Interview: SF Said on ‘Tyger’

NC Welcome, reader, to the world of Tyger: the wondrous new novel from one of my favourite writers, SF Said. I was fortunate enough to meet SF briefly on a very special tour of Alderley Edge, led by Alan Garner, who wrote about and infused that corner of the world with his own conception of myth and magic. SF has done something like that with Tyger’s immersive London setting – the earthly and unearthly worlds intermingling fantastically in ways that illuminate the themes of the novel, its characters and their adventure. As others have noticed, it’s an overtly Blakean book from the title in, but in so many way it’s also distinctly Saidean.

So when SF agreed to an interview on this blog, I thought we should meet here, in Tyger territory. We’re standing in a ruined building in central London. It’s nearly midwinter, and the place is in almost total darkness, but we can make out the shape of something – a tree growing wild, reaching up through the collapsed roof. Something is waiting and watching in the dark. SF, without giving away too much of the story, the world beyond this ruin is not quite ours, is it?

SF           The world of Tyger is definitely not our world!  The story is set in London, in the present day, but in a strange alternate world where history has gone very differently.  In this world, the British Empire has never ended, slavery has never been abolished, and huge numbers of animals have been hunted to extinction.  And it’s in this world, in a rubbish dump in London, that a boy called Adam finds the incredible, impossible tyger.

The roots of Tyger go very deep for me.  But perhaps the biggest inspirations were Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses: those amazing stories that take us to other worlds with alternate histories.  So Tyger is my attempt to write one of those.

As with Said’s other novels, Dave McKean’s evocative illustrations are key to the reader’s experience.

NC          I believe you’ve been growing this story for a long time – is that right? Did it begin with a concept, or with evocative images like the one above? Or something else?

SF           Yes, it took me 9 years to write this book!  While I was writing my last book, Phoenix, I had an idea for a book called Tyger.  It was always called Tyger, and there was always a being called a tyger at the heart of it.  I could see this tyger; I could even hear its voice.  But what was it? 

To try to understand my idea, I went back to William Blake’s poem The Tyger, which I’d read at school when I was a child.  In some ways, I think that childhood reading was the true beginning of Tyger, and the story was growing inside me for almost half a century.

Blake’s The Tyger from his Songs of Experience

NC          Look, SF – there’s a boy in here with us, peering into the darkness. It’s Adam Alhambra, on his way to make deliveries for his family business. He’s crucial to the novel too – how did his character click into focus for you?

SF           In some ways, Adam is a lot like me.  He’s a Muslim boy whose family came originally from the Middle East, although he’s always lived in London and thinks of himself as a Londoner.  All of that is exactly like me. 

On the other hand, Adam lives in a world where children like him aren’t allowed to have dreams or ambitions; he isn’t even allowed to go to school.  He just has to work incredibly hard every day to help his family survive.  That’s nothing like my own experience at all.  But I do know what it’s like to have a dream that people around you believe is impossible, because no-one in my family had ever written a book before. 

NC          Yes, Adam’s not a writer but he does have a particular talent which becomes key to his self-understanding. Until the events of the novel, his life is one of othering and intolerance in this version of London. Did some of that stem from your experience?

SF           Many of the things that people say to Adam as he goes about the world are things that people have said to me, or to members of my family.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked: “Where are you from?  No, where are you really from?”  

Dave McKean’s cover to SF Said’s debut novel, Varjak Paw

When I started writing Varjak Paw in 1997, I couldn’t imagine a publisher wanting a book about a Muslim boy, so I wrote a story about a kitten with Mesopotamian ancestors instead – Mesopotamia being the ancient name of the country we now call Iraq, where some of my own ancestors came from.  It’s only in the last few years that children’s publishing has opened up to the point where I felt I could write about a character like Adam, so I think things are definitely changing for the better.

NC          And of course once it begins to happen, it seems mad that we went for so long without that dimension to children’s books. Tyger also grapples directly with the violence done in the name of Empire. There’s more than one slightly startling moment in the book – one scene, for example, of people caged in a sinister menagerie – that underscore such monstrousness, without making it unsuitable for young readers. Did you ever consider downplaying those darker aspects of the novel?

SF           I thought very long and hard about every single thing that’s in the book.  Over the 9 years of its writing, and the endless drafts it went through, there was a lot of trial and error, and lots of helpful feedback from many test readers.  What remains at the end of that process is only what felt absolutely essential to tell the story: no more, no less. 

Michael Heslop’s cover to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising

It’s true that Tyger deals with some difficult things.  But when I was a child, my favourite books were the ones that took me seriously as a reader; the books that were honest, and didn’t try to soften or simplify the truth.  So that’s the kind of book I always want to write myself.

NC          Wait a minute – there’s someone else here, beside ourselves, watching Adam. They’re wearing a hood so I can’t see their face. And now they’re slipping away into the snow – let’s follow them, SF. Goodness, it’s cold – why did you set the book at this time of year?

SF           I love a good Midwinter tale!  Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising was a big inspiration for me.  And I remember when we did that walk with Alan Garner around Alderley Edge, he told us some very interesting things about boundaries, both spatial and temporal.  Midwinter Night is the time between the end of one year and the beginning of the next: a time between times.  That’s the time I can most easily imagine crossing the boundaries of reality, and going into other worlds.

NC          Yes – the crossroads of one realm and another. Oh, that figure has just hurried into a shop on Charing Cross Road. The sign reads Solomon True & Company – Booksellers & Printers. There are shelves of books and papers, from ceiling to floor, lit flickeringly by a glowing log fire. It feels like we’re somewhere civilised. Do you ever write in libraries, surrounded by books like this?

McKean’s illustration of Adan’s first trip to Solomon True’s bookshop hints toward the novel’s varied influences.
The paperback edition of David Olusoga’s groundbreaking work

I used to write in libraries all the time.  I found it very inspiring to work surrounded by all those books.  So for its first 7 years, Tyger was written in the public libraries of Haringey, and I’m eternally grateful to them and their brilliant staff.  Then there was the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, so I went back to writing at home, which is where I finished the book.  But I will always love libraries.

SF           I’m so glad you liked the bookshop!  It felt vital to have some warm and welcoming spaces in that dark and dangerous world, so Solomon’s bookshop, the Underground Library and the new school all matter hugely to me.  As do the heroic booksellers, librarians and teachers we meet inside them!

NC          I can never resist a good browse when I’m in a bookshop. Look, the poetry section – there’s lots of Blake here. How much of what you read influenced the writing of Tyger?

An illustration by Henry Moore to Jacquetta Hawkes’ A Land

SF           In the course of writing Tyger, I read everything Blake ever wrote.  I really recommend William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, which gave me a way of looking at his pictures at the same time as reading his words – an experience beyond cinematic in its intensity. 

I read lots of other things too.  I’ve already mentioned His Dark Materials and Noughts & Crosses, as well as Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.  Then there was Ursula Le Guin, and re-readings of childhood favourites like The Little Prince and Watership Down.  There were even a few grown-up books!  David Olusoga’s Black and British was important to me, as was Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.  His writing led me to Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land, which I think is one of the all-time greats.  Apparently Alan Garner is a fan of hers as well!

NC          I love A Land too. It’s an amazing tribute to the power of the imagination. Garner did his own imagination-archaeology in his books, travelling impossibly far below the earth’s surface and past those boundaries you mentioned. Having met you through our shared love of his work, I have to ask if he’s influenced your own writing – apart from long processes of creation!

SF           I think of Alan Garner as the patron saint of slow writers.  It can take him a decade to produce a book, but when he does, it’s absolutely extraordinary and unique; something no-one else could have written.

NC          The book of his that Tyger most brings to mind is Elidor (one of my favourites, by the way), with that sense of a fabulous beast in a dark, urban environment (Manchester, instead of London) and a quest involving a mysterious other world joined strangely with ours. The two books are so different but they seem to share a feeling of transcendence, as well as being brilliant page-turners.

SF           I read and re-read all his books in the course of writing Tyger, and they all influenced me in one way or another – not least by showing that there are no limits to what children’s literature can do.  I love Elidor, as you do, and it’s definitely in the DNA of Tyger, though The Stone Book Quartet is the one I feel most consciously indebted to.

NC          Hang on – there’s a poster coming off the printer over there. The type reads:

PUBLIC NOTICE –

THE BEAST IS ON THE LOOSE IN LONDON

Another dynamic McKean illustration – but who is hunting the Tyger and why?

There’s an illustration of a snarling beast, with blood dripping from its teeth. Was it a deliberate choice for images to play such a big role in the novel, and how did Dave McKean’s artwork influence that?

SF           As a reader myself, I love illustration, and I want all my books to be heavily illustrated.  I’m incredibly lucky to work with Dave McKean, my favourite artist.  His artwork is such an integral part of the Varjak Paw books and Phoenix.  But I think what he’s done in Tyger is even more magnificent, opening onto dimensions that words alone could not evoke, and it’s going to delight and amaze readers of all ages.

NC          This image on this poster here is quite unlike the Tyger that we meet in the book. Do you have a particular affinity for cats, whether big or (like Varjak Paw) smaller?

SF           Of course!  If I could be anything at all, I’d much rather be a cat than a human!

NC          Speaking of Varjak, I feel like there are echoes of ‘the Way’ that he learns, in the skills that Adam and his friends must master. Lucky, the protagonist of Phoenix, also explores his relation to reality in somewhat mystic style. Do you think Varjak, Adam and Lucky belong to the same universe somehow?

SF           I always seem to write stories about powerless characters who discover that they have great powers inside them, and must learn how to use those powers.  It’s something that happens in all my books, whether they’re about cats or humans or aliens.  I don’t know why I keep doing this; it’s not deliberate.  With each book, I just write the book I most want to read myself – and it just so happens that this is something I always want to see in a book!

Another magical McKean illustration – but where is this, and how does it become part of Adam and Zadie’s adventure? Read Tyger to find out!

NC          Listen – I can hear angry shouting in the streets outside the shop…! I think it’s time we left the wild, dark world of Tyger for the relative safety of our own world. But I will say this – there’s a real optimism in the conclusion of the novel. What inspires that hope in you?

SF           Thank you, Nick.  Our own world seems to be getting darker and scarier all the time, but young readers give me a lot of hope for the future.  So do all the adults who work so hard to help kids discover books: teachers, librarians, booksellers, and all the adults who love children’s literature for its own sake. 

I always feel inspired when I’m talking with people who share my belief that children’s books are the most important books of all.  That belief is the reason why I do what I do.  It’s why I spend years and years of my life trying to make each book the very best it can be.  Because children’s books are too important to give it anything less than your absolute best!

Huge thanks to SF for his responses to my questions, and thanks to Dave McKean and David Fickling Books for allowing me to use his dazzling illustrations here too. As this post goes live, Tyger is only lately published, so you can still get yourself a copy of the beautiful hardback edition with McKean’s bewitching dust-jacket and the embossed cover beneath. You can order copies from Waterstones here, or from your favourite independent bookshop. Tamsin Rosewell will interview SF about his work for The Blake Society on Wednesday October 19th – you can register to watch via Zoom here.

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