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Jean Ure was born in Caterham, Surrey and grew up in south London. She had her first book published while she was still at school. Asked in another interview how she would sum herself up in three words, she responded: "Serious - Humorous - Impatient."


ACHUKA interview April 2001
Click here for a complete list of books by Jean Ure

1. Your first book was published while you were still a schoolgirl. What effect did this have on your development as an author?

This 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.

But this 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.

Order2. You are astonishingly prolific. Does your rate of production arise out of the imperative of commissions or from some unstoppable creative drive?

It 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 own.

I 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.

3. One of your favourite sports at school was cricket. Has this interest continued into adult life and does cricket feature in any of your fiction?

OrderI 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.

4. 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?

OrderI 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 ...

I 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 in rep.

5. 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?

OrderIf 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.

Turning 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.

I 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 of ideas.

I 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!

6. 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' yearnings?

OrderI 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.

As 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!)

7. 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?

OrderI 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.

The 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.

8. Interesting - 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?

Yes! 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.

Order9. 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?

BIG 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.

You 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.

10. 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?

This 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.

OrderHaving 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.

Well, 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.

11. Do you have to maintain a strict discipline to keep up such a busy level of production? What are your working hours?

I'm 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 the garden.

Order12. 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?

I 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.)

OrderAs 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 outporings!

I 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!

13. Which other children's authors do you read?

I wish you hadn't asked this! I read very few.

Order14. 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