All teachers learn from their students, and it was teaching 14-year-olds to write that honed Celia Rees’s own skills, and taught her just what would enrapture them. ‘I’m not the sort who began writing when they were very young.’
Teaching and books were in the blood. With a mother determined her daughter should love reading, a father the head of a junior school, and both aunt and uncle teachers, the real surprise was her fireman brother. After a miserable half-term at Manchester University at 18, she took a gap year, went to Warwick for a History and Politics degree, then trained as a teacher in Walsall.
At first English was subsidiary to history, but she found that, much as she’d loved studying history, teaching it was another matter. ‘I couldn’t stand it – galloping through the Reformation with third years who weren’t interested in anything that interested me.’ But the English department had an inspirational head, and in those days you could do pretty much what you liked. ‘You didn’t use specifically children’s books, but people like Stan Barstow were writing about real children in Britain, and Americans like Steinbeck had young central characters.’ So she gradually switched to teaching English.
Children’s books were part of her job, but they quickly became her own preferred reading. ‘Garner, Cormier, Le Guin… fantastic. Better stories, better characters, more exciting.’ And when she studied them as literary texts, during a 1983 sabbatical at Birmingham for an M.Ed in teaching English, they seemed the essence of what a writer should do. ‘You’re telling a story that kids will love, but behind it is a weight of thought, even scholarship. It was very, very impressive. Then the guy running the creative writing unit said you couldn’t judge what children write without realising the problems they face. He encouraged us to write with the children, to be children and go away and write about it. And for the first time someone told me what I’d written was actually publishable – and I thought “Wow, I can really do this! There’s something going on here I want to be part of.”’
Back at school, where GCE and CSE classes were building folders on challenging themes like homelessness or prejudice, she put the theory to the test. She wrote three versions of a time when she’d felt coldly treated by a Welsh doctor because she was English (banal, factual, first person; more richly detailed first person; third person narrative – a story), and read them aloud to demonstrate the difference. Or, on a rite-of-passage moment, she wrote about her first kiss. ‘I was told they’d just blow me out, fall about laughing, but in fact you could have heard a pin drop. I got some amazing work out of them: they trusted me with their lives, and it was fantastically fulfilling.’
She had noted what happened to the book box: ‘A sorry thing that started each year full of wonderful books and ended with the core books no one wanted to read, slung back with a “Yi-errgh, boring”. So we discussed what they really liked – exciting stories about teenagers like themselves, but who date and have exciting things happen. I was impressed by the authors they loved (and didn’t bring back to the book box), like Judy Blume or Cynthia Voigt. So I said, OK, maybe I could have a go at that. But set in this country – I was sick of their stories always modelled on American books and set in high schools.’ From a friend she heard about an ‘unbelievable’ school trip that offered the perfect thriller plot, developed a background, characters, sub-plots (borrowed the sad little love story of one pupil on a skiing trip), and there was her first book, Every Step You Take, published by Macmillan in 1993.
A few years earlier she had stopped full-time teaching in order to write, and has now chalked up 18 titles with different publishers – 13 in two astonishing peaks around ’95 and ’99. Mean-minded critics like me might find echoes of herself in the occasional plot or image, but ‘before anyone starts going on about being too prolific, have they tried paying the bills on the money most children’s authors make?’ In fact, her imagination prowls ravenously through the centuries, and her fans remain hungry for more.
She has stayed with Macmillan, who published The Bailey Game (1994) and Truth or Dare (2000), with The Wish House (‘a modern Turn of the Screw set in the west of Ireland’) coming next year. She never intended to write horror, but seeing a Dracula film brought back the night when a 17-year-old Celia, her mother away, had been so gripped by Bram Stoker that the thought of her mirror failing to reflect a vampire behind her was scarier than biking off alone at midnight to sleep at a friend’s house. When Macmillan recoiled from her urge to tackle a ‘Victorian full-on vampire book’, she turned to Scholastic, who were then launching Point Horror Unleashed for British writers. They published Blood Sinister, The Vanished (1997), with its typically Rees view of ancient terrors lurking beneath our cities’ streets, and The Cunning Man (2000), a tale of malevolence in a Welsh fishing village that pounces heart-thuddingly on the reader. One of her Scholastic editors moved to Hodder Headline and asked for something supernatural, resulting in Soul Taker and Ghost Chamber (1997), and a series for younger children based on a ghost city paralleling a modern one, now attractively repackaged as a trilogy with new titles: City of Shadows, A Trap in Time and, soon, The Host Rides Out. Meanwhile her duo from Bloomsbury, Witch Child (2000) and now Sorceress, which recreate life in the superstitious seventeenth century for America’s European settlers and the natives they callously displaced, has brought transatlantic success and a place on award short lists.
Celia Rees was born in Solihull and that whole area has remained her home patch: she met her Welsh husband, Terry, at Warwick, went with him to Manchester where they both taught at Stratford College, and, ‘as you do’, back with him to Coventry, where she taught for the rest of her career. They moved to Leamington Spa in 1984, to a family-sized terrace house where she bagged the biggest, lightest room for a study adorned with reminders of her books – a fisherman’s blue rope, Native American pictures, dowsing forks, watercolours of Welsh fishing villages – and a bed-sized couch. Despite 21-year-old Catrin, a law student, about to be articled away in London, dreams of uninterrupted writing have ironically been foiled by Terry taking early retirement: ‘I like to get up and walk around, but now I’m bumping into someone else and having cups of coffee and realising two hours later nothing’s been done… I don’t write regularly – it has to cook, and then I write in bursts, all night if necessary.’
She is a petite and I suspect, in spite of her easy chat, a rather reserved woman. Her father died when she was 12 and beginning grammar school, after her mother being seriously ill for a year. Her brother, at 21, had to take on the family responsibilities, and Celia herself realised in retrospect that all the school subjects she couldn’t manage were those she’d just met at that time. While she was planning Truth or Dare she happened to visit Solihull and sat in the park where their gang had played, and she remembered that hot summer of ’59 before she started school, and the day it had rained and the summer and her childhood were over. But when I ask if she would write about the death of a parent, her answer suggests a protective rationalisation. ‘You write what you enjoy reading and I dislike books that seem to be “turning a trick”, issue books. Story should be all important.’
Yet Truth or Dare and The Bailey Game, her most personal novels (and two of her finest – ‘Yeah, “proper books”! Well, they’re harder to write than thrillers or ghost stories…’), are the best kind of ‘issue books’, the former a delicate portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome and the destructive power of family secrets, the latter a stark picture of classroom bullying. And it was 11-year-old Catrin who, when her mum asked what she should write about, had replied, ‘Bullies.’ Celia, teacher and mother, knew of recent incidents, but she also exorcised her adult shame of her own childhood fear that if you didn’t join in you would be the next victim. ‘That you don’t have to, that you can be strong enough to stand up to it, is an important message for children.’ Anti-issue?
Truth or Dare, filled with the detail and atmosphere of her own childhood and with Joanna, writer and mother, almost an incarnation of herself, is even more personal, but it was only after publication that she had any contact with families affected by Asperger’s. It was, like the supernatural, simply a subject that interested her. Yet while she’s had no premonitions or sightings herself, the supernatural hooks her as firmly as her readers. She has no time, however, for Satanic possession of The Exorcist kind, ‘a construct of the Catholic church, where the girl is merely a vessel to be filled with this male Satanic force, fought over by male priests’, whereas her girls play the major role in defeating supernatural powers, and she’s never met fundamentalist opposition.
In Witch Child, her biggest seller, ‘I’m positing a pagan belief that has nothing to do with Christianity. It’s about someone who has special powers but has to curb them in the society they live in.’ She wrote it and Sorceress as one book (which explains an ending that enrages some frustrated youngsters), where the later historical adventure, with the poignancy of the Native Americans’ fate, would have contrasted the Salem-like persecution of Mary with her revered status in another society. Its air of research and inviting email address has brought hundreds of messages from readers seeking Mary’s reality as much as the suspense and mysticism of the story.
To an ex-historian, research is part of the fun, especially when new discoveries reshape an idea, as they already have for a tale about a girl pirate, which is hatching alongside an ambitious fantasy trilogy that reinterprets history over 12,000 years, ending, for the first time in her career, slightly in the future. From the supernatural to SF is just a hop, Celia, and somehow I don’t really believe it’s only the mortgage that keeps these ideas coming.
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.
The Bailey Game, Macmillan, 0 330 33326 7, £4.99 pbk
Truth or Dare, Macmillan, 0 330 36875 3, £4.99 pbk
The Wish House, Macmillan, 0 333 94739 8, £10.99 hbk (early 2003)
The Vanished, Scholastic, 0 590 19535 2, £3.99 pbk
The Cunning Man, Scholastic, 0 439 01186 8, £5.99 pbk, 0 439 99942 1, £3.99 pbk
Soul Taker, Hodder, 0 340 68652 9, £3.99 pbk
City of Shadows, Hodder, 0 340 81800 X, £5.99 pbk
A Trap in Time, Hodder, 0 340 81801 8, £5.99 pbk
The Host Rides Out, Hodder, 0 340 81802 6, £5.99 pbk
Witch Child, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4639 8, £10.99 hbk, 0 7475 5009 3, £5.99 pbk
Sorceress, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 5036 0, £10.99 hbk