Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Jean Ure

Ure.jpgJean Ure's first book was published when she was sixteen and still at school. Since then she has published over 170 books for children. She has become very popular with female teenage readers around Britain with novels such as Shrinking Violet, Family Fan Club and Passion Flower.

Where does your inspiration come from?
Short answer: anywhere and everywhere! Things I hear, things I see. Things I read in other people’s books. Things I remember from my childhood. Things which seem to pop up from nowhere, from some place inside my head.

What comes first – plot, character, or situation?
Mostly, I would say, situation. For example, it occurs to me that it might be fun to write a book about a girl who meddles. Someone who tries hard to be helpful, but inevitably ends up creating chaos. I toy with this idea for a while, and gradually, bit by bit, a character starts to emerge. I can see her, I can hear her. I see her with her friends, with her family: at school, at home. Various incidents present themselves. I write them all down, until I have several pages of notes, including quite lengthy conversations. Ultimately, I have to impose some order and decide on an actual storyline. I need to know what the point of the story is, and where it is going. I work out the beginning, I work out the ending, and all points in between, so that I have, in effect, a series of stepping stones taking me through the book.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?
Never get it! Back in the day I sometimes used to get stuck and find myself unable to write what I had had in mind to write, but generally, in such a case, I found that what I had had in mind was either quite wrong for the actual book, or quite simply just wrong for me as a writer. But the best thing always to do is to keep calm, don’t panic, just go away and give yourself a bit of a breathing space. A few hours, a few days. This applies whether you’re just temporarily stuck, or just temporarily out of ideas.

Do you have favourite authors or books yourself?
Impossible of course to choose just one favourite author, but if pushed I would have to say Jane Austen. I love her for her wit, her style, her elegance, and above all her characters. Others I enjoy are Edith Wharton, much of Anthony Trollope, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and – perhaps a curious choice – The Charioteer by Mary Renault. And lots lots more! Too numerous to name.

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?
When I was very young I loved Winnie the Pooh, the William books, and, yes, Enid Blyton. A bit older and it was Geoffrey Trease, Malcolm Saville, Black Beauty and as many ballet books as I could lay my hands on. A bit older still and I came to Catcher in the Rye, I Capture the Castle and No Bed for Bacon. I have to say that these last three seriously affected my writing style for many years and to a certain extent still do!

How much does your editor change what you write? What relationship do you have with your editor?
I’m thankful to say that my editor changes very little of what I write, and certainly nothing without a prior discussion. Over a long writing life I have had a great many editors and can honestly say I have enjoyed good and close working relationships with almost all of them.

Do you feel a tension between writing what you know will sell and writing what you would like to write?
No! I am fortunate, I think, that my preferred style of writing is one which naturally appeals to my target audience. I am strong on humour, strong on characters. Not gifted at poetical descriptions of landscape, not good at fast-moving action. My books will never win prizes because not classed as literary, and they will never appeal to boys because not enough going on, but I count myself lucky that I seem to have a faithful following amongst pre-teen girls. I am very happy doing what I do!

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?
I write my first draft by hand, transferring the morning’s work – 4 or 5 pages, as a rule - to the computer in the afternoon. I then immediately print out before junking the hand-written draft. And just to be absolutely secure, I then lock the hard copy in a safe ...

What control do you have over your book covers (and your illustrations)?
Almost none! This has in the past been a very sore point. The teenage books which I was writing in the eighties and early nineties have some of the most appalling covers ever to see the light of day. It used to drive me half insane. Fortunately, I have been very lucky with Collins. I still don’t have much say in the process, but I have learnt to trust them to come up with covers which are bright, appealing and eye-catching. The only ones of my books these days to have illustrations are the ones I do for much younger readers, and apart from the occasional bleat of protest I mostly leave things in the hands of my various publishers.

Do you write with a particular age group in mind? How does this target age group affect your writing?
Yes, all my Collins books are written with an audience of roughly 9-13 in mind. This doesn’t really affect the subject matter I choose, since I have no particularly strong desire to write about, say, sex or violence, and it doesn’t on the whole affect the words I use. My editor is happy to let “difficult” words through the net – if they are really difficult I usually find a way of elucidating – though we do occasionally cross swords over ones which are thought unlikely to be used by my target audience. We bicker – very amiably – about this, and sometimes I give way, and sometimes my editor gives way. I do have a rooted objection to using nothing but “teenspeak”, as I feel it makes for a threadbare text, so from time to time I like to slip in something a bit unusual or quirky.

What do you think you would you be if you weren’t an author?
Difficult to answer as I simply cannot imagine not being an author! I guess I would choose to work with animals.

At what stage did you know you wanted to become an author?
Very early on. I remember boasting to a friend when I was still at primary school that I had had a “story” published. I even told her the name of the story – Jam Pot Jane. I think the reason I remember this so clearly is that it was a total fabrication: I had never even written a story called Jam Pot Jane, let alone had it published. But I did write my first full-length novel when I was eleven. It stretched over a dozen school exercise books and was written in a variety of different-coloured inks – red, blue, green, indigo. I still have it, somewhere down in the cellar. It was called The Big One, and read aloud nightly, in serial form, it kept my little brother highly amused.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
No.1, obviously, is the importance of reading. Read, read, read, as much as you possibly can. And write! Try out different styles, different genres. Poetry, articles, essays, novels, short stories. You need to experiment in order to find out in which direction your talent lies. It’s important to bear in mind that nobody can teach anyone how to be a writer. It’s something which can only be learned through trial and error. Constructive criticism obviously helps; but ultimately it’s up to the individual.

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