlds. They’ve gone from a handful of scared victims to a team of child-adventurers – a kind of proto-version of the crew of the Enterprise: a pilot, a “space archaeologist”, a doctor, and a zoologist – and an occasionally petulant but well-meaning alien. What lies beyond Mars? They wanted to know. I couldn’t let them down.
Then I saw Felix Baumgartner, the Australian skydiver, plunge to earth from the edge of space and I really, really wanted to do that to innocent children. Except that they wouldn’t have a parachute, just the overworked Goldfish, and they would be landing in a green alien sea full of floating red leaves and pink multi-legged wriggling things and then there would be a civilisation of aliens who were a bit like gibbons and a bit like fruitbats…
Mars Evacuees is starts with a kid who wants to go home, Space Hostages starts with a kid who wants to explore. If Mars Evacuees is about finding out who you want to be, Space Hostages is about the mistakes you make while working towards that, and it’s about what we owe to the worlds we grow into and the histories we inherit.
It’s also about bejewelled, imperialist, lobster romantic aliens, and what their sewage plants smell like.
And it features a weird bookish kid with messy hair and a collection of stones with holes in them who helps save the day. I hope nine-year-old Sophia would have liked that.