Multi award-winning author Sarah Mussi has been releasing tantalising tales for teen and young adult readers since the mid-noughties. Arts writer Nadine White found out more about the author and her latest book, Here Be Dragons – a romantic thriller which has already been showcased for the highly coveted People’s Book Prize.
NW: When did you start writing creatively?
SM: Around the 1990s and I was living in Accra, Ghana at that time. I was living in Brixton before that and met a Ghanaian; we then decided to go live out there. Nothing was published until I came back to the UK in about 2001.
NW: Was there something, in particular, which inspired you to write?
SM: Well, I just love words I guess. When I first started writing, I was teaching English and reading a lot of stuff but there weren’t a lot of libraries there. I’d write stories and then read them to my pupils and children as an alternative to TV.
NW: I’d imagine part of the whole experience that must’ve been quite enriching for you though, being a creative.
SM: Yeah! When you read a story out, you kind of automatically see where it may be getting a bit boring or getting too carried away with flowery language because, y’know, kids aren’t up for that (laughs)! So my pupils were a good audience to learn from and I’ve stuck to writing for teenagers and middle grade ever since.
NW: What was your experience of teaching in Ghana like? You taught there for over ten years, didn’t you?
SM: I did and it was great! I taught in the Ghana International School and then started a small homework school in my local area for the kids who went to school but didn’t get any enrichment there.
NW: So, what brought you back to the UK?
SM: My children. They got to GCSE level and there were very little sixth form opportunities for them in the subjects that they wanted. I mean, there were great sixth forms if you wanted to become a Lawyer or Doctor…but neither of my girls did!
NW: What has your experience of teaching in the UK been like, particularly in contrast to Ghana?
SM: I think the expectation of parents is different. For instance, in West Africa, the parents are eager for their children to learn. Plus, they see education as way out of poverty, a kind of passport to international mobility. They are supportive – helping their children with homework etc.
In London, there are a lot of social problems. Many parents come from backgrounds where their own parents really pushed them to learn, so there are quite a lot of disaffected children who aren’t keen to learn. Therefore, making things interesting for them is a bit of a challenge; I particularly like working with the lower ability kids who are having trouble accessing the curriculum.
NW: Do you feel that creative writing is encouraged enough in the UK National Curriculum?
SM: Ah, it’s a difficult one, Nadine. Creative writing is part of the Curriculum but it’s not as focused on as I would like it as an Author. I’m divided, because as an Author I think that one can learn so much from creative writing about yourself, society and it’s a lot of fun but kids have got to go out there and have academic ‘passes’ otherwise you’re not doing them a service. As teachers, we’ve got to teach kids what will ultimately help to provide them with a grounded arena of skills which they can take further.
NW: Let’s talk about love, Sarah. It’s a central theme in your new book Here Be Dragons and crops up in some of your other work. How important is this theme?
SM: I believe it’s fundamental to the expression of being human and, in a way, that’s what everyone wants – to be loved and to love ourselves.
In our society we can see that low self-esteem comes from not having internalised a sense of being loved or being able to love yourself. It’s important.
NW: What do you hope to bring about through the tales that you write for young people?
SM: I want to take them to other worlds where the page disappears, so they can access story and hopefully be thrilled by it. Even if my work just reaches out to one kid who thinks ‘oh, I just read this book and wow!’ and that opens the door to libraries for them and reading other books then that’s all I want, really.
NW: What advice would you give to aspiring young writers wishing to enter the industry?
SM: I would say ‘you can do it, just do it. Write for yourself, first, write what you like, write what you know and don’t let anyone you can’t. Eventually, you’ll get to learn the difference between what you really want to say and what you thought other people think would be cool for you to say. Then the writing takes off of its own accord because it has authenticity – that’s a good place to be.
Here Be Dragons is available for purchase from Amazon as well as in book shops nationwide. You can also borrow a copy from Lambeth Libraries.