Your parents ran a conference centre. How did this affect your
put some of the way my parents' occupation affected my Childhood
in a book, The Time of the Ghost, but I had to tone it
down, because no one would have believed we were quite so neglected.
For instance, my sister tied her hair in knots to keep it out
of her eyes. In the book, this fact is noticed after a few days.
In actual life, it was not noticed for six months. And
we had no books except those we scrounged for ourselves, because
our parents were too busy to buy any. This caused me to start
writing in lots of old music exercise books, in order to read
instalments out to my book-hungry sisters - but I think I would
have done this anyway. Quite often we would come home from school
to find there was no food for us and, at least once, I had no
birthday-presents because no one could spare the time to see about
any. We were supposed to keep entirely out of the way and had
to live in a two-room lean-to with rough concrete floor and no
heating, and there were no clothes. We wore cast-offs from the
local Dr Barnado's s Home. This caused me to grow up with a strong
feeling that children are people too and deserve better than this.
You have said that you started writing at 8 and finished your
first book when you were 12. Did your sister share in your early
sisters, bless them, were wholly admiring and uncritical of what
I read out to them, and it was not very good really. because I
was learning how to do it as I wrote. Their only comment was 'More,
more!' I am extremely grateful to them, because they caused me
to finish two books. If you are going to be a writer, it is important
to know that you can complete a book-length novel.
How did you get your first book published?
difficulty. When 1 started to write in earnest, I turned out to
be doing something quite different from the children's hooks that
were being published then, and publishers either simply didn't
want to know, or they were actively hostile. This applied to nearly
all my early books, even when I had already published Wilkins'
Tooth. One publisher demanded an outline of the plot of The
Ogre Downstairs and when it turned out to be full of things
like toffee bars that were alive and people swapping bodies, he
decided I was mad and refused the book. Eight Days of Luke
was refused by another confused publisher on the grounds that
children shouldn't strike matches. When my agent pointed out that
David in the book was twelve years old, the publisher said that
he was striking matches to summon the devil, then, and this couldn't
be allowed. It was not really until I wrote Dogsbody that
people seemed to accept what I was doing . And Dogsbody
is a pretty strange book.
Has your method of writing a novel changed as your career has
my methods have not changed at all. I always have to wait, you
see, until the book develops into itself in my head. It does no
good to take notes or plan. At some point, the book will announce,
'Drop everything, I'm ready to be written.' And I have to do that.
Sometimes I know nothing about the story except a sort of taste
in the head -- Archer's Goon was like that -- and sometimes,
as with Charmed Life,
I know the entire book. Most of the time it is halfway between
those two. I know the beginning, the feeling in the head the book
has, a piece from the middle and roughly what the end might be.
I never plan it out. I just get excited and I want to know how
everyone got front the way things were at the start to the piece
I know in the middle, and I write like mad to find out. Then I
write like mad to know what happens till the end. I always do
this first draft with pen and paper, in the most comfortable chair
it in the living room, because I don't want to he distracted from
the story. Then I transfer to my study and work at my computer,
doing a very careful second draft, thinking about every word and
every sentence, arid then every paragraph and its place in the
finished book. This is hard work and not as exciting as the first
writing, but it is interesting trying to get every part as good
as I can.
The Chrestomanci reissues from HarperCollins (who have acquired
your backlist from Macmillan) suggest that your style remains
unchanged. I make this observation on the grounds of comparing
Charmed Life, the first Chrestomanci book, with Stealer Of Souls,
the new novella included in the hardback collection, Mixed Magics.
wouldn't say it was like that. It is more that every kind of story
demands its own special style of writing. You will find that The
Homeward Bounders and Hexwood for instance are written
in quite different styles from one another and different again
from the Chrestomanci books. When I was asked for a story about
Chrestomanci and Cat for Mixed Magics that story quite
naturally demanded to be written in the same manner as Charmed
Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant.
Several people have pointed out the thematic and narrative similarities
between the Harry Potter novels and your Chrestomanci books. Do
you feel any sense of author envy when observing Rowling's bestselling
you say 'several people', you surely mean several hundred. Almost
everyone I know has said this. My main feeling is a sort of
exasperation that it took so long for people to discover that
this kind of book makes the best read there is.
Your narrative pace is very swift and your plots often complex.
But I have read that you slow things down and simplify somewhat
when writing for adults. Many people would expect the reverse
process. Can you comment?
arc much better at attending to a book than adults are. When most
adults read, they just want to put their feet up and disconnect
their minds. They don't understand a story unless you keep reminding
them what is going on in it. This means that adult books have
to go much slower. I love writing for children because you only
have to tell them something once. But quite a lot of adults like
my books for children and yet get ashamed to be seen reading a
book for children. So l thought I'd do one or two for them too.
A. lot of children enjoy Deep Secret and Dark Lord of
Derkholm as much as adults do.
You are thought of as a fantasy writer and yet you clearly had
fun lampooning the genre in The Tough Guide To Fantasy Land. Which
aspects of stock fantasy annoy you most?
Tough Guide to Fantasyland got written because I was recently
out of hospital and a friend suggested I use my convalescence
helping her work on The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (I ended
tip writing the article on Magic in it). We were going through
checking the entries and found that when it came to entries like
Galley Slave and Nunnery , we began speaking in chorus, because
no matter what book these things were in, they were always the
same. Mountain Passes were always 'blocked' and Nunneries were
always 'sacked by bandits'. I think around the time we got to
Swords and the various daft things Swords did (like healing people),
I got thoroughly fed up and exclaimed 'You know these are all
so much the same that I could write the guidebook to this country!'
So I did. What really annoys me is the way none of these kind
of fantasy writers seem to be able to think of anything new to
You have lived much of your adult life in Bristol. What influences
has the city had on your children's books?
great deal, not only that Bristol itself appears in both Fire
and Hemlock and Deep Secret. It is an extraordinary
place, full of old ruined towers, derelict dock buildings and
even caves next door to elegant houses or brand new office blocks.
It has a gorge and a fine river and, when we first arrived, busy
docks. There is almost nowhere in the city where you can't see
the green hills, ringing it round. As a mixture of old and new,
true city and lush green country, it is the most inspiring place
to live in. Oddly enough, the first book it directly inspired
was The Homeward Bounders but no one would know that unless
l told them. You feel the place is several worlds at once, you
Your style suggests that you become fully involved in a scene
as you write. Is this the case and, if so, does it ever give rise
to amusing situations?
do get very involved in what I'm writing. My husband has to come
along and announce loudly in my ear that it's lunch time. It is
a great wrench to come out of the book and think about food. When
I was writing Charmed Life
I was so involved in it that one evening I put a pair of my husband's
shoes in the oven lined up neatly, heels and toes level - and
they had started to to cook before I noticed.
How have publisher attitudes towards authors and their books changed
since your career as an author began?
were very grand with authors when I first started writing. You
felt like a scruffy pupil faced with a lofty teacher. They always
demanded lots of changes to a book, as if they didn't trust you
to knew what you were doing. One went so far as to rewrite - in
horrible purple prose - the ending of The Ogre Downstairs.
This sort Of thing always annoyed me very much, but there
were ways round it because in those days you had to send the publisher
a typescript done on a typewriter, which was usually one of only
two copies, and when the publisher wanted changes he/she always
sent it back. When this happened with Charmed Life - -which
arrived back with lots of demands to change this, delete that,
rewrite the other thing and swap a couple of chapters about -
I knew the book was already as good as it could be and that none
of these things needed doing. So I carefully cut the typescript
up in strips in the places where they wanted the changes, and
then stuck it together again with sellotape in a wobbly way, as
if I'd put in a new bit, and sent it back. And the answer came,
'Oh those changes have made such a difference.' Nowadays you can't
t do this because the publisher has a photocopier and sends a
copy or knows that you have the book on computer and can make
changes on the disk. But you don't need to, usually. Publishers
these days treat you like a colleague. They don't demand
changes: they discuss them with you. And any changes they want
are always entirely reasonable.
Now that you are a well-established author, what is the process
that leads to a contract being agreed for your next book?
usually the same as always: my agent sends the book and then tells
me what the publisher thinks. Lately one or two things have been
different. Last year the book my agent sent got lost, but the
publisher still agreed to publish it without having seen it -
showing great faith a I told her. This book is called The Year
of the Griffin and it made me laugh a lot while I wrote it.
And as well as this, another publisher, HarperCollins, went to
my agent - instead of the other way round - and asked if they
could republish pretty well all the other books I'd written. So
things have suddenly got different. All my books are coming
out again this year in wonderful new covers, and they are allowing
me to have pictures in most of the them for the first time
You believe that children's books should be positive, encouraging
and comforting. Have you expressed this belief in response to
a feeling that some contemporary children's fiction does not show
is a slight distortion of what I have said. What I said was that
books that are fantasy are more likely to be positive, encouraging
and heartening, largely because saying 'What if...?' - which is
what fantasy always s does - is the way to solve problems, the
way everyone's brain works. Humans are meant to solve problems
and enjoy doing it. No one can think clearly if they are always
being shown how miserable everything is.
If we could see your current writing manuscript, what would it
would be on unlined paper, in black ink, and the lines would be
very, straight. There would not be many things crossed out, because
I would be waiting until the second draft to change the things
that are wrong. So it would look awfully neat. But 1 am probably
one of the few people who can read my writing. You would be well
advised to wait until the second draft was printed out.
What is the most frequent distraction to which you succumb when
you should be writing?
cat, who jumps on my keyboard on purpose to distract me. Or, if
I am writing the first draft, you only have to tell me there's
Sport on television But l hope you don't. The book would never
© Copyright 2000 ACHUKA