You've been publishing for about ten years now. Do you have the
same aims as a writer as when you started out, or have they shifted?
suppose there's one
fundamental shift: when I started out I just wanted to be published;
now I want to be read. In the early days I wrote for myself. Hamlet,
Bananas and All that Jazz, Blood, A Short Stay in Purgatory -
those were driven books. I was reliving an emotionally turbulent
but creatively crucial period in my own life. These days my aim
principally is to please and entertain my children and other readers
As you know, I am an ardent admirer of your fiction for teenagers
and older readers, and would like to see you concentrating rather
more on this audience. Try and persuade me that you are right
to 'mix it' as much as you do, and indeed to leave us waiting
some five years or more (since THE GOOD BOOK) for another teenage
a glut of issues here. First, I'm a versatile writer - as a professional
publishing copywriter I have to be - and I like turning my hands
to different forms of book. I started out as a novelist writing
about adolescence, but since I've had children their preoccupations
have come to the fore. They are my inspiration. When they were
small I read them picture books and told them stories and, quite
naturally, started to write my own picture books. As they've got
older, so has my fiction. Over the last few years most of my fiction
has been written for junior school-age children because I had
two of my own. I'm still writing picture book stories for my youngest.
In fact, the most recent, Big Bad Bunny (published by Orchard
Books later this year) began as a story she told me! Now
the other thing about having children is that they take up your
time! I wrote my first two novels--Hamlet, Bananas and All that
Jazz and Blood--before I had children and, although I had a full-time
job, I had lots of time at weekends. I worked a lot at night then
too; these days I'm simply too tired. I used to get up early and
write for an hour when the children were small (if you're up for
the day at half past five, you may as well do something useful),
but they wake up later now so I don't get up either. There's little
time for writing at weekends either--my son plays lots of football
and the girls have their activities, but I'm not complaining.
They're interesting and entertaining and I like spending time
with them. It just doesn't leave much time for writing--just Wednesday
(my writing day), and sometimes not even that if I'm visiting
a school, which I do quite frequently. So
one of the reasons I haven't written a novel for five years is
because I haven't had the time--you can't write a novel on a one-day-a-week
basis. You have to really immerse yourself in it, write every
day. A novel takes over your life. The Good Book took me two years
to write. I loved writing it, but it's not a happy book and I
was a very gloomy person while I was writing it. I don't think
my family would stand for that now! There's
another issue here, though, too. I've had an idea for an adolescent
novel - a synopsis even - for four years and it's not just because
of lack of time that I haven't written it. It's also lack of sales.
If I'm going to spend two years of my life writing a novel, I
want to be sure that there will be a readership for it. I got
very demoralised by my royalty statements from Random. They seemed
to be telling me that no one was interested in my novels - or
very few people anyway, and despite some very good reviews. I've
never written to make money, but like I said earlier, I want to
be read. This issue still hasn't been resolved, hence the hiatus
in my association with Bodley Head and my novel writing (but I
hope neither will be permanent). I told you there were a lot of
issues involved with this question!
The first book of yours I read was BLOOD (still, I think, one
of the best teenage novels to have been written, especially in
the UK). It has such an arresting opening paragraph, and such
a powerful narrative voice, although the narrative format is far
from straightforward. Can you say a bit about the book's structure,
and how it came to be the way it is.
You had a short story collection published during the first few
years of your career - A SHORT STAY IN PURGATORY. This shows you
up as a superb short story writer, and I went so far in one review
as to compare your work, on the basis of its use of 'emblems'
(in the title story a golden crucifix is passed from one prisoner
to another, and in ‘The Star’ a battered Christmas decoration
is dotingly cherished) with the short fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Since then, you have had stories published in mixed-author collections,
many of these with a football theme or with a younger audience
in mind. Are you still writing the kinds of stories you produced
in those early collections?
love short stories - both as reader and writer. I'll always be
grateful to Ann-Janine Murtagh and Anne McNeil, who commissioned
and edited the book respectively, for giving me the opportunity
to publish A Short Stay in Purgatory. It's the book of mine which
means most to me, partly because it has so much of my life in
it, but also because it gave me such freedom to write in different
voices - male and female, first, third, even second person. Most
of the short stories I've written since have been football themed,
though not all. I contributed a story to Simon Puttock's Same
Difference gay adolescence anthology a couple of years ago and
included a story called Howl in the Vampire and Werewolf Stories
collection I compiled for Kingfisher. That and another story,
Night of the Stick Insects (in the Quids for Kids book scared
stiff), both for older readers, are, I think, among the best things
I've written. I hope to write lots more short stories in the future.
PUBLISH OR DIE, published in the Point Crime series, is the one
novel you have published for older readers in the last five years.
It's an excellent book, very entertaining, very insightful, very
turn-the-page and climactic, but it's genre fiction. Did you have
to think carefully before agreeing to write it, or was it something
you were eager to do?
Your CREEPE HALL books appear to have been very successful. How
many do you envisage writing? When working on a series (LEGGS
UNITED for example) is the idea generated by you or the publisher?
Hall was written as a one off. When I wrote it, I had no interest
in writing sequels or series - indeed I was a bit sniffy about
them. But the fact is that kids do like series - I certainly
did. The Narnia books, the Famous Five series, these were among
my favourite books as a child. As a writer, too, you sometimes
want to go back and revisit old pastures. I wanted to know more
about Oliver and the Creepes, so I wrote Return to Creepe Hall
and then Creepe Hall For Ever! But that's it (probably!).
written a couple of books about a chracter called Spider McDrew
(and would like to write more) and a couple about Little Troll
and my first science fiction title, Star Quest: Voyage to the
Greylon Galaxy came out at the end of last year with further
adventures to follow. Then, of course, there's the Leggs United
series. I was approached by MacMillan, who wanted to publish
a football series to coincide with the last World Cup. They
asked me if I was interested in writing one, I came up with
a few ideas (I think the ideas should come from the author rather
than the publisher) and the series developed from there. I thought
there would be four books, but in the end they asked for eight
- and quickly. I've never worked so hard in my life!
In the latest CREEPE HALL title a game of cricket (or, rather,
an amusing variation on the game) is featured, but you're a football
fan at heart it would appear, from the amount of football fiction
you've produced, and the fact that you've claimed a 1969 Manchester
United Yearbook signed by George Best as your most treasured possession.
Can you tell us about the work you do at Walker Books and explain
how you fit it around your writing?
work four days a week for Walker as a Senior Copywriter. It's
a very creative and varied job and, most of the time, I thoroughly
enjoy it. I write blurbs for all the books and for posters, ads,
catalogues, etc, but there's a lot of concept work involved too
- thinking up ideas for marketing campaigns and promotions. The
"downside" is that the job is far more demanding than when I started
and takes up a lot more of my creative energy. I've never wanted
to be a full-time author, because then I would have to write for
money rather than for fun. It would be good, at some stage, to
get the balance between my job and my vocation a bit more even,
You have published books with nearly all the main children's publishers,
although your association with Random House (who published your
earlier work, via Bodley Head) seems to have ceased for the time
being. Is it the result of a conscious plan, not to limit yourself
to a single publisher?
The ideal situation would to be published on no more than three
lists, so that each had a good body of my work. But that's not
the way it works. For a start, I've been quite prolific and, as
you've pointed out, very wide-ranging. The amount of work I've
produced over the last nine or ten years couldn't really be contained
on just a couple of lists. Also, though, different editors like
different things. If one publisher turns down a story, then, naturally,
I send it elsewhere (or my agent Hilary Delamere does). The best
thing about being published widely is the opportunity it's given
me to work with lots of different editors, which has been very
stimulating - Wendy Boase, Ann-Janine Murtagh, Anne McNeil: I
owe these three in particular an awful lot. I've only really had
one bad experience with publishers (not editors) and that's Viking/Puffin.
I'd never do a book with them again - but then I don't suppose
they'd ask me!
As well as contributing to story collections, you have also been
the 'editor' of some. Is it a process you enjoy?
though not as much as writing. Compiling the Vampire and Werewolf
collection was fun - more fun than I thought it would be. I've
almost finished putting together my second Kingfisher Storylibrary
anthology - a book of sport stories, which I'm really enjoying.
It's surprising just how few sports stories there are beyond football.
I've found the project quite a challenge, but exciting too, because
it will be the only one of its kind on the market. If all goes
well with the rights clearances there will be stories or extracts
from Michael Hardcastle, Jan Mark, Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline
Wilson, P G Wodehouse, Thomas Hughes, Walter Dean Myers, Ring
Lardner and many more. I've contributed one story and am currently
working on a retelling of the funeral games from the Iliad. It's
a real mixed bag, as you can see.
Were you allocated the 10th century for your contribution--'The
Hammer and the Cross'--to Centuries Of Stories, the well-sung
Wnedy Cooling selection, or did you choose it yourself. If the
latter, why this choice? If the former, how did you come by the
idea for the story content?
original choice was the 16th century but Jacqueline Wilson had
already bagsed that. I'd just come back from a trip to the Orkneys
on the Readiscovery book bus and my head was full of all the Viking
stuff I'd seen there. So that's what I wrote about: the Vikings
in the Orkneys in the 10th century and the clash between Norse
paganism and Christianity.
Religion is a theme that many children's writers seem wary of
tackling. But in the story just mentioned, and of course in THE
GOOD BOOK, you push it to the fore. Can you explain this?
In TALKING BOOKS by James Carter there is a 2-page reproduction
of an intriguing story you wrote at school called Judas Escariot.
You were awarded 15 out of 20 and the comment 'Macabre but effective'
for a story which is revealing not so much for its adolescent
sensationalism as for an early obsession with religion. (In the
closing sentence, the main character, a flesh-eating cannibal,
is revealed as a clergyman. Does your early poetry--in the same
book, you say you wrote a great deal of it in your teens and early
twenties--also reveal a preoccupation with the theme of religion?
I was 14/15 I only wrote about one thing: the crucifixion. Whatever
the subject our English teachers set - and boy, they set some
stunkers! I wrote about some aspect of the crucificxion, usually
in a macabre or just downright weird way. Far too weird for the
English teacher whose comment you quoted. A retired Naval Officer,
he had no idea what I was on about. Mind you, reading those essays
again, I'm not exactly sure what I was on about either!
When you set out to be a writer, did you have any role models
you were seeking to emulate? (I know you are a big Leonard
Cohen fan, and ACHUKA would agree that Famous
Blue Raincoat is a fabulous song of its kind.)
Has the success of David Almond and the powerful impact made by
his first three novels, Skellig, Kit's Wilderness and Heaven Eyes
(two of which are most definitiely teenage or young adult novels)
rekindled your interest in writing for this age group or do you
see yourself concentrating on the younger age range for the forseeable
want to write a novel again. Despite everything I said earlier,
I think my next project will be a novel for older readers, maybe
just pre-teen. I've still got that other young adult book on the
back burner, though, and hope to get round to writing it soon.
I've never lost my interest in writing about adolescence - though
it's not quite the compulsion that it was. Maybe when my children
get a little older. In the meantime, I'll certainly carry on writing
picture books and young fiction.
When you carry out school visits and workshops you must be asked
similar questions time and time again. What has been the most
original and astute question a young reader has asked, and what
was your response?
questions vary from "How much do you get for making a book?" or
"What's the biggest/second biggest/third biggest book you've written?"
or "Why did you use bad language in your book?" to "What would
you say is the main theme of your work?" or "Who was your biggest
inspiration?". Perhaps the question that most sticks in my head
is, "What's the biggest mistake you've ever made?". My reply?
"Choosing to go to a secondary school that didn't play football."
Like I said, it 's important!
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