Date: 22 October 2020
Interviewer: Vanessa Joosen
VJ: You published your first works in the late 1960s/early 1970s and started writing your first stories long before that. What role do you feel that your own age has played in your writing process?
JW: I don’t think it’s really made a significant difference. As I nearly always write fiction in the first person I simply try to ‘become’ the narrator and try to think and feel the way they do. I hope I’ve matured as a writer, but I think my style is recognisable even in my very early work. Of course there are parts of my early books that I’d change now, because times themselves have changed.
Have new, age-related experiences sometimes inspired you to develop certain themes or characters?
I’ve thought hard about this. I’m very interested in the past now, so I’ve written books set in Victorian times, the twenties, the second world war – whereas I was determined to be ultra contemporary in my books twenty or thirty years ago. I find it easier to write historical books because the modern world is so different now, so perhaps that’s slightly age related – but I don’t think I’d be a fan of modern technology or social media even if I was much younger.
Do (or did) you sometimes find it difficult to write about characters who are substantially older or younger than yourself? If so, how did you solve that?
I’ve always found it almost disturbingly easy to write about children. (I don’t know what that says about my intellectual and emotional development!) I’d be happy to write about other ages but most of my readers prefer stories about young people around their own age. When I was younger I liked making up older characters, but they were generally on the periphery of my story, parents, grandparents, school teachers, etc. I tried hard to make them seem convincing – there used to be many easy caricatures of older people in children’s books.
Have you sometimes been inspired by personal contacts, memories, news features, other fiction, academic/psychological literature to write characters who are substantially older or younger than yourself.
I never put real people in my books – I much prefer to make them up. Of course I’m occasionally inspired by a snippet that I’ve read, but even then I rely heavily on my imagination. I know it sounds contrary, but I find it’s the best way of making the characters seem real.
Have you ever had the feeling that you have learned something from a younger or older character in your books?
I suppose I’ve learned about courage and optimism from some of my more determined young characters. They’re often much more bold and dynamic than I am.
Do you sometimes test your ideas with others (perhaps with children)? Have you ever adapted a story because of their reaction?
I’ve only ever done this after a book was written. I met up with an interesting group of care-leavers when I wrote about Tracy Beaker as an adult, and listened to all their opinions. I tried hard to make small adjustments to please them, but couldn’t change my plot in any way. I had to be true to my characters and plot. Most readers feel they’d like a story to reflect their own ideas and experiences, but that doesn’t necessarily make a well-balanced and convincing book.
Apart from Ricky’s Birthday, I think your early work was most published as adult literature. What inspired you to switch to children’s literature?
I always wanted to write about children, but as realistically as possible, dealing with various situations not usually thought of as ‘suitable’ fifty years ago. I was thrilled when at last my first full-length children’s book Nobody’s Perfect was published.
Do you still write adult literature sometimes?
No, I’ve been very happy sticking to writing for children and teenagers. I’m toying with the idea of writing an adult autobiography, but can’t see myself ever writing adult fiction again – though I could be mistaken!
Do you sometimes re-read your older work? Has it ever happened that your view of a story has changed in the light of new experiences that you have gained or because of your own aging process? Do you feel that there are stories or characters that you would have shaped differently if you had developed them later (or earlier) in your life?
I don’t ever reread any of my work when it’s published. I don’t think my view of my stories has changed much, if at all, as I’ve got older. I think the only significant change is that there are many more cats and dogs in my later work – since I’ve become a pet owner myself.
In the course of your career as a writer, children’s literature as a field has also evolved. Were there some trends that you found particularly inspiring of off-putting?
I’m delighted that children’s literature is taken more seriously nowadays! I think it’s encouraging that there’s been such interest and there are such a variety of stories available now. However, in the last few years I think there’s been an emphasis on quick easy funny reads, with a lot of schoolboy humour. I think that’s great to get children enthusiastic about reading, but I found it worrying that a recent report said the most popular authors with key stage three students (11 to 14 year olds) are David Walliams and Jeff Kinney. I think young people that age should be ready to read much longer complex books, and some adult classics. Perhaps that’s a sign of my advancing age!
You have written books that have been published for adults as well as books for children in various age groups. Do you sometimes have an age in mind when you write? And/or is the age range rather set by your publisher?
I always have a vague idea of the age group I’m writing for, though some six year olds happily tackle my Hetty Feather books, and teenagers confide that they often read an easy book like Sleepovers as a comfort book. My publishers haven’t told me to write for a particular age – unless of course it was for a specific series aimed at early readers.
Has it ever occurred that a book that you started developing as a story for young children developed into one for older readers, or vice versa? If so, why was that?
I don’t think it has. Some story ideas seem clearly aimed at either 7 – 11 years olds, or 12+ and I automatically adopt the appropriate vocabulary right from the start. If I’m writing for younger children I generally keep the plot simple – whereas I feel free to develop in all kinds of directions writing for older children.
Have you ever received reactions from young readers that shed new light onto one of your own stories or characters?
I’m sometimes surprised – or even worried. One little girl hero-worshipped a very unkind child bully because she had power to make another child’s life a misery! I’m always very touched though when children tell me that a particular character has become their best friend.
Some of your books touch upon sensitive topics and do not always display adults in a favourable light. Have you ever been asked to change passages or refrain from certain themes because you were addressing children or adolescents? Were or would you be willing to do so?
I think it very much depends. I was asked to change a passage about a boy sniffing glue (when it had become an alarming trend about twenty five years ago). When my editor said there could be some children who had never heard of this, and might experiment, I immediately agreed to remove all references to this. However, when I was asked to delete a disturbing passage in The Illustrated Mum (where she paints over her tattoos whilst having a breakdown) I argued that it was a very important passage for various reasons – and managed to save it. I’m always ready to listen to advice – and certainly don’t want to offend or upset anyone – though occasionally I roll my eyes a little when I’m asked not to differentiate between girls and boys and their behaviour and conversation. I try to reflect the way young people really are nowadays, not the way some people feel they should behave.