FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQS)
When and where were you born?
In April 1961 (so I’m a Taurus born in the Chinese year of the Ox. No wonder my family think I’m stubborn!). The name of the hospital I was born in was The Shrubbery, Basingstoke. I have liked trees ever since.
Do you have any brothers and sisters?
That’s a more complicated question than you might think! I am an only child, but because my dad was married before, I have two older half-sisters and a half-brother. I also have 7 half-nieces and nephews and 6 half great-nephews so far. I have been a half-aunt since I was a month old, which everyone thinks is really weird.
What were you like at school and did you like it?
I was a total loner, always on the outside looking in. It’s a good trait for a writer (writers do a lot of observing of other people), but it was very lonely at the time. I was quite brainy and found passing exams easy, so I never revised till the last minute. I also fell asleep in class a lot and apparently snored once in English. However, as I got older, people started coming to me to solve their problems, so I became a sort of teenage agony aunt. Maybe it was because I was independent and not linked with any clique or gang. I didn’t really like school till I was almost leaving. I went to a boarding school, and found it really hard being away from home. But once I found out that I did have a few friends and also joined a singing club in the school it got a lot better.
What was your favourite subject?
English, because I could read books and write stuff about them. (My biggest tip for passing an exam is to go and read the set texts properly.) Also Latin and Ancient History (where I got my love of Greek myths).
Was it hard to write your first book?
No. I was sitting in the rain on a Scottish river bank, fending off midges, when it just came to me all at once. I rushed back to the car and wrote it down on the back of an envelope (it was a picture book story, and it started like this: “One hungry baby, two front teeth, three dribbly chins with bibs underneath!”).
How did you go about getting published? Was it difficult?
I was very lucky indeed. Most people find it a lot harder, especially now. Because I’d been in the children’s publishing industry, I already had contacts. I sent the picture book to my old boss for an opinion, and she rang me up to say she wanted to publish it. I was really surprised and happy. It was the day the first Gulf War broke out (15th January 1991), and it made a very gloomy day a lot better for me.
Do you earn a lot of money?
No. I wish! But children’s book writing has been noticeably more respected as a career since J.K.Rowling and Harry Potter came on the scene. Thanks for that J.K.
Do you write every day?
I may not sit at the computer, but every day I think about some aspect of what I am writing at the moment. Thinking and dreaming time is nearly as important as writing time for me.
Do you illustrate your books?
My best effort is a stick person (though I can draw a mean frog too). So no. But that means I do get to work with some wonderful illustrators who translate my words into amazing pictures. I love that part and always get very excited when I see the results.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It all depends on the medium. The shortest time was 10 minutes for a picture book text (once only). The longest has been a novel, which I worked on, off and on, for 5 years.
Where do you get your ideas?
Every writer gets asked this a lot. Anything and everything can trigger an idea for me—dreams, journeys, a word or phrase in a book, something someone says, smells, tastes, sounds, and even dry dusty old facts. It all gets mixed up in my head and makes a book or a poem. Eventually. The trick is to discount nothing, and to write down all ideas and keep them. I have an ideas file stuffed with tatty scraps of paper and all sorts of other oddments. Even if I don’t use it right away, there will always come a time when I have an ‘oh yes!’ moment, and know exactly where that idea will slot into what I’m writing.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
It’s hard to imagine. But I think I’d have a small restaurant and cook delicious food for people. I’d use local ingredients and include wild food from the hedgerows. My mum writes cookery books, and I’d use a lot of her recipes. Yum!
What is your favourite food and your favourite animal?
My favourite meal would be roast chicken with truffles, really buttery mash, and homegrown purple sprouting broccoli (heavy on the gravy), followed by mum’s lemon stone cream with elderflower. My favourite animal is a bear. Deeply beautiful and totally wild. Also really cute cubs.
What do you do in your spare time?
Read. Do nice stuff with my husband and kids. Cook. Play guitar and sing very badly. Sit in my stone circle, stare at the stars and think great thoughts about the universe. Write song lyrics and struggle to think of music for them. Visit or talk to friends and family. That means email and skype too. Sleep (the biggest luxury of all). Pick homegrown veggies from my garden and eat them raw.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write?
Read. Read read read and read some more. Read widely—diaries, letters, biographies, novels, travel, non-fiction. Increase your vocabulary. Don’t worry about what you are going to write. Practice is everything. So, for instance, you could sit down somewhere for ten minutes and listen really intently. Then write about what you heard—even if you heard nothing! Write down memories. Write letters—real or imaginary ones. You don’t have to send them. Learn to observe things and jot them down—pretend you are a witness in a police investigation. Listen to other people’s stories—draw them out. People always like talking about themselves, so ask questions. Notice stuff that’s going on around you and file it away in your brain. Listen (discreetly) to conversations on trains and buses and note the rhythms of other people’s speech. Use words like paints, mix them up in odd combinations just for fun. You may be surprised what you come up with. Whatever you write is a part of you, a piece of your individual voice. Don’t be afraid to experiment with language. Listen to lyrics and the rhythm of songs. Even if you find ‘proper’ poetry boring (it really isn’t!), songs are just another kind of poetry set to music. Above all else, don’t give up at the first hint of criticism, keep on writing, and do some every single day. You will soon find you have a whole pile of it. And even if you are only satisfied with one thing, the good feeling of achievement that gives you will be worth every minute you spent on it.