Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Gillian Cross

Gillian CrossGillian Cross won the 1990 Carnegie Medal for her book Wolf and the 1992 Whitbread Children's Book Award for her novel The Great Elephant Chase. She is also the author of The Demon Headmaster series of books which have been turned into television series by the BBC.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Many different places.  I’m very curious about the world and particularly about what it would be like to be someone different.  The books I’ve most enjoyed writing have been inspired by the coming together of two things that fascinate me – like Somalia and high fashion, in Where I Belong.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

I’m not sure I can separate them out.  Places are sometimes very important in triggering a story.  And sometimes it’s an initial situation that grabs me – like the opening scene of Wolf – and I begin to write without really knowing what’s going to happen after that.

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

Yes, I do.  If I knew what to do about it, it wouldn’t really be a block, but I have one or two things I can try.  Sometimes I’m blocked because the story has started to bore me and I need to go back to the place where it went wrong and delete everything after that – which is very hard to do if there’s a lot of it.   But the main thing is just to keep writing and not give up.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

i.  Have fun (and you can do that being sad or serious, of course).  If the writer isn’t enjoying the story, no one else will enjoy it either
ii.  Keep writing and don’t lose heart.
iii. Never settle for second best.  If you can see that something needs improving, then try and improve it.

Do you have favourite authors or books yourself? Who are they?

I have lots of favourites.  I’m a big fan of Antonia Forrest and of Peter Dickinson’s children’s books.  One of my favourite children’s books is The Secret Garden.  And two of my favourite booksfor adults are Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room and a collection of poems by Philip Gross called The Water Table.

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

A P.E.N. booklet by Eleanor Farjeon called Magic Casements.

I was ill a lot with chest complaints as a child and books became my magic carpets to Narnia and to Austria with the Chalet School girls, into great adventures like The Silver Sword and the mystical quests of Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin.

How much does your editor change what you write? What relationship do you have with your editor?

I’ve always had good relationships with my editors and found them happy to work in the way that suits me best.   I discuss the idea before I write the book and then I go away and don’t show the editor anything until I think the book’s finished.  The editor reads my ‘final’ version and then we talk about it and where it doesn’t seem to be working.  That usually lights the whole thing up for me and I’ll go away and make changes – sometimes quite big ones.  Occasionally, at the copyediting stage, an editor will make suggestions about particular words and phrases.  But I wouldn’t expect anything I’ve written to be changed without discussion.

Do you feel a tension between writing what you know will sell and writing what you would like to write?

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write the things I really want to write and have them published.  I don’t think I’m really able to write any other sort of book, however popular it might be.

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

I try and get the first draft down on paper, but I usually migrate to the computer about halfway through.

What control do you have over your book cover (and your illustrations)?

No control, but publishers have always been very good about consulting me.

Do you write with a particular age group in mind? How does the target age group affect your writing?

It doesn’t really work like that for me.  The story comes first and it has its own level.  But I am very aware that children and adults know different things about the world and sometimes it takes me a long time to work out how to tell a particular kind of story without getting bogged down in tedious explanations.

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

Oh dear!  I’ve been failing to answer this question for forty years.  When I finished at university I wanted, briefly, to be an academic.  But I don’t think I would have coped very well with that kind of life.  I might have taught English in secondary schools, but I would never have been as good as my mother, who was a passionate and committed English teacher.

At what stage did you know you wanted to become an author?

I think I wanted to write books almost as soon as I could read them.  I can remember walking to school when I was about seven, making up the titles of books I would write and the wonderful reviews they would have.  (Missing out the difficult writing part of the process!)  But I never thought that I would be lucky enough to write as my main occupation.  I always expected to have a job.  

The English Association is running a competition about Dickens for primary age children throughout 2011. If you had any memories of Dickens from your childhood or if Dickens is special to you in any way, feel free to add any comments about him.

My great-grandfather (whom I remember very well) worked on the railways, driving a steam engine, and he was devoted to Dickens.  He had all Dickens’ books on a shelf and he would read his way along the shelf – and when he reached the end he would go straight back to the beginning and start again.  I’ve read all of them too, some more than once (though not as often as my great-grandfather did!)  I don’t know which was his favourite, but mine is Great Expectations, which is a wonderful book. 

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