Best-selling children's author, Vivian French, has written more than 200 books (including the hugely popular Tales from the Five Kingdoms series) and her illustrious career spans 25 years! Vivian regularly tours around schools and festivals, wowing kids all over the country. She also teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) where she passionately champions the importance of illustration in children's books. She joined me for tea, cake and seriously good chat!
Hello! Thank you so much for joining me on the Wee Red Writer Book Blog.
You're very welcome, thank you for having me!
I'm going to jump right on in with my first question! What is your desert island book?
I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett has to be it, it’s the fourth in a series actually, but I don’t think you have to have read the others to appreciate it. I really love it because Terry is so good about having really strong women! In particular strong older women who are very knowledgeable and wise. It's so funny as well, he just makes me crack up! My other desert island book is the princess bride. It’s just fantastic.
I've only seen the film! Oops...
Well you know the film was brilliant – William Golding (the author) did the screenplay for it, so it’s a dead ringer for the book - but the book has even more going on.
It's on the reading pile! So Vivian, I would really love to know where you get your inspiration from, apart from the wonderful Mr. Pratchett of course!
Oh! I always get very grumpy when people ask me about where I get my inspiration from! I always think it’s a bit like being a caterpillar – you munch up all sorts of things and they kind of come out, hopefully not as nasty little squirmy grubs! I was lucky – my Dad read to me since I was absolutely tiny and we lived in a house so full of books. We went to the library every Friday and got more books, and he read to us. I used to listen to Children’s Hour and the stories were absolutely fabulous – I love being read stories. The stories my Dad read me were fairy stories like Andrew Lang's Fairy books, and all of those sorts, and I absolutely loved them. I think particularly with something like the Five Kingdoms they really inform what I do.
It makes sense to me that you feel your childhood was so important in influencing the career you have now - I know that the books I read up until about 12 left the biggest impression on me, and you see that running through the books I love to read now, as an adult.
Yes, they are so important! You see it with illustrators too, if you talk to an illustrator about the books they loved when they were little you can see where their style comes from – just look at Nick Sharratt’s list of books he read up until he was about that age. If you put them all together and mix them with art college training, he is what you get!
Absolutely! Do you find that the little details from everyday life with your family end up in your stories?
Ohh yes! I’m always saying to kids to watch what’s going on around them, to which they respond ‘oh but I have to use my imagination’… Well I think using your imagination is like wearing an invisible bucket on your head and you'll never be able to get anything out of your imagination until you put something in to it, and all that observing and listening is fuel for that.
It’s the interaction that’s so much fun isn’t it? You can get just a little morsel from one of the kids that before you know it has bloomed into something magical for the whole group.
So Viv, you teach at the ECA and you’re incredibly passionate about illustration. It seems to be the norm that most writers never even meet the illustrators of the books they've written, but I know you work closely with a lot of the illustrators for your books –what’s your take on writer/illustrator relationships? Should that be changing in publishing?
I’ve been writing books for 25 years and I asked to meet the illustrator of my first book – not in any way, shape or form to say, ‘I think the character should look like this’ but in fact to say ‘What do you think and how can I change the character to suit your illustration?’ I think the relationship varies so much from author to author and illustrator to illustrator and yes sometimes writers never meet their illustrators. I think some of them just aren’t bothered. I love it because I just love that interaction. I've got a book coming out in the summer with Angela Barrett for which I wrote the text and in it there’s a bit where the princess is brought a lot of gifts, and Angela just drew what she wanted to draw, and I then went back and changed the text to fit with her illustration. I love that, because it means she’s really invested in that book and that story, and it’s just as much hers as it is mine. It’s absolutely brilliant.
It sounds like fun! I watched a wonderful interview of you with Ross Collins, who illustrated the Tales from the Five Kingdoms series, and when you were talking about the character Gubble, it seemed as if Ross has almost picked him right out of your head. How much influence did you have over how he would look?
Because of the acting background in the theatre, when I imagine my characters I always know how the talk and how they move, and how they look. I was so lucky with Ross – he and I get on so well, and I think he has the same sort of mind-set. So when he illustrates a character I recognise them, it’s just absolutely spot on. That happens quite a lot, and I've worked with a lot of illustrators over the years. In fact I think there’s only two I haven’t met!
It’s fascinating that one can inform the other in that way. Talking about the writer/illustrator relationship – it’s been very much a focus for media attention in the last few months, fuelled by the illustrator Sarah McIntyre raising the question of co-author recognition between writers and illustrators in the case of the Carnegie Award. Is this heralding a change? Is co-author recognition the future?
Yes, I’ve been waving the illustrator flag for years! At ECA we actually categorise our books by the illustrator. I had a major campaign last year because public Lending Right list the most borrowed authors, for instance Julia Donaldson would be number two or three, Axel Scheffler however will be listed somewhere around 200. I think that’s totally appalling – they’re just as much his books as hers. The Society of Authors took it up and I’m hoping that this year will see the recognition of a book by an illustrator. There are still some authors that talk about ‘my illustrator’ and that’s just not the case – it’s the illustrator of the book. I get quite cross about people who do that.
That’s why you’re such a brilliant patron! So what are your top three pointers for illustrators about to embark on their careers?
Character! You have to establish a character we can relate to – whether it’s a nasty little thing we simply hate, or something we love – it has to have an identity, an individual identity. It has to have some kind of feeling – all books are about feeling. Also, it's important to think simply. It’s almost like writing a joke – it can be that simple. Even if it has a serious meaning behind it. I love Ed Vere’s book ‘Banana’ where ‘Banana’ is pretty much the only word used to tell the story, right until the end, where we hear ‘please’, and it’s just brilliant! It’s so simple but it says so much. It teaches about caring and sharing, but in no way shape or form is it moral. That’s something students sometimes sink into, they say ‘Oh but I want to tell children that’s it’s better to be kind’ and that’s a killer. No one wants to be told that they need to be kind, ever. It’s enough to make kids want to go straight out the window!
So nailing character, feeling and simplicity are key for budding illustrators. What if an illustrator wants to write and illustrate but they don’t have the confidence as a writer?
At ECA they are encouraged very much to illustrate their own writing. In the first year students look at storytelling in all kinds of different forms. Some of them will never really want to write but others are really very good. I’ve had illustration students who have left illustration to become writers, having discovered it through illustrating stories.
Did Catherine Rayner find her voice through illustration?
Oh Catherine was outstanding right from the beginning, she always had a very clear understanding of how a story works. Philip Reeve is another writer who also illustrates very well, though he focuses on the writing side of things. It’s all telling stories isn’t it?
Yes! I got a doodle in my ‘Oliver and the Seawigs’ book along with a doodle from Sarah McIntyre who co-wrote and illustrated it! They were just fabulous. So, moving on from illustration! What is your favourite book to read aloud?
I love the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, because the voices are so brilliant. I liked the Beginning of the Armadillos best, 'Can't curl, can swim-- Slow and Solid, that's him! Curls up, can't swim-- Stickly-Prickly, that’s him!’ I love that.
Ah the actress! You’re so good at doing voices. So here’s a wee cheeky question – can you tell us who your favourite character is from your own books?
Oh! That’s a tricky one. I think I do have a favourite. Queen Bluebell, who is the queen of Wadingburn in the Five Kingdoms series. I suspect… or have a nasty suspicion that I am turning into her! She’s a kind of combination of a lot of my aunts' and my grandmother. I love Bluebell, she has a lot of adventures, and she’s not afraid to go out in the hunt for more.
Now there’s a character will could all do with a little bit of! I know you’ve just spent a week in Birmingham doing events with lots of lovely kids so I might know the answer to this next question! But – what is the absolute best part of your job?
Yes, it is talking to the children. When you get a child talking about a story that you’ve invented and their eyes are just shining – what a privilege! To be able to share that with them. I do like standing on the stage too – that’s the actor in me!
What’s the worst part?
Oh, when it goes wrong. I always say to kids you have to plan, plan, and plan your stories! And I do plan, and somehow I end up going off that plan and I can't, honestly, truly, with my hand on my heart, I can't see how to resolve it. And then I’m panicking and thinking oh my god! I have had a few sleepless nights over plots not going right.
Is that down to an over-active imagination as opposed to the ideas aren’t coming, or writer’s block?
Yes – there’s so many possibilities! And you have to be able to cleverly solve every problem. I don’t get writers block – my mortgage sees to that!
So do you find yourself thinking ahead down every avenue before you settle?
Yes! I have this analogy – it’s a bit like raspberry ripple ice-cream. When I’m chasing an idea it’s like chasing the raspberry swirl. You land on it and chase it and then uh-oh! You’ve reached a dead-end. Or I think I’ve solved something and then I realise I haven’t.
I hope any budding writers take heart! I think people can be so hard on themselves to be perfect.
Yes – and you never get there. Someone said to me ‘Oh you’ve been doing this for 25 years it must be so easy now!’ and it’s not! If anything it’s harder. I have these in-built voices of my editors in my head now – ‘Have you followed that through Viv?’ and I cry ‘No!’ I’ve been very lucky to work with some phenomenal editors, and because of that I self-edit dreadfully, because I keep re-writing it to get it right!
Are you working more closely with editors now than you were in the beginning?
It’s about the same. It’s perhaps more collaborative now. Working with an editor is a bit like getting married – you have to respect them.
So you don’t get writers block. Do you know anyone who does? Can you offer any advice to writers who are struggling to find their story?
Martin Waddell who wrote the glorious ‘Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?’ had a spell of writers block, and I think all you can do is just get a little bit of distance from it. My Dad told me that Homer said whenever he wrote something he would put it away for 5 years! It makes sense – if I pick up a book now I wrote 5 years ago I see a lot I could have written differently.
Good advice. What’s your physical process for writing? I know you sometimes write on your iPad when travelling around the country – is that when you’re most productive?
It depends on the weather! Where I write at home is quite cold, so it’s fine when the weather is nice, but if it isn’t I move into the sitting room where I crouch over the fire like an old biddy! I love writing on my iPad on trains. I’m thinking of applying to be writer in residence on East Coast trains or something! I would get so much work done!
I think you're on to something there. Are there any other places you go to write, or that inspire your writing?
I love visiting the National Museum of Scotland. There’s just so much to see.
It’s a great place for head-space isn’t it?
Absolutely! I have been so many times and I always see new things I haven’t spotted before. I love the macabre things and the Egyptians. There’s a wonderful Viking skeleton in the basement of a young man, and they found the bones of a much older woman buried with him, but she was buried much later on. I always wonder who she was – his wife? His girlfriend? Maybe she loved him and he never knew!
Well it’s clearly an inspiring place for a writer! Talking about new ideas – anything exciting coming up you can share with us? You mentioned your book with Angela Barrett…
Yes! It’s out on June 4th and its called The Most Wonderful Thing and the illustrations are absolutely fabulous! And the design is brilliant too, which was done by Elizabeth Wood at Walker Books. I also have the first in a series of six out in April, called Dragons Can’t Swim – Sam J Butterbiggins, Knight in Training which is illustrated by the very talented David Melling!
How exciting! A huge big thanks to Vivian for taking time out of her packed schedule to chat to me.
You can find out more about Vivian on her website and follow her on Twitter!
My next interview will be with a wonderful writer and illustrator who’s been causing a bit of a stir! Keep your eyes peeled...