An idea: That’s where a book starts. William Sutcliffe had an idea for a book that took him to one of the world’s most notorious trouble spots – the West Bank; the idea shifted, moved, stalled; enhanced by experience, blocked by that very experience. Finally: breakthrough, and The Wall is born, on the surface, a simple, modern day fable, but delve deeper and you enter a world where prejudice, hate and oppression is embedded.

Why was The Wall such a difficult book to write? The author explains: ‘It took a long time to write – and the original idea was quite a long way from what I ended up with. I took two research trips to the region and a lot of work to understand the issues – I don’t think the research shows so much in the book, but it was necessary to establish the platform to make the world in the book seem plausible. But this is the only way I could have done it.

‘The guiding light that got me started was Animal Farm because that can be read in two different ways by two different types of reader. For adults it’s about Stalinism and for younger readers it’s a fable about farmyard animals. But that’s not to say it’s a dumb reading of it because actually  Animal Farm is a serious moral fable about power and the corruption of power; and even if you haven’t heard of Stalin you can understand the complexity of the story and what power does to the characters in the book. Children can enjoy it and adults can enjoy it while teenagers can tread from one reading to another. They can approach it from a childlike reading, and be learning about Stalin at this age which can open up another world.  I’m hoping The Wall will be treated in the same way.’

Adult readers will instinctively recognise that the book is about Israel, Palestine and the West Bank while younger readers will instantly identify with Joshua, a troubled lad who lives with his mother and stepfather in a divided city. Joshua stumbles upon the entrance to a tunnel that takes him to forbidden territory where he meets a girl who saves his life, leading the boy into a chain of events that he must keep secret – or face severe consequences.

William hopes that the book will resonate with young readers, as the world he depicts has echoes of dystopian lands familiar to teenagers.  He says: ‘This is a military occupation that’s been in place for 46 years, so it is embedded in terms of the structure – the occupation, the wall, the checkpoint, the fences, the barbed wires, the segregated roads, the soldiers everywhere…

‘When you walk into it, it’s absolutely shocking to someone who is used to freedom. There is one part that says this is totally unfamiliar but on the other hand, you recognise it from dystopian fiction; it feels like you’re walking into a dystopia.

‘As part of my research, I started reading young adult fiction that is set in dystopias which are based on quite cruel oppression by one group of people on another – like Malorie Blackman, Patrick Ness and the Hunger Games books. In a weird way the completely unfamiliar environment of the West Bank felt like a fantasy setting for a young adult book. That allowed me to do something very interesting – on the one hand it reads like a dystopia and on the other it’s like reportage.’

This is what gives The Wall its fabular feel. You can read it as a fantasy place, not real, a place in which a young lad faces a moral dilemma, or you can read it as a commentary on Israeli-Palestinian politics.

William adds: ‘I was troubled by the wall but as a writer I thought it was interesting – a metaphor. We in rich countries often depend on exploiting others and we insulate ourselves from it – we live behind a psychological wall; we have an administrative wall rather than a concrete wall and there’s a connection there.  I saw its resonance.’

Going to PalFest, the annual cultural festival in Palestine, added a new dimension to his thinking. He explains: ‘I was taken up and down the West Bank into the major towns including Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah. Seeing life there is so shocking. You don’t appreciate freedom until you see people who don’t have it – the checkpoint described in the book is based on a real checkpoint I went through twice on foot. Even if you’re not treated in a violent way, it’s how you’re humiliated on your way to work; it’s how your freedom of movement is restricted.

‘The trip put me off track from the book for a while – I was terrified of getting it wrong – but I found a way back into it.’

The political themes are explored in a world that will be familiar to readers – a simple domestic set-up – and seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Joshua. William says: ‘You can only put things in that could be noticed or thought by a 13-year-old so the language has to be relatively simple. Although it’s a political book I couldn’t put any political tub-thumping in it. The narrative voice can only notice what a 13-year-old can plausibly notice. It’s a complex book but sentence by sentence it’s not complicated.

‘The three characters are three strands of Israeli society – the boy represents the left wing, principled side, wanting to do the right thing; the stepfather Liev represents the religious nationalists, who think the Palestinians are sub human; and the mother is the pragmatist in the middle. This shows as a pragmatist you’re morally compromised, playing along with bad things.’

Good, meaty problems to explore in the classroom.

For William, a writer’s life was always on the cards, once he had stopped muddling through at the good, London school Haberdashers’ Aske’s. He grew up with his mum and dad and elder brother in the North London suburb of Harrow. He recalls: ‘I did want to be a writer but I wasn’t a particularly huge reader as a small child.

‘In my early teens I suddenly ‘got’ reading and from the minute I became a serious reader, I wanted to be a writer. I don’t think I was a good student; I kind of muddled through when I was younger and was more interested in football.

‘But when I got to my A levels I was an enthusiastic student. I pulled my finger out just in time for the exams and got good grades. Doing English A level was a light bulb moment in a way. We were doing Macbeth for O level and I just remember suddenly thinking how incredibly powerful and moving it was.’

Additional impetus was added by William’s inspiring English teacher Michael Lempriere. He recalls: ‘He was a brilliant teacher and at the start of A levels he gave us a book of Ian McEwan short stories to read which are really dark and full of strength. It was almost as if he was telling us we were grown up…’

Cambridge beckoned, and he read English at Emmanuel College after which he became a TV researcher for a small production company. This ‘dogsbody’ role gave him the freedom to write. William’s adult books, including New Boy, Are You Experienced and Bad Influence, which is released as an ebook later this year, are comedies and took off ‘quicker than expected’ allowing him to take up writing professionally. William now lives in Edinburgh with his wife, author Maggie O’Farrell, and their three children.

After a heavy time creating The Wall family life has allowed him to use his comedy bones again. He says: ‘I’ve started working on the next book – my eldest son is nine and so I’ve just been writing a funny book for kids now for a complete change of scene.  Kids are not interested in what you do so if anyone can make you forget it’s a three year old.’


A few of my favourite things

Favourite book: Anthony Burgess: Earthly Powers: it’s a really long novel with everything in it. A brilliant desert island book; you feel like you’re taking the world with you.

Favourite Shakespeare: Hamlet

Favourite telly: I tend to watch DVD box sets…American series like Six Feet Under

Favourite music: My favourite musician is Miles Davies.

Further info

The Wall by William Sutcliffe is published on April 11 by Bloomsbury in hardback and ebook priced £12.99.

Bad Influence will be published in ebook format later this year