1) Why didn’t you illustrate Lucy Willow yourself?
Because I have somewhat given up on illustration due to the fact there are too many books I wish to write and it takes me too long to illustrate a book. I am a slower illustrator than I am a writer and a terrible perfectionist and very rarely was I satisfied with the drawings I did. Whereas a writer I feel the pictures I can create with words more closely represent what I was trying to achieve with my drawings.
How do you choose an illustrator for your books?
That’s difficult to answer – you have to love their work and hope that they’re sympathetic to your writing. As I was an illustrator I am very fortunate in knowing what I’m looking for in other people’s work. A good illustration illustrates the slipstream of a story – the illustration adds or even gives where the words haven’t completed the image. The boring ones are those that are already written ie. words: horse jumps over the moon / illustration: horse jumps over the moon. The interesting illustrations would be the one before or after the horse had jumped over the moon, because that propels the story – illustrations should be an engine to take the story forward.
2) Lucy Willow seems to have all the conventions of a fairy tale…is it?
All my stories use fairytales. Fairytales have always fascinated me. I think they really have the soul of humanity to them, they understand our darkest secrets and do not judge us. I think for me as a writer I feel more able to deal with difficult issues if they’re once removed from the real world, although the world I write about in MC resembles ours, it’s still distant. To illustrate my idea – if you were to tell a child who was living in a towerblock, who’s mother was a single parent and a drug addict, a story about her and her life in all it’s graphic details it would give no escape, it would just confirm the locked door of her exsisnts . Whereas if you told that child the story of Rapunzel she would see in it a way out of the tower.
3) There seems to be a theme in many of your books about children being ignored or not being taken seriously especially at school. How much of this is related to your own experience at school and do you think schools still ignore the extraordinary child?
Every writer, and I don’t think I’m any exception, writes about what they know and the experiences they’ve had in their lives. I am not much interested in Autobiography, biography, or anything else to do with my mother hit me with a kipper. But I do know from my experience of education, and as a dyslexic person, that what I see today in schools is not much removed from what I experienced as a child, there is still too much pressure on academic achievement ,so that the school’s ratings may stand high in the Sunday Times. The consequences of that are that the daydreamer, the one who lives in herself, who invents stories, is often overlooked in favour of her more academic peer. Ironically, in the end the one thing our society values and needs more than gold dust is imagination and the one thing that education is set on doing is crushing imagination with tests, examinations and making the extraordinary into the ordinary of as all.
4) You seem to place as much value on listening to stories as reading stories, does this affect your writing style? (Do you deliberately write stories that are good to be read aloud?)
Heaven help all my friends or anyone who pops in for a cup of coffee. They are forced, tied to kitchen chairs, bribed by glasses of champagne to listen to my rewrites – not once, not twice, but again and again. I see writing like music – it may well look good on the page but what does it sound like? Hence I do write my books with the view to them being read outloud. I’m a great supporter of audio books. When I was little there was no library for the blind, or not one that my parents where aware of. Because of dyslexia I didn’t read until I was 14. My fantasy was to have an actor living in my wardrobe, so that every night he could jump out to read me stories. In England today, there is no need for any child to be deprived of a good book the way I was. Unabridged listening books are wonderful – they can light the fire that will lead a child to become a life long reader. I make a big effort to support audiobooks because there’s such snobbery around it. But it isn’t a second rate activity to the reading of a book. If you’ve heard a book, you’ve read a book. Both demand a set of skills that not everybody has. For me, the spoken word becomes the written word in my head.
5) There seems to be a theme of exploitation in Lucy Willow, the Sparks exploit the school, parents and children as well as the Peppercorns and the American billionaire having no regard for tradition and exploiting the Willows. How much of your own values do you incorporate into your books?
I don’t consciously try to give any values, especially not moral lessons. I think with writing for younger children you have to make a clear distinction between villains and heroes as it’s harder for younger readers to grasp the understanding of the grey ground in between things, the sludge that is in everyone. But I don’t feel life’s fair and I feel I’m being honest when I portray corrupt adults rather than perfect ones.
6) Some of your characters have chaotic families, others have weak parents and there is often an abandonment in your books. Lucy Willow finds it difficult to accept a new sibling. Is this an element of the fairy tale or a comment on modern families?
All fairytales, from the beginning of time, deal with dysfunctional families. They start with a once upon a time and they end with a happy ever after. In between those two lines lives the chaos. I believe the notion of ‘happy families’ only lies in pack of playing cards. The reality more often than not is that things don’t turn out quite as we expect when we say ‘I do’; and ‘happily ever after’ is only a beginning. Children are must better psychiatrists and philosophers than most adults ever give them credit for. Children understand the world in a more perceptive way. They are very quick to realise that they didn’t quite live up to the expectations of their parents, that they’ve been ousted by a sibling or they feel responsible for the breakdown of a family and in that they feel lost and abandoned. Abandonment happens in many formats, it can happen in very subtle ways. Yes, these are experiences that I grew up with, and therefore I feel able to write about them with hopefully more than a peppering of magic and humour.