Where do your ideas come from?
For The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth I was in my kitchen, doing something very ordinary like making a cup of tea, when the name Gully Potchard sprang into my mind from nowhere. I didn’t know anything about him but I thought it was an excellent name for a fictional character. And he sounded fun. I was writing for adults at the time but he definitely sounded as if he was in a children’s adventure story.
Then I came up with another name, Clemency Wrigglesworth, and the fact that she didn’t like people whispering about her. It’s not a name you could mistake if you overheard it, especially if it was your own name. What were they whispering, and why? I wanted to know more, so I just started to think and wonder about Gully and Clemency’s characters and situations for a while before actually writing anything down.
I began to write the story without knowing what was going to happen further on, so in a way it was just like reading a book, as well as writing one. I literally made it up as I went along.
With The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard I wanted to follow up on Gully’s budding psychic powers. He’s not always completely successful using them, so I thought they must be quite new to him. He comes from a family with lots of dramatic talents and temperaments but thinks he is the only ‘ordinary’ one with no stand-out ability. I wanted to explore how he found out that he had this skill and what impact it had on his life.
So The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard is a prequel to Clemency Wrigglesworth… did you write it first?
No. Oxford wanted to publish Clemency and I had a 2-book deal with them. I pitched several related ideas for Book No 2, and we all felt that exploring Gully’s story further was the one to go with. The action takes place a few months prior to his adventures with Clemency. I’m still very fond of that shady 19th-century world and would love the chance to write more about some of the other characters in it.
Nancy’s Parker’s Diary of Detection is quite a break with the Victorian adventures of your first two books. How did this come about?
I’ve always wanted to write a crime novel! There are crimes of sorts in both the earlier books, but this one has much more the flavour of Miss Marple and other stories from the Golden Age of Crime. I wondered who would make a good amateur detective, and came up with the idea of a lowly housemaid. No one would pay her much heed and yet she has access-all-areas without it being questioned. I pictured her emptying waste-paper baskets with incriminating clues in and reading letters which had been left lying about. Originally I toyed with this idea as a novel for grown-ups, but it morphed into a Middle Grade comedy-mystery! Like the earlier books, though, it has a period flavour, but much more modern: the 1920s were a period of great innovation.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, although I didn’t know any real writers or how to go about it.
When did you start writing?
As soon as I learnt to read and write. I loved drawing so I wrote stories to go with my pictures. I probably wrote far more in my head than I ever got down on paper, because I was just dying to go on to the next drawing of a horse…
When I was 11 my mum bought me a proper grown-up portable typewriter, so that I could type my stories and make them look neat and professional. I wore it out by typing so much. I was so glad when computers came along. They made everything so much easier because you didn’t have to retype each page when you made changes.
What sort of things did you write?
Because we could already read and write quite well, in the equivalent of today’s Year 1 my best friend Alison and I were allowed to spend some time writing our own ‘novels’. Hers was a school story and mine was a mystery called ‘Treasure in The Toybox’. My favourite bits were doing the illustrations – including maps! – and inventing thrilling chapter titles. I wasn’t so good at working out the plot.
I also wrote reams and reams of poetry about nature and weather and the seasons and so on. It probably rhymed.
Later I wrote stories about moving to the countryside and owning a pony, because that was my dream, though it never came true. The heroines all had long blonde hair – also far from the truth! As a teenager I wrote many versions of a novel about surviving a global disaster which I never finished. Every so often I’d put a heap of pages on a bonfire in the garden. I was much too embarrassed to show them to anyone.
What is your favourite children’s book?
It’s impossible to choose. I’ve read so many and l love so many. One test is whether you can read a book again (and again) and still be just as absorbed as the first time. I like to laugh, I like strong, quirky characters and I like to have my nerves twanged and my heart wrenched just a bit.
My mum regularly read and recited stories and poems to me when I was little, so that I almost knew authors like A A Milne, Kenneth Grahame, and Lewis Carroll off by heart. We can still remember great chunks without prompting! I carried on the same tradition with my own children and we discovered a whole new generation of fantastic books and authors together.
I love E. Nesbit, the William Brown stories by Richmal Crompton, Joan Aiken’s books about Dido Twite, and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a favourite spooky read, and Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Death Defying Pepper Roux is wonderfully crazy. Two recent books I’ve loved are Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes and Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy.
But if you asked me tomorrow I would probably come up with a different list…
Where do you write?
I’m lucky enough to have a room to myself with all my book stuff in it. But I’ve had to turn my desk away from the window or I’d spend all the time looking out into the garden. I work at a transparent glass desk, and am often joined by my cat who likes to chew the computer leads (not helpful.) Often she sits on my typing chair as if she is using my desk when I’m not there. Maybe she is secretly writing a book!