With my mother
I was born with a full head of dark brown, curly hair. My mum nicknamed me Bubbles because of my curls, but I didn’t get a proper name for two whole weeks. I think this indecision about names might have rubbed off on me because it can take me days and days to name the characters in my books.
As a child, I had lots of pets: from dogs and cats to chickens and a tortoise. I did the normal sorts of things that children did in the 70s and 80s: rode my bike, roller-skated round the block, fished in streams and watched TV programmes like Grange Hill, Worzel Gummidge and Fame. My dad worked for the Ordnance Survey so my sister, Helen, and I were taken on long treks as soon as we could walk. These walks often involved going off the beaten track and getting to grips with a compass. Forests were keenly explored, but mountains were even more highly favoured, and as the youngest child, I felt obliged to join my dad when my sister and mother declined. All this hiking, biking and roller-skating meant that I was quite fit, which stood me in good stead in PE.
I played centre in my
school’s netball team
Dad encouraged exercise, while Mum took care of our educational needs. She taught my sister and me to read and write, and on holidays she made us keep diaries. I remember sitting in a summerhouse in Norfolk, dutifully writing down the day’s events, when I was five years old. Helen and I were both keen readers, rating Enid Blyton above all other authors.
We moved house several times, but I spent most of my schooldays in Writtle, a village near Chelmsford in Essex. It was in Mrs Marden’s class at Writtle Junior School that I found out that writing stories was just as rewarding as reading them. My proudest moment was when Mrs Marden read my story Things that Happen at Night to the rest of the class. I remember feeling thrilled as I watched everyone listening in rapt concentration to the story that I had made up.
At my graduation
ceremony in Canterbury
When my schooldays were over, I studied history at the University of Kent, and after I’d got my degree I didn’t have a clue what I should do next. Eventually, I got a job in a bookshop with the idea of ending up in publishing. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the children’s department was my favourite. I started reading children’s books and began to wonder if I could write one. I made a snap decision to do an MA in Writing For Children at King Alfred’s College in Winchester. A year later, I had an MA under my belt and had written a children’s novel called Whispering to Witches, which Bloomsbury offered to publish.
A recent photo
I continued working in a bookshop while I wrote my next three books, but I’m a full-time writer at the moment. I live in Hampshire and have a dog, called Bronwen, who sleeps in an armchair while I’m writing. I like travelling and photography. I also enjoy walking in the countryside and identifying things. I draw when I have a spare moment (I drew the pictures on this website). To relax, I read, swim, or garden.
You can read about another picture of me on this page from the Guardian website.
Have you always wanted to be an author?
I remember wanting to be a shepherd when I was ten, but I have no memory of wanting to be an author. This is strange because a) I loved writing and b) I was aware that I was good at it. On reflection, I think my lack of ambition was down to the impression I’d formed that writing was a hobby and not a career. This impression might have been dispelled if I’d met an author or had known that you could write to them, but I didn’t. At secondary school, when I found that I couldn’t study English language at A level, I assumed that it wasn’t as worthy as all the other subjects and that it was my bad luck to be best at it. Talk about a misguided youth! Thankfully, I realised the error of my ways, and that writing stories was what I wanted to do.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Writing the first version of a book takes about six months, but the process of rewriting it and making amendments can take a year or longer.
What age are your books aimed at?
Eight to twelve-year-olds, really, but I’m aware that younger children have read them, and adults too.
Where do you get your ideas?
Something that I see or hear or experience will get me thinking and I’ll have an idea, which I’ll write down in a notebook. Gradually, ideas will merge with one another and a story will start to form.
Is there any particular ritual involved in your writing process?
All I need – apart from a computer and a pen and notebook – is peace and quiet.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
I don’t have long periods where I struggle to string words together, but I do get stuck from time to time. I’ve discovered that this usually means I’ve gone wrong. I have to work out where the problem is and deal with it before I can continue. There are other occasions when the words won’t come and the solution is much simpler. Once I’ve taken a break (gone for a walk or a drive or watched TV) I feel refreshed and the words start to flow again. The longest break I’ve ever taken was a drive to the Mendip hills in Somerset, which took six hours. I was feeling quite frustrated that day!
What advice would you give someone who wants to be an author?
- Try to read books by as many different authors as you can. This will teach you the craft of writing and help you to develop your own style.
- Have lots of adventures. Writers draw on their own experiences. Your books are bound to be more exciting if you live life to the full.
- Keep a diary. It makes you write regularly, which is good practice.
- Before you start to write your first novel, read books on the art of writing and how to get published. It’s important to know what you’re doing before you put pen to paper.
- Be determined! Writing a book can be hard work and it can take a long time. Plenty of people start a novel, but fail to finish it. Keep going and don’t give up!
How did you get your first book published?
I did a Master of Arts degree in Writing for Children at King Alfred’s College in Winchester (it’s now called the University of Winchester). My final piece of coursework was to write a book. After Whispering to Witches was finished, I found an agent who was willing to represent me, and he sent my book to publishers. Luckily, Bloomsbury liked Whispering to Witches and offered to publish it.
What inspired you to write about witches?
My fascination with witches and magic began when I illustrated a poem called The Witch at the age of six. After that, I read every book about witches that I could find in the library, and that’s where I found my favourite book of all time, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. Casting magic spells and brewing potions, riding in the sky on a broomstick and owning a black cat all appealed to me hugely and, as well as that, I enjoyed feeling scared. When I came to write my first book, it didn’t take me very long to decide what to write about!
What inspired you to write about spies?
When I was eleven, my friend, Andrea, and I had a spying club with our own code names, badges and membership cards. In adulthood I became interested in the Special Operations Executive which trained agents during the Second World War. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of going undercover and pretending to be someone else.
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Occasionally I’ve used the names of people I’ve met, but most of the time I plunder dictionaries of names, the phone book and wildlife guides.
Have you got a favourite character from your books?
Aside from my books’ heroes, I’m fond of Squib and Tadpole, the witches’ cats, from Whispering to Witches, Clop, the toy donkey, from Dawn Undercover and Trunk, the toy elephant, from Magical Mischief.
Are your characters based on anyone you know?
A few of my characters are, yes, but I don’t usually base a character entirely on one person. Some people seem to have formed the idea that I must have been like Dawn from Dawn Undercover as a child, but I tell them that they’re wrong. (Mind you, I did have a toy donkey.)
Are your books available on audio?
Whispering to Witches and Dawn Undercover are Chivers audio books, read by Jan Francis. Spellbound is a Chivers audio book, read by Sophie Aldred and Magical Mischief is available too, read by Phyllida Nash.
Will there be any sequels to your books?
I might write a sequel to Whispering to Witches, if a good idea occurs.
What are you reading at the moment?
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Badger and elephant
Enchanted April, Housekeeping, Ice Cold in Alex, Little Miss Sunshine, Stardust, Whistle Down the Wind
Scott & Bailey, The Great Outdoors
The King and I
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
Flitch, inkling, juxtapose, thwart
The wind in the trees, the call of a curlew, a cat’s purr
A wildflower meadow on a summer’s evening
Moroccan or Indian
That I’ve been to: Egypt
That I’d like to visit: Canada, Ecuador, Australia
Children’s picture books:
The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr ~ OK, so there’s a tiger, but what impressed me most when I was small was that Sophie got to go to a café in her nightie.
Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion
Dogger by Shirley Hughes
Little Beaver and the Echo by Amy MacDonald
Dear Greenpeace by Simon James
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy ~ When I was ten I recorded myself reading this. My voice for Miss Hardbroom was spot on, I thought.
The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton
A Second Book of Naughty Children by Enid Blyton
The Land of Far-beyond by Enid Blyton ~ I read this over and over again. It’s full of hardship, temptation and scary things like giants and dragons. Oh, and there’s a character called Anna in it.
Third Year at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton
The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart
The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis ~ I used to tie my wardrobe doors closed at night so that the White Witch couldn’t come and get me.
The Stream that Stood Still by Beverley Nichols
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Going Back by Penelope Lively
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
The Cuckoo Tree by Joan Aiken
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Consequences by Penelope Lively
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert
A Bit of Earth by Rebecca Smith
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively
No Room for Secrets by Joanna Lumley
The Life in My Years by Virginia McKenna
The Celery Stalks at Midnight (by James Howe)