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Nicky Singer

"When climate change really bites, we could be looking at tens of millions of people on the move. Who’s talking about this? Who’s doing the planning? Not the politicians, that’s for sure. So, we have to speak. You and me. The Survival Game is my attempt to spark that conversation. Especially with young people – because it’s their future that’s on the line."

Nicky Singer is an author and playwright. Her first children's novel Feather Boy won the Blue Peter 'Book of the Year' Award, and was adapted for TV (winning a BAFTA for Best Children's Drama). Here she tells us about how her latest book, The Survival Game, was sparked by a conversation about the chaos rising temperatures could wreak. 


Mhairi Anne Bain owns only two things: a gun with no bullets and her identity papers. 

The world is a shell of what it once was. Now, you must prove yourself worthy of existence at every turn, at every border checkpoint. And if you are going to survive, your instincts will become your most valuable weapon. 

Mhairi has learnt the importance of living her own story, of speaking to no one. But then she meets a young boy with no voice at all, and finds herself risking everything to take him to safety. 

And so Mhairi and the silent boy travel the road north. But there are rumours that things in Scotland have changed since she has been away. What Mhairi finds there is shocking and heart-breaking, but might finally re-connect her to her sense of self and to the possibility of love.

A story about survival and what it costs, about the power of small kindnesses to change everything.


What inspired you to write about this not too distant dystopian future?

Many moons ago, I asked my friend Tom Burke (then Director of Friends of the Earth) what he really thought would happen if we failed to get to grips with increasing global temperatures. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘you’d better be prepared to go to Scotland and take a gun’. The image stayed with me – but I didn’t know how to write the book he was telling me needed to be written. The subject was too big, too disempowering – people’s eyes glazed over when you mentioned it. Years passed. Then came the migrant crisis and the hardening of attitudes and borders. The girl with the gun began whispering in my ear. Might her story intersect with this new anxiety? And why were we so anxious anyway, so lacking in empathy? I began to think it might be because for those of us in relatively politically/climate stable countries (yours and mine for instance) the migrant is almost always ‘other, i.e. we are not the displaced, the ones forced to travel. So here was my challenge: could I finally bring this story ‘home’? Write about a very near future where one of those displaced people could truthfully be you – or me? 

The backdrop of your novel further highlights Mhairi’s qualities of perseverance and maturity, how did you come to create her character?

I asked myself this question: if resources were limited, what would I personally be prepared to risk – or sacrifice – to stay alive? I’m sorry to say that some of Mhairi’s more ruthless qualities probably began here …  But I also realised you’d need certain good traits to make it through. One of them would definitely be perseverance. This was actually a key quality of my mother’s – left as she was with five children to bring up when my father died very suddenly aged thirty-nine. As for maturity – you grow up very fast when you have trauma in your life. Mhairi is 14 when her family face the guns in the desert – the same age I was when my father died. A ‘co-incidence’ I didn’t actually clock until I’d finished the book. There must also have been something behind me gifting her the name Bain – which is the family name of my mother’s extremely tough and rooted Scottish forebears. 

Do you think your novel acts as a prediction of our own futures if we do not make changes?

I’d like to say no – but obviously yes. In fact, it’s already happening. If I’d written about migrant children being separated from their parents at borders and kept in cages, people would have said, that’s an interesting piece of dystopian fiction. But, guess what? It just happened, right here, right now in Donald Trump’s 2018 America.

Your novel mirrors elements of our present social climate; in regards to increasing border control and our refugee crisis- could you explain why you wanted to highlight these issues?

Because these things are not going to go away. In fact, because of climate change, they are likely to get considerably worse. My aforementioned friend Tom (who now heads up the independent climate change think tank E3G) thinks the basic scenario I paint in the book could be upon us within 30 years. At the moment we can’t cope with a few hundred thousand Syrians on the move. But, when climate change really bites, we could be looking at tens of millions of people on the move. Who’s talking about this? Who’s doing the planning? Not the politicians, that’s for sure. So, we have to speak. You and me. Ordinary members of the human race. And we have to make this huge, apparently intractable problem, something we can get not just our heads around, but also our hearts. The Survival Game is my attempt to spark that conversation. Especially with young people – because, finally, it’s their future that’s on the line. 

Mhairi’s fight for survival is jeopardised when she takes along a young boy; why did you think it was important to discuss morality in the face of survival?

Because, if we lose our humanity then what else, as human beings, do we have? Or, as Mhairi puts it near the end of the book, staying alive ‘is not the only thing that matters. It’s how you stay alive. What you do – or do not do – to stay alive’.  And also, finally, because it’s this - our impulse to goodness - that has the power to change things. 

Were there any dystopian novels that helped guide your own narrative?

No. Although I can still vividly remember the excitement I felt when sitting in the school libraryaged 16 reading George Orwell’s 1984.

The Survival Game by Nicky Singer is published by Hachette, rrp $16.99.