Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Julie Bertagna

Julie Bertagna

Julie was born in Ayrshire and grew up near Glasgow, where she now lives with her family. After a degree in English Language and Literature, she was the editor of a small magazine, a teacher and a freelance journalist. Julie has written many critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels for teenagers and younger readers. She speaks in schools, libraries and at book festivals across the UK.

Where does your inspiration come from?

I find ideas and inspiration everywhere. It’s as if, when I write, the world comes knocking at my window and elements of reality seep into my imagination. It might be a snippet of news, an overheard conversation, a memory, a landscape, a piece of history, a scientific discovery... all these kinds of things infuse the ‘soup’ of the story and when I cook it all together in my imagination, it brews up into something completely new on the page.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

Usually I am struck by an event, a possibility, some kind of turmoil or conflict: the ‘happening’ of the story. Then, even before I know who my characters are, I need to see where they are and I form a vision of the landscape or setting of the story in my head. Once I’ve got my ‘happening’ and a strong sense of place, my characters and their story grow out of that. So, for Mara in Exodus, the happening was a flooded world and the landscape was Mara’s drowning island in the year 2100. Everything else, in what turned out to be an epic trilogy, grew out of that.

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

Every writer becomes stuck at some point. It’s normal! Sometimes, some tricky part of the story is not working; sometimes you are just tired. So what I do is: I go swimming or to the gym or for a run in the park, or I cook up a big meal, blitz the housework, watch a film, listen to music, read lots and lots. Meanwhile, the story is simmering away at the back of my mind. And, soon, my imagination unblocks. It’s like a tennis player trying to execute the perfect serve - if they are too tired or too tense, they hit the net. You need to find ways to re-charge your imagination and get into an inspired ‘zone’ where you are focussed yet not tense. Then the ideas flow.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read lots and lots and live your life! When you have an idea for a story, have fun daydreaming and let your imagination run free in the first draft - but be your own fiercest critic in the re-draft. Find people who can help you become the best writer you can be. Use your heroes as inspiration - the journeys of other writers or sports people can help you find your own true grit. Always go that extra mile and never settle for ‘good’ - aim for ‘great’.

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

My bookshelves are crammed with beloved books; it’s hard to choose. I love classics like the Brontes, Henry James and Edith Wharton, but I also love modern writers with unusual imaginations like Philip Pullman, David Almond, Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro - anyone who can take me on a fascinating journey through the magic of their words.

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

I was entranced by the story of Heidi by Johanna Spyri when I was little. I loved the story of this feisty little orphan, set in the Swiss mountains, and wanted it read to me all the time. When my dad took me on my first visit to our local library I was outraged when I found my beloved Heidi, there. I’d thought the book was mine alone and had no idea there was another copy in the world. I remember being amazed when dad said I could choose books to take home, but I only wanted one: Heidi. I sat down on the floor to check if this really was the same book and realised with a great thrill that I could read the words underneath the first picture all by myself: ‘they came to the little village of Dörfli...’

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 have always had very good relationships with my editors because we are working towards the same end - to create the very best book we can for the reader. That doesn’t mean I always agree with everything they say (editors are not always right). But I always encourage them to be ruthlessly honest if they feel something is not working (because I am not always right either!) I would never let an editor write anything - that’s my job. But if they question a part of the story that is confusing or drags on too much, or spot a mistake, then I would be a foolish author not to take note and re-draft to make the story the very best it can be.

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

I’ve always believed that if I write the kind of books that I myself would love to read, and do so with great care and passion and with the highest respect for my readers, then my stories will find their way to others who will love them too. And so far, that is what has happened.

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

I do lots of very intense day-dreaming when I begin a new book. (That’s the bit I love best.) Soon, I’m scribbling down ideas and scenes and bits of dialogue. Once I’ve filled a notebook and there are scraps of notes on my bedside table, in the kitchen, everywhere, then I know it’s time to get some order into proceedings and start to organise it all on the computer!

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

I don’t have as much say over book covers and illustrations as I would like - most authors don’t. A whole publishing team of editors, designers, sales and marketing people work and argue over this - then they present their ideas to me. I do suggest tweaks - a clearer font for the title, for example, in my latest book, or point out any mistakes. What I’ve learned to do is offer suggestions at the start. In the fantastic new covers for my Exodus trilogy I urged the designer to use the spectacular colours of the Northern Lights, and he did - quite stunningly.

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

I don’t write with an age group in mind, but the story that I choose to tell and the age of the main character - the viewpoint through which the story is told - determines the kind of book I create: the subject-matter, the language I use, the depth and sophistication of thought and so on. For example, I wouldn’t write about teenage problems for a 7 year old reader; neither would I write about a magical ice cream van for a 14 year old! My publisher, knowledgeable booksellers and librarians, and also the book cover and blurb all help to make sure a book finds its way to the right sort of reader.

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

I was both a teacher and a freelance feature-writer for newspapers and magazines before I was an author so I think I would be doing one or both of these, as I enjoyed each of them immensely.

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

I knew by age seven that I wanted to be a writer - but I never thought I could be. It seemed as unlikely as flying to the moon!

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.

 In my book Exodus, the main character, Mara, is a teenage girl trying to survive in a flooded world of the future. She finds an old book in a drowned library and is instantly drawn into the story by the opening lines: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...’ This is from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and in a world where most of the books of the past have been lost to the floods, this precious relic becomes Mara’s inspiration. I chose this book for Mara because I think it has the most haunting opening words of any book I’ve ever read and a hugely powerful story.

Share this page: