Sarah Garland interviewed by Julia Eccleshare
‘But where’s the clutter - the cats and kittens, the babies and the washing?’ is the first thought when walking into Sarah Garland’s beautiful Cotswold house. For those who know Sarah’s picture books, all is instantly recognisable - the cream-coloured Aga, the home-made pottery, the rugs on the chairs but it’s all as neat as a new pin. Even the open fire burns tidily.
‘I cleared up specially for you,’ Sarah says laughingly, but it’s obviously not true. ‘Well, no. I’ve certainly got more orderly since the children went. It was completely chaotic. I didn’t mind then. Now, I want more order. I can quite imagine myself being the sort of granny who meets her grandchildren at the door and makes them take their shoes off so they don’t get the floor dirty. I would never have thought that was how I would be.’
Indeed, everything in Sarah’s house is orderly, especially her work room. Her considerable output is neatly shelved, her new stories carefully filed and her precious notebooks of sketches, the source of her characters, preserved in a huge plan chest. In a light-hearted way, Sarah is entirely organised about her work and very driven by it, too.
‘It’s the same sort of drive as writing a diary. It’s really putting down my life and the things that make me want to laugh. I mean, you want to share a joke, don’t you. When I get my PLR returns and see the number of people who have enjoyed my books I get enormous pleasure.’
It’s this desire to share pleasures that has shaped all Sarah’s work. The picture books with which she made her reputation - Going Shopping , Coming to Tea , Having a Picnic and the rest - are upbeat and optimistic, even though the mother is somewhat harassed. Her recent fiction, such as Dad on the Run titles, shares the same amused view of domestic chaos. ‘I have endless private jokes. I find my family extremely amusing. The washing on the line, the shopping list, the ridiculous things in the classified ads - they all make me laugh.’
Perhaps because Sarah is not actually very sociable - rather to her surprise as she’d always thought she would be - she shares jokes through her words and pictures. ‘Once you’ve got the idea it’s unbearable not to communicate it. Recently I felt completely bloated with a story. It’s a horrible word, but that is what it felt like. I simply had to write it down. Drawing is different. I quite often think that I don’t want to illustrate what I’ve written, but then I find I can’t not do the illustrations. I long to records what’s around me.’
Sarah’s assumption that everyone has both the need and the gift to communicate in this way is an indication of her total immersion in her books.
Brought up in a family in which her father wrote and her mother was an illustrator, Sarah has always known that writing is an entirely possible thing to do. ‘I do remember my father talking to me about plot,’ says Sarah. And certainly there was the example of creativity to follow. ‘I started writing when I was a child, like most writers, I suppose. Lots of little stories which started off marvellously. Millions of beginnings. I remember writing the Massacre of Glencoe, whizzing through it for four foolscap pages and then teetering off. I was a mad, passionate reader. Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece - all those historical novels.’
Home provided an eclectic mixture of books that gave Sarah some early illustrative models. ‘A lot of old bound copies of the Strand magazine with frightening steel engravings - I was a pretty morbid child. Old issues of Punch . A complete set of a French surrealist magazine, Minataur and the Goya painting of the execution which my parents kept on a top shelf and which I used to climb up to look at. I liked to be frightened. It was a way of testing myself.’
Sarah’s description of herself as a morbid child who rather liked pictures of death and dying is a surprise given her amused adult view of the world. Perhaps that came from other influences - lots of comics and later, Edward Ardizzone. School also played an important part. Sarah went to Bedales which had an excellent art department and included life classes from about the age of 14. Her friends were also budding artists ‘wearing black stockings, long skirts and being existentialists. We lived a bohemian existence in a hut in the grounds - which is almost identical to our house today.’
The move from school to her current life has in many ways been a small one. ‘My son recently asked me if I was what I had expected to be - and I am. It sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it?’ But Sarah isn’t bored by it. ‘I am extraordinarily happy. Of course, I teeter between hope and despair but mostly I’m very happy. This is the kind of life I like.’
The kind of life is living at the top of a village with a view across the garden and over other people’s roofs to glorious open countryside. She works from home, as does her husband David whose pottery is in an addition to the house. And between this happy living and Sarah’s work there is another contradiction. ‘I don’t like drawing country much. I find it pretty dull. I like drawing car parks, and high rise flats and suburbs. I like houses and people in landscapes. And yet I love to live in landscape that is unpeopled. I like going into the city and drawing and drawing and then coming back and being quiet. For me, the surroundings don’t mirror life but the details and experiences do.’ The days of three children under five are long gone and only the fourth, Jack, now 15, still lives at home. But it was from her early experiences as a rather harassed mother that Sarah drew her first ideas. ‘I took my portfolio (in the rain) to Phyllis Hunt at Faber and she took Rose and her Bath which was my first book.’ Will was two and Laura and Kitty followed in fairly quick succession and books became ‘few and far between’. Instead, Sarah taught A-level art which combined perfectly with being at home.
But the drawing was always there and then more books, especially when Jack was a baby. ‘I thought of Going Shopping , Coming to Tea , Having a Picnic and Doing the Washing as books for babies strapped into cars and needing to be entertained. I was pretty overwhelmed at the time with four children and feeling desperate about money. I find it difficult not to be autobiographical. I’m always trying not to be. In the book I’m doing now, I’m trying to make the mother have really tidy hair. It’s incredibly hard. My pen goes skittering off and does these awful rough bits.’
So now, with no babies around, Sarah has been moving into books for older chldren, but not without some regrets. ‘Yes, I am getting more and more interested in writing, although at the moment I’m doing a picture book in the day time and then, in the evening I’m writing a short story. I love doing the picture book. I’ve found a new family in the village with four or five young children and I just sit in their house and sketch and remember it all. I’m afraid I use people terribly. I use their houses and I use their children. Certainly drawing gives me the greatest pleasure. Writing doesn’t give me pleasure, it gives me pain but I am driven to do it. I couldn’t bear to give up either.’
Combining both, as in the ‘Jets’ and ‘Chillers’ she’s done for A & C Black, is an almost perfect combination. ‘I enjoy doing those. I feel I can be really free in them. It’s just like writing an illustrated letter.’ Junior novels with illustrations, such as her most recent title, The Survival of Arno Mostyn , allow her to write for her favourite audience - 7-10 year-olds - without losing the drawings. ‘I love that age. They’re so open and imaginative and responsive.’
Sarah’s enjoyment of her work, and the direct contact with readers by way of her many school visits, comes partly from her comfortableness with children and childhood. She doesn’t compartmentalise life or books into child/adult, seeing them instead as a continuum. ‘There isn’t any point at which I became grown-up. To me it is simply a progression. When I’m writing for children, I’m writing as both an adult and a child. It’s all the same. I feel terrific compassion both for the child who is struggling to come to terms with the world, who is interested, observant and aware, and for the adult who is wanting to help that child but who is distracted by all the other demands.’ She hates writers who patronise their readers by writing down, ‘but it’s terribly easy to do. I can sometimes feel myself slipping and have to haul myself out of it, often.’ Nor does she like writing that is too message-laden though she was once, to her surprise, described as ‘incredibly politically correct’. ‘I wasn’t intending to be. I was just trying to show things as they are. I go to London and sit in cafes or on buses and draw and draw, so, of course, I see all races. In one book I used a mixed race family because I have friends who are. It wasn’t meant to be an issue.’
Working so much for her own pleasure and amusement, Sarah has no fixed approach to her work. For her picture books she does vigorous dummies which are then very difficult to reproduce. ‘It’s so hard to capture the freshness again because it’s hard not to be self-conscious.’ Sarah plays a variety of tricks on herself to help keep up the spontaneity. But the books go on coming and the balance between drawing and writing continues. She’s recently done a picture book story, Seeing Red , which has been illustrated by Tony Ross because she didn’t want to do it herself. She’d like to do that again, but not exclusively. She has many publishers and, unusually, is full of praise for her various editors. More time has given her the opportunity to write more and to draw from a wider background. What next? ‘I couldn’t bear to give up either writing or drawing so I’ll go on combining the two. I was recently asked to give my motto to one of the schools I was visiting. In the end I put “Don’t Look Down”. And afterwards I thought how horribly true that was. If you look down, you see the cracking ice. You need to keep skating on, and I do that.’
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Some of Sarah Garland’s books
(published in hardback by Bodley Head and in paperback by Puffin, unless otherwise stated)
Going Shopping , 0 370 30446 2, £7.99; 0 14 055400 9, £3.99 pbk
Coming to Tea , 0 370 30665 1, £7.99; 0 14 055399 1, £3.99 pbk
Having a Picnic , 0 370 30560 4, £7.99; 0 14 055395 9, £3.99 pbk
Doing the Washing , 0 370 30948 0, £7.99; 0 14 055397 5, £3.99 pbk
Going to Playschool , 0 370 31539 1, £7.99; 0 14 055363 0, £3.99 pbk (an illustration from which is featured on our front cover this month)
Dad on the Run , A & C Black, 0 7136 4186 X, £6.50; Young Lions, 0 00 675009 5. £3.99 pbk
The Survival of Arno Mostyn , HarperCollins, 0 00 185614 6, £8.99
Seeing Red , ill. Tony Ross, Andersen, 0 86264 623 5, £8.99