We had the amazing chance to interview Sharna Jackson, the author of High Rise Mystery. She is lovely (she lives on a boat which is really cool!) and it was so nice to be able to ask some questions, here are her answers!
Books.Ink: Why did you decide to become an author?
Sharna Jackson: Before I became an author, I had quite a few different jobs. I used to work at an art gallery. I worked at Tate for a few years and realised that I loved working with children. I eventually got enough confidence to become an author, but I think to begin with I was doubting my abilities.
B.I: You said you worked at the Tate, what did you do there?
SJ: At the Tate, I made a website full of games and digital toys about art so anyone who didn't think they liked art could come along and play a game and discover a bit more about art. I also wrote some art activity books so it was all about encouraging young people to look at art and think more about it.
B.I: Were you already writing stories when you were in school?
SJ: Yes, at school I loved English, and loved playing games where you had to make up your own stories. I also had a diary, a red business diary, that I wrote stories in. My first story was called Lero the Hero (I know, it's a really lame name) but I wrote quite a lot after that.
B.I: What were your favourite books/series when you were our age?
SJ: Ooh, that's tricky. When I was a bit younger than you guys, I loved a book called 'The Runaways' by Ruth Thomas. It's a really lovely book about some friends who find £10,000 on their way home from school one day and run away with the money. I also loved Sherlock Holmes and, this is really weird, a medical encyclopedia.
B.I: Why did you choose to write books for children? Have you ever considered writing books for adults?
SJ: I'm not really interested in writing books for adults. I think the reason why I write children's books is because I love working with young people and always have worked with young people. Children are also very direct and will tell you straight out if they don't like your book.
B.I: Did you find it hard to write your first book? Did it get easier?
SJ: Yes it was very challenging! I was used to working in teams so writing a book all by myself was actually pretty hard. But Mic Drop was a lot easier to write.
B.I: What do you find more challenging: thinking of the idea for the story or actually writing it?
SJ: Writing it is sooo much harder. I love coming up with ideas, ideas are like my favourite thing. I have post it notes all over my house - sorry, my boat ;) - with different ideas of what people might say and I really love coming up with scenarios for stories. I also like writing the outline of the story but then when you have to write it properly, I'm like "Oh no, what do I do?!". So yes, I love coming up with idea. If that could just be the job, not the writing, that would be amazing! But actually, editing is great, so it's just that little bit in between ideas and editing that I find more challenging.
B.I: When you write a book, do you carefully plan things or do you make some stuff up along the way? When do you decide on the title?
SJ: I would love to be someone who can just sit at the keyboard and write a story but I really can't... I have a very careful plan of the amount of words, the people involved, a plan for each part and notes to myself so I plan it out very specifically. Titles? I HATE coming up with titles. I never know what to call things, which is why High Rise Mystery is called High Rise Mystery!
B.I: How do you come up with the ideas for your books?
SJ: So, I read a lot but I don't just read other middle grade books I read loads of other books. I read lots of short stories, I watch lots of TV, I play lots of games, I listen to people. I listen to people's conversations and think about what would happen next and try to make those ideas original and different. So that's what I tried to do with High Rise Mystery. Mysteries have been around for ages, but what's different about it is that it's set now, on a council estate.
I also take inspiration from books and T-V shows. Sometimes it's the way someone says something or the way something looks, but it's not necessarily the plot of the story, more like the vibe. You know, "How can I make it similar to the mood of that?" And people always ask me "Oh what's your working day like, do you work at a desk?" but I think I work all the time because everything I see or I hear, I kind of take inspiration from.
B.I: Did you grow up in London like your main characters?
SJ: No, I didn't grow up in London, I grew up in a town called Luton which is known for its airport and for it's closeness to London. It's a really interesting town, it's quite poor, quite bleak but it's interesting because there are loads of different people. So it was really fun to meet lots of people - it wasn't really the richest or most popular towns but I'm happy that I came from there.
B.I: Are characters inspired by people you know? Is Nik and Norva's life related to your's when you were growing up?
SJ: Nik and Norva are like nobody I know, maybe I'm like both. I'm like Nik in the way that I keep shaving my hair off but I'm quite silly and dramatic like Norva. When I was younger, I didn't have a sister, I had two younger brothers and they were great. I just really wanted a sister but I never had it so I just made it up.
My life wasn't really similar to theirs, I didn't grow up on a council estate but I had some friends who did and I wanted to show that even though places like that often get a bad reputation, people there are actually really helpful and always pitch in.
B.I: Does 'The Tri' exist in real life?
SJ: So, The Tri doesn't exist in real life but if anyone ever wanted to build some skyscrapers, I'd have the blueprints because I spent a lot of time designing the buildings so that it would feel real. My problem is that I'm obsessed with architecture and concrete, which is such a weird hobby to have. I really like concrete buildings so coming up with The Tri was probably one of my favourite parts. It is partly inspired by some brutalist architecture and the avenues came from Sheffield where I lived for a couple of years. It comes from a mix of concrete brutalist buildings that I like!
B.I: Who is your favourite detective character?
SJ: Hmmm, I really like Jessica Fletcher from a TV series. I also really love Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong from Murder Most Unladylike. They are so good! And Robin Stevens* was the editor of High Rise Mystery and she helped me make it so much better. I love all her books but my favourite one is Arsenic for Tea, the second one, and with the last one I can't deal with reading it because I know I'm going to cry. I love all her characters.
B.I: Have you ever solved a mystery yourself?
SJ: Well, I solve really small mysteries on a daily basis like "Why is my dog barking?" or "Where are my shoes?" but any big mysteries not really. So I'm really interested in scams, and there was this one time where my friend's boyfriend's sister was telling a lot of lies about her background and so we got our monocles out and we googled her very deeply and found out the truth. But I think going through life is like being a detective. Every day you have to figure out what you want, what you want to eat, all these different kinds of mysteries.
B.I: Do you think your stories are a good way to discuss racial inequalities with children?
SJ: I do actually and I think that it was important to me to write a book that had black girls in it as the main characters because you don't really see many black girls as main characters. And I wanted to show them being smart and funny and cool and just ... normal! That was really important to me. Because I feel like when you see black girls in stories they're either being really naughty or they're suffering because someone's being terribly racist to them and all of those things happen but also, other things happen where you're just having a good time. And it's about playing games and eating pizza and eating cheese. So I wanted to show that kind of life. I think it's an interesting discussion to have it's a shame that we have to have it. Thanks for that question, that's really cool guys!
B.I: Do you think that you'll write another adventure with Nik and Norva?
SJ: Yes, I will! I can't say what it is but I'm definitely writing something about Nik and Norva that will be coming out. But I'll be writing something where they leave The Tri. Because I think there's too much murder on The Tri! It's too dangerous. But yeah, i'll write another book with them, cause I love Nik and Norva! I was talking to a friend today and we were talking about how we should make a Nik and Norva, High Rise Mystery game! So there'll be lots of ways to see Nik and Norva again, absolutely.
B.I: Who was the most inspirational person you've ever met?
SJ: Well, the questions I've had from you guys today have been really great! And then another inspirational person I've met was a young guy who basically gave me a complete youtube strategy. He suggested that to promote my books I should react to riddles on YouTube and it was amazing! I've also met lots of famous people and I've worked on TV things but honestly the best people I meet are young people who have great ideas.
B.I: Did you tell any of your family members about the plot of the book before it was published?
SJ: My son knows the stories inside out and he doesn't read them because he's like "What's the point in reading them, it's just people walking around" so he knows what will happen. My brother is very artistic and creative so he reads all my books, and he wrote me a whole letter with feedback and some of my friends are inspiration for characters or name's of characters.
Thank you so much for your time Sharna Jackson! If you'd like to know more about her or her books head to her website to find out more: https://www.sharnajackson.com/about
* If you haven't already, check out our interview with Robin Stevens!