Thank you to the students at Astley Cooper School in Hemel Hempstead for surprising me with these interesting questions.
Why do you always wear red?
Firstly, if this was a court of law and that was a crime I’d plead that I don’t absolutely always. But yes, it’s true that even if I wear black I’ll add red or multi-coloured accessories. It’s also true that I didn’t wear as much red before I lost my hair. I think subconsciously it’s a bold (as opposed to bald) statement, a show of confidence. As a colour red is exciting too and I do find writing thrilling. Red is powerful, like stories.
How do you feel when someone criticises your work?
I’m glad to say it rarely happens. My writing has been praised by Michael Morpurgo and Beverley Knight, a professor at the University of the West Indies, teachers, psychologists, artists, musicians and librarians, and a few other writers too. But yes, negative comments hurt – deeply, because writing is very personal even when nothing in the story has ever happened to me. I’ve learned, though, that you can’t please everyone. We have different tastes and enthusiasms and that’s part of what makes us all unique individuals. As a writer I need self-belief but I also need to be very analytical about my own work. Being self-critical helps me improve.
How would you describe your writing in three words?
Deep, powerful and inventive – I hope! That’s more of a goal than a description.
What is the earliest memory you have of writing?
When I was in Year 2 or 3 my teacher set us a task: to write a story over a few weeks, trying to fill a notebook rather than a page. It was a competition with a prize and I was determined to win. I can’t remember what my story was about but I do remember drawing horses in the illustrations although my teacher may not have known what they were! I won, and it confirmed for me that writing was what I do best as well as what I love best.
What do you enjoy most about writing your novels?
1. The excitement of having a good idea before I begin. 2. Getting to know my characters. 3. The joy when the story rolls out as if I’m not controlling it, just recording it. 4. Thinking of original imagery that really works or rereading a sentence that has power or music. 5. Laughing out loud or crying at something I’ve written. 6. The triumph of writing the last sentence and being happy with the whole. 7. The thrill of holding a new book in my hand once it’s published. 8. Hearing that someone loved it.
Do you prefer writing for children (as you only have two adult novels and 21 for kids or teens)?
I don’t prefer it but it’s very different. My second adult novel, out in October, is about 90,000 words long so that’s quite a commitment. Writing for young children is fun; I can be playful and make myself laugh. Adults are a very critical audience, and often limit themselves to whatever kind of story they’ve decided is for them, but children are more open to trying different genres. I began a third, real-world adult novel just after finishing a primary age fantasy and I like that variety.
Which book most inspired you to become a writer?
As a child, THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As a teacher, WHY THE WHALES CAME by Morpurgo. As a reader, the work of George Eliot and Carole Shields. And I wrote POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCES, where the action takes place over 12 hours, because I so admire MRS DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf.
Did Alopecia ruin your life?
Fifteen years ago I might have said yes. Now I call it a problem that became a gift. People find it tough because although it’s not an illness it undermines self-esteem. As a young woman I felt less feminine and attractive because we expect females to present in a certain way and society judges by appearance. It was also a shock. I had a new identity and for many years I felt I must keep my bald self a secret so I wore wigs and hoped I fooled the world. This meant I was living in fear of discovery. But things began to change when I used my experience in a story – THE WATERHOUSE GIRL – and when it was finally published I felt confident and happy enough to go bareheaded. As Ambassador for Alopecia UK I can support people young and old who are struggling as I used to, and my two alopecia books (there’s a sequel now, CRAZY DAISE) make a difference to the lives of people with hair loss because they don’t feel alone any more when they meet Daisy. These novels also teach readers with hair that it’s not easy to be different but it’s OK and we all deserve respect and understanding. That’s the power of stories! Any experience that’s difficult can make us braver and stronger and now I wouldn’t take any miracle cure even if there was one, because I don’t need hair to be happy, or to be me. All we need is love!