Children's Literature Interest Group Interview with Julia Jarman

Julia JarmanAward-winning author Julia Jarman has written over 60 books for children. When she was 8 years old she decided to become a children's writer and actually had some work published. After studying English and Drama at university Julia went on to become a teacher. It was while reading to her three children that she realised the importance of children's stories and became even more determined to write. Her first book to be published was When Poppy Ran Away.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Mostly from real life, some of it very near home, and to that I add imagination. The inspiration for THE BIG RED BATH came while I was watching my grandchildren play in the bath. I really do have a big red bath. The children’s play was bringing the bath toys to life - and flooding the floor. I thought - what if the bath sailed out of the bathroom?

Words themselves can be inspiring, especially onomatopoeia and alliteration. BIG RED BATH sounded like a title, SPLISH, SPLASH, SPLOSH a refrain.

My TIME TRAVELLING CAT series was inspired by one of my cats who kept disappearing. What if it were time-travelling, where would it go? It’s harder to explain flights of imagination but the words ‘what if’ can act as ignition.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

Characters in a situation: HANGMAN is about a boy bullied when he started a new school. I heard about this from a friend and decided to investigate. My latest book, MAKE FRIENDS, BREAK FRIENDS, (Published in February 2013) is about girls falling in and out of friendship and is also based on close observation. I won’t say of whom!

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

Do miners get miners block? I get tired. I get stuck. I take a break. A walk sometimes helps – oxygen to the brain – or a sleep. As many writers say the subconscious sometimes solves problems and I always keep pen and paper near my pillow.

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

There were several. LITTLE WOMEN was formative: I was Jo March when I read it and wanted to become a writer as she did in the sequel. BOWS AGAINST THE BARONS, Geoffrey Trease’s Robin Hood story influenced my beliefs and my style. I also read a lot of Enid Blyton, something which amazes me when I try to read her now.

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

I write for children of all ages ‘from tots to teens and in-betweens’ and I’ve worked with lots of editors over the years. Some have been tentative with the red pen others very bold.

With the best it’s a relationship of mutual respect, and I feel my books are better because of them. A good editor acknowledges a script’s strengths but points out its weaknesses. I welcome suggestions as to how to deal with these but recognise it’s my job to put them right.

In the past I tended to work with one editor and we developed a mutual understanding which worked to a book’s benefit. Nowadays it’s harder I think, as a script is submitted to a committee of editors and sales and marketing people. Trying to please too many people can be frustrating and destroy a book.

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

As I’ve hinted above I sense the pressure of the marketing people in editorial decisions, but I can see a value in that. I want to be read and that means I want people to buy my books. There are dangers though, as in striving to make every book appeal to millions, they can miss out on steady sellers. I visit lots of schools and - dare I say? - I think I’m more in touch than some marketing people. For instance teachers told me they needed a story about the Victorian seaside and I wrote Grandma’s Seaside Bloomers. Researching and writing it was great fun, and I have to say Watts were keen to publish. Sometimes I want to write – and do write - what I think will sell but publishers disagree! I have a drawer full of unsold scripts! I couldn’t write simply for the market – I have to love the story idea – but knowing there are readers out there is a definite stimulus.

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

As soon as I can and sometimes too soon. I do the initial brain-storming and a bit of rudimentary planning with pencil and paper, but can hardly wait to get to my computer which seems to ‘switch on’ my creative brain.

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

Very little. The publishing team is much more powerful than me and, I have to say, often right. I love the cover and illustrations of most of my books. Frustration sets in when I write stories with particular illustrators in mind and publishers disagree, but frustration is part of the job.

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

When I have an idea for a story – usually a character in a particular situation - I ask myself who would find it interesting. Sometimes the answer is obvious CLASS TWO AT THE ZOO for instance, sometimes less so.

I wrote MAKE FRIENDS, BREAK FRIENDS about and for readers of KS1 or 2, so kept the length to around 6,000 words and asked for it to have lots of illustrations to break up the text and make it accessible to young readers. Publishes agreed! Told in the first person it has a colloquial style which reflects the age of the readership.

The theme of falling in and out of friendship is just as relevant to teenagers, but if I’d written for them the material and language would have reflected the teenage experience and the book would have been longer.

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

I would probably still be teaching English and Drama.

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

When I read Little Women aged about 9. My copy is inscribed ‘To Julia on her 8th birthday.’

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Work at the craft.

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