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INTERVIEWS

Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward

Jake Hope, star reviewer for ACHUKAREVIEWS, interviews

Anne Fine



Anne Fine is deservedly famous the world over, both for her endearingly infectious enthusiasm about books and reading and for her own consistently challenging fiction, most recently evidenced by The Road Of Bones.

Long before J. K. Rowling ever began writing, let alone having thoughts about boy wizards, Anne was battling against the Edinburgh chills crafting extraordinary novels that have gone on to win her every major award for children’s literature.

Like Jacqueline Wilson, Anne has an instant rapport with her readers offering them impartial advice about books and reading and listening to their views and opinions. She receives sacks of fan-mail each week which she endeavours to respond to personally.

 

Anne’s first novel The Summer House Loon has just been republished by Random House in a single volume edition together with its companion novel The Other Darker Ned and a newly written bridging text. It was a pleasure to meet with Anne, one of the stalwarts in the children’s book world and to hear her lucid views regarding her writing and the field in general.

J Hope / Summer 2006

 



We are now said to be living in a golden age of children’s literature, do you think opportunities for writers have increased or diminished since the first publication of “The Summerhouse Loon”?


So hard to answer! There's no doubt that when publishers didn't think of children's books as such possible moneyspinners as they do now, a good book could be recognised as such very quickly because it was out there on a level playing field.

Now there's big promotion money swilling about, so many of the novels pushed really hard are 'high concept', or in a series, or some other attraction that has nothing to do with their quality as good reads. That's very worrying. On the other hand, I am entirely confident that if an author - even an unknown - writes a truly splendid book, they'll still find a publisher.

As for the 'golden age', I wouldn't think so. So many lovely books, made to look so attractive and accessible. The readers are lucky there. But look more closely and you see that, among the very few shining names, we have a slew of fads, and most of the stuff will slide out of print and be no very great loss. My worry is exactly the same as it was thirty years ago - that good books can get lost in tides of over-publishing and that even a passionate fast reader could devour books all year and still, by the law of averages, miss most of the stuff on the shelf that's really worth reading.

Authors who claim this is a golden age are being a little arrogant, I think. It will be most interesting to see how much of the stuff that is published is entirely forgotten in a decade or two. If you look at the business with a long view, I don't see any truly new challenges facing the field. There will always be people who feel inclined to pick up the pen and write. "This is the story I want to share with the world." That'll never change. As Raymond Carver says, there have to be easier ways to make a living. So what drives most of us is that books almost mean more to us than real living. And though each of us secretly thinks that we know which books will last, so many people have been so wrong before. I wouldn't bet on these things.

The re-issue by Random House of a number of your previous novels has afforded you opportunity to revise these works. What changes did you feel needed to be made and on what basis were alterations made?

I've often dipped in on reprints to change amounts of money, or bring the television programmes my characters are watching up to date. But this time, because the books were being reset so radically to make them so much more attractive and accessible, I thought I'd go through them more thoroughly.

Obviously I wanted to keep the essence of each book intact. And since children's emotional make-up doesn't change over the years, that wasn't hard. But childhood changes a lot, and so does the world around my readers. So, just to take two small examples, the notion of midwives on bicycles is simply silly now and gives the reader a message I don't want to give - that this is some Enid Blyton wonderland Ione lives in. So I gave the midwife a car.



And a lot has happened since The Granny Project was written. Russia is totally changed. I made a lot of adjustments there, to keep Natasha's sense of her background but no longer pinning it down as her own private history.

Another example of a change I was happy to make was that, in the original book, Granny is of the generation that saw the very first immigrants off the Windrush, and she quite amiably says a few things about the appearance of George and Lavinia, the children's friends from next door. She means them kindly, and even in that version of the book the father Henry loudly disapproves of what she says. But for a Granny even to say these things, however well-meant, now, would imply something very different about both her as a woman and about the family in which she lives - a message I never wanted to send. So out the whole lot went.

People do argue about whether it's 'right' to change books later (though I take the view that anyone who is truly interested can track down the original version - even take a great interest in looking at what's changed and why). And children read classics happily through historical spectacles. But my books are still set firmly in the here and now, so I took the chance to remove unnecessary barriers (and, on occasions, tidy up my own style). The test case novel, of course, would be Goggle-Eyes. Would that book work if it weren't firmly based on the experiences of the great CND demonstrations? Probably not, in which case I'd leave it firmly alone.


There’s an obvious ear for the colourful language and phrases people use to illustrate their lives. Idioms in particular play an integral role both in your children's and adult books, most obviously perhaps in “Genie Genie Genie”. Is there a deliberate manoeuvre in your writing to keep folk-loric wisdom alive?

Language with a bit of pizzazz lights my life. The sheer aptness of the imagery is striking. It's like watching acrobats land perfectly on the double bars. 'The last gown I'll be modelling won't have any pockets.' 'Love is not a potato. You cannot simply throw it out of the window.'

 

The proverbs in Genie, Genie, Genie are real Persian proverbs. Once, in the Edinburgh Library, I found a wonderful old book that had gathered so many together. They so conjured the atmosphere of the time and the place and it was a joy to use them, if only to remind children that though, for so many years few people had a formal education, they had the richest way of looking at the world, and the deep communal wisdom of experience still informed their lives.

Whether through the justifiably angry-humour of “Bill’s New Frock” or the warmth and compassion that belies “The Tulip Touch”, one of your darkest novels, there is a pointedly-sharp awareness of the politicised nature of childhood. This has challenged both readers and critics, epitomised most recently in critic Amanda Craig’s review of “The Road of Bones” in The Times. Do you feel that politics and the politicised nature of childhood are considered taboo within the children’s literature field? What motivates you to write-against the prelapsarian enclaves that have perhaps most familiarly been associated with children’s literature?

To be honest, Amanda Craig's response to The Road of Bones somewhat surprised me. I take the charitable view that it might have got a bit mashed in the editing. I don't quite see, for example, how a character can 'lack sufficient plot'. And the claim that begins her article 'One of the reasons why classic children's fiction is so enjoyable is that it is supposed to offer us an escape from reality' scarcely bears a moment's examination.

Children's fiction has always dealt with real lives, real problems, real emotions. I don't feel I need to justify myself on any of those counts. I grant that The Road of Bones, like The Tulip Touch, is a dark book with a disturbing ending. But as Marina Warner once pointed out in a Reith lecture, children aren't wrapped in tissue paper and kept safely protected up on the shelf. They live in the real world with the rest of us.

 

I suspect some adults who recoil from a book like The Road of Bones simply can't bear to look at the world around us and see it for what it can be. There's more than one reason why some adults are happier with books written for children!

Both “Madame Doubtfire” and “Charm School” brilliantly subvert associated gender roles and stereotypes. Do you feel there is a capacity or indeed, a moral imperative for fiction to drive socio-political change?

The feminist revolution happened when I was a very young woman. I thought it was a tremendous opening up for women's lives. I've lived what you might call a feminist life and been tremendously happy and unfrustrated. I've lived with two men for years on end, both of whom have been perfectly comfortable with sides of themselves, and skills and interests, that in narrower times might have been thought of as more usual for women. So to me, for men to cook, and want to be close to their children, is nothing exceptional.

 

Yes, I suppose I do tend to do what I can in the books to offer a wider picture of maleness. (Most of my male characters can, for example, put a regular meal on the table with absolutely no fuss.) And I do think that readers benefit. An author can offer the template of a partner the reading child might unconsciously come to realise they would want to live with, or to be. That's one of the main ways in which reading fiction can vicariously expand the child's experience.

 

I think of Charm School as 'Germaine Greer for Juniors'. I suddenly realised that the horror of what is called 'Post modern feminism' was simply lipstick and being looked at by another name. So I suppose that is a didactic piece of work. Its main aim is to illuminate to young readers the cunning way in which girls and women are duped, often for financial reasons, into thinking all these things like fashion and looks are important and will make them happier.

Whether it be Tilly looking out over the cliff-top in your latest novel for adults, “Raking the Ashes”, or the hapless Simon pulling the skin on the back of his hand up into a tent and watching as it falls effortless back into shape in “Flour Babies”, there are pivotal moments of epiphany for characters in your books. How central do you see these as being to the novel and is it fair to say that these unlock the personalities and traits of your characters?

 

When I was at primary school, we were left alone to write our stories, and always given a double lesson. I learned to arch the story so that it opened out, reached a climax, and then folded itself neatly away at the end. I think, now I'm older, I keep to that discipline - the arching structure of a novel, but I also like to do that with the characters' understanding of themselves. So there are often moments in the book where everything that has been gathering reaches a sort of climax, the book changes gear, and everything goes off - seemingly inevitably, I hope - in another direction. Personally, I dislike 'untidy' novels. As Philip Larkin once said, 'You write the book that you would most like to read, but no one has bothered to write for you.' I'm simply doing that.

At what point and how do you determine whether the ideas for your writing would best be suited to the adult or the children’s form? What distinctions do you see between the two? How much are these driven by notions of suitability and how much by publisher/seller marketing?

Along with the idea for the book always comes the firm view of the age group who would enjoy reading about the subject most. Sometimes it's to do with the topic. Sometimes to do with the way I want to deal with it. If you compare Taking the Devil's Advice (for adults) with Madame Doubtfire (for children) you'll find the same topic and situation dealt with in two very different ways.

Writing for children is different. I use the old journalist's dictum: Never underestimate the reader's intelligence and never overestimate their knowlege. Adults know more about the world. In the one case, as Jill Paton Walsh once pointed out, you're telling people about something they may not yet have experienced. With adults, you're discussing something with people who may well already have embarked on this journey. So you cut at a different depth and you shine your light on it slightly differently.

I can't think of a topic that couldn't be suitable for children if dealt with in exactly the right way. After all, many writers even manage to write about sex and drugs and violence in a way that seems entirely accessible and acceptable to young people.

I never bear publishers or marketing in mind. One of the great virtues of this profession is that one is self-employed. You'd have to be mad to curtail yourself for people who don't even employ you. And I write for professional satisfaction rather than for bigger sales.

Families, their function and dysfunction are central to all of your writing. Despite having successfully and fiercely protected your family from an often intrusive media, how much has your family influenced your work? How much pressure of media intrusion has there been in your life?

I deal with patches of life that I am going through. It helps me think about them and put things in proportion. I also put bits of people I know, including my family, into the books quite a bit. A finger here. A leg there. But I take the trouble to disguise them for the sake of their privacy. (Put your friends and family in any book too openly and they won't stay your friends and family very long!) Also, mercifully, the minute you've pinned one particular aspect of them down on the page, that character wriggles and changes as if alive, and often ends up barely recognisable. (Phew!)
As Jan Mark said, we don't so much write about people we know, as write what we know about people.
Some of the press can act like ferrets. I try to meet them only in public places. I so wanted my children to grow up protected. It's so much easier to get publicity if you're prepared to use your family as the 'peg' for it. But what a horror - to have someone else's view of yourself - your parent's or the journalist's - pinned like a butterfly on the page for ever. People need privacy to grow, and to be relaxed. So I never, ever let the journalists meet them. I used to let journalists know I had two daughters, and their ages and names - no more than that. I didn't even admit to journalists that I had stepchildren until they were well into their twenties and safely away from all that. There's obviously been a massive marketing loss there. But to me it was a price well worth paying. I am astonished at the detail some authors and journalists are prepared to put about their families into the public domain.

During your time as children’s laureate you were incredibly pro-active in devising schemes to promote book and reading. One of these was the Home Library. Whilst a lot of people will have been aware of the scheme, many may not know about its achievements. Can you tell us about its success please?

Oh, that's worked out so well. As you know, I managed to persuade over two hundred artists and cartoonists to design us a modern bookplate that could be freely downloaded by anyone and used to stick in the front of any book, especially second-hand books, to cover the name of the last person who owned it and make that book 'new to them'.

It's been a rollicking success. It's still growing. All people do is go to www.myhomelibrary.org and decide which of the bookplates they like. They double click on the thumbnail to bring whatever it is up full size, and then press print. Out it comes. A brand new bookplate. I do them on paper and use glue, but I've been in schools so awash with money they print them out on Avery full-size labels, and that's even more impressive. Some are in colour, some in black and white, though these can be printed out on any colour of paper and it's extraordinary how even a black and white plate can look so very different printed on grey, or pink.

We have takers from all over the world, and many educational systems abroad are linked to us. I have this vision of so many children stuffing their bookshelves with cheapy books from Oxfam, or jumble sales, or wherever. They all become part of that child's 'Home Library' and enrich their lives.

The idea began because so many children seemed to be finding it difficult to get to their libraries as often as they wanted. It seemed more important than ever for them to have books in the home, and now that everyone sends so many fine books up to charity shops each time they redecorate, pure gems are there for the taking. Lots of children haunt bookshops for perfect picture books, shove in a bookplate and give them as presents to their younger brothers and sisters.

I don't know what it is with me and bookplates. I have adored them ever since, when I was eight, we moved to an old house with an abandoned trunk in the cellar. In there was a heap of mildewed books - each with a personal bookplate for Viscount Molesworth. Boy, was I jealous of him! (Though I will tell you that, since then, a young descendent of his has taken a very real interest in our brand new bookplates.)

I know why I did it. I'm a library child. But we could walk there safely any time of day or evening. And times are different now. It's miserable to be stuck in a house with 'nothing to read'. The Home Library really began in just the same way as most of the writing. I thought to myself, 'If I was a child now.....' And The Home Library just sprang to mind.



 

© 2006 Jacob Hope / ACHUKA

Editor: Michael Thorn
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