Half Bad, the debut witch novel for teens by Sally Green hit the headlines recently after breaking a Guinness World Record for most translated book pre-publication. It’s already been sold into over forty-five territories and the film rights have been snapped up by Fox 2000.
It’s the story of Nathan, a Half Code – son of a white witch and a black witch – who at the opening of the book is locked in a cage. Whites are ‘good’ witches, rulers of the witching world and terrified of the more dangerous and unpredictable black witches.
Nathan’s father is Marcus, the darkest and most hated black witch of all, a man he has never met. The only person who can kill Marcus (according to a prophecy) is his own son. So Nathan is stolen away from his family by the white witch Council, locked in a cage and trained to fight and eventually kill his own father.
Nathan is a boy who teenage girls will fall in love with and teenage boys will want to be. For that reason alone, Sally Green is on to a winner. Believe the hype, witches are the next big thing.
So who is the woman behind this record breaking book? And where did she get the idea for her extraordinary book?
I meet Sally Green in the foyer of the Gresham Hotel in Dublin’s city centre along with her editor from Penguin, Ben Horslen. I was expecting witchy black leather and denim but she’s dressed in a beautifully cut white shirt and carrying a glitzy white leather handbag. She immediately settles back into her seat and starts to talk about Half Bad with touching love and enthusiasm.
Half Bad is a beautifully crafted novel with some of the most arresting opening chapters I’ve read in many years. Sally took three writing courses with the Open University before writing her first book (unpublished), a YA novel featuring female witches. But she laughs when I ask her is she an experienced writer, with many manuscripts under her bed.
‘I started writing in 2010,’ she explains. ‘In university I did Geology and then in my twenties and thirties I was career orientated, I worked as an accountant. When I hit forty I’d had enough of the pressure and the stress and I wanted to have a child. So I stopped working and had my son.’ Her life then changed completely and she became a kind of ‘earth mother’ as she laughingly describes it, growing vegetables and keeping chickens. But when her son started school she began to get a bit bored and looked for something to stretch her a bit. She signed up for a course with the Open University in Social Sciences. ‘I had to write essays and it got me in the habit of writing every day,’ she says. And one day she had an Eureka moment. ‘I was tidying up my office and I thought “I have the idea for a story.” So I stopped tidying and I started to write it up.’
But where did this idea come from? Was there any particular inspiration she can pinpoint? ‘In 2009 I went to a storytelling festival in Shropshire with some friends,’ she explains. ‘A long weekend of total immersion – mainly folk stories and legends. It was brilliant. Spending ten or twelve hours (a day) listening to stories and talking about them afterwards. That got me thinking about witches and a witch story.
One of the things we joked about (at the festival) was the fact that there was always three (of everything) – three brothers, three caskets, three branches, three witches. So my initial idea was: to become a witch you are given three gifts. The first story I wrote wasn’t Half Bad but it was a witch story for YA (young adults).’ This book was a love story told from a girl’s point of view.
Sally wrote this first book in September 2010 but realised that her writing wasn’t quite there yet. So she signed up for a creative writing course, again with the Open University. ‘As soon as I started on the course I continued working on the novel myself,’ she says. ‘In the winter of 2011. I sent it to eight agents, (I got) five replies, three non replies. The fifth and final reply was from Claire Wilson who is actually my agent now. Claire saw the full manuscript and rejected it. She said she liked my writing style but the story wasn’t edgy enough.’
After that Sally describes her learning curve as ‘almost vertical’. ‘I looked at what (Claire) said and I agreed,’ she says. ‘I knew it wasn’t good enough. I started thinking. I knew I could do edgy. But I liked elements of the story so I started tweaking it. But after two weeks I knew it wasn’t working and I had to start again.’
This second, new book was Half Bad. By that stage she’d read award winning YA novels by Patrick Ness, Aidan Chambers, Melvin Burgess and Kevin Brooks; she’d also read The Hunger Games. ‘The big decision for me was to write it from the male point of view,’ she explains. ‘I’d written short stories from a male point of view and the comments about them were positive. So I changed it to first person, present tense, male point of view and I wrote it chronologically. I changed the order afterwards.’ The book cleverly dips in and out of the past and the present.
‘I knew I had to make my first fifty pages really strong (to get an agent). You can send any fifty pages but you should be sending the first fifty. And obviously you want the opening to have impact also. When you’re not published you can do whatever you want. There’s this thing at the back of your head saying “You’re never going to get published so you may as well have fun and write the way you want to write.” It’s almost experimental. Trying to work out what things work for you.’
Her editor, Ben loved the book so much he bought it for Penguin, fighting off many other publishers at a heated auction. Half Bad has now become one of the most talked about YA books of the year. Believe the hype – read it!
Find out more about Sally Green and read her message for emerging writers coming up in Part 2 of this interview next week.
(c) Sarah Webb
Sarah Webb is a bestselling author and a children’s book consultant. She is the Family and Schools Curator of the Mountains to Sea Book Festival. Find out more about her and her Amy Green series here: www.sarahwebb.ie or follow her on Twitter: @sarahwebbishere
About Half Bad
Half Bad by Sally Green is a breathtaking debut novel about one boy’s struggle for survival in a hidden society of witches.
You can’t read, can’t write, but you heal fast, even for a witch.
You get sick if you stay indoors after dark.
You hate White Witches but love Annalise, who is one.You’ve been kept in a cage since you were fourteen.
All you’ve got to do is escape and find Mercury, the Black Witch who eats boys. And do that before your seventeenth birthday.
Pick up your copy here!