Cross, Gillian 1945–
Cross, Gillian 1945–
(Gillian Clare Cross)
Born December 24, 1945, in London, England; daughter of (James) Eric (a scientist and musician) and Joan (an English teacher) Arnold; married Martin Cross (an educational consultant), May 10, 1967; children: Jonathan George, Elizabeth Jane, Colman Anthony Richard, Katherine Clare. Education: Somerville College, Oxford, England, B.A. (first-class honours), 1969, M.A., 1972; University of Sussex, D.Phil., 1974. Hobbies and other interests: Playing the piano, orienteering.
Agent—Philippa Milnes-Smith, Lucas, Alexander Whitley Ltd., 14 Vernon St., London W14 0RJ, England. E-mail—[email protected].
Author of juvenile and young-adult books. Also worked as teacher, assistant to old-style village baker, office clerical assistant, and assistant to member of British Parliament.
British Society of Authors.
Carnegie highly commended book, 1982, and Guardian Award runner-up, 1983, both for The Dark behind the Curtain; American Library Association (ALA) Best Books for Young Adults designation, and Whitbread Award runner-up, both 1984, ALA Notable Book of the Year designation, 1985, and Edgar Allan Poe Award runner-up, Mystery Writers of America, 1986, all for On the Edge; Carnegie Commended designation, 1986, and ALA Best Book for Young Adults designation, 1987, both for Chartbreaker; ALA Notable Book designation, 1987, for Roscoe's Leap; Carnegie Commenda-
tion, 1988, for A Map of Nowhere; Carnegie Medal, 1990, and Parents' Choice Award, 1991, both for Wolf; Smarties Grand Prix award, and Whitbread Children's Novel Award, both 1992, both for The Great Elephant Chase.
The Runaway, illustrated by Reginald Gray, Methuen (London, England), 1979.
The Iron Way, illustrated by Tony Morris, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1979.
Revolt at Ratcliffe's Rags, illustrated by Tony Morris, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1980.
Save Our School, illustrated by Gareth Floyd, Methuen (London, England), 1981.
A Whisper of Lace, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1981.
The Dark behind the Curtain, illustrated by David Parkins, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1982.
The Mintyglo Kid, illustrated by Gareth Floyd, Methuen (London, England), 1983.
Born of the Sun, illustrated by Mark Edwards, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1984.
On the Edge, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1984, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1985.
Swimathon!, illustrated by Gareth Floyd, Methuen (London, England), 1986.
Chartbreak, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1986, published as Chartbreaker, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1987.
Roscoe's Leap, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1987.
A Map of Nowhere, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1988, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1989.
Rescuing Gloria, illustrated by Gareth Floyd, Methuen (London, England), 1989.
Twin and Super-Twin, illustrated by Maureen Bradley, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1990.
The Monster from Underground, illustrated by Peter Firmin, Heinemann (London, England), 1990, illustrated by Chris Priestley, 2002.
Gobbo the Great, illustrated by Philippe Dupasquier, Methuen (London, England), 1991.
Rent-a-Genius, illustrated by Glenys Ambrus, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1991.
Wolf, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1991.
Beware Olga!, illustrated by Arthur Robins, Walker (London, England), 1993.
The Furry Maccaloo, illustrated by Madeleine Baker, Heinemann (London, England), 1993.
The Great American Elephant Chase, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1993, published as The Great Elephant Chase, Methuen (London, England), 1993.
The Tree House, illustrated by Paul Howard, Methuen (London, England), 1994.
What Will Emily Do?, illustrated by Paul Howard, Methuen (London, England), 1994.
The Crazy Shoe Shuffle, Methuen (London, England), 1995.
Posh Watson, Walker (London, England), 1995.
New World, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1995.
The Roman Beanfest, illustrated by Linzi Henry, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1996.
Pictures in the Dark, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1996.
The Goose Girl, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Tightrope, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1999.
Down with the Dirty Danes!, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
The Treasure in the Mud, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2001.
Phoning a Dead Man, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2002, published as Calling a Dead Man, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2002.
"DEMON HEADMASTER" SERIES; FOR CHILDREN
The Demon Headmaster (also see below), illustrated by Gary Rees, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1982.
The Prime Minister's Brain, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1985.
Hunky Parker Is Watching You, illustrated by Maureen Bradley, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1994, published as The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster, Puffin (New York, NY), 1995.
The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again, Puffin (New York, NY), 1997.
The Demon Headmaster Takes Over, Puffin (New York, NY), 1998.
Beware of the Demon Headmaster, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2002.
Facing the Demon Headmaster, illustrated by Kevin Lyles, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England) 2002.
"DARK GROUND" TRILOGY; FOR CHILDREN
The Dark Ground, Dutton (New York, NY), 2004.
The Black Room, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2004, Dutton (New York, NY), 2006.
The Nightmare Game, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 2006, Dutton (New York, NY), 2007.
The "Demon Headmaster" series was adapted for British television, and was adapted as a musical published by Samuel French, 2003. Many of Cross's books have been adapted as audiobooks.
In such novels as The Dark behind the Curtain, Wolf, and Calling a Dead Man, as well as in her "Demon Headmaster" series about a sinister school principal whose ambitions include controlling both his students and the world, British writer Gillian Cross blends suspense, history, adventure, and social concerns. Not one to shy away from the darker aspects of the world, such as violence, terrorism, and political intrigue, Cross weaves such themes into her fiction for older readers, while her books for middle graders feature more light-hearted fare. A versatile author, she has also written across genres, from historical and Gothic fiction and school stories to comic novels, realistic fiction, and psychological thrillers. While her protagonists are often loners or misfits, these young men and women generally learn through experience and interaction, and grow as a result of contact—both positive and negative—with an adult world. One of England's most respected writers for children and young adults, Cross has won both the prestigious Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children's Novel Award.
Cross's first two novels reveal The Dark behind the Curtain was her ability to tackle a range of subjects and settings. The Iron Way is an historical novel set in Victorian England that focuses on the effects brought about in a small Sussex village by the arrival of the railroad and and the men who are building it. In her contemporary novel The Runaway two urban children of vastly different social backgrounds hide away together in an abandoned house. Although different, these two books demonstrate Cross's interest in history as well as the things that surface when individuals are forced to confront social, political, and ethnic differences. Reviewing The Iron Way in Booklist, Marilyn Kaye called the novel a "gripping story" about "hostility, friendship, and loyalty."
With Save Our School, Cross turned her talents to the school story, a genre that has comprised a large part of her work for middle-grade readers. In this comic novel she introduces Barny, Spag, and Clipper, characters who make return appearances in The Mintyglo Kid, Swimathon!, and Gobbo the Great. Kathy Piehl, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, commented that this series "is notable for the camaraderie it depicts across ethnic and gender lines." Clipper, a West Indian girl, is easily a match for the two English boys who are her buddies. Employing slapstick humor, Cross sets her young protagonists to Herculean tasks, from saving the honor of Bennett Junior High School in Save Our School to organizing a swimming competition in Swimathon! Lots of action, plus a "familiar setting and school slang help carry even less-than-eager readers through the novels," Piehl noted. Reviewing Save Our School in the Times Literary Supplement, Anne Carter commented: "Racy, frequently vulgar and abounding in character, Barny, Spag and Clipper … are as real and recognizable as the streets among which they live." More humor for young readers can be found in Rescuing Gloria, Rent-a-Genius, and Down with the Dirty Danes!
Cross introduced her most popular character in 1982 when her middle-grade novel The Demon Headmaster was published. Focusing on an adult figure that has been cast as the villain for centuries, the novel was a spin-off of her books about Barny, Spag, and Clipper. The demonic headmaster began life as the subject of an essay penned by Clipper for a school writing competition, and when Cross's young daughter heard the story, she encouraged her mother to expand the idea into a book. In The Demon Headmaster a villainous headmaster hypnotizes everyone in his school, but his dastardly plan to control minds is ultimately foiled by a group of nonconformist kids, led by foster-child Dinah Glass, who form the Society for the Protection of Our Lives Against Them, or SPLAT. Immediately popular with readers, Cross's villain has proved to be unstoppable; he has returned to hatch maniacal plans in several other novels, including The Prime Minister's Brain, The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster, The Demon Headmaster Takes Over, Beware of the Demon Headmaster, and Facing the Demon Headmaster. "A rattling good yarn" is the way Ann Martin described the first "Demon Headmaster" novel in the Times Literary Supplement, and her sentiments were somewhat echoed by Booklist critic Ilene Cooper who noted that the book "has plenty of creepy moments."
In The Prime Minister's Brain the megalomaniacal educator is out to brainwash students who are part of a national computer competition, and once again it is up to Dinah and the SPLAT team to stop him. In Revenge of the Demon Headmaster he tries to pass on subliminal messages via a popular television show, while The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again finds him making plans to genetically re-engineer the world. In his fifth outing, The Demon Headmaster Takes Over, the evil one schemes to control the Hyperbrain, a worldwide smart computer, while in Facing the Demon Headmaster he seems to have some involvement with a popular new musical club and its mysterious masked DJ. In every case, Dinah and SPLAT do battle and save the world, winning praise from reviewers such as a Books for Keeps critic who dubbed The Demon Headmaster Takes Over a "fast moving and very readable thriller."
Cross has written several stand-alone thrillers for young readers beyond the "Demon Headmaster" series. Virtual reality games are at the heart of New World, and as with many plots of the "Demon Headmaster" series, youthful protagonists must battle the hidden agenda of programmers. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted in a review of the book that "the pace never slackens, the characters are subtly developed and suspense is delivered in wholesale quantities."
In addition to her quirky thrillers for younger readers, Cross has also proved herself a master of suspense in novels such as Whisper of Lace, The Dark behind the Curtain, On the Edge, Pictures in the Dark, and the award-winning Wolf. In these novels she blends history, psychology, and social and moral issues into page-turning tales. In A Whisper of Lace Cross focuses on inter-family intrigue against an historical setting, with smuggling as a narrative hook. "Layer and layer of observation and manipulation add to the plot's suspense," according to Piehl. Neil Philip, reviewing the title in the Times Educational Supplement, felt that Cross "brilliantly puts the stagy conventions of costume fiction …; at the service of a real sense of history's complexity."
In The Dark behind the Curtain a school production of the musical Sweeney Todd unintentionally summons forth a group of ghostly children who once suffered under a cruel master. Reviewing the work in the Times Literary Supplement, Geoffrey Trease maintained that "Cross has a practiced icy hand at producing a delicious frisson," while Dorothy Nimmo, writing in the School Librarian, found the novel "gripping."
Wolf also deals with the power of theater. Every time a certain stranger appears, Cassy is sent away from her gran's home to live with her flighty mother without any explanation. When Cassy begins taking part in a theatrical production called Wolf, she realizes that the play has a connection to the mysterious stranger, who she fears is following her, both in the waking world and through her dreams. A Publishers Weekly contributor considered the novel "crackling with suspense."
In On the Edge a modern-day London teen is kidnapped by terrorists who want to abolish the family unit. As a hostage, Tug Shakespeare is held by the terrorist group at a remote cottage, but when Jinny Slattery, who lives nearby, becomes suspicious, her controlling father ridicules her concerns. With its focus on themes of freedom and individuality, On the Edge was a runner-up for both the Whitbread and Edgar Allan Poe awards. In Horn Book, Mary M. Burns called the novel "a tense, compelling adventure-mystery in which the lives of two adolescents move on convergent tracks to a chilling denouement."
With Pictures in the Dark Cross creates "a spellbinding novel of emotional suspense, spiked with a highly British sort of magical realism," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. A chance photograph brings young Charlie into the lives of classmate Jennifer and her secretive younger brother, leading him to mysteries and the supernatural. Deborah Stevenson, reviewing the novel for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, described Pictures in the Dark as "very, very chilling."
Moving from modern suspense to historical fiction, Cross penned the historical adventure The Great American Elephant Chase. The novel, set in 1881, features young Tad, an orphan, eagerly takes a job with a travelling salesman who uses an elephant to help sell his elixir. When the salesman dies in a train accident, Tad aids in the man's daughter's attempt to get the animal to safety in Nebraska, one step ahead of a group of people determined to steal the imperiled pachyderm. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Cross, an "author of splendidly complex, challenging thrillers, sets a picaresque adventure in 19th-century America" with this tale, concluding of the Smarties Prize-winning novel that the trip into the past is "grand, old-fashioned fun." Writing in Booklist, Emily Melton called the novel "a heartwarming story of courage and perseverance," while School Library Journal critic Sally Margolis described The Great American Elephant Chase as part "showboat melodrama, part Dickensian squalor, part Barnum hype, and all adventure."
Moving from past to present, Cross plumbs emotional depths in Tightrope, in which a teen shoulders the burden of caring for her disabled mother in a run-down urban neighborhood. A serious, highly conscientious girl, Ashley struggles to handle the responsibilities that have been heaped on her. To cope with the lack of a childhood, she develops an alter-ego, Cindy, a graffiti artist who eventually takes up with members of a local gang. Martha V. Parravano, reviewing Tightrope for Horn Book, deemed the novel a "riveting psychological thriller" with a "satisfying, catch-your-breath ending," while a Publishers Weekly critic praised Cross's "impeccable plotting" and "complex characterizations."
Moving from stark reality to fantasy, Cross began her "Dark Ground Trilogy" in 2004 with The Dark Ground. Setting the stage for her fantasy tale, she introduces Robert, a teen flying home from a trip with his family. After a strange vision in a mirror, he falls into unconsciousness, and awakens to find himself naked and alone in a vast forest full of gigantic plants and creatures. As the story continues, Robert learns to view his world from a new perspective; he has shrunk in size to mouse-like proportions. Rescued by tiny-people led by a girl named Lorn, Rob joins the group in its struggle to sur- vive, at the same time determined to restore himself to his normal life. Describing The Dark Ground as "creative, mysterious fantasy bookend[ing] … a woodland survival story," a Kirkus Reviews critic called Robert's determined quest to reunite with his family "heart-stoppingly dangerous." While noting that the novel leaves many questions for subsequent series installments, Horn Book contributor Roger Sutton praised Cross for her skill in "evoking the change in scale and all the difficulties in survival it would entail."
The "Dark Ground" series continues in The Black Room. Robert has become normal sized again, by combining his small form with the zombie-like body that continued to go through his life while he struggled for survival in the woods. When he, his sister Emma, and their friend Tom see a boy with a braid tied to his sports bag that only Lorn is skilled enough to create, they follow him to see if they can discover the location of Lorn's normal-sized double. What they find is disturbing: a girl named Hope is locked away in the basement of her family's home, never to be let out. Meanwhile, Lorn and the tiny people of the woods fight to survive both the winter and the mole-monster that now threatens their existence. "The linked quests … build on each other, heightening suspense chapter by alternating chapter," wrote Martha V. Parravano in Horn Book. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews considered the novel "gravely suspenseful" and called it "a gripping page-turner." Margaret A. Chang, writing in School Library Journal, concluded that Cross's "fantasy thriller amply satisfies readers' appetites, all the while arousing their hunger for the final volume."
The third volume of the series, The Nightmare Game, rejoins Emma, Tom, and Rob, who have rescued Hope only to lose her again. When Emma disappears and Tom grows distant, Rob is compelled to solve the mystery of the tiny people, which he believes has something to do with a man with blue eyes. If he can discover the connection, he can save his friends, but if he confronts the man with blue eyes, Rob worries that he may doom them all.
In young-adult novels such as Tightrope, The Dark behind the Curtain, and The Dark Room, Cross portrays the harsh, even malevolent, side of human nature, and this tendency has contributed to her popularity among teen readers. Writing about the underside of life in a realistic manner reflects her philosophy that elements such as violence belong in children's literature. Noting the violence that surfaces in age-old fairy and folk tales, Cross observed in School Librarian that "death and danger and injury are hard, definite, dramatic things. Human life is taxing and fulfilling and—absolute." In everyday life "the old dramatic virtues and vices standing out sharply," she added "Love. Hate. The struggle for power. Irrevocable choices. Physical damage. And I've thought, ‘So the stories didn't exaggerate after all. It's all there. As absolute, as heroic in its dimensions as anything in Tolkien—or Shakespeare.’"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 9, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), 1999.
Carter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 28, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Hunt, Caroline C., editor, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 161: British Children's Writers since 1960, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Silvey, Anita, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Booklist, January 1, 1980, Marilyn Kaye, review of The Iron Way, p. 666; June 15, 1983, Ilene Cooper, review of The Demon Headmaster, pp. 1336-1337; January 15, 1991, Hazel Rochman, review of Wolf, pp. 1052-1053; March 15, 1992, Emily Melton, review of The Great American Elephant Chase, p. 1320; January 1, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Pictures in the Dark, p. 858; September 15, 1999, Roger Leslie, review of Tightrope, p. 247; September 1, 2004, Sally Estes, review of The Dark Ground, p. 106; May 15, 2006, Sally Estes, review of The Black Room, p. 61.
Books for Keeps, May, 1998, review of The Demon Headmaster Takes Over, p. 27.
Books for Your Children, summer, 1984, Gillian Cross, "How I Started Writing for Children," pp. 15-16.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1983, review of The Demon Headmaster; March, 1985; June, 1985; July-August, 1986; March, 1987; January, 1988; June 1993, p. 312; June, 1995, pp. 340-341; January, 1997, Deborah Stevenson, review of Pictures in the Dark, pp. 161-162.
Growing Point, January, 1984, Margery Fisher, review of Born to the Sun, p. 4189.
Horn Book, November-December, 1980, Ann A. Flowers, review of Revolt at Ratcliffe's Rags, p. 647; July-August, 1985, Mary M. Burns, review of On the Edge, p. 453; January-February, 1989, Claudia Lepman-Logan, "Books in the Classroom: Moral Choices in Literature," p. 110; May-June, 1989, Mary M. Burns, review of A Map of Nowhere, p. 375; September-October, 1993, p. 596; July-August, 1995, p. 465; January-February, 1997, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Pictures in the Dark, p. 54; January, 2000, Martha V. Parravano, review of Tightrope, p. 74; July-August, 2002, Lauren Adams, review of Phoning a Dead Man, p. 457; September-October, 2004, Roger Sutton, review of The Dark Ground, p. 579; July-August, 2006, Martha V. Parravano, review of The Black Room, p. 439.
Junior Literary Guild, October, 1987-March, 1988.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1989, review of A Map of Nowhere, pp. 375-376; March 15, 1993, review of The Great American Elephant Chase, p. 368; August 15, 1999, review of Tightrope, p. 1309; August 1, 2004, review of The Dark Ground, p. 739; March 1, 2006, review of The Black Room, p. 227.
Publishers Weekly, March 13, 1995, review of A New World, p. 70; September 23, 1996, review of Pictures in the Dark, p. 77; August 23, 1999, review of Tightrope, p. 60; March 4, 2002, review of Phoning a Dead Man, p. 81; July 1, 2002, Kit Allerdice, "The British Invasion," p. 26; November 1, 2004, review of The Dark Ground, p. 52.
School Librarian, December, 1982, Dorothy Nimmo, review of The Dark behind the Curtain, p. 358; May, 1991, Gillian Cross, "Twenty Things I Don't Believe about Children's Books," pp. 44-46; winter, 2001, review of Calling a Dead Man, p. 210.
School Library Journal, April, 1987, Jack Forman, review of Chartbreaker, p. 108; January, 1993, p. 65; May, 1993, Sally Margolis, review of The Great American Elephant Chase, p. 104; December, 1993, p. 24; March, 1995, p. 222; November, 1996, p. 40; September, 1997, p. 130; May, 1998, p. 50; October 1999, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Tightrope, p. 148; January, 2002, Maren Ostergard, review of Gobbo the Great (audiobook), p. 75; May, 2002, Kim Carlson, review of Phoning a Dead Man, p. 147; September, 2004, Susan L. Rogers, review of The Dark Ground, p. 202; April, 2006, Margaret A. Chang, review of The Black Room, p. 138; August, 2006, Jo-Ann Carhart, review of The Black Room, p. 53.
Times Educational Supplement, April 9, 1982, Neil Philip, "Blackmail and Old Lace," p. 29.
Times Literary Supplement, March 27, 1981, Anne Carter, "Encouraging Stories," p. 340; July 23, 1982, Geoffrey Trease, "Curdling the Blood," p. 788; September 17, 1982, Ann Martin, "Forms of Believability," p. 1002; September 30, 1983, Sarah Hayes, review of Born of the Sun.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1993, p. 215; December, 1995, p. 313; June, 1996, p. 86; June, 1998, p. 102; June 2002, review of Phoning a Dead Man, p. 115.
Gillian Cross Home Page,http://www.gillian-cross.co.uk (April 12, 2007).
Gillian Cross contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I love the idea of exploring strange and exciting places. It's something that goes right back to my childhood. When I was six, my family moved from a small apartment to a big house with a long garden at the back. For fifteen years, that garden was a central part of my life. It was a magical space—and the first one I ever explored on my own.
When I saw it first, from one of the upstairs windows of the house, I could hardly believe my eyes. "Is that garden all ours?" I asked. "All the way to the trellis?"
"Oh, there's more than that," my mother said. "It goes on beyond the trellis too. Go and see."
She took me downstairs and I walked out onto a paved path lined with apple trees. A few yards from the house, the path forked into two, and I took the left-hand fork. It led me out onto a big expanse of overgrown lawn. Beyond the lawn was a neglected vegetable garden with a derelict greenhouse, and beyond the lawn was a little wood.
As I remember it, the grass on the lawn was as tall as I was, on that first day. As I walked through it, the seed heads were level with my face. I had a sense of mystery and excitement, and I was right. It took me months, maybe years, to discover all the surprises waiting in that garden.
I didn't realise, until the first autumn came round, that the wood was a little orchard. Its trees grew apples and pears and plums. And, when the fruit was gone, the leaves turned red and yellow and fell to the ground, waiting to be collected. There were lumps of amber-coloured resin on the trunks of the plum trees and one of the big pear trees was ideal for climbing. It had a wide, crooked branch where I used to sit, later on, when I wanted to hide away with a book.
In spring, the little wood was suddenly yellow with daffodils, so many that my sister and brother and I were allowed to pick them in handfuls. And after the daffodils came the bluebells, covering the ground with their hazy brightness. Somewhere among them (though I couldn't always find it) was a tiny rose bush with minute pink flowers.
Our old apartment had been in an area with lots of children, and we had all played together in the quiet suburban street. The new house was different. Most of the neighbours were middle-aged, and walls and hedges separated the houses from each other. I played in the garden, with my sister and brother, and we soon discovered that the old greenhouse made a wonderful den.
I spent a lot of time roaming around the garden on my own as well. Often I was pretending to be someone different (a princess, an ancient Greek warrior, a show jumper …), but I spent a lot of time just looking. I stared at the shapes of rose petals, the fur on lupin pods, the curious soft webbing that covers coltsfoot leaves. Ever since then, I've always loved tiny, intricate details.
It wasn't long before I discovered that reading was another way of exploring. But in those days children's books presented the real world as a sequence of national stereotypes, dull as cardboard cut-outs. Clogs and windmills in Holland, mountains and yodelling in Switzerland, skyscrapers and cowboys in the USA. I much preferred books about magical, imaginary places. I loved Gulliver's Travels (reading it as fantasy and not as satire, of course) and I was captivated by Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree books. The Pilgrim's Progress was another favourite and—above all—I read and re-read The Secret Garden, with its huge rambling house and the unforgettable tangle of roses hidden behind that locked garden door.
I read all the books I could lay my hands on. When I was eleven or twelve, my parents finally unpacked the boxes of books they'd brought when we moved. My mother was an English teacher and my father was a scientist with a passion for music, and between them they had hundreds of books, which they laid out in bookcases all over the house. The best of all was a tall, shelved cupboard on the upstairs landing which was crammed solid with volumes of all kinds. I loved going through them, looking for new authors and unexpected discoveries, and before long I knew where every book in the house was kept. I must have dipped into all of them at least once, and I read lots of them over and over again.
When I wasn't reading, I was pretending, building an imaginary universe out of the stories I'd read. Like Velvet Brown in National Velvet, I had a stable of horses. Like the children in Swallows and Amazons and The Famous Five, I sailed up and down huge lakes and camped out in the open air. I went back in time to ancient Greece with a book called Olympic Runner and jumped into the distant future with H.G. Wells's The Time Machine.
At that time, it was not common for ordinary people to take holidays abroad. When adults asked, "What do you want to do when you're grown up?" most of my school friends said, "I want to travel." I didn't. I was already doing all the travelling I could handle.
And not all the places came from other people's imaginations. As soon as I understood that places could be invented I started to make up my own, not by writing stories, but by drawing imaginary islands.
What is your perfect island like? Does it have forests? Rivers? Caves? Mine had all those and more. I always gave it at least two harbours for my sailing boat (one public and one secret), and a sandy beach where I could swim—to make a change from the deep pool under the waterfall. There had to be grasslands, too, for the wild horses (which only I could ride) and a wild mountainside for the remote, ruined castle. And, and, and ….
It was impossible to fit everything in. I drew maps, and crumpled them up and drew them again, but I never succeeded in including everything. My imaginary world was expanding faster than I could draw, because each new book I read introduced me to something else that had to go in.
I loved being on my own, looking and reading and inventing, but I wasn't a particularly solitary child. I always had friends, and I liked sharing stories with them, too. Especially if I had a starring role. (Was I a show-off? Hmm….) Even before we moved from the apartment to the house, I'd discovered that I liked performing and entertaining people.
As far as I can remember, my very first performance took place in a suburban garage, when I was five. Back in those days, when we lived in the apartment, I had a friend called Derek who organised a Grand Variety Show, with turns from all the children in the neighbourhood. We set out a row of chairs in his garage and invited our parents to come and watch us.
When Derek drew up the programme, I was one of the first to volunteer. "I'll do a dance in the first half and a song in the second," I said confidently. (No one had told me yet that I was ungainly and badly coordinated, with no sense of pitch or rhythm.)
My idea of "dancing" was to skip up and down with no particular plan. The audience watched politely for a little while and then my mother said, "Perhaps you should do your song now."
That's not the programme, I wanted to say, but something in her face must have warned me not to argue. Abandoning my dance, I stood still and started belting out "Molly Malone."
Okay, so I wasn't in tune and the rhythm left a lot to be desired. But I did know all the words. (I was always good at learning words.) As far as I was concerned, "Molly Malone" was a story, a real tearjerker. I gave it everything I had—and all the parents listened. It was my first experience of sharing a story with an audience, and by the end of the song I was hooked.
After that, I seized every possible opportunity to repeat the experience. There are dozens of ways of getting a story across to people, and I must have tried most of them in the first ten years of my life. I didn't waste time worrying about whether I had any talent. I just plunged in and got going.
I wrote dozens of plays. Some of them needed live actors, and I bullied my sister and brother into performing in those. Others were designed for puppets. We had some wonderful string puppets, with a proper theatre that had a proscenium stage and a hidden "bridge" for the puppeteers. I made glove puppets, too, and constructed theatres out of empty shoeboxes, with dozens of little cut-out figures that I moved around on long cardboard tabs.
I tried making comics, too. My brother had a collection of Batman and Superman comics, and after I'd devoured them all I began my own. I couldn't draw very well, but what did that matter? The words would explain things after all. So I spent hours drawing frames and filling them with deformed superheroes crying ZAP!! and POW-W-W!! as they defeated grotesque, distorted villains. The figures grew bigger and fuzzier as my pencils wore down. I was much too excited to waste time using a pencil sharpener.
By the time I was ten or eleven, I was beginning to feel frustrated by my lack of skill. I was too clumsy and impatient to use puppets effectively, and I could see that my drawings made the comics more comical than I intended. Gradually I started to concentrate on writing my stories in words—and that nearly ruined everything.
By that time, having read a wide variety of books, I knew that some writers were much better than others, but I had no idea what made them better, except that it was partly to do with something called "style." How could I get "style"? It seemed to be connected with descriptive writing, so I set myself to practise that, scribbling pages of "poetic" descriptions crammed with flowery adjectives.
If I'd shown those descriptions to other people, I probably wouldn't be a writer today. Watching my readers yawn with boredom would have destroyed my confidence forever. Luckily, I'm a very secretive writer. To this day, I don't like to show my books to anyone until they're completely finished. So I kept my ambitious, unfinished "descriptions" to myself. And, slowly, I started to learn what was wrong with them.
One of the things that helped me to learn was a change of school—and lots of boring train journeys.
When I was eleven, I moved from my local primary school to a famous secondary school for girls. It was some way from where I lived and I had to commute there every day on the London Underground. Four or five of my new school friends shared the same journey. Altogether, we travelled for about an hour and a half each day, and we passed the time playing games and gossiping.
One day, I started telling the others a story. It began more or less by accident, and I made it up as I went along, continuing it from one journey to the next. My friends and I were the main characters and it was sheer, unashamed wish-fulfilment. In episode after episode, we met our current heroes or heroines (mostly heroes, I must admit) and made friends and shared adventures with them. As our enthusiasms changed, so did the background of the story. When the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships were on television, the story took on a tennis theme and we visited Wimbledon and met the star players. When we saved up our pocket money and went to the theatre in London, the tennis players disappeared and famous actors took their place. As soon as one adventure finished, my friends decided which celebrities we should meet next and I started on a new phase of the story.
There was nothing literary about it, but it taught me a lot about telling stories. My friends had no patience with anything fancy. If I launched into a detailed description, they said, "Skip that bit. What happened?" Nothing interested them except the story itself, told as clearly and straightforwardly as possible.
I loved it. I can remember sitting in lessons, when I should have been paying attention to the teacher, making up that evening's episode of the story in my head. But I didn't connect it with writing. As far as I was concerned, writing was a literary activity, and it was mostly about being clever with words. I'd moved on to composing soulful, gloomy poetry by then, and a couple of years later I wrote the first chapter of a historical novel about King Henry the Eighth and his six wives.
The storytelling on the train seemed much more like acting—which was my other passion.
The first live play I ever saw was Peter Pan. It had everything. Fairies and pirates. Courage and adventure. A secret house under the ground. And real children actually flying across the stage. That was followed by trips to the Open-Air Theatre in Regents Park to see Shakespeare's plays performed on a grassy stage with real bushes for scenery. I came home with the best lines echoing in my mind and performed them over and over again in my bedroom.
Soon I was reading everything I could find about the theatre and how to become a professional actor. Every time we were asked to memorise a favourite poem for homework, I learnt great chunks of Shakespeare's plays by heart and recited them passionately in the next English lesson—until the day I overdid it and went on for fifteen minutes. (Still showing off …?) After that, the teacher set a maximum limit of forty lines.
Every year, the school put on a play and auditions were held for the main parts, which were played by girls at the top of the school. From the moment I saw the first production, I dreamt of playing the lead one day, and when I was sixteen my dream came true. I was given the title role in Jean Anouilh's play Antigone and I enjoyed everything about it, from learning the lines to wearing the greasepaint.
But although I wanted to act, I wanted to go to university first. I came out of school with good grades and a place at Oxford, to study English in nine months' time. That left me with two terms to fill, and I decided to spend them working as a volunteer.
I enrolled with a charity called Community Service Volunteers, which found placements for students in Britain. They gave me three jobs, all of which involved living away from home. I enjoyed all three, and I could fill a hundred pages with the new experiences I had, but there's one in particular that stands out.
My third job took me to a primary school in a deprived area of London, where there were many pupils who needed extra help. I was asked to work with small groups, mostly providing extra reading practice for children who were struggling.
It was a wild school, very different from the gentle, sheltered environment where I'd grown up. The teachers shouted quite a bit, and the children often shouted back. A few of them even walked out of their own classes and drifted in and out of other lessons, looking for amusement.
One morning, the deputy headmaster grabbed me as I walked into the school. He looked harassed and exhausted.
"I've cancelled your first three reading groups," he said. "Three members of staff have phoned in sick. You'll have to take a whole class this morning."
I nearly fainted. "But—I'm not a teacher," I said.
"It doesn't matter," he said firmly. "There's nobody else. It will have to be you."
I gulped and squared my shoulders. "Okay. What shall I teach them?"
"Oh, you don't have to teach them anything," said the deputy headmaster. "Just keep them in the room until I can get an emergency supply teacher."
There was no way out. Taking a deep breath, I walked across to the classroom hoping, frantically, that the children were sitting down waiting patiently for a teacher. But deep down I knew already what I would see when I opened the door.
I was right. The place was in an uproar. Children were shouting and running around the room, throwing chalk and sticking chewing gum in each other's hair. They didn't seem to notice me, so I coughed politely, to warn them that I was there. That had no effect at all. One or two of them did give me a quick glance, but they didn't stop running.
I could see that someone was likely to get hurt if I didn't persuade them to sit down. But how could I persuade them to do anything if they wouldn't listen to me? I had to attract their attention. Somehow.
Acting on instinct, I stepped into the classroom and closed the door behind me. Marching boldly to the front, I took a deep breath and spoke as loudly as I could.
"I wouldn't go down to the cinema after midnight if I were you!"
That certainly stopped them running. They skidded to a halt and turned round, staring at me as if I were mad.
"What?" growled one of them.
I raised my eyebrows. "Don't you know the cinema in the High Street?"
There were a few grudging nods.
"Well, there's a story about that cinema," I said. I made my voice sound as deep and mysterious as I could manage. "Sit down and I'll tell you…."
Slowly they slid onto chairs, watching me all the time. There was a sudden, unbelievable silence and, before it could disappear, I began to tell the spookiest story I could think of, full of bats and cobwebs and strange, shadowy figures. The children stared at me with wide eyes, following every word. Whenever it sounded as though the story was finishing, there were cries of, "Don't stop, Miss! What happened next?"
I spun it out for as long as possible and then tied up as many loose ends as I could remember and ended neatly, as though I'd planned it all from the beginning. And by that time, the emergency supply teacher had arrived. I handed over to her and staggered out of the room, completely exhausted.
But it was worth it. I hadn't managed to teach the children anything, but I'd learnt some valuable lessons myself. I'd learnt that everyone loves a story, and that if I was telling one I didn't need to know the whole plot before I started. As long as there were people listening—listening with their eyes wide, almost forgetting to breathe—then the story would grow by itself. All I had to do was let it come.
It was good to know, but it didn't get me writing. In fact, I nearly stopped forever, because I finished my time as a volunteer and went off to university. For three years, everything I read was either about a Great Author or written by one. I had a wonderful time and read a whole raft of incredible books. I even started to understand a little bit about what made them so incredible. And the more I learnt, the more I thought, I can't do that.
How could I ever match up to Shakespeare or George Eliot or the unknown poet who wrote the amazing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? It was all I could do to write the essays that I had to turn out every week. The mere idea of trying to do anything more original seemed ridiculous.
It was the same with acting.
I'd gone off to Oxford planning to get involved with the University Dramatic Society. There was a production planned for the first term and I hurried off to the auditions, determined to make my mark. It took me all of three minutes to discover that I was completely out of my depth. The room was full of students already behaving like professional actors, talking about people I didn't know in language I barely understood. Feeling as though I'd blundered into a secret world where I would always be an outsider, I mumbled my audition speech and scuttled away.
Luckily for me, there were plenty of other plays being planned, in much less threatening environments. Each college put on productions of its own—and at that time,
male students outnumbered female students at Oxford by nine to one. That meant there were plenty of acting opportunities for any girl who could stand up without falling over her own feet. I spent the next few weeks at auditions and before long I found myself with a choice of two roles. Was I going to play the female lead in a verse drama by T.S. Eliot? Or should I be in the chorus line of a slapstick pantomime?
If someone had asked me the question while I was still at school, I'd have gone for the big role in the serious play. No question. But the University Dramatic Society had shaken my confidence—and anyway, the pantomime looked as though it would be a lot more fun. Even though I still couldn't sing or dance, I chose the chorus line.
It was probably the single most important decision of my whole life.
If I hadn't chosen the pantomime, I wouldn't have met the tall, dark-haired boy who played the stage manager. He made a memorable cameo appearance on stage, wearing a woolly bobble hat, but by the final (triumphant) performance all I knew about him was that his name was Martin Cross. Then, at the beginning of the second term, we bumped into each other again, in the street. After that things developed fast. We started going around together and, before I'd finished my course, we were married and had a baby son.
Maybe it sounds like hard work being a mother and a full-time student, but I loved it. In particular, I loved the contrast between studying complex literature and telling stories to a toddler.
Even though I was still in awe of Shakespeare and Jane Austen and all the other great authors, it was no use trying to share their work with Jon. Even Beatrix Potter's books were too demanding at that stage. Martin and I were too hard up to buy lots of new picture books, and the tiny village where we were living had no library except a mobile one that came by once a fortnight.
The only way to find suitable stories for Jon was to make them up myself. He was passionately interested in cars and motor vehicles, and one of his favourites was the tractor that trundled in and out of the farmyard next door. One night, when I was putting him to bed, I started telling him about a little blue car that ran away down a hill and got stuck in a ditch. It was pulled out by a tractor (to the sound of lots of tractor noises from both of us).
Jon loved it. Not because it was one of the world's great stories (it certainly wasn't), but because it was made up especially for him. Just like the story I'd made up for my friends, on the train. In fact, it was such a success that I had to tell it the next night, too.
And the next night.
And the night after that.
Every night for a month, I told him about the tractor and the little blue car, improving on the tractor noises and learning where to pause, dramatically, so that he could fill in the next word himself. Gradually, the good bits got better and all the unnecessary bits dropped out. By the end of the month, it still wasn't a great story, but it was as good as it could be, and I'd learnt a lot about what was really important.
I'd regained my confidence as a storyteller, too. There's nothing like having a listener sitting in front of you, waiting avidly for the next sentence. And the next. And the next. From then on, although we shared lots of books (when I could lay my hands on them), there were plenty of original stories, too.
Meanwhile, Martin was getting on with his career and I knew it was time to decide about mine. After I finished my degree, I'd found myself a job working a few hours a week in the village bakery, next door to our house. The baker made his own bread and cooked it in the traditional way, in a brick oven. Working for him was like stepping back in time and I loved it, but it wasn't a job that would lead on to anything else. What was I going to do with my life?
I'd abandoned the idea of acting and it never crossed my mind that I might earn my living as a writer. (Why would anyone pay me for scribbling words on bits of paper?) It seemed as though the only thing I had to offer was a good degree and a love of literature. I wasn't attracted by the idea of teaching in a school, but I had enjoyed university life. With a few more qualifications, perhaps I could be a university lecturer and spend the rest of my life reading books and talking about them.
It seemed like a wonderful prospect. Martin had just been appointed to a new job, in a different town, and we were expecting a second child as well, but I didn't let that put me off. Without wasting any more time, I put in an application to do a three-year postgraduate course at the University of Sussex. By the time we moved house, I'd been accepted to study for the degree of doctor of philosophy. I wouldn't have to learn anything about philosophy, but I'd have to do original research and write a thesis of sixty thousand words.
Our daughter Elizabeth was four months old when I started. New baby, new house, new course—looking back now, it sounds like a recipe for stress. But it was actually one of the most enjoyable periods of my life. I read over sixty books by G.K. Chesterton (the subject of my thesis) and never found him boring. And I learnt two things that turned out to be far more important than I guessed at the time.
The first was How To Work At Home.
For most of my course, I had no classes except for an occasional meeting with my supervisor. The rest of the time I was on my own. Apart from studying in the evenings, I had two precious hours each day while a friend looked after Jon and Elizabeth.
Two hours is not very long and when you're at home there are always a thousand things clamouring to be done. Rooms need tidying, house plants are wilting for lack of water, the bread runs out, the windows need cleaning—there's an endless list. And if you're the person in the family who's at home, they all look like your job.
Ignore them. It's the only solution. Once I'd made the beds and washed up the breakfast dishes, I was Out at Work, even if I was sitting at the kitchen table. I had sixty thousand words to write, and I was determined to finish my thesis on time.
People can be an even worse distraction. It's vital to make your friends understand that you're working, otherwise they're likely to call you in the middle of the morning and ask, "Can you just spare half an hour …?"
No. You can't. You're working.
That was the first useful lesson. The second thing I learnt was why I needed all that time. I'd never written anything like sixty thousand words before, and it was a shock to realise that I couldn't keep track of the whole thing in my head. Something as long as that needs a clear structure, and it's important to find the right pace and keep the reader in touch with what's going on. I'd almost finished the thesis before I started to get the hang of all that, but the effort wasn't wasted. Things like structure and pace are vital to writing fiction too—and, as it happens, sixty thousand words is a very good length for a novel…
At that stage, though, there was nothing like that in my mind. I was still telling stories to Jon and Elizabeth, but the only thing I was writing was my thesis on "G.K. Chesterton and the Decadents." I finished it dead on time, at the end of my third year, and earned the right to call myself a doctor of philosophy. Almost immediately, I was offered some freelance teaching in the university and it looked as though my career was going according to plan. But there was one thing I hadn't foreseen.
I wasn't a good teacher.
No one complained, but I knew what good teachers were like, because my mother was one. All my life, I'd seen her hunting for the right books and ideas to help her students enjoy English literature. She was enthusiastic and passionate and committed to what she was doing. And I wasn't. It was fun to teach a few classes, but I knew I'd be bored if I had to do it for the rest of my life.
Only—what could I do instead?
I was still wondering when I received an invitation to a meeting of local parents. One of them was hoping to set up a children's book group, and she was looking for other people to join her on the committee. I'd never been a committee person and I had no idea what a children's book group might be, but I went along to the meeting.
It turned out that Children's Book Groups were about having fun with books and sharing that fun with as many children as possible. All the adults at the meeting were passionate readers, not because they were teaching or studying but simply because they loved books. I was caught up in their enthusiasm, and by the time I came out of the meeting, I was the secretary of the new group.
I threw myself into all its activities. We invited authors to come and talk to children and held meetings for parents, to get them excited about books. We organised a pirate party, where all the children came dressed as pirates. They listened to pirate stories and built a huge ship out of cardboard boxes. (And they jumped up and down on it at the end of the party, until it was totally flattened. That was the best bit of all.) We ran book-stalls at school parents' evenings, we bought children's books to put in doctors' waiting rooms, and we told stories at every bazaar and fair where they would give us a space.
Books, books, books. We bought them, we sold them, we borrowed them from the library and we shared them with our children. But, most of all, we read them ourselves. And, once we'd read them, we discussed them and argued about them and recommended them to each other.
"Have you read the new Peter Dickinson?" one of us would say.
"Yes, it's fantastic. But what about Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising? You haven't bought it yet? Borrow mine and read it now. I'm dying to know what you think of it."
It was a wonderful period for children's fiction. Writers were breaking new ground and experimenting with different ways of writing. Alan Garner and Susan Cooper tapped into the power of myths and legends. Penelope Lively and Philippa Pearce were exploring the relationship between past and present. John Rowe Townsend was taking a fresh look at the ordinary, everyday world. Books, books, books. I couldn't get enough of them. I read while I cleaned my teeth, while I peeled the potatoes, anytime I could snatch a few spare moments.
And then, one evening, Martin went to a meeting and I found myself on my own with a book called The Beethoven Medal, by K.M. Peyton. For once there was nothing else I should have been doing and I sat down and read the whole thing all the way through, without stopping. When I finally closed the book, it was a shock to find myself still sitting at my own kitchen table, with the children asleep upstairs.
For the first time in years, I had the feeling that I'd been off exploring while I was reading. And I remembered what it was really like to be completely submerged in a story. It was such a good experience that I wrote to Kathleen Peyton to tell her how much I liked her book. I wasn't expecting an answer, but she wrote back immediately—a friendly, sensible handwritten reply.
Until then, in spite of all my children's book group activities, I'd thought of authors and publishers as remote and awe-inspiring. But here was a letter from an author who sounded just like one of my friends. It was a very tiny connection with the real world of publishing. For the first time, I dared to think, Maybe I could write a book.
But could I find the time?
In the daytime I was looking after Jon and Elizabeth, except when I was at the university. In the evenings, when the children were in bed, I had a few spare hours. But I wanted to spend time with Martin—and he wanted to catch up with the news programmes on television. He was teaching politics at the time and he needed to stay in touch, but how could I write with the television going?
I struggled for a bit and then I had an inspiration. Earplugs!
Pink wax earplugs blocked out the noise of the television, but not the sound of Martin's voice. While he clued up on what was going on in the world, I was busy writing. It was easy enough to take out the earplugs if he started talking to me—and if I was stuck, I could fiddle with the wax, moulding it into different shapes while I waited for my ideas to start flowing again.
It worked like magic. Every evening I sat and scribbled on a pad of paper and slowly my pile of manuscript pages grew thicker. Before I knew where I was I'd written a novel (sixty thousand words, of course) about an adopted girl who goes looking for her natural mother. It was packed with tense situations and dramatic scenes and, when I'd typed it up on my old portable typewriter, it looked impressively like a real book.
Until then, no one except me had read a word of it. To this day, I'm a very shy writer and I can't bear anyone to look at what I'm doing until it's finished. But once the final draft is done, I'm desperate for a reader and that's how it was when I finished my first book. I gave it to Martin and asked him to read it for me.
If he'd told me everything that was wrong with it, I would probably have abandoned the whole idea of writing. But, luckily for me, he's very good at encouraging people. So he didn't analyse its failings. Instead, he said, "Why don't you send it to a publisher and see what happens?"
It was an exciting thought. I had no idea how to go about it, but I did have a book called The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook which was full of instructions and publishers' addresses. I followed the instructions to the letter, and posted my manuscript off to a famous editor who had once come to speak to our children's book group. I'd hardly spoken to her and I didn't expect her to remember me at all, but at least I could claim to have met her.
When I'd put the parcel in the post, I wondered what to do next. The book had taken up all my energy for months. I was used to writing every day. I liked it. How was I going to pass the time, while I waited for a reply?
It didn't take a genius to work out the answer. Write another book.
So I did. To my surprise, it was completely different from the first one. This time, I found myself making up a story full of love and violence. It was set in the nineteenth century, when Britain was in the grip of railway-building mania. Little villages suddenly found themselves swamped by gangs of migrant labourers, and there was a lot of tension and conflict. It was an ideal background for a story.
The only trouble was that I didn't know much about how poor people lived back then. And I knew even less about railways. If I was going to imagine myself into the lives of Kate and her brother Jem, I needed to do some serious research.
When I was a postgraduate student, I'd learnt how to find my way around libraries and track down the books I needed. That was very useful now, but I soon discovered that it was no use just sticking to books. I wanted to know everything I could about Kate and Jem, and that meant getting outside the house. I visited museums and I went for a long walk over the hills, to look at a railway tunnel that featured in the plot. And I drew on my own experience too, thinking back to the village bakery where I'd worked before we moved. I knew that the bakery in Kate and Jem's village would have been almost exactly the same.
It was another link between stories and exploring, and I kept making new discoveries. The most exciting thing was the way that a tiny detail that I researched could spark off new ideas for the story or made me think again about the characters.
I was in the middle of my new book when the first book came back again, with a long letter from the famous editor. She didn't want to publish it (no surprise there) but nor did she tell me to give up and keep pigs instead. Her letter pointed out the book's main faults but it was positive and encouraging and it made me want to keep writing.
I finished my second book, revised it, and then sent off both books, each to a different publisher. And as soon as they'd gone—you've guessed it—I started another one. And that was different from the first one and the second one. There's nothing interesting to me about doing the same thing over and over again.
By the time I started my third book, I was hooked on writing. But I still didn't really believe that anyone would ever publish one of my books. Jon and Elizabeth had both started school and I wasn't planning to sit
around at home for the rest of my life, but I still had no ideas about a career. So, while I was thinking about it, I took a part-time job working for our member of parliament in his local office.
People contacted the office constantly, wanting the M.P. to solve all kinds of problems. My job was to listen to their stories, do what I could to help them, and then pass on the details to him. It was a fascinating job. I had calls from mothers who were dissatisfied with their children's schools, tenants who couldn't get their houses repaired, immigrants who were having a hard time picking their way through the regulations. People phoned me to complain about the condition of the roads and ended up telling me about family quarrels, or they called in with a voting query and ranted for hours about the state of the world. Occasionally, people phoned up just to talk, and every now and again a tramp with a black dog dropped in for a cup of tea and a chat. Sometimes the problems could be solved and sometimes they couldn't, but it was always good to listen, and, I learnt a lot about lives that were very different from mine.
I never use real people as characters and I've never written about what any of those callers told me, but their stories widened my understanding of the world. And the more I learnt about the huge variety of lives around me, the more I wanted to write. I finished a third book, and then a fourth, and started on the fifth.
As I finished each book, I sent it away to a publisher, but the manuscript always came back again. The letter accompanying it might be encouraging, but the message was always, "No, thank you." It was starting to look as though writing would never be more than a hobby for me.
"Don't give up," Martin said. "Be more businesslike."
He told me to send off all the manuscripts at once and said I should start keeping proper records.
"Draw up a table, to show which publisher has read each book."
I couldn't see what difference it would make, but I like charts and tables, so I took his advice. The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook gave me the names of all the children's fiction publishers. I wrote them neatly along the top of my table and listed my books down the side. After ticking a few boxes, I studied the list of publishers carefully. I'd read enough to know that they were all different from each other—and so were my books. I chose a suitable publisher for each of my four finished manuscripts, posted them off again, and went back to writing the fifth book.
Two of the manuscripts came back as usual, with the usual encouraging "No, thank you." The other two didn't come back at all.
That was a serious business. In those days, before computers, losing a manuscript meant typing the whole book out again. For me, that was several weeks' work. After five months, very nervously, I wrote two polite letters saying, "Please may I have my book back?"
Immediately, I was contacted by editors from both publishers, both saying, "We don't want to send your book back—we want to publish it. Come and see us to discuss a contract. And we want an option on your next book, too."
I panicked. How could they both have an option on the next book? I was completely ignorant about the whole business, and it didn't even occur to me to find an agent. Instead, I went shooting off to the library to find a book about publishing contracts.
There's always a book. That's part of the wonder of libraries.
Somehow I negotiated two contracts that didn't contradict each other and suddenly, without really having planned it, I found myself launched on a career as an author. Both books had some good reviews and before I knew where I was, I'd signed a contract for another book and committed to a deadline. Awesomely, the publisher had even paid me an advance, to help keep me going while I was writing it.
It was a new experience to have someone waiting for my next book. New—and rather frightening. I gave up my job in the M.P.'s office and used the hours I'd been working there as my writing time. Everything I'd learnt about Working At Home came in useful all over again, and I finished the book in good time. Immediately, I began to think about the next one.
After a couple of years, I realised that I was never going to choose a career—because, somehow, my career had chosen me. It would have been impossible to plan it, because I would never have had the confidence to say, "I'm going to be an author," but I realised that it was what I'd wanted all along. Gradually I found that I was earning a living from my books. I stopped thinking about what I was going to do when the children were older and started thinking about how to be a better writer.
All kinds of experiences helped me along the way. And soon Jon and Elizabeth were reading my books and telling me what they thought of them. One of those comments turned out to be a huge influence.
When Elizabeth was about nine years old, my book Save Our School was published. It features a story called "My School," written by a very tough girl called Clipper. I thought her story would be just as tough as she was, and I had a good time making it as blood-curdling as possible:
Cracking his whip over the children's heads as they cowered in the corner, the wicked Headmaster smiled ferociously and twirled his moustache.
"You will never escape!" he shouted. "I have put a bomb somewhere in the school."
"Mercy! Mercy!" shouted all the children. But it was no use! The door of the cellar clanged shut…
When Elizabeth read the book, she said, "I really like that story of Clipper's. It's much better than the kind of stories you write. Why don't you write a book about a wicked headmaster?"
"One day, one day," I said. (Why do parents always say "one day" when they mean "no"?) I was in the middle of a ghost story at the time and I didn't want to be interrupted. Besides, I hate being told what to write.
But Elizabeth can be very persistent. She kept asking for her story. And then an editor called to enquire what I was going to do next and, in a weak moment, I said, "What about a wicked headmaster book?"
He was very enthusiastic and before I knew where I was I'd agreed to write it straight away. Feeling annoyed with myself, I put the ghost book on one side, thinking, I'd better do the wretched thing now, and get it over with. (Which is not a good way to feel when you start a book.) I found a new pad of paper and picked up my pen, ready to start. And then I stopped dead. I'd suddenly realised what was wrong with my idea.
How could a headmaster be wicked? Why wouldn't the children all go home and tell their parents what he was doing? Clipper could ignore a problem like that, but I couldn't. It seemed as though there wasn't going to be a wicked headmaster book after all. Not unless I could invent a way for the headmaster to send the children home at the end of the day saying, I think the headmaster is a marvellous man, and this is the best school I've ever been to.
Not unless ….
That was it! One of those Eureka! moments when a whole book falls into place. I'd been on the verge of abandoning the whole thing, but suddenly I saw exactly what the headmaster had to do.
He had to hypnotise the children.
Immediately, I forgot all about how much Elizabeth and the editor wanted the book. I was too busy thinking, I can have such fun with this. (Which is an excellent way to feel when you start.) I started scribbling at once and a few months later I'd finished my first book about the Demon Headmaster. It was popular from the moment it was published, and a few years later it became a very successful series on BBC television. None of that would have happened if Elizabeth hadn't insisted on having her wicked headmaster book.
Sometimes it's the book itself that insists on being written. One day I was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, when a voice came into my head. Oh sure, it was saying, you know what happened in the beginning. You know and I know and the vicarandthepostmanandthemilkman know. And you must have seen the video, even if you didn't buy the album…
"Go away," I said. I knew exactly what I was hearing. It was the voice of an unhappy, aggressive girl talking about how she'd run away from home to join a band. How could I write about a girl like that? Even when I was a teenager, I didn't know much about music, and now I was well over thirty—and just about to have my third child. That would mean no writing for months.
But the voice wouldn't go away. In the end, I had to put down my paring knife and write down what it was saying, on the shopping-list pad. It came to about half a chapter and by the time I'd finished I knew I was going to write the book as soon as I could.
A couple of weeks later, our son Anthony was born and I put all my energy into looking after him. But I couldn't forget that tough, unhappy girl with the amazing voice. When I was finally ready start work again, I discovered that somehow—in the chaos that goes with a new baby—I'd thrown away the half-chapter I'd jot-
ted down on the shopping pad. But it was still so clear in my head that I was able to sit down and write it out all a second time. It became a book called Chartbreak (Chartbreaker in the USA) and it was one of the most challenging and enjoyable things I've ever written.
In 1985, on the day after Jon's eighteenth birthday, our daughter Katy was born and our family was complete. Shortly afterwards, because of Martin's job, we moved again, landing up in a pretty village in the middle of England. We bought a rambling old house beside a little stream and settled down to enjoy village life.
When we moved, I was just finishing a book called Wolf. It's a thriller set in London and it started with a single, vivid scene that came into my head from nowhere. I saw a girl called Cassy waking up in the dark, in her grandmother's flat, disturbed by a knock on the front door. In the morning, there's no mention of the midnight visitor, but her grandmother comes into the room and tells her that she has to go away for a while "to stay with your mother."
Who came in the middle of the night? Why is Cassy being sent away? Why isn't she living with her parents? I didn't know. But I could feel Cassy's fear that she might never come back—and I knew the story had something to do with wolves. Somehow.
The only way to discover the answers to all the other questions was to write the story. That's how most of my books start. I have to launch out without knowing anything except the beginning. That can be very nerve-racking (what happens if the ideas don't come?) and it takes a long time, because the first draft is always chaotic. The story's there, but usually it's in the wrong order. The events and the characters need a lot of development and I have to edit out pages and pages of irrelevant rubbish. That means re-writing, over and over again, before it's fit to show to anyone else.
I'd love to be one of those authors who can plan everything neatly in advance. But if I try, I end up with a beautiful plan—and a book that dies after the first couple of chapters, because I get bored if I know what's going to happen. I need the buzz that comes from getting stuck and then suddenly seeing what should happen next. Or from realising that something I've already written, some tiny, insignificant part of the plot, is actually the key to the whole book.
It's always exciting, but Wolf was particularly exciting because of where it took me. As the plot developed, I found myself contacting the British Army, to ask questions about plastic explosives. And then I visited the zoo, and landed up in the wolf cage, surrounded by a circle of wolves. That was research at its most riveting, and some of my excitement must filtered into the book, because it won the Carnegie Medal for the best children's book of the year in Britain.
As a teenager, I was always told to "write about something you know about." For writers like me, that's a deadening piece of advice. What's exciting about something you already know? I always want to discover new things, and writing is a great way of trying learning about places and people and events outside your own direct experience. That's why all my books are different from each other. Each one sets me off on a new exploration.
When Wolf won the Carnegie Medal, the "sensible" thing would probably have been to write another tense, urban thriller of the same kind. Instead, I started on a story about a couple of teenagers living in the USA in the nineteenth century. They travel from Pennsylvania to Nebraska with an elephant, trying to keep it hidden from the enemies who are chasing them.
When I first had the idea, I was terrified. I'd never been to the USA, geography was my worst subject at school,
and I'd always vowed that I would never, never, never write a book about an animal. But there was no escape. That was the book I wanted to write, so I had to work out a way of getting the information I needed.
I telephoned an American library in London and the librarian advised me to contact historical societies in the USA. So I wrote to societies in Cincinnati, Ohio; Cairo, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; in Urbana, Illinois; Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and a host of other places, asking what they knew about their hometowns in the 1880s.
The response was overwhelming. For three or four months, my post was full of wonderful, generous replies. People didn't just answer my questions. They sent me books and maps and photographs, and all kinds of detailed information. As I wrote the story, my head filled with images of all the places along the route and by the end I felt as though I'd made the journey myself.
Other people must have enjoyed the journey too, because the book won the Smarties' Book Prize and the Whitbread Children's Novel Award, two of the major UK children's book prizes.
The Great Elephant Chase was my second book set in a foreign country. Before I started writing, I'd never wanted to travel in the real world, but the more I read about it the more interesting it seemed. And, amazingly, my books brought me the chance to go and see it for myself. As they became known abroad, I found myself being asked to visit schools and festivals in other countries, to talk about my work.
I've visited Switzerland, Belgium, Brazil, Australia, Mexico, and Japan and I've even talked to teenagers in a school in the middle of China. Wherever I go, I discover the same thing. People love stories. It doesn't matter whether I'm over on the other side of the world or in one of the hundreds of schools I've visited in Britain. As soon as a storyteller says, "Once upon a time …," something special happens. We forget the dullness of our ordinary lives and begin to see the world as the magical place it truly is, full of beauty and variety and excitement.
That's what I've learnt from writing. And there's always more to explore….