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Five Questions with Bali Rai

Five Questions with Bali Rai

Today we play a quick round of Five Questions with Bali Rai, author of the timely and compelling novella The Harder They Fall!

But first, let’s get to know The Harder They Fall in Bali’s own words!

Can you describe your story in 5 words?

Being Kind Makes Things Better.

Can you tell us about the particular inspiration behind the story?

Two things inspired The Harder They Fall. First of all, I wanted to reflect the ever-growing levels of poverty in the UK and the increasingly widespread use of food banks by families in need. I have often been shocked and angered at the numbers of British school pupils who either go to school hungry, or don’t eat three proper meals each day. The increasing use of benefit sanctions, too, has left many families at breaking point, and often it is the youngest who suffer the most. Wealth inequality in Britain today is alarming and shameful.

Alongside that backdrop, I wanted to write a story about the power of friendship and the importance of empathy. I’ve been talking about the importance of reading for pleasure for many years, in schools across the UK. One of the most important effects of reading is increased empathy for our fellow human beings – something I believe to be vital in creating strong communities and countries, and for peace in the wider world. I wanted the story to have a message, but within the context of a readable and enjoyable tale that puts hope front and centre. No child is unreachable. No child is a lost cause. Sometimes all we need is a little bit of love to feel wanted. It is a feel-good story, and was a pleasure to write.

And now on to Bali himself!

What appeals to you about reading or writing short fiction/ novellas/ short stories?

I started to write shorter fiction because Patience Thompson, who is one of Barrington Stoke’s founders, asked me to. I hadn’t really heard the term “reluctant reader” even though I knew what they were. Most of my friends were such readers, most of them dismissing books as something for other people. I come from a working class, inner-city background, and my parent’s were non-English speaking immigrants. The power of reading for pleasure made me what I am today. But I also know many adults who didn’t read for pleasure, who didn’t exercise their brains, and who have never fulfilled the potential they had.

When I started to visit schools with my books, I realised that we have a huge issue with literacy in the UK, and promoting reading became an even bigger passion. The situation, sadly, isn’t getting better either. I regularly hear from English teachers and librarians that the spread of reading ages in an average Year Seven is getting wider each year. We have children who start secondary school with reading ages far below the expected level. We have children in the UK who have never owned a book, have never been read to, and who have no reading culture at all. These children are disadvantaged in a huge way, and they need books that cater for them too.

That’s why I love working with Barrington Stoke. The books they provide aren’t just fantastic stories. They aren’t just useful. They are vital. Reading for pleasure is the next biggest indicator of success, after an education. It is the basis of all education. And my passion is to get reluctant readers to pick up books and enjoy them. That’s why I love writing short fiction. It is about more than having fun with great stories and characters. Getting our children to be a part of reading culture goes beyond authors. We are just a small part of it. The readers are the most important part, and reluctant readers more important still.

Who or what made you into a reader? Can you remember a specific book or moment?

The book that made me a reader was James and the Giant Peach. Before that, I was into non-fiction books about Vikings and volcanoes, and ancient Egyptian gods. At the age of seven, during story time at the end of a primary school day, my teacher sat us down and started reading James and the Giant Peach. I was immediately hooked. I wanted to live in a peach, and thought that Roald Dahl was some God-like genius. He took random words from his head, wrote them down in this amazing story, and created pictures in my head! And I’d never even met the man. I was so taken by the book that I tried to write my own (albeit very short) version. It was a revelation and I’ve been reading and writing stories ever since.

Click the image for more of our short fiction by Bali Rai

Who would you love to collaborate with?

I’ve been lucky enough to meet and become friends with many great authors and illustrators during my career. Chris Riddell instantly springs to mind, although we did write an older non-fiction book together once. I’d love to work with Chris on something fictional! I’d also love to collaborate with Malorie Blackman, who I adore both as a writer and person. I’m also a huge fan of Melvin Burgess, Alan Gibbons, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Phil Earle, Anne Cassidy, Jenny Downham – I could go on and on. Of course, the writer I would have wanted to work with most is the late and much-missed Sue Townsend. She was my writing hero and role model, and I was lucky enough to meet and get to know her. Sue had so much more left to say, and I would have given my right arm to work on something with her. I think Sue was a genius.

What is the best recent book you’ve read (for any age – or more than one if you pick an adult book)?

I’ve been reading the Carnegie shortlist for Amnesty’s Human Rights Award, and absolutely loved Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow – set in and around an Australian refugee detention centre. It is wonderful and thought provoking. I’ve also recently read Polly Ho-Yen’s lovely Where Monsters Lie. It’s a proper children’s book, and although it touches on some strong themes about mental health and loss, is written with warmth and love. I read it in a single sitting.

For adults, I cannot praise John Connelly’s Charlie Parker series enough. It is an astonishing set of novels – dark, mysterious and wonderfully well written. And anything by James Lee Burke too – a superb writer who often gets overlooked because of the crime genre in which he sits. I also read Number Ten by Jonathan Coe recently, and very much enjoyed that too.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to start writing their own stories?

I get asked for advice about writing stories every week, and I always say the same thing. My answer might seem obvious, too, but there’s a reason why. The first thing you must do, if you wish to become a writer, is read as much as you can. I would suggest reading in the genre/age range that most suits your own work, but also read other things too. I have found countless golden nuggets of inspiration from other writers’ work, and from non-fiction too. Creative writing needs inspiration and you must feed your imagination constantly.

Secondly, and an absolute must too, is actually write something. I have met so many would-be writers who claim that they don’t have time to write. But that’s the only way to get better. You cannot just say you want to be a writer (celebrity “authors” excepted, of course); you have to practice the craft of writing as often as you can. I would say every day, if possible. Sue Townsend used to write around one thousand words each day, and I remember reading that and trying to stick to it. I still do, although I will often write much more in a day, deadline depending!

And don’t get too caught up in looking at the market, and what sells either. Write about what you believe in, what you’re passionate about. The market moves on, and often goes in cycles. You must find where you belong, and to do that, you must find your own voice. Once you have that, and you continue to improve your craft, you will get better.

ABOUT BALI RAI

BALI RAI grew up in Leicester and his working-class, British Asian background influences and inspires his writing. A succession of acclaimed young adult titles have firmly established Bali as a leading voice in UK teen fiction. He is published in twelve languages and continues to collect awards, including three for his latest novel Web of Darkness. He visits many schools to lead creative writing workshops, talk about his books and the benefits of reading for pleasure. In 2015 Bali became an ambassador for The Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead programme.

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