William Sutcliffe (‘Will’) is a brilliant writer. Now aiming principally at the Young Adult market, he has much to offer older readers too. Once a member of the Cambridge Footlights, he continues to be very, very funny in his fiction. But his stories also engage with issues he feels strongly about. As he puts it himself, ‘All my novels are comic novels but dead serious. They are trying to say something meaningful about life.’
And they do. The Wall is a moving story about an Israeli boy falling for an Arab girl living on the other side of what is clearly the West Bank Wall, although never named as such. This was shortlisted for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, and published with an alternative cover aimed at adult readers. Concentr8 takes on the scandal of excessive drug prescription for children judged to be suffering from ADHD, sometimes only after minimal investigation. We See Everything describes a dystopian world dominated by surveillance from the sky. And out now, The Summer We Turned Green makes the case for resisting climate change so powerfully it could well influence numbers of young readers to follow in similar directions themselves.
Will’s father, whose family originated from Lithuania, was an early computer programmer. He and his wife, who came over to the UK in the 1960s, lived comfortably in the North-West London suburbs. Growing up as a second generation self-described British-Jewish atheist, Will did well at school, and some incidents that actually took place there are found in his first novel New Boy, published when he was 25. After university he worked as a TV researcher before turning fulltime to fiction.
The books that followed include Whatever Makes You Happy, featuring three over-interfering mothers and their relationship with their adult sons. This was adapted by Netflix into a film named Otherhood. There is also his wonderfully comic The Gifted, the Talented and Me, where a long-suffering teenager is forced to attend a pretentious new school full of outsize egos among both staff and pupils. Things work out well in the end, but this is not always the case. Bad Influence is a truly chilling tale involving bullying and the fear of losing close friendships. It doesn’t end happily, but needs to be read as a reminder that parents and older siblings often have no idea about what is really going on with younger members of the family at school.
Speaking to Will via Zoom, I started our conversation by asking him how important books were to him during his own childhood.
I read a lot as a child, and then had a sort of teenage rebellion against such a bookish home. But my parents gave me Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, a really grisly story, when I was 15 as a clever way of getting me reading again. I then moved on to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, the first book ever to make me laugh out loud. It was from that moment that I decided I would like to be an author myself.
I often laugh aloud reading your books too. Do you make yourself laugh when writing them?
I do find myself smiling, but a lot of the humour when it works comes from the polishing I have to do afterwards, endlessly re-writing until I think it looks right on the page.
Some of your humour can be almost cruel, with bright children finding new ways of insulting each other and well-meaning parents rarely ever getting the better of sometimes quite vicious arguments at home.
Yes, but I try to be fair to all my characters. I hate the style of comic writing where the author is like a sneering puppet-master, mocking characters he has clearly taken against. What I like to do is start from reality, then turn things up a bit but always coming back to something readers will recognise from their own lives.
Your latest novel is on the dangers of climate change. Do you ever worry that children reading so much about this now may feel that the battle has been lost and there is no point in going on with any protests?
I have no time for dystopian stores where everything has gone bad past any chance of change. Fiction dealing with important social issues should inspire action not despair. And what I have tried to get across in this story is the joy and excitement arising from getting involved and discovering that some change can happen after all. What fiction can provide is the emotional side to what can sometimes seem like a purely intellectual argument. It was only when I visited Israel and Palestine that I felt I really understood what was really going on there. This was because I had grown in emotional understanding through talking to people on both sides.
You often write about causes in your fiction. Do you go out looking for them or do they find you?
Well, writing a book is a lot of work, and in my case I need something extra to get me going. So it’s got to be something I personally care about. After that it’s all a bit of a tightrope. If readers feel they are being lectured they will turn off. My last three novels have been about things I care about, but I know I have to find ways of integrating my own views into a story that still works in its own right.
So are you going back to writing after this interview?
No, I’m looking after the kids. We shall go for a walk and I will almost certainly start talking about trees- they have become my latest obsession! And I know my kids will say, ‘Oh God, – he’s going on about trees again!’
Will is now fifty, with another book on the way. He lives in Edinburgh, married to the novelist Maggie O’Farrell, and there are three children. It was as much a pleasure talking to him as it is to read his expertly written and constructed novels, where states of semi-anarchy often run parallel with otherwise conventional suburban living. Reading him is always a treat, with each succeeding novel as good if not even better than the already excellent one coming before.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
Books mentioned, all published by Bloomsbury
The Wall, 978-1408838433, £8.99 pbk
We See Everything, 978-1408890189, £7.99 pbk
The Summer We Turned Green, 978-1526632852, £7.99 pbk
Whatever Makes You Happy, 978-0747596523, £9.99 pbk
The Gifted, the Talented and Me, 978-1408890219, £7.99 pbk