The best-selling Oxford children’s author talks about her work with Stuart Macbeth

Sally Nicholls’ father died when she was just two years old. Now she is a best-selling author whose poignant books for teens on death and loss have been translated into 22 languages around the world.

Her 18 awards for writing include the 2008 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and just last month Sally’s sixth novel An Island of Our Own, which was written in Oxford, won the IBW Children’s Fiction Award 2015.

“I have no memories at all of my father,” the 32-year-old tells me in a coffee shop near her East Oxford home. “So I don’t write about death because of him, but for teenagers who love stories about big emotions.

“I’m also interested in writing about how young people cope with traumatic situations. Because when I wrote my first book Ways to Live Forever, there wasn’t anywhere a 10-year-old with a terminal illness could turn to get answers to questions about death, if his or her family weren’t able to discuss them.”

Sally was only 24 when she wrote Ways To Live Forever and the manuscript was immediately snapped up by publisher Marion Lloyd.

“It’s an incredible honour that my first book, which came out seven years ago, is still stocked by bookshops,” she continues bashfully.

“I got a phone call from my agent telling me that they’d made an offer and that I was going to be published. That doesn’t happen to everyone. I’m grateful it’s happened to me.”

Sally summarises all her six books as “about children who live in families who love them, coping with difficult and traumatic situations and ultimately coming through”.

Aimed at readers aged 12 and over, Sally says “the books have made readers less afraid of dying, or changed the way they think about something”, adding: “I try to tell compelling stories about realistic characters.”

Sally grew up in Stockton-on-Tees and spent six months travelling Australia and Japan before taking her undergraduate degree in philosophy at Warwick, and an MA in writing for young people at Bath. She moved to Oxford in 2010 when her husband was accepted to study for a master’s in local government at Oxford Internet Institute.

Is it an inspiring city to write in?

“I love the green spaces, the river and my garden. It’s like a big city in miniature. So on a good day I’ll write 1,000 words. On a bad day, 500. Sometimes I’m still writing at midnight. Sometimes, rarely, I’m done by lunchtime and can celebrate.

“I almost always write on a laptop, but most of my books have some parts of them that have been written longhand. I have a big messy file on my computer full of half-finished chapters that I gave up on when they got difficult, and will have to come back to. I also have a ‘slush file’ where I put all my deleted scenes.

“In one book I killed a character, then changed my mind and decided to let him live. When my editor told me she thought he should die, I had his death scene all written and waiting.”

Sally wrote some of the chapters for her latest book An Island Of Our Own at the cafe where we meet. She offers a lively explanation of the plot.

“The book is about three siblings: Jonathan, Holly and Davy. Their parents are dead and 19-year-old Jonathan has become legal guardian,” Sally enthuses.

“They don’t have a lot of money because Jonathan works in a cafe. But then their great-aunt dies and leaves them some jewellery. The problem is that no one knows where the jewellery is.”

Sally’s books are neatly-paced, enjoyable page-turners. But with serious themes of loss and dying what does she hope children will take away from reading her books?

“I aim to show how behaviour which seems illogical from the outside is actually incredibly rational when experienced from within.

“I’d also like to occasionally make you laugh and to cause you emotional pain. And I’d like all that to be comprehensible to my reader, who is about 12. So it’s complicated!”

So what inspired her own interest in books?

“My mother read me three stories a night when I was a little girl.

“Later, she and my grandfather read us all the Swallows and Amazons books aloud when we were on holidays in the Lake District, which was wonderful.

“I don’t know if it would have been important to all children, but it was very important to me. I still love being read aloud to.

“I read lots of Shirley Hughes. I loved Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Frances Hodgeson Burnett – all the classics.

“I used to get very frustrated by books that didn’t feel real. I can still remember how exciting it was when a character watched Neighbours in a Jacqueline Wilson novel, because that felt real.

“So I try to make my books feel real. And I loved books about loving families, which is why they always feature in my stories.”

Now Sally is an established children’s author she has even had the odd experience of seeing one of her books, Ways To Live Forever, turned into a film.

“Meeting actual sane adults pretending to be people from my imagination – that was mad!”

So how did her writing career begin? Does she remember writing her first story?

“I’ve been telling myself stories in my head since I was about five,” she reflects.

“Even if I ended up waiting tables, I’d still be telling myself stories in the back of my head!

Sally is currently working on a book for children about the suffragette movement and admits to being ambitious.

“I’d like to win the Carnegie, the Nobel Prize for Literature and a BAFTA.

“I’d like to be Children’s Laureate. I’d like my books to still be read and loved 100 years after I’m dead.

“But I’d never like to be famous enough that people would recognise my face.”

“I’d just like people to come and find me at parties so they can tell me how much they loved my books as children.

“And I’d like to write for Doctor Who – how much fun would that be?”