Ask The Author

Sally Nicholls

Things A Bright Girl Can Do

If you didn't call your book Saint Death what would you have called it and why?
Jasmine, 12

This is very hard to answer, since almost the first thing I knew about this book was the title. Sometimes titles are hard to find, you might have written several drafts of a book and still be looking for the right title. In this case it was given to me, in that it is a more or less literal translation of the strange cult figure in the book, known in Spanish as Santa Muerte. Meaning Holy Death or Saint Death in English. Without that title and the impetus it gave me, I might not have written the book at all.

What made you decide to write a story about the cartel in Mexico.
Harry, 11

Related to the previous question, in a way. I had witnessed the migrants in Calais trying to get into the UK, and so the idea of borders was in my head. Once I heard about Santa Muerte I realised there was also a story about migrants in Central America that needed to be told, and that story cannot be told properly without discussing the central role that the drug ‘industry’ has to play in the fates of people in and around the Mexican/American border.

What was your overall intention for the outcome of the book - and how do the intertextual references at the start of the chapters enhance this?
Honey, 14

This is a great question. I’ll be honest and say I was angry. I was angry because having read everything I had read about Mexico and America and the relationship between the two countries, and the actions of governments and drug lords and so on, it is hard to not be angry. So some of that is in the book. The overall intention of the book? Maybe to show people something they haven’t seen or thought about before. As for that, let me tell you a story about what we know about the world, what we want to know and what we don’t want to know. A few weeks ago, by chance, I met a journalist for a very prestigious news organization based in the UK. I won’t name it, but you know it. This journalist had previously been the correspondent for Mexico, and naturally we started discussing the situation in that country and along the border. She told me that one time, she had filed a report for television about some horrific violence a drug gang in Mexico had perpetrated. After she filed the report, she was told that it wouldn’t be shown, that it ‘couldn’t’ be shown, because the violence it described was too horrific. She was told that people ‘didn’t want to know’. Well, I think people do want to know. And if there are people who don’t, then they ought to be helped to understand why they need to know, because ultimately these kinds of crimes in the world affect all of us. And even if they don’t, they are happening to real people right now. This is not something we should ignore.

As for the extra tiny chapters - if you imagine what the book would have been without them, it would have been a dark thriller with a ‘terrible’ ending. It might have worked on some levels, but in order to be honest to what’s actually happening along this border, I felt it was necessary to discuss the context - the powers that be in the US and Mexico, the corruption of law enforcement agencies, and so on. To do that successfully in a novel would require a lot more pages, maybe 5 times as many. But I figured no one would read a 250,000 word novel, so this was the best way I could think of to include a variety of voices that provide some slight hint of the context in which all this is occurring.

Does the train that they went on exist in real life? Do people actually get on these trains?
Eve, 14

Yes, this train exists. It’s really called La Bestia - the Beast - and it’s terrifying reading about it, never mind even imagining what it must be like to travel on it. If you are interested, there is an incredible film, very moving (which is that word that adults use to mean extremely depressing!) called Golden Dream. The train features heavily in the movie. Or have a look at this recent Guardian article.

Is Calavera a real card game, or did you invent it yourself? If you invented it, was it based on other real card games?
Niall, 13

I am SO happy that after nearly two years, someone has finally asked me this question! No, it’s not a real card game, but it is based on a whole family of card games that can be found across the world, from ‘street’ games to the richest casinos on the planet. Related games are games like Chemin-de-fer and Baccarat, which are played in posh casinos (and in one or two of the original James Bond novels) but have street versions too. It’s a simple type of game, but hard to master.

This is the best book I have ever read! How did you come up with this story? I loved how you based the whole book on 2 or 3 days of Arturo's life. Why did this book end like this?
Chris, 14

Thank you, that’s really nice to hear. I guess my answer to why it ended like this must be related to answer 3 above - that I wanted to be honest to the situation I had read about and seen in Mexico. So the book could have had a happier ending, but it would have been some kind of lie. I gave a much fuller answer to this question here: (read towards the end to see the part about the three filmmakers: Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg.) And thanks again for the positive feedback.