Q & A
What are your favourite children’s books and why?
It’s difficult to come up with favourites because different books were important to me at different times — I loved Enid Blyton and CS Lewis when I was younger; adored Harry Potter as soon as I read the first chapter of the first book; was completely blown away by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and was utterly gripped by Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light. I think the most important thing in a children’s book is a wonderful story, one that can completely transport you. That’s why I loved reading when I was younger (and why I continue to love it now) — because every time you pull back a cover, you start a new adventure.
Who are your favourite children’s authors and why?
My favourite children’s authors are those who, in my opinion, make the most of the genre with great storytelling, extensive imagination, and who aren’t afraid to tackle difficult and complicated subjects. Philip Pullman is certainly one, as are Meg Rosoff, Jennifer Donnelly and Jacqueline Wilson. I think that Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales are also absolutely wonderful.
Who or what was your biggest influence in deciding to become a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young — I was always writing stories, and spent the vast majority of my childhood creating imaginary lands in my head. I got a job as a journalist after university and that was a huge confidence boost — to know that someone would actually pay me to write! I always knew that I wanted to write a book — I just had to wait for the right idea to come along.
What inspired you to write your latest book?
Lots of things inspired me to write The Declaration, but the most important one was an article I read in a newspaper, which was about how scientific breakthroughs meant that within a few years, we could all be living much longer, and about a scientist who said it was the moral duty of the scientific community to do everything it could to extend the life span of humans — perhaps indefinitely. And as I read this article, I began to think that if everyone lived forever, or even for a very long time, there wouldn’t be any room on the earth for us all before too long. And then I wondered if, maybe, if everyone lived forever, people would have to stop having children. That seemed to me the most appalling and horrific idea, and as soon as I’d had it, the idea of Anna came to me. Actually, she didn’t just come to me as an idea — she had soon moved into my head full time and wouldn’t let me rest until the book had been written.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
Probably the letter to my agent, Dorie Simmonds. It was that letter that led to my books being published instead of languishing on my computer hoping to be read by someone!
Is there any particular ritual involved in your writing process (favourite pen, lucky charm, south-facing window)?
I don’t have too many rituals when it comes to writing — I sit looking out into the garden, which is lovely (and provides welcome distractions when required), and I can’t even start thinking about writing until I’ve had a cup of hot, steaming tea. Other than that, I try to clear my mind completely, think about my characters, and then write as much as I can before my next tea break!
What is your favourite colour?
I think my favourite colour is probably yellow — it’s not a colour I’d ever wear, but when I walk into a yellow room I immediately feel uplifted. It’s probably because yellow is the colour of sunshine; because it’s bright and bold and carefree.
What is your favourite food and worst?
I have lots of favourite foods — spaghetti bolognaise, baked potato, vegetable soup, dark chocolate with nuts, fresh figs. In the winter, I love comfort food — food that’s warming and nourishing, like sausage hot pot; in the summer I can’t get enough of salads and fruit (particularly strawberries and cream).
There aren’t very many foods that I don’t like, but liver is certainly one of them. Another is porridge — it always looks so appetizing, but when I try a spoonful it never lives up to my expectations.
Do you have a pet?
I do have a pet — a cat who invited himself in and hung around the house until eventually, having made sure that he was a stray, my husband and I adopted him. We called him ‘Lodger’ because my husband was convinced he’d only ever stay for a few months, but he seems to be a permanent fixture now. He loves nothing more than waiting until I’m really engrossed in my writing, then jumping up and lying across my keyboard. I don’t mind, so long as his paw doesn’t go anywhere near the ‘delete’ key…
What subject did you enjoy most as school… and least?
I loved English and History — loved stories and words. I never really enjoyed Geography — I was interested in foreign lands, but all we seemed to do was study ordinance survey maps and learn about population growth.
What is your favourite film?
That’s a very tough one — I love films. I grew up watching musicals — everything from The Sound of Music to Singing in the Rain, and I still get excited by the prospect of a Sunday afternoon musical fest. I also love action films — from Indiana Jones to the Bourne Identity. But I think my favourite film is probably one called Babette’s Feast, which is a beautifully filmed story about a French woman who loses everything and moves to a small Swedish village. It’s a film about friendship, loyalty, acceptance… and food!
What music do you like?
I love all sorts of music. I listen to a lot of classical music — I was a keen musician when I was younger and played in lots of orchestras. I also love indie music — the Kooks are a current favourite, along with Muse and The Killers.
If you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been?
I’d like to say an astronaut or an adventurer, but I think I would have ended up writing in some way — perhaps as a journalist, or perhaps working in education. I might even have become a teacher — I think working with young people and getting them excited in a book, a subject or the world around them is about the most rewarding thing you can do.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It really depends — it can take weeks, months or even years! Sometimes a book just flows out of you; other times you have to wrench it out.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I get my ideas from all over the place — an overheard snippet of conversation, the news, films… Having said that, I generally tend to have my best ideas on holiday, in the first few days when my mind is still racing but it’s got nothing to focus on. It doesn’t take long before my brain shuts down completely, so I have to make the most of any inspiration while it lasts!