Both children and adults will ask me all kinds of questions about myself and my writing–here are just a few of the most common ones I’ve had (and a few I just felt like writing about!):
How old were you when you first started writing?
The first piece of writing I remember doing, and really enjoying, was a poetry assignment we were given in Primary 5, so I was 9 years old. Our teacher, Miss McGovern, had asked us to write a short poem on a topic of our choosing. After much thought, I wrote a poem called “The Fog”, which was about how a foggy day can make everything look different. The poem went down really well with the teacher and the class, and it was the first time I realised that I actually enjoyed writing and could even maybe do it well (sometimes!).
Why do you like writing?
I love the way that a story can start in my mind and then finish up as words on a page. It’s just great to then know that a story can be read and enjoyed by so many others. Most of all, I love stories, in all their shapes and sizes.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Oh, this is a hard one. I think inspiration comes from all sorts of unexpected places. Sometimes I might be reading a magazine and spot an interesting name or description that might make me think
Where do you go to write?
I don’t (at least not now) have a ‘writing spot’ as such. I’ve always written wherever I have a notebook or a laptop, and a quiet moment. I’ve written on park benches, in (noisy) coffee shops, on buses, in libraries, and on the London Underground. I’ve actually written very little at home. The great thing about writing outdoors is all the inspiration that it can offer. I’ve never really understood the whole thing about going to some far-away retreat (or haunted hotel, like The Shining) just to write a book. Imagination doesn’t always work in a vacuum.
Do you start with plots or characters?
I might even start with a title! It really depends on what I have in mind and where the story has come from. Sometimes it can even be a setting, like a city, landscape, or house. The challenge is to start with whatever ‘nugget’ you have and develop it further and further until it forms a complete story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Is it easier to write books for children than for adults?
No, absolutely not! In many ways it can be harder, though it’s perhaps fairer to say that it has its own challenges. You need to make sure the language is of the right level and the concepts and events you are describing will make sense. Also, on some level, you need to really be aware of what it was like to be a child, and how you used to see the world around you at such a young age.
What’s your advice to writers just starting out?
First, make sure you read widely, as it will give you the grounding you need in understanding literature, story structure and the myriad plots and styles out there. It will provide you with plenty of inspiration for your own work and will also help you recognise stereotypes. Last but not least, it’s also a lot of fun! (And if reading isn’t fun, then why do you want to be a writer…?)
Next, write a lot too! It doesn’t have to be a novel ‘write’ away. Perhaps keep a diary for a month and try to describe your experiences each day. Sometimes it might be mundane, but then you’ll have the challenge of turning that into something interesting. Maybe write a few short stories, the odd poem, whatever you feel like. Being a writer is about writing. So write.
Do I need to study English at university to be a writer?
No you don’t, though it doesn’t hurt. It depends on what your goals are–if you want to write full time, then it’s probably a good idea to get a degree in English or a subject such as journalism or creative writing. However, at the end of the day, being a writer (of fiction, anyway) is about inventing great stories and putting them down in words. You don’t necessarily need an English degree for that, just a great imagination, practice, and dedication.
What was your favourite subject at school?
English, followed closely by history. I was actually quite good at maths and science, but couldn’t really say that I ‘enjoyed’ them as such (though I didn’t dislike them either). My favourite lesson at high school was double English on a Friday afternoon. Our teacher, Mrs McClure, was fantastic and I don’t think we ever had a boring lesson.
Who was your favourite teacher?
The teacher that’s stuck in my mind the most–out of many excellent ones–is Mrs Kane. She actually taught my class twice, once in Primary 4 and again in P7. She was very strict though had a deeply caring side to her that shone through.
What’s your favourite book?
This section could go on and on! When I was a child, the section of the library you could always find me in was where the mystery novels were kept. I loved all of the Enid Blyton mysteries, especially The Five Find Outers and of course The Famous Five. In fact, the first book I ever bought was The Famous Five and the Secret of the Caves, which I got for 10p (yes, that’s right!) from our school book fair.
OK, now to answer the question. If I have to pick one book (for children), it would have to be Back Home by Michelle Magorian. It’s about a girl who has been evacuated to the US during the Second World War, and now has to come home to Britain after the war has ended. The story tells of her ups and downs as she tries to fit back in with her own family and in a country barely recovering from war.
Is there a book you really didn’t like?
I’m not a fan of books that have sad or tragic endings but without any sense of good or hope coming out of it. One book I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with is Wuthering Heights, the romantic novel by Charlotte Bronte–it’s a fine novel, though not one that I’d read again (though you never know).
I also remember, on occasion, picking up one of the “Case Files” books from the different US mystery series like Nancy Drew (written for teens), and thinking how utterly boring they were. For some reason, at the time, they seemed very different from the ones I was used to reading. Looking back, it was probably because the Case Files were written for older teens and the storylines were a bit more gritty and realistic, which didn’t appeal then.
Do you like classic fiction and which is your favourite?
The one that springs to mind right away is Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. In fact, my next two are also by the great French author: Around the World in Eighty Days, and the less well-known The Mysterious Island.
What’s your favourite poem?
I enjoy learning poems off by heart, though I don’t always have the chance to recite them! Some of my favourites are ‘To a Mouse‘ and ‘A Man’s a Man‘ by Robert Burns, and ‘If‘ by Rudyard Kipling. I also admire the more poignant poetry of the First World War, especially ‘For the Fallen‘ by Laurence Binyon and ‘The Soldier‘ by Rupert Brooke. On a lighter note, there’s always ‘The Night Before Christmas‘ by Clement Clarke Moore.
What’s your favourite film?
Another hard one. I mainly enjoy action/adventure films but also the odd historical or romantic one. A film I’ve seen a couple of times and don’t get tired of is Total Recall, the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another film I quite like is Mickey Blue Eyes, starring Hugh Grant and Jeanne Tripplehorn.