“A sense of being vulnerable and immortal at the same time” | Sarah Engell

“A sense of being vulnerable and immortal at the same time” | Sarah Engell

Sarah Engell is an acclaimed Danish writer, part of our Aarhus 39 selection of the best emerging writers from across Europe. Sarah will be appearing at the inaugural International Children’s Literature Hay Festival Aarhus 2017 this week. Here she talks about her new story for Odyssey, our new anthology of  stories for young adults, inspired by journeys. 

Tell us about your story…
In a wooden boat, packed with desperate people, two young brothers are trying to escape their war-torn home country. In the middle of the sea, the boat runs out of fuel, and for several days the boat is drifting around in the heat, while hunger, desperation and madness spreads on board.

Why did you pick that theme?
I’ve been very affected by the many tragic stories about refugees fleeing war and political oppression, and I’m currently working on a YA novel with the same theme.

Literature gives us the opportunity to humanize the daily barrage of headlines and breaking news we are presented with in the media. It makes it possible to see the world from someone else’s perspective and relate to problems that can seem distant or out of touch with our own lives.

When did you decide to become an author?
At the age of five I glued my first handwritten story together with cover and illustrations, and ever since then, writing has been my greatest passion and an essential part of my life. The dream of becoming an author was born in my early teens, where my stories started to grow in size and complexity, and I got a desire to get them out of the desk drawer and into a readers mind. That is the only place stories really come alive.  

When did you publish your first book?
My first book was published in 2009 and is about constantly wanting something different from what you have, and live in an illusory future, thinking: “If only …” which is the title of the book. 

What is special about writing for children?
YA explores a vulnerable, turbulent and intense stage in someone’s life were significant changes happen and important choices have to be made. It is in this transition between childhood and adulthood we need to find out who we are and what we want to do with our lives. This can be both terrifying and intoxicating, and often cause a sense of being vulnerable and immortal at the same time.

These huge contrasts are fascinating to explore and they act like gasoline in my writing engine. I think that one of the reasons why so many adults enjoy YA and find themselves identifying with the teen characters is that people never stop struggling with change, uncertainty, inner doubts and the longing for self-realization. In that sense you never grow out of YA.

What does it mean to you to be a part of the anthology and the Hay Festival?
I’m very honored to be in company with so many talented writers from across Europe. I’m looking forward to the festival and the opportunity to reach new readers outside Denmark.

Do you have a favourite spot where you write?
I usually write at home with a good cup of coffee and music in my headphones.

If I need to develop ideas, the beach is my favorite spot – especially in the winter when there is nobody there, but me. Looking at the sea always kick-starts my imagination: The distant horizon, the sound of the waves and knowing that there’s an entire world, right there on the other side, that’s not visible to me – only in my mind. 

How do you get inspired?
I am often inspired by the stories we are confronted with in the media. My two latest novels are about cyber bullying and self-harm. These are themes, which I think has been heavily underexposed. I think it’s interesting to explore taboos and the darker sides of life, and in this matter, literature has a unique ability to give an insight into lives far from our own.