Tyger by SF Said and Dave McKean

Nine years in the writing and SF Said is finally ready to release his Tyger into the world. It was well worth the wait. This book about two children who befriend an otherworldly tiger in an alternate London is a modern children’s classic and SF’s masterpiece. He’s teamed up again with the legendary Dave McKean (The Sandman, The Graveyard Book), to produce a story that sees their creative partnership reach new heights. SF spoke to Tyger Tale (no relation) about his favourite big cats, the genius of William Blake and discovering a lost London.

I had strong Aslan vibes from your tyger – was that conscious, or are all fictional big cats simply in his shadow?

I’m honoured by the comparison!  With every book I write, it’s always my ambition to write a classic children’s book: one that might last a long time, and perhaps mean as much to its readers as my own favourite childhood reading meant to me. 

I didn’t deliberately set out to evoke Aslan, but I did love The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, and it still means a lot to me.  I didn’t read the other Narnia books until I was an adult, though, and like many of us, was torn between admiring C. S. Lewis’s storytelling while finding other things more problematic.  

I have mixed feelings about Rudyard Kipling too, but Bagheera from The Jungle Books was a bigger conscious influence.  I love Bagheera, just as Mowgli loves Bagheera, and I wanted my readers to love the tyger just as Adam and Zadie do.  I remember being very moved by the scene where Bagheera is almost overwhelmed in the battle with the monkeys, and you realise for the first time that even this great panther is vulnerable.  That’s a moment I’ve never forgotten, and I wanted to get some of that emotion into Tyger

The dream / training sequences echo some memorable scenes in your previous books, Varjak Paw and Phoenix. Is this a logical progression from that and what draws you to training sequences?

I always seem to write stories about characters discovering they have powers, and learning how to use them.  It’s something that happens in all my books, beginning with Varjak Paw.  But I think these scenes in Tyger are my best ones so far!

They’re inspired by the training scenes in films.  I loved those scenes in Rocky and Star Wars, but you’d only ever get a quick montage.  I always wanted more!  

So in my own books, I expanded them.  They became major threads which helped to structure the story.  In Varjak Paw, you have the Seven Skills, while in Tyger, the tyger tells Adam: “There are three doors that I may show you.  You will find a different kind of power behind each one…”  And you just know those doors and powers are going to develop as we go on.  

William Blake is an explicit reference  – was that a deliberate starting point, or did his Tygers just seep into your story?

I first encountered Blake through his poem The Tyger, which we read at school.  It became my favourite poem, and still is today. 

While I was writing Phoenix, I had an idea for a book called Tyger.  It was always called Tyger, and there was always a being called a tyger at the heart of it.  I could see this tyger; I could even hear its voice.  But what was it?  To try to understand my idea, I went back to Blake, so there’s definitely a big Blake influence there.

But you don’t need to know anything about Blake to enjoy Tyger!  If you do, you’ll find all sorts of resonances, but if you don’t, I think you’ll find it’s an exciting, page-turning adventure story about a boy, a girl and a tyger.  

There are striking parallels with London today – a city increasingly shaped by the super rich and powerful. How is your own experience of London reflected in the story?

I’ve always wanted to write a book that expressed my experience of London, as a lifelong Londoner.  At its worst, it can be a place of appalling greed, violence and pollution – but at its best, it’s a city open to everyone, with room for people of all backgrounds and identities.  

I find it very troubling that there’s less and less public space in London; more and more in private hands.  It’s amazing when you go back only a few hundred years to see how different things were then.  London is a city with a fascinating history, and the alternate London of Tyger drew deeply on this.  

While it was developing, I was also doing photography for a book called London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide.  I loved learning about the forgotten tributaries of the Thames that still run beneath our feet, concreted over, yet still flowing, unstoppable.  They ended up playing a big part in the story.

I LOVED Old Jack and Big Jackie – they felt like characters out of Samuel Beckett. Could you talk a little about them and what they represent?

Thank you!  To be honest, Old Jack and Big Jackie started out as a way of showing the impact on ordinary people of the enclosures: the historical process that left us with so little public space.  I wanted to dramatise this in a way that would be entertaining and accessible for children.  But the more I wrote, the more they developed.  

Once I came up with Old Jack’s Lamb, and gave Lamb her own dialogue, they really came to life as comic characters, but also characters who brought more emotion into the story, like Cludge the dog in Varjak Paw.  I think they’re absolutely crucial now, and it’s hard to imagine how I ever wrote a draft without them!

The book draws on Islamic writing, art and experience, but still feels like it’s in the grand tradition of western children’s literature. Was this a tricky balancing act? 

That’s interesting to hear.  It wasn’t tricky, or deliberate; I think it just reflects my interests, as well as my identity as a British Muslim.  Both elements are important to me.  I’m steeped in classic western children’s literature – it’s what I grew up reading – but I’m also steeped in Islamic history and culture, and I don’t see them as being opposed to each other.  Alf Layla wa Layla (1001 Nights, or The Arabian Nights, as it’s often called) was itself a major influence on western children’s literature.  And I always try to put everything I know and love into every book I write. 

At one point I remember that Tyger was going to be told in two books – is this still the case, or has the story come to an end?

I think Tyger stands on its own as a story.  But as a book that took me 9 years to write, there were many stages to its evolution.  Many things had to be put aside.  So there could certainly be more! It all comes down to my publishers.  If Tyger is successful, they’ll want another one.  So if you enjoy it and want to read more, please tell people about it.  Pass it on to anyone who might enjoy it too.  The better it does, the more likely it is that there’ll be another Tyger!

Tyger is published by David Fickling Books.

Listen to SF talk about Varjak Paw and his favourite book, Watership Down in the Deeper Reading Podcast

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