‘If I’m only known for Noughts and Crosses, I’m OK with that’

About 10 years ago, Malorie Blackman was touring schools and libraries across the country, speaking to teenage book lovers, when she started to notice something strange. By this point, she was already one of the most successful children’s authors in the UK, her de ella culture-shifting young adult series Noughts + Crosses having cemented her status as one of Britain’s best loved authors. She was Children’s Laureate, too. And yet, she sometimes got a frosty reception – not from the kids, but from the teachers, librarians and writers who didn’t welcome the presence of a black author who wrote about black characters.

“A librarian told me before I went to speak to the children: ‘Don’t expect to sell many books because the kids are mainly white,’” the 60-year-old recalls. “We sold out. Children and teens don’t operate in that close-minded way unless they are taught to. They actually want to learn about people who are different. I knew I could write for them if only I could get past the gatekeepers. You have to keep going.”

First released in 2001 and set in the dystopian world of Albion, the six-part series imagines a kind-of futuristic Britain segregated by color – but not as you might expect. In this world, the inferior Noughts are white, and the powerful Crosses are black, with societal and racial norms inverted in every way.

The story focuses on one lovestruck couple, Nought Callum and Sephy, the latter of whom hails from a powerful Cross family. The books are smart and gripping, with political messages and twists and turns, but at their core they examine the behavior of people – what motivates us to do the things we do; love, betrayal, belonging.

Success didn’t come easy for Blackman. Speaking to me from her home office in Bromley, south London, she recalls rejection letter after rejection letter. She had quit a job in computer science to pursue her dream of her, supported by her husband of her at the time. It proved difficult to break into the homogenous male-dominated world of publishing. When she did manage to land a book deal, it was hard for her to keep a publisher. They doubted her ability to sell more.

She proved them wrong, 70 times over. And now, Noughts + Crosses has been made into a pacy TV show, the second series of which begins on BBC One tomorrow. It’s an “amazing” process, she says, seeing her characters brought to life on screen. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” she adds, smiling. “As an author, it’s a dream.”

Series one ended on a dramatic cliffhanger, with Callum (played on screen by Jack Rowan) and Sephy (Masali Baduza) on the run from an underground Nought liberation group of which Callum was also a part – while series two will take on elements from Blackman’s second book in the series, Knife Edge, and draw Sephy and Callum’s love story to an epic conclusion. Of the sometimes-tricky adaptation process authors endure when selling the rights to their work, Blackman is honest.

Masali Baduza as Sephy Hadley and Jack Rowan as Callum McGregor in Noughts + Crosses II (Photo: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Ilze Kitshoff)

“Sometimes production companies pay you ‘go away’ money, and the first time you see your work on-screen is on TV when it’s all changed,” she explains. “But Mammoth [the production company] sent me scripts and invited commentary. They kept me involved at every step of the way.” She was sent the audition tapes of the main actors before they landed the roles. “They quickly became Callum and Sephy once I saw them,” she says. “I’ve never been disappointed.”

Noughts + Crosses was also adapted for an action-packed stage production at the Theater Royal Stratford East in 2019. “With the stage, you have a run, then it’s over,” muses Blackman. “With television, it is always there.”

British-Ghanian director Koby Adom was once again at the helm of this series, and Blackman says he did a “phenomenal job” – especially as filming was interrupted during the pandemic. “Koby really knows how to bring my vision to life,” she says. “He helped me see things differently.”

There are also a host of new faces and characters this time around, such as rapper and comedian Michael Dapaah as Mensah, an influential TV personality who isn’t from the books. Last series, Stormzy featured in a similar made-for-TV role. But Blackman welcomes the changes to her work from her.

“TV adaptations shouldn’t and can’t be the same as the book. You’ve got to do the best with the medium that you’re in. New characters added a richness and opened the series out, but we’ve kept true to the essence of the book.”

The last series provoked some online controversy. Some corners of the internet referred to the BBC for airing a drama in which racial tropes were flipped. Blackman was unbothered. “It’s speculative fiction. That’s the beauty of fiction – you can create alternative worlds. I was asking: ‘If history had taken a different turn, what would Britain look like in the 21st century?’ If people feel threatened by that, it speaks more to them and their concerns than it does to me and my work.”

Blackman at the Noughts + Crosses premiere in 2020 (Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Blackman’s resilience is one of the reasons she’s enjoyed such a lengthy career. Her ability to empathize with people is another. Ella she loves, as she puts it, “walking in the shoes” of others. “As an author, it’s my job.” And while describing the lives of those who are different from you is often a basic requirement of most fiction writing, the discourse around who gets to tell what stories, and why, has spilled over from the fringes of publishing into mainstream media in recent years.

It is more common than ever to challenge writers who are not from the underrepresented communities they depict in their writing – to check their credentials, as such. Does Blackman agree with this? She pauses. “I’ve read a number of books in the past by white authors that feature a black or gay character, and I’ve thought the writer must never have spoken to a black or gay person. But if every author was to stay in their lane, there would be no space for stepping outside of it, no space for creativity. I don’t say, ‘Only black people can write about this, or that.’”

Blackman is nuanced as ever. “With my writer’s hat on, I think it’s about getting the story right,” she says. “But as a black woman I would ask: ‘Why is this person telling this story and why do they feel the need to? Are they taking up space where they shouldn’t be?’” Publishing has become a little more diverse in recent years, a change Blackman very much welcomes – but she believes there’s still a long way to go. “We need more authentic voices telling their own stories – but it’s also boring if we say: ‘I only want to see myself in fiction.’”

What’s next for Blackman? Writing for adults, it seems. There’s a crime thriller in the works, and her autobiography of her comes out later this year. Writing about herself, she’s learned “that the things I went through as a child have formed me as an adult. Writing is very therapeutic for me. I never started to be successful, I started because I wanted to share stories to entertain and for people to enjoy. I still want that.”

as for Noughts + Crosses, “Callum and Sephy have been living inside my head for the best part of 20 years,” Blackman says. Is she ready to move on? “Yes very much so. It’s time to work on something new.” She laughs. “But if I’m only known for Noughts + Crosses in my career, I’m OK with that.”

Noughts + Crosses begins on Tuesday 26 April at 10.40pm on BBC One. The full series will be available to stream from 6am on BBC iPlayer.

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