Malorie Blackman | 'I can only hope that my books encourage further debate and discussion'

Malorie Blackman | 'I can only hope that my books encourage further debate and discussion'

This August, former Waterstones children's laureate Malorie Blackman will release the conclusion to her Noughts & Crosses series, Endgame (Penguin Random House Children’s UK).

It sees the author return to her world set in an alternative 21st-century Britain in which Black people (Crosses) are the ruling class and white people (noughts) are under-privileged. Though years have passed since relationships between Crosses and noughts were forbidden, in many ways, people are more divided than ever. Aggressive lines are drawn on race, politics and class and the first nought Prime Minister, Tobey Durbridge, has been framed for murder. As he searches for the truth with the help of his ex-girlfriend Callie-Rose, they unearth a lot more than they expect to.

The Noughts & Crosses series has always been influenced by current events and the political climate— Blackman was compelled to tackle the subject of racism in her writing following the murder of Stephen Lawrence—and Endgame is no different. The author says: “As I was writing a book set in the contemporary world of an alternate reality Britain, current events couldn’t help but inform my writing. In Endgame, as part of his job, Tobey has to keep a weather eye on current events in the form of news alerts and news stories. Online news reports are presented throughout the story to give some contemporary news context as a background to the lives of the characters.”

While its predecessor Crossfire ended on a cliffhanger, Blackman promises that Endgame—which she describes as “part whodunit, part thriller”—does not. “It is called Endgame for a reason. In this story, you can expect the tying up of most threads. I hope readers will finish the book and still very much believe that these characters’ lives carry on. I hope they will find the story and the conclusion to all the stories in this world satisfying,” she says.

It is a fitting time for the series to come to a close, as 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Noughts & Crosses, for which Blackman was recently honoured with a YA Book Prize Special Achievement Award. Casting her mind back to working on the novel, she says: “My predominant feeling, apart from excitement, was that I was raising my head well and truly over the parapet. I knew some adults might take exception to the subject matter, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. All I could hope was that others would want to get to know Sephy and Callum and would enjoy accompanying them on the journey through their lives.” She feels that conversations about race, racism and class have not moved on “as much as they should have” in the intervening two decades, though she adds: “I can only hope that my books encourage further debate and discussion about race and racism within the ‘safe’ framework of discussing the stories, characters and their motivations.”

The initial prompt
Blackman was inspired to write Noughts & Crosses after reading Melvin Burgess’ 1996 Carnegie Medal-winning novel, Junk. She says: “Junk was one of the first books written specifically for the UK YA audience. Reading it was a revelation. It showed me that any subject matter could be tackled for young adults, it was all in the way it was written.” While the YA book market in the UK was “still in its infancy” when Noughts & Crosses was first published, Blackman believes it now “has a permanent place in the world of UK book publishing”. She adds: “There are so many brilliant authors and illustrators out there creating YA stories, it really does feel like the golden age of YA publishing. Long may it continue.”

Reflecting on the legacy and impact of her series, Blackman says: “I had no clue when I sat down to write Noughts & Crosses whether the book would sink or swim. So, the fact that it still in print 20 years later is wonderful. I feel lucky and grateful that so many people have embraced my world and characters the way they have.” All in all, the six Noughts & Crosses novels and three novellas (2003’s An Eye for an Eye, 2012’s Callum and 2019’s Nought Forever, all published as part of the World Book Day promotion) have sold 1.35 million copies through Nielsen BookScan (excluding lockdown sales), with PRH reporting substantial sales growth in 2020 and 2021. This may be in part due to the BBC’s TV adaptation of the first book, starring Paterson Joseph, Helen Baxendale, Jack Rowan and newcomer Masali Baduza, which aired last year. “I love the way [the story] has found life in other media; twice as a theatre play, a radio play, a BBC TV series, and it has also been translated into a number of languages,” says Blackman.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s 2019 stage adaptation of the story is set to tour with Pilot Theatre again this year and a second series of the BBC show has just been confirmed, with filming beginning in South Africa next month. When it was announced, Blackman commented: “Having read the scripts, I think I can safely say that even those familiar with the Noughts & Crosses series of books will find surprises, suspense and so much to savour.” The author praises production company Mammoth Screen for doing “a truly phenomenal job”, as well as keeping her “fully involved in script and casting discussions” and making her feel “like an integral part of the dramatisation process”. She adds: “It’s wonderful and quite bizarre to see the characters that I’ve lived with for so long in my head brought to life in this way, and what I love about
the TV series is that some parts of the plot deviate from the book. What works in a novel might not necessarily work on screen, and vice versa. The TV series definitely brought more people to the books and the feedback I’ve had from both readers and viewers of the show has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Despite her growing audience, Blackman is adamant that Endgame is the final chapter for Noughts & Crosses. She says: “Life has taught me to never say never but this really does feel to me like the last book I shall write set in the Noughts & Crosses world. I think six novels and three novellas is enough. As an author, I love all my characters, they are like real people to me, which makes finally letting go of this world bittersweet, but mostly sweet. I have so many other ideas for different stories across age ranges, including for adults. It’s time for me to move on.”

Next up, she is penning her memoir for Stormzy’s PRH imprint #MerkyBooks, with publication slated for 2022. The book will cover her happy childhood in south London, plus her experiences of everyday racism and the bigotry of the era, and her efforts to study literature at university, as well as offering insight into her 30-year writing career and tips for aspiring authors. She is currently working on it, and says the process has been “educational, surprising and illuminating—and painful”. Following this, she teases that there are “a number of other projects in the pipeline, which I can’t wait to get started on”.

While this may be the endgame for the Noughts & Crosses books, we can certainly expect a lot more from their creator. In her own words, “watch this space!”