Sophie McKenzie Interviewed by Linda Ogston

Posted by Linda Ogston on December 02, 2010 in Interviews tagged with , , , ,

Sophie McKenzie was born in London, studied at university there and worked as a journalist, an editor and a creative writing tutor before turning to writing full time. Sophie lives in London with her twelve year old son and goes boxing training in her spare time.

Sophie is the multi-award winning author of numerous books for young adults. Her debut novel, Girl, Missing (2006), won several awards including the Richard & Judy Best Kids’ Books 2007, The Red House Book Award and the Manchester Children’s Book Award.

Blood Ties was published in 2008 and was longlisted for the coveted Carnegie Medal. It has won and been shortlisted for many awards, and was the overall winner of the Red House Children’s Book Award 2009. Its sequel, Blood Ransom was published in 2010.

Sophie has kindly agreed to be interviewed about Blood Ties and its sequel Blood Ransom, young adult thrillers narrated by the teenage clones Theo and Rachel…

What drew you to the subject of cloning in your novels Blood Ties and its recent follow up Blood Ransom?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of human cloning. Not the technical aspects but the emotional implications. I remember seeing the film of Boys from Brazil when I was much younger and querying why a clone of Hitler would automatically behave like Hitler… didn’t environment (nurture) count as much as genetics (nature)? It was this central question – and how the clones affected would cope with the knowledge they were genetic copies of other people – that I was most interested in addressing in both Blood Ransom and Blood Ties.

The teenage protagonists in your books are often struggling to find their own identity, and you have dealt with issues including adoption and IVF in the past. Do you see cloning as a natural progression from this?

I think identity is a particularly potent subject for teenage readers who know they are no longer children and who are struggling (consciously and unconsciously) to work out their identities as adults. When I started writing Blood Ties, I didn’t think of cloning as being an extension of my previous interest in adoption but it’s true that in both Blood Ties and Girl, Missing the main characters have to deal with massive challenges to their sense of self. I should add that I don’t pick these subjects because I think they will interest my readers. I am drawn to them because they interest me – though I am always delighted when they seem to strike a chord with other people too!

What made you choose wet and windy Scotland as the setting for the main part of Blood Ransom?

I chose Scotland mainly because I spent a lot of time there last year – while I was planning and starting to write Blood Ransom – on a number of author visits to schools in the region. I have a Scottish name (though no Scottish blood!) and love the wild countryside, so different from much of England which is highly manicured. I also knew I needed Elijah to be operating in as secret a location as possible, and after watching a TV programme on the more obscure Scottish islands, realised that the imaginary Isle of Calla was a perfect setting for his sinister Aphrodite Experiment.

Your central characters have Greek code names, do you have a particular interest in Greek mythology?

Again, the decision to use Greek names came mostly from Elijah’s character. I needed code names for the plot and thought that Elijah, in his arrogance, would most likely be drawn to the power and reach of the gods. I do love the Greek myths – at heart, they are family dramas – and felt that the use of the names Zeus, Apollo and Artemis reflected the relationship Elijah feels he has with Rachel and Theo. They are his ‘children’ in the sense that he created them and therefore, as he says in Blood Ties, has the right to do what he wants with them.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility when writing for children to address the issues you deal with in a positive way? How does cloning fit into this?

I don’t believe that any subject should be taboo with children, only that the treatment of the material should be sensitive to their age and stage of development. With teenagers specifically I think you can pretty much tackle directly anything that’s relevant. Cloning clearly fits into this category – the science of human cloning is almost there – and the act itself raises all sorts of questions that young adults are interested in, especially those involving identity and heredity. I don’t feel I have to be positive about everything and wrap all the threads of the story up neatly, but I would never end a story for young adults without some sense of hope for the main characters.

There are very mixed views relating to cloning, where do you feel your books lie within the debate, and is that something you considered when writing them?

Human cloning is, quite rightly, a hugely contentious topic. However, the science itself is neutral. What matters far more are the uses to which people put the science. Creating a genetic copy of a human being is basically creating an identical twin. The question – or the issue – is really why anyone would want to do such a thing. I think there are huge problems with creating someone in another’s image. Presumably, anyone who wanted to do this would be trying to recreate themselves or someone close to them whom they’ve lost. I think there’s huge egotism in the first (see Theo/Elijah) and massive potential for problematic comparisons in the second (see Rachel/Rebecca). This doesn’t mean the situations can’t be handled sensitively or that there’s never an occasion when it might work out – but generally it sounds to me like a very bad idea. However, I’m not interested in the rights and wrongs of cloning nearly so much as the effect it would have on the individual cloned or the motivations of the cloner.

In Blood Ties and Blood Ransom I wanted to show as wide a range of views on cloning as possible and let readers make up their own minds. Theo and Rachel and their families have varied reactions depending on their specific perspectives. Elijah thinks he is hugely philanthropic but is clearly also cruel and arrogant. RAGE see the world in very black and white terms and operate out of extreme prejudice. Personally, I find their attitude to Theo and Rachel particularly appalling – to want someone dead because of their genetic inheritance is like a terrible racism.

You mentioned you’d seen the film Boys From Brazil some time ago, are you familiar with any other clone narratives? If so, are there any you particularly enjoyed?

I’m not widely read when it comes to clone narratives but I did – before sitting down to write Blood Ties – have the strong sense that most of what I had come across in fiction (eg the clones in Star Wars – or Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz) simply presented clones as unthinking automatons, who had inherited their entire personalities from the people from whom they were copied. As you know, my research suggested clones were closer genetically to identical twins, not carbon copies…

What do you think about the idea of the clone as a Gothic trope; do you see the clone in that way at all?

No! But I’m intrigued. In what way might clones be considered ‘Gothic’?

Well, the clone links to many ideas associated with the Gothic, such as the double, monstrosity and the uncanny. It’s also concerned with the notion of pushing boundaries and confronting taboos. It really stems from Frankenstein, the notion of the created being. Which leads me to my next questions…

While your portrayal of the clones Rachel and Theo is a very positive one, the scientist is not seen in such a favourable light. To what extent, if at all, was Elijah modelled as a Frankenstein-like ‘mad scientist’? Do you believe Elijah, aka Zeus, was ‘playing God’ when he created the clones?

Thanks for clarifying, that’s really interesting. Clearly the comparison was not in my own mind, though I can see the connection. It’s the common perception of clones – as monstrous – that underscores this and, in line with the fact that the genetic reality of clones (identical twins) is much less outrageous than the perception, I tried to show that Elijah thinks his scientific work is worthy (as indeed much of it is).

I realise he may read as a bit of a mad scientist, and I certainly played up the references he makes to himself as a god-figure. However, my intention was to make him a little more rounded than that. He does, certainly, believe that he has absolute rights over Theo and Rachel because he created them, but he also makes it quite clear that he only turns to Theo to use his heart because the clone heart he grew in the lab is destroyed in the RAGE fire. In Blood Ransom, he attempts to justify his experiment on the Apollo clone by saying that the means justify the ends: one life now to save many lives in the future.

Do you have a favourite book, or even character, and if so which one and why?

If you mean do I have a favourite book out of those I’ve written then the answer, rather boringly, is that my favourite is always the one I’ve just finished! However Blood Ties is very special to me, mostly because of Rachel and the way she starts the story feeling very insecure and becomes so strong and confident by the end. I don’t have a favourite character – that’s like trying to choose between my children!

If you mean do I have a favourite book out of all those I’ve read then I’m afraid the answer is no – there are just too many great stories to chose from!

In an interview on YouTube you mention there is a song you associate with a character from Blood Ties – which character and what is the song?

I listened to two tracks over and over again while I was writing Blood Ties. I often listen to music while I write to help establish the ‘mood’ of the scene I’m writing, but with Blood Ties there were two songs that I switched between whenever the narration shifted from one main character to the other. The music, which I associated very strongly with each person, helped me get into their respective heads quickly – vital when I was constantly jumping between their narratives.

Theo’s track was Lucky Man, by The Verve

Rachel’s was Bad Day, by Daniel Powter

These are not necessarily songs I like – or rate (Bad Day in particular is rather cheesy!) – just tracks that really seemed to fit the characters. When I came to write Blood Ransom I found the songs no longer worked because the characters had grown out of them.

Are you planning any follow ups to Blood Ties and Blood Ransom or do you think you have taken Theo and Rachel as far as you would like them to go?

I have no plans for any more stories about Theo and Rachel. I always wanted to follow up Blood Ties with a second book and had, from the beginning, vague ideas for a sequel. But I don’t feel there’s more I want to say about them now, especially having killed off Elijah.

On the other hand… never say never! I hadn’t intended to write a sequel to Girl, Missing but recently had an idea and the new book will come out next Autumn, five years after the first!

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