She changed the face of children’s literature by writing books with controversial themes: adoption, divorce, mental illness. We ask Dame Jacqueline Wilson – the author of Tracy Beaker – about mornings, her in-house library and the first time she called herself a writer…
This article was first published on The Early Hour in 2017.
Dame Jacqueline Wilson, one of the UK’s most revered children’s book authors, was appointed an OBE for services to literacy in schools in 2002. She has won numerous awards (Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Smarties Prize, Children’s Book of the Year at the 2003 British Book Awards). Here, she talks writing and family with The Early Hour editor Annie Ridout (who has long been a fan of Jacqueline Wilson’s work)…
What time are you up in the morning, and what do you do first thing? I get up around seven. I feed the cat, take the dog into the garden, make myself a cup of coffee and then go back to bed to write for an hour or so in my pyjamas.
How do you choose your outfit for the day? If I’m going to be mostly at home I’ll wear jeans and a shirt. If I’m going out to do an event or an interview I’ll probably wear posher jeans and a prettier shirt – or a dress if it’s a grand occasion. I always wear rings and bangles whatever I’m doing.
You’re rumoured to have around 15,000 books in your library … is this true? It’s possibly more than that nowadays. My entire house serves as a library. Books certainly do furnish a room – many rooms!
Do you have a favourite (adult) book? My favourite classic is probably Jane Eyre (it’s between that and Great Expectations). My favourite modern novel is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
What did you enjoy reading as a child? I loved Noel Streatfeild’s books, especially Ballet Shoes. I also liked all the girly classics like Little Women, What Katy Did and A Little Princess.
MY PARENTS WANTED ME TO LEAVE SCHOOL AT 16, AS THEY HAD DONE. I WASN’T THAT KEEN ON SCHOOL ANYWAY, SO DIDN’T MIND TOO MUCH
How did your parents encourage you to read? I don’t think they did. They sometimes complained that I always had my head in a book. Still, they always gave me a book at Christmas, and another on our Summer holidays. I borrowed most books from the library.
Did you enjoy school? Not very much! I liked English and art lessons, and there were lots of fun moments, but I lived for the holidays when I could read and draw and play imaginary games.
When did you decide you’d like to be a writer? I had my tonsils out when I was six and apparently I told the surgeon that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
When did you first feel like that dream had become your reality? When I had my first short story published when I was seventeen. It meant the whole world to me. Of course I didn’t feel like a proper writer. I’d published many novels before I actually wrote writer as my occupation in my passport.
Before writing children’s books, you wrote a few crime fiction novels. What made you switch from writing for adults to writing for children? I always wanted to write children’s books most of all. My crime novels were mostly about children and teenagers. It was wonderful when my children’s books started to be successful.
I HAD MY FIRST SHORT STORY PUBLISHED WHEN I WAS 17, MY FIRST NOVEL PUBLISHED WHEN I WAS 23 OR SO. THEN I JUST CARRIED ON – AND ON AND ON.
What impact did having your own child have on your writing? I adore my daughter but I don’t think she’s had much impact on my writing. When she was a little girl she hated any kind of conflict in her books – and mine have their fair share! So I used to write special private stories for Emma, where happy things happened every single day!
You had multiple books published before becoming a household name as a children’s book author, what made Tracy Beaker so successful? I think it was a combination of circumstances. I think it was an original idea to have a child from a children’s home tell her story. I decided to make the text more accessible to reluctant readers, and deliberately started the book with Tracy supposedly filling in a questionnaire – as subversively as she could manage.
I included all sorts of material: letters, games, fantasies, and asked for the book to be heavily illustrated. Nick Sharratt did a wonderful job – and my new publishers then, Transworld, produced the book splendidly. And of course the highly successful television series years later introduced the book to a much wider audience.
I USED TO WRITE EVERYTHING BY HAND IN LOVELY ITALIAN NOTEBOOKS. I LOVED WORKING LIKE THAT
Your children’s books include difficult themes like adoption and divorce – what made you focus on these issues? These are the sort of topics that have always interested me. I used to wonder as a child why my books always seemed so bland and concentrated on happy-go-lucky middle class children – though of course I didn’t use those sorts of terms.
Where, when and how do you write? I used to write everything by hand in lovely Italian notebooks. I loved working like that, but of course it slowed up the whole novel writing process, because then I had to type everything out laboriously. So now I work straight on to a computer. I write the first draft of my novels for an hour or two every single day. I spend much longer when it comes to rewriting. And irritatingly, I find I write much much greater word counts each day doing work-related emails.
Is it true that you took an English A Level aged 40, and achieved an A grade? If so, what made you decide to take this exam? Yes, it’s true. My parents wanted me to leave school at 16, as they had done. I wasn’t that keen on school anyway, so didn’t mind too much. I had no idea that you could study A levels at college! I always regretted my lack of education, especially when I helped my ex-husband take a part-time degree in Law, while my daughter was studying for her O-levels.
I thought I’d like to take just one A level to keep my own end up, so I went once a week to study at the local technical college. I loved the whole experience and read the set books and related material many times. I felt ludicrously nervous taking the exams which surprised me, because I was so used to writing. For a minute or so I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Then I began – and raced through all the papers. I would have been mortified if I hadn’t got an A. I can’t resist adding that there were no A stars then, so it was the top grade. Pathetic, I know – but it meant so much to me.
For many years I’d get the English syllabus from the local university and daydream about doing a degree there, but I knew I couldn’t combine it with my writing. At that time I was writing at least 10,000 words a week of magazine stories as well as a couple of books a year, simply to help pay the bills. It’s a little ironic that now I have five Honorary Doctorates – the easy way to achieve academic success!
When starting out as a writer, where did you go for inspiration? I didn’t really go anywhere. I’d read a Teach Yourself to Write book in my early teens and knew how to submit my work. I had my first short story published when I was 17, my first novel published when I was 23 or so. Then I just carried on – and on and on.
Where do you look for inspiration now? I don’t look for it. I just hope it suddenly creeps up on me!
Any exciting projects you’d like to share with our readers? I have a book called Hetty Feather’s Christmas coming out in October. It’s a story about a very special Christmas Hetty enjoyed when she was twelve – not in the Foundling Hospital.
Dame Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather series has been transformed into a new family-friendly exhibition, Picturing Hetty Feather – exploring how this much-loved character has brought to life the history of London’s Foundling Hospital. The exhibition will be displayed at The Foundling Museum until September 2017. Visit the website for more details: foundlingmuseum.org.uk.