In our last Indie Corner of 2023, I’m thrilled to chat again with Sarah Holding. We haven’t talked in nearly a decade, which is hard to believe! Sarah is a children’s and YA author and poet, known primarily as a climate fiction writer. She is the author of six books: SeaBEAN (2013), SeaWAR (2014), SeaRISE (2014), Chameleon (2020), How to Write a Poem (2021) and blackloop (2023), She has been featured on Guardian Children’s Books, BBC Radio Scotland, and given over 500 talks and creative writing workshops. Her books are now being taught in primary schools across the UK.
In blackloop, a freak electro-magnetic pulse leaves 17-year-old Bo and six other teenagers trapped inside a building in the British seaside resort of Blackpool, desperately trying to work out what just happened, why they can’t get out, and how to survive the weirdest weekend of their lives. Dealing with each other’s egos and issues is nothing compared to the fallout unleashed by the solar event, because hidden beneath the building they discover it has activated a powerful energy device called blackloop. As blackloop starts affecting everyone and everything in its vicinity, can Bo, who’s still grieving the loss of her mum, summon the courage to confront her fears, realise she’s falling in love, and make a move on Karim before it’s too late?
Mary: It’s been a while since we last talked! Can you give us an update about what you’ve been doing since your SeaBEAN eco-adventure trilogy?
Sarah: Yes, amazingly it’s 10 years since SeaBEAN was first published and my publisher, Firehorse, recently brought out a special anniversary edition to celebrate this milestone, because it’s proved really popular and has been adopted by a great many schools and academies across the UK and by English-speaking schools elsewhere such as Vietnam and Kuwait. I then wrote my first YA climate fiction (cli-fi) novel, Chameleon, set during the fall of Atlantis 12,000 years ago, which came out during lockdown in 2020. I also published an anthology of poems for young people entitled How to Write a Poem in 2021, but over the past year I’ve been finishing and getting blackloop ready for publication, a novel I started writing back in 2015.
Mary: Who are your favorite authors these days?
Sarah: Recently I’ve really enjoyed Burn by Patrick Ness, Snowflake, Arizona by Marcus Sedgwick, and I’ve just finished reading Catfish Rolling by Clare Kumagai. So I guess you’d summarise all those as off-beat and high-concept. I’m also a big fan of Tove Jansson and Claire Keegan.
Mary: You do a lot of writing for YA audiences. What leads you to write for them, and what fiction inspired you when you were in that age group?
Sarah: For me it was a natural extension from writing middle-grade, in the sense that my own children were teenagers by the time I started working on Chameleon, and as readers they were looking for something more sophisticated. YA didn’t exist as a category when I was growing up, so it was a case of delving into my parents’ bookshelves once I’d grown out of children’s fiction, but I’ve now fully embraced the scope for writing the kinds of emotionally scarred characters and challenging scenarios that YA calls for, although I still have a soft spot for creating more wholesome kinds of adventure stories like SeaBEAN.
Mary: Your newest novel blackloop is described as a coming-of-age sci-fi romance. Can you let us know what’s happening in the novel?
Sarah: blackloop is my first foray into writing a “first love” story, but it’s also set in the near future during the aftermath of a strange cosmic event, so you’ve got the intimacy of a bunch of teens stuck in a building juxtaposed with big existential questions about quantum entanglement and zero point energy, which was great fun to write.
Mary: Oh, I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff! It’s great how Bo turns personal grief into strength as she becomes a leader. I love this approach. We need to see the complex side of leaders and heroes. Would you agree?
Sarah: Yes, definitely. Bo is a real paradox—she thinks she’s weak and timid, but she’s actually really strong and gutsy, far from the drop-out she sees herself as. Her voice came to me loud and clear very early on, and I knew her acerbic take on things would be perfect for telling this story.
Mary: You stated that this novel speculates about the future of energy. Can you expand on that?
Sarah: Climate fiction has tended to operate in a terrain where fossil fuels have precipitated a situation where nature is ruined and life on earth is spiralling out of control. blackloop is still technically in that genre, but it takes its cues from Nikola Tesla’s work and asks questions about whether we could generate electricity from an extra-terrestrial source, i.e. by syphoning off plasma and electrons from outside our atmosphere. blackloop is a prototype device designed to do just that, but Bo finds out it can also do much more.
Mary: Your writing often examines the environmental state of the world. How important is it to you to include that in your storytelling?
Sarah: I’m committed to having a strong environmental theme running through all my writing, but I’m trying to do so without eliciting a sense of doom in my reader. There are so many things we still don’t know about what is happening to our eco-systems, how resilient they are, and whether our planet’s capacity has been tested to the limit during previous epochs. I’m interested in human coping strategies in the face of climate change, and trying to look for new ways to tell compelling stories for our time.
Mary: Sounds amazing. Anything else to add?
Sarah: I’m currently working on a semi-fantastical middle-grade novel set in coastal Japan (along the lines of The Summer Book meets Studio Ghibli) and finishing off a crossover book that I wrote during a month-long writing residency last year, which is about the fractured relationship between a father and his son set against the seismic backdrop of Iceland.
Mary: Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m sure we’ll keep in touch about your future books.