FAQ

Questions You Might Want Answered…

Here are some questions that I was asked by the children at Rufford Park Primary, Yeadon.  They published the answers in their Newsletter and I thought I’d also print them here too.

What’s your favourite food?

Fish and chips the way my mum used to make them. And chocolate brownies. Not together though!

Why did you start writing and how old were you?

I started writing when I was in primary school, and I used to do adventure stories, a bit like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. I’m not sure how old I was – maybe about eight or nine.

Who or what is your inspiration?

I suppose the books I loved reading as a child inspired me to write my own. There’s loads of them: Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books, The Bagthorpe Saga, The Ogre Downstairs…

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Why do you like writing books?

I love getting the ideas and being able to go into my own imaginary worlds. Plus I can work in my pyjamas.

What’s your favourite book (apart from your own)?

Not sure, but I really love Alice Through the Looking Glass by CS Lewis, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

What’s your favourite movie?

I’m not sure what my favourite movie is, but my favourite part of a movie is in the The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and it’s the bit where they light the beacons of Gondor.

What was your favourite subject at school?

History, and writing stories.

Where do you live and what do you like about it?

I live in north Leeds, and I like the fact that it’s near an enormous park, Roundhay Park, where I can run round the lake with my dog. There ‘s also a great place nearby to have fish and chips.

Who was your favourite teacher and why?

Mrs Bernklow when I was in primary 7 (that’s Year 6). She was strict but fair. And Miss Graham in primary 5 (Year 4) who read us Charlotte’s Web at the end of each school day (we all cried).

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Thank you, Rufford Park!  

And here are some more questions I’m often asked:

Where do you get your ideas?

Authors are always asked this. Actually, it’s not the difficult bit.  I get ideas all the time – it’s turning them into finished books that is the problem. When ideas appear it seems like magic. However if I think about it, I can sometimes trace them back to something in the past, or something I have read. Writers rarely admit this, but a lot of inspiration comes from other books. Everything you read ferments away in the bottom of your mind, like compost, and then something unexpected grows from it, and you think it belongs entirely to you. (The compost is JRR Tolkien’s description – I stole it.) As long as it ferments enough, that’s OK!

Do you start with plots or characters?

Often I have a character in my head I want to write about. At other times it’s a situation. Then the story grows from there. For the book I’m writing at the moment, I really wanted to write about an old man and a girl living on an island, who return to a walled city by the sea.

For my previous book, Sam and the Griswalds, I wanted to write about bad children having adventures and getting into trouble. There used to be a lot of books like that – for example, Just William – but these days there’s a shortage.

How did you start writing?

I was a big reader as a child, always had a nose in a book, and after a while I thought “I can do that”. When I was very young I read a lot of Enid Blyton, which is quite formulaic. A typical adventure story starts off with a bunch of kids on a train in the school holidays, going to stay with a relative in a lonely house on a rocky bay…there’s a sinister old housekeeper, and they see some strange lights at night… I used to knock out the first chapters, then get stuck.

I also used to make up stories for my sister. At one time we lived in a house between three golf courses, and we were supposed to take our dog for a walk each day on a footpath that ran between them. We got a bit fed up with this, so in between dodging the golf balls I would think of stories to amuse my sister. I can still remember some of them.

Do you have anyone in particular in mind when you write?

No. But it’s fantastic when I do meet children who have enjoyed my books. Recently I visited a primary school in Leeds, and it was wonderful to get the responses of REAL, LIVE children to my work!  That is the joy of author visits and events.

Do you write for boys or girls?

Both!  Sometimes people like to pigeon-hole books, but I know that both boys and girls enjoy mine.

You have been described as “Roald Dahl meets Jacqueline Wilson”.  What do you feel about that?

Surprised, mainly.  I do write about eccentric and quirky characters (like Roald Dahl) and my books have contemporary home and school settings (like Jacqueline Wilson). But I think they are mainly just me…

You have written two Jessica Haggerthwaite books, will there be any more?

Maybe – Jessica has been very successful, and translated into several languages.  I enjoy writing about her, but I am easily distracted by new characters and ideas.

What do you do in your spare time?

I go to the park, to walk or run.  I am training for a half marathon, but it is taking me a while (over ten years so far – must get that entry form).  I love swimming in the sea, though British weather is not good for that.  I love singing, in the bath or sometimes in a choir.  I read a lot…and I’m very fond of my new kindle, though I spend a lot of time wondering where I put it.  And I’m sad I can’t read it in the bath.  Oh yes, I like eating too.

Did you have a favourite book when you were younger?

Lots. I liked stories with lots of humour about kids getting into scrapes: for example, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, the Jennings stories, the Bagthorpes series by Helen Cresswell, and the pony stories by Ruby Ferguson about a girl called Jill. My favourite “classic” was Alice Through the Looking Glass. I also loved The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones, which is fantasy, but again very funny, and about ordinary kids.  I list some of my favourite books on this site.

Which author do you admire the most?

I am a big Jane Austen fan. Her novels are wonderfully funny and beautifully constructed – and all written in snatched moments scribbling away on the dining room table. I admire JRR Tolkien for the completeness of his imaginary world. I also really admire a children’s author called Antonia Forest, who wrote wonderful books that have never had the acclaim they deserve.

Do you get annoyed with people assuming it’s ‘easy’ to write books for children?

Funnily enough, people don’t often suggest this to me – maybe I look so murderous when they do!

What does annoy me is when people say “anything that gets them reading” about a children’s book.  It implies children’s books are only a bridge to other kinds of reading, and all the enjoyment and pleasure of a children’s book is worth nothing in itself.  And of course it belittles the opinions of children.

What are the challenges of writing for younger readers?

People assume writing is all about churning out the words, but for children, you have to create a strong story, characters and setting using relatively few words, which is extremely hard.

Also, as an adult writing for children, you are writing about an alien culture, and you do have to get into a different mind-set. Adults often choose to forget many aspects of being a child. One author I really admire in this respect is Jacqueline Wilson who seems to recall exactly how important it was if you fell out with your best friend, or you didn’t have the right clothes at school. These things can seem trivial to adults but they’re not, and children’s books should reflect that.

Do you choose the illustrations for your books?

No, my publishers chose an illustrator.  I was not expecting there to be pictures, as they are longer books for older readers.  But I am very happy with the illustrations!  They first books had illustrations by Tim Archbold, who lives in Scotland, and I think he has captured the flamboyance of the characters very well.  My latest book – out soon – will have illustrations by the wonderful, well-known illustrator Emma Chichester Clark – I am very excited about that!

Have any of your books been on TV?

No, but I have Hollywood producers fighting over them as we speak…No, I’m afraid that isn’t true, but the Jessica Haggerthwaite books are regularly broadcast on BBC radio, read by actress Jenny Agutter.  There is also an audio cassette version available of Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher, read by the superb actress Stephanie Cole.  It is hilarious and I loved listening to it.  I have also had a story for adults broadcast on BBC Radiio Four – it was read by the actress Claire Skinner, who plays the mother in Outnumbered.  I went to the recording session, which was great fun.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?

Read, read, read – it creates the compost (see first question). Then write, write, write, pull it all apart, and write it all again.

Some of these questions and answers are taken from an interview with BBC Online Leeds.

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Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher

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