It took many by surprise when Nick Lake’s ambitious young adult novel In Darkness (Bloomsbury) was named for the Printz Award at last month’s Youth Media Awards. Filled with vivid details of oppression, poverty, and violence, the book weaves together a dual narrative, linking the story of Shorty, a teenage gangster trapped in the rubble of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, with that of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the real-life leader of Haiti’s 18thcentury slave uprising. Yet Lake sees the book as a hopeful one with an important message for its teen readers, “this idea of darkness being only a temporary thing,” he tells School Library Journal.
In our one-on-one interview, British author (and HarperCollins UK children’s book editor) Lake opens up to SLJ about his reaction to the YMA win, his inspirations for such a complex undertaking, the importance of staying true to oneself, and his next projects on the horizon.
What was your reaction to the Printz win? Are you familiar with that award?
I’m ashamed to confess that, though I knew of the Caldecott and the Newbery, I had only vaguely heard of the Printz and it wasn’t enormously on my radar. And anyway, I just assumed that The Fault in Our Stars or Code Name Verity would win it… and I’m still living in fear of John Green fans turning up on my doorstep with pitchforks. [laughs] I assumed that the fact that [In Darkness] was obscure was why they had chosen it, that The Fault in Our Stars had enough of the purse, I guess.
Did you know that many in the audience at the YMAs were shocked Fault did not win?
I’m not surprised! I could kind of tell from Twitter as well, and because I work in publishing, I just thought it was an absolute lock for that award. I haven’t read Code Name Verity yet but it is on my pile to read, and I read The Fault in Our Stars and I loved it. He is kind of an inspiration.
I think of anyone who writes young adult fiction, [John Green] changed what it was possible to do in a young adult book. When I started out at HarperCollins, Looking for Alaska was one of the first books I read, and I read all of his books.
What inspired you to write this story?
It was two separate strands. The first: I did a Masters in linguistics and one of the nodules was on Creole and those kind of languages and so that got me interested in Haiti and reading about people like Toussaint L’Ouverture, and reading Wade Davis and Zora Neale Hurston. That was 10 years ago but that fascination with Toussaint L’Ouverture was kind of percolating at the back of my mind.
He is this absolutely extraordinary figure. He was 53 when the revolution started; he had, up until then, looked after horses. And he taught himself to read, taught himself to write, and ended up becoming a general very quickly and then rose to lead the revolutionary army. He was a very intelligent, driven man; he defeated not only the French army but also the British and the Spanish as well, and he ended up freeing the country. For a long time I just thought that was absolutely extraordinary that a man who is 53 could just completely reinvent himself in that way. So for ages I wanted to do something about him but I wasn’t quite sure what it would be, and I didn’t want to write a biography.
The second thing was the earthquake—and the utter horror that most people felt, that this terrible humanitarian tragedy happening to a country that had already had such a bad history. And particularly, it was when two or three days later, the news started doing stories on people who had dug out of the rubble. I saw one of them being interviewed on TV and they said, “There was a point there where I couldn’t tell whether I was thinking thoughts or speaking aloud.” And I thought that was just the most extraordinary thing for someone to say. In fact, I stole it and used it for Shorty in the book.
How did the interwoven story start to flow for you?
I just became fascinated—or obsessed—with the idea of what that might be like and, since I couldn’t arrange for my house to fall down around me, I thought the only way that I could experience it was to write it down and explore it imaginatively. So I just started writing the story of Shorty and his voice came very quickly, and then I just had this unshakeable idea that was also the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture. I just was convinced that there was something that linked these two characters.
Toussaint died in a French dungeon, so at a certain point in time this boy and this man are metaphorically and literally in the same place—they’re both trapped underground in the darkness.
The only thing that is dividing them is the mere fact of 200 years of time. I think time can sometimes be kind of porous and thin, so it was that idea of these two people who are in the same place. And then as well, I am very interested in voodoo—real voodoo as opposed to movie zombie voodoo, this whole notion of being ridden by spirits and being possessed.
It all just fit together then because I thought suddenly, that there’s an explanation for why, at the age of 53, he abruptly [became] this great military leader. So lots of things suddenly fit into place and in quite a satisfying way, and I just had to sit down and write furiously for about 6 weeks.
This book is so complex and so dark; were you surprised that it became a YA book?
I was more surprised that anyone wanted to publish it at all! With the “Blood Ninja” books, I approached it as someone who worked in publishing, and I was thinking that there are lots of books like Twilight but there isn’t as much for boys, and everything about it was very conscious and deliberate, trying to design something that might suit the market. Whereas with In Darkness I was writing it for me, really. I think, to be honest, that my agent didn’t really think anyone would want to publish it either. But Bloomsbury were hugely enthusiastic from the outset. Here I was completely ignoring what publishers might want and suddenly they very quickly wanted it. Maybe there’s a lesson in there.
In Darkness in the UK was published as an adult book and a young adult book. It’s the same book but with different jackets; it’s increasingly something that is done in publishing in the UK. Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner has young adult version and now it’s coming out as an adult edition, and they do that with people like Patrick Ness. I think people are still trying to work out this genre and where the boundary lies between young adult and adult. I didn’t really know who the book was for, and neither did my agent. So it was sent to adult lists and young adult lists. Essentially, I’ve always written for younger teenagers, and this was the first young adult [title].
Can you speak about the role of hope in the story?
I very consciously wanted it to be a hopeful book. I don’t know if I one hundred percent succeeded because a lot of reviews focused on how incredibly miserable and violent the book is—and it is in many ways—but I always saw it as a hopeful book, and it doesn’t have an unhopeful ending. So that was always very much the intention, and consciously the intention. Everyone has difficult things that they’ve gone through in their lives and, for several years before I wrote the books, there were several difficult things in my life and I’d moved beyond them.
And so I supposed I wanted to, without wanting to sound too evangelical, say something to teenagers about how you can move past bad things that happen. And yeah, I very much wanted it to be a message; we ended up using it as a strapline on the UK edition of the book, this idea that—on this planet anyway because we circle the sun—there’s always light on the other side of darkness and you don’t have to wait for very long for darkness to be replaced by light.
What projects are you are most excited about working on next as author or editor?
Ooh…There are two actually, one that I’m editing for HarperCollins that’s coming out early 2014 is a YA, beautifully written book by a young, male British writer, who I kind of think could be the British John Green. And that’s amazing. It’s a debut, and it’s astonishing.
And the other thing is my book, which hasn’t come out in the states yet, called Hostage Three (Bloomsbury, fall 2013). That’s about a girl who lives in London; her father is a banker. He’s lost his job and he buys this super yacht and decides that they’re going to sail around the world with the girl’s stepmother. Her mother has died in uncertain circumstances not that long before; she hates the step mother so it’s kind of a fairytale element and then they get about 3 months into their journey and they’re kidnapped by Somali pirates. Then to add to all the complications she thinks she’s falling in love with the youngest pirate…and it all just then goes horribly wrong, obviously, as it would. It’s much more of a straight thriller than In Darkness but I’m proud of it, so hopefully people will like it!
And so I’m kind of two books on from In Darkness, weirdly, and the thing that I’m most excited about, that I’m writing now, is tentatively called Your Little Princess; it’s actually set in America. The entire story is constructed around a massive twist; the teenage protagonist gets hit by a car, this then triggers her mum discharging her from hospital, bundling her into the car with all their belongings and saying ‘we’re going on the run.” And the mystery is why they suddenly have to run.
So I’m sticking to the genre of thrillers with an emotional first-person core to them.
Has the experience of being an author changed you as an editor?
Yes, it has actually. Mostly in the sense that it has made me much, much more sensitive in the way that I couch what I’m saying, because I am hyper aware now how even the most softly phrased suggestions can feel devastating for an author. It’s made me express things very carefully, and as much as possible in conversation rather than in writing. It’s made me very, very aware. I can’t edit myself, and so I absolutely have to have someone else who reads it who can say ‘the shape of this isn’t quite right’ or ‘there’s something missing here.’ I genuinely think that all writers need an editor.
Since the YMAs, have you seen an increased interest from the U.S.? The awards are critically important to the library and publishing worlds.
So I terrifyingly gather! I [have] spent a lot of time on the phone to people, lots of sudden renewed interest and I gather that they’re reprinting it. It does make an impact in that way. I didn’t quite realize that at first, but it does seem that suddenly I’m spending a lot of time on the phone, which is nice!