Jenny Nimmo appears to be shy and retiring and her books are full of sympathetic and sensitive characters with strong internal narratives. How easily I’d short-circuited in my mind making Jenny match her creations. But, on visiting her at her home in Wales, I found someone quite different. Jenny is quiet but not shy. She’s very direct and, above all, she’s very funny. She has a wry, dry humour that enables her to see the amusing side of things. She’s also full of passion, not to say rage, when necessary. She thinks nothing of telling you that she almost killed one of the visitors to the art course she and her husband David run every summer because she was such a fussy eater – Jenny’s eyes flash dangerously. She came close, you know for sure.
Jenny and David live in a water mill converted by David’s parents (with himself as reluctant labour during the school holidays) just across the border into Wales. Set down beside a stream, with the narrow-gauge railway that features in Tatty Apple running along at eye level on the opposite bank, it is a place of exceptional beauty and character. Jenny and David both work at home and everything about their lives revolves around the house. It – and their three children are the inspiration for most of Jenny’s writing. The interweaving of Jenny’s life with the place, the children and the writing is an important part of what she writes so it wasn’t surprising that we began our conversation with the children. Now in their twenties, they are close in age. The younger boy had difficulties as both a dyslexic and a dispraxic and the girl is also dyslexic.
Like most parenting, none of it was easy, but Jenny manages – at least with hindsight – to be gently amused by the traumas. ‘We got through Ianto’s struggle with dyslexia and the lack of support for it by laughing,’ she says. ‘It was the only way.’ But it’s laughter tinged with sadness and rage at the misery that it caused both Ianto and Gwenhwyfar.
All of this provided a background for Jenny’s early stories, although even before the children were born she’d had her first book published. ‘Any storytelling begins from within you,’ Jenny says. ‘I began with my own experiences. I’d been looking after a little boy who’d lost his mother. I was about 20 and he was about 12. He was very angry about not having a mother and I told him that I hadn’t got a father.’ Jenny doesn’t need to explain. Although apparently diffident, she has a natural empathy that touches people and it’s easy to understand how a little boy came to trust and confide in her and how she came to write about his loneliness and loss.
Although Jenny felt that she was writing about the boy’s experience, she was also writing about her own and the theme of isolation recurs in her books. Jenny’s father died when she was five and from then on she lived an unusually isolated life. After her father’s death, her mother was very ill and Jenny was sent off to boarding school when she was only six. Here she wrote her very first book – and got a dramatic response to it: ‘I loved writing. Even now I can feel my hand flying over the page. When I was about 10 I wrote the longest thing I’d ever done at school. It was about a man on a train whose wife was killed in a train crash and so, in revenge, he sets out to kill the driver. I’d got most of it from the thrillers that were in the school library but I think I was also setting down a trauma from my own childhood. I was living with my grandparents and I had a terrible nightmare in which my uncle was hurt in an accident. The very next day I heard that he’d been in a very bad train crash. Putting these two influences together, I wrote this story. The teacher was appalled. She threw my book at me and hit me on the head.’ Jenny stills feels a sense of grievance that the school didn’t see the obvious correlation between what they had allowed her to read and what she had written.
Jenny didn’t let this incident put her off writing and, although she left school as soon as she could and went off to act, she was drawn back to writing through one of her first jobs as a producer for Jackanory. ‘I loved working for Jackanory and especially for Anna Home.’ It was Anna Home who read Jenny’s first story and suggested that she take it to an agent and get it published. The book was The Bronze Trumpeter, written for the lonely boy she had been looking after.
But, it was when Jenny had her own children that her flow of writing began. ‘When my children were small I kept trying to write for them. That’s what the stories were meant to be. But, I found I was always writing about them. Now that phase is over, I’m writing for them as they were. My stories are getting younger and younger.’ Recent titles for six to nines include The Stone Mouse which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and The Owl Tree which won a Smarties Prize. Most of Jenny’s earlier books are for older readers but all of them owe a lot to Hellan Mill and the busy life that goes on there. Details of the setting, such as the narrow-gauge railway in Tatty Apple, the chickens in that and subsequent titles such as The Night of the Unicorn are always there. Perhaps of even more importance is the influence that came simply from living in Wales. Jenny had been introduced to The Mabinogion even before she began to live there but, once settled, it provided her with inspiration. ‘When we first moved here, I got very excited by Wales. I loved the way the mythology fitted the countryside. I’d had the stories from The Mabinogion in my head for some time. They were bursting to get out. Gwythion is the greatest storyteller in the world and the stories themselves have magic and fantasy, larger than life characters and, of course, lots of death and destruction.’ The gleam returns to Jenny’s eye. She couldn’t wait to weave these stories into her writing and The Snow Spider and its sequels Emlyn’s Moon and The Chestnut Soldier were the result. ‘The Snow Spider took about a year to write but it was all there in my head. I loved writing it though initially I wasn’t sure that children would like it – especially as Ianto drifted off when I was reading it aloud.’
Jenny’s knowledge of The Mabinogion comes from an English translation as, although she can speak Welsh a bit, and with excellent pronunciation, she can’t read it. Jenny’s children, however, are bilingual and Welsh language, culture – and rugby – are very important in the family.
Wales and its mythology provide the background but the characters and what happened to them come from Jenny’s own children. ‘There was a lot of Gwen in Emlyn’s Moon. As a dyslexic, she was crushed by school – a teacher even told her that she was an idiot. She had very low self-esteem and was socially isolated. The problems aren’t stated in the book but they are there in the children’s attitudes to things.’
The isolation and helplessness of childhood are recurring themes in Jenny’s books as is the power of magic, not always on the scale that is found in The Mabinogion but enough of an outside force to provide crucial help. In Griffin’s Castle, Dinah draws the stone animals from the walls of Cardiff Castle and uses them to shore up her uncertainty. ‘I wanted to do someone who is bright but who still isn’t in control.’ And she used the same kind of child in The Rinaldi Ring. But though Jenny thought Dinah was an expression of Gwen, David believes that Dinah is Jenny and, rather ruefully, Jenny agrees.
Now that Jenny’s children have all left home, she has moved back in time and is drawing on her own childhood. ‘Much of what happens at Bloors comes from my memories of boarding school.’ She recounts ghastly incidents such as being shut up in an outside classroom on her own in the dark and nights spent in a freezing classroom on a mattress as punishment for talking after lights out. The horrible details of life and the people there are still vivid in Jenny’s mind and she is weaving them into the ‘Red King’ titles. It’s an ambitious series and Jenny, who usually has several story strands running through even the youngest of her books, loves the scope that the books collectively give her. ‘Hopefully what I’m trying to do is put different perspectives in. I want to show the five children in their different ways. I’m exploring their lives as I do it. I’m particularly interested in Olivia. She’s about to fail an audition.’ Jenny speaks of her characters as though they and not she control what happens. That’s how it feels, she says. ‘A character does become real. It takes you in a direction that you didn’t know was coming. But once they’ve led you that way, what happens next becomes inevitable.’ She then describes a moment from when she was writing The Snow Spider. ‘When Eirlys grasped Gwyn’s hand it was a real shock. It came as a good surprise.’
Maybe it’s because of surprises from her characters that Jenny is always propelled into writing something new. With each book, she offers something fresh and surprising. There’s an excitement and originality about her writing in both the words she uses and the stories she tells that make her books a constant delight. And there’s an integrity about children and childhood which she sums up simply as: ‘I just couldn’t write without the children.’
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s Books Editor of The Guardian
(published by Egmont Books unless otherwise stated)
‘Children of the Red King’ titles:
1 Midnight for Charlie Bone, 1 4052 0410 9, £10.99 hbk, 0 7497 4888 5, £4.99 pbk
2 The Time Twister, 1 4052 0125 8, £10.99 hbk, 1 4052 1134 2, £5.99 pbk
3. The Blue Boa, 1 4052 0126 6, £10.99 hbk
Griffin’s Castle, 0 7497 4887 7, £4.99 pbk
The Night of the Unicorn, Walker, 0 7445 9072 8, £7.99 hbk, 1 84428 631 2, £4.99 pbk
The Owl Tree, Walker, 0 7445 5400 4, £3.99 pbk
The Rinaldi Ring, Collins Educational, 0 00 713438 X, £3.99 hbk, Egmont, 0 7497 2819 1, £4.99 pbk
The Snow Spider Trilogy:
1 The Snow Spider, 1 4052 1138 5, £4.99 pbk
2 Emlyn’s Moon, 1 4052 1139 3, £4.99 pbk
3 The Chestnut Soldier, 1 4052 1140 7, £4.99 pbk
The Stone Mouse, Walker, 1 84428 632 0, £4.99 pbk
Tatty Apple, 0 7497 0400 1, £3.99 pbk