Jacqueline Wilson may have written over 100 books. But ask her who her favourite character is and she doesn’t have to think twice. ‘It has to be Hetty Feather,’ she says. ‘She’s such a fierce, bold, imaginative child. I can’t help being attached to her.’
Hetty figures in six of the books that Jacqueline has penned, the most recent being Hetty Feather’s Christmas.
Best known for her hugely popular series of children’s books that feature characters including such popular ones as Tracy Beaker, Connie, and, of course, Hetty Feather, 71-year-old Jacqueline will be a speaker at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai that is on from March 1-10 at the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City.
While the themes of her books almost always revolve around family break up, divorce and illness, Jacqueline herself was once termed a Pollyanna.
‘Am I?’ she asks, in an exclusive interview with Friday. ‘Am I really thought to be a Pollyanna? I can occasionally have a whine or a whimper! But I suppose I always try to be polite and positive in public, and it’s easy to be relaxed and friendly with children. I shall be extra smiley in Dubai because I always enjoy the festival enormously.’
Growing up in England, the only child of her parents, Jacqueline did not have a lot of smiley moments, though; her parents, she has said, used to have raging rows, with her father prone to temper tantrums. Escaping into an imaginary world of books populated with large families – albeit sometimes dysfunctional – became a habit of sorts for her.
An avid reader and a passionate writer who used to jot down short stories in her notebooks when she was barely six, Jacqueline’s vivid imagination was soon well known in her school. In fact, the title of her autobiography, Jacky Daydream, was her nickname in school.
‘I love reading,’ says Jacqueline. ‘My favourite book as a child was Nancy and Plum by Betty Macdonald, a lovely story about two orphans who run away. It is, sadly, little known now. I also loved all the novels by Noel Streatfield, especially Ballet Shoes.’
Her father, she says, used to get her lots of books to read. However, neither of her parents encouraged her to write. Did that upset her?
‘I didn’t really expect them to encourage me,’ says the author, who has a clutch of honours including the British Book Awards and was felicitated in the UK for promoting literacy in schools.
‘When you’re little, you think all parents act the same way as your own. I suppose I’ve had some regrets as I’ve got older, but perhaps their lack of interest helped me stand on my own feet. However, I’ve certainly always tried hard to be a proud encouraging mum to my own daughter [Emma Wilson, a writer specialising in French literature and cinema].’
Her parents’ lack of interest clearly did not stop Jacqueline from writing and before she turned 10, she had written her first novel.
‘It was hardly a novel,’ she clarifies, when I ask her more about the plot. ‘It was around 15 pages, but it was like a tiny condensed version of one of my books now. It was a story about a poor family, with a teenage girl staying out late, a bookish earnest girl with glasses. And identical twins, a shy sensitive little boy, and a fierce little sister with very curly hair. I’ve written about characters very like these in my published books.’
Leaving school at 16, Jacqueline landed a job as a writer for a publishing house the next year, a move that would help her future career – writing novels.
‘I think being a junior journalist was excellent training for writing books,’ she says. ‘It taught me to write whether I felt like it or not – so that I never have ‘writer’s block’. I learnt to be ruthless with flowery passages that don’t advance the plot. [Journalism] showed me that it’s a good idea to start with an interesting opening sentence to get my readers interested. And it was great fun too.’
Two years later, at 19, she married Millar Wilson, a printer at the firm she was working at. At 21, Jacqueline had a daughter, Emma. (Jacqueline and Millar separated amicably in 2004.)
‘If the first happiest day in my life was when I fell in love, the second was when my daughter was born,’ she says. ‘The third was when a publisher accepted my first novel.’ Even during her pregnancy and after she had her baby, Jacqueline was known to be a prolific writer capable of churning out 2,000 words or more a day. But her breakthrough of sorts came in the early ’90s when The Story of Tracy Beaker hit the stands. Teaming up with illustrator Nick Sharratt, her tales of regular children caught in sad circumstances captured the minds and tugged the heart strings of young readers, particularly girls. Soon, churning out two books a year became a habit with Jacqueline.
‘I used to play elaborate imaginary games when I was small, making up endless characters,’ she says. ‘Writing novels is just a grown up way of playing the same games.’ Jacqueline insists that she does not base her characters on people she knows or may have met. ‘I don’t ever use real people in my books – I don’t think it would work.’
The author’s typical day begins when she gets up at 7am. ‘The first thing I do is write – on my laptop in bed. I find if I write for an hour or so before breakfast then I can manage up to a thousand words – the most important work in the whole day.’
She, however, does a lot more writing during the day but not all of it novels. ‘I answer endless emails, write letters to children, various articles and forewards to books,’ she says.
Once upon a time, Jacqueline used to write lengthy replies to every one of her fans. But now, with the number of fans in the millions, she admits she is unable to reply to every mail she receives mainly because her day is choc-a-bloc with commitments. ‘[Some days], I might have to do a phone interview with a journalist, or discuss things with my publicist or agent. If I’m doing an event, I hop on a train to get to the venue and talk to children and then do a meet-and-greet with special children who are, maybe, ill or troubled. Or I may have to meet some competition winners.’ As for reading, she does it ‘while going to and from events’.
Once back home, she finds time to take her dog – Jackson, a Patterdale Terrier mix – for a walk. ‘Then I relax with supper on a tray, watch a bit of television and go to bed to read for a while.’ Early in the morning, she is back on her laptop.
Writing is clearly Jacqueline’s passion; she once said that to be a successful writer one has to be slightly obsessive. Does she still obsess about writing?
‘You definitely have to be obsessive,’ says the septuagenarian. ‘I write even on Christmas Day, and I think about my current novel first thing in the morning and last thing at night – and many times in between. It’s not a normal relaxed way of life.’ The hard work and obsession has surely has paid off. Her 100-plus works have sold close to 40 million copies across the world.
But writing is not Jacqueline’s only obsession. A lover of rings, she is known to own a dazzling number of these fashion accessories. ‘I love my silver rings and bangles and feel lost if I’m not wearing any. I used to wear a ring on every finger, which must have looked bizarre,’ she says. ‘I’ve calmed down a bit over the years, wearing just one ring on each hand.’
Any other indulgences?
‘Books,’ she says. ‘There’s a wonderful bookshop in the village where I live [Kingston, Surrey], and I buy something every time I go in there.’ Thanks to her habit, the library in her home now houses over 15,000 books. Today’s kids, though, she moans, are not reading enough books. To get them interested in reading, she teamed with budget airline, EasyJet, in an initiative called Flybraries where she chose a set of children’s classics that are included in the passenger seat pockets of the airline.
But why are children not reading these days?
‘I think children aren’t reading more because their parents aren’t either,’ she says. ‘Nowadays, if you look at adults in a train, for instance, very few are reading a book or even a newspaper – they’re all peering intently at their smartphones.
‘If parents read aloud to their children when they’re small, and read more themselves, then all the family might rediscover the joy of books.’
Although in her seventies, the writer, whose stories focus a lot on contemporary children dealing with contemporary problems, says ‘I feel I can still easily imagine what it’s like to be a child of primary school age. It’s more of a struggle nowadays with British teenagers because so many seem obsessed by social media and the way they look – but deep down I think they have the same fears and hopes as teenagers of any time.’
Have the tastes of children changed over the years? Has social media had a major role to play?
‘Yes, I do think some of the tastes of children have changed; and there’s definitely more pressure for them to be perfect and popular. It must be so difficult. You feel self-conscious enough in your early teens, scared that people won’t like you – so it must feel like the end of the world if no one ‘likes’ your post or someone tweets something mean about you,’ she says.
A self-confessed technophobe, Jacqueline admits that while some modern technology is good, limits need to be set on the time spent on tablets, for instance. ‘Mobile phones are a wonderful invention. But it’s sad that so many children play on their tablets from a very young age. The small granddaughter of a friend of mine showed me her favourite electronic game, which involved making a cake on a screen. She seemed baffled when I asked her if she’d sooner make a real cake,’ says Jacqueline.
What is the best compliment she has received for her books?
‘I feel pleased when children say that they used to hate reading and found it deadly boring until they were given one or other of my books, and then they suddenly got hooked on reading.’
Does she have any regrets?
‘Of course I have a few regrets – but I don’t really believe in looking back. I much prefer to look forward to what might happen next.’
WRITING TIPS FOR BUDDING AUTHORS
✱ Read a great deal
✱ Keep a diary to get into a regular writing habit
✱ Don’t necessarily plan everything out in detail beforehand
✱ Write the sort of story you’d like to read yourself
✱ Keep going right to the end
Jacqueline Wilson will be speaking on March 2 at 10am at InterContinental Dubai Festival City. For tickets, Dh50 each, visit tickets.emirateslitfest.com