NZ Booklovers’ Kids & Teens reviewer JJ McConnachie chats with Sally Green, the author of young adult novel Half Bad, about witches, broomsticks, and what to expect next.
The novel broaches the idea of good vs evil, and turns it on its head by having a range of characters who may be classified as “good” (the white witches) or “bad” (the black witches) seem to a little more ambiguous than that. Can any of the characters be categorised as good or bad?
My initial idea for the novel was to play around with readers’ expectations, presuming that for the most part the expectation would be that White Witches are ‘good’ and Black Witches are ‘bad’, and the whole novel questions these labels. I also wanted to explore how the characters view themselves and indeed I think most of the characters, and certainly the White Witches, in Half Bad, would say that they are ‘good’ despite some rather dubious and violent actions. However, each person when viewed individually has their own motives and pressures and hopefully the reader can understand why they may do ‘bad’ things.
In fact Nathan is the only one who isn’t sure what he is (‘good’ or ‘bad’) and, most importantly for him, what he’s going to be when he’s an adult Witch.
When most people think of witches, they think of an old woman on a broomstick. Half Bad makes some reference to this, but the main character is male, young, and broomstick-less. What made you want to take this approach towards a witch protagonist?
I wanted to create a witchy world without wands and broomsticks and indeed without wizards (and let’s face it that all has been covered rather well by Harry Potter). I’m interested in a more mystical element to witchcraft and the ‘Gift’ that each witch possesses is part of their nature, though it can be developed, practised and improved, so there’s no need for wands or broomsticks. And as for wizards, well, I loved the idea of a witch society where women had the higher social status and for the most part have stronger Gifts. The head of the Council of White Witches is female and I really enjoyed making the Hunters a largely female group – they’re sort of Amazonian in my mind.
Whilst the witchy world is dominated by women I wanted to write a story from a boy’s point of view because that’s what interested me as a writer – I wanted to step into Nathan’s shoes.
Nathan has a tough life and there are some fairly brutal scenes in Half Bad that made me squirm a little. Were they difficult to write?
For the most part the writing of Half Bad and those scenes of torture/violence came reasonably easily, as I could imagine the scenes and so I could write them. I was too engrossed in the writing to worry about squirming myself. The only difficulty with these scenes of brutality was trying to avoid being overdramatic and I spent quite a bit of time editing them, so I’d say that I was more concerned about the technicalities of writing than with Nathan’s plight. (Sorry Nathan!)
Part of the novel is written in second person narrative, and then it changes to first person, and then I believe there is a brief second person scene again at the end. What was your reason for this shift in narrative?
The whole novel is told from Nathan’s point of view but at certain points in his life Nathan thinks of himself as ‘you’ rather than ‘I’. This is when he is at his most desperate and there are two reasons for this. Firstly he’s alienated from himself and indeed is both murderous and suicidal. Secondly he’s almost coaching himself by saying, ‘You just do this, do that, keep running, don’t mind about the pain. Don’t mind about losing a hand. You can’t afford to worry about that, just run.’ When Nathan is more ‘normal’, more sane, he thinks of himself as ‘I’.
Some people don’t like second person but I find it interesting and wanted to see how it would work in my writing.
You have some very strong secondary characters which unique personalities that stayed with me after I’d put the book down, even though they didn’t get much page-time (Eg Gabriel, Mary, Nikita). Did you have huge character profiles written up to ensure that each of them got the mass amounts of detail that seemed to go into them, or did they evolve on their own?
I love all my characters (even the horrible ones – even Jessica) so it’s great to hear that they stayed with you – thank you.
I make very few notes – and when I do make them I have a tendency not to read them again! But as with all my writing I see scenes and characters in my mind and that is how I know what they are like. I’d say I know them almost like real people, like friends (and I don’t make notes on them). I think it’s fair to say that the characters evolve as I write.
While some of the secondary characters are unique, it felt to me that Annalise was more of a clean slate. Nathan clearly likes her, but seems to idolise her to the point where as I reader I wasn’t sure if she really was a pure and innocent as he thinks she is. Will we get to know Annalise a little more in the next book?
Yes, a number of people have made similar comments about Annalise and I did want to leave some doubt about her allegiance. Nathan does indeed worship her – the idea of her is what helps him through his time in the cage.
She will be back in Half Wild and we’ll see more of her character develop there.
Even though there is no obvious love triangle in Half Bad, there is definitely some shipping going on in the fan world between Gabriel and Nathan. Did you expect that to happen?
Gabriel is one of my favourite characters – and I’m a little in love with him myself. I always hoped that readers would fall for him as much as I have and I think it’s great that some people see Gabriel and Nathan as a ‘better’ couple than Nathan and Annalise. There is a love triangle between Nathan, Gabriel and Annalise and I’m definitely interested in how these relationships develop in Half Wild and beyond.
Speaking of Book Two, Half Wild, I understand that it is out next year. Are you still writing or editing it at the moment?
I’ve just submitted the first draft of Half Wild to my editor, and the editing process is about to begin. I struggled to like Half Wild as much as Half Bad initially, but now I prefer it – I think my writing is improving and Nathan develops hugely as a character (through many an ordeal of course). Half Wild is out in March 2015.
Read NZ Booklovers’ review of Half Bad.
Photo of Sally Green by Mark Allan