Malorie Blackman: Country of the colour-blind

Children's novelist Malorie Blackman was the highest-placed living black writer in the BBC's Big Read poll. Nicholas Tucker talks to her about love, hate and race
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The Independent Culture

Meeting Malorie Blackman is like stepping into a shaft of sunshine. Attractive, voluble and with a wall-to-wall laugh, she exudes pleasure simply at being alive, even when I arrive two hours late for our appointment. So how come, given that she is Britain's leading black writer of children's fiction, her latest book, Knife Edge, is as grim as it gets? Bearing comparison to the despairing teenage novels written by the late Robert Cormier, it is as disturbing as Blackman herself is charming and reassuring.

Knife Edge (Doubleday, £12.99) is the second in a trilogy set in a land where the populace is divided between the black, power-owning Crosses and the oppressed, subservient, white Noughts. In the first story, Noughts & Crosses, 17-year-old Sephy, a Cross, falls in love with Callum, a young Nought involved in acts of urban terrorism that finally lead to his conviction and death by hanging. Sephy is left estranged from her family and with an illegitimate baby of mixed race. Knife Edge continues her story to its final, desperate moments.

One of Sephy's main problems is with Jude, a bitter, obsessed teenager who is convinced that she is responsible for his younger brother Callum's death. For a while, Jude goes round with Cara, an attractive and prosperous young Cross who offers him first friendship and then love. For Jude, she is merely a convenient factor in his undercover strategy. Although some of her open-hearted affection almost pierces his paranoid defences, this still does not stop him beating her to death in the most shocking scene of this generally upsetting story. So, is Blackman's message one of total pessimism where every type of racist society is concerned, in the sense that everyone involved in them eventually suffers, come what may?

"Not at all," she replies. "Knife Edge is indeed about hate, but its predecessor, Noughts & Crosses, is about love, and the final book, Checkmate, due to come out next year, will be about hope. Jude does not have to kill Cara; he has a choice. That's what I'm telling readers; there is always that chance to change. Nothing is predestined."

There are, in fact, few explicit mentions of black and white skins in the first two books. This has led some readers to wonder where exactly these novels were meant to be set, even though Blackman leaves the imaginary country nameless. Various e-mails have suggested Northern Ireland or Spain, as well as South Africa under a reversed form of apartheid. One young reader told Blackman about her Spanish father, married to a British mother and living over here, but driven half-mad and eventually out of the family home by daily taunts at work during the Falklands war.

Plenty of taunts are heard, too, in the Noughts & Crosses trilogy, with the Noughts calling the Crosses "Blankers" and the Crosses, once out of earshot, responding with "Daggers". By making up new epithets rather than using old, sadly familiar ones, Blackman shows the demeaning effect of offensive language without adding to the circulation of racist insults in the way that once happened after television programmes such as Love Thy Neighbour.

Although her other novels have often, but not always, featured black characters, Blackman has until now avoided writing about racial situations. "I have never seen myself an issues writer," she says. "Noughts & Crosses is my 50th novel. If I had started out with it, I would probably never have been allowed to break away from race issues ever after. But I want to write about everything for an audience of everybody. That includes the sort of books I enjoyed myself when young."

The daughter of parents who came to London from Barbados, Blackman liked school but loved public libraries even more. Her engineer father would buy only non-fiction for his family, seeing stories as self-evidently a waste of time because they were not real. But once Blackman had discovered Heidi, the Chalet School stories, CS Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder and other favourites, she was hooked. Discouraged from going to university and fulfilling her ambition of becoming an English teacher, she took a variety of jobs before becoming a writer in 1990, after a total of 82 rejection letters. She has won many prizes since then, with Noughts & Crosses chosen by viewers last year as one of the BBC Big Read top 100 titles.

Earlier novels such as Thief, Hacker and Dangerous Reality all feature accounts of personal betrayal by someone who, until that moment, has been implicitly trusted. Was that a reaction to some of the thoughtless racism she may have come across while growing up in Hounslow, when there were fewer black faces in the streets?

"I don't think so. There were some hurtful comments at the time, and I occasionally get the odd few even now. But my concern with the betrayal of trust probably goes back to the time my dad left the family when I was 13. I never saw him again, and for a time really grieved. He's dead now, but we didn't find that out till about three years after the event. There was also this girl at school who once gave away a really big secret. I was devastated."

Graham Greene brought the school bully, Carter, of his childhood into three of his stories, always unfavourably, never forgiving him for once briefly pretending to be friends in order to play a cruel trick. Is this particular girl also partly responsible for the sense in Blackman's novels that trust may always be abused, even from the most unlikely quarters?

"I don't know," she answers. "When I write, characters sometimes turn out to have a will of their own. But on the whole I am a pessimistic optimist, except about race relations at the moment. I have seen things getting worse in the past 10 years, with the rise in the BNP vote and the distorted press reporting on asylum-seekers.

"That's one reason I wrote Noughts & Crosses and Knife Edge. It's also why I include specimen pages in both of them from a made-up popular rag called The Daily Shouter, complete with black-and-white photographs. Readers can then see how a newspaper distorts the truth, by comparing its account with what they know to have happened to the characters."

Blackman's other best-known title is Pig-Heart Boy, about 13-year-old Cameron, who needs a heart transplant to survive. All that is available is the heart of a genetically modified pig, courtesy of a pioneering doctor not averse to courting publicity. After the first transplant fails, Cameron decides against another try, dismayed by the way that some people now treat him differently even though he still feels the same boy inside. But he is finally won round to one more attempt by his grandmother. Paradoxically, she is against the idea, but insists that her grandson alone should have the final say about what is going to happen to him. Written with humour as well as compassion, it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and later successfully adapted by the author for television.

Was this grandmother, such an important figure in the novel, based on Blackman's experience? "Not really. I never knew my grandmother - she stayed in Barbados and looked after my older brother and sister for a long time until they left her to come to join us in Britain. I used to dream about this ideal person that the two others used to talk about so much, and now I have re-created her in my book."

Blackman lives in Beckenham with a Scots husband and an eight-year-old daughter, who sometimes comes in useful by suggesting new ideas for books for younger readers. She is already on her 55th publication in 14 years. Her repertoire extends to adventure stories, science fiction, ghost tales and picture books, as well as teenage novels. Her work is now stocked in bookshops all over Britain, including those not generally interested in stories by black authors. She wishes that other black writers of fiction could be given the opportunity that she has won for herself: "The talent is there; it's just a matter of getting it recognised."

Her work has sometimes seemed hurried, particularly the last chapters of earlier novels, where, accelerator firmly pressed down, conclusions are reached at record speed, whatever the injuries to credibility. But over the past few years her writing has become more thickly textured, reaching out to older readers as well. There is more willingness to challenge, and occasionally shock. Blackman is only 42, and her best may be yet to come. Noughts & Crosses and Knife Edge could be portents for future, equally involving, stories that continue to ask her large audience of black and white readers awkward questions, while never finally depriving them of positive answers.

Biography: Malorie Blackman

Born in 1962, Malorie Blackman was brought up in Hounslow, west London. A grammar-school girl, she studied computing at Thames Polytechnic and then worked with computers. After attending a Writing for Children course, her first book Not So Stupid! was published by Livewire in 1991. She has since gone on to become the only author to have twice won the Young Telegraph's Fully Booked Award, once for Hacker and the second time for Thief. She now writes full time, working in the back bedroom of her house in Beckenham, Kent. Her 2001 novel Noughts & Crosses was one of the runners-up for the Carnegie Medal and was chosen by viewers last year as number 61 of the top 100 titles in the BBC Big Read poll. Its sequel, Knife Edge, is published this month by Doubleday.

Nicholas Tucker is co-author of 'The Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'