Paton Walsh, Jill 1937–
Paton Walsh, Jill 1937–
(Gillian Paton Walsh)
Born April 29, 1937, in London, England; daughter of John Llewellyn (an engineer) and Patricia Bliss; married Antony Edmund Paton Walsh (a chartered secretary), August 12, 1961 (marriage ended); married John Rowe Townsend (a writer), 2004; children: Edmund Alexander, Margaret Ann, Helen Clare. Education: St. Anne's College, Oxford, Dip.Ed., 1959, M.A. (with honors). Religion: "Skepticism." Hobbies and other interests: Photography, gardening, cooking, carpentry, reading.
Home—Cambridge, England. Agent—Bruce Hunter, David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Sq., London W1F 9HA, England.
Enfield Girls Grammar School, Middlesex, English teacher, 1959-62; writer, 1962—. Whittall Lecturer, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1978. Visiting faculty member, Center for the Study of Children's Literature, Simmons College, Boston, 1978-86. Founder, with John Rowe Townsend, of Green Bay Publishers, 1986.
Society of Authors, Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Children's Writers Group.
Book World Festival award, 1970, for Fireweed; Whitbread Prize (shared with Russell Hoban), 1974, for The Emperor's Winding Sheet; Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, 1976, for Unleaving; Arts Council creative writing fellowship, 1976-77, and 1977-78; Universe Prize, 1984, for A Parcel of Patterns; Smarties Prize Grand Prize, 1984, for Gaffer Samson's Luck; named commander, Order of the British Empire, 1996; Phoenix Award, 1998, for A Chance Child.
FICTION FOR CHILDREN
Hengest's Tale, illustrated by Janet Margrie, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1966.
The Dolphin Crossing, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1967.
Fireweed, Macmillan (London, England), 1969, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1970.
Goldengrove, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1972.
Toolmaker, illustrated by Jeroo Roy, Heinemann (London, England), 1973, Seabury Press (New York, NY), 1974.
The Dawnstone, illustrated by Mary Dinsdale, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1973.
The Emperor's Winding Sheet, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1974.
The Huffler, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1975, published as The Butty Boy, illustrated by Juliette Palmer, Macmillan (London, England), 1975.
Unleaving, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1976.
Crossing to Salamis (first novel in trilogy; also see below), illustrated by David Smee, Heinemann (London, England), 1977.
The Walls of Athens (second novel in trilogy; also see below), illustrated by David Smee, Heinemann (London, England), 1977.
Persian Gold (third novel in trilogy; also see below), illustrated by David Smee, Heinemann (London, England), 1978.
Children of the Fox (contains Crossing to Salamis, The Walls of Athens, and Persian Gold), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.
A Chance Child, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.
The Green Book, illustrated by Joanna Stubbs, Macmillan (London, England), 1981, illustrated by Lloyd Bloom, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982, published as Shine, Macdonald (London, England), 1988.
Babylon, illustrated by Jenny Northway, Deutsch (London, England), 1982.
A Parcel of Patterns, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1983.
Lost and Found, illustrated by Mary Rayner, Deutsch (London, England), 1984.
Gaffer Samson's Luck, illustrated by Brock Cole, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1984.
Torch, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
Birdy and the Ghosties, illustrated by Alan Marks, Macdonald (London, England), 1989.
Can I Play Jenny Jones?, Bodley Head (London, England), 1990.
Can I Play Queenie?, Bodley Head (London, England), 1990.
Grace, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.
Can I Play Farmer, Farmer?, Bodley Head (London, England), 1992.
Can I Play Wolf?, Bodley Head (London, England), 1992.
When Grandma Came (picture book), illustrated by Sophie Williams, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.
Matthew and the Sea Singer, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.
Pepi and the Secret Names, Lee & Shepard (New York, NY), 1995.
Connie Came to Play, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
Thomas and the Tinners, Hodder Wayland (London, England), 1995.
When I Was Little like You, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Kevin Crossley Holland) Wordhoard: Anglo-Saxon Stories, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1969.
Farewell, Great King (adult novel), Coward McCann, 1972.
(Editor) Beowulf (structural reader), Longman, 1975.
The Island Sunrise: Prehistoric Britain, Deutsch (London, England), 1975, published as The Island Sunrise: Pre-historic Culture in the British Isles, Seabury Press (New York, NY), 1976.
Five Tides (short stories), Green Bay, 1986.
Lapsing (adult novel), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1986, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987.
A School for Lovers (adult novel), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1989.
The Wyndham Case, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Knowledge of Angels, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
A Piece of Justice: An Imogen Quy Mystery, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.
The Serpentine Cave, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
(Coauthor) Dorothy Sayers, Thrones, Dominations: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.
A Desert in Bohemia (adult novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2000.
A Presumption of Death: A New Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane Mystery (based on the series by Dorothy Sayers), St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2002.
Debts of Dishonor: An Imogen Quy Mystery, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2006.
The Bad Quarto: An Imogen Quy Mystery, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2007.
Some of Paton Walsh's manuscripts and papers may be found in the Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Gaffer Samson's Luck was adapted to audio in 1987; Torch was adapted as a television miniseries, 1992; Knowledge of Angels was adapted to audio in 1996 by Isis Audio; A Parcel of Patterns was adapted to audio in 1996 by Listening Library.
Jill Paton Walsh is noted for her works for young readers that deal realistically with life, death, and maturation. While her novels vary widely in terms of genre and style, as Judith Atkinson noted in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, "the most immediately attractive features of these novels … are their absorbing plots and believable settings." "Of [the many] skilled and sensitive writers [for young people]," declared Sheila Egoff in Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature, "[Paton] Walsh is the most formally literary. Her writing is studded with allusions to poetry, art and philosophy that give it an intellectual framework unmatched in children's literature." Paton Walsh's works examine eras and topics such as life, death, and honor in Anglo-Saxon England (Hengest's Tale and Wordhoard), Victorian child labor in England (A Chance Child), growing up in World War II England (The Dolphin Crossing and Fireweed), life in the Early Stone Age (Toolmaker), and loyalty in the midst of destruction in fifteenth-century Byzantium (The Emperor's Winding Sheet). She has also written several novels set on the Cornish coast, where she spent part of her childhood.
Paton Walsh was born Gillian Bliss, a member of a loving family living in suburban London. Her father was an engineer, one of the earliest experimenters with television, and he and his wife actively stimulated their children to enjoy learning. "For the whole of our childhoods," Paton Walsh once wrote, "I, and my brothers and sister—I am the eldest of four—were surrounded by love and encouragement on a lavish scale…. And to an unusual degree everyone was without prejudices against, or limited ambitions for, girls. As much was expected of me as of my brothers."
Paton Walsh's early novels Fireweed and The Dolphin Crossing are based on her childhood experiences during World War II. The characters experience danger and insecurity along with new friendships. "For five crucial years of my childhood—from the year I was three to the year I was eight—the war dominated and shaped everything around me," Paton Walsh once explained "and then for many years, until well into my teens, postwar hardships remained…. I do not know if there was a plan of evacuation there when the war began, which my parents did not join in, or if Finchley did not seem a likely target," she continued. Finally her mother's stepfather, upset by a bombing raid, moved the family to his place in Cornwall, in the far west of England. Although Jill's mother soon returned with her younger children to her husband in London, Jill herself remained in Cornwall for the next five years, returning to her family only after her grandmother suffered a fatal heart attack.
The author used the familiar setting of Cornwall in Goldengrove, a book about the awkwardness that often accompanies growing up. The heroine is Madge, who, although almost fully grown, still eagerly anticipates her yearly visit to see her grandmother and cousin in Cornwall. When, one year, the visit proves disappointing, the grandmother understands that Madge's maturation is changing their relationship. Further, Madge must deal with two revelations that force her to question her faith in adults.
"I left St. Ives when I was just eight," Paton Walsh once recalled. "A part of me is still rooted on that rocky shore, and it appears again and again in what I write." She stepped out of the comfortable world she had known directly into wartime London. "That first night back," she remembered, "I lay awake listening to the clanging sounds, like dustbins rolling round the night sky, made by German rockets falling somewhere a little distance off.
"The children I talk to nowadays are very interested in the Second World War," Paton Walsh once remarked. "They think it must have been a time of excitement and danger, whereas it was actually dreadfully boring." Wartime restrictions and shortages meant that normal childhood activities—movies, radio, and even outdoor play—were severely limited. "I remember, in short, a time of discomfort and gloom, and, above all, upheaval." Part of the upheaval was caused by her mother's relatives, who had been wealthy colonists in Southeast Asia before the war, and who returned to England, newly impoverished, to live with her family. Because they had their own ideas of proper female behavior, Paton Walsh wrote, she never knew "whether it was good and clever to give voice to my opinions, or pushy and priggish; not knowing from one day to the next what sort of behavior would be expected of me. Yet in the long run I have benefited greatly from all this. I protected myself. I learned not to care what other people think. I would say what I liked, read what I was interested in, go on my own way, and ignore what the invading hoards of aunts and uncles thought, about me, or about anything else."
Paton Walsh attended a Catholic girl's school in North Finchley, whose environment was quite different from the liberality of her home life. When Paton Walsh left the school, it was to take a place at Oxford University. She once commented of this time: "I enjoyed myself vastly at Oxford, made friends, talked late into the night, and even worked sometimes, and work included lectures by both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The subject of the lectures and tutorials was always literature or philology—we wouldn't have dared ask those great men about their own work!—but the example they set by being both great and serious scholars, and writers of fantasy and books for children was not lost on me."
By the time Paton Walsh completed her degree, she was engaged to a man she had met at school. She obtained a teaching position, but soon discovered that she disliked being a teacher. "I didn't teach long," she once explained. "I got married in my second year as a teacher, and eighteen months later was expecting a child." The life of a housewife, however, did not suit her either: "I was bored frantic. I went nearly crazy, locked up alone with a howling baby all day and all night…. As plants need water and light, as the baby needed milk, I needed something intellectual, cheap, and quiet." So, she explained, "I began to write a book. It was a children's book. It never occurred to me to write any other kind."
The book she began to work on in those day, she said, "was, unfortunately, a dreadfully bad book. It had twelve chapters of equal length, with a different bit of historical background in each one." Eventually, Kevin Crossley-Holland, an editor with Macmillan, explained to Paton Walsh that to publish this particular book might be a bad idea. He then offered her an option on her next work. "I set to work joyfully on Hengest's Tale," she recalled, "a gory epic retold out of fragments of Beowulf, and I stopped work only for a fortnight—between chapter three and chapter four—when my second child, my daughter Margaret, was born. Hengest's Tale was my first published book. And I have never forgotten the difference it made to be able to say, to others, certainly, but above all, to myself, ‘I am a writer.’"
Critics celebrate Paton Walsh's ability to evoke both character and setting, and through them to say something meaningful about growing up. She "has an astonishing ability to create appealing personalities," declared Elizabeth S. Coolidge in the Washington Post Book World. In reviewing Unleaving, in which Paton Walsh continues the story of Madge, the heroine of Goldengrove, Coolidge continued: "She has written a book about death, and what this means to a philosopher, a teenager, a grandmother and a very small child. Yet Unleaving is in no way a gloomy book, but one that leaves the reader with a warm and optimistic view of humankind." Alice Bach, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that "[Paton] Walsh doesn't tidy up the blight for which man was born."
For Thrones, Dominations, Paton Walsh took on the challenge of completing a manuscript of a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery found forty years after the death of its author, Dorothy L. Sayers. The book agent who turned in the manuscript had possessed it since the 1930, when Sayers gave it to him for safekeeping. In the coauthored book, Wimsey is recently married but soon finds himself on the case of an acquaintance's murder. Rex E. Klett, writing in Library Journal, commented that Thrones, Dominations has all the "witty dialog, social satire, and red herrings of a classic Sayers." Noting Paton Walsh's contribution to the novel, New Statesman contributor Michael Leapman wrote: "The pace picks up when Walsh takes over. The dialogue gets crisper and there are twists on every other page."
Paton Walsh takes over the role of sole author for another Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, A Presumption of Death, this time featuring Harriet Vane, who has become Lady Wimsey. While Sir Wimsey is traveling abroad, Lady Wimsey takes up the case of a dead girl found during an air-raid drill in 1940 England. Klett, writing again in Library Journal, called A Presumption of Death "a charmingly traditional British cozy." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Paton Walsh "does a far better job of honoring Sayers than she did in their first posthumous collaboration."
In Debts of Dishonor: An Imogen Quy Mystery Imogen Quy—who also appears in The Wyndham Case and A Piece of Justice: An Imogen Quy Mystery—is a college nurse working at St. Agatha's, a fictional Cambridge college. When a benefactor to the school falls to his death, Imogen investigates. A Kirkus Reviews contributor observed that the novel is "geared toward the genteel reader." Writing on the Monsters and Critics Books Web site, Angela Youngman commented that "it keeps your attention throughout as you follow the twists and turns of the complex tale."
In addition to these mysteries, Paton Walsh has also written other novels for adults. Among these is A Desert in Bohemia, which focuses on the spread of communism following World War II. The novel follows numerous characters over several decades, including Russian exiles, idealistic communists, and an English family. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the "novel manages to be serious, important and philosophically provocative—and infused with narrative urgency, suspense, pathos and passion as well," adding that it also has "a cunningly orchestrated plot, a relentlessly chilling atmosphere and indelible character portraits." Patricia Gulian, writing in Library Journal, called A Desert in Bohemia "beautifully written" and felt that "Walsh is at once complex and very simple."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 35, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Egoff, Sheila A., Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature, American Library Association (Chicago, IL), 1981.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Booklist, December 15, 2000, Margaret Flanagan, review of A Desert in Bohemia, p. 788.
Christian Century, June 3, 1998, Gwenette Orr Robertson, review of Thrones, Dominations: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, p. 585.
Commonweal, May 8, 1998, Elizabeth Bartelme, review of Thrones, Dominations, p. 26.
Entertainment Weekly, January 12, 2001, Mark Harris, review of A Desert in Bohemia, p. 76.
First Things, August, 2001, review of A Desert in Bohemia, p. 76.
Horn Book, November, 2000, Gregory Maguire, review of The Green Book, p. 682.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2003, review of A Presumption of Death: A New Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane Mystery, p. 192; March 15, 2006, review of Debts of Dishonor: An Imogen Quy Mystery, p. 265.
Library Journal, January, 1998, Rex E. Klett, review of Thrones, Dominations, p. 147; November 1, 2000, Patricia Gulian, review of A Desert in Bohemia, p. 138; February 1, 2003, Rex E. Klett, review of A Presumption of Death, p. 120.
New Statesman, October 31, 1986, review of Lapsing, p. 31; February 20, 1998, Michael Leapman, review of Thrones, Dominations, p. 47.
New Yorker, November 27, 1989, Faith McNulty, review of Birdy and the Ghosties, p. 142.
New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1976, Alice Bach, review of Unleaving, p. 18; June 16, 1985, Phyllis Theroux, review of Gaffer Samson's Luck, p. 30; June 14, 1992, Roger Sutton, review of Grace, p. 31; March 15, 1998, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Thrones, Dominations, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, January 5, 1998, review of Thrones, Dominations, p. 62; October 9, 2000, review of A Desert in Bohemia, p. 71; November 27, 2000, Yvonne Nolan, "Jill Paton Walsh Novel Ideas along the Cam," p. 48; January 20, 2003, review of A Presumption of Death, p. 59, and Leonard Picker, "Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane Redux," p. 60; February 20, 2006, review of Debts of Dishonor, p. 139.
School Library Journal, June, 2001, Penny Stevens, review of A Desert in Bohemia, p. 184.
Times Literary Supplement, March 29, 1985, review of Goldengrove, p. 349; November 29, 1985, review of Gaffer Samson's Luck, p. 1358; November 28, 1986, review of The Butty Boy, p. 1347; November 22, 1991, P.J. Kleeb, review of Grace, p. 24.
Washington Post Book World, May 2, 1976, Elizabeth S. Coolidge, review of Unleaving, p. L13.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (September 6, 2006), Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum, review of A Presumption of Death.
Jill Paton Walsh Home Page,http://www.greenbay.co.uk (June 9, 2007).
Monsters and Critics Books Web site,http://books.monstersandcritics.com/ (April 6, 2006), Angela Youngman, review of Debts of Dishonor.
Shots Online,http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/ (June 9, 2007), Mike Stotter, interview with Paton Walsh.
Jill Paton Walsh
Jill Paton Walsh contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I was born on the 29th of April, 1937, in North Finchley, a suburb of London. I made a bad job of it, and arrived damaged, with a condition known as Erb's palsy, which limits the movements of my right arm. This is in fact caused by stretching of the baby's arm during breech delivery; but it was not then very well understood, and my parents were told it was the result of brain damage of unknown extent.
I would have said for many years that my disability, so trifling in extent, as it turned out, had had no influence on my life; but I now think that it was in reality of great importance, not in any physical way, but psychologically. In the first place, all my life the people around me have supposed I would not be able to do things—like carrying trays, or standing on my hands—which I found, as soon I tried them, to be perfectly possible for me. And this has left me with a lifelong disposition to have a shot at things. Confronted with a difficult task, as constructing a built-in wardrobe, making a ballgown, or writing a publishable book, I am still inclined to tackle it, reflecting that if someone else can do it, I probably can. This is arrogant, of course, but it often proves true. It is arrogant, but then if I had been contented to do only what the doctors told my parents I would be able to do, I would have led a very narrow life! It is true, of course, that there are some things my arm prevents me from doing. Up to the present these are: lifting heavy objects from high shelves, being a bell-ringer, and putting curlers in my own hair.
Of course the worst fear that my unlucky parents had to deal with was the implied threat of mental handicap, and I made it worse by being very late to learn to talk. "You made up for it later!" my mother used to tell me. But when I had reached two-and-a-half with hardly any baby talk, they did begin to wonder. The day a neighbor leaned over my playpen and said, "And what do you do all day, little girl?" and I looked up and said, "Normally I play with bricks," the relief was very great.
Again, looking back, I am not surprised that I was wary of talking until I had got the grammar straight in my head, for my entire family made a nonstop game out of what my grandfather called "Your language is foul, and mine is Fowler, or Knowing your Onions"—that is, of pedantically correcting each others' speech for the most
minuscule errors of form or usage, accompanied by looking things up in Modem English Usage, by Fowler, or the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, edited by Onions.
When every utterance I delivered from cot or playpen was greeted with rapture by my parents and family, I was quickly convinced that I was good with words, and joined in the family game as rapidly and extensively as I could. Until the day she died, my mother, if I said something clever, or extravagantly articulate, would administer a subtle rebuke by looking at me thoughtfully and saying, "I think you're normal …"
For the whole of our childhoods I, and my brothers and sister—I am the eldest of four—were surrounded by love and encouragement on a lavish scale. On my father's side our family was of very modest origins indeed, but upwardly mobile—one reason perhaps for the delight in ultra-correct speech—there was no money behind us, but wealth of hopes. I might not be able to carry a tray, but I, or any of us, could win scholarships, get to university, become professors, politicians, inventors, captains of industry … anything we liked. And to an unusual degree everyone was without prejudices against, or limited ambitions for, girls. As much was expected of me as of my brothers. And therefore, of course, more, in a way. Perhaps my great-aunts, who had struggled out of real poverty to become primary school headmistresses, and self-taught intellectuals, were responsible for that.
But as well as all this affection and privilege, we did have hardships to contend with. We were fed and clothed, and housed, in a house which always had one warm room, but we were never well-off; there was never money for extras; and even if there had been, like everyone else in England we would have been in a land at war. For five crucial years of my childhood—from the year I was three to the year I was eight—the war dominated and shaped everything around me. And then for many years, until well into my teens, postwar hardships remained.
In the first place, my family lived in North Finchley. I do not know if there was a plan of evacuation there when the war began, which my parents did not join in, or if Finchley did not seem a likely target. What did happen is a family legend. My mother's mother had married again, just after my own parents' marriage, a moderately wealthy man who lived in Cornwall. He had business in London, and came to spend the night in our house. During the night we had to get up and get packed into the shelter in the garden three times, as the air-raid sirens went. However unlikely it was as a prime target, Finchley was getting bombed, as the enemy aircraft came in over London, turned right, and wheeled round to head home again, unloading any remaining bombs as they went. My Cornish grandfather was appalled. He said, over breakfast, "You can't live like this," and somehow all of us, and all our things were on the ten o'clock train, out of Paddington station, going to live with Gran in St. Ives.
St. Ives is an extremely beautiful place; a town of crooked, narrow sloping streets, a stone harbour on a wide bay, golden beaches, and a lighthouse on a distant island that can be seen from all over the town. A sweeping view of the town, beaches, and bay could be seen from every window of Gran's house, and a path to the beach led directly down from a gate at the foot of the garden. We seemed to have landed in heaven. We had certainly landed in a comfortable house—there were two full-time servants, and attics for us to sleep and play in. And, which impressed us more at the time, our Cornish stepgrandfather could afford to buy endless sweets on the black market, stuff his pockets with them when he went out, and give them away to any children he met in the town. I still remember his defence for this—"If anyone is having them, then anyone is having them!"
But if life in St. Ives was lovely for us, it was very hard on my mother, because it separated her from my father. Of course the war separated many families from their fathers, but my father was not away fighting; he had not been allowed to join up. My father was a very brilliant engineer, whose job before the war had been first in radio, and then in television. He was the very first television cameraman in the world, but only because he was part of the tiny team of engineers who had launched public broadcast television before the war. Sometime after the war began he was sent to Malvern to help with research on radar. Travel on wartime trains between Malvern and St. Ives was very difficult. For this reason, and perhaps others I don't know about, my mother decided to go back to London.
But by the time she did, I had started at a little nursery school nearby, and my grandmother wanted to keep me, and argued that it would be better for me not to change schools. Both my brothers, and the youngest, my sister, were born by then, and my mother doubtless had her hands full, so I was left on my own in St. Ives.
And I don't remember missing the others at all. That's what my brothers and sister became to me, "the others," when they went home without me. Left with my grand-
mother I was spoiled, praised, and made much of in every way, and went on doing well at school. Wartime St. Ives was a small place, and I was known by name all over the town, and in every shop. One of the St. Ives fishermen lost a boat at Dunkirk, and my grandfather had helped him replace it. The new boat was called Little Jill. Looking back, I will forgive myself for getting rather a good opinion of my own importance.
I left St. Ives when I was just eight, and I didn't go back there till I was thirty-six; but when I asked a stranger on the quays if he remembered a boat called Little Jill he looked at me hard, and said, "You had a brother younger'n you, didn't you?" and, in a minute or two more, "Grand ol' Liberal, your grandfer!" And it turned out that several people could remember me, and even remember having been in the same class in that little nursery school. A part of me is still rooted on that rocky shore, and it appears again and again in what I write.
But the safety, and the spoiling, were not to last. Late in 1944 my grandmother died, very suddenly, of a heart attack. Lying in my bed, still awake, I heard her come up to bed unusually early, and run a bath. I slipped out of bed, and ran across the landing to hug her in her soft dressing gown, and tell her about something I had been reading. "Goodbye, Darling," she said. I laughed. "You mean Goodnight, Granny, not Goodbye," I said. "Yes," she told me. "Goodnight, don't read too long."
But I read long enough to hear a heavy thump; to hear people scrambling round the house, talking in agitated whispers. They were still doing it when I fell asleep.
And the next morning was like a nightmare. The other grown-ups in the house were my stepgrandfather's grown-up children, who had no children of their own, and, I think, didn't much like me. My poor grandfather kept to his room. They told me my grandmother was ill in bed, too ill to see anyone. But I had slipped in to her room the moment I woke, to wriggle down beside her for my morning cuddle, and a sugar lump dunked in tea that she would give me on a spoon from her tea-in-bed tray. I knew that she was not in bed, and the bed, smooth, flat, and cold had not been slept in. My head full of Grimm's Fairy Tales about wicked step-relations, and church talk about the wickedness of lying, I was horrified, and terrified. My terror lasted only as long as it takes a train from London to reach the end of England; just one day from waking up till early evening, but it has stayed with me vividly to the present day.
At dusk there was someone at the door. Someone told me, "Your mother is here," and I raced out in the darkness, and flung myself weeping, into the newcomer's arms. I was blurting out between tears that they were lying to me, that Granny had gone away and nobody would say….
"My God," said my mother, "Has nobody told the child?" At which my grandfather, appearing at the top of the stairs, said in a choked voice, "Is that Patsy?"
and put the lights on; and I saw that I was holding hard to someone whose face was wet with tears, clinging to my mother, and that I could not remember her at all.
I came home to London the following day. It was a strange sort of homecoming. There was thick snow on the ground; I had never seen snow, which seldom lies on the temperate, ocean-windswept ground of the far south-west of England. And in the London blackout I didn't exactly see it the night I came home; I just stumbled around it, and then when the door was opened, glimpsed it like a thick dirty quilt lying on the drive and steps. The house was strange to me; my parents had bought it while I was away. It was large and comfortable enough, an ordinary suburban semidetached house with a long garden, but in the war people couldn't paint, decorate, make themselves comfortable, or not easily, and the previous owners had painted it dark cream with brown doors and windows. There was a room for me, all my own and lushly furnished, but the worst surprise was that the house had strangers in it, quite settled strangers, treating it as their own home.
And that first night back I lay awake listening to the clanging sounds, like dustbins rolling round the night sky, made by German rockets falling somewhere, a little distance off. Everyone had given up trying to get into shelters. Instead we had a number chalked on the gatepost—the number of people sleeping in the house—and we each wore a brass disc about the size of a quarter, tied to our wrist, with a number on it. ZKDN/74/8 was mine.
The strangers in the house were my mother's adopted sister and her son, a shy and solemn boy the same age as me, and they were the first of my mother's relatives to get out of Burma, and home to England. Some of them—most of them, I think—had literally walked through the jungle to cross into India, bringing with them only what they could carry, and being glad to escape with their lives. Obviously, in bombed London they simply came to live with my mother; one set of them after another. Obviously, they were full of foreign and strange ideas, and it took them time to understand that they would have to work, that they would not have servants, that the world they were living in was not like the one they had been thrown out of by the Japanese.
Doris and her son Adrian, the first two, were, in fact—puzzled as I was at their presence—much the easiest to get on with. Doris was a sharp-tongued, intelligent woman, who always treated me as an equal, and is still, after many years of my adult life, a friend. And I think she was glad for Adrian to have some company his own age. He, I think, keenly felt himself to be an outsider, and played the prince with us, by showing us, and sharing with us, a large tin of sugar lumps which was in his mother's luggage, hidden in the attic. It is impossible to imagine, now, what wealth that tin seemed to contain! Of course, we did not gobble it up; reverently we received the lumps, one at a time, as gifts from Adrian. I think we had only the vaguest idea that they were not his to give us. It took many weeks before all the sugar was gone, and then we forgot about it, and began to use strips of aluminum foil with which the garden was showered like ticker tape every night, as presents or offerings between ourselves. The silver strips were to baffle enemy radar.
But the day came, in some crisis, when Doris offered my mother the sugar hidden in her luggage. Adrian, of course, could not escape blame; he was the only person apart from his mother who had known it was there. But nobody believed he could have eaten it all by himself, and he was pressed very hard to say who had eaten it with him, and share the punishment. With awesome nobility, Adrian claimed he had eaten every single lump himself.
"But Adrian, you don't even like sugar!" his mother pointed out, and we realised with dismay that it was true; Adrian had given the stuff to us, and never eaten his share. Still he stuck to his story, and took the punishment. He was confined to his room all day with nothing to eat. By stealth we fed him scraps, weeping with gratitude. Adrian's heroic action reappears, changed to suit the story, in Goldengrove, written a quarter of a century later. But it deserved to be remembered.
I for one, remembered him when he and his mother found somewhere to live, and moved out, to be followed by more of my mother's relatives, families of them, taking over the attics, and sharing meals with us, and somehow, always sitting in the fireside chair when my father got in from work, and not offering to move for him. Even after all this time I shall not name them. And I do, now, understand a lot more.
For it cannot have been easy for them. My mother's family had a background extremely different from my father's. She came of a family half Irish, and half aristocratic French. My French great-grandfather had run away from home—rumour had it because he was a third son, and third sons were destined for the Church—and made his fortune selling ice in the tropics; he founded the Rangoon Ice and Mineral Water Company. My relatives had led a wild colonial life, wealthy, waited on hand and foot by native servants, driving fast cars, throwing parties, doing amateur dramatics, and quarrelling picturesquely with each other.
I suppose someone must have run the ice factory, but none of the family seemed to my father to have done a day's work in their lives, and certainly they found life in wartime London, or come to that, any-time London, a severe shock, and if it took them time to come to terms with sudden poverty, and realise that they could not, because of my mother's loving heart, simply live indefinitely supported by my father, well, the adult I have now become would understand very well the terrible disorientation, and the nerves worn ragged by hardships of war which they were then suffering.
But at the time they caused terrible disruptions of our family life. There was the uproar over Mrs. Smith, for example. Mrs. Smith was my mother's charlady, and friend. She sat at table with us and shared the midday meal, and her children ran around the garden and playroom with us, simply because it had never entered my mother's head that they shouldn't. But one of my back-from-Burma relatives, horrified that she should be asked to sit down with a servant, made unforgivable remarks on the subject of ration books, as a result of which Mrs. Smith, though she went on working for my mother, and loving her dearly, never sat down again to share a meal with us.
But from my point of view still worse, the home-from-Burma brigade treated me with pointed dislike. Far from enjoying argument, and encouraging contribu-
tions, they thought it impudent for children to disagree with adults, and especially dislikeable in girls. Reading all the time was priggish, speaking up was pushy … they deliberately preferred my pretty younger sister, who smiled and flirted, and sat on her uncles' knees, as little girls often do, and set themselves to correct what they saw as unfairness in the way the two of us were treated. This seems to me now a kind of craziness. There are six years between my sister and me. When I was twelve, she was six. By the time she was twelve, I was eighteen. How could it ever have been right to treat us the same? How could it ever have been reasonable for us to have the same bedtime? But, reasonable or not, that is how they felt, and I found myself slapped down sixty times a day for being what my father and grandfather encouraged me to be.
The only good result to emerge from all this was my better appreciation of my mother. My mother protected me as far as she could, while we all struggled along under the same roof. She told me to keep on reading and talking and take no notice. So that, seeing how unlike she was from her brothers and their wives, I began to see beneath her gentle and kind manner to her considerable strength of character. She was an intelligent woman, grossly undereducated. She had been sent to the sort of fashionable convent where girls learned French and manners and sewing, while her brothers were sent home to England to be properly educated. Nobody could say that the education of the boys had been very effective. My mother resented the unfairness of it, and all her life she was determined that her daughters should have the equal chances she had not had herself.
I look back now with great interest at this earliest part of my life. I can remember it in considerable detail, and as soon as I begin to think about those days I remember more and more, so that I could fill entire books with rambling memories. I would have much more difficulty remembering other, much more recent periods. The children I talk to nowadays are very interested in the Second World War. They think it must have been a time of excitement and danger, whereas it was actually dreadfully boring. There was nothing to do. The cinemas were closed, the swimming pool was closed, the blackout made it dangerous to go out after dark—it was months before as many people were killed by enemy action as were killed by cars with blacked-out headlights on roads with no street lights! Television was closed down, and we were before the age of pop music directed at young people on the radio. There was only reading; and how we read! Not of course, new children's books—paper was rationed, and there weren't any; just the rows and rows of classics on grandfather's shelves. It didn't matter whether we understood them; it was less boring to read them anyway than to stop reading!
I remember, in short, a time of discomfort and gloom, and, above all, upheaval. I'm sure you can imagine, from what I have written above, what a disturbed sort of time it was to grow up in. It was full of abrupt changes; the whole world was unreliable, all the way from the "aunt"—a friend of my grandmother's—who promised me a doll from Italy, and then got killed in an air raid before she produced it, to coming home from school never knowing who would be living in the house, or if my own bedroom would be just for me, or full of other people … above all never knowing whether it was good and clever to give voice to my opinions, or pushy and priggish; not knowing from one day to the next what sort of behaviour would be expected of me.
Yet in the long run I have benefited greatly from all this. I protected myself. I learned not to care what other people think. I would say what I liked, read what I was interested in, go on my own way, and ignore what the invading hoards of aunts and uncles thought, about me, or about anything else. I knew that my parents and grandparents loved me. They loved us all, though we were all different. If my other relatives disliked me, well, I despised them. I thought them ignorant, overbearing, and silly. I realise that this doesn't make me seem very likeable, and I think I wasn't. But in the long
run everyone has to march to their own tune, think, act, and choose for themselves. The adult attitude to other people's opinions which my childhood stamped on me is by and large a source of strength. Nowadays I like to listen to what other people think. I am interested in other people. But the least suggestion that one might alter one's own actions because of what other people think has me fighting mad in twenty seconds flat. I simply don't care. It is not what others expect of me, but what I expect of myself that governs me. I do try to be kind and polite. But I have never spent a moment's effort trying to be conventional or respectable! This kind of robust independence comes in handy if you are a woman, and you want to be a high-achiever, or an intellectual of any kind. I hope the world is easier nowadays for women, but certainly it was a far more difficult place when I was younger.
For at school, too, it was hard to work out what was expected of me. I was sent to a small Catholic convent, since my parents were nominally Catholic. It was supposed to be a "Grammar School," though nobody had ever gone from it to a university in its entire history—it was for girls only, of course. And Christ had never said "Blessed are the clever …" The nuns who taught me were suspicious of me. They liked girls who worked very hard, not those who found it easy. I daydreamed my time away, read under the desk, passed my exams, all to a continuous lecture about how I ought to try harder at sports, ought to pay attention, ought to read less, brush my hair more often … they were training us to be nuns or wives, they best liked people who came second or third in class, they thought it odd, and dangerous, to want a university degree. My year was a great shock to them. Six of us stayed on into the upper form; six of us did A-level exams. Three of us got university places. Mine was at Oxford, and caused the nuns to offer a mass for my soul!
Rather curiously, the nuns' attitude to boyfriends, lipstick, the Saturday night dances at the youth club, and the excitement caused by the few tennis matches or debate with the boys' Grammar School was eagerly benign. This didn't help me much, for I wasn't much good at having boyfriends. I liked to talk, not dance. My taste in clothes was truly awful. The others joked about me quite a bit. Nevertheless, I did get a boyfriend in the end. His name was Michael, and he was rather wild and Irish. He claimed to be a member of the IRA, which in those calmer times I had never heard of. And he too preferred talking to dancing. There was a pop song in the charts the year I met Michael called "Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed." I was fifteen and three-quarters when a school debate threw us together. I set myself to keep him at bay till my birthday, and my school friends all had bets on whether or not I would make it. I did. It didn't strike any of us, I'm afraid, that this might be unkind. The nearest shave was on a moonlit walk home from a Saturday dance, when we stopped, and leaned over a gate together for sometime. He put an arm round me, and I thought I would lose the bet. "You know, Jill, you look almost beautiful in the dark!" he whispered. I collapsed in howls of laughter. He hadn't any sense of humour, however, and was mortally offended. By the time my birthday came he had recovered enough to send me a single yellow rose, in a florist's box. But he didn't last very long thereafter. When we had our parting quarrel I bought an ice-cream, I remember, to cheer myself up, and it worked! True love is harder to heal!
I suppose going to college marks the end of childhood. I enjoyed myself vastly at Oxford, made friends, talked late into the night, and even worked sometimes, and work included lectures by both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.
Tolkien. The subject of the lectures and tutorials was always literature or philology—we wouldn't have dared ask those great men about their own work!—but the example they set by being both great and serious scholars, and writers of fantasy and books for children was not lost on me. I was not, by Oxford standards, among the clever, and I had to stop dreaming and start to work! I met my husband while I was at Oxford, and was already engaged when I finished my degree, and got a teaching job in a school. I liked teaching; I hated being a teacher. That is, I liked the company of young people, I liked discussing books with them, reading what they wrote for me, trying to get them through exams … I hated it when they all felt they had to duck out of sight of me on the bus home because they weren't wearing school hats, or when they were embarrassed at meeting me in the shops with their boyfriends. I didn't teach long; I got married in my second year as a teacher, and eighteen months later was expecting a child. Just before my son, Edmund, was born, I left teaching, with a washable baby's shawl as a goodbye present from my A-level class.
I was bored frantic. I went nearly crazy, locked up alone with a howling baby all day and all night. Edmund had a stomach problem that made him desperately slow to feed at the breast, and liable to vomit up the lot dramatically a few seconds later. Dramatically is no exaggeration—it used to hit the opposite wall! He and I and all the bedclothes in the house soon smelt of sick, mountains of washing piled up in the house, however hard I tried the baby was hungry all the time, and neither he nor I had any sleep for months. Doctors and clinic nurses alike warned me solemnly that only breast feeding would do, especially for a baby with stomach problems, so, naturally, nobody could help me, or get me even a few hours' rest. My husband, out at work all day, came home to study for professional exams. Nobody talked to me, for days on end. Finally a moment came when I realised that I would soon—before the day was out—crack up and be taken to a mental hospital. Would that help the baby? I wondered. Somebody else would be feeding him, anyway. A little spark of anger grew within me. I went out, leaving him, howling as usual, alone in the house, and bought at the chemist's on the corner, a baby's feeding bottle, a tin of dried milk, and a rubber teat. I went home, read the instructions, made up a feed, and sat down with the baby, ignoring my tight breasts, and gave him the bottle. He found the rubber teat easier; he gulped the lot down rapidly, and fell immediately contentedly asleep.
While he was asleep I thought. I thought about my own situation more intently than I ever remember doing, before or since. As plants need water and light, as the baby needed milk, I needed something intellectual, cheap, and quiet. I hauled out of the cupboard an old portable typewriter that my brother had given me, on leaving for America. I began to write a book.
It was a children's book. It never occurred to me to write any other kind.
Until the moment I began to write I did not know that I was a writer. I had vaguely wanted to be one, when at school, just because books were so important to me that I thought of writers as people think of doctors … but I had not tried to write, and I had not realised that I was a writer. But when I started on that battered typewriter, muffled as far as possible by being put on a folded blanket on the desk—I didn't want to wake the baby—I suddenly came clear to myself. This moment is a great one in your life; it will come to you, surely, sooner than it did to me—I am a late developer! When it comes, you will recognize it, or, rather you will suddenly recognize yourself.
I realised why the Burma mob had so disliked me, so tried to squash me … I had been watching them, weighing them up, deciding what I thought of them … writers watch all the time. You have to learn to do it tactfully. The best story about this aspect of being a writer I ever heard was told to me by an American friend, about a writer she knew who fell down the stairs of her apartment block, four floors of them, injuring herself badly, getting hospitalised for weeks. But as she went, bouncing, rolling, tipping head over heels, breaking this bone and that, she found herself watching herself go, and making a mental note what it felt like … "Ah!" she was saying to herself!
I realised why I had seemed too clever at school, too intellectual, and then not very bright at college, far too emotional. This particular combination, moderate brain power and strong feelings, is just what I needed now! Suddenly it all made sense. But why was it a children's book I was writing? That too makes sense to me now, though I took a year or two longer to work it out.
If you go around asking people for the story of their lives, it is surprising how many of them begin by telling you about their teenage times; how they left college, or went to college against their parents' wishes, how they wouldn't take that job, or come in by midnight, or so on …. Most people's story of themselves begins with a conflict of some kind which taught them that they were different from others around them. If your first life-conflict hit you when you were fifteen, then you tend to think of childhood as very unimportant and boring. If you become a writer the hero of your book will be fifteen, or older. Most writers, now and in the past, have written about young adults, when you come to think of it. Charles Dickens is an exception; a lot of his heroes begin as children in the opening parts of his books. It is very well known that Dickens was sent to work in a blacking factory when he was only twelve; that he hated it, ran away, and was sent back….
The epoch in life in which people first meet a crisis, in which they first begin to define themselves, their own needs, feelings, opinions, is the epoch which they will always feel the most important. The upheavals and changes and conflicts which the war brought to my life mean that for me childhood is the important and interesting stage of life. I like to write about children as characters, and I like to write for children as readers.
The book I was writing when all these grand thoughts occurred to me, was, unfortunately, a dreadfully bad book. It had twelve chapters of equal length, with a different bit of historical background in each one. It was about England in the reign of King Alfred. I finished it and sent it off to Oxford University Press. When, months later, I sent a letter of enquiry after it, it came back with a printed rejection slip. Bravely, weeping over the sticky label, I readdressed it and sent it off again, this time to Macmillan, where, by a stroke of enormous luck, there was a young man called Kevin Crossley-Holland newly installed as children's book editor. He, like me, had an Oxford English degree which had made him as nuts about the Anglo-Saxons as I was. He invited me out to lunch, and advised me not to publish my book, as it would damage my professional future. Instead he offered me fifty pounds for an option on my next book.
I was dazzled! To think that I had such a thing as a professional future! Fifty pounds! Enough for a better typewriter! I set to work joyfully on Hengest's Tale, a gory epic retold out of fragments of Beowulf and I stopped work only for a fortnight—between chapter three and chapter four—when my second child, my daughter Margaret, was born.
Hengest's Tale was my first published book.
And I have never forgotten the difference it made to be able to say, to others, certainly, but above all, to myself, "I am a writer."
Any writer will tell you how difficult second books are. But I was very lucky. I switched on the television set one gloomy afternoon, and saw a film of the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk. Newsreel footage, quite famous, of soldiers wading up to their armpits in the sea, holding their rifles above their heads, standing in line in the water to climb into little boats from England. Of course, I couldn't remember the newsreel; though I did remember the Little Jill. And right in the front of the picture one of the little boats was bobbing, while a soldier tried to haul himself on board. And at the tiller of the boat was a small boy—a strikingly young boy, maybe thirteen or so. I drew my breath, and looked closer, and as I did so the program moved on and the picture vanished from the screen. I knew we had been desperate to rescue our soldiers from France, and had used leaky old tubs and Thames steamers, and tiny private yachts and dinghies—but had we let children go right into battle to help? I was amazed, and duly went to look it up. And what a story I found! A boy of fourteen had been allowed to take a boat across the Channel four times in one day; they wouldn't let his mother take a turn, but they let the boy go back, in the evening, for that fourth trip. Incredible! The subject for my second book was unavoidable.
Of course memory wasn't much good, since I had been only three in 1940; I settled down to read every issue of the Times from the outbreak of war till Dunkirk, and of course to look at the illustrated magazines with drawings and photographs of which there were many before the times of television. And I talked to people who had adult memories of the time. My publishers were uncertain about the book; the Second World War was a new subject on the children's list. And Kevin had been replaced as children's editor by Marni Hodgkin, who was to be for many years my beloved first friend and supporter, and whose criticism taught me my trade, but whose first reaction on meeting me, and hearing me babble about Dunkirk was distinctly cagey. But The Dolphin Crossing has always been popular in England. It is still in print and still selling after all these years, and it boosted my confidence greatly.
In fact it seemed a shame to me to waste all the hard work that had gone into researching it; so I next thought
that very little more reading newspapers would bring me through to the London Blitz, which I really could remember a bit about; and that is how Fireweed came to be written, from thrift over work! And work was becoming rather a problem, for by this time my third child, Clare, was born, and I was dealing with three children under four, and with no help of any kind. I have never had a lot of sympathy with people who tell me they would like to write a book if they had the time; I know that you always have the time for what you really want to do. I certainly was very busy with my three babies, but when I began writing Fireweed I was quickly swept away. I just couldn't stop writing it, and the whole project took only four months, from beginning to end; the most profitable four months of my life. It was Fireweed that really made my name as a writer; it got marvellous reviews, in the United States as well as in England, and has never been out of print. Some time after I had finished writing it I was clearing out a bookcase, and I found a little paperback book which my father had given me, called British War Artists. It showed drawings by famous artists—Henry Moore was one of them—of the fantastic scenes of the London Blitz—the people sleeping on Underground stations, the ruins, and the fires, and suchlike. I flicked the pages; I had completely forgotten the book. And suddenly there was a picture from Fireweed: some air-raid wardens digging a body out of a pile of rubble. In the foreground, on the left-hand side, a young boy stands watching. I was amazed. I had caught my subconscious mind at work, for I certainly had not realised where the idea had come from; I really had thought only of the sensible idea of reusing all the research!
This whole question of where ideas for books come from is very intriguing. I suppose, "Where do you get your ideas?" is the question most often asked by the children I meet. I think they are hoping for useful guidance on how to get ideas for their English homework, and I am a bit ashamed to be so hopeless at helping. But I don't really know where I get ideas from; each one in turn seems like an accident. It's a question of being on the lookout for the kind of accident that makes the idea for a book.
There is always some work involved, of course; it doesn't just drop out of a tree and hit you like Newton's apple—and indeed an awful lot of apples must have dropped out of trees without making anybody think of the law of gravity! Newton was ready for that accident. It's a sort of long-distance daydreaming, the sort of thing which got me into trouble in school.
But I can say that a large part of it is giving loving attention to places; not necessarily beautiful places, just anywhere. Most of my books really have begun with thinking about the place they are set in. A good example is A Chance Child. We will jump a bit forward, and go to a time in my life when my children were in their early teens, and John Rowe Townsend's were in their later teens, and the two families shared a canal boat, a holiday cruiser, sixty-five-feet long, and six-feet-ten wide, with nine bunks, and a kitchen. Steering this thing along England's narrow waterways and getting it through seven-foot locks was everyone's favorite holiday activity; but the canals were built to bring coal and grain and bricks to city factories, and although for most of their length they go through open countryside, they also go right through the dirtiest parts of cities. One morning I was steering the boat—we called her Wild Thyme—through the middle of Birmingham. Everyone else was playing Monopoly in the cabin. I was gazing, horrified, at mile upon mile of derelict industry, stinking and blazing and hissing factories, dumps and wastelands … "How did it GET like this?" I wondered.
So when I got home I began to read up a bit about the Industrial Revolution. Very quickly my interest shifted from being about what it did to the landscape to what it did to the children of the time, who worked in factories and mines and workshops without any limit to hours of labour, or any thought for anyone's safety. I read voraciously for about a year before I actually began to write A Chance Child, and while I was reading the story of Creep was gradually taking shape in my mind.
The canals gave me two books; The Huffler also came from the experience of cruising on Wild Thyme.
As you would expect, having read this far, that lovely place, St. Ives in Cornwall, has also given me books, including those I think of with the most affection—Goldengrove and Unleaving. These two books are very unlike the adventure war books with which I began. They are about a sensitive teenage girl, called Madge. I was thirty-five when I began to write Goldengrove, and I had not been back to St. Ives since the year I was eight, when my grandmother died.
I began to write from memory, and I assumed that my memory was a bit unreliable; somebody told me there weren't any trees on the cliff tops, where I remembered them, and my mother told me very emphatically that I was wrong to remember a cleft in the rocks called Godrevy, where the lighthouse stands. So I thought it would be better to work from memory, and pretend it was an imaginary place. And I couldn't do it. Imaginary people in real places is what I need. After a while I was stuck. The plot needed the children to buy a can of paint. And I couldn't remember any shops at all. My grandmother's house, and the cliffs and beaches were as clear as daylight in my mind, but no shops. So I bought a train ticket, and went back.
I went alone, out of season, and I bought a book to read on the train. I bought Quentin Bell's Life of Virginia Woolf, and from it I learned, as I went, that Virginia Woolf had spent her childhood holidays in St. Ives, and that To the Lighthouse—that book of hers that I loved so much, although it says it is happening on Skye, was really set in St. Ives. Her lighthouse and my lighthouse were the same one; and I remembered at once where "Talland House," the house her family rented for the summers, was—it was close to my grandmother's house, and shared the same view.
This gave me a very considerable emotional shock; Goldengrove was half-written, in a style somewhat like Virginia Woolf's; well, all in the present tense, anyway, because that was what had felt right to me. Now I knew why; I had caught my subconscious mind at it again, as when I found the book of war pictures. I was quite scared. If I had brought the manuscript with me, I might have torn it up.
I will always remember getting off the train late in the afternoon. A faint, late autumn sun was shining, and the sea was breaking briskly on the golden beaches just below the station. Behind me, all round my grandmother's house, and the other houses standing on the cliff crest, were trees; the trees I had remembered so clearly, and called the golden grove—and far across the bay was the lighthouse, standing on a rocky outcrop, and the rocks were cleft—I could see the white foam burst of breaking waves dividing the island. A great happiness engulfed me. Some of the happiness was a long-lasting aftermath of the married happiness of my grandmother and my stepgrandfather, who were, after all, newlyweds when they looked after me. Some of it was like finding treasure—the knowledge that my entranced memories of that magically beautiful place were hard and clear and truthful, and more accurate than the memories of other people who had thought to correct me.
The next morning, I walked in a patchwork town. I would be in a street where I could remember every detail, down to the cracks in the paving stones, and the shape of the shadows cast by houses across the lanes; and then I would turn the corner and find myself in a place which I had never seen before in my life. Within a few minutes I had met the man on the quay who remembered that I had a little brother … he took me out in his open boat, to go round Godrevy Island, past the rocks and crags and seals, but not to land. The light is remote controlled now, and the solitary keepers long since gone. I found the paint shop, easily. When I went home, three days later, to my manuscript I didn't have to change one word, not one, of what I had written from memory, and I defy anyone to guess how far I had actually written when I made the journey back! The old and the new memories fused perfectly, it seems to me.
Places. So important to me. I went to Greece to find the landscapes for a classical historical novel, written for adults, called Farewell, Great King, but when I got there I found Byzantine things, the marvellous mountaintop deserted city of Mistra above all, and the result of that was The Emperor's Winding Sheet. And there are more places singing to me; I haven't written anything yet for my love of New England. But the long-distance daydreaming about it has begun.
When I look back and wonder about where I get my ideas from, I can see another thing which I couldn't see while I was working. A Parcel of Patterns, for example, which is about the Plague in a village called Eyam, didn't start with a visit to Eyam. It started growing in my mind, and wanting to be written from the moment when John Rowe Townsend mentioned the historical story to me. All the villagers, voluntarily, had quarantined themselves to save the surrounding villages from the Plague. And that reminded me somehow, of air-raid shelters. Most of the people in the shelters behaved very bravely and well. Very ordinary people. The milkman was wonderful at making people share their blankets and sandwiches, and calming them down if they were frightened. A panic would have been dangerous. In the morning, when the all-clear sounded, Mike was just the milkman again. I am not interested in writing about great heroes, just ordinary people in difficult times. Fireweed and The Emperor's Winding Sheet, both about cities under siege, and A Parcel of Patterns, are probably all about Mike the milkman, really, if I can catch my subconscious at work!
But my most recent children's book starts with a place again. By and by the expense and trouble of that canal boat outweighed the fun, and we sold it, and bought instead, still shared between John and myself; a little cottage to work in, in peace. Somehow the older my children grew the harder it got to work at home! We didn't have enough money for a cottage in a beauty spot, so we landed in a fen village near Cambridge, on flat, flat land that floods in winter and attracts great flocks of Bewick's swans. At first I thought it dreadfully bleak and bare and depressing … then gradually I saw how strange and beautiful it is. Our cottage is a row house, and two doors down was an old man who was gruff and kind and friendly … it didn't take long for me to wonder what a child would feel who had to move house, and who landed just where we had done; and the result was Gaffer Samson's Luck.
I don't know where I'll go next. That's part of the endless fun.
For being a writer is fun. It is a very pleasant and rewarding kind of life, but it is not easy to write about!
The actual writing is basically very dull. A writer spends long hours alone, sitting at a typewriter, and if you think of words rattling onto paper very fast you have the wrong picture; little short bursts, with very long silences for thought is far more like it. The best possible output for me is a thousand words a day. If you could watch me working, most of the time I wouldn't even be typing, just mooching. Of course, there is some interest. These days I have a word-processor to work on, and a very nice photocopier, with which I can put pictures on my letters. Like most writers I love stationery; these days a stationer's affects me as a sweet shop used to do just after the war when we were all starved of chocolate. I treat myself to pretty folders, coloured banks of paper, shiny pink pencils, envelopes with windows for the word-processed address to show through, rubber stamps, rainbow boxes of paper-clips, and so on endlessly. They don't help me to write, but I like them so much! And they do help with the nightmare about white paper; I sometimes wake up with this nightmare, that I'm typing very fast and frantically, and the paper is coming up blank….
I don't earn a great deal of money, but I have a very privileged life. In the first place, all the time my children have been growing up I have been able to look after them, to be there when they come in from school, to cook for them, and cherish them, and at the same time to work at my chosen career. That is a huge benefit. Then there is the general niceness of being in charge of oneself, and so being able to go out when the sun shines, and continue thinking under the cherry tree, whenever it feels right. And then there is, after all, some excitement. When you need to visit far-off places in order to write about them, for instance. I have, after all, been twice to Greece, and twice to Turkey in order to be able to describe the settings for Children of the Fox and The Emperor's Winding Sheet.
Whatever I'm interested in at the time, I am able to pursue. When I was writing A Chance Child, which has a scene down a coal mine, I realised that it would be a help if I had ever been down a coal mine myself. Or, come to that, if I had ever seen a working cotton mill. And one or two letters got me the invitations I needed. The mine was very surprising; not a bit like what I had expected. I thought it might have been claustrophobic, but it wasn't really, because it moved all the time—the roof cracking and falling in as they shifted the jacks along the coalface. I must be one of very few women who has ever crawled on hands and knees, with a lamp in her hat, along 800 yards of "scufflings." It was the safety precautions which made the mine feel dangerous; they made us wear little brass identity discs, with a number; our names were against the numbers in the book at the head of the lift shaft;—I knew just what those were for!
The people in the cotton mill had long memories. Everything was fine now, they told me, "but when I were a lad…." and they gave me many of the details I needed to know.
The most rewarding thing of all has been the way my books have opened up America to me. In 1976 a book called Unleaving won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Prize. My friend Ethel Heins, who was then the editor of the Horn Book, rang me up, and told me the good news. She asked me to write an acceptance speech, and send it to her to read aloud at the prize-giving dinner.
I was blowed if I would! Instead I splashed out the prize money on an airline ticket, and gave my speech myself. So I landed in America for just one week at a week's notice.
Britishers either love or loathe the United States; I love it, or, at least, I love as much of it as I have seen, which is mostly New England. I was something of a new girl at first; I remember that I asked a New York taxi driver what that building was as we drove past Grand Central Station, and he said, "Lady, where you bin all your life?" But I have now visited the States often enough to feel very much at home, and I have nearly stopped asking silly questions. I have been invited back repeatedly, always, after that first time, with my friend John Rowe Townsend, and I have become Permanent Visiting Fellow of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston.
In both England and America the best thing about being a writer is the friends it enables you to make. John Rowe Townsend, with whom I share my life as far as possible, got in touch with me originally because of something I had written; and as time has gone by I have won the friendship of many other writers and readers and book-lovers. I feel lucky in this, beyond my deserts. A special pleasure of being a children's writer is in getting letters from readers all over the world; I bet children's writers get more, and more interesting letters than writers for adults!
A writer is what I shall be as long as there is a daydream in my head, and I have strength to sit up and type.
Jill Paton Walsh contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA in 2007:
The year 1986, in which my original autobiography was published, turned out to be a crucial year for me. In that year my youngest child, my daughter Clare, left home for university, and I too left home, to live with John Rowe Townsend in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge. We asked the Estate Agent to find us something within twenty minutes of the Cambridge University Library, and so it was. This great change in my private life was matched by a shift in my professional life, for it was the year in which Lapsing, my first novel for adults, was published.
When I finished my autobiography I still wrote of myself, and thought of myself, as a children's author, although I always maintained, and I still believe, that any book good enough to offer to children must be good enough for an adult reader. Lapsing was an autobiographical subject—it's about a young woman at Oxford, getting into a complex love triangle, and leaving the Catholic Church as a result. It felt very personal, and in many ways it kept me from writing adult novels for the first twenty years of my working life. Somehow I always knew it would be my first subject as an adult writer, and I needed, it turned out, a quarter of a century to distance myself enough to see the story in it, and to write it without tears. Once Lapsing was published I began to write alternately for adults and for children. I wrote short books for younger readers—picking up from Gaffer Samson's Luck.
An unplanned and unexpected change, perhaps as a result of the arrival, by and by, of a sequence of John's grandchildren, to whom I was a loved—and I hope loving—wicked stepmother, was that I became able to write picture books. Of course I don't mean (worse luck!) that I was suddenly able to draw and paint, but I had a sequence of good ideas for stories that could be told in pictures. I can remember exactly when the first of these ideas arrived in my head. It was during a Children's Literature New England conference taking place in Cambridge, which John and I had helped to organize. It was going beautifully, with wonderful speeches, and wonderful weather, and I came home very excited and extremely exhausted, and sat in an armchair doing nothing. This is something I very seldom do. While I sat slumped and idle, I thought about John's little granddaughter Madeleine, whom I had been cuddling and playing with very recently. I thought how miraculously beautiful she was, and how full of love and joy she made the adults around her feel—she was a new wonder of the world! I should say that she is not alone in that; all babies are beautiful and full of hope. But it was Madeleine who caused the thought to occur to me then.
The thought begins: I have been to Mount Desert Island, far away, and seen the shape of a great whale, rolling in the deep, but I have never, no never, seen anything as tremendous as you! And with some nice elaboration that is the line of When Grandma Came. The illustrator was Sophie Williams.
I very greatly enjoyed writing picture books, because they are collaborations, very unlike the lonely work of writing a novel. My contribution was to make a story that would break nicely at each turn of the page, not stopping as a sentence does with a stop, but pausing as a sentence does with … and fitting exactly onto a
thirty-two page dummy book, made of folded A4. Each page should have a sentence on it needing a different picture from the page before. Then the illustrator gets to work. When the pictures are ready I can pare down the text to nearly nothing, removing anything that was told in the picture. You don't need adjectives in a picture book! As well as myself and an illustrator, there would be an editor and a book designer. When the team works well the process is very satisfying.
Until 1997 I continued to write short chapter books and picture books for children alongside adult writing, but the landscape of my inner world was slowly changing, and the ability to write for children gradually left me. I am very sorry about this, and would gladly welcome another idea for a children's book if one came to me. I have often asked myself why I lost it, and there are several possible reasons. The most obvious one is that I was no longer much in company with children. My own children were grown up. John has seven grandchildren and I now have three, but none of his live very near us, and mine are in Australia. Love can cross worlds and oceans, but the everyday rub-along contact with children, which means that you know what they are like without having to think about it, doesn't. But perhaps the real reason has more to do with the growing distance between my own childhood and my present self. The world I was a child in is now very far away, and a lot of things that shape childhoods have changed beyond recognition. I feel that the world of a child now is partly a foreign country to me. I don't expect the inner world of children has changed as much as their outer world. Hope and fear and boredom and puzzlement at adults is probably pretty much what it always was, but that inner world of childhood is now distant to me for two reasons. One is simply that it is a long time ago. I was twenty-six when I started to write, and I am nearly seventy now. It makes a difference! But the other reason is that I have written now so much. I have quarried my memories of childhood for over thirty books for children, and I have used up most of the gold. Since 1997, when my last picture book was published, When I was Little like You, illustrated by Stephen Lambert, I have written only for adults.
Next after Lapsing I wrote a novel based on Mozart's opera Cosi fan Tutti, which has always annoyed me by condemning the women for infidelity, while excusing the men. I had a lot of fun with it, and it got very good reviews, but it didn't sell particularly well, so it laid the foundation for the big crisis which met my next book, Knowledge of Angels. I have always thought that Knowledge of Angels was the book I was born to write.
It is about a child found above the snowline in the mountains having apparently been reared by wolves. The churchmen into whose hands she falls have her taught to speak in isolation, so that they can find out by asking her the answer to a question which interests them—is knowledge of God inborn, or must it be taught? Incredibly, this really did happen in eighteenth-century France to a child called "The Maid of Challons." I should tell you at once that Knowledge of Angels is not in any way a children's book. Nor is it a young adult book, being very bleak and full of intellectual argument. But ironically a lot of young adults have read it, as I will explain in a minute. Knowledge of Angels was published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin, but in England it failed to find a publisher. In the end, when the U.S. edition was about to be printed Peter Davison, the U.S. editor, offered to print a few extra copies, otherwise my English friends would never read it.
John said "**** them all, we'll do it ourselves," and we rang Peter back and said "Can you make that a thousand?" and, amazingly, he did. His thousand copies had a new title page stripped in, with a publisher's name: Green Bay Publications, which John and I had made up for our tiny publishing enterprises, because in the Bible the wicked "grow and flourish like the green bay tree." After we had made this decision our friends Linda and Robert Yeatman, who at that time had a tiny imprint doing country-life nonfiction books came to our
aid, asked to join in the enterprise by sharing costs, risks, and profits (we didn't think there would be any!) and insisted that we needed a PR firm.
The fact that we were doing it ourselves made a good story, and the publicity firm did very well for us. The book began flying out of the shops, and soon we needed to reprint. We sold paperback rights and foreign rights, and the book reached the shortlist for the Booker Prize that year. Three years later it was set for the English school exams called A-levels that sixteen-and seventeen year olds sit. It has sold a lot of copies, and briefly made me very famous.
During the time when he was trying in vain to place it with British publishers, my agent began to worry, I think, in case I starved. He wondered if I would like to do what many others have done in a tight corner—take to crime. He meant writing it, of course, not perpetrating it! "There are still readers for old-fashioned detective stories," he said. "You might find it fun." There flashed through my mind a sequence of half-remembered detective stories. Joking with myself I proposed a dead body found in a locked library. I considered a gallery of amateur detectives—I don't know anything about police procedures—and discovered that I really disliked the gun-toting, good-as-a-tough-man female detectives I had read, and also the brutal forensic approach. I settled on a gentle, observant woman who works as a college nurse. She has time for people, they confide in her, and that's how she comes to know the crucial details that solve the mystery. She is Imogen Quy—her initials are IQ!—and I am very fond of her.
There are now four "Imogen Quy" detective novels, and there will be more, by and by.
What with the fuss about Knowledge of Angels, and the fact that I was now writing detection, I was approached by the trustees of the estate of Dorothy L. Sayers, and asked if I could finish a "Lord Peter Wimsey" novel that she left unfinished at her death. This was Thrones, Dominations. The manuscript was with other Sayers papers in a collection at Wheaton College in Illinois. That meant a trip to the United States, which of course I welcomed as a chance to see old friends and visit John's daughter who was then living in Chicago. It was a daunting task to finish in 1995 a work which had been abandoned in 1936, without the join showing. But I like a challenge, and it was successful at least in covering the join—not one reader or reviewer has correctly spotted it. I am often asked where it is, but I am not telling!
I have now written a second "Wimsey" novel, A Presumption of Death, as well as two more literary novels, The Serpentine Cave and A Desert in Bohemia. The Serpentine Cave is set in St. Ives, Cornwall, the scene of my childhood, and two of my best children's books, Goldengrove, and Unleaving (since reissued in one volume as an adult title). I no longer depend on memory to write about St. Ives, because John and I have a flat there, with a view down to the town and across the bay, nearly identical to the view from my Grandmother's house, which is just a few steps further up the hill. We spend several months of the year there, very happily.
As well as all the changes in my writing life, there has been change in my private life. Antony Paton Walsh, my first husband, fell ill and died in 2003. Being after all these years free to marry without hurting anyone's feelings, John and I were married in 2004. We still share a study, and work side by side in Cambridge. We still travel a lot—I think I have crossed the Atlantic about sixty times, to work with Children's Literature New England, of which John and I are adjunct board members, or to visit friends or family. My elder daughter has become an American citizen, and lives in Alaska. And now that I have grandchildren growing up in Australia we make that long journey too. I am still writing, though more slowly than before, and instead of alternating between a children's book and an adult book, as I did for some years, I now alternate between a literary novel and a detective story.
I have had, and am still having an interesting and happy life, and I count myself lucky beyond my deserts
"Paton Walsh, Jill 1937–." Something About the Author. 2009. Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3071600061.html
"Paton Walsh, Jill 1937–." Something About the Author. 2009. Retrieved May 27, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3071600061.html
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