If you want to find out a bit more about me …
Did you like school?
I was very miserable at my first school. I couldn’t get the hang of reading, or tying my tie – we had to wear one as part of our school uniform. I was also convinced the headmistress was a witch. But then we moved house and I went to a different school and things got a whole lot better. Mrs Branson, the headmistress at the new school, thought reading was very important and she invited every child who finished a book to come and see her in her office and tell them about it. Afterwards, she would give you a Smartie and a sticky shape to stick in your exercise book. I loved going to see her. Not just because of the sticky shapes and Smarties, but because she was so encouraging and interested in what you had to say (all the best teachers are). It’s partly because of her I turned into a bookworm. I’ll always be grateful to her.
As for tying my tie, my mum and dad came up with a brilliant solution. Get an elastic one. Problem solved!
What were your favourite books as a child?
Too many to mention! Us bookworms have to get through a lot of words and paper to keep ourselves fed, but here are some of them:
- Winnie the Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
- The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle by Beatrix Potter
- The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
- My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards
- Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen
- Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling (and in particular The Elephant’s Child)
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
- The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively
- A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
- The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
And one for luck…
- The Gods Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen, with wonderful illustrations by Charles Keeping
I also liked reading poetry. My favourite poem was, and still is, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Full of drama, romance and a bit of the red stuff too.
What was the first thing you can remember writing?
If you don’t count my name, and all those boring writing practice exercises you have to do at school, it was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. I wrote it in an exercise book which was half blank and half lined on each page. As it took up practically the whole book, it meant I had to draw a picture on every page. I’m not very good at drawing so this was a BIG MISTAKE. I remember a girl in my class called Valerie Andrews decided to try and write an even longer story than me. Hers was all about monsters. In the end she just kept repeating the phrase ‘and then there were more monsters and more monsters’ because she ran out of ideas. She had to do lots of drawings too…
What other jobs have you done besides being a writer?
A lot of different things including:
- a Saturday job stacking yoghurts and cheese in a supermarket; I resigned quickly before I got frostbite
- au pairing in the Ardenne mountains in Belgium: looking after three children, shovelling snow, collecting milk in a pail every day from the local farm and trying not to get pecked to bits by the manic family chicken who was called Duchesse
- editing books including one by a pet psychologist all about getting bad dogs to be better-behaved
- lots of writing press releases and photocalls which involved dressing up (including as a Martian – twice) and working with animals (mainly dogs but also earthworms and other wildlife) to promote things in the local newspapers
- helping to organise all sorts of events from carnivals and steam train extravaganzas to celebrity Christmas lights switch-ons (including one with actress Britt Ekland and her Chihuahua who she got to help her press the switch) and science festivals.
What historical time and place would you most like to travel back to for real?
Hmmm. Tricky. There are so many choices.
How about with Sir Walter Raleigh on one of his expeditions to South America to find gold in the mythical El Dorado for King James I; although I’d make sure I was safely back inside my time machine and heading for the 21st century before he got thrown into the Tower of London for coming back empty-handed.
Or maybe to 17th century Virginia, America at the time of the first English settlement in Jamestown before things started to go wrong and they all died of malaria, starvation and other nasties.
Or perhaps to a villa in Pompeii in A.D 79, although I’d have to be sure to get out just before Mount Vesuvius erupted …
On second thoughts… Maybe it’s safer to stay put at my desk with a mug of hot chocolate, a bowl of popcorn and the central heating turned up and imagine myself there instead…
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
Gone for a walk in a forest full of real-life bears. Grizzly ones, black ones. All of them
busy stocking up on food before going off to hibernate in their dens. They normally snack on berries and insects but they’re omnivores which means they will eat anything else they can get their paws on too. Sandwiches … soap … toothpaste … PEOPLE. Alright – only sometimes and only if those people get in their way or frighten them. But still, bears are big and they have very sharp teeth and they can run fast … faster than me, even though I was quite good at cross country running at school. Yikes! I’m scaring myself all over again …
By the way, we did actually bump into one, but he was too busy catching and eating salmon to notice us: bears have very poor eyesight. Phewee!
What things do you like doing best?
In no particular order:
- reading – children’s books (of course) and also adult novels and biographies of famous and not-so-famous people
- going for long walks in the countryside with my husband – especially on the Surrey Heaths near where we live and also in the Scottish hills (the two places are more similar than you might think!)
- exploring castles, ruined abbeys and visiting museums – very useful for a time traveller
- more writing and reading
- wildlife spotting – especially birds. My favourites are red kites, sea eagles and puffins, although we don’t get too many of those in our back garden
- even more writing and reading.
What are some of your favourite things?
See above under ‘What things do you like doing best’ but also:
- the autumn – October with all its beautiful colours, ripe berries and the first nip of cold weather is my favourite
- the smell you get in old churches – a mix of moss and crumbling stone and something else I can’t quite put my nose on. The smell of history…
- the view from the top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff, the Canadian Rockies – it was so beautiful it made me cry, which made it very difficult to carry on looking through the binoculars
- the smell of matches just after they’ve been struck
- bookshops – I have to go in to one when I see it, and I nearly always buy a book before I come out again
- fresh and dried figs – in fact anything with figs in it, especially Fig Rolls and a special type of fig cake you can get in Spain – delicious!
- a nice cup of tea – I used to work for a tea trading company, but that’s another story …
What annoys you most?
Litterbugs and people/companies who make a mess of the environment.
What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you?
There are plenty, but perhaps one of the strangest is when we had to evacuate our house after someone discovered what they thought was a Second World War German bomb on some land next to where we lived. Fortunately it turned out to be a ‘dummy’ bomb the local Home Guard used to practice on in training sessions during the war, but it meant we had to spend a night away from home. We had to ‘rescue’ the little old lady who lived opposite us along with her sausage dog, Percy and take them to her daughter’s house. Unfortunately, when Percy got over-excited he also got rather farty. So the journey ended up being rather a whiffy one!
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a writer?
First – read and read and read some more. Not just the things you like reading, but also the books you’re not so sure you’d enjoy. You never know, they might surprise you.
Second – write and write and keep on writing, even if you think what you’re doing is no good, or other people tell you it isn’t. Like painting or learning to play a musical instrument, writing is a craft and you need to practice to get better at it and avoid your fingers and your brain rusting up.
Third – be curious. The world – past and present – is full of fascinating story seeds blowing in the wind. Go out collecting them. Then, if you feed and water your mind with plenty of reading and writing, they’ll have the best chance ever of taking root, growing and taking you and your readers on magical journeys to places you’ve never dreamed of…