‘I’m a bit of a duff musician,’ says Nicky Singer. It is a surprising statement from the award-winning author considering that her novel, Knight Crew, has been adapted as a youth opera and is being performed on Glyndebourne’s main stage. The book is a retelling of the King Arthur legend in a modern setting, with knife crime at the centre of the story. It is Glyndebourne’s first-ever commission of a teen novel. Singer has also written the libretto.
She is talking during a lunchtime break from rehearsals in a large, bright sitting room overlooking the substantial grounds of the world-renowned auditorium. Watching the work take shape is a process she finds “thrilling”, although she admits feeling that opera in general “doesn’t always prioritise story”.
A writer from a young age — at six she won a chocolate bar for a short story about a giraffe — she went on to make-up bedtime stories for her younger siblings. When she was 16 her godfather, an organist, suggested she write a cantata for children and Jonah and the Whale became her first published work.
After university (she studied English) she worked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and was later co-founder and co-director of Performing Arts Labs, a charity dedicated to training new writers for screen, theatre and opera. Writing has been a constant throughout. “If I’m not actually writing, I die a little… It’s like breathing to me,” the Brighton-based author says.
Singer has written four novels for adults and two non-fiction works, but it was not until her son — then 11 — suggested that she write books for his age group, that the turning point came. Her debut children’s novel, Feather Boy, won the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award in 2002 and was dramatised for television, winning the best drama category in the 2004 children’s BAFTAs. Since then she has written a further four novels for young people. A reader once remarked that her stories were often about loss, a comment that she initially denied then realised that this was accurate; it had been unconscious. There are few fathers present in her books and she attributes this to her own father’s very sudden death when she was 14. “He died of something so unlikely that a police car sat outside the family home for three days as they suspected my mother may have poisoned him.”
Her mother died when she was 17 leaving Singer in loco-parentis for her younger sisters. Both events had an obvious impact on her and her writing and she believes that although we are all storytellers, it is sometimes those who have experienced a violent upheaval in childhood who become writers.
“What you can do with writing,” she says, ‘is you play God. For me it’s about looking reality smack in the face and not shying away from it, yet still having some sort of feeling of control over it.”