Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Jane Johnson

Jane JohnsonJane Johnson is a writer – for adults and for children – and a publisher. She is Fiction Publishing Director for HarperCollins Publishers UK, where she is responsible for the Voyager science fiction and fantasy list, as well as publishing thrillers and some historical fiction. Her new book, Goldseekers, is set in 17th century Cornwall and features young Jude Lanyon, who discovers he has the uncanny ability to find gold.

Where does your inspiration come from?

That’s a question no author can truthfully answer! The only useful response is ‘everywhere and nowhere’: because stories don’t just spring fully formed into your head, it’s a strange chemistry in which a dozen ingredients somehow join together by themselves. A conversation half-overheard in the street, the sight of a cat walking along a wall, a dream, a smell… It’s a mystery, and it should stay that way.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

Sometimes one, sometimes another. With The Secret Country I woke from a dream with a boy and a cat talking to me. With Goldseekers it was the sight of the causeway at St Michael's Mount appearing like magic out of the sea. Plot usually comes last, because it comes out of characters and the ingredients I mention above.

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

I don’t personally believe there is such a thing. Everyone has good days and bad days with everything they do – maths, football, writing. But as with everything the only way to deal with a problem is to keep working at it.

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

Hundreds! Thousands! They change every day, depending on what I am reading. I love modern work and classics equally: a good story is a good story. Favourite writers include JRR Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliff, Robin Hobb, Gerald Durrell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, AS Byatt…

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

The first one I ever bought for myself was Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. I also loved The Wind in the Willows, Treaure Island, The Borrowers, The Eagle of the Ninth, Viking Dawn, The Famous Five books, Swallows and AmazonsThe Gorilla Hunters - anything that involved adventure or magic. I could go on and on.

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

They try sometimes to change things, and sometimes they are right (I have many editors around the world), but sometimes as a writer you have to be true to your vision of the book and stick with your original, because it’s easy to edit the life out of something. I have a good, but sometimes lively, relationship with my editors, but based on mutual respect.

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

Never. I never think about ‘the market’ – if I did I would be writing vampire and werewolf stories, but I find them rather predictable, and they don’t appeal to me. A proper writer will only ever write the stories they feel passionate about, no matter how difficult it may be to have them published or to sell them in quantity.

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

It tends to vary. I am a terrible, slow and inaccurate typist, so most of the time I start by writing in a notebook so that making corrections and seeing nonsense on the screen does not distract me. Then I will type up what I have written and self-edit at the same time.

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

None at all! Sometimes publishers will send you the cover or illustrations at an early enough stage that you can say what you think, but they rarely change a cover just because the writer doesn’t like it. Unless you’re JK Rowling!

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

Not really. I write the stories I want to write using the structures and vocabulary those stories ask to have used in order to be told. Sometimes my editor will shake her head and say ‘that’s a hard word for a 10 year old’ but I think learning new words is one of the great joys in life. Just think how boring it would be if we all used the same 100 words all the time.

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

Well, I am not just an author, I am also a publisher of adult fiction, so I work full-time and write in the spaces that are left, which can be hard. There are very few authors in the world who can afford to be just authors. What I WANTED to be when I was ten was Batman. It was a severe disappointment to be told I couldn’t be Batman because I was a girl. So I wrote stories in which Batman was really a girl… 

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

I used to write stories as soon as I could write. I wrote a 60-page novel about a Dartmoor pony called Thunderbolt when I was 8. But I never thought about selling my stories until I’d been working in publishing for over a decade.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

There are no tricks or secrets to writing except to do it as much as you can, to carry a notebook with you and to write all sorts of things – observations and people talking to each other, ideas, jokes, book reports, essays, texts, emails – anything. Never give up on a story or throw it away. Put it aside if you get stuck on it, because it will always come in handy in an unexpected way. Try not to write the same story again and again. Don’t worry about other people’s opinions too much, but listen to your own inner critic. If you are an honest person you will always know if your work is any good or not; but if in doubt, it’s better to err on the side of modesty -- no one like a bighead! But the most important thing of all is to read and read and read: all sorts of books and to be aware while you read them of how the writer is achieving their effects. And don’t be afraid of your ideas being strange or disturbing: stories should take people by surprise and your imagination is what defines you as a person. Pay attention to it, feed it well and it will reward you.

Share this page: