Sarah Crossan Talks with Roger

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Photo: Rolf Marriott.

In Sarah Crossan's Moonrise, Joe goes in search of his older brother, a journey to find out who Ed has become and why he is where he is: on death row.

Roger Sutton: I read an interview with you in The Guardian after you won the Carnegie Medal [for One in 2016] where you said that verse novels don't have nearly the acceptance in the UK that they do in the U.S. I thought that was interesting. Do you think that's still true?

Sarah Crossan: Yes, it's certainly true, but the success of One has helped to change perceptions, and we are now seeing American imports, such as books by Jason Reynolds and Kwame Alexander, becoming popular. But people seem to be suffering from poetry trauma in the UK and Ireland! Schools are forced to teach poetry to an exam, so adults come away from their learning believing that the only way to "do" poetry is to have mastery over it, and specifically over the intended meaning. When booksellers, librarians, and teachers offer readers verse novels and they turn away, it isn't that they aren't open minded about the form but simply that they are responding to a fear — the fear that poetry cannot possibly belong to them.

RS: Moonrise, which is your latest book, is also in verse. It's about two brothers — Joe and Ed — and Ed is on death row. It's set in Texas. As I was reading, I thought this could become a detective story: did Ed do it or not? But one of the interesting turns you make is Joe realizing that's not even the point. He doesn't know if his brother is guilty or not, but it doesn't matter. Ed still shouldn't be killed.

SC: Yes, absolutely — and readers must determine for themselves if this form of punishment is ever valid, whether someone has murdered a whole group of people or is entirely innocent. There is no way to guarantee guilt — any justice system will be flawed, so it's impossible.

RS: Do you have a sense of how your UK readers will take to a story about capital punishment? Does it seem barbaric to them? Does it seem very American?

SC: Capital punishment is an idea politicians here pull out to suggest they might be the toughest on crime, but luckily we've had no referendum on it. It's important to stay vigilant, however, to remind everyone what a system like this means.

RS: Right. That's what's been so uncomfortable for the States and the UK with Trump and Brexit both. It feels to me like we're looking at each other like, wait, I thought I knew you.

SC: That's such a good way of describing it. People in the UK and Ireland are horrified by the idea of a Trump administration, but they should be careful about pointing fingers. Brexit looked entirely unlikely until it happened, and then we had to have very difficult conversations with friends, family members, and neighbors about their views.

RS: How much choice do you think you give your characters? Did you know at the beginning of Moonrise how it was going to end?

SC: I give my characters choice in that I am not a planner, so the plot develops based on how their personalities reveal themselves. Having said that, Moonrise couldn't end any other way because I had to reflect the reality of the system, which is that people without financial resources are doomed.

RS: Do you worry that your readers will read Moonrise as a melodrama? Some libraries here have whole collections of books intended to make you cry. I don't know if that's as much of a thing there, but there is a reading appeal — people do read for what we think of as less than literary reasons. Is that something you think about as a writer?

SC: I don't expect my readers to have any particular reaction, but I do want them to feel something. This book, the one I had to write at that particular moment, came from struggling with the question of how you say goodbye to someone you love. I've said that so often now that it sounds like a sound bite, but it really, genuinely is what the book was about for me. When I realized that, I had to explore all of my relationships where someone left and I didn't want them to, or I left and I was finding it difficult, or people leave and nobody's making that decision. I'm looking at one particular relationship in my life and asking myself, How do I say goodbye to this relationship? When I worked through that question on an emotional level the writing got to the right place, and my editor said, Yeah, you've done it. This is the right book.

RS: It sounds like that could even be a reason to write, like you discovered something about yourself as you were intending to do something else.

SC: It's a healing process for me. It's a devastating process when I write, but it's also something I cannot do without. In the same way people go to the gym or go to therapy, writing is something I have to do in order to work stuff out. It's about finding out why this is the book I need to write at a given time, and then being really honest with myself about the answers. I've talked a lot about the healing power of reading books, but the healing power of writing gives me life.

RS: I wonder how a writer finds the line between craft and calculation.

SC: That's an interesting question. The book that I'm working on at the moment ties up really nicely at the end. It looks like you can see the writer's hand. But that was just something that happened, and now I'm having to change it so it doesn't seem like I just crafted it that way. I think it depends on the type of work you do. If you're writing genre fiction, then it's important that you know where you're going and that you lead the reader there. But maybe people who write genre fiction will disagree with me! If you write literary fiction, it's simply got to be that the character makes the decisions, and you need to be authentic about what this character would do at that particular time — even if as a writer you're writing yourself into a corner, and even if at the end it feels slightly inconclusive.

RS: Can you remember the germ of the idea that began this book?

SC: Absolutely. When I was fifteen years old, I saw a documentary called Fourteen Days in May, about Edward Earl Johnson, an African American man on death row in Mississippi for killing a white police officer. He was only eighteen years old when he was arrested in 1979, and eight years later, the BBC came and made this documentary about the last fourteen days of his life. I was so deeply impacted by that. I just couldn't understand the idea of a man walking into a chamber and being killed. The moment in the documentary that was most devastating was when he says goodbye to his family. I thought: what happens to them? You get to find out what happens to the other victims, the police officer's family, but here's another set of victims who have now got grief to deal with. That person Edward Earl Johnson hugs, says goodbye to in the documentary, became my protagonist Joe. You can see the look of devastation on the person's face. What does he do now? Where does he go? How does he live? What does he do for the next six hours, while he's waiting for a stay or waiting for the call to say his brother is going to be executed? That just never left me. I became sort of obsessed with crime and punishment, watching documentaries and reading nonfiction by human rights lawyers, learning about Clive Stafford Smith, who was Edward Earl Johnson's lawyer at the time, and who now runs Reprieve. I moved to the U.S., and when I was teaching philosophy and ethics, I was able to teach this case. I was drawn back into the issue, but I couldn't find the right story, didn't know how to write it. I think it was probably because I was trying to write it in prose.

RS: You mentioned in another Guardian interview that you had begun writing One in prose, but then realized verse was what was being called for.

SC: Yeah, and it was the same for this novel. Actually, I did start it in verse, but it was an issue book. It was about the death penalty but not anything else. My editor said it wasn't quite there. I threw away the verse and wrote 87,000 words in prose, and it still wasn't there. She said, I think you need verse. What I tried to do — and I'm sure every verse novelist has tried this — was cut up the prose and create a verse novel out of that. It was the biggest disaster. I think I got through about a thousand words. I asked myself, What are you doing, you lazy woman? The deadline is coming. I had to literally throw that stuff away so that I wouldn't look at it, and then start again. It was really difficult to throw away 87,000 words and go back to the drawing board, but I think it was the right decision. I just love verse, I love the way you can cut out all the boring bits. The reader does all that work for you. The difficulty, of course, is you need a massive number of scenes to fill those pages, so you really do need to be able to create lots and lots of scenes, whereas if I write in prose, a single scene can last forty pages. That never happens in a verse novels. Not in mine, anyway.

RS: I would imagine it's a tricky line between something being intentionally spare and the reader feeling like this just isn't finished yet.

SC: Yeah, going back to the question of UK and Ireland being a little bit resistant to verse, I did kind of get that at the beginning. People would say, Where's the rest of the story? The more popular the verse novel form becomes over here, the less I get that reaction. Those white spaces are for the reader to do the work and make those decisions. The information is in that beat, that space, and it's up to you, the reader, to fill in the blanks. Another thing I love: sometimes young people who find reading challenging read a verse novel, and they can do it quickly. They think they've done hardly any work, when in fact, they're doing much more work than if they were to read one of my prose novels. Because they're having to make up what happens in those spaces, in that white space. These young people think they've done something easy, and actually they've done something really difficult.

Sponsored byBloomsbury

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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