I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about why you decided to write a Young Adult novel about the issue of immigration. Did you feel that today’s teens need to know more about the issue? Or it is perhaps close to your heart for a particular reason?
Miriam: Lots of important reasons. I taught in inner London schools for over 20 years and met a lot of asylum seekers, children and their families, including children who arrived here alone. Their stories are heart breaking, inspiring and full of courage. I have always had an interest in and sympathy for people who struggle against the odds.
In more recent years I have been mentoring asylum seekers who want to write down their story. They are so keen to have their voices heard. One story is about a little girl who arrived completely alone at Heathrow airport and was taken into care. All her family had been left behind in Rwanda and many of them were dead. However searches around the UK revealed that the child had two older cousins who had also managed to escape and come to the UK. They were living in Nottingham and so now they have started a new little family and are no longer completely alone in the world. Too many stories about asylum seekers are linked to negative images of crime and violence. But the truth is that the majority of people who come and live in the UK, for whatever reason, make a very positive contribution to life here.
Immigration is such a hot topic in the UK today and young people should be part of the debate as much as the adults. After all the future is in their hands. Our media is full of statistics, myths and rumours about asylum seekers. I wanted to write a book which would challenge some of these things.
So yes this is an issue very close to my heart and I hope that I can convey my passion and interest to young people. I believe that teens are very interested in the world around them and I feel that fiction can always open new doors.
|Miriam and Hayling Blue|
Becky: Hidden is set on Hayling Island. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to set the novel on an island and on this island in particular?
Miriam: My parents lived on Hayling Island for twenty five years and we loved going down to visit. I became very fond of the Island and often thought it would be a great place to set a children’s story. The Island is quite flat and has many mysterious corners. My parents lived right at the bottom, over five miles from the mainland. They were two minutes from an inlet which completely drains of water when the tide goes out, so the landscape is constantly changing. The southern edge of the inlet stretches out in a long sand spit and on the end is a well known yacht club which looks out over the Solent, the stretch of sea between Hayling Island and the Isle of Wight. This is where the illegal immigrant in HIDDEN is thrown out of his smuggler’s boat and nearly drowns. The water here is very dangerous with eddies and whirlpools which can suck you under.
I was walking on the beach one day, shortly after finishing a book for schools on asylum seekers and thought, “What if two teenagers saw a man thrown out of a boat here and waded in to save him? What if that man was an asylum seeker, who had already been refused entry to the UK but would be killed if he returned to his country? What would my characters do?
There it was, my novel was born and now it is about to be published.
Becky: Do you have a favourite view on the island?
Miriam: I love the view over the Isle of Wight from the beach near the fairground. It’s only a ten minute boat ride away so you can see the Isle very clearly. In the summer sun it has a soft blue haze hanging over it and at night you can see the lights of ships as they pass by. The Isle of Wight towers above flat little Hayling and has beautiful white cliffs.
I love to wander around the rows of beach huts on Hayling, looking over to the Isle of Wight. The Hayling beach is very pebbly here. Hayling Island used to have beautiful golden sandy beaches and the older people remember playing games on the beach to see who could find a stone because they were so rare.
However with coastal erosion the council had to cover the beaches with literally millions of stones. For a long time we felt the beaches were ruined for us but we are used to it now. The beach opposite the Isle of Wight is the longest stretch on the Island. Windsurfing was invented here by Peter Chilvers in 1958. He fixed a curtain to a board and took off on the waves giving birth to a brand new worldwide sport.
Becky: Windsurfing was invented there?! That is so cool! I tried windsurfing once. It was really difficult and that was on a lake where there was no tide. Anyway, I digress. How has the island changed over the years?
Miriam: In many ways it hasn’t changed. The population of the Island remains quite small, under 18,000 people. There are large stretches of the Island which are farmland still. Bicycles remain one of the most popular ways of getting about and Hayling children cycle around the Island quite safely. The bridge onto the Island remains the same and you can see most of the Wadeway uncovered at low tide. The Wadeway is over a thousand years old and was the only way to cross from the Island to the mainland until the toll bridge was built.
But in other ways it has changed a lot. When we first moved to the Island in the 1970s it was a very popular holiday resort and the beaches were still golden sand. The sea was safe to swim in and quite shallow on the main beaches. There is a road called Creek Road at the bottom of the Island which was full of arcade machines. Kids loved spending their money down there. The car parks would fill up at the weekends and the police would close the bridge and only allow residents, like my parents, to drive onto the Island. But the holiday camps have mostly closed down, the arcades are long gone, houses have been built on Creek Road and the sandy beaches have been covered with pebbles. But the spirit and peace of the Island remains and I still love it.
Becky: And how about your own relationship with the island, in what ways this did influence the story?
Miriam: I set my book on Hayling out of a love for the Island and the Islanders. Whenever I cross the bridge from the mainland I feel surrounded by blue and an enormous peace settles over me. It is a combination of returning to my last family home with my parents and also the peace and beauty of the Island. I have therefore chosen many of my favourite places to feature in this book and the following two books in the cycle of three.
|The Bridge to Hayling|
Becky: What was the process of research like for Hidden? Did a follow a pattern which you usually employ in your writing? Perhaps you could share a few interesting facts that you found out with us?
Miriam: It always surprises me how much research you need to do for a book. I needed to research the sea and the tides for example and yes, you could do it all over Google, but that doesn’t give you the smells in the air or the sounds of the birds. So I did lots of visits to the Island for my research. I also read all the books and booklets about the Island which I found in the Hayling Island Bookshop, the smallest indie bookshop in the UK. I blogged about it: http://miriamhalahmy.blogspot.com/2010/03/smallest-indie-bookshop-in-uk.html
I read the local papers every time I went down and I also ploughed through the archives in the local museum in Havant. But my greatest find was that five ‘little ships’ went from Hayling Island to Dunkirk in May 1940 to rescue the army from the beaches. I managed to track down two of the boats and was shown over one of them, ‘Count Dracula’ by Derek Abra who maintains the boat and takes it out on local trips. It was a very exciting day and really helped to bring alive my section in HIDDEN when Alix’s Grandpa is recalling how he went to Dunkirk aged only fourteen, with his Dad and Uncle. Between them they saved over 200 soldiers. Grandpa’s quiet bravery as a young teenager inspires Alix to be brave when she is faced with hiding an illegal immigrant.
Becky: We have only just dipped our toes into 2011. This must undoubtedly be an exciting year for you as I believe you’ve been waiting for Hidden to be released for quite a while now. What other hopes or ambitions do you have for this year?
Miriam: I feel so focused on publication and getting my book noticed it is hard to think about other hopes and ambitions.
However I am writing these notes in January and traditionally January is my perfect time of year for starting a new novel. So that is exactly what I have done and my hope/ ambition/ goal is to complete a first draft in the next few months.
Other hopes and ambitions? Usual New Year stuff – get fit, lose x number of pounds, limit my intake of dark chocolate, try to overcome my aversion to cats (they make me sneeze, sorry all you cat lovers!)
Becky: No! Not reducing the amount of chocoloate you eat. That is a terrible resolution! And finally I ask every author this question: what is your favourite biscuit? (I know it’s very silly but you know I am also addicted to tea and biscuits).
Miriam: Mcvities dark chocolate digestives (the large packet of course.)
Becky: Of course, a large packet. There really shouldn't be an alternative size! Great taste in biscuits. Thanks for stopping by Miriam and answering all my questions. Cannot wait to read Hidden, the photos have also made me desperate to take a trip to the island.
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