I am sitting in the reception of Francis Holland School with the librarian. And we are in a panic. Our award-winning author is about to arrive and we have no idea what his name is. ‘Do you think I just call him SF?’ the librarian asks. I shake my head, ‘It must stand for something.’ I whip out my iPhone and start googling. ‘In a recent interview S F Said claimed that his initials stood for Something Fantastic.’ We look at each other blankly. ‘I can’t call him that,’ the librarian mutters. My mind races. ‘What about giving Stanley-Frank a go?’ The librarian throws me a withering look. ‘I don’t think so.’ But before we have time to find out more, S F Said walks in. The librarian shakes his hand and says, ‘Hello’ (clever name-avoiding tactic) but a non-word is escaping from my lips and there is nothing I can do about it: ‘Hello, Ssssshhhhhhaaaauuuunnnnnn-Ffffffffffffffrrrrrupppp.’ There is an awkward silence and then the librarian takes us to the theatre.
The first thing that strikes me about S F Said is how modest he is. When asked for a drink he asks for tap water and when I tell him that his award-winning novel, Varjak Paw, is being studied by kids in schools, he looks genuinely surprised. With three hugely popular books under his belt, Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw and the hot-off-the-press Phoenix, it is all the more surprising S F Said is such a down-to-earth guy. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the way he rose to fame.
‘There were two things that inspired me to be a writer when I was little: a book called Watership Down and the first Star Wars film. When I read about the community of rabbits who journeyed past deadly predators and adversaries to reach the promised land – and when I saw the opening sequence of Star Wars with its enormously epic spaceship – I knew I wanted to write a story as good as those ones. And so I wrote quickly and furiously for two months and then sent the book off to 40 publishers.’ He pauses. ‘Not long afterwards, I got 40 rejections.’
But S F Said wasn’t put off it seems. He wrote another book in just one month – this time late at night, by candlelight, and with the curtains drawn. He sent it off to 40 publishers and once again he got 40 rejections. And then he read an interview with Star Wars writer, George Lucas, who mentioned a word that was to change the way S F Said wrote: DRAFTS. And the endless drafting came soon after the day S F Said bought his first kitten, Varjak.
S F Said tells us, ‘He was so small he could fit into the palm of my hand. I took him outside into my garden for the very first time and he bounced along to the foot of the garden wall. Seconds later he coiled up like a spring and exploded up onto the top of the wall. He stood, staring out at the world for the very first time, his whiskers trembling in the wind. And I suddenly thought how incredible Varjak must feel – how full of wonder he would be at that moment. And that very night, I sat down to write Varjak Paw, the story of an ordinary cat who goes beyond his garden wall to discover long-lost ancient martial arts.’ Think Shadow-Walking, Slow-Time and Moving Circles coupled with dangerous dogs, cat gangs and mysterious Vanishings. ‘And with this book I followed George Lucas’ advice. I redrafted again and again and again making the book stronger, richer and deeper each time. After 11 drafts, I sent it to 10 publishers. Every one said no, bringing my grand total of rejections to 90. And then the 91st publisher said, ‘YES!’ on the condition that I do a few more drafts.’ Click here to buy it on amazon.
S F Said admits there were 17 drafts in total and the two black cats were only put it in the 17th draft! But it was worth the 17 drafts. Varjak Paw quickly went on to win the Smarties Prize. ‘I cried on that day – partly because the book had won such a prestigious prize, partly because I realised the prize itself was not a lifetime supply of smarties.’ After that, S F Said couldn’t stop winning prizes and the sequel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, won the Blue Peter Prize. Click here to buy it on amazon.
Will there be a third Varjak Paw, we wonder? ‘Maybe one day. I’m thinking about having Varjak Paw teaching a very young cat in martial arts. But I want to write that when I’m older, too…’ We’re happy to wait though because S F Said has given us something AMAAAAZING to be getting on with in the meantime: his brand new, science fiction novel, Phoenix – an epic set across a galaxy at war. Click here to buy it on amazon. The book centres around a human boy, Lucky, who has strange dreams about singing stars, and an alien girl who shoots electronic needles out of her hair when she’s angry. Check out the trailer for the book – its tingly strangeness is full of magical supernovas and dark black holes: Trailer.
As well as being a fast-paced adventure through space, Phoenix can also be read on deeper levels: philosophical, mystical, political, scientific… ‘For most of human history, people have looked at the stars and seen pattern and purpose and even intelligence there. Astrology speaks to those feelings, I think, as does mythology.’ A few weeks ago Sally Gardner got me thinking about the stars (The what ifs are as boundless as the stars) and it seems S F Said has turned my head upwards again. The stars were calling Lucky with their ‘small, soft, silvery sound’ – and a little bit of me knows that they’ve been calling me, too, their tremors ‘like the chime of a faraway bell.’