Questions and Answers
Q: How did you become a children's writer?
A:I married a lawyer who wanted to be an illustrator. He invented a character called JUGG and I thought if I could write a story about this character, my husband could illustrate it. And so he did. On publication it was hailed as ‘a small classic.’

Q: What makes a children's writer?
A: I often wonder about this. Many writers for children had unhappy childhoods and I sometimes think writing is a way of remaking one's childhood. The grown-up that you've become is taking care of the child that you were. In my case it might have been a case of arrested development. I began to go deaf at the age of five and became increasingly lost in my own world. (After university I was told that I was too deaf to teach the deaf, so I taught Shakespeare to the hearing instead, for twenty years).

Q: Why aren't you a serious writer?
A: People often assume that writing for children isn't serious. I think now that a few children's authors have made serious money, this perception has changed. But of course it is serious. Childhood is the most sensitive, intense, freshest period of life; children the most impressionable of readers. Whatever they read has a lasting effect. I often ask myself how 'serious' the world is. When I listen to the news - and the stuff grown-ups get up to. I think, now....if that was happening in a playground.... At the heart of every good children's story is something true.

Q: Is it fun?
A: Yes and no. A lot of it is hard work. A lot of it is refusing to accept failure. But when a story suddenly comes right - which it often does years after it was started - that is a most wonderful feeling. So is the post in the morning when it contains the first rough illustrations of a new book. And then the book itself. It's like Christmas, several times a year.

Q: What was your favourite book as a child?
A: I wasn't brought up in a bookish household so didn't read that much as a child. I was too busy running wild. But I loved Grimm's fairy tales and Aesop's fables and my father read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to us. I can still hear him reading it. But the first book I loved with absolute passion was 'Macbeth' which I read when I was 17. It was like a door swinging wide open into a whole new world. Two of my favourite children's authors now are Maurice Sendak and Arnold Lobel.

Q: Where do ideas come from?
A: Everywhere. it's just a matter of learning to see them and catch them. Ideas are all around. It's all about taking notice of your own life, paying deep attention to even the smallest events.

Q: Do you have any complaints?
A: Well the sheer number of children's books - about 10,000 year in England alone - is a bit daunting. You ask yourself if there's room for any more. I also get depressed at the copycat nature of publishing. I'm not sure that originality always is what publishers are looking for. There's also too much cuteness for my liking. I write cute stories myself but this reflects what publishers accept rather than my range as a writer. But this really is a golden age of children's books and you can't expect to publish only the best.

Q: Is it easy writing for children?
A: People often make this assumption because children's books are short. But this means every word has to earn its keep. It also means that form and pattern - the unspoken parts of the meaning -are very important. You can't just wait for it to happen. You have to make yourself available, sit on the chair, stare at the page. A lot of the time, nothing happens. Then, one moment, an idea drops into your head. I have a row of files on my shelves, numbered one to ten. They are all full of stories at different stages of progress. Sometimes, an idea that I had several years ago will suddenly take shape. You have to hang on to ideas so that your unconscious can work on them. I never discard. The tiniest scrap can become a good story.

Q: Are there any drawbacks?
A: Yes.. I sometimes suspect that I live my life in such a dream that I'm not quite to grips with the real world - which seems mainly to be about football, making money, celebrity, soap operas. and household bills.

Q: You recently published a book on Norwich Market. This was a strange departure for a children's writer. Whatever made you do it?
A: Good question. A mixture of reasons: It seemed a good idea. Norwich Market is almost 1000 years old and a fascinating expression of identity. I thought it would be interesting to explore that. Also, although there is a special thrill in seeing your books translated into several languages, I wanted a more immediate connection with the city in which I live. The residency seemed a good opportunity. It was a bizarre experience, transforming my story stall into a sitting room and being taken for a fortune teller!

Q: What is the very best thing about writing for children?
A: Spinning your straw into gold. You take the ordinary stuff of life and transform it into something magical. Some of my funniest, lightest stories have come out of the most difficult things in my life. So everything that happens - or almost everything - is useful. If you haven't got a problem, you haven't got a story. Stories are never, ever, about everything being all right. They are a place where you can make things all right and this has a very transforming effect on life. The other best thing is working with illustrators. And meeting children. And seeing your words in Zulu or Hebrew or Japanese. And meeting other children's writers. And some wonderful editors who can press the right buttons. And seeing something completed. And the sheer lovely feel of a new book.

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Joyce Dunbar
Photos courtesy of Sonia Duncan, ECN
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