The Book That Saved My Life: Snowflake, AZ by Marcus Sedgwick

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Snowflake, AZ – Marcus Sedgwick

By Marcus Sedgwick

Write what you know. That’s what they say, isn’t it? But I’ve always felt, whoever ‘they’ are, that they say an awful lot of stupid things. Especially when it comes to supposed ‘rules’ of writing. Personally, I have always tried to write what I don’t know. Perhaps to do literally that is impossible, but I’m pretty sure I write at the edges of what I know; at what is scrabbling at my unconscious, at what is demanding to be looked at. I’ve found that’s the only way to write – the only way to remain sufficiently obsessed with your work is not to know it completely, for if you did, why would you bother to lock yourself away for months until you have 100,000 words in front of you?

And yet. It’s also a good idea to remember another rule in life – and this one might actually be valid – never be too sure. I say this because one day, about six years ago, something came into my life that I was absolutely determined not to write about; that thing was me, or rather, a sick version of me. I became ill, with what doctors accurately but uselessly name Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I won’t bore you with the minutiae, let me just explain that the illness brought me lower than anything has ever done before. ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ That’s another stupid thing ‘they’ say, and now I know why – in my case, what didn’t kill me has broken me, battered me, and reduced me to shuddering fear. It was the very last thing I wanted to write about. I didn’t even want to accept I had become ill, possibly for life, why on Earth would I want to put pen to paper on the subject?

Well, the answer is of course: because what else is writing for? Because the unconscious knows what we need better than we do. And so, six years later, my book Snowflake, AZ is the product of the experience of becoming ill with an undiagnosed illness. Even so, I’ll still try to claim it’s not directly about me – it’s about an illness that I randomly came across in my own searches for improved health, but like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, it is a disputed and misunderstood sickness. It’s called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and you can read more about it here, if you want to know what the future looks like.

But long before I put pen to paper on the book, another book saved my life, and not only that, it came to influence mine. That book was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann – a twentieth century classic, but little read these days, which is a great shame. If it sounds like hyperbole to say it saved my life, it certainly saved my sanity, and that’s more or less the same thing. In the first, bewildering year of illness, aside from the support of my wife, the only other thing that got me through was Mann’s wonderful book; impossible to summarise briefly in terms of theme and meaning. Instead, I’ll have a stab at the set-up: a young man named Hans Castorp arrives at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. It is 1907. He has come to pay a visit to his cousin Joachim, who is a patient at the clinic. He intends to stay for three weeks; he ends up remaining for seven years, having himself received a dubious diagnosis of TB. By the close of the novel it is 1914; war is on the horizon.

Mann took his title from a line in Goethe’s Faust – ‘the mountain’s magic mad tonight’ – a line that is followed by the entreaty not to take anything too precisely. That notion; to never be too sure of oneself, runs throughout The Magic Mountain, and is part of what kept me sane as I adapted to my new, unbidden life as someone chronically ill.  A fair way into the Mann’s book, one of the significant characters asks Hans Castorp how he is adjusting to it all; is he getting used to being ill? Borrowing a line from his cousin, he quips, ‘one gets used to not getting used to it.’ And that’s the single sentence that saved my life – the line that taught me not to try to find meaning in something that won’t have meaning applied to it.

But how, and indeed should, one allow oneself to be influenced by another book when writing a novel of one’s own? Especially when that influence is a sacred cornerstone of Western literature. The answer, I think, is to be honest. We writers are all translators, really. We take what has gone before and we see it with our own eyes, recast it in our own image, and so we pass on ideas that are important, even if they are only still important to one person, while ideas that are important to no one go the way that natural selection dictates. Everything else is open for us to work with, and the only way to do it is with honesty:  I hereby confess I was inspired by Thomas Mann, and bravery: as much as I revere his work, I am making a small thing of my own, something no one else could make.

That last part is vital, I think. No matter what creative work we are engaged in, it’s always worth remembering that no one else could do it. Even the you of the past, or the future, couldn’t do it. Only the you of now can write the story that you are writing. This is why writing is not something we can be told how to do; we each have to work out how to write in our own way. If there were a set of golden rules, it would be easy. But there isn’t, and it’s not. That is one of the major challenges of writing, and yet the one that gives you the greatest satisfaction when you’re done.

So when you are inspired to write by another book, welcome it. See yourself as part of a chain, a chain that is generations of writers long, and understand that if you only wrote what you knew, the chain would soon come to an end, evaporating in self-absorption.

There’s a statement that’s supposed to be by Shostakovich, though I have never managed to source the exact quote. ‘To borrow from others,’ he apparently said, ‘is necessary. To borrow from oneself is death.’

(c) Marcus Sedgwick

About Snowflake, AZ:

A timely, contemporary novel challenging ideas around health our own and our planet’s and the stigma that persists around illness, by Printz Medallist and internationally bestselling novelist, Marcus Sedgwick.

Ash has lived in eight states in as many years. Mom has gone walkabout, but stepdad Jack is like a father, and stepbrother Bly the best anyone could wish for. When Bly goes missing too, Ash sets off to search for him and finds something much bigger: the sickness of the world.

Arriving in Snowflake, Arizona, Ash discovers Bly living with a community 6000 feet high in the wide red desert. They call themselves the Canaries and all suffer from some kind of environmental illness. They are ostracised by modern society, as it continues to ignore climate change, global warming and so much more of our self-inflicted poisoning of the planet. When Ash takes ill, the doctor’s response is, ‘it’s all in your mind’. In a story spanning seven years with triumphs and tragedies, Ash learns how to live as the world is pushed to a point of no return. This humane and deeply thoughtful novel is about resilience, trust, family and love.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

MARCUS SEDGWICK was born and raised in East Kent in the south-east of England. He now lives in the French Alps.

He is the winner of many prizes, most notably the 2014 Michael L. Printz Award for his novel Midwinterblood. Marcus has also received two Printz Honors, for Revolver in 2011 and The Ghosts of Heaven in 2016, giving him the most citations to date for America’s most prestigious book prize for writing for young adults. Other notable award winning books include Floodland, Marcus’ first novel, which won the Branford-Boase Award in 2001, a prize for the best debut novel for children published in the UK each year; My Swordhand is Singing, which won the Booktrust Teenage Prize for 2007, and Lunatics and Luck, part of The Raven Mysteries series, which won a Blue Peter Book Award in 2011.

His books have been shortlisted for over forty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (seven times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (four times). He has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award three times, in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, reviews for The Guardian newspaper and teaches creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. He has illustrated some of his books, and has provided wood-engravings for a couple of private press books.

Without doubt, he is currently working on a new book of some kind…

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