S.F. Said’s quest to write what he loves has seen him blend sci-fi fantasy and existential questions in one epic myth Image Credit: Supplied

Like his character Varjak, S.F. Said has Mesopotamian ancestors but has lived in London since the age of 2. Authors such as Roald Dahl, Ursula Le Guin and Rudyard Kipling made him who he is. Their books shaped his mind, as did all the comics and music he loved, from “Star Wars” to “The Sandman”.

His walls of his apartment are lined with books, records, and videos — literally thousands of them.

“Varjak Paw” is S.F. Said’s first published novel, although he has written other books, which weren’t published. While trying to be discovered as a writer Said spent six years in Middle East Politics, writing for the Crown Prince of Jordan. Following this, he went to Cambridge University to do a PhD in Criminology. During his degree Said started writing articles about books and films which won him national journalism prizes.

Throughout his time as a journalist Said has been working on his own children’s books and says that he takes this more seriously than anything else in his life. He says of his novel “Varjak Paw”, “Some people find it strange when I say it took 17 drafts to get ‘Varjak Paw’ right. Seventeen drafts? Isn’t that a lot? But George Lucas did 100 drafts of his first ‘Star Wars’ script. Hemingway rewrote constantly. I take my story as seriously as they took theirs. Those 17 drafts were about making the storytelling totally addictive, trying to give it the depth of a timeless, classic myth. For me, this is a book about being small in a big world, but learning that you’re more than you think you are. I’d like to think that if you can read, you’ll get something out of it, whoever you are.”

Excerpts from an interview. 

How did your name get shortened to S.F. Said from Sabah Falah Al Said? Why was it difficult for anyone to remember a name such as Sabah?

My family is originally from the Middle East, but I’ve lived my whole life in London. Back in the 1970s, when I was at school, there were very few Arabs or Muslims here, so people always pronounced my name wrong. It’s difficult to get it right if you don’t speak Arabic, so in the end, I decided it would just be easier if I used initials. But some of my favourite writers use initials, too: J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling — although I did it before she did! 

All children have ideas about what they want to be when they grow up. Did you want to be a writer?

Yes. I’ve always loved books and stories, and some of my earliest memories are memories of books. I think they’re the things that really shape us, so that’s what I always wanted to do myself. 

Why did you choose to write for this particular age group (teenagers?)

I don’t think of myself as writing for any particular age group. I’m just trying to write stories that I love, and I hope as many other people as possible will enjoy them too. I do everything I can to make my stories exciting, thrilling and page-turning, because I believe that readers of all ages enjoy those qualities.

The nice thing is that readers of all ages have responded to my books. When ‘Varjak Paw’ was first published, my publishers thought it was for 8-12 year olds; then it won a big children’s fiction prize in the 6-8 category; then ‘The Outlaw Varjak Paw’ won a teenage book of the year award; and I know adults also read and enjoy my books. So I think they do cross age boundaries. If you’re someone who likes a good story, I hope you’ll find something to enjoy in my work! 

Congratulations regarding the new release of “Phoenix”’s paperback edition. Tell us a bit about the book, where did the idea come from?

“Phoenix” is a story about a human boy who has the power of a star, and an alien girl who is the most brilliant warrior in the galaxy. Together they have to save the galaxy, because the stars themselves are dying ...

The stars are at the heart of this story. I’ve always been fascinated by them. Living in London, I’d never really seen the night sky until I went camping in the desert with my dad as a child. Then I realised that there were millions and millions and millions of stars, many of which have planets around them. The more that science tells us about the universe, the more amazing I find it. I’m fascinated by discoveries such as black holes and dark matter, and “Phoenix” is full of this kind of futuristic science.

But it’s also full of very ancient things. I think the stars have always filled people with a sense of wonder, and “Phoenix” goes back to all the old mythologies, to see whether they might have a common origin in the stars themselves. 

I read that you consider “Phoenix” to be your best book so far (after “Varjak Paw” and “The Outlaw Varjak Paw”). Why?

I still love the ‘Varjak Paw’ books, and I will write a third one about Varjak one day. But with ‘Phoenix’, I set out to do something much bigger and more ambitious. ‘Varjak Paw’ is set in the back streets of a city; ‘Phoenix’ is set across an entire galaxy. It’s an epic myth in the form of a science fiction fantasy, and it addresses some of the biggest questions of existence: who are we? Where do we come from? What is life? What is death? What does it all mean, and how should we live? I think it’s a big step up on ‘Varjak Paw’, and to me, it’s definitely the best one so far. (Though I hope my next book, ‘TYGER’, will be even better when it’s finished!) 

How did you get the idea of setting the story in a star ship?

The idea of the starship wasn’t there at the beginning of ‘Phoenix’. I write in drafts, and it usually takes me many drafts to make the story as good as I can. So in the beginning, all I had was the idea of a boy going on an epic journey to find his absent father. I thought a lot about this journey, and the most epic journey I could imagine was one that would cross an entire galaxy. And so the idea of a starship came in — and once I had that, it led to the stars themselves becoming central to the story. 

How long did it take you to write the book?

‘Phoenix’ took me seven years to write. That’s the longest a book has taken me so far, and I hope it never takes that long again! But it is a big book, full of big ideas, with many characters and worlds and settings, so it was important to get it all absolutely right — to make sure that it was as brilliant as I could possibly make it. And I feel it is; the end result means that all that hard work was worth it. 

Going back to “Varjak Paw”, the Mesopotamian blue cat. It is very interesting to know that when you wrote the first book you were working as a speech writer to Prince Hassan of Jordan and later as a film journalist and programmer. What made you start writing in this direction? Why did you choose a cat for your first character?

‘Varjak Paw’ was very much based on my own cat. I’d written a couple of books before it that every publisher in the UK had rejected. They were about people — and ‘Phoenix’ is also about people (and aliens). But with ‘Varjak’, I was watching my own cat’s adventures as he went out of the house and into the world for the first time, as a little kitten — and I thought there was a great story there. What would it be like to go out on your own and see the whole world, for the very first time? So that’s where the story of ‘Varjak Paw’ began. 

“Varjak Paw” won four international awards. How did you feel about them?

I think book awards are strange. It’s not like athletics, where we can say that one particular book ran the 100m faster than any other books. Reading is a totally subjective experience, different for every reader, every time; so I don’t really believe we can say that any given book deserves an award more than any other.

But I am very much in favour of anything that gets books noticed and helps then to find readers, as it’s a very hard, competitive market out there. Book awards certainly get books noticed, so I’m always happy if one of my books makes a shortlist or wins a prize. Winning awards really helped ‘Varjak Paw’ get out into the world; and ‘Phoenix’ definitely found a lot more readers once it was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award and nominated for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals. That kind of thing can make a huge amount of difference, so I’m always grateful for it.

With two “Varjak Paw” books (one as a kitten and one as a grown up), will there be a third book where Varjak will be an old cat?

Yes! That’s exactly my idea for the third book. It makes sense to me as the shape of a trilogy, and the shape of a life. 

Varjak’s mystical city. Were you writing about an imaginary city created in your mind or one based on stories picked up during your childhood?

‘Varjak Paw’ is written entirely from Varjak’s point of view, and to cats, cities probably don’t have human names. The city is just The City. When I was writing the story, I was imagining London, as that’s the city I know best; but I wanted to leave it open for readers, so they could imagine it happening in their own city, wherever that might be. That’s why it’s only ever referred to as ‘the city’. 

Have you considered writing books for adults?

As I mentioned, many adults do read my books. But whenever I’ve tried to write specifically adult literary fiction, my characters inevitably end up having to go on mythic quests, or getting superpowers and have to save the world. Those kinds of stories tend to be published as children’s stories — though if you think about it, those are really the stories that have the oldest roots: the ancient myths. If you’re interested in mythic storytelling, children’s fiction is the best place to be today. And adults always find their way to it; just look how many adults read Harry Potter or Percy Jackson ... or Varjak Paw! 

In this age of internet and videogames, how do we encourage children to read books and develop their skills in this field?

I think reading is the single most important skill anyone can ever learn, because it unlocks the door to all the other skills. If you want to know how to do anything, reading is the way to find out.

But learning how to read shouldn’t be a painful, joyless process; it should be a pleasure. The key is to give children things they actually want to read. I do a lot of work to encourage reading and literacy in schools, and in my experience, the best way to do it is through great stories.

There’s a story for everyone out there, and it’s the job of teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents and so on to help children find the stories they really want to read. Once they’ve found a story they actually want, the rest will take care of itself.