Liz Laird is something of a paradox. Aged 66 she still retains the bright voice and cheerful manner of an enthusiastic first year undergraduate. Producing over 150 children’s books over the last 30 years, despite a recent attack of M.E. that put her out of action for 18 months, she also finds time to make school visits and to cultivate an impressively self-sufficient vegetable garden. Writing novels that contain vivid descriptions of cruelty and intolerance, some of which she has witnessed at first hand, she still has an abiding belief in the essential goodness and strength of most human beings. When I interviewed her in the book-lined house in Richmond, South London, that she and her husband bought when property was cheap, time sped by as cups of tea were drunk and cakes consumed, baked that morning by Liz herself.
Born in New Zealand in 1943 but moving to England when she was two, Liz was brought up in Croydon by Scottish parents both of whom were strict Protestants. But far from inveighing against this early encounter with Puritanism, Liz adored her father and mother, enjoying all the hymns and Bible reading and even finding the long sermons interesting. More relaxed about religion now, she still takes every Sunday off, going to her local Anglican church and using the rest of the day to rest and generally take stock.
Aged 18 she spent a year in Malaysia as a teaching aide, trekking through the jungle during her vacations. Despite nearly dying from catching typhoid and then being bitten by a sea snake, she emerged even more determined to lead an adventurous life. After graduating in French and German at Bristol University and then training as a teacher, she headed off to Ethiopia. This seemed the remotest place available to her at the time, and she worked there for two years at a school in Addis Ababa. Touring the countryside by bus or hiring mules when there were no roads, she started writing stories for her students since they had so little to read. Thoroughly enjoying the experience, she later used her background knowledge for The Miracle Child: A Story from Ethiopia and The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity. More travel led her to India, walking from village to village with her guide, Mahatma Gandhi’s former secretary. It was during this time that she met the author David McDowall. He happened to be sitting next to her in a plane while she was being violently air sick. Romance can strike in the unlikeliest of situations, and the couple got married in 1975, a decision described by Liz as the best thing she ever did in her life.
Transferring to Iraq, she visited the Marshes and the Kurdish regions, picking up invaluable background material later put to use in Kiss the Dust. Finally moving to Beirut, the couple, now with two sons, had to move out when the fighting became too fierce; a scenario also eventually drawn upon for Oranges in No Man’s Land. Deciding to become full-time writers, Liz and David returned to Britain, initially taking in lodgers until the books started paying. But there were many more journeys, to Kenya, Palestine, Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia. Visiting Ethiopia again in 1996, Liz set up a project with the British Council collecting folk tales from traditional storytellers. These later appeared in Where the World Began: Stories Collected in Ethiopia.
But despite producing quantities of picture books, readers and junior fiction, Liz remains best known for her teenage novels, almost always set in times of violent conflict both past and present. Does she choose such subjects in order to challenge Western complacency and ignorance?
‘Oh, I get so irritated when people say that I deliberately set out to find controversial topics for my books! I simply write the stories that come to me. What I really like doing is exploring emotional and psychological issues, creating characters who feel like real people, even to the extent of not always doing what I want them to do.’
So how conscious is Liz that she is writing for younger readers? Does she ever find she still has to tread round certain topics, such as child abuse?
‘I dealt with child abuse pretty strongly I thought in Jake’s Tower. But yes, I did leave it out of Lost Riders, my novel about child jockeys in the Middle East. What they have to face up to is already bad enough; the fact that they are often abused by their owners as well I thought was just too much for a young audience. On the other hand, one can put far more about other things into a novel when writing for this age group. So many adult novels seem unnecessarily negative these days, avoiding any hint of commitment to anything. I love the way that my readers still seem so ready to take seriously and think about the moral issues raised in my novels.’
‘In the sense that they have not as yet acquired that protective cynicism so abundantly catered for in adult fiction?’
‘Yes, that’s so absolutely right! Have another cake.’ Interviewing Liz is proving to be a very pleasant experience. But how does she feel about the happy endings she regularly employs in her fiction, even for child characters with so little hope in reality, such as the Ethiopian street children in The Garbage King?
‘But you see, I am always astonished by how strong so many young people are, even in the worst circumstances. This regularly came out when I interviewed street children for myself. What would be the point in writing a truly dire story about such brave young people, when I know for a fact that they are so often far more resilient than one could ever believe?’
‘So you would never want to give your readers the prurient satisfaction of feasting off other people’s train of disasters in the way that became fashionable in various ‘miserablist’ memoirs published over the last twenty years?’ ‘Absolutely not!’
But Liz still proves controversial for some. Red Sky in the Morning was attacked when it was reprinted 18 years later in 2006 for what was claimed to be its out of date attitudes to disability, with the suggestion that it should no longer be made available to young readers at school. Liz rejects such charges, which were particularly hurtful given that the story was based on the life of her own brain-damaged younger brother, who died aged three. Written some years after the event, it movingly describes both the passionate loyalty and the social frustrations as experienced by a 12-year-old girl living with an extremely disabled sibling. Highly commended for the Carnegie Medal, it still reads powerfully today.
A Little Piece of Ground, an unflinchingly grim description of life in Palestine under Israeli occupation written with the help of the Palestinian author Sonia Nimr, also got Liz into trouble. Its 12-year-old hero Karim is a sympathetic character who simply wants to get on with his life, playing football and seeing his friends. But when he forgets to obey a curfew order his life is at serious risk. Some critics have objected that there is no balancing account of what it is like to be a child on the opposing border, with the bookseller Kidsbooks attempting to stop the book’s publication. But even those who approach this novel from the strictest pro-Israel perspective would find it hard not be drawn in. For above all else, Liz is a consummate storyteller, expertly manoeuvring her plots so that they maintain tension up to the last page.
More recently, she has turned to historical writing. Secrets of the Fearless draws on family memories of her great-great grandfather John Allen, press-ganged when he was still a boy and sent to sea. Crusade is an epic story set in the 12th century and told from the perspective of two boys, one in the service of a British knight and the other the Arab apprentice of a Jewish doctor. The horrors of the great siege of Acre are faithfully recorded. But what about the problems of historical speech? At one stage a young squire is ordered to ‘scarper’. Does anything now go when writing dialogue set in the past?
‘Oh yes. I can’t be bothered with any pseudo history speech, which would anyhow be equally unauthentic. I write novels set abroad or in the past because I no longer know enough about how contemporary young people talk to each other in my own country. I’m not then going to saddle my characters from another age with difficult dialects or archaic words. I need to know exactly what they are thinking and feeling, and so too do my readers.’
Her latest novel, The Witching Hour, has the difficult task of making extreme religious conviction credible to today’s largely secular-minded young audience. It describes the appalling suffering of the devout Scottish men and women persecuted for refusing to recognise King Charles II’s right to appoint bishops in his role of Head of the Anglican Church. Once again, Liz is drawing on family history, with three of her ancestors making an appearance in her novel. Maggie, the main teenage character accused of being a witch, is also based on a relative to whom this happened in 1698.
This is another good story, packed with exciting incident but also requiring readers to weigh up the perils of clinging to a blind faith as against the dangers of abandoning all personal belief for the sake of an easy life. By the last page, Maggie too is not quite sure what she is going to do. But as she puts it, ‘I’ll go where I choose, and I’ll be who I am, and I’ll rise up to meet whatever comes my way.’ Exactly what her author could also have said about herself at any stage of her own continually adventurous existence.
(published in paperback by Macmillan)
Crusade, 978 0 330 45699 9, £5.99
The Garbage King, 978 0 330 41502 6, £5.99
Jake’s Tower, 978 0 330 39803 9, £5.99
Kiss the Dust, 978 0 230 01431 2, £5.99
A Little Piece of Ground, 978 0 330 43743 1, £5.99
Lost Riders, 978 0 330 45209 0, £5.99
Oranges in No Man’s Land, 978 0 330 44558 0, £4.99
Red Sky in the Morning, 978 0 330 44290 9, £5.99
Secrets of the Fearless, 978 0 330 43466 9, £5.99
The Witching Hour, 978 0 330 47210 4, £5.99
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.