Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Ann Turnbull

Ann Turnbull is the author of over 30 books for children and young people. Her first novel, The Frightened Forest, was published in 1974.

Photograph of author Ann TurnbullWhen you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

Yes, more or less. Even if I don't know exactly, I know what sort of thing will happen and how it will make my character(s) feel. I always have a strong sense of the structure and shape of the story.

Do you base your characters on real people?

No. But aspects of people I've known must find their way into my characters.

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

Not in the sense of being unable to write. I occasionally get stuck on a plot problem and can't work out how to move forward. I deal with this by having short thinking sessions, armed with a notebook and pencil so that I can write any ideas down. I find thinking with a notebook in hand much more effective than thinking while doing other things.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

Motivating myself to start working. There are always so many other things to be done, and they are all easier than writing.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

The pleasure of the writing process: writing and rewriting, gradually making the story better, and creating characters who seem to develop a life of their own.

What inspired you to write?

I loved reading - and at about the age of 6 I realised that books didn't just happen, they were written by people - and I wanted to be one of those people.

Do you follow the same process each time you write?

Yes, more or less. I begin by jotting down story ideas, characters, family trees and bits of research in an A6 notebook. I keep doing this until the story feels as if it's about to 'take off', and then I write a synopsis which I can send to my editor and also use myself. I make an approximate list of chapters with a few words on what should happen in each. As I write the book I expand the synopsis by scribbling tiny pencilled notes all over it, including new ideas and also things like snatches of conversation.

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

I always start writing by hand, in pencil. I might write between 2 and 4 pages in the morning, and then in the afternoon I'll type them onto the computer, editing as I go; then print out, read, and edit some more, in pencil. I do very little editing on the computer, but I like having my growing story on there, saved and backed up.

How much does your editor change what you write?

There is not usually anything major - just a scattering of small comments and queries, or a request to fill something out a bit more. Very few editors change things; they make suggestions so that I can change things in my own way if I agree.

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

It's hard to imagine - I've been writing for so long! Something secretarial, I think, to do with books. I'm good at proof-reading, so I could do that.

What is your attitude to ebooks?

Although I'm usually hopeless with technology, I knew I needed to find out about e-books, and was given a Kindle when they first came out. I was surprised how much I liked it. It's easy to use and to hold, and I use it a lot on long flights or train journeys and on holiday. However I much prefer paper books. They are so much more attractive to look at, and I like seeing them on the shelves. A lot of people love e-books and I'm all in favour of anything that makes it easier for people to read.

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

At different ages: Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and Wendy, the Jungle Books, the Narnia books, Little Women, Heidi, Ivanhoe, Kidnapped, and Sinuhe the Egyptian by Mika Waltari.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read, read, read! Read anything, try different genres. Some people say you should read to analyse how other people's books are constructed, but I've never consciously done that. I just read for pleasure. So read and enjoy it. And write, of course - but don't labour over it. Do it because you love it.

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