Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughreanAward-winning author Geraldine McCaughrean has been writing for children for over 25 years.

When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

I try not to.  I have a rough landscape stretching away in front of me, some hidden by fog, some landmarks I know I am heading for, but generally I prefer to be in the same frame of mind as the reader when I write, wanting to turn over the page so as to find out what happens next.  That’s why the emphasis in schools on Planning irks me a bit.
Some authors – like Philip Pullman – plan fastidiously; others make it up as they go along.  Dickens simply wandered around in the woods getting to know his imaginary characters. (I’m with him here.  Nothing gels until the characters take on life.)

Do you base your characters on real people?

Yes, in that I have included real characters in my books – Tamburlaine (Timur-y-Lang) and Khubilai Khan, for example.  Then, I’ve found, reading up on their lives half wrote the book for me, since their quirks of character, odd cultural habits and moments of greatness/villainy/stupidity/vanity etc suggested whole scenes and plot twists.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

I do these days.  I used to think it was a pranny’s excuse for taking a rest.  Then it jumped out at me from a dark corner - boo. If I’m in the middle of a book I will send it away to someone I trust to read and tell me if it really is boring rubbish and worthless and useless and a mess.  If they write back saying they want to know what happens next I’m usually alright to go on …and  by then I probably have some idea what I want to happen next.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

Being a decent human being betweenwhiles.  Writing is the easy bit.  I used to look up at the clock and find I had forgotten to pick my daughter up from infant school or cook the husband any dinner.

Lately I find my greatest difficulty is in keeping down the age level of my books.  I start off to write a story for 8 or 9-year-olds but it invariably drifts upwards to 13 or 14 or adult.  I don’t know why. Perhaps the characters have started to interest me more than the ‘suddenlies’.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

- Having the chance to invent a world and then to set inside it and have an adventure there, safe in the knowledge that I can make it turn out how I want in the end. 

– Stepping inside the skin of someone I like better than I like myself and seeing the world through their eyes for a change. 

When you are the author, you can grant your character all the qualities you would like to have had yourself but never did; spend time in the company of whomever you choose.  Mind you, it is possible to do that just by playing in your imagination; you don’t need to write it all down to get the benefit.
Writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fair enough.  (Me, I don’t like football much.)  But I do mind about people not using their imaginations.  They say souls are the one thing Mankind has that the animals don’t.  But actually we are the only animals on the planet that have Imagination, so it’s pretty wicked to let it wither and die.

What inspired you to write?

I was too shy to speak.  It was the only way I could put what was on the inside on the outside, if you see what I mean.  It was theatre, though, rather than books that inspired me with a love with words.  Constructing sentences is to me what building brick walls was to Winston Churchill – a hobby that concentrates but also relaxes the brain.

Do you follow the same process each time you write?

Some books go better than others.  Some I need to take to pieces, move bits around, look down the back of the sofa for missing pieces...  But basically I always dive in at the start and write to the end.  It’s hopeless (for me) to leave a gap and jump ahead hoping to come back and join the pieces together: it never works. 

Of course I have probably been there a year before I start on it and will have accumulated a card-index file of possible characters, events, settings, situations, dilemmas, historical background and so on.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

I write long-hand in a notebook which has to be different from all the other notebooks I’ve bought.  I have the world’s worst handwriting, so if I don’t type it up fast even I can’t read it.  As I type it up I edit.  Then every time I open the computer the document opens at page one, so I tend to start editing the whole thing all over again!  Mostly I take out adjectives and adverbs and metaphores: I know I use too many.

How much does your editor change what you write?

Publishers vary.  Oxford University Press do not change much.  Usborne’s make suggestion for massive changes.  It is only the American publishers that send back a manuscript with queries on almost every single line!…Unanswerable queries, such as “Why is this joke funny?”

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

Unhappy.  Nobody.  Invisible.  Silent.

What is your attitude to kindles and ebooks?

I don’t have the same a rabid hatred of them some people do, but they worry me. The real problems have nothing to do with the smell or feel or beauty of a ‘Real Book’. 
The fact is they sell for a low price and authors still get a very small proportion of what the reader pays.  A small proportion of a small price doesn’t add up to very much. 
More important still -  how many young people pay for the music they download from the computer?   (Honest answers only please.)  How many young people are going to download audio books without paying for them at all? (Take a guess.)

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

At what age? 
Joseph and his Brothers in Egypt was an early favourite because the men in the pictures were all wearing diaphanous white skirts that showed their legs.  Riveting. Bewildering.
Pony books by the Pullein Thompson sisters later –or anything with a horse on the cover. Rosemary Sutcliffe later still – probably the reason I write mostly historical fiction.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Don’t write unless you would go on doing it whether or not anyone paid you, whether or not anyone read your books. 

Get published wherever you can – internet sites like Fanfiction are excellent because you get feedback from like-minded people who appreciate the same things you do. 

Listen to audio books.  The stock advice is to read, read, read, but I favour listen, listen, listen because then you  pick up the cadence of a well written sentence and get to know how one of your own should sound in your head as you write it.  I gave my daughter loads of audio books after she became a reader and by 17 she had written 17 novels!  And she wrote a lot better than I did at an early age. Read what you’ve written out loud.  You’ll hear where it’s wrong.
Play in your imagination between times.

And remember that school is the only place you will ever be asked to write anything in 40 minutes.  It is a completely artificial situation and when it comes to writing in real life, Time is hardly ever a factor.

Some people write a book in a week, some take 10 years.  No one ever said to Dostoevsky or Roald Dahl “Put your pen down now, time is up.” 

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