Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Theresa Tomlinson

Theresa TomlinsonTheresa Tomlinson spent her early childhood in various places in the north of England. She attended Hull College of Art and later trained as a teacher at Hull College of Education. Over the years she has acquired an outstanding reputation for her historical novels, particularly those set on the north-east coast of England. Theresa has been shortlisted twice for the Carnegie Medal and for the Sheffield Children's Book Award.

Where does your inspiration come from?
Most of my ideas come from the history of places that I know and love, but sometimes small incidents set my imagination going, for example – I saw a young boy gazing, for a long time at the statues of the steel men at Meadowhall shopping centre. He was watching them as though he thought they might suddenly move and speak to him, and seeing him there gave me the idea for MEET ME BY THE STEELMEN. At other times I have enjoyed putting my own ‘spin’ on myths and legends – that’s how THE FORESTWIFE came about and also THE MOON RIDERS.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?
Usually what comes first is an idea for a dramatic incident that can be placed in a setting that I feel interested in. Next, I invent characters to take part and then eventually I work out the full plot, asking myself questions such as: Why did these people end up doing something brave or bad? How did they get involved?

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?
Yes – on occasions I can get rather stuck. When this happens I stop writing and do a bit more research, and this usually seems to unearth some interesting new ideas that get the story moving again.

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

I like Alan Garner books and read them as a young woman, borrowing them from the public library - but when I’d got through all the Garner that I could find, I moved a little further along the shelf and found Jane Gardam. The first book of hers that I read was A LONG WAY FROM VERONA and it is still my favourite book. I love her clean, clear, vivid style of writing and admire the way she doesn’t judge her characters – there are no villains, no heroes, just flawed people who are so very interesting. She often uses the area that I grew up in Cleveland and North Yorkshire for her settings and reading her books made me want to write about those places too.

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

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE – by C.S.LEWIS – the magic moment of going through the wardrobe for the first time held me enthralled. I also loved THE SECRET GARDEN – by Frances Hodgeson Burnett – I still love stories that make you cry.

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

For many years I had the most wonderful editor at Random House Children’s Books. Delia Huddy was direct and honest with her criticisms, but she was also warm and wonderfully supportive, inspiring me with confidence. The editing process could be quite tough and hard work, but I always felt at the end of it, that the story was much better. Sadly Delia died, while we were working on my novel WOLF GIRL and the book is dedicated to her.

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

Yes, I do feel this. In recent years I have become utterly fascinated with the Dark Ages - particularly the 6th and 7th century. I've spent the last few years working on stories inspired by the histories of Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Stephen Of Ripon, but I'm struggling to find publishers willing to take them.

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

I usually have a fairly clear idea in my head, and then I start to write straight onto my computer. I like doing it this way because it is so very easy to alter things, move words and paragraphs around and delete whenever necessary.

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

I’m very interested in art and graphic design and I’ve often sent visual images to the designer or artist to help with inspiration. With historical themes I often find that the finished cover design is prettier than I would like, but it is usually a marketing decision.

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

The idea for a story comes first and gradually it becomes clear what age group the story should be aimed at. Sometimes it is easy – LITTLE STOWAWAY was the story of a five year old, who stowed away in his father’s fishing boat – so an infant/junior picture book seemed immediately appropriate. THE FORESTWIFE was a love story, with many hardships and some violence, so Young Adult, seemed appropriate for that.

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

I would love to have been a dancer. I still love dancing as a hobby and whenever I have the energy I still go to classes for tap, flamenco, and belly dancing.

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

Rather late in life. I began making picture books and writing stories for my three children when they were young and found that I loved it so much, I wanted to try to make it into a career. I was forty when my first book was published.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Write about what you love and know well – then you will never be short of ideas and inspiration and your enthusiasm will show in your writing.

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