Interview with Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean was one of Story Teller’s in-house writers. She wrote such “exclusives” as the comical Santa stories, The Flying Piggy Bank, A Pocketful of Trouble, Neville Toogood and A Great Escape. The following is from an interview in which Geraldine talks about her life including her involvement in Story Teller. The interview was conducted in 2003 for the Good Reading magazine.

 

Okay – this is all going to be very rambling because I shall work my way through your questions as if you were sitting there saying them – rather than trying to organise my thoughts into a coherent flow.

I’m the youngest of the three children of a fireman and a teacher. My brother and sister were both immensely clever, which didn’t do my self-esteem much good because I wasn’t. As my sister comfortingly put it once: “Don’t worry, the third one’s always stupid.” It may be one of the only useful things I say in schools on author visits – that you don’t have to be clever to be an author. Some are, some aren’t.

My brother Neil (3 years older than me) was the best kind of genius – full of good ideas and eccentric projects. When he got published at the age of 14, (with a book he had illustrated himself and bound in a cornflakes packet) I longed to emulate him in that (as in everything) but never really expected to get published. It’s much better that way. When you write for your own enjoyment and don’t expect to get published, you don’t get your heart broken quite so badly by the rejection slips. My poor daughter – who has far more talent than I ever did as a child – fully expects to get published because she has seen it happen throughout her little life. She’ll make it – she’s even more driven than I was (no, no – not possible) but she’ll get her heart broken several times on the way.

As children, we spent a lot of time in the public library, but there weren’t many books around the house – wasn’t much anything, really, especially money. Mum was artistic but in the painting and handicraft line. Primarily, we were all as shy as voles, which was the great formative factor in all our lives and careers. Me it drove into the fantasy worlds of reading and writing, and since I was a very slow reader – especially once books stopped having pictures and the print got small – writing always felt more gratifying and allowed me to escape farther from reality.

Mother said I was mad to consider teaching – that I would hate it, as she had always hated it (because of the shyness thing) and she was perfectly right. I wept my way through teaching practice, then wisely got pneumonia. The only good thing about going to teacher training college was the English Department which had some very good members of staff who taught me a lot about writing and, for the first time in my life, asked my opinion on literature. Nobody had ever done that at school. I was in those groups not expected to pass A-level. In fact the teachers wanted me to leave before A-levels because they considered teaching me would not be a constructive use of their time. Ironic, really, since unlike 90% of people studying A-level English, I absolutely loved the whole shebang. (And don’t get the idea I was a hooligan or anything: I was the archetypal wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose swat.)

Partworks are those indispensable magazines published in 110 weekly parts and building, over the space of 2 years, into an encyclopaedic work you could have bought in book form two years earlier for £10. The slide end of publishing and much scowled on by proper Publishing Houses because it is (or was) highly profitable. “Storyteller” was about the best of the partworks – far better than a comic. It came with a cassette tape on the cover so that the child could listen and read simultaneously, and it had top class readers (Derek Jacobi etc) and excellent writers and illustrators (e.g. Korky Paul). It was marvellous fun to work on, too, since it was just like being back at school. I’d come in and there’d be a 4-page gap needing a story by lunchtime, or a poem to replace one that hadn’t turned up. Wonderful training for a writing career – and it doesn’t half knock any artistic pretentiousness on the head. I now know that any story can be told to any length if it has to be, and that a writer’s work is a commodity like any other: the buyer has the last word and is entitled to do whatever they want with it, if they’re paying. On the one grim occasion I found myself guest-of-honour at a school Speech Day, the only cogent ‘life lesson’ I could offer was this: “Give them more than they expect sooner than they expect it, and be obliging.”

Consider watching a fashion show in which a bunch of bloodless models parade up and down the catwalk wearing nice clothes you can’t afford. Now compare this with being offered the chance to try on all the clothes yourself and keep any you like. A story where you stay on the outside – a mere spectator – doesn’t serve any purpose. It doesn’t entertain either the author or the reader. You need to be able to climb into it and zip it up tight under your chin. You need to be able to see through the eyes of the hero, feel the scorch of his adrenaline, smell what he’s smelling, hear what he’s hearing. There’s a bit in The Faerie Queene where the knights stop off at a house which is actually an allegory for the human body (library at the top with two big windows, a rubbish-shoot out the back etc.) I reckon entering a story ought to be like that, except that you step inside the bodies of the protagonists.

Has a re-telling ever defeated me? The Faerie Queene very nearly did. I recklessly put it forward as a counter-offer to get me out of adapting Paradise Lost. My lecturer at college had frequently told me what a jolly book it was and how it was crying out for adaptation. So I took her word for it without (I’m ashamed to admit it) ever having opened the thing. I had not realised, for instance, that Spenser died halfway through! Or that he did not stick to his avowed gameplan. Or that he used the same names several times over. Or that the plots interwove in ways as labyrinthine as a whale’s intestines. Or that it was so repetitive and so damn BIG. I adapted it, then threw myself on the mercy of an excellent editor who told me what appealed and what didn’t. Then I did it all over again. …And I have to say I’m very pleased with the way it’s turned out. The artwork will be spectacularly lovely, too. (published autumn 2004)

The other retelling I feel a personal affection for is Gilgamesh the Hero. I just love that story. It epitomises all the reasons I like myth: because myth predates the whole Children’s Book/Adult Book divide. The stories are about things that mattered to everyone, regardless of age. They’re about the big things – passion and death and terror and God and friendship and heroism… (As you rightly observe, that’s what lights my fire. I’m not too fond of whimsy, apart from the Lord Peter kind.) Tam-Lin is my favourite fairy story (Never Let Go), but I have to be a bit careful what I say because I once foolishly joked to an audience of Americans what fun it was retelling such an erotic story for seven-year-olds. There’s one roomful of people who will never buy my books again.

The Odyssey I could live without ever retelling again, but then I have done it six times!

Adaptations aren’t always my own idea. I’ve just finished turning Cyrano de Bergerac from play into book, simply because I’m crazy about the play and I want to souse a few young lives in unabashed Romance. But most retellings are commissions, suggested to me. I’ve turned down Don Quixote in the past because I reckon it’s primarily adult and political in its preoccupations. But the thing about most classics is that there is a great story at the heart, which has managed to intrigue generations of readers and which deserves to intrigue this one. So if all that makes it heavy going is style and complexity, I’m glad enough to grab the storyline and run with it. Moby Dick? Wonderful story. Unreadable book. Pilgrim’s Progress? Wonderful concept. Antique and bigoted book. I’ll have to answer to Bunyan and Melville when I get to Heaven, but look, a Hollywood screenplay writer would have taken worse liberties. I do try to preserve some flavour of the original: style/atmosphere/ moral intent…

I try never to adapt anything that could perfectly well be read in the original e.g. Dickens, but it has been known.

I’m in two minds about El Cid. I had for my sources the play, the legend, the history, the movie and the Song of Cid, so I tried to combine all five. I had to decide whether to make El Cid a mercenary (historical) who would kill and employ anyone regardless of their colour and religion so long as they all got rich (hmmm); a patriot (lit. and legend) ready to kill anyone for being a Muslim (oof) ; or an honourable man adored by his chessboard army of black-and-white because of his sheer heroism and liberal inclusiveness (oh yes and where’s the literary source for that, Geraldine?) Whichever way you look at it he went around killing people in droves. Pretty book. Great vehicle for Victor Ambrus who draws a lovely horse. But I do have reservations about it.

I did a collection of Princess Stories in which traditional stories alternated with new, original ones. But beyond that I can’t think I’ve ever attempted an original myth or legend. I suppose that’s because the form doesn’t dwell on relationships or characterisaton. When I adapt an extant myth/legend, I can put those in for the sake of immediacy and reader-identification. But if I were to write a pseudo myth, I suppose I’d have to avoid characterisation and immediacy, wouldn’t I? I must try it some time.

Fiction

I am on a lifelong search for subjects that no one has ever written about before. I know this is stupid. If I had half a brain I would find one well-trodden subject, proven to sell and sell, and then write it over and over again in a series format. But my mother told me “Never boil your cabbages twice, dear”, so each novel is an attempt to write something completely different from anything I’ve ever done before. And if I find out that someone else has written a novel on the same subject, I abandon my plans at once. Each novel usually arises from some little crumb of information I’ve come across while engaged on another book, but let me give you an example:

While riding on the Tube, I saw a poster for an exhibition of Japanese “man-lifting kites”, and mentally stored the idea away for a later date. But when I came to want it, I could find out nothing at all about Japanese man-carrying kites. All I kept coming across was Marco Polo’s reference to the first time an oriental kite was witnessed by anyone from the West. The description had adventurous potential, so I made that my starting point for The Kite Rider. I then read up on Khubilah Khan who ruled China at that date and the details of his life leant me more incidents in the story – e.g. the crash-landing on the cart of soil, the carpet execution scene, and the climax of the typhoon which (historically) sank Khubilah’s invasion fleet in a single night, on its way over to Japan.

I didn’t used to do historical research at all, it’s true. I can remember bitterly resenting, as a child, those books that digressed from the plot to tell you a little about perpendicular architecture or the lace industry in 17th-century France. So I scrupulously avoided ever being the smallest educational. But then I strayed into the world of adult historical fiction and you just can’t vamp it with adults because the b******s delight in writing to tell you that you’ve got your facts wrong. So I accidentally stumbled upon the joys of historical research finding that such extraordinary and bizarre things happened in the past that they surpass anything imagination could come up with. (c.f. Vainglory, Love Song, An Ideal Wife). This I carried back into children’s fiction, although I also discovered the need to throw the card-file index out of the window half way through a book, so as not to founder under the weight of research.

Gold Dust was a newspaper cutting. Forever X came of a conversation with Ian Beck the illustrator who mentioned a hotel he’d heard of where they did Christmas all year round. “I could get a book out of that, betcha,” I said.

There again, Stop the Train was delivered to me almost intact on a plate. I found myself watching a TV programme about the Oklahoma Land Runs and in particular the quarrel between Enid township and the railroads. “If only I had pressed Record,” I thought, “I could have got a book out of that” But the idea didn’t go away, so I went in search of the programme to watch one more time, then bought a book about Oklahoma.
I never go to any of these places. (Well, I’ve just got back from Oklahoma, but that’s way after the event). The Past, I could not visit, in any case, and even if I were to go to China, I don’t know what it would tell me about China centuries and centuries ago – or Madagascar about piracy in 1700. I went to look at latter-day Enid on my visit, but it didn’t speak to me of pack-rat stew and greasing railway lines. Didn’t speak to me of anything, in fact.

The Past has most potential for writing adventure stories, because life was dangerous in way-back-when and it just isn’t any more – not Black Death, carpet-trampling, knife-between the ribs, children-down-the-mines sort of dangerous anyway.

I would very much like to go to the Antarctic before I write the next novel, which is based there. I find it very hard to envisage. But it’s fiendishly expensive and I don’t suppose I shall.

I do tend to cast the adults in my books – a process I call templating – using actors (mostly actors I fancy, because hey! I’m going to have to spend six months or a year in a confined space with them). Then I know what they look and sound like when happy/sad/surprised/afraid… ‘Real’ people are no good for this: real people are so inexpressive under stress. I find the voices are most important thing I need to carry in my head. I need to know what my characters sound like. (The cast of Stop the Train wrote their own dialogue – just walked into my head and said it – so I didn’t even have to think about it; it was extraordinary good fun)

There’s usually a hero/heroine with low self-esteem who wins through despite all self-doubt. Well, well. I wonder why.

The Antarctic noel might, as you put it, “take courage to write”, since it’s about whether it’s legitimate to play in the imagination, or if only mad people do that. And fiction being “the axe we use to break the frozen sea inside us”. It’s all a bit close to home, and might not even be publishable, but right now I really need to write it. Shame about the other five books I’ve got to finish off before I can begin.

Last year I lost my nerve completely – just forgot how to write novels. I could do short books, picture books, stories, but I couldn’t physically make my pen touch the page when it came to working on a novel. Thank goodness that’s over. Up until then I’m afraid I thought writer’s block was the excuse of bone-idle poseurs.
Isn’t Jill Paton Walsh wonderful! She can always manage to put her finger on shining truths with such succinct precision. But I don’t think I agree with her about the adult/children’s books. I aim not to know the answer until the end of any work of fiction.

It is certainly true that you can be a lot more self-indulgent writing for adults: children won’t tolerate long digressions from the story in the interests of description of philosophical musings. I make it a rule to have something happen on every single page.

I never know what the themes of a book are going to be; they transpire as I go along. Suddenly I find myself thinking – “Goodness, this is all about different attitudes to death” – or “Oooo this is all about appearance and reality, just like all those essays we got set at college”. Such things don’t greatly matter in comparison with the story, but it’s always fun to see which ones bubble up from the subconscious. In The Kite Rider the theme of obedience kept poking out its ugly head and I realised how deeply troubled I was by my daughter’s lack of filial obedience. In childhood, I was riddled with it. So I suppose I worked my way through to what I believed about obedience and came to the conclusion that children do owe it to their elders but only if the elders deserve it.

Some children interviewing me once asked why all my books were about religion. I hadn’t even noticed until then that they were.

It is refreshing, between novels, to do something completely different, like a retelling or a younger novel or a picture book. I’ve just written a younger, short novel called SMILE! about photography. Actually the only thing that makes it young is its shortness. The themes are as grown up as any of my older novels and, unusually, I find it matters just as much to me whether people end up liking it. Now and then a book captures your affection to a silly degree: it’s like a child that you can’t bear anyone to be unkind to.

I think children can cope with quite demanding vocabulary without turning a hair. They have, after all, been unconsciously working out the meaning of words from their context for maybe 10 solid years: the skill has not had time to fall into disuse in them. But what do I know? I’m not a writer of best sellers because, I think, all but the most avid child readers do find my books pretty heavy going – “demanding”, should I say? I can’t help it. They just come out the way they do. My sister says she reads a book for the plot and she really doesn’t care whether it is stylistically good or bad. But style and rich language matter to me: they are part of the game. I could no more deliberately simplify my style than Gaugin could have changed to pastels or watercolours to please his agent. (Not that I liken myself to Gaugin, you understand!!!) I do crave popularity with children, because there’s no point in writing books if no one is reading them, but with the possible exception of Stop the Train, I do know my novels always rise out of the age bracket I intend for them when I start.

As for what children say they like – I think it comes back to immediacy. “It’s just as if you’re really there”, is the kind of comment I get on a good day. The teachers say that my stuff reads aloud well, too, which is good to hear.

The plays were largely born out of my daughter’s frustration with drama clubs. Up until this year (she’s 13 and she’s been acting since she was 6) every time a play came up the good parts went to The Older Children and she got to be a ‘tree’ or a ‘child’ or ‘Grey Person 4’. “Your turn will come,” they told her patronisingly. It was to overcome ‘Grey-Person-4-Syndrome’ that I set out to write playlets that could slot together into one long performance but in which different children would play the lead parts. So you might be a horse in one play but in the next you’d be the king or a god. One collection is based on my ‘Stories from British History’ – Britannia on Stage – and the other is based on the Greek Myths – The Greeks on Stage. Right now I’m preparing two plays for The Polka Children’s Theatre, which is the best children’s theatre in this country. One is a version of King Midas, for younger children, the other will be (I hope) Gilgamesh for the 11 ups.

I heard Ailsa on the phone the other day explaining to a friend that we were going out. – “To the theatre, of course. Where else do we ever go?” (Theatre does feature quite large on our social calendar, I admit. I even took her to see Samuel Becket last week, but that was pure accident.)

What drives me to write? The same thing that drove me when I was a child: the desire to escape the mundane and unsatisfactory here and now and go somewhere else and be someone else for a while, living out an adventure.

I hope that my books provide that same escape route for the reader – a brief excursion into a different, colourful world made in the knowledge of a safe return at the end. I do believe that a children’s book has to operate within a fundamentally safe universe in which good is a force at least on a par with evil. Rachel Anderson and Melvyn Burgess and maybe even Jill Paton Walsh wouldn’t agree with me but there you go.
©Geraldine McCaughrean 2003

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