Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with K.M. Grant

Photograph of KM Grant

Katie M Grant is a children's writer, based in Scotland, who is perhaps best known for her DeGranville Trilogy, published by Walker Books. She was inspired by her own family history to write How the Hangman Lost His Heart. Her ancestor, Colonel Francis Towneley, or Uncle Frank, was the last man in Britain to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. His head was passed down for generations of her family until it was finally reunited with his body just after World War II, when it was buried at St. Peter's Church. It was Uncle Frank's colorful legacy that showed her how exciting history could be.

Where does your inspiration come from?

From overheard conversations; obituaries; history books; portraits; hidden corners of buildings; derelict farms; gravestones; snippets of poems; tapestries; faces on the underground; old and inaccurately remembered news stories; my ancestors.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

The opening scene comes first – in Belle’s Song (due out this spring) it was Belle’s fateful carelessness. Or sometimes the closing scene, as in the last three chapters of Paradise Red, where the Cathars opt to burn. That final inferno was in my mind the whole way through the trilogy.

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

I usually get blocked at about Chapter 6. Sometimes I read poetry; sometimes I play the piano; sometimes I sit and panic; sometimes I just type rubbish until I find I’m writing my story again. Once I got on a plane and went to France. Block passes, though it’s often difficult to believe it will.

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

My most consistently favourite author is probably Evelyn Waugh. My favourite book is currently Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. Both these favourites change from time to time.

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

The Black Riders by Violet Needham; My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and The Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Be immensely self-critical; write and rewrite; ruthlessly use the delete button; keep going.

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

My editors have always made suggestions for changes, some pretty radical, but although I’ve occasionally read their comments with misgivings or even astonishment, I’ve never, when re-reading at proof stage, found my editors to be wrong. They do their job; an author does hers. The jobs are not the same. My relationship with my editor is based on trust. If you don’t trust your editor, your life as an author will be very uncomfortable and unhappy.

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

I do, but luckily my editors have always been happy with my being Katie Grant not Katie Price, so I continue to write literary historical novels that are never going to make my publishers – or me - rich.

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

What? Have you seen my handwriting? I use a computer from the first letter of the first word.

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

None. I always say ‘lovely’ even if I have to bite my lip. Why start an unwinnable war with the marketing department? The same, by the way, goes for book titles.

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 and, as a result, my editors and I sometimes argue over words. I think children can understand unusual words from the context, and if they can’t understand them they can look them up. I don’t believe that readers of any age are only happy with words they already know. Why not surprise them? And what child can truly live without ‘discombobulate’, ‘glaikit’ or ‘bashibazouk’?

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

I’d be a nuisance.

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

I never knew. Nine years ago I just had a story – Blood Red Horse – which I felt absolutely compelled to write down.

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.

One of the most useful lessons I have ever learned as both reader and writer – and I wish I’d learned it in primary school - is that it’s ok not to like Dickens. Just because an author is a superb craftsman and a must-read for any aspiring writer, you don’t actually have to enjoy him. When I read him as a child, I found his hovering authorial presence as dementing as some of his women. Dora Spenlow! Little Nell! Yuk! However, nobody with any sense could fail to marvel at his enviable ability to create an eternal character out of nothing but a bald head and a jaunty stick (see Mr. Micawber). That’s art. Today, he’d be clamouring to write for Coronation Street and his favourite film would be The Muppet Christmas Carol which, incidentally, is also mine.



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