It’s a pleasure to chat to Laura Dockrill. In life she’s everything her books would lead you to expect: thoughtful, warm, funny and honest, and with an optimism that can seem in short supply elsewhere just now. Yet, the past couple of years can’t have been easy for her: she was diagnosed with post-partum psychosis following the birth of her son, now two and a half, an experience described in her new memoir What Have I Done? with the same honesty and compassion that distinguishes her writing for young people. Her latest children’s book, Butterfly Brain, explores a child’s response to grief and loss and suggests it’s possible to recover from both. She talked to Books for Keeps about the book and her writing.
Laura is surrounded by her family when this interview takes place, which seems fitting, as reading her books I’m struck by a sense of joy and energy that would indicate vivid memories of a very happy childhood.
‘My childhood was really happy and chaotic and busy.’ Her parents encouraged her creativity, though she says she struggled with all the academic stuff – ‘as I think a lot of writers and people in the arts do’ – but ‘music and books and acting was always a massive part of my life. I’ve written since I was three years old.’
And it was writing that helped her deal with the trauma of her recent mental illness. ‘I tried to run away from what had happened because I didn’t want it to affect my creativity, but then I was like “Hold on, what am I doing? That’s how I’ve processed everything my whole life, through my writing.” As soon as I did that, that’s when I really started to recover.’
Her two new children’s books, Sequin and Stitch and the beautiful Butterfly Brain, both examine big issues, in particular sudden loss, and look at ways children can process and understand them. How important to her was it to tackle such big themes?
‘I was obsessed with Jaqueline Wilson’s books when I was growing up and I always loved the way she tackled big topics in her work. My parents split up when I was 15 but other than that I hadn’t really known any trauma. Now I know though that trying to run away from it doesn’t help your recovery at all. Particularly being a young woman, I think it’s kind of conditioned in us that we’re meant to rally and rage and fight for things we believe in – equality, feminism and equal pay and all these things – but when it comes to mental illness, that’s actually the wrong approach. You kind of rage and go “Why me?”, and I don’t want these feelings anymore, but actually that doesn’t help; what does is acceptance, which doesn’t mean being the victim but saying: “OK, this is something that’s happened and I’m going to learn to make the best out of it.” I meet so many children who have gone through really difficult things and I want to be able to speak to them but I want to be totally honest.’
She wrote Butterfly Brain when she was pregnant and it started life as the libretto for a musical. ‘It was a really nice commission and something different for me, writing a script and then bringing it to life with classical music.’ Workshops were held in London in schools but by then she was too unwell to go: ‘It felt almost like I was a butterfly, the way I wrote this thing and then I didn’t get to see it lived.’ Luckily her editor at Bonnier, Jenny Jacoby, saw the show and asked to turn it into a book: ‘Which in itself is odd because usually books are adapted into musicals, this was a weird reversal of that. I said yes, absolutely, though at that point I didn’t think I’d be able to walk into a shop let alone work again.’
Now Laura says: ‘There are so many parallels between the story and what happened. It’s comforting for me to know that if things had gone slightly differently, my son would have had the book. I always believe that you should write from what you know and I didn’t want to write too much about death having not experienced the death of anyone close to me yet but now I feel like I’m much more able to write about these scary things in life.’ She corrects herself: ‘Well they’re not scary actually because knowledge is power and we shouldn’t hide these things, young people are very resilient and they can handle this big stuff.’
She’s fascinated by the similarities between the music and the illustrations: “At the end where Grandma talks to us as your mum would, an opera singer actually sang that bit which was just amazing and quite an odd experience for me because in opera they don’t hit the beat as you hear in poetry, it’s like they literally lead by emotion. Gwen’s illustrations lend themselves in the same way, they turn the words into images with their own musicality, just with a different range.’
Poetry she says is ‘my number one boyfriend’ and something that always played an important part in her life. She shares an anecdote to demonstrate: ‘I remember I was in a bookshop – this is so geeky – pulling my tooth out prematurely. It was on its last thread, and I wanted to get it out before my dad had finished browsing. I’d caught on to the fact that the tooth fairy was my dad or mum, and I thought if I get this tooth out in time, I’ll get a poetry book in exchange. I put myself through that pain just so I could get the new Carol Ann Duffy. That’s how keen I was!’
Her parents encouraged this love of poetry and more, thanks to their example, she always accepted that you could make a career as a poet. Studying at the Brit School taught her the skills she needed to make it as a performance poet.
She’s optimistic about our current situation and how writers will respond: ‘I think artists are incredible; they’re like cockroaches and can just scuttle out of any sort of dilemma.’ She’s positive too on the impact it will have on children: ‘I think it’s an amazing time for Jet (her son) to be growing up, for him to learn about kindness and empathy and compassion. We’ve been taking care of our neighbours and they’ve been looking out for us in ways that we never would have done before. I feel fortunate that he’s seeing that.’
She’s working on something new herself at the moment, and keen to work with Butterfly Brain illustrator Gwen Millward again. ‘Butterfly Brain is like pop-up theatre that happens in ten minutes’, she says, ‘Gwen and me, illustrator and author, are the stage directors.’ Their book certainly does deliver a vivid and memorable experience, and one that will help all sorts of readers in all sorts of different ways.
Butterfly Brain is published by Piccadilly Press, 978-1848128682, £9.99 hbk.