Children's Literature Interest Group Interview with Marcia Williams

Margaret Mallett last interviewed Marcia for an article entitled 'Marcia Williams' books for children: classic retellings and innovative information picturebooks' published in English 4-11 Number 33, Summer 2008. Marcia's books cover a particularly rich range of subjects and genres and are greatly valued by teachers and children. This interview is to catch up with Marcia's recent ideas, projects and activities.

Marcia WilliamsIn our interview in 2008 Archie's War, about the first world war from a child's point of view, had just been published. Many felt it was a boundary breaking information picturebook and it was awarded the UKLA children's book prize. For newer visitors to the EA website would you say something about the thinking behind the book and how it was created?

When I was asked to write a book about WW1, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice.  It was such a terrible war. Many people didn’t believe it was going to happen.  When it did happen many thought that it would last weeks not years.  It seems to have smashed into people’s lives without warning, devastating every bit of normality. How could I explain this to a generation so far removed from that type of horror in a way that was honest, but not melodramatic or overly horrific?  

For me the answer came with Archie.  If I wrote from the perspective of a young boy who had lived through this experience, it would be easier to give the facts honestly, yet not neglect the emotions that these facts might have created.

The success of Archie's War  suggests that it managed to take on a  difficult subject in a way young readers could understand and relate to.  Are there some general principles underpinning writing for children about such sensitive subjects as war? This is something people will be thinking about as we move towards the centenary of the beginning of the first world war in 2014 and, as you know, the Children's Literature SIG are hoping to hold a symposium on books for children about war.

I would hesitate to give any general principles. I can only say what is important to me.  Honesty, humour, empathy and compassion.  I would find it difficult to write about a sensitive subject such as war in a way that might be sensational or headline grabbing. War devastates lives, little, seemingly insignificant lives like our own.  As a writer, I believe I have to respect that suffering and only write what might bring a greater compassion and understanding.

My Secret War Diary, by Me, Flossie Albright, a companion book to Archie's War, on a child's experience of living through the second world war, won the prestigious British Book Design and Production Award. It differs from Archie's War  in approach - why did you decide to use the device of a child's diary?

Well, I started off by trying to write another scrapbook story, but Flossie, who is Archie’s daughter, had too flipping much to say!  Flossie was not like Archie, she was much more verbal, she demanded I gave her a diary and, as I was just the hand that moved the pen, I had to concede!

You chaired the EA's 'Dickens and Childhood' Symposium at The Bethnal Green Museum back in June 2012 and your picture of Oliver Twist  (from your book Oliver Twist and Other Great Dickens Stories) was the motif for the 'More Dickens' competition for the best primary school project. Were you surprised at the interest shown by all age groups in the work, times and life of Charles Dickens?

I wasn’t surprised, but I was delighted!  As a child, my love of books was ignited by an inspirational teacher reading Charles Dickens aloud, so I know he has the power to draw children in and excite their imaginations.  We saw from the presentations at the Symposium that the teachers from the winning schools had presented the world of Dickens in such a way that he was able to work his magic.  

Turning now to some questions about the writing process, do you ever get writer's block? What do you do about it?

I go for a walk with my dogs, Gracie and Archer.  I also might talk to one of my grandchildren.  I have five and they are all very different, so there is usually one of them who can kick-start the engine!

At what stage did you know you wanted to become author and illustrator?

I went through various stages of wanting to have different jobs.  Mostly, I wanted to be an actor,  but really I just didn’t think I had the talent to be an author and illustrator.  My best friend at school was an amazing artist and I felt that was her space and acting was mine.  Yet writing and illustrating was the thing I always did every day - and still would even if I was no longer published.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

For me it is throwing out the rubbish!  There is a danger of becoming too attached to your own voice and not making a clear enough path for the reader.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

It is a huge privilege.  Although I love it, I am not a natural writer so the best thing is when it turns out that I have written something other people want to read!

What were your favourite books as a child?

I tried to make a list of 5 of these with my mother who is 97!  It was almost impossible, we finally narrowed it down to 18 books.  But we both agreed that our top favourite is and was: Winnie-the Pooh. 

Also on the list were:
The Wind in the Willows
The Jungle Book
Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales
Swallows and Amazons
Peter Rabbit
Just William
Anne of Green Gables
There were quite a few more, but I’ll stop there!

What do you feel about kindles and ebooks?

I wouldn’t buy one, because I love the feel and smell of a book. I also like the way a paper book becomes your own.  The way you handle it imprints your history on it: the reading over breakfast stain, the falling asleep crease, the repeat read wear and so on. A kindle would never bear those scars of friendship.  Having said that: my granddaughter has one and probably reads eleven books a week on it!  That can’t be bad.  I think they are brilliantly clever and have their place and I would love to make my books more kindle-friendly!

Your books retelling myths and legends have gone into many editions. What is the appeal of these ancient tales to young readers?

I can’t answer for the young readers, but for me they are just brilliant stories and they have a timeless quality that means they never date.  They are also very generous stories and can take a lot of reinventing without losing their core.

You have used the comic strip with great success in your books. How do you manage to use this form to convey so many different emotions, including sadness?

I think your pen is probably guided by the quality of your emotional thought, so it may not matter what medium you choose to convey that in.  Comic strip has many layers and therefore many opportunities to convey emotion and also watch emotions unfold. Sadness, is not always one emotion, it may take different people in varying ways and the cause of the sadness may change the nature of the emotion.  The same goes for happiness or other emotions. Comic strip is just a very adaptable medium and can communicate on so many different levels.

As well as writing information picturebooks and many retellings of classic texts you also write stories. A look at your lively website (www.marciawilliams.co.uk ) shows that your storybook Iggy Wilder's Great Lost Dog Adventure , about a seven year olds who adores dogs, is much liked. What do you think is this book's special appeal?

I think it may be that the focus and control is Iggy’s. It is also packed with humour, facts about wonderful dogs and is generally full of off-the-wall madness!

Are the characters in your stories ever based on real people?

Not usually, the only character I can think of who really reminds me of a real person is Uncle Colin in ‘Archie’s War’.  I had an uncle who was very like him, or I imagine he would have acted in the same way in those circumstances. Of course, I am probably quite wrong. However, as a child, I always thought this uncle had a connection and understanding of nature.  He was very clever, but understood simplicity.

You  have worked with Walker Books over a long period and have said often that you appreciate the team that  supports and advises you. How much does your editor change what you write?

Not very much.  What my editors do is to make me write version after version until I get it right!  I often know it is not right, but somehow it helps enormously for someone with a clearer vision to say so! Sometimes I need that push to make the leap into the other world.

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

A lot, really.  Walker would not inflict something on one of my books that I hated. We are all trying to create the same thing: A book that rings true.
I hope they would always say if I was off kilter, just as I would say if something felt wrong to me.  However, I have worked with the same team for some time now, so we know each other well and that helps. They never fail to support me.  How much they mutter behind my back I can’t tell - not too much I hope!

Are your comic strips still hand drawn or do you sometimes use the computer?

Yes, they are still hand drawn and I think will remain so, but I might surprise myself one day and put the colour in on the computer.  I admire David Hockney for always exploring new avenues and new ways of communicating.

If you had not become an author/illustrator, what other career might you have chosen?

As I say, I might have liked to act at one time, but now: writing and illustrating is my life, I love, love, love creating books!

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