What inspired the The Night Sky in my Head?
I first met Mikey as I listened to a reading of a poem. Mikey was only a shadow at that time, but even though I couldn’t quite make out his features and didn’t know precisely who he was yet, I felt him very strongly. And I knew that I liked him a lot.
The poem was called Slow Reader by Allan Ahlberg and it made my blood boil. It tells the story of a child who struggles in the slow readers group while his siblings play in a football team or take part in the school play. I’d never really seen life through the eyes of someone who has learning challenges, and I was furious that he (because I imagined this child as a ‘he’) felt so inadequate.
As I walked back to my car after the reading, I decided there and then that I would write a story for this earnest and belittled shadow-boy, but I would give him a special talent, something no-one else could do.
I took a peek at Mikey’s life (by now he had a name) and saw him being taunted and jeered at. But his world was different: shadows whispered and frost sparkled extra-bright. As I watched, one of the taunts – about being ‘backwards’ – suspended mid-air and began to change its shape, taking on a completely different meaning..
How did the story develop?
I am not a very logical chronological writer! I first thought up the idea in response to a poem (see above) and the first couple of chapters in the final novel did not change very much. I then spent a long time story-dreaming, trying to imagine what happens. Some of the new ideas came straight out of my imagination, but some of them were as a result of research I carried out.
I wrote a series of key scenes to try to ‘see’ the most dramatic moments in the story which was emerging, although they were all saved higgledy-piggledy in separate documents on my computer. I kept some and discarded others, and I then had to stitch them all together like the various pieces of a patchwork quilt to make up the full story. I spent a long time, surrounded by post-it notes, working out how to slot the Backwards story around Mikey’s story. I wrote the ending before most of the rest of the book for example, although I didn’t realise it at the time.
What research did you do for the book?
It’s strange, but although I did a lot of research for the story, my initial ‘gut’ feel on lots of issues was largely correct: the imagination is a wonderful thing! I interviewed a lovely teacher of children with learning difficulties, Sandy Dunsford, who gave me several ideas about the challenges these young people face. I also spent time at the City of Bristol College with Jenni Mears – she and her students were very welcoming.
Neil Darwent showed me around his Somerset dairy farm so that I could learn about cattle and their habits. He gave me the idea about the little calf getting lost for instance.
Various experts of the Prison Service were kind in giving me their time so that I could learn about procedures and also the sort of information Mikey could find out when he wanted to find his father.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was hugely helpful in passing on information about bitterns and their habitats. I tried to see one for myself on a special reserve but they are very secretive birds and I was not successful. You Tube helped me out so that I could see one onscreen though!
What changed in the story?
The editing process was fun although the main bones of the story and quite a few scenes hardly changed at all. I did lots of work to try to get deeper into the story, making the setting and minor characters more real, combing through the story strands. The idea of the male bittern was introduced after the first draft of the story was written – to begin with, I only included the female but they don’t make that special ‘booming’ sound which I really wanted to use in the story.
The working title for the book was originally Backwards, but I changed it to The Night Sky in my Head. I love the new title – Mikey often refers to colours and the weather in his head to explain how he feels.
Who are your favourite characters?
I have a soft spot for all of them but, of course, I especially love Mikey. I was sad when I finished writing the story because I enjoyed seeing life as he sees it – I found it very easy to look at the world through his eyes. He’s such an earnest, well intentioned person. I also loved Timmer – I had a dog when I was Mikey’s age (she was a Springer Spaniel called Sherwood) and he reminded me of her.