Your first book was published while you were still a schoolgirl.
What effect did this have on your development as an author?
is a difficult question! I am not at all sure that I know the
answer. Certainly one effect of having a book published while
still at school was to confirm me in my belief that I was AN
AUTHOR - and that being an author was the only career I could
possibly pursue. I don't recall anyone ever pointing out to
me that being an author could hardly be classed as a career.
I had to learn the hard way. It came as something of a rude
shock to find myself out in the world and having to earn a living,
just like any ordinary, mundane, everyday sort of person. Which
I was convinced I wasn't! It still never occurred to me, however,
to pursue any other course than that of writer. So I washed
dishes, scrubbed floors, worked in Woolie's, did a bit of office
work, a bit of nursing, a bit of translating, a bid of this,
a bit of that, sold newspapers on the Champs Elysees, twiddled
my thumbs at Nato, at Unesco, at the BBC -- and went on writing.
And sporadically, I got published.
desperation to be a writer, allied to the tiresome business
of having to earn money, probably taught me to tailor my creative
impulses to chime with the demands of the market place - which
to an extent most of us have to do, especially in these days
of very hard-nosed publishing. If it doesn't fly off the shelf
in the first few weeks, KILL IT! Perhaps upon reflection the
secret is to learn how to bend the demands of the market to
chime with one's creative impulses. In other words, make the
market work for you rather than dictate to you.
You are astonishingly prolific. Does your rate of production arise
out of the imperative of commissions or from some unstoppable
sounds very grand, but I would have to say, some unstoppable
creative drive! Ideas spin off quite dizzily from other ideas
... When I visit schools, which I do a lot, I always tell the
children how I am like a magpie, collecting little bright shiny
bits and pieces wherever I go. I tell them how I actually have
an ideas folder, and urge them to start ideas folders of their
think perhaps if you are an author who writes primarily about
people, then ideas will always be in plentiful supply, since
the human psyche ils endlessly fascinating.
One of your favourite sports at school was cricket. Has this interest
continued into adult life and does cricket feature in any of your
would still give anything to play cricket! My proudest
childhood memory is of taking 7 wickets for 10 runs and the cricket
captain - ah, the cricket captain! - slapping me on the back and
saying, "Well done!" All other achievements, even literary ones
pale into insignificance. But no, I'm afraid my interest in the
game has disappeared over the years and it features in only one
of my books, HOWZATT, GORDON! - which came and went with alarming
rapidity and never even achieved a soft cover edition.
Your other major interests - both of which certainly do figure
in your novels - are animals and ballet. Taking ballet first:
I think you attended drama school. Does this mean at one time
you harboured serious intentions of following a life on the stage?
have to confess that I went to drama school simply in order
to have fun ... Also because I was tired of scrubbing floors
and selling newspapers and not getting books published. (There
was a gap of, I think, about four years between my first book
and my second. Four years can seem very long when you are young.)
So it was either drama school or university, and I decided that
university might interfere with my writing ...
actually walkod out of drama school at the start of my last
term as I had been given a commission to translate a series
of rather dire war books from French into English, and this
at the time seemed the major imperative. In fact by then I'd
married a fellow drama student and the translation work kept
us going through several lean years of grossly underpaid stints
As a keen supporter of animal rights, you must be appalled by
the numbers of sheep and cattle being slaughtered in an effort
to control foot and mouth disease. Your novel Plague 99 (reissued
as Plague) dealt with a human plague on a catastrophic scale.
In the dedication to Come Lucky April (reissued as After The Plague)
you wrote "To Miriam, who fought me womanfully every inch of the
way." Two questions: Can you explain this comment about your editor
of the time, Miriam Hodgson; and is it as easy, over a decade
later, to write novels that deal with issues as serious as those
addressed by these two earlier titles?
we are to talk of foot and mouth, I feel impelled to state that
I have been utterly sickened by the sheer hypocrisy of all concerned.
The crocodile tears of farmers, weeping for their livestock
-- the breastbeating of the press and public over "healthy animals
being slaughtered" - the pious self-satisfaction of the politicans,
that these animals need no longer be "culled" but can now return
to the food chain ... Do not start me on this subject! The human
capacity for self-delusion and sheer wanton cruelty would appear
to be endless.
to the PLAGUE trilogy, you ask me to explain my comment, about
Miriam. She was one of my favourite editors, but I am not sure
that I was ever one of her favourite authors! She is a very
gentle person, and my books are somewhat rumbustious. I seem
to recall that she begged me, in COME LUCKY APRIL, to moderate
my views. I recall a plaintive marginal note, "Do they have
to be castrated?" To which Isternly replied, "Yes, they do!"
I no longer have my original MS, but I know she peppered it
with editorial cotrnmentS and requests, some of which I acceded
to, others not. I hasten to add that we worked tether perfectly
amiably, there was no discord; but I was never convinced that
they were her sort of book.
gave up writing "serious" teenage books about "serious" issues
simply because no one wanted them any more. With the exception
of PLAGUE, which has always done well and continues to do so
in its latest edition, books of this kind simply didn't sell
in large enough quantities to make them viable. That is to say,
mine didn't; possibly others did. My writing has chanced over
the intervening years. Visiting as many schools as I do, I have
come to realise that the PLAGUE trilogy is too densely written,
and in too literary a style, to make it accessible to the majority
of readers. Were I writing it today, without in any way altering
the content, or the complexity of ideas, I would nonetheless
"rough it up' a bit, come in at a different point in PLAGUE,
try to make the whole impact more immediate. It is a challenge
which I think we have to face, as children's writers: to make
our books accessible to the modern reader without sacrificing
depth of characterisatian, variety of language and complexity
am swill writing books on serious subjects. In July, Orchard
are publishing GET A LIFE , a teenage book dealing with the
bullying and hounding of a young boy who is gay: and I am about
to start worrk on SHADOW OF THE RED QUEEN for Hodder, for slightly
younger readers, which deals writh child abuse. But not the
wider, more cosmic issues of the trilogy. I have floated the
occasional idea, but there have been no takers!
Your latest book, The Secret Life Of Sally Tomato, about a boy's
desperate efforts to kiss a girl, is brilliantly rude and funny.
I expect it was enormous fun compiling the alphabet of Disgusting
Ditties. Did you ask friends to contribute any? Now that Sal has
had his first snog (sort of), is he going to move on to more 'mature'
did ask rely husband to contribute some Disgusting Ditties,
but unfortunatnely were too pornographic to be usable. So, no,
I made them all up myself. And yes, it was enormous fun: Every
few minutes I would run giggling into the study, where my husband
was working, and say, "I've got another one!" I think we had
reached M or N when he asked me how old I was . . . But as I
always tell the children, you don't have to be any special age
to write disgusting ditties. Ithink it is sad if people become
too adult to have a bit of childish fun. An "Outraged of Somewhere
or Other" (I forget now where she lived) did write to me to
complain, and to inform me that her two boys, far from finding
the ditties amusing, found them "simply pathetic". I also had
a blistering review from someone (sex unknown) who described
themselves as "a hard-bitten reporter" who had thought they
were unshockable, but who wa "utterly horrified" that such
a book should be aimed at children. Over the years a lot of
my work has seemed to upset somebody, somewhere. Either my views
are too contentious or my humour is too boisterous.
for Sal moving on... it's an idea! I hadn't actually considered
it, but it might be fun. On the other hand, I think my publishers
would probably veto the suggestion. If Sal moved on, it would
move the book into the teen market, but I have a lot of readers
in the 9-12 age group who might pick it up, and that probably
would upset parents. I have just had this discussion about another
of my books which Collins are publishing, BOYS ON THE BRAIN,
which is a teen book but where I have had to sanitise the language
in case my younger fans get hold of it. (I look on this as justifiable
caution on the part of my editor, rather than editorial interference!)
You have written quite a few novel series, or sequences. The 'Foster
Family' books with Hodder, the 'We Love Animals' series with Scholastic,
and currently 'Family Fun Club' with HarperCollins. How does the
writing of series fiction differ from the writing of a standalone
novel? What, from the point of view of the author, are its advantages
and its disadvantages?
think perhaps the main difference is that a sequence of six
books (I have never written more) can have the overall shape
and significance of one stand-alone. In other words, you can
spread out your material - which will either add depth, if the
author is inspired, or will make for pretty threadbare reading
if it's simply hackwork. (Which most series are.) The advantage,
from my point of view, is that you have the space to explore
your characters from every angle and really get to know them.
disadvantages are that you have to meet publishers, imperatives
- aim at pretty much the lowest common denominator, get into
the story quickly, more it along at a cracking pace; and also
that if he series fails to take off you have six books all mercilessly
junked. Every series I have attempted has been mercilessly junked,
so I shan't be doing any more of them! It's a sheer waste of
creative effort. Inciidentally, FAMILY FAN CLUB IS not part
of a series. It's a one-off.
- it must've been the title that led us to think this was going
to be the first in a series....
Anyway, Family Fun Club, subtitled 'Little Women' For Today',
is, from the opening page, a conscious homage to the Alcott classic.
Are there other classic authors you have (or would like to) pay
homage to in your work?
A LITTLE PRINCESS, which was a childhood favourite and which I
still love. I always preferred it to the saintly FAUNTLEROY or
the sickly SECRET GARDEN.
You also write chapter books and first readers. Last year's
Big Tom was an extraordinarily good wartime chapter book. Was
it an easy book to write, and, being such a prolific author,
do chapter books get written in the flash of an eye?
TOM was a very easy book to write. I am not an author who
greatly enjoys research, preferring to write about times and
subjects I know intimately, but the 2nd WW has been so extensively
covered in books and movies that the amount of research needed
was minimal. The facts are known, you only have to check up
on dates, etc. (Easily done with brilliant material supplied
by the Imperial War Museum.) For more persornal details, there
are plenty of people who lived through the experience and
are eager to share their stories. I simply picked what I needed.
ask if chapter books get written in the flash of an eye. They
do - but only after I have spent a period of quite possibly
months thinking, dreaming, planning. A great deal of fairly
intensive work can go into even a small chapter book before
I actually pick up my pen.
Books such as Big Tom and The Secret Life Of Sally Tomato
tend not to get shortlisted for the major children's literature
awards, with recognition going mainly to picture books and
older, literary fiction. And yet, despite not having the profile
of a Jacqueline Wilson or a Dick King-Smith, your books are
popular with their audience. So do you sometimes feel a little
neglected by the adults who bestow recognition?
is a bold question! The instinctive temptation is to declare
oneself above all such pettiness - and, indeed, the older
one gets, the less one cares for worldly glory. Over the
last few months, for instance, I must have been asked at
least a dozen times, by teachers, librarians, journalists,
fellow writers, even on one occasion a child, whether BILLY
ELLIOT was based on my book A PROPER LITTLE NOORYEFF. The
answer is ... who knows??? A few years back I would have
whipped myself into a froth about it; now Isimply let it
wash over me.
said that... yes, of course, there are moments when I feel
neglected. (Most of us do!) And it could be hurtful, if
Ilet it be so. But in truth what I mainly feel is curiosity.
Everyone automatically assumees -- probably because I have
been around so long and most people have heard of me - that
I must have won my share of prizes. Even an in-depth article
about me in School Librarian a few months ago stated - erroneously!
--that I had at some stage been short- listed for the Carnegie.
Because I am a bit of an oddball, and quite vehemently anti--establishment
in all its manifestations, I have absolutely no hankerings
whatsoever for the trappings of fame. If I were to be offered
the OBE I should certainly turn it down. (I mention this,
you under- stand, merely to forestall any offers which may
be in tie pipeline!) But we all like to be recognised by
our peers, and I confess to feeling intrigued. I think it
probably doesn't lend itself to analysis, but an academic
study might be interesting.
there you go. I have tried to be truthful, as I think the
question deserves it. I also think it is the sort of question
which could profitably be asked more often, It would pep
up author interviews quite wonderfully. They do have a tendency,
on occasion, to be boringly bland.
Do you have to maintain a strict discipline to keep up such
a busy level of production? What are your working hours?
not sure that I'm a strict disciplinarian. It is more the
fact that writing is my natural means of expression and
I get twitchy if I am not working on something. In general
I'll be up at six to help exercise the dogs (we have seven,
all rescued; plus four cats, also rescued). By ten I'll
probably be sitting at my desk and will work through till
about four. I should say, however, that this does not involve
nonstop slog. There are frequent interruptions by dogs,
cats, husband, telephone, coffee breaks and wanderings about
What materials do you use for writing and how do you revise
and edit your work? Has the manner and method of editing
by publishers changed during your career as an author?
always write my first draft by hand and will probably
continue to do so even when I finally manage to come to
terms with the dreaded computer, which has now been sitting
on my desk, unused and unloved, for the past month. I
enjoy the organic feel of writing by hand. I guess it
suits my creative rhythm better than composing directly
on to a machine. (Contrariwise, I would find writing a
letter by hand tiresome in the extreme.)
I finish each chapter, I read it through, type it out
as a second draft, read it through again and make corrections.
When I've finished the whole book, I read it through in
draft and make more corrections. I then type it out, fine-tuning
asI go; read through the finished version - and make yet
more corrections. In the fullness of time (very full,
theses days, with editors being perpetually in meetings)
it will come winging back to me with requests for yet
another round of re-writes. There are authors who resent
re-writing, and some who find it irksome, but once I get
to grips with it - after initial exclamations of disgust
- I actually find that I enjoy it. There is a great deal
of satisfaction to be gained from polishing ones own wondrous
don't think the manner or method of editing by publishers
has really changed since I began writing. There are still
those who inspire and those (very few) who irritate or
depress. What has changed, I think, is the time available
to editors to spend on cherishing their authors and nursing
their books. We all have the feeling, these days, that
they are rushed off their feet, forever in meetings and
simply too busy to speak to us. Gone are the days of leisurely
lunches and wonderful heart-to-heart discussions every
time you delivered a book!
Which other children's authors do you read?
wish you hadn't asked this! I read very few.
What do you see as the most and the least positive aspects
of contemporary children's literature/publishing?
I think perhaps the least positive aspect is the unseemly
haste with which publishers jump aboard the latest bandwagon
. . let's all try to find another Harry Potter! Look for
a Nick Sharratt clone for our covers! Flood the market
with third-rate fantasy! Isuppose the most positive aspect
is that even in this age of technology, children's books
are still thriving.
copyright 2001 ACHUKA