· When did you realise you could write?
I was always good at English at school and I wrote diaries when I was a child and teenager. When I was about 15 I won a competition for a story called Waiting for My Life. It was very dramatic (probably absolutely awful if I reread it now) but I loved it and started to wonder if perhaps I could write a ‘real book’ one day. When I was a young teacher I would write stories and poems and plays for the children in my classes. Several of them were performed and I also used to write the annual Year 6 review which I got a great kick out of. I wanted to be a writer for a long time but unlike the children today I never met an author when I was at school so I didn’t have the first idea about how to be published. That took much longer to work out.
· What did you like reading as a child?
I adored Heidi by Johanna Spyri, anything by Enid Blyton and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I remember reading From the Mixed up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler and thinking it was a wonderful adventure. I also loved the Australian author Colin Thiele and his work.
· How do you get your ideas for stories?
They come from all over the place. Sometimes it’s a name that starts me thinking, other times it’s a place or a concept (ie a robbery or a kidnapping). I write things down in notebooks all the time and often when I’m re-reading I’ll have an ‘aha’ moment and know that I can use the idea in a story.
· Do you always know where you’re going with a story when you start?
I plan the big ideas – the major events/trouble and I like to know what I think the ending will be. I then start writing and sometimes the characters can steer me on a different course but I know that I will stick pretty much to the big ‘marker posts’ if you like. When I’m talking to children about writing I do suggest that they start with the end in mind as often kids will begin something thinking it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, but then they have no idea how to end it – and it becomes frustrating and potentially dull or completely ridiculous. Girls in Australia tend to have a default ending, ‘and I woke up and it was all just a terrible dream’ whereas the boys at home are more likely to say something along the lines of ‘ and then the bus crashed over the ravine and burst into flames and everybody died!’ I tell children that teachers hate both these endings because they show no thought or planning. It usually gets a laugh as I know we’ve all done it at some stage.
· Are your characters based on anyone?
They are not based on anyone in particular but I think that Alice-Miranda is the best bits of children I’ve known and taught over many years. At first, the idea of her was inspired by two little girls I taught a long time ago and another who had been the youngest boarder I’d ever had in my class, but she quickly developed her own character. A very important literary agent in New York told me that ‘she’s the best version of who you would want to be,’ and I love that description of her. The other characters are inspired by concepts more than real people – the bully, the busy body, the overwrought teacher etc.
· What would your advice be to aspiring children’s writers?
Being a children’s writer is wonderful but a lot harder than many people think. It takes perseverance and tenacity to get published in the first place. I also think that it’s very important to heed the advice of professionals, particularly your editor – I have a wonderful relationship with mine and she’s kind of like a teacher in many ways, always helping me to improve my work. If you want to be a writer, work hard, care about your characters and find your voice. Join writers groups and professional associations that will allow you to meet like-minded people. Be happy for the success of others – and you never know, one day, that could be you too.